MoboReader> Literature > Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays

   Chapter 2 No.2

Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays By Robert Louis Stevenson Characters: 35713

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Archie's birthday was in November, and for a day or two before that tremendous annual event there was always a certain atmosphere of mystery abroad, which he was conscious of at odd minutes. He met Marjorie on the morning of the day before he would be six, walking down the nursery passage with a parcel in her hand, the contents of which she would not divulge. That afternoon, too, his mother drove into the neighbouring town in the motor, and would not take him with her, on the excuse that she had some shopping to do, though it was the commonest thing in the world for her to take him with her when she went shopping. This year he vaguely connected these odd happenings with his birthday, as he did also the fact that a week ago Blessington had brought a total stranger into the nursery, who had very politely asked him to take off his coat. The stranger had then knelt down on the floor in front of him, and had produced a tape, with which he proceeded to measure Archie all over, from his hip to his knee and his knee to his ankle, and round his waist, and round his chest, and all along his arms, making notes of those things in a book. Blessington had told him that Mr. Johnson wanted to see how much he had grown, which was certainly a very gratifying attention, especially since Archie had grown a good deal, and was extremely proud of the fact. Mr. Johnson congratulated him too, and said that he himself hadn't grown as much as that for many a year, and tried to account for his visit on general grounds of interest in Archie. But in spite of that Archie connected this call with his birthday, though he did not arrive at the deduction that it meant clothes.

His mother came up to tea in the nursery on her return from her mysterious drive, and said that she had just caught sight of the fairy Abracadabra as she drove down the High Street; she had not known that Abracadabra was in the neighbourhood. She asked Archie if Abracadabra had called while she was out, and Archie, after a moment's pause, said that he hadn't seen her… but in that pause something of the glory faded out of the bright trailing clouds. When he was asked that directly he did not feel sure whether he believed in Abracadabra in the same way in which he believed in Blessington or Jeannie. So short a time ago-last summer only-Alice in Wonderland and the identity of Grandmamma Tintagel had been so much realler than the paltry happenings that took place in the light of common day. Now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, at the mere question as to whether he had seen Abracadabra they all began to fade; indeed, it was more than fading: it was as if they passed out of sight behind a corner.

Archie had been told that he must never, if he could help it, hurt people's feelings. The particular occasion when that had been brought home to him was when his sister Jeannie had to wear a rather delightful sort of band round her front teeth, which showed a tendency to grow crooked. She was shy about it and hoped nobody saw it, and when Archie called the attention of the public to it, she turned very red. He had not had the least intention of embarrassing her, for he thought the band rather nice himself, and would have liked to have had one had his teeth been sufficiently advanced for such a decoration. But on this occasion he saw instantly and clearly that he must not hurt his mother's feelings by expressing scepticism about Abracadabra. Perhaps his mother still believed in her herself (though there were difficulties about supposing that, seeing that if Abracadabra was not Abracadabra she was certainly his mother); but, in any case, she thought Archie believed in Abracadabra, which made quite sufficient reason for his appearing to do so. If Abracadabra was an invention designed to awe, delight, and mystify him, the most elementary obligation of not embarrassing other people enjoined on him that he must be awed, delighted, and mystified. Perhaps by next year something would have happened to Abracadabra, for nowadays she only made her appearance on his birthday, whereas he could remember when she paid Jeannie also a birthday visit. But this year she had not come on Jeannie's birthday, and the various members of the family had given her birthday presents themselves, which did not happen when Abracadabra came, for she was the chief dispenser of offerings.

So Archie replied that Abracadabra had not been during his mother's absence, and, in order to spare his mother the mortification of knowing that he had doubts about that benevolent fairy, laid himself out to ask intelligent questions.

"Why didn't you speak to her, mummy?" he said, "when you saw her in the

High Street?"

"Because she was in a hurry; she went by like a flash of lightning, in her pearl chariot."

"Was there any thunder?" asked he.

"Yes, just one clap; but that might have been the wheels of the chariot.

What do you think she'll bring you?"

Archie was holding his mother's hand, and slipping her rings up and down her fingers. As he held it, he suddenly became aware what one of these presents would be.

"A clock-work train," he said quickly.

He knew more than that about the clock-work train. He felt perfectly certain that it was in his mother's bedroom at this moment, reposing in the big cupboard where she kept her dresses.

"Do you want a clock-work train?" she asked.

"Yes, mummy, frightfully," said he, feeling that he was playing a part, for he knew his mother knew that he wanted a clock-work train.

"What else?"

"Oh, thousands of things. Particularly a pen that writes without your dipping it in the ink."

"Well, if I were you I should write down all the things you want, and leave the paper lying on your counterpane when you go to sleep."

"What'll that do?" asked Archie.

"It's the fairy-post. Instead of putting letters into boxes to be posted when you want them to reach the fairies, you have always to put them on your bed. Mind you address it to Her Fairy Majesty the Empress Abracadabra. Then, when the fairies come round to collect the post, they will find it there, and take it to Abracadabra. And perhaps if she comes to-morrow-let me see, it must be a year since she was here-she will bring a few things for your birthday. I can't tell; but I think that is the best chance of getting them."

Certainly this seemed a very pleasant sort of plan; Archie had never heard of it before, and the extremely matter-of-fact tone in which his mother spoke lit again a dawning hope in his mind that perhaps it was all true. Why shouldn't be a fairy Abracadabra, and a fairy-post, just as there had been, and now was no longer, a glassy sea between the rugs in the hall, and snarling tigers to keep off his enemies? If you believed a thing enough, it became real, with a few trifling exceptions-as, for instance, when, on one of the days last summer, a day crammed full of the most delightful events, Archie had found himself firmly believing that that particular day was never coming to an end. True, it had come to an end, but that perhaps was because he hadn't believed strongly enough… There was a lovely story which his mother had read him about a man called Joshua, who wanted a day to remain until he had killed all his enemies, and sure enough the sun stood still until he had accomplished that emphatic task. He never doubted that, because it came out of the Bible, and in the spirit of Joshua he set himself now to believe in Abracadabra and the fairy-post. And, with that in his mind, he kept his eyes firmly away from the cupboard where his mother kept her dresses that evening, when her maid opened it, lest he should see there the parcel which he felt secretly convinced was there, and contained the clock-work train which his mother had bought, and which Abracadabra would to-morrow assuredly bring out of the basket of pure gold with which she habitually travelled.

Archie put the letter for the fairy-post on his bed, and determined to keep awake so that he should see the fairy postman come for it. It was a very cold night, and a big fire burned in his grate, so that, though the windows as usual were all open, there was a clear, brisk warmth about the room and a frosty and soapy smell, for his bright brown hair had been washed that night-this was a special evening bath-night, for by now baths had been promoted to the morning-and stuck up all over his head in a novel and independent manner. Blessington had dried it by the fire for him with hot towels, and a very extraordinary thing had happened, for when she brushed it afterwards it gave forth little cracklings, which she told him was electricity which was the thing that made the lamps burn. She had allowed him to take a brush to bed with him, and make more cracklings for five minutes until she returned to put his light out, and Archie made a wonderful story to himself as he looked at the fire, that he would get an electric lamp and paste it to his head, so that he should be able to read by the light of his hair. All at once this seemed so feasible, so easy of belief that he pictured to himself everybody walking about the house in the evening lit by themselves… And then William came round the corner (he did not know what corner), carrying an electric pike for a birthday present to himself, and when Blessington stole in five minutes afterwards, Archie's brush had slipped from his fingers and his breath came evenly between his parted lips. There was a gap in his front teeth because a tooth had come out only to-day, embedded in a piece of toffy he was eating, which had made Archie squeal with laughter, for here was a new substance called tooth-toffee… And Blessington softly lifted his arm and laid it under the bedclothes without awaking him, and looked at him a moment with her old face beaming with love, and put down on his chair out of sight at the bottom of his bed the new sailor-suit, and took away the note to her Fairy Majesty the Empress Abracadabra.

* * * * *

Archie woke next morning and instantly remembered that he had attained the magnificent age of six. Six had long seemed to him one of the most delightful ages to be. Eighteen was another, mainly because William was eighteen, but six was the best of all, for at eighteen you must inevitably feel that you have lived your life, and that there is nothing much left to live for; for the rest would be but a slow descent into the vale of years. But to-day he was six, and it was his birthday, and… and there was no sign of the letter he had written to Abracadabra on his counterpane. But it might have slipped on to the floor, and not have been taken away by fairies after all. Or it might have slipped over the bottom of the bed; and Archie got up to see. No: there was no note there, but on the chair at the foot of his bed was a suit of sailor-clothes…

Archie gave a gasp: certainly their presence there constituted a possibility that they were for him; but he hardly dared let himself contemplate so dazzling a prospect, for fear it should be whisked out of sight. Yet who could they be for, if not for him? They couldn't be Blessington's, for she was a female, and wore mystery-cloaking skirts. Sailor-suits were boys' clothes: Harry Travers, the son of a neighbouring squire, aged eight, had a sailor-suit-it was the thing that Archie most envied about that young man. Harry had taken the coat and trousers off one day in the summer when the two boys were playing in the copse by the lower end of the lake, and had let Archie put them on for three minutes. That had been a thrilling adventure; it implied undressing out of doors, which was a very unusual thing to do, and he loved the feeling of the rough serge down his bare calves. He had, of course, offered Harry the privilege of putting on his knickerbockers and jacket, if he could get into them without splitting them, but Harry, from that Pisgah-summit of eight years, had no desire to go back to the childish things of the land of bondage, but had danced about bare-legged while Archie enjoyed his three minutes in these voluminous and grown-up lendings. And now perhaps for him, too, not for three minutes only, but for every day… and he took a leap back into bed again as Blessington's tread sounded on the boards outside.

Archie pretended to be asleep, for he wanted to be awakened by Blessington and hear his birthday greetings. He loved the return of consciousness in the morning-when he had not already been awake, and speculating about Grandmamma Tintagel on the lawn-to find Blessington, with her hand on his shoulder, gently stirring him, and her face close to his, whispering to him, "Eh, it's time to get up." So this morning, not for the first time, he simulated sleep in order to recapture that lovely sense of being awakened by love. (You must understand that he did not put it to himself like that, for Archie, just at the age of six, was not a mature and self-conscious prig, but he wanted to know what Blessington's greeting to him would be, when she thought she woke him up on the morning of his sixth birthday.)

From the narrow chink of his eyelids not quite closed, he could see some of her movements. She took the exciting suit of sailor-clothes from the bottom of his bed, and laid it on the chair where she always put his clothes with a flannel shirt of a quite unusual shape, and his socks on top. Already Archie had heart-burnings at the knowledge of his knowledge of the sailor-suit. Blessington meant it to be a surprise to him, and a surprise he determined it should be. In the interval there was another surprise: how would Blessington wake him? She would be sure to rise to the immense importance of the occasion. She moved quietly about; she shut the windows, and brought in his bath. And then she came close up to his bed. He felt her hand stealing underneath the bedclothes to his shoulder and she shook it gently-"Eh, Master Six," she said.

Oh, she had done exactly the right thing! She had divined Archie, as he had divined himself, knowing himself. That was just the only thing to think about this morning. He ceased to imagine: Blessington, out of her simplicity of love, had given the real birthday greeting.

He rolled a little sideways, and there was her face close to his, and her hand still underneath his bed-clothes. He put up both of his hands and caught it.

"Many happy returns," said Blessington. "Wake up, my darling: it's your birthday. Happy returns," she repeated.

Archie released her hand and flung his arm round her neck.

"Oh, Blessington, isn't it fun?" he said. "What did you do when you were six?"

"I got up directly," said Blessington, kissing him, "and had my bath and put my clothes on. Now, will you do the same, for I'm going downstairs for ten minutes, and then I shall be back."

"All right," said Archie.

She went out, and Archie again, as with the question of Abracadabra last night, felt he must make it a surprise that there were sailor-clothes on his chair. It was quite likely that he would not be supposed to notice them at once, and so he stripped off his night-shirt, and took his bath in the prescribed manner. He had to lie down on the floor first of all, and wave his legs about; then he had to stand upright, still with no clothes on, and put his hands each side of his waist, and wave his body about eight times in each direction. Then he was allowed to pour out the hot water into his bath, in order to encourage himself, but before he stepped into that delicious steamy warmth he had to bend down eight times with a long frosty expulsion of breath, and stand up eight times with a great draught of cold air in his lungs. All this had been explained to him by a stranger-not Mr. Johnson-who, a year ago, had come into his nursery and had been very much interested in his anatomy. Archie understood that this was a doctor, though he didn't give him any medicine, but had merely showed him how to do these things, after first putting a sort of plug on Archie's chest which communicated with two other plugs that the stranger put in his ears. Then Archie had to say "ninety-nine" several times, which seemed to be a sort of game, though it didn't lead any further (the doctor, for instance, didn't say "a hundred"), and then he had to promise to practise those contortions every morning.

All this was done, and Archie fled from the cold of the morning to his bath. The water was of that divinest temperature so that when he stopped still it was lovely, but when he moved he almost screamed with the rapturous heat of it. It cooled a little as he sat in it, and, still remembering that he was six, he poured a sponge-full down his spine. That over, he might wash his face and his neck, and well behind his ears with soap. Up till a few months ago Blessington had always superintended the bath, and done these things for him; but now he did them for himself as agent, with Blessington as inspector-general in the background, who might always make the strictest scrutiny into the place behind the ears and the toe-nails to see that the effects of the bath were perfectly satisfactory. If not, Blessington superintended again for the next three mornings; so Archie was very careful, since it was so much grander to wash oneself than to be washed by anybody else.

Then came the most exciting part of the bath, for close at the side of it was a big tin full of the coldest possible water. He had then to stand up in his bath, and, after washing his face in the cold water, to put cold water everywhere within reach of him on one arm and then the other, on a chest, on a stomach, on one leg and on another right down to the foot, and finally (a vocal piece) to squeeze a full sponge down his back. Archie squealed at this, and flew for a towel.

He flung himself into h

is new clothes and was already half-dressed when

Blessington returned.

"Oh, Blessington," he said, "look at me, and they're just as easy to manage as the old ones, and may I go to see Harry after breakfast and show him?"

"Master Harry will be here for tea," said Blessington.

"Yes, but I want him to know sooner than that. Did they come just ordinarily, like other clothes? Or are they a birthday present?"

"Well, I should say they were a birthday present," said Blessington.

"Who from?" demanded Archie.

And then suddenly he guessed.

"Oh, Blessington," he said. "I like them better than anything!" he said.

"Well, dear, and I wish you health to wear them and strength to tear them," she said. "Eh, but how you're disarranging my cap!"

Archie promptly handselled his clothes by spilling egg on the coat, and bread-and-butter upside down on the trousers, and, when the time came for him to make his public entry into the world, was seized with a sudden fit of shyness at the thought of anybody seeing him. The housemaid would stare, and William would laugh, and Marjorie would pretend not to know him, and for the moment of leaving the day-nursery (which from this morning was to be known as Archie's sitting-room) he would almost have wished himself back in his knickerbockers. But the remembered rough touch of the serge on his legs provided encouragement, and soon the new glories burst upon a sympathetic and not a mocking world. They were at breakfast downstairs, and Archie, though he had already had his, was bidden by his father to have a cup of coffee, which he poured out himself at the side-table, and to drink it slowly, and at the bottom of it, among the melted sugar, there came to his astonished eyes the gleam of silver, and there was a new half-crown with his father's happy returns. Thereafter came a hurried visit to Harry, a motor drive with his mother and Jeannie, Archie sitting on the box-seat and permitted to blow the bugle practically as often as he wanted, and the return to dinner, to find that the two things he liked best, namely boiled rabbit and spotted dog pudding, formed that memorable repast.

Up till now he had received only two birthday presents, the clothes and the half-crown, and he could not help feeling that a visit from Abracadabra was more than likely, since no one else had made the slightest allusion to clock-work trains or pens that wrote without being dipped. But in the afternoon, as he returned home from his walk with Blessington and Jeannie in the early dusk, he received an impression which was to be more inextricably connected with his sixth birthday than even the sailor suit. They were within a few yards of the front-door when there ran out of the bushes Cyrus, the great blue Persian cat. He held something in his mouth, which Archie saw to be a bird. There he stood for a moment with the gleaming eyes of the successful hunter, and twitching tail, and then trotted in front of them towards the porch. Simultaneously Jeannie called out:

"Oh, Blessington, Cyrus has caught a thrush. We must get it from him; it may be still alive."

Till then Archie had only thought about the cleverness of Cyrus in catching a bird, which was clearly a very remarkable feat, since Cyrus could only run and climb, and a bird could fly. But, as Jeannie spoke, he suddenly thought of himself in the jaws of a tiger, of the clutch of the long white teeth, of the fear, and the helplessness; and a queer tremor made him catch his breath, as there smote upon him an emotion that had never yet been awakened by the passage of his sunny days. Pity took hold of him for the bright-eyed bird. It suffered; his imagination told him that, and never yet had the fact of suffering come home to him.

They hemmed Cyrus in, and Blessington took the thrush out of his mouth, while Cyrus growled and struck at her with his paws, and then, greatly incensed, bounded out into the garden again, so as not to lose the chance, at this cat-hour of dusk, of a further stalk and capture. They carried the bird into the hall, where they looked at it, but it lay quite still in Blessington's hand, with its helpless little claws relaxed, and with its eyes fast glazing in death. Its beak was open, and on its speckled breast were two oozing drops of blood, that stained the feathers.

"Eh, poor thing, it's dead," said Blessington.

Archie felt all the desolation of an unavailing pity.

"No, it can't be dead, Blessington," he said. "It'll get all right, won't it?" and his lip quivered.

"No, dear, it's quite dead," said Blessington; "but if you like we'll bury it. There'll be just time before tea. Shall I run upstairs and get a box to bury it in?"

Without doubt this was a consoling and attractive proposal, and while Blessington went to get a suitable coffin, Archie held the "small slain body" in reverent hands. It was warm and soft and still; by now the bright eyes had grown quite dull, and the blood on the speckled breast was beginning to coagulate, and once again, even with the novel prospect of a bird-funeral in front of him, Archie's heart melted in pity.

"Why did Cyrus kill it, Jeannie?" he said. "The thrush hadn't done any harm."

"Cats do kill birds," said Jeannie. "Same as birds kill worms, or you and William kill worms when you go out fishing."

"Yes, but worms aren't birds," said Archie. "Worms aren't nice; they don't fly and sing. It's an awful shame."

Blessington returned with a suitable cardboard box which had held chocolates, and into this fragrant coffin the little limp body was inserted. This certainly distracted Archie from his new-found emotion.

"Oh, that will be nice for it," he said. "It will smell the chocolate."

"It can't; it's dead," said hopeless Jeannie.

But Blessington understood better.

"Yes, dear, the chocolate will be nice for it," she said, "and then we'll cover it up with leaves and put the lid on."

"Oh, and may it have a cris-a crisantepum?" said Archie. "May I pick one?"

"Yes, just one."

Archie laid this above the bird's head, and the lid was put on.

"Oh, and let's have a procession to the tool-shed to get a trowel," said

Jeannie.

"Yes!" squealed Archie, now thoroughly immersed in the fascinating ritual. "And I'll carry the coffin and go first, and you and Blessington shall walk behind and sing."

"Well, we must be quick," said Blessington.

"No, not quick," said Jeannie. "It's a funeral. What shall we sing?"

"Oh, anything. 'The Walrus and the Carpenter.' That's sad, because the oysters were dead."

So, to the moving strains, the procession headed across the lawn, and found a trowel in the tool-shed, and excavated a grave underneath the laurestinus. The coffin was once more opened to see that the thrush was quite comfortable, and then deposited in its sepulchre, and the earth filled in above it. But Archie felt that the ceremony was still incomplete.

"Ought we to say a prayer, Jeannie?" he said.

"No, it's only a thrush."

Archie considered a moment.

"I don't care," he said. "I shall all the same."

He took off his sailor cap and knelt down, closing his eyes.

"God bless the poor thrush," he said. "Good-night, thrush. I can't think of anything more. Amen. Say Amen, Jeannie."

"Amen," said Jeannie.

"And do get up from that damp earth, dear," said Blessington. "And let's see who can run the fastest back to the house."

Blessington ran the least fast, and Archie tripped over a croquet-hoop, and so Jeannie won, and very nearly began telling her mother about it all before Archie arrived. But, though breathless, he shrilly chipped in.

"And then I picked a crisantepum, and we had a procession across the lawn, and made a lovely grave by the tool-house, and I said prayers, though Jeannie told me you didn't have prayers for thrushes. Mummy, when I grow up, may I be a clergyman?"

"Why, dear?"

"Don't they have lots of funerals?"

"Pooh; that's the undertaker," said Jeannie. "Besides, I did say Amen,

Archie."

"I know. But mummy, why did Cyrus kill the thrush? Why did he want to hurt it and kill it? That was the part I didn't like, and I expect the thrush hated it. Wasn't it cruel of him? But if he kills another, may we have another funeral?"

He stood still a moment, cudgelling his small brain in order to grasp exactly what he felt.

"The poor thrush!" he said. "I wish Cyrus hadn't killed it. But, if it's got to be dead, I like funerals."

* * * * *

Tea, on such solemn occasions as birthday feasts, took place for Archie, not in the nursery, but in the drawing-room, as better providing the proper pomp. He appreciated that, and secretly was pleased that Harry Travers should be ushered by William into the drawing-room, and have the door held open for him, and be announced as Mr. Travers. With that streak of snobbishness common to almost all small boys Archie thought it rather jolly, without swaggering at all, to be able to greet his friend in the midst of these glories, so that he could see their splendour for himself. In other ways, he would have perhaps preferred the nursery, and certainly would have done so when the moment came for him to cut his birthday-cake, for the sugar on the side of it cracked and exploded, as such confectionery will do, when Archie hewed his way down that white perpendicular cliff, and (a number of fragments falling on the floor), he had to stand quite still, knife in hand, till William got a housemaid's brush and scoop and removed the debris, for fear it should be trodden into the carpet.

Marjorie had not appeared at tea at all, and when this sumptuous affair was over, Jeannie and Harry and Archie gathered round Lady Davidstow on the hearthrug with a box of chocolates planted at a fair and equal distance between them, and she told them the most delicious story about a boy whose mother had lost his birthdays, so that year after year went by without his having a birthday at all. The lights had been put out, and only the magic of leaping fire-light guided their hands to the chocolate-box, and every moment the phantasy of the story got more and more interwoven with the reality of the chocolates. Eventually, while the birthday-less boy's mother was clearing out the big cupboard underneath the stairs, she came across all his birthdays put away in a purple box with a gold lock on it.

"Was it the cupboard underneath the stairs in the hall here?" asked

Archie, for questions were permitted.

"Yes. There they all were: eight birthdays in all, so he had one every day for more than a week. My dears! What's that?"

It certainly was very startling. A noise like a mixture between the Chinese gong and the bell for the servants' dinner broke in upon the quiet, with the most appalling clamour. Archie swallowed a chocolate whole, and Harry, with great prudence, took two more in a damp hand to sustain him in these rather alarming occurrences.

"It sounds as if it was in the hall," said Lady Davidstow. "Harry, will you open the door and see what it is?"

"Yes, I'll go," he said firmly. "But-but shan't Archie come too?"

The noise ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and with a pleasing sense of terror the two boys went to the drawing-room door and opened it.

"But it's quite dark," said Archie. "Oh, mummy, what is happening?"

"I can't think. I only know one person who makes a noise the least like that."

"Oh, is it Abracadabra?" asked Archie excitedly, finding that his scepticism of the day before had vanished like smoke. It had occurred to him that Abracadabra was his mother, but here was his mother telling them stories.

"Well, the only time I ever heard her sneeze it was just like that," said Lady Davidstow.

Archie came running back, shrieking with laughter.

"And what does she do when she blows her nose?" he asked.

The words were hardly out of his mouth when a piercing trumpet-blast sounded, and his mother got up.

"She did it then," she whispered. "What had we better do? Shall we go into the hall? She would like us to be there to meet her, perhaps, if she's coming."

She went to the door, followed by the children, and they all looked out into the black hall. The wood-fire in the hearth there had died down to a mere smoulder of red, which sent its illumination hardly farther than the stone fender-curb.

"But there's something there," said Lady Davidstow in an awe-struck whisper. "There's something sitting in the chair."

"Oh, mummy," said Archie, coming close to her. "I don't think I like it."

"I'm sure there's nothing to be frightened at, Archie," said she. "Which of us shall go and see what it is?"

There was no volunteer for this hazardous job, for now, with eyes more accustomed to the faint light, they could all see that it was not Something there, but Somebody. The outlines of a head, of a body, of legs all clothed in black, could be seen, and Somebody sat there perfectly still…

Then all of a sudden the gong and the bell and the trumpet broke out into a clamour fit to wake the dead, the great chandelier in the hall flared into light, and the black figure sprang up, throwing its darkness behind it, and there, glittering with silks and gems and gold and the flowers of fairyland, stood Abracadabra. She had on a huge poke-bonnet which cast a shadow over her face, and left it terrifyingly vague. Her bonnet was trimmed with sunflowers and lilies of the valley, and round the edge of it went a row of diamonds which were quite as big as the drops in a glass chandelier. Another necklace of the same brilliance went round her throat and rested on a crimson satin bodice covered with gold. From her shoulders sprang spangled wings, and from below her skirt, with its garlands of roses, were silver shoes with diamond buckles. In her hand she carried a blue wand hung with bells, and by her side was a clothes-basket (such was its shape) made of gold.

She stamped her foot with rage.

"Here's a nice welcome, Lady Davidstow," she said in a thin, cracked voice. "I sneezed to show I was coming, and, when I got through the keyhole, I found the hall dark, and no one to receive me. How dare you?"

Lady Davidstow advanced with faltering steps and fell on her knees.

"Oh, your majesty, forgive me," she said.

"Why should I forgive you?" squeaked the infuriated fairy. "Why shouldn't I take you away in my basket and put you in the Tower of Toads?"

Archie gasped. He would have given much for a touch of yesterday's scepticism, but he couldn't find an atom of it. The thought of his mother being whisked off to the Tower of Toads was insupportable.

"Oh, please don't," he said.

"And who is that?" asked Abracadabra.

Archie almost wished he hadn't spoken, and took hold of Jeannie on one side and Harry on the other.

"It's me; it's Archie," he said.

"And you don't want me to take your ridiculous mother away?" she asked.

"No, please don't," said Archie.

"Very well, as it's your birthday, I won't. Instead I'll make her extra lady-in-waiting on my peacock-staircase, and mistress of my tortoise-shell robes."

"Oh, mummy, that will be lovely for you," said Archie, remembering that his mother was something of the kind to somebody already.

Then there came the giving of presents, with the surprises that occurred during such processes. Archie was told to advance and put his hand in the left far corner of the golden basket, and, as he prepared to do so, Abracadabra sneezed so loudly that he fled back to the bottom stair of the staircase where they had been all commanded to sit. There was a tennis racquet for Harry, but the lights all went out when he had just reached the clothes-basket, and Abracadabra blew her nose so preposterously that his ear sang with it afterwards. There was a great parcel for Lady Davidstow, as big as a football, which was found to contain, when all the paper was stripped off, nothing more than a single acid drop, in order to teach the mistress of the tortoise-shell robes better manners when her mistress came to pay a visit, and Blessington, summoned from the nursery, was presented with a new cap. But the bulk of the gifts, as was proper, was for Archie, a clock-work train, and a pen that needed no dipping, and a fishing-rod, and a second suit of sailor-clothes. And then the light went out again, and Abracadabra began sneezing and blowing her nose with such deafening violence that the screen which stood just behind her rocked with the concussion, and the children, at the suggestion of the mistress of the tortoise-shell robes, groped their way back into the drawing-room with their presents, and shut the door till Abracadabra was better. And when, from the cessation of these awful noises, they conjectured she might be better, and ventured out into the hall again, that audience-chamber was just as usual, and Archie's father came out of his room, looking vexed, and asking what that beastly noise was about. But when he heard it was Abracadabra, who had gone away again, he was greatly upset and said that it wasn't a beastly noise at all, but the loveliest music he had ever heard.

Then came bed-time, and Archie, still excited, said his prayers with a special impromptu clause for Abracadabra, and another for the thrush, which he suddenly remembered again, and then lay staring at the fire with his hands clasped round his knees, as his custom was. Certainly Abracadabra had been wonderfully real to-day, and certainly she was not his mother. Then he recollected that Marjorie had not appeared at all, and wondered if Marjorie perhaps was Abracadabra, or if the thrush was Abracadabra, of Cyrus… And his hands relaxed their hold on his knees, and when Blessington came in he did not know that she kissed him and tucked the bed-clothes up under his chin.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares