Christmas tree land, p.3
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       Christmas-Tree Land, p.3

           Mrs. Molesworth
 
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  CHAPTER III.

  THE MYSTERIOUS COTTAGE.

  '"A pretty cottage 'tis indeed," Said Rosalind to Fanny, "But yet it seems a little strange, I trust there's naught uncanny."'

  _The Wood-Fairies._

  Rollo pushed a little more, and still a little. No sound was heard--novoice demanded what they wanted; they gathered courage, till at last thedoor stood sufficiently ajar for them to see inside. It was a neat,plain, exceedingly clean, little kitchen which stood revealed to theirview. Rollo and Maia, with another glance around them, another instant'shesitation, stepped in.

  The floor was only sanded, the furniture was of plain unvarnished deal,yet there was something indescribably dainty and attractive about theroom. There was no fire burning in the hearth, but all was ready laidfor lighting it, and on the table, covered with a perfectly clean,though coarse cloth, plates and cups for a meal were set out. It seemedto be for three people. A loaf of brownish bread, and a jug filled withmilk, were the only provisions to be seen. Maia stepped forward softlyand looked longingly at the milk.

  'Do you think it would be wrong to take some, Rollo?' she said. 'I _am_so thirsty, and they must be nice people that live here, it looks soneat.' But just then, catching sight of the three chairs drawn round thetable, as well as of the three cups and three plates upon it, she drewback with a little scream. '_Rollo_,' she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling,half with fear, half with excitement, 'I do believe we've got into thecottage of _the three bears_.'

  '_Rollo_,' she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling, half withfear, half with excitement, 'I do believe we've got into the cottage of_the three bears_.']

  Rollo burst out laughing, though, to tell the truth, he was not quitesure if his sister was in fun or earnest.

  'Nonsense, Maia!' he said. 'Why, that was hundreds of years ago. Youdon't suppose the bears have gone on living ever since, do you? Besides,it wouldn't do at all. See, there are two smaller chairs and onearm-chair here. Two small cups and one big one. It's just the wrong wayfor the bears. It must be two children and one big person that livehere.'

  Maia seemed somewhat reassured.

  'Do you think I may take a drink of milk, then?' she said. 'I am _so_thirsty.'

  'I should think you might,' said Rollo. 'You see we can come back andpay for it another day when they're at home. If we had any money wemight leave it here on the table, to show we're honest. But we haven'tany.'

  'No,' said Maia, as she poured out some milk, taking care not to spillany on the tablecloth, 'not a farthing. Oh, Rollo,' she continued,'_such_ delicious milk! Won't you have some?'

  'No; I'm not thirsty,' he replied. 'See, Maia, there's another littlekitchen out of this--for washing dishes in--a sort of scullery,' for hehad opened another door as he spoke.

  'And, oh, Rollo,' said Maia, peering about, 'see, there's a littlestair. Oh, _do_ let's go up.'

  It seemed a case of 'in for a penny, in for a pound.' Having madethemselves so much at home, the children felt inclined to go a littlefarther. They had soon climbed the tiny staircase and were rewarded fortheir labour by finding two little bed-rooms, furnished just alike, andthough neat and exquisitely clean, as plain and simple as the kitchen.

  'Really, Rollo,' said Maia, 'this house might have been built by thefairies for us two, and see, isn't it odd? the beds are quite small,like ours. I don't know where the big person sleeps whom the arm-chairand the big cup downstairs are for.'

  'Perhaps there's another room,' said Rollo, but after hunting about theyfound there was nothing more, and they came downstairs again to thekitchen, more puzzled than ever as to whom the queer little house couldbelong to.

  'We'll come back again, the very first day we can,' said Maia, 'and tellthe people about having taken the milk,' and then they left the cottage,carefully closing the door and gate behind them, and made their way backto where they had left Nanni. It took them longer than they hadexpected--either they mistook their way, or had wandered farther thanthey had imagined. But Nanni had suffered no anxiety on their account,for, even before they got up to her, they saw that she was enjoying apeaceful slumber.

  'Poor thing!' said Maia. 'She must be very tired. I never knew her sosleepy before. Wake up, Nanni, wake up,' she went on, touching the maidgently on the shoulder. Up jumped Nanni, rubbing her eyes, but lookingnevertheless very awake and good-humoured.

  'Such a beautiful sleep as I've had, to be sure,' she exclaimed.

  'Then you haven't been wondering what had become of us?' said Rollo.

  'Bless you, no, sir,' replied Nanni. 'You haven't been very long away,surely? I never did have such a beautiful sleep. There must be somethingin the air of this forest that makes one sleep. And such lovely dreams!I thought I saw a lady all dressed in green--dark green and lightgreen,--for all the world like the fir-trees in spring, and with longlight hair. She stooped over me and smiled, as if she was going to saysomething, but just then I awoke and saw Miss Maia.'

  'And what do you think _we've_ seen?' said Maia. 'The dearest littlecottage you can fancy. Just like what Rollo and I would like to live inall by ourselves. And there was nobody there; wasn't it queer, Nanni?'

  Nanni was much impressed, but when she had heard all about thechildren's adventure she grew a little frightened.

  'I hope no harm will come of it,' she said. 'If it were a witch'scottage;' and she shivered.

  'Nonsense, Nanni,' said Rollo; 'witches don't have cottages likethat,--all so bright and clean, and delicious new milk to drink.'

  But Nanni was not so easily consoled. 'I hope no harm may come of it,'she repeated.

  By the lengthening shadows they saw that the afternoon was advancing,and that, if they did not want to be late for dinner, they must make thebest of their way home.

  'It would not do to be late to-day--the first time they have let us comeout by ourselves,' said Maia sagely. 'If we are back in very good timeperhaps Lady Venelda will soon let us come again.'

  They _were_ back in very good time, and went down to the dining-hall,looking very fresh and neat, as their cousin entered it followed by herladies.

  'That is right,' said Lady Venelda graciously.

  'You look all the better for your walk, my little friends,' said the olddoctor. 'Come, tell us what you think of our forests, now you have seenthe inside of them.'

  'They are lovely,' said both children enthusiastically. 'I should liketo _live_ there,' Maia went on; 'and, oh, cousin, we saw the dearestlittle cottage, _so_ neat and pretty! I wonder who lives there.'

  'You went to the village, then,' Lady Venelda replied. 'I did not thinkyou would go in that direction.'

  'No,' said Rollo, 'we did not go near any village. It was a cottagequite alone, over that way,' and he pointed in the direction he meant.

  Lady Venelda looked surprised and a little annoyed.

  'I know of no cottage by itself. I know of no cottages, save those in myown village. You must have been mistaken.'

  'Oh, no, indeed,' said Maia, 'we could not be mistaken, for we----'

  'Young people should not contradict their elders,' said Lady Veneldafreezingly, and poor Maia dared say no more. She was very thankful whenthe old doctor came to the rescue.

  'Perhaps,' he said good-naturedly, 'perhaps our young friends sat downin the forest and had a little nap, in which they _dreamt_ of thismysterious cottage. You are aware, my lady, that the aromatic odours ofour delightful woods are said to have this tendency.'

  Rollo and Maia looked at each other. 'That's true,' the look seemed tosay, for the old doctor's words made them think of Nanni's beautifuldream. Not that _they_ had been asleep, oh, no, that was impossible.

  Everything about the cottage had been so real and natural. And besides,as Maia said afterwards to Rollo, 'People don't dream _together_ ofexactly the same things at exactly the same moment, as if they werereading a story-book,' with which Rollo of course agreed.

  Still, at the time, they were not sorry that their cousin took up thedoctor's idea, for she had se
emed so very vexed before he suggested it.

  'To be sure,' she replied graciously; 'that explains it. I have oftenheard of that quality of our wonderful woods. No doubt--tired as theywere too--the children fell asleep without knowing it. Just so; butyoung people must never contradict their elders.'

  The children dared not say any more, and, indeed, just then it wouldhave been no use.

  'She would not have believed anything we said about it,' said Maia asthey went upstairs to their own rooms. 'But it isn't nice not to beallowed to tell anything like that. _Father_ always believes us.'

  'Yes,' said Rollo thoughtfully. 'I don't quite understand why LadyVenelda should have taken us up so about it. I don't much like goingback to the cottage without leave--at least without telling her aboutit, and yet we _must_ go. It would be such a shame not to pay for themilk.'

  'Yes,' said Maia, 'and they might think there had been _robbers_ therewhile they were out. Oh, we must go back!'

  But their perplexities were not decreased by what Nanni had to say tothem.

  'Oh, Master Rollo and Miss Maia!' she exclaimed, 'we should be _very_thankful that no harm came to you this afternoon. I've been speaking tothem in the kitchen about where you were, and, oh, but it must be anuncanny place! No one knows who lives there, though 'tis said about 'tisa witch. And the queer thing is, that 'tis but very few that have everseen the cottage at all. Some have seen it and told the others about it,and when they've gone to look, no cottage could they find. LadyVenelda's own maid is one of those who was determined to find it, butshe never could. And my Lady herself was so put out about it that sheset off to look for it one day,--for no one has a right to live in thewoods just hereabout without her leave,--and she meant to turn thepeople, whoever they were, about their business. But 'twas all for nouse. She sought far and wide; ne'er a cottage could she find, and shewandered about the woods near a whole day for no use. Since then she isthat touchy about it that, if any one dares but to mention a cottagehereabouts, save those in the village, it quite upsets her.'

  Rollo and Maia looked at each other, but something made them feel it wasbetter to say little before Nanni.

  'So I do beg you never to speak about the cottage to my Lady,' Nanniwound up.

  'We don't want to speak about it to her,' said Rollo drily.

  'And you won't want to go there again, I do hope,' the maid persisted.'Whatever would I do if the witch got hold of you and turned you perhapsinto blue birds or green frogs, or something dreadful? Whatever _would_your dear papa say to me? Oh, Miss Maia, do tell Master Rollo never togo there again.'

  'Don't be afraid,' said Maia; 'we'll take care of ourselves. I can quitepromise you we won't be turned into frogs or birds. But don't talk anymore about it to-night, Nanni. I'm _so_ sleepy, and I don't want todream of horrible witches.'

  And this was all the satisfaction Nanni could get.

  But the next morning Rollo and Maia had a grand consultation together.They did not like the idea of not going to the cottage again, for theyfelt it would not be right not to explain about the milk, and they hadbesides a motive, which Nanni's strange story had no way lessened--thatof great curiosity.

  'It would be a shame not to pay for the milk,' said Rollo. 'I shouldfeel uncomfortable whenever I thought of it.'

  'So should I,' said Maia; 'even more than you, for it was I that drankit! And I do _so_ want to find out who lives there. There _must_ bechildren, I am sure, because of the little beds and chairs and cups, andeverything.'

  'If they are all for children, I don't know what there is for bigpeople,' said Rollo. 'Perhaps they're some kind of dwarfs that livethere.'

  'Oh, what fun!' said Maia, clapping her hands. 'Oh, we _must_ go back tofind out!'

  She started, for just as she said the words a voice behind them washeard to say, 'Go back; go back where, my children?'

  They were walking up and down the terrace on one side of the castle,where Mademoiselle Delphine had sent them for a little fresh air betweentheir lessons, and they were so engrossed by what they were talking ofthat they had not heard nor seen the old doctor approaching them. It washis voice that made Maia start. Both children looked rather frightenedwhen they saw who it was, and that he had overheard what they weresaying.

  'Go back where?' he repeated. 'What are you talking about?'

  The children still hesitated.

  'We don't like to tell you, sir,' said Rollo frankly. 'You would say itwas only fancy, as you did last night, and we _know_ it wasn't fancy.'

  'Oh, about the cottage?' said the old doctor coolly. 'You needn't beafraid to tell me about it, fancy or no fancy. Fancy isn't a bad thingsometimes.'

  'But it _wasn't_ fancy,' said both together; 'only we don't like to talkabout it for fear of vexing our cousin, and we don't like to go backthere without leave, and yet we _should_ go back.'

  'Why should you?' asked their old friend.

  Then Maia explained about the milk, adding, too, the strange things thatNanni had heard in the servants' hall. The old doctor listenedattentively. His face looked quite pleased and good-humoured, and yetthey saw he was not at all inclined to laugh at them. When they hadfinished, to the children's surprise he said nothing, but drew out aletter from his pocket.

  'Do you know this writing?' he said.

  Rollo and Maia exclaimed eagerly, 'Oh, yes; it is our father's. Do youknow him? Do you know our father, Mr. Doctor?'

  'I have known him,' said the old man, quietly drawing the contents outof the cover, 'I have known him since he was much smaller than either ofyou is now. It was by my advice he sent you here for a time, and seewhat he gave me for you.'

  He held up as he spoke a small folded paper, which had been inside theother letter. It bore the words: 'For Rollo and Maia--to be given themwhen you think well.' 'I think well now,' he went on, 'so read what hesays, my children.'

  They quickly opened the paper. There was not much written inside--just afew words:

  'Dear children,' they were, 'if you are in any difficulty, ask theadvice of my dear old friend and adviser, the doctor, and you may besure you will do what will please your father.'

  For a moment or two the children were almost too surprised to speak. Itwas Rollo who found his voice first.

  'Give us your advice now, Mr. Doctor. May we go back to the cottagewithout saying any more about it to Lady Venelda?'

  'Yes,' said the old doctor. 'You may go anywhere you like in the woods.No harm will come to you. It is no use your saying any more about thecottage to Lady Venelda. She cannot understand it because she cannotfind it. If you can find it you will learn no harm there, and yourfather would be quite pleased for you to go.'

  'Then do you think we may go soon again?' asked the children eagerly.

  'You will always have a holiday once a week,' said the doctor. 'It wouldnot be good for you to go _too_ often. Work cheerfully and well when youare at work, my children. I will see that you have your play.'

 
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