Christmas tree land, p.4
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       Christmas-Tree Land, p.4

           Mrs. Molesworth
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  'Neat, like bees, as sweet and busy, . . . . . . Aired and set to rights the house; Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat-- Cakes for dainty mouths to eat.'

  _Goblin Market._

  The next few days passed rather slowly for the children. There was notalk of another expedition to the woods. And they had a good manylessons to do, so that short walks in the grounds close round the castlewere all they had time for. They only saw the old doctor at meal-times,but he always smiled at them, as if to assure them he was not forgettingthem, and to encourage them to patience.

  There was one person who certainly did not regret the children's notreturning to the woods, and that person was Nanni. What she had heardfrom the servants about the mysterious cottage had thoroughlyfrightened her; she felt sure that if they went there again somethingdreadful would happen to them, and yet she was so devoted to them that,however terrified, she would never have thought of not following themwherever they chose to go. But, as day after day went by, and no morewas said about it, she began to breathe freely. Her distress wastherefore the greater when, one afternoon just six days after the lastramble, Rollo and Maia rushed upstairs after their lessons in thewildest spirits.

  'Hurrah for the doctor!' shouted Rollo, and Maia was on the point ofjoining him, till she remembered that if they made such a noise LadyVenelda would be sending up to know what was the matter.

  'We're to have a whole holiday to-morrow, Nanni,' they explained, 'andwe're going to spend it in the woods. You're to come with us, and carrysomething in a basket for us to eat.'

  'Very well, Miss Maia,' replied Nanni, prudently refraining frommentioning the cottage, in hopes that they had forgotten about it, 'thatwill be very nice, especially if it is a fine day, but if not, of courseyou would not go.'

  'I don't know that,' said Rollo mischievously; 'green frogs don't mindrain.'

  'Nor blue birds,' added Maia. 'They could fly away if they did.'

  At these fateful words poor Nanni grew deadly pale. 'Oh, my children,'she cried; 'oh, Master Rollo and Miss Maia, don't, I beg of you, jokeabout such things. And oh, I entreat you, don't go looking for thatwitch's cottage. Unless you promise me you won't, I shall have to go andtell my Lady, however angry she is!'

  'No such thing, my good girl,' said a voice at the door. 'You needn'ttrouble your head about such nonsense. Rollo and Maia will go nowherewhere they can get any harm. I know everything about the woods betterthan you or those silly servants downstairs. Lady Venelda would onlytell you not to interfere with what didn't concern you if you wentsaying anything to her. Go off to the woods with your little master andmistress without misgiving, my good girl, and if the air makes yousleepy don't be afraid to take a nap. No harm will come to you or thechildren.'

  Nanni stood still in astonishment--the tears in her eyes and her mouthwide open, staring at the old doctor, for it was he, of course, who hadfollowed the children upstairs and overheard her remonstrances. Shelooked so comical that Rollo and Maia could scarcely help laughing ather, as at last she found voice to speak.

  'Of course if the learned doctor approves I have nothing to say,' shesaid submissively; though she could not help adding, 'and I only hope noharm will come of it.'

  Rollo and Maia flew to the doctor.

  'Oh, that's right!' they exclaimed. 'We are so glad you have spoken tothat stupid Nanni. She believes all the rubbish the servants herespeak.'

  The doctor turned to Nanni again.

  'Don't be afraid,' he repeated. 'All will be right, you will see. Buttake my advice, do not say anything to the servants here about theamusements of your little master and mistress. Least said soonestmended. It would annoy Lady Venelda for it to be supposed they wereallowed to go where any harm could befall them.'

  'Very well, sir,' replied Nanni, meekly enough, though she still lookedrather depressed. She could not help remembering that before he left,old Marc, too, had warned her against too much chattering.

  The next morning broke fine and bright. The children started in thegreatest spirits, which even Nanni, laden with a basket of provisionsfor their dinner, could not altogether resist. And before they went,Lady Venelda called them into her boudoir, and kissing them, wished thema happy holiday.

  'It's all that nice old doctor,' said Maia. 'You see, Rollo, she hasn'ttold us not to go to the cottage--he's put it all right, I'm sure.'

  'Yes, I expect so,' Rollo agreed; and then in a minute or two he added:'Do you know, Maia, though of course I don't believe in witches turningpeople into green frogs, or any of that nonsense, I do think there's_something_ funny about that cottage.'

  'What sort of something? What do you mean?' asked Maia, lookingintensely interested. 'Do you mean something to do with fairies?'

  'I don't know--I'm not sure. But we'll see,' said Rollo.

  'If we can find it!' said Maia.

  'I'm _sure_ we shall find it. It's just because of that that I thinkthere's something queer. It must be true that some people can't findit.'

  'Naughty people?' asked Maia apprehensively. 'For you know, Rollo, we'renot always _quite_ good.'

  'No, I don't mean naughty people. I mean more people who don't careabout fairies and wood-spirits, and things like that--people who callall that nonsense and rubbish.'

  'I see,' said Maia; 'perhaps you're right, Rollo. Well, any way, thatwon't stop _us_ finding it, for we certainly do care _dreadfully_ aboutfairy things, don't we, Rollo? But what about Nanni?' she went on, forNanni was some steps behind, and had not heard what they were saying.

  'Oh, as to Nanni,' said Rollo coolly, 'I shouldn't wonder if she took anap again, as the old doctor said. Any way, she can't interfere with usafter _his_ giving us leave to go wherever we liked.'

  They stopped a little to give Nanni time to come up to them, and Rollooffered to help her to carry the basket. It was not heavy, she replied,she could carry it quite well alone, but she still looked ratherdepressed in spirits, so the children walked beside her, talking merrilyof the dinner in the woods they were going to have, so that by degreesNanni forgot her fears of the mysterious cottage, and thought no moreabout it.

  It was even a more beautiful day than the one, now nearly a week ago, onwhich they had first visited the woods. There was more sunshine to-day,and the season was every day farther advancing; the lovely little newgreen tips were beginning to peep out among the darker green which hadalready stood the wear and tear of a bitter winter and many a frostyblast.

  'How pretty the fir-trees look!' said Maia. 'They don't seem the leastdim or gloomy in the sunshine, even though it only gets to them inlittle bits. See there, Rollo,' she exclaimed, pointing to one which gotmore than its share of the capricious gilding. 'Doesn't it look like a_real_ Christmas-tree?'

  'Like a lighted-up one, you mean,' said Rollo. 'It would be a very niceChristmas-tree for a family of giants, and if I could climb up so high,I'd be just about the right size for the angel at the top. Let's spreadour table at the foot of this tree--it looks so nice and dry. I'm sure,Nanni,' he went on, 'you'll be glad to get rid of your basket.'

  'It's not heavy, Master Rollo,' said Nanni; 'but, all the same, it _is_queer how the minute I get into these woods I begin to be sosleepy--you'd hardly believe it.'

  Rollo and Maia looked at each other with a smile, but they said nothing.

  'We'd better have our dinner any way,' observed Rollo, kneeling down tounfasten the basket, of which the contents proved very good indeed.

  'What fun it is, isn't it?' said Maia, when they had eaten nearly asmuch cold chicken and bread, and cakes and fruit as they wanted. 'Whatfun it is to be able to do just as we like, and say just what we like,instead of having to sit straight up in our chairs like two dolls, andonly speak when we're spoken to, and all that--how nice it would be ifwe could have our dinner in the woods every day!'

  'We'd get tired of it after a while, I expect,' said Rollo. 'It wouldn'tbe nice in cold weather,
or if it rained.'

  '_I_ wouldn't mind,' said Maia. 'I'd build a warm little hut and coverit over with moss. We'd live like the squirrels.'

  'How do you know how the squirrels live?' said Rollo.

  But Maia did not answer him. Her ideas by this time were off on anotherflight--the thought of a little hut had reminded her of the cottage.

  'I want to go farther into the wood,' she said, jumping up. 'Come,Rollo, let's go and explore a little. Nanni, you can stay here and packup the basket again, can't you?'

  'Then you won't be long, Miss Maia,' began Nanni, rather dolefully. 'Youwon't----'

  'We won't get turned into green frogs, if that's what you're thinkingof, Nanni,' interrupted Rollo. 'Do remember what the old doctor said,and don't worry yourself. We shall come to no harm. And as you're sosleepy, why shouldn't you take a nap as you did the other day? Perhapsyou'll dream of the beautiful lady again.'

  Nanni looked but half convinced.

  'It's not _my_ fault, any way,' she said. 'I've done all I could. I mayas well stay here, for I know you like better to wander about byyourselves. But I'm not going to sleep--you needn't laugh, Master Rollo,I've brought my knitting with me on purpose,' and she drew out a halfstocking and ball of worsted with great satisfaction.

  The children set off. They were not sure in what direction lay thecottage, for they had got confused in their directions, but they had avague idea that by continuing upwards, for they were still on slopingground, they would come to the level space where they had seen the smokeof the burning leaves. They were not mistaken, for they had walked but avery few minutes when the ground ceased to ascend, and looking roundthey felt sure that they recognised the look of the trees near thecottage.

  'This way, Rollo, I am sure,' said Maia, darting forward. She wasright--in another moment they came out of the woods just at the side ofthe cottage. It looked just the same as before, except that no fire wasburning outside, and instead, a thin column of smoke rose gently fromthe little chimney. The gate of the little garden was also open, as ifinviting them to enter.

  'They must be at home, whoever they are,' said Rollo. 'There is a firein the kitchen, you see, Maia.'

  Maia grew rather pale. Now that they were actually on the spot, shebegan to feel afraid, though of what she scarcely knew. Nanni's queerhints came back to her mind, and she caught hold of Rollo's arm,trembling.

  'Oh, Rollo,' she exclaimed, 'suppose it's true? About the witch, Imean--or suppose they have found out about the milk and are very angry?'

  'Well, we can't help it if they are,' replied Rollo sturdily. 'We'vedone the best thing we could in coming back to pay for it. You've gotthe little purse, Maia?'

  'Oh, yes, it's safe in my pocket,' she said. 'But----'

  She stopped, for just at that moment the door of the cottage opened anda figure came forward. It was no 'old witch,' no ogre or goblin, but ayoung girl--a little older than Maia she seemed--who stood there with asweet, though rather grave expression on her face and in her soft darkeyes, as she said gently, 'Welcome--we have been expecting you.'

  'Expecting us?' exclaimed Maia, who generally found her voice morequickly than Rollo; 'how can you have been expecting us?'

  She had stepped forward a step or two before her brother, and now stoodlooking up in the girl's face with wonder in her bright blue eyes, whileshe tossed back the long fair curls that fell round her head. Boys arenot very observant, but Rollo could not help noticing the pretty picturethe two made. The peasant maiden with her dark plaits and browncomplexion, dressed in a short red skirt, and little loose white bodicefastened round the waist with a leather belt, and Maia with a ratherprimly-cut frock and frilled tippet of flowered chintz, such as childrenthen often wore, and large flapping shady hat.

  'How can you have been expecting us?' Maia repeated.

  Rollo came forward in great curiosity to hear the answer.

  The girl smiled.

  'Ah!' she said, 'there are more ways than one of knowing many thingsthat are to come. Waldo heard you had arrived at the white castle, andmy godmother had already told us of you. Then we found the milk gone,and----'

  Rollo interrupted this time. 'We were so vexed,' he said, 'not to beable to explain about it. We have wanted to come every day since to----''To pay for it,' he was going to say, but something in the girl's facemade him hesitate.

  'Not to pay for it,' she said quickly, though smiling again, as if sheread his words in his face; 'don't say that. We were so glad it wasthere for you. Besides, it is not ours--Waldo and I would have nothingbut for our godmother. But come in--come in--Waldo is only gone to fetchsome brushwood, and our godmother, too, will be here soon.'

  Too surprised to ask questions--indeed, there seemed so many to ask thatthey would not have known where to begin--Rollo and Maia followed thegirl into the little kitchen. It looked just as neat and dainty as theother day--and brighter too, for a charming little fire was burning inthe grate, and a pleasant smell of freshly-roasted coffee was faintlyperceived. The table was set out as before, but with the addition of aplate of crisp-looking little cakes or biscuits, and in place of _two_small cups and saucers there were _four_, as well as the larger one thechildren had seen before. This was too much for Maia to behold insilence. She stopped short, and stared in still greater amazement.

  'Why!' she exclaimed. 'You don't mean to say--why, just fancy, I don'teven know your name.'

  'Silva,' replied the girl quietly, but with an amused little smile onher face.

  'Silva,' continued Maia, 'you _don't_ mean to say that you've put outthose two cups for _us_--that you knew we'd come.'

  'Godmother did,' said Silva. 'She told us yesterday. So we've been verybusy to get all our work done, and have a nice holiday afternoon. Waldohas nothing more to do after he's brought in the wood, and I baked thoselittle cakes this morning and roasted the coffee. Godmother told us tohave it ready early, so that there'll be plenty of time before you haveto go. Oh, here's Waldo!' she exclaimed joyfully.

  Rollo and Maia turned round. There, in the doorway stood a boy, his capin his hand, a pleasant smile on his bright ruddy face.

  'Welcome, my friends,' he said, with a kind of gravity despite hissmile.

  He was such a nice-looking boy--just about as much bigger than Rollo asSilva was bigger than Maia. You could have told at once that they werebrother and sister--there was the same bright and yet serious expressionin their eyes; the same healthy, ruddy complexion; the same erectcarriage and careless grace in Waldo in his forester's clothes as inSilva with her pretty though simple peasant maiden dress. They lookedwhat they were, true children of the beautiful woods.

  'Thank you,' said Rollo and Maia, after a moment's hesitation. They didnot know what else to say. Silva glanced at them. She seemed to have acurious power of reading in their faces the thoughts that were passingin their minds.

  'Don't think it strange,' she said quickly, 'that Waldo calls you thus"my friends," and that we both speak to you as if we had known you forlong. We know we are not the same as you--in the world, I mean, we couldnot be as we are here with you, but this is not the world,' and hereshe smiled again--the strange, bright, and yet somehow rather sad smilewhich made her face so sweet--'and so we need not think about it.Godmother said it was best only to remember that we are just fourchildren together, and when you see her you will feel that what she saysis always best.'

  'We don't need to see her to feel that we like you to call us yourfriends,' exclaimed Rollo and Maia together. The words came from theirhearts, and yet somehow they felt surprised at being able to say them soreadily. Rollo held out his hand to Waldo, who shook it heartily, andlittle Maia going close up to Silva said softly, 'Kiss me, please, dearSilva.'

  And thus the friendship was begun.

  The first effect of this seemed to be the setting loose of Maia'stongue.

  'There are so many things I want to ask you,' she began. 'May I? Do youand Waldo live here alone, and have you always lived here? And does yourgodmother live here, for the
other day when we went all over the cottagewe only saw two little beds, and two little of everything, except thebig chair and the big cup and saucer. And what----'

  Here Rollo interrupted her.

  'Maia,' he said, 'you really shouldn't talk so fast. Silva could notanswer all those questions at once if she wanted; and perhaps shedoesn't want to answer them all. It's rude to ask so much.'

  Maia looked up innocently into Silva's face.

  'I didn't mean to be rude,' she said, 'only you see I can't helpwondering.'

  'We don't mind your asking anything you like,' Silva replied. 'But Idon't think I _can_ tell you all you want to know. You'll get to see foryourself. Waldo and I have lived here a long time, but not _always_!'

  'But your godmother,' went on Maia; 'I do so want to know about her.Does _she_ live here? Is it she that the people about call a witch?'Maia lowered her voice a little at the last word, and looked up at Rolloapprehensively. Would not he think speaking of witches still ruder thanasking questions? But Silva did not seem to mind.

  'I dare say they do,' she said quietly. 'They don't know her, you see. Idon't think she would care if they did call her a witch. But now thecoffee is ready,' for she had been going on with her preparationsmeanwhile, 'will you sit round the table?'

  'We are not very hungry,' said Rollo, 'for we had our dinner in thewood. But the coffee smells so good,' and he drew in his chair as hespoke. Maia, however, hesitated.

  'Would it not be more polite, perhaps,' she said to Silva, 'to wait alittle for your godmother? You said she would be coming soon.'

  'She doesn't like us to wait for her,' said Silva. 'We always put herplace ready, for sometimes she comes and sometimes she doesn't--we neverknow. But she says it is best just to go on regularly, and then we neednot lose any time.'

  'I don't think I should like that way,' said Maia. 'Would you, Rollo? Iffather was coming to see us, I would like to know it quite settledlyever so long before, and plan all about it.'

  'But it isn't quite the same,' said Silva. 'Your father is far away. Ourgodmother is never very far away--it is just a nice feeling that she maycome any time, like the sunshine or the wind.'

  'Well, perhaps it is,' said Maia. 'I dare say I shall understand whenI've seen her. How very good this coffee is, Silva, and the littlecakes! Did your godmother teach you to make them so nice?'

  'Not exactly,' said Silva; 'but she made me like doing things well. Shemade me see how pretty it is to do things rightly--_quite_ rightly, justas they should be.'

  'And do you always do things that way?' exclaimed Maia, very muchimpressed. '_I_ don't; I'm very often dreadfully untidy, and sometimesmy exercise-books are full of blots and mistakes. I wish I had had yourgodmother to teach me, Silva.'

  'Well, you're going to have her now. She teaches without one knowing it.But _I'm_ not perfect, nor is Waldo! Indeed we're not--and if we thoughtwe were it would show we weren't.'

  'Besides,' said Waldo, 'all the things we have to do are very simple andeasy. We don't know anything about the world, and all we should have todo and learn if we lived there.'

  'Should you like to live there?' asked Maia. Both Waldo and Silvahesitated. Then both, with the grave expression in their eyes that camethere sometimes, replied, 'I don't know;' but Waldo in a moment or twoadded, 'If it had to be, it would be right to like it.'

  'Yes,' said Silva quietly. But something in their tone made both Rolloand Maia feel puzzled.

  'I do believe you're both half fairies,' exclaimed Maia with a littleimpatience; 'I can't make you out at all.'

  Rollo felt the same, though, being more considerate than his littlesister, he did not like to express his feelings so freely. But Waldo andSilva only laughed merrily.

  'No, no, indeed we're not,' they said more than once, but Maia did notseem convinced by any means, and she was going on to maintain that nochildren who _weren't_ half fairies could live like that by themselvesand manage everything so beautifully, when a slight noise at the doorand a sudden look of pleasure on Silva's face made her stop short andlook round.

  'Here she is,' exclaimed Waldo and Silva together. 'Oh, godmother,darling, we are so glad. And they have come, Rollo and Maia have come,just as you said.'

  And thus saying they sprang forward. Their godmother stooped and kissedboth on the forehead.

  'Dear children,' she said, and then she turned to the two strangers, whowere gazing at her with all their eyes.

  '_Can_ it be she the silly people about call a witch?' Maia was sayingto herself. 'It _might_ be, and yet I don't know. _Could_ any one callher a witch?'

  She was old--of that there was no doubt, at least so it seemed at thefirst glance. Her hair was perfectly white, her face was very pale. Buther eyes were the most wonderful thing about her. Maia could not tellwhat colour they were. They seemed to change with every word she said,with every new look that came over her face. Old as she was they werevery bright and beautiful, very soft and sweet too, though not the sortof eyes--Maia said afterwards to Rollo--'that I would like to look at meif I had been naughty.' Godmother was not tall; when she first came intothe little kitchen she seemed to stoop a little, and did not look muchbigger than Silva. And she was all covered over with a dark green cloak,almost the colour of the darkest of the foliage of the fir-trees.

  'One would hardly see her if she were walking about the woods,' thoughtMaia, 'except that her face and hair are so white, they would gleam outlike snow.'

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