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Title: Christmas Tree Land
Author: Molesworth, Mrs.  (Mary Louisa), 1839-1921
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Christmas Tree Land" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



http://www.pgdpcanada.net



                       CHRISTMAS-TREE LAND

                        BY MRS MOLESWORTH

    AUTHOR OF 'CARROTS,' 'CUCKOO CLOCK,' 'TELL ME A STORY.'

[Illustration: THE WHITE CASTLE]

ILLUSTRATED BY WALTER CRANE

    London
    MACMILLAN AND CO.
    1884



[Illustration: Rollo could not help noticing the pretty picture the two
made.]



CONTENTS.


                                                                     PAGE

     CHAPTER I. THE WHITE CASTLE                                        1

    CHAPTER II. IN THE FIR-WOODS                                       18

   CHAPTER III. THE MYSTERIOUS COTTAGE                                 36

    CHAPTER IV. FAIRY HOUSEKEEPING                                     50

     CHAPTER V. THE STORY OF A KING'S DAUGHTER                         70

    CHAPTER VI. THE STORY OF A KING'S DAUGHTER--(_continued_)          87

   CHAPTER VII. A WINDING STAIR AND A SCAMPER                         113

  CHAPTER VIII. THE SQUIRREL FAMILY                                   137

    CHAPTER IX. A COMMITTEE OF BIRDS                                  157

     CHAPTER X. A SAIL IN THE AIR                                     170

    CHAPTER XI. THE EAGLES' EYRIE                                     186

   CHAPTER XII. A VISION OF CHRISTMAS TREES                           203



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


                                                           _To face page_

THE WHITE CASTLE                                               _Vignette_

'ROLLO,' SHE EXCLAIMED, HER EYES SPARKLING, HALF WITH
FEAR, HALF WITH EXCITEMENT, 'I DO BELIEVE WE'VE GOT INTO
THE COTTAGE OF THE THREE BEARS'                                        37

ROLLO COULD NOT HELP NOTICING THE PRETTY PICTURE THE TWO MADE          60

'IT WAS THE PRETTIEST SIGHT IN THE WORLD TO SEE AURÉOLE IN
HER BOWER EVERY MORNING'                                               81

'AURÉOLE COULD NOT HELP SHIVERING AS THE FORM OF THE MONSTER
CAME IN SIGHT'                                                        108

I DON'T THINK EVER CHILDREN BEFORE HAD SUCH FUN                       149

'ALL RIGHT--WE'RE OFF NOW,' WALDO CALLED OUT, AND AT ONCE,
WITH A STEADY SWING, THE QUEER SHIP ROSE INTO THE AIR                 180

'SEE, ROLLO,' CRIED MAIA; 'SEE, THERE IS OUR CHRISTMAS TREE'          221



CHAPTER I.

THE WHITE CASTLE.

    'The way was long, long, long, like the journey in a fairy tale.'

    MISS FERRIER.


It was not their home. That was easy to be seen by the eager looks of
curiosity and surprise on the two little faces inside the heavy
travelling carriage. Yet the faces were grave, and there was a weary
look in the eyes, for the journey had been long, and it was not for
pleasure that it had been undertaken. The evening was drawing in, and
the day had been a somewhat gloomy one, but as the light slowly faded, a
soft pink radiance spread itself over the sky. They had been driving for
some distance through a flat monotonous country; then, as the ground
began to rise, the coachman relaxed his speed, and the children, without
knowing it, fell into a half slumber.

It was when the chariot stopped to allow the horses breathing time that
they started awake and looked around them. The prospect had entirely
changed. They were now on higher ground, for the road had wound up and
up between the hills, which all round encircled an open space--a sort of
high up valley, in the centre of which gleamed something white. But this
did not at first catch the children's view. It was the hills rising ever
higher and higher, clothed from base to summit with fir-trees,
innumerable as the stars on a clear frosty night, that struck them with
surprise and admiration. The little girl caught her breath with a
strange thrill of pleasure, mingled with awe.

'Rollo,' she said, catching her brother's sleeve, 'it is a land of
Christmas trees!'

Rollo gazed out for a moment or two without speaking. Then he gave a
sigh of sympathy.

'Yes, Maia,' he said; 'I never could have imagined it. Fancy, only
fancy, if they were all lighted up!'

Maia smiled.

'I don't think even the fairies themselves could do that,' she answered.

But here their soft-voiced talking was interrupted. Two attendants, an
elderly man and a young, rosy-faced woman, whose eyes, notwithstanding
her healthy and hearty appearance, bore traces of tears, had got down
from their seat behind the carriage.

'Master Rollo,'--'My little lady,' they said, speaking together; 'yonder
is the castle. The coachman has just shown it to us. This is the first
sight of it.'

'The white walls one sees gleaming through the trees,' said the girl,
pointing as she spoke. 'Marc cannot see it as plainly as I.'

'My eyes are not what they were,' said the old servant apologetically.

'I see it,'--'and so do I,' exclaimed Rollo and Maia. 'Shall we soon be
there?'

'Still an hour,' replied Marc; 'the road winds about, he says.'

'And already we have been so many, many hours,' said Nanni, the maid, in
doleful accents.

'Let us hope for a bright fire and a welcome when we arrive,' said old
Marc cheerfully. 'Provided only Master Rollo and Miss Maia are not too
tired, _we_ should not complain,' he added reprovingly, in a lower
voice, turning to Nanni. But Maia had caught the words.

'Poor Nanni,' she said kindly. 'Don't be so sad. It will be better when
we get there, and you can unpack our things and get them arranged
again.'

'And then Marc will have to leave us, and who knows how they will treat
us in this outlandish country!' said Nanni, beginning to sob again.

But just then the coachman looked round to signify that the horses were
rested, and he was about to proceed.

'Get up, girl--quickly--get up,' said Marc, reserving his scolding, no
doubt, till they were again in their places and out of hearing of their
little master and mistress.

The coachman touched up his horses; they seemed to know they were
nearing home, and set off at a brisk pace, the bells on their harness
jingling merrily as they went.

The cheerful sound, the quicker movement, had its effect on the
children's spirits.

'It _is_ a strange country,' said Maia, throwing herself back among the
cushions of the carriage, as if tired of gazing out. 'Still, I don't see
that we need be so very unhappy here.'

'Nor I,' said Rollo. 'Nanni is foolish. She should not call it an
outlandish country. That to _us_ it cannot be, for it is the country of
our ancestors.'

'But _so_ long ago, Rollo,' objected Maia.

'That does not matter. We are still of the same blood,' said the boy
sturdily. 'We must love, even without knowing why, the place that was
home to them--the hills, the trees--ah, yes, above all, those wonderful
forests. They seem to go on for ever and ever, like the stars, Maia.'

'Yet I don't think them as _pretty_ as forests of different kinds of
trees,' said Maia thoughtfully. 'They are more _strange_ than beautiful.
Fancy them always, always there, in winter and summer, seeing the sun
rise and set, feeling the rain fall, and the snow-flakes flutter down on
their branches, and yet never moving, never changing. I wouldn't like to
be a tree.'

'But they _do_ change,' said Rollo. 'The branches wither and then they
sprout again. It must be like getting new clothes, and very interesting
to watch, I should think. Fancy how funny it would be if our clothes
grew on us like that.'

Maia gave a merry little laugh.

'Yes,' she said; 'fancy waking up in the morning and looking to see if
our sleeves had got a little bit longer, or if our toes were beginning
to be covered! I suppose that's what the trees talk about.'

'Oh, they must have lots of things to talk about,' said Rollo. 'Think of
how well they must see the pictures in the clouds, being so high up.
And the stars at night. And then all the creatures that live in their
branches, and down among their roots,--the birds, and the squirrels, and
the field-mice, and the----'

'Yes,' interrupted Maia; 'you have rather nice thoughts sometimes,
Rollo. After all, I dare say it is not so very stupid to be a tree. I
should like the squirrels best of all. I do love squirrels! Can you see
the castle any better now, Rollo? It must be at your side.'

'I don't see it at all just now,' said Rollo, after peering out for some
moments. 'I'm not sure but what it's got round to _your_ side by now,
Maia.'

'No, it hasn't,' said Maia. 'It couldn't have done. It's somewhere over
there, below that rounded hill-top--we'll see it again in a minute, I
dare say. Ah, see, Rollo, there's the moon coming out! I do hope we
shall often see the moon here. It would be so pretty--the trees would
look nearly black. But what are you staring at so, Rollo?'

Rollo drew in his head again.

'There must be somebody living over there,' he said. 'I see smoke
rising--you can _hardly_ see it now, the light is growing so dim, but
I'm sure I did see it. There must be a little cottage there somewhere
among the trees.'

'Oh, how nice!' exclaimed Maia. 'We must find it out. I wonder what sort
of people live in it--gnomes or wood-spirits, perhaps? There couldn't be
any real _people_ in such a lonely place.'

'Gnomes and wood-spirits don't need cottages, and they don't make
fires,' replied Rollo.

'How do _you_ know?' and Rollo's answer was not quite ready. 'I dare say
gnomes like to come up above sometimes, for a change; and I dare say the
wood-spirits are cold sometimes, and like to warm themselves. Any way I
shall try to find that cottage and see who does live in it. I hope she
will let us go on walks as often as we wish, Rollo.'

'She--who?' said the boy dreamily. 'Oh, our lady cousin! Yes, I hope
so;' but he sighed as he spoke, and this time the sigh was sad.

Maia nestled closer to her brother.

'I think I was forgetting a little, Rollo,' she said. 'I can't think how
I could forget, even for a moment, all our troubles. But father wanted
us to try to be happy.'

'Yes, I know he did,' said Rollo. 'I am very glad if you can feel
happier sometimes, Maia. But for me it is different; I am so much
older.'

'Only two years,' interrupted Maia.

'Well, well, I _feel_ more than that older. And then I have to take care
of _you_ till father comes home; that makes me feel older too.'

'I wish we could take care of each other,' said Maia; 'I wish we were
going to live in a little cottage by ourselves instead of in Lady
Venelda's castle. We might have Nanni just to light the fires and cook
the dinner, except the creams and pastry and cakes--_those_ I would make
myself. And she might also clean the rooms and wash the dishes--I cannot
bear washing dishes--and all the rest we would do ourselves, Rollo.'

'There would not be much else to do,' said Rollo, smiling.

'Oh yes, there would. We should need a cow, you know, and cocks and
hens; those we should take care of ourselves, though Nanni might churn.
You have no idea how tiring it is to churn; I tried once at our
country-house last year, and my arms ached so. And then there would be
the garden; it must be managed so that there should always, all the year
round, be strawberries and roses. Wouldn't that be charming, Rollo?'

'Yes; but it certainly couldn't be done out of fairyland,' said the boy.

'Never mind. What does it matter? When one is wishing one may wish for
anything.'

'Then, for my part, I would rather wish to be at our own home again, and
that our father had not had to go away,' said Rollo.

'Ah, yes!' said Maia; and then she grew silent, and the grave expression
overspread both children's faces again.

They had meant to look out to see if the white-walled castle was once
more within sight, but it was now almost too dark to see anything, and
they remained quietly in their corners. Suddenly they felt the wheels
roll on to a paved way; the carriage went more slowly, and in a moment
or two they stopped.

'Can we have arrived?' said Maia. But Rollo, looking out, saw that they
had only stopped at a postern. An old man, bent and feeble, came out of
an ivy-covered lodge, round and high like a light-house, looking as if
it had once been a turret attached to the main building, and pressed
forward as well as he could to open the gate, which swung back rustily
on its hinges. The coachman exchanged a few words in the language of the
country, which the children understood but slightly, and then the
chariot rolled on again, slowly still, for the road ascended, and even
had there been light there would have been nothing to see but two high
walls, thickly covered with creeping plants. In a moment or two they
stopped again for another gate to be opened--this time more
quickly--then the wheels rolled over smoother ground, and the coachman
drew up before a doorway, and a gleam of white walls flashed before the
children's eyes.

The door was already open. Marc and Nanni got down at the farther side,
for a figure stood just inside the entrance, which they at once
recognised as that of the lady of the house come forward to welcome her
young relatives. Two old serving-men, older than Marc and in well-worn
livery, let down the ladder of steps and opened the chariot door. Rollo
got out, waited a moment to help his sister as she followed him, and
then, leading her by the hand, bowed low before their cousin Venelda.

'Welcome,' she said at once, as she stooped to kiss Maia's forehead,
extending her hand to Rollo at the same time. Her manner was formal but
not unkindly. 'You must be fatigued with your journey,' she said.
'Supper is ready in the dining-hall, and then, no doubt, you will be
glad to retire for the night.'

'Yes, thank you, cousin,' said both children, and then, as she turned to
show them the way, they ventured to look up at their hostess, though
they were still dazzled by the sudden light after the darkness outside.
Lady Venelda was neither young nor old, nor could one well imagine her
ever to have been, or as ever going to be, different from what she was.
She was tall and thin, simply dressed, but with a dignified air as of
one accustomed to command. Her hair was gray, and surmounted by a high
white cap, a number of keys attached to her girdle jingled as she went;
her step was firm and decided, but not graceful, and her voice was
rather hard and cold, though not sharp. Her face, as Rollo and Maia saw
it better when she turned to see if they were following her, was of a
piece with her figure, pale and thin, with nothing very remarkable save
a well-cut rather eagle nose and a pair of very bright but not tender
blue eyes. Still she was not a person to be afraid of, on the whole,
Rollo decided. She might not be very indulgent or sympathising, but
there was nothing cruel or cunning in her face and general look.

'You may approach the fire, children,' she said, as if this were a
special indulgence; and Rollo and Maia, who had stood as if uncertain
what to do, drew near the enormous chimney, where smouldered some
glowing wood, enough to send out a genial heat, though it had but a poor
appearance in the gigantic grate, which looked deep and wide enough to
roast an ox.

Their eyes wandered curiously round the great room or hall in which they
found themselves. It, like the long corridor out of which opened most of
the rooms of the house, was painted or washed over entirely in
white--the only thing which broke the dead uniformity being an
extraordinary number of the antlered heads of deer, fastened high up at
regular intervals. The effect was strange and barbaric, but not
altogether unpleasing.

'What quantities of deer there must be here!' whispered Maia to her
brother. 'See, even the chairs are made of their antlers.'

She was right. What Rollo had at first taken for branches of trees
rudely twisted into chair backs and feet were, in fact, the horns of
several kinds of deer, and he could not help admiring them, though he
thought to himself it was sad to picture the number of beautiful
creatures that must have been slain to please his ancestors' whimsical
taste in furniture; but he said nothing, and Lady Venelda, though she
noticed the children's observing eyes, said nothing either. It was not
her habit to encourage conversation with young people. She had been
brought up in a formal fashion, and devoutly believed it to be the best.

At this moment a bell clanged out loudly in the courtyard. Before it had
ceased ringing the door opened and two ladies, both of a certain age,
both dressed exactly alike, walked solemnly into the room, followed by
two old gentlemen, of whom it could not be said they were exactly alike,
inasmuch as one was exceedingly tall and thin, the other exceedingly
short and stout. These personages the children came afterwards to know
were the two ladies-in-waiting, or _dames de compagnie_, of Lady
Venelda, her chaplain, and her physician. They all approached her, and
bowed, and curtseyed; then drew back, as if waiting for her to take her
place at the long table before seating themselves. Lady Venelda glanced
at the children.

'How comes it?' she began, but then, seeming to remember something,
stopped. 'To be sure, they have but just arrived,' she said to herself.
Then turning to one of the old serving-men: 'Conduct the young gentleman
to his apartment,' she said, 'that he may arrange his attire before
joining us at supper. And you, Delphine,' she continued to one of the
ancient damsels, who started as if she were on wires, and Lady Venelda
had touched the spring, 'have the goodness to perform the same office
for this young lady, whose waiting-maid will be doubtless in attendance.
For this once,' she added in conclusion, this time addressing the
children, 'the repast shall be delayed for ten minutes; but for this
once only. Punctuality is a virtue that cannot be exaggerated.'

Rollo and Maia looked at each other; then both followed their respective
guides.

'Is my lady cousin angry with me?' Maia ventured timidly to inquire. 'We
did not know--we could not help it. I suppose the coachman came as fast
as he could.'

'Perfectly, perfectly, Mademoiselle,' replied Delphine in a flutter.
Poor thing, she had once been French--long, long ago, in the days of her
youth, which she had well-nigh forgotten. But she still retained some
French expressions and the habit of agreeing with whatever was said to
her, which she believed to show the highest breeding. 'Of course
Mademoiselle could not help it.'

'Then why is my cousin angry?' said Maia, again looking up with her
bright brown eyes.

'My lady Venelda angry?' repeated Delphine, rather embarrassed how to
reconcile her loyalty to her patroness, to whom she was devotedly
attached, with courtesy to Maia. 'Ah, no! My lady is never angry. Pardon
my plain speaking.'

'Oh, then, I mistook, I suppose,' said Maia, considerably relieved. 'I
suppose some people seem angry when they're not, till one gets to know
them.'

And then Maia, who was of a philosophic turn of mind, made Nanni hurry
to take off her wraps and arrange her hair, that she might go down to
supper: 'for I'm dreadfully hungry,' she added, 'and it's very funny
downstairs, Nanni,' she went on. 'It's like something out of a book,
hundreds of years ago. I can quite understand now why father told us to
be so particular always to say "our lady cousin," and things like that.
Isn't it funny, Nanni?'

Nanni's spirits seemed to have improved.

'It is not like home, certainly, Miss Maia,' she replied. 'But I dare
say we shall get on pretty well. They seem very kind and friendly
downstairs in the kitchen, and there was a very nice supper getting
ready. And then, I'm never one to make the worst of things, whatever
that crabbed old Marc may say.'

Maia was already on her way to go. She only stopped a moment to glance
round the room. It was large, but somewhat scantily furnished. The walls
white, like the rest of the house, the floor polished like a
looking-glass. Maia's curtainless little bed in one corner looked
disproportionately small. The child gave a little shiver.

'It feels very cold in this big bare room,' she said. 'I hope you and
Rollo aren't far off.'

'I don't know for Master Rollo,' Nanni replied. 'But this is _my_ room,'
and she opened a door leading into a small chamber, neatly but plainly
arranged.

'Oh, that's very nice,' said Maia, approvingly. 'If Rollo's room is not
far off, we shall not feel at all lonely.'

Her doubts were soon set at rest, for, as she opened the door, Rollo
appeared coming out of a room just across the passage.

'Oh, that's your room,' said Maia. 'I didn't see where you went to. I
was talking to Mademoiselle Delphine. I'm so glad you're so near,
Rollo.'

'Yes,' said Rollo. 'These big bare rooms aren't like our rooms at home.
I should have felt rather lonely if I'd been quite at the other end of
the house.'

Then they took each other's hand and went slowly down the uncarpeted
white stone staircase.

'Rollo,' said Maia, nodding her head significantly as if in the
direction of the dining-hall, 'do you think we shall like her? Do you
think she's going to be kind?'

Rollo hesitated.

'I think she'll be kind. Father said she would. But I don't think she
cares about children, and we'll have to be very quiet, and all that.'

'The best thing will be going long walks in the woods,' said Maia.

'Yes, if she'll let us,' replied Rollo doubtfully.

'Well, I'll tell you how to do. We'll show her we're awfully good and
sensible, and then she won't be afraid to let us go about by ourselves.
Oh, Rollo, those lovely Christmas-tree woods! We can't feel dull if only
we may go about in the woods!'

'Well, then, let's try, as you say, to show how very good and sensible
we are,' said Rollo.

And with this wise resolution the two children went in to supper.



CHAPTER II.

IN THE FIR-WOODS.

    ...'Gloomy shades, sequestered deep,
    ....whence one could only see
    Stems thronging all around.'...

    KEATS.


Supper was a formal and stately affair. The children were placed one on
each side of their cousin, and helped to such dishes as she considered
suitable, without asking them what they liked. But they were not greedy
children, and even at their own home they had been accustomed to much
more strictness than is _nowadays_ the case, my dear children, for those
were still the days when little people were expected to be 'seen but not
heard,' to 'speak when they were spoken to,' but not otherwise. So Rollo
and Maia were not unduly depressed, especially as there was plenty of
amusement for their bright eyes in watching the queer, pompous manners
of Lady Venelda's attendants, and making notes to discuss together
afterwards on the strange and quaint china and silver which covered the
table, and even in marvelling at the food itself, which, though all
good, was much of it perfectly new to them.

Now and then their hostess addressed a few words to them about their
journey, their father's health when they had left him, and such things,
to which Rollo and Maia replied with great propriety. Lady Venelda
seemed pleased.

'They have been well brought up, I see. My cousin has not neglected
them,' she said in a low voice, as if speaking to herself, which was a
habit of hers. Rollo and Maia exchanged signals with each other at this,
which they had of course overheard, and each understood as well as if
the other had said it aloud, that the meaning of the signals was, 'That
is right. If we go on like this we shall soon get leave to ramble about
by ourselves.'

After supper Lady Venelda told the children to follow her into what she
chose to call her retiring-room. This was a rather pretty room at the
extreme end of the long white gallery, but unlike that part of the
castle which the children had already seen. The walls were not white,
but hung with tapestry, which gave it a much warmer and more
comfortable look. One did not even here, however, get rid of the poor
deer, for the tapestry all round the room represented a hunting-scene,
and it nearly made Maia cry, when she afterwards examined it by
daylight, to see the poor chased creatures, with the cruel dogs upon
them and the riders behind lashing their horses, and evidently shouting
to the hounds to urge them on. It was a curious subject to have chosen
for a lady's boudoir, but Lady Venelda's tastes were guided by but one
rule--the most profound respect and veneration for her ancestors, and as
they had seen fit thus to decorate the prettiest room in the castle, it
would never have occurred to her to alter it.

She seated herself on an antlered couch below one of the windows, which
by day commanded a beautiful view of the wonderful woods, but was now
hidden by rather worn curtains of a faded blue, the only light in the
room coming from a curiously-shaped oil lamp suspended from the ceiling,
which illumined but here and there parts of the tapestry, and was far
too dim to have made it possible to read or work. But it was not much
time that the lady of the castle passed in her bower, and seldom that
she found leisure to read, for she was a very busy and practical
person, managing her large possessions entirely for herself, and caring
but little for the amusements or occupations most ladies take pleasure
in. She beckoned to the children to come near her.

'You are tired, I dare say,' she said graciously. 'At your age I
remember the noble Count, my father, took me once a journey lasting two
or three days, and when I arrived at my destination I slept twelve hours
without awaking.'

'Oh, but we shall not need to sleep as long as that,' said Rollo and
Maia together. 'We shall be quite rested by to-morrow morning;' at which
the Lady Venelda smiled, evidently pleased, even though they had spoken
so quickly as _almost_ to interrupt her.

'That is well,' she said. 'Then I shall inform you of how I propose to
arrange your time, at once, though I had intended giving orders that you
should not be awakened till eight o'clock. At what hour do you rise at
home?'

'At seven, lady cousin,' said Rollo.

'That is not very early,' she replied. 'However, as it is but for a time
that you are confided to my care, I cannot regulate everything exactly
as I could wish.'

'We would like to get up earlier,' said Maia hastily. 'Perhaps not
_to-morrow_,' she added.

'I will first tell you my wishes,' said Lady Venelda loftily. 'At eight
o'clock prayers are read to the household in the chapel. You will
already have had some light refreshment. At nine you will have
instruction from Mademoiselle Delphine for one hour. At ten the chaplain
will take her place for two hours. At twelve you may walk in the grounds
round the house for half an hour. At one we dine. At two you shall have
another hour from Mademoiselle Delphine. From three to five you may walk
with your attendants. Supper is at eight; and during the evening you may
prepare your tasks for the next day.'

Rollo and Maia looked at each other. It was not so very bad; still it
sounded rather severe. Rollo took courage.

'If we get up earlier and do our tasks, may we stay out later
sometimes?' he inquired.

'Sometimes--if the weather is very fine and you have been very
industrious,' their cousin replied.

'And,' added Maia, emboldened by this success, 'may we sometimes ramble
alone all about the woods? We do so love the woods,' she continued,
clasping her hands.

Now, if Lady Venelda herself had a weakness, it was for these same
woods. They were to her a sort of shrine dedicated to the memory of her
race, for the pine forests of that country had been celebrated as far
back as there was any record of its existence. So, though she was rather
startled at Maia's proposal, she answered graciously still:

'They are indeed beautiful, my child. Beautiful and wonderful. There
have they stood in their solemn majesty for century after century,
seeing generation after generation of our race pass away while yet they
remain. They and I alone, my children. I, the last left of a long line!'

Her voice trembled, and one could almost have imagined that a tear
glittered in her blue eyes. Maia, and Rollo too, felt very sorry for
her.

'Dear cousin,' said the girl, timidly touching her hand, 'are we not a
little _little_, relations to you? Please don't say you are all alone.
It sounds so very sad. Do let Rollo and me be like your little boy and
girl.'

Lady Venelda smiled again, and this time her face really grew soft and
gentle.

'Poor children,' she said, in the peculiar low voice she always used
when speaking to herself, and apparently forgetting the presence of
others, 'poor children, they too have suffered. They have no mother!'
Then turning to Maia, who was still gently stroking her hand: 'I thank
you, my child, for your innocent sympathy,' she said, in her usual tone.
'I rejoice to have you here. You will cheer my solitude, and at the same
time learn no harm, I feel sure, from the associations of this ancient
house.'

Maia did not quite understand her, but as the tone sounded kind, she
ventured to repeat, as she kissed her cousin's hand for good-night, 'And
you will let us ramble about the woods if we are very good, won't you?
And _sometimes_ we may have a whole holiday, mayn't we?'

Lady Venelda smiled.

'All will depend on yourselves, my child,' she said.

But Rollo and Maia went upstairs to bed very well satisfied with the
look of things.

They _meant_ to wake very early, and tried to coax Nanni to promise to
go out with them in the morning before prayers, but Nanni was cautious,
and would make no rash engagements.

'_I_ am very tired, Miss Maia,' she said, 'and I am sure you must be if
you would let yourself think so. I hope you will have a good long
sleep.'

She was right. After all, the next morning Rollo and Maia had hardly
time to finish their coffee and rolls before the great bell in the
courtyard clanged for prayers, and they had to hurry to the chapel not
to be too late. Prayers over, they were taken in hand by Mademoiselle
Delphine, and then by the old chaplain, till, by twelve o'clock, when
they were sent out for a little fresh air before dinner, they felt more
sleepy and tired than the night before.

'I don't care to go to the woods now,' said Maia dolefully. 'I am so
tired--ever so much more tired than with lessons at home.'

'So am I,' said Rollo. 'I don't know what is the matter with me,' and he
seated himself disconsolately beside his sister on a bench overlooking
the stiff Dutch garden at one side of the castle.

'Come--how now, my children?' said a voice beside them; 'why are you not
running about, instead of sitting there like two old invalids?'

'We are so tired,' said both together, looking up at the new-comer, who
was none other than the short, stout old gentleman who had been
introduced to them as Lady Venelda's physician.

'Tired; ah, well, to be sure, you have had a long journey.'

'It is not only that. We weren't so tired this morning, but we've had
such a lot of lessons.' 'Mademoiselle Delphine's French is very hard,'
said Maia; 'and Mr.--I forget his name--the chaplain says the Latin
words quite differently from what I've learnt before,' added Rollo.

The old doctor looked at them both attentively.

'Come, come, my children, you must not lose heart. What would you say to
a long afternoon in the woods and no more lessons to-day, if I were to
ask the Lady Venelda to give you a holiday?'

The effect was instantaneous. Both children jumped up and clapped their
hands.

'Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr.--Doctor,' they said, for they had not
heard his name. 'Yes, that is just what we would like. It did not seem
any good to go to the woods for just an hour or two. And, oh, Mr.
Doctor, do ask our cousin to give us one holiday a week--we always have
that at home. It is so nice to wake up in the morning and know there are
_no_ lessons to do! And we should be so good all the other days.'

'Ah, well,' said the old doctor, 'we shall see.'

But he nodded his head, and smiled, and looked so like a good-natured
old owl, that Rollo and Maia felt very hopeful.

At dinner, where they took their places as usual at each side of their
cousin, nothing was said till the close. Then Lady Venelda turned
solemnly to the children:

'You have been attentive at your lessons, I am glad to hear,' she said;
'but you are doubtless still somewhat tired with your journey. My kind
physician thinks some hours of fresh air would do you good. I therefore
shall be pleased for you to spend all the afternoon in the woods--there
will be no more lessons to-day.'

'Oh, thank you, thank you,' repeated the children, and Maia glanced at
her cousin with some thought of throwing her arms round her and kissing
her, but Lady Venelda looked so very stiff and stately that she felt her
courage ebb.

'It is better only to kiss her when we are alone with her,' she said
afterwards to Rollo, in which he agreed.

But they forgot everything except high spirits and delight when, half an
hour later, they found themselves with Nanni on their way to the
longed-for woods.

'Which way shall we go?' said Maia; and indeed it was a question for
consideration. For it was not on one side only that there were woods,
but on every side, far as the eye could reach, stretched out the
wonderful forests. The white castle stood on raised ground, but in the
centre of a circular valley, so that to reach the outside world one had
first to descend and then rise again; so the entrance to the woods was
sloping, for the castle hill was bare of trees, which began only at its
base.

'Which way?' repeated Rollo; 'I don't see that it matters. We get into
the woods every way.'

'Except over there,' said Maia, pointing to the road by which they had
come, gleaming like a white ribbon among the trees, which had been
thinned a little in that direction.

'Well, we don't want to go there,' said Rollo, but before he had time to
say more Maia interrupted him.

'Oh, Rollo, let's go the way that we saw the little cottage. No, I don't
mean that we saw the cottage, but we saw the smoke rising, and we were
sure there was a cottage. It was--let me see----' and she tried to put
herself in the right direction; 'yes, it was on my left hand--it must be
on that side,' and she pointed where she meant.

Rollo did not seem to care particularly about the real or imaginary
cottage, but as to him all roads were the same in this case, seeing all
led to the woods, he made no objection, and a few minutes saw the little
party, already in the shade of the forest, slowly making their way
upwards. It was milder than the day before; indeed, for early spring it
was very mild. The soft afternoon sunshine came peeping through the
branches, the ground was beautifully dry, and their steps made a
pleasant crackling sound, as their feet broke the innumerable little
twigs which, interspersed with moss and the remains of last year's
leaves, made a nice carpet to walk on.

'Let us stand still a moment,' said Maia, 'and look about us. How
delicious it is! _What_ flowers there will be in a little while!
Primroses, I am sure, and violets, and later on periwinkle and cyclamen,
I dare say.'

A sigh from Nanni interrupted her.

'What is the matter?' said the children.

'I am so tired, Miss Maia,' said poor Nanni. 'I haven't got over the
journey, and I was so afraid of being late this morning that I got up I
don't know how early--they told me in the kitchen that their lady was so
angry if any one was late. I think if I were to sit down on this nice
mossy ground I should really go to sleep.'

'_Poor_ Nanni!' said Maia, laughing. 'Well, do sit down, only I think
you'd better not go to sleep; you might catch cold.'

'It's beautifully warm here among the trees, somehow,' said Nanni.
'Well, then, shall I just stay here and you and Master Rollo play about?
You won't go far?'

'You _would_ get a nice scolding if we were lost,' said Rollo
mischievously.

'Don't tease her, Rollo,' said Maia; adding in a lower tone, 'If you do,
she'll persist in coming with us, and it will be such fun to run about
by ourselves.' Then turning to Nanni, 'Don't be afraid of us, Nanni; we
shan't get lost. You may go to sleep for an hour or two if you like.'

The two children set off together in great glee. Here and there among
the trees there were paths, or what looked like paths, some going
upwards till quite lost to view, some downwards,--all in the most
tempting zigzag fashion.

'I should like to explore all the paths one after the other, wouldn't
you?' said Maia.

'I expect they all lead to nowhere in particular,' said Rollo,
philosophically.

'But we want to go somewhere in particular,' said Maia; 'I want to find
the cottage, you know. I am sure it must be _somewhere_ about here.'

'Upwards or downwards--which do you think?' said Rollo. 'I say, Maia,
suppose you go downwards and I upwards, and then we can meet again here
and say if we've found the cottage or had any adventures, like the
brothers in the fairy tales.'

'No,' said Maia, drawing nearer Rollo as she spoke; 'I don't want to go
about alone. You know, though the woods are so nice they're _rather_
lonely, and there are such queer stories about forests always. There
must be queer people living in them, though we don't see them. Gnomes
and brownies down below, very likely, and wood-spirits, perhaps. But I
think about the gnomes is the most frightening, don't you, Rollo?'

'I don't think any of it's frightening,' he replied. But he was a kind
boy, so he did not laugh at Maia, or say any more about separating.
'Which way shall we go, then?'

'Oh, we'd better go on upwards. There can't be much forest downwards,
for we've come nearly straight up. We'd get out of the wood directly.'

They went on climbing therefore for some way, but the ascent became
quickly slighter, and in a short time they found themselves almost on
level ground.

'We can't have got to the top,' said Rollo. 'This must be a sort of
ledge on the hillside. However, I begin to sympathise with Nanni--it's
nice to get a rest,' and he threw himself down at full length as he
spoke. Maia quickly followed his example.

'We shan't do much exploring at this rate,' she said.

'No,' Rollo agreed; 'but never mind. Isn't it nice here, Maia? Just like
what father told us, isn't it? The scent of the fir-trees is so
delicious too.'

It was charmingly sweet and peaceful, and the feeling of mystery caused
by the dark shade of the lofty trees, standing there in countless rows
as they had stood for centuries, the silence only broken by the
occasional dropping of a twig or the flutter of a leaf, impressed the
children in a way they could not have put in words. It was a sort of
relief when a slight rustle in the branches overhead caught their
attention, and looking up, their quick eyes saw the bright brown, bushy
tail of a squirrel whisking out of sight.

Up jumped Maia, clapping her hands.

'A squirrel, Rollo, did you see?'

'Of course I did, but you shouldn't make such a noise. We might have
seen him again if we'd been quite quiet. I wonder where his home is.'

'So do I. _How_ I should like to see a squirrel's nest and all the
little ones sitting in a row, each with a nut in its two front paws!
_How_ nice it would be to have the gift of understanding all the animals
say to each other, wouldn't it?'

'Yes,' said Rollo, but he stopped suddenly. 'Maia,' he exclaimed, 'I
believe I smell burning wood!' and he stood still and sniffed the air a
little. 'I shouldn't wonder if we're near the cottage.'

'Oh, do come on, then,' said Maia eagerly. 'Yes--yes; I smell it too. I
hope the cottage isn't on fire, Rollo. Oh, no; see, it must be a
bonfire,' for, as she spoke, a smouldering heap of leaves and dry
branches came in sight some little way along the path, and in another
moment, a few yards farther on, a cottage actually appeared.

Such an original-looking cottage! The trees had been cleared for some
distance round where it stood, and a space enclosed by a rustic fence of
interlaced branches had been planted as a garden. A very pretty little
garden too. There were flower-beds in front, already gay with a few
early blossoms, and neat rows of vegetables and fruit-bushes at the
back. The cottage was built of wood, but looked warm and dry, with deep
roof and rather small high-up windows. A little path, bordered primly by
a thick growing mossy-like plant, led up to the door, which was closed.
No smoke came out of the chimney, not the slightest sound was to be
heard. The children looked at each other.

'What a darling little house!' said Maia in a whisper. 'But, Rollo, do
you think there's anybody there? Can it be _enchanted_, perhaps?'

Rollo went on a few steps and stood looking at the mysterious cottage.
There was not a sound to be heard, not the slightest sign of life about
the place; and yet it was all in such perfect order that it was
impossible to think it deserted.

'The people must have gone out, I suppose,' said Rollo.

'I wonder if the door is locked,' said Maia. 'I am _so_ thirsty, Rollo.'

'Let's see,' Rollo answered, and together the two children opened the
tiny gate and made their way up to the door. Rollo took hold of the
latch; it yielded to his touch.

'It's not locked,' he said, looking back at his sister, and he gently
pushed the door a little way open. 'Shall I go in?' he said.

Maia came forward, walking on her tiptoes.

'Oh, Rollo,' she whispered, '_suppose_ it's enchanted, and that we never
get out again.'

But all the same she crept nearer and nearer to the tempting half-open
door.



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--no
voice demanded what they wanted; they gathered courage, till at last the
door stood sufficiently ajar for them to see inside. It was a neat,
plain, exceedingly clean, little kitchen which stood revealed to their
view. Rollo and Maia, with another glance around them, another instant's
hesitation, stepped in.

The floor was only sanded, the furniture was of plain unvarnished deal,
yet there was something indescribably dainty and attractive about the
room. There was no fire burning in the hearth, but all was ready laid
for lighting it, and on the table, covered with a perfectly clean,
though coarse cloth, plates and cups for a meal were set out. It seemed
to be for three people. A loaf of brownish bread, and a jug filled with
milk, were the only provisions to be seen. Maia stepped forward softly
and 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 so
neat.' But just then, catching sight of the three chairs drawn round the
table, as well as of the three cups and three plates upon it, she drew
back with a little scream. '_Rollo_,' she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling,
half with fear, half with excitement, 'I do believe we've got into the
cottage of _the three bears_.'

[Illustration: '_Rollo_,' she exclaimed, her eyes sparkling, half with
fear, 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 quite
sure if his sister was in fun or earnest.

'Nonsense, Maia!' he said. 'Why, that was hundreds of years ago. You
don'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 one
arm-chair here. Two small cups and one big one. It's just the wrong way
for the bears. It must be two children and one big person that live
here.'

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 and
pay for it another day when they're at home. If we had any money we
might leave it here on the table, to show we're honest. But we haven't
any.'

'No,' said Maia, as she poured out some milk, taking care not to spill
any 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 little
kitchen out of this--for washing dishes in--a sort of scullery,' for he
had opened another door as he spoke.

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

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

'Really, Rollo,' said Maia, 'this house might have been built by the
fairies 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-chair
and the big cup downstairs are for.'

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

'We'll come back again, the very first day we can,' said Maia, 'and tell
the people about having taken the milk,' and then they left the cottage,
carefully closing the door and gate behind them, and made their way back
to where they had left Nanni. It took them longer than they had
expected--either they mistook their way, or had wandered farther than
they 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 a
peaceful slumber.

'Poor thing!' said Maia. 'She must be very tired. I never knew her so
sleepy before. Wake up, Nanni, wake up,' she went on, touching the maid
gently on the shoulder. Up jumped Nanni, rubbing her eyes, but looking
nevertheless 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 something
in 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 light
green,--for all the world like the fir-trees in spring, and with long
light hair. She stooped over me and smiled, as if she was going to say
something, but just then I awoke and saw Miss Maia.'

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

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

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

'Nonsense, Nanni,' said Rollo; 'witches don't have cottages like
that,--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 the
best of their way home.

'It would not do to be late to-day--the first time they have let us come
out by ourselves,' said Maia sagely. 'If we are back in very good time
perhaps 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 her
ladies.

'That is right,' said Lady Venelda graciously.

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

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

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

'No,' said Rollo, 'we did not go near any village. It was a cottage
quite 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 my
own 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 Venelda
freezingly, and poor Maia dared say no more. She was very thankful when
the old doctor came to the rescue.

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

Rollo and Maia looked at each other. 'That's true,' the look seemed to
say, for the old doctor's words made them think of Nanni's beautiful
dream. 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_ of
exactly the same things at exactly the same moment, as if they were
reading a story-book,' with which Rollo of course agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'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 to
them in the kitchen about where you were, and, oh, but it must be an
uncanny place! No one knows who lives there, though 'tis said about 'tis
a witch. And the queer thing is, that 'tis but very few that have ever
seen 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. Lady
Venelda's own maid is one of those who was determined to find it, but
she never could. And my Lady herself was so put out about it that she
set off to look for it one day,--for no one has a right to live in the
woods just hereabout without her leave,--and she meant to turn the
people, whoever they were, about their business. But 'twas all for no
use. She sought far and wide; ne'er a cottage could she find, and she
wandered about the woods near a whole day for no use. Since then she is
that touchy about it that, if any one dares but to mention a cottage
hereabouts, save those in the village, it quite upsets her.'

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

'So I do beg you never to speak about the cottage to my Lady,' Nanni
wound 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 perhaps
into blue birds or green frogs, or something dreadful? Whatever _would_
your dear papa say to me? Oh, Miss Maia, do tell Master Rollo never to
go there again.'

'Don't be afraid,' said Maia; 'we'll take care of ourselves. I can quite
promise you we won't be turned into frogs or birds. But don't talk any
more about it to-night, Nanni. I'm _so_ sleepy, and I don't want to
dream 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 they
felt it would not be right not to explain about the milk, and they had
besides a motive, which Nanni's strange story had no way lessened--that
of great curiosity.

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

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

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

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

She started, for just as she said the words a voice behind them was
heard 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 between
their lessons, and they were so engrossed by what they were talking of
that they had not heard nor seen the old doctor approaching them. It was
his voice that made Maia start. Both children looked rather frightened
when they saw who it was, and that he had overheard what they were
saying.

'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 it
was 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 be
afraid to tell me about it, fancy or no fancy. Fancy isn't a bad thing
sometimes.'

'But it _wasn't_ fancy,' said both together; 'only we don't like to talk
about it for fear of vexing our cousin, and we don't like to go back
there 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 that
Nanni had heard in the servants' hall. The old doctor listened
attentively. His face looked quite pleased and good-humoured, and yet
they saw he was not at all inclined to laugh at them. When they had
finished, to the children's surprise he said nothing, but drew out a
letter from his pocket.

'Do you know this writing?' he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Give us your advice now, Mr. Doctor. May we go back to the cottage
without 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 the
cottage to Lady Venelda. She cannot understand it because she cannot
find it. If you can find it you will learn no harm there, and your
father 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 would
not be good for you to go _too_ often. Work cheerfully and well when you
are at work, my children. I will see that you have your play.'



CHAPTER IV.

FAIRY HOUSEKEEPING.

    '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 no
talk of another expedition to the woods. And they had a good many
lessons to do, so that short walks in the grounds close round the castle
were 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 forgetting
them, and to encourage them to patience.

There was one person who certainly did not regret the children's not
returning to the woods, and that person was Nanni. What she had heard
from the servants about the mysterious cottage had thoroughly
frightened her; she felt sure that if they went there again something
dreadful would happen to them, and yet she was so devoted to them that,
however terrified, she would never have thought of not following them
wherever they chose to go. But, as day after day went by, and no more
was said about it, she began to breathe freely. Her distress was
therefore the greater when, one afternoon just six days after the last
ramble, Rollo and Maia rushed upstairs after their lessons in the
wildest spirits.

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

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

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

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

'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, joke
about such things. And oh, I entreat you, don't go looking for that
witch's cottage. Unless you promise me you won't, I shall have to go and
tell my Lady, however angry she is!'

'No such thing, my good girl,' said a voice at the door. 'You needn't
trouble your head about such nonsense. Rollo and Maia will go nowhere
where they can get any harm. I know everything about the woods better
than you or those silly servants downstairs. Lady Venelda would only
tell you not to interfere with what didn't concern you if you went
saying anything to her. Go off to the woods with your little master and
mistress without misgiving, my good girl, and if the air makes you
sleepy don't be afraid to take a nap. No harm will come to you or the
children.'

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

'Of course if the learned doctor approves I have nothing to say,' she
said submissively; though she could not help adding, 'and I only hope no
harm will come of it.'

Rollo and Maia flew to the doctor.

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

The doctor turned to Nanni again.

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

'Very well, sir,' replied Nanni, meekly enough, though she still looked
rather 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 the
greatest spirits, which even Nanni, laden with a basket of provisions
for their dinner, could not altogether resist. And before they went,
Lady Venelda called them into her boudoir, and kissing them, wished them
a happy holiday.

'It's all that nice old doctor,' said Maia. 'You see, Rollo, she hasn't
told 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 turning
people 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, looking
intensely 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 think
there's something queer. It must be true that some people can't find
it.'

'Naughty people?' asked Maia apprehensively. 'For you know, Rollo, we're
not always _quite_ good.'

'No, I don't mean naughty people. I mean more people who don't care
about fairies and wood-spirits, and things like that--people who call
all that nonsense and rubbish.'

'I see,' said Maia; 'perhaps you're right, Rollo. Well, any way, that
won't stop _us_ finding it, for we certainly do care _dreadfully_ about
fairy things, don't we, Rollo? But what about Nanni?' she went on, for
Nanni 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 a
nap again, as the old doctor said. Any way, she can't interfere with us
after _his_ giving us leave to go wherever we liked.'

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

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

'How pretty the fir-trees look!' said Maia. 'They don't seem the least
dim or gloomy in the sunshine, even though it only gets to them in
little bits. See there, Rollo,' she exclaimed, pointing to one which got
more 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 nice
Christmas-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 spread
our 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 so
sleepy--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 to
unfasten the basket, of which the contents proved very good indeed.

'What fun it is, isn't it?' said Maia, when they had eaten nearly as
much cold chicken and bread, and cakes and fruit as they wanted. 'What
fun 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, and
only speak when we're spoken to, and all that--how nice it would be if
we could have our dinner in the woods every day!'

'We'd get tired of it after a while, I expect,' said Rollo. 'It wouldn't
be nice in cold weather, or if it rained.'

'_I_ wouldn't mind,' said Maia. 'I'd build a warm little hut and cover
it 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 another
flight--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 pack
up the basket again, can't you?'

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

'We won't get turned into green frogs, if that's what you're thinking
of, 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 so
sleepy, why shouldn't you take a nap as you did the other day? Perhaps
you'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 may
as well stay here, for I know you like better to wander about by
yourselves. 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 half
stocking and ball of worsted with great satisfaction.

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

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

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

Maia grew rather pale. Now that they were actually on the spot, she
began to feel afraid, though of what she scarcely knew. Nanni's queer
hints 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, I
mean--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've
done the best thing we could in coming back to pay for it. You've got
the 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 and
a figure came forward. It was no 'old witch,' no ogre or goblin, but a
young girl--a little older than Maia she seemed--who stood there with a
sweet, though rather grave expression on her face and in her soft dark
eyes, as she said gently, 'Welcome--we have been expecting you.'

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

She had stepped forward a step or two before her brother, and now stood
looking up in the girl's face with wonder in her bright blue eyes, while
she tossed back the long fair curls that fell round her head. Boys are
not very observant, but Rollo could not help noticing the pretty picture
the two made. The peasant maiden with her dark plaits and brown
complexion, dressed in a short red skirt, and little loose white bodice
fastened round the waist with a leather belt, and Maia with a rather
primly-cut frock and frilled tippet of flowered chintz, such as children
then 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 things
that are to come. Waldo heard you had arrived at the white castle, and
my 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 be
able 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 face
made him hesitate.

'Not to pay for it,' she said quickly, though smiling again, as if she
read his words in his face; 'don't say that. We were so glad it was
there for you. Besides, it is not ours--Waldo and I would have nothing
but for our godmother. But come in--come in--Waldo is only gone to fetch
some brushwood, and our godmother, too, will be here soon.'

Too surprised to ask questions--indeed, there seemed so many to ask that
they would not have known where to begin--Rollo and Maia followed the
girl into the little kitchen. It looked just as neat and dainty as the
other day--and brighter too, for a charming little fire was burning in
the grate, and a pleasant smell of freshly-roasted coffee was faintly
perceived. The table was set out as before, but with the addition of a
plate 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 the
children had seen before. This was too much for Maia to behold in
silence. She stopped short, and stared in still greater amazement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Thank you,' said Rollo and Maia, after a moment's hesitation. They did
not know what else to say. Silva glanced at them. She seemed to have a
curious power of reading in their faces the thoughts that were passing
in 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 for
long. We know we are not the same as you--in the world, I mean, we could
not be as we are here with you, but this is not the world,' and here
she smiled again--the strange, bright, and yet somehow rather sad smile
which 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 four
children together, and when you see her you will feel that what she says
is always best.'

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

And thus the friendship was begun.

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

'There are so many things I want to ask you,' she began. 'May I? Do you
and Waldo live here alone, and have you always lived here? And does your
godmother live here, for the other day when we went all over the cottage
we only saw two little beds, and two little of everything, except the
big 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 not
answer all those questions at once if she wanted; and perhaps she
doesn'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 help
wondering.'

'We don't mind your asking anything you like,' Silva replied. 'But I
don't think I _can_ tell you all you want to know. You'll get to see for
yourself. 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 Rollo
apprehensively. Would not he think speaking of witches still ruder than
asking questions? But Silva did not seem to mind.

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

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

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

'She doesn't like us to wait for her,' said Silva. 'We always put her
place ready, for sometimes she comes and sometimes she doesn't--we never
know. But she says it is best just to go on regularly, and then we need
not lose any time.'

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

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

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

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

'And do you always do things that way?' exclaimed Maia, very much
impressed. '_I_ don't; I'm very often dreadfully untidy, and sometimes
my exercise-books are full of blots and mistakes. I wish I had had your
godmother 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 thought
we were it would show we weren't.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was old--of that there was no doubt, at least so it seemed at the
first glance. Her hair was perfectly white, her face was very pale. But
her eyes were the most wonderful thing about her. Maia could not tell
what 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 were
very bright and beautiful, very soft and sweet too, though not the sort
of eyes--Maia said afterwards to Rollo--'that I would like to look at me
if I had been naughty.' Godmother was not tall; when she first came into
the little kitchen she seemed to stoop a little, and did not look much
bigger 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,' thought
Maia, 'except that her face and hair are so white, they would gleam out
like snow.'



CHAPTER V.

THE STORY OF A KING'S DAUGHTER.

    'Gentle and sweet is she;
    As the heart of a rose is her heart,
    As soft and as fair and as sweet.'

    _Liliput Lectures._


Godmother turned to the little strangers. The two pairs of blue eyes
were still fixed upon her. _Her_ eyes looked very kind and gentle, and
yet very 'seeing', as she caught their gaze.

'I believe,' thought Maia, 'that she can tell all we are thinking;' and
Rollo had something of the same idea, yet neither of them felt the least
afraid of her.

'Rollo and Maia, dear children, too,' she said, 'we are so pleased to
see you.'

'And we are very pleased to be here,' said they; 'but----' and then they
hesitated.

'You are puzzled how it is I know your names, and all about you, are
you not?' she said, smiling. 'I puzzle most children at first; but isn't
it rather nice to be puzzled?'

This was a new idea. Thinking it over, they began to find there was
something in it.

'I think it _is_,' both replied, smiling a little.

'If you knew all about everything, and could see through everything,
there wouldn't be much interest left. Nothing to find out or to fancy.
Oh, what a dull world!'

'Are we to find out or to fancy _you_?' asked Maia. She spoke seriously,
but there was a little look of fun in her eyes which was at once
reflected in godmother's.

'Whichever you like,' she replied; 'but, first of all, you are to kiss
me.'

Rollo and Maia both kissed the soft white face. It was _so_ soft, and
there seemed a sort of fresh, sweet scent about godmother, as if she had
been in a room all filled with violets, only it was even nicer. She
smiled, and from a little basket on her arm, which they had not noticed,
she drew out several tiny bunches of spring flowers, tied with green and
white ribbon--so pretty; oh, so very pretty!

'So you scented my flowers,' she said. 'No wonder; you have never
scented any quite like them before. They come from the other country.
Here, dears, catch,' and she tossed them up in the air, all four
children jumping and darting about to see who would get most. But at the
end, when they counted their treasures, it was quite right, each had got
three.

'Oh, how sweet!' cried Maia. 'May we take them home with us, godmother?'
It seemed to come quite naturally to call her that, and Maia did it
without thinking.

'Certainly,' godmother replied; 'but remember this, don't throw them
away when they seem withered. They will not be really withered; that is
to say, long afterwards, by putting them in the sunshine, they
will--some of them, any way--come out quite fresh again. And even when
dried up they will have a delicious scent; indeed, the scent has an
added charm about it the older they are--so many think, and I agree with
them.'

Rollo and Maia looked at their flowers with a sort of awe.

'Then they are _fairy_ flowers?' they half whispered. 'You said they
came from the other country. Do you come from there too, godmother? Are
you a fairy?'

Godmother smiled.

'Fancy me one if you like,' she said. 'Fancy me whatever you like best,
you will not be far wrong; but fairyland is only one little part of that
other country. You will find that out as you get older.'

'Shall we go there some day, then?' exclaimed Maia. 'Will you take us,
dear godmother? Have Waldo and Silva ever been?'

'Oh, what a lot of questions all at once!' cried godmother. 'I can't
answer so many. You must be content to find out some things for
yourself, my little girl. The way to the other country for one. Shall
you go there some day? Yes, indeed, many and many a time, I hope.'

Maia clapped her hands with delight.

'Oh, how nice!' she said. 'And when? May we go to-day? Oh, Silva, do ask
godmother to let us go to-day,' she exclaimed, catching hold of Silva in
her eagerness. But Silva only smiled, and looked at godmother; and
somehow, when they smiled, the two faces--the young one with its bright
rich colour, and the old one, white, so white, except for the wonderful,
beautiful eyes, that it might have been made of snow--looked strangely
alike.

'Silva has learned to be patient,' said godmother, 'and so she gets to
know more and more of the other country. You must follow her example,
little Maia. Don't be discouraged. How do you know that you are not
already on the way there? What do you think about it, my boy?' she went
on, turning to Rollo, who was standing a little behind them listening,
but saying nothing.

Rollo looked up and smiled.

'I'd like to find the way myself,' he replied.

'That's right,' said godmother. And Maia felt more and more puzzled, as
it seemed to her that Rollo understood the meaning of godmother's words
better than she did.

'Rollo,' she exclaimed, half reproachfully.

Rollo turned to her with some surprise.

'You understand and I don't,' she said, with a little pout on her pretty
lips.

'No,' said Rollo, 'I don't. But I like to think of understanding some
day.'

'That is right,' said godmother again. 'But this is dull talk for you,
little people. What is it to be to-day, Silva? What is old godmother to
do for you?'

Silva glanced out of the window.

'The day will soon be closing into evening,' she said,' and Rollo and
Maia cannot stay after sunset. We have not very long, godmother--no
time to go anywhere.'

'Ah, I don't know about that,' godmother replied. 'But still--the first
visit. What would you like, then, my child?'

'Let us gather round the fire, for it is a little chilly,' said Silva,
'and you, dear godmother, will tell us a story.'

Maia's eyes and Rollo's, too, brightened at this. Godmother had no need
to ask if they would like it. She drew the large chair nearer the
fireplace, and the four children clustered round her in silence waiting
for her to begin.

'It is too warm with my cloak on,' she said, and she raised her hand to
unfasten it at the neck and loosen it a little. It did not entirely fall
off; the dark green hood still made a shade round her silvery hair and
delicate face, but the cloak dropped away enough for Maia's sharp eyes
to see that the dress underneath was of lovely crimson stuff, neither
velvet nor satin, but richer and softer than either. It glimmered in the
light of the fire with a sort of changing brilliance that was very
tempting, and it almost seemed to Maia that she caught the sparkle of
diamonds and other precious stones.

'May I stroke your pretty dress, godmother?' she said softly. Godmother
started; she did not seem to have noticed how much of the crimson was
seen, and for a moment Maia felt a little afraid. But then godmother
smiled again, and the child felt quite happy, and slipped her hand
inside the folds of the cloak till it reached the soft stuff beneath.

'Stroke it the right way,' said godmother.

'Oh, _how_ soft!' said Maia in delight. 'What _is_ it made of? It isn't
velvet, or even plush. Godmother,' she went on, puckering her forehead
again in perplexity, 'it almost feels like _feathers_. Are you perhaps a
_bird_ as well as a fairy?'

At this godmother laughed. You never heard anything so pretty as her
laugh. It was something like--no, I could never tell you what it was
like--a very little like lots of tiny silver bells ringing, and soft
breezes blowing, and larks trilling, all together and _very_ gently, and
yet very clearly. The children could not help all laughing, too, to hear
it.

'Call me whatever you like,' said godmother. 'A bird, or a fairy, or a
will-o'-the-wisp, or even a witch. Many people have called me a witch,
and I don't mind. Only, dears,' and here her pretty, sweet voice grew
grave, and even a little sad, 'never think of me except as loving you
and wanting to make you happy and good. And never believe I have said or
done anything to turn you from doing right and helping others to do it.
That is the only thing that could grieve me. And the world is full of
people who don't see things the right way, and blame others when it is
their own fault all the while. So sometimes you will find it all rather
difficult. But don't forget.'

'No,' said Maia, 'we won't forget, even though we don't quite
understand. We will some day, won't we?'

'Yes, dears, that you will,' said godmother.

'And just now,' said Silva, 'it doesn't matter. We needn't think about
the difficult world, dear godmother, while we're _here_--ever so far
away from it.'

'No, we need not,' said godmother, with what sounded almost like a sigh,
if one could have believed that godmother _could_ sigh! If it were one,
it was gone in an instant, and with her very prettiest and happiest
smile, godmother turned to the children.

'And now, dears,' she said, 'now for the story.'

The four figures drew still nearer, the four pair of eyes were fixed on
the sweet white face, into which, as she spoke, a little soft pink
colour began to come. Whether it was from the reflection of the fire or
not, Maia could not decide, and godmother's clear voice went on.

'Once----'

'Once upon a time; do say "once upon a time,"' interrupted Silva.

'Well, well, once upon a time,' repeated godmother, 'though, by the by,
how do you know I was _not_ going to say it? Well, then, once upon a
time, a long ago once upon a time, there lived a king's daughter.'

'A princess,' interrupted another voice, Maia's this time. 'Why don't
you say a princess, dear godmother?'

'Never mind,' replied godmother. 'I like better to call her a king's
daughter.'

'And don't interrupt any more, please,' said Waldo and Rollo together,
quite forgetting that they were actually interrupting themselves.

'And,' continued godmother, without noticing this last interruption,
'she was very beautiful and very sweet and good, even though she had
everything in the world that even a king's daughter could want. Do you
look surprised at my saying "even though," children? You need not; there
is nothing more difficult than to remain unselfish, which is just
another word for "sweet and good," if one never knows what it is to have
a wish ungratified. But so it was with Auréole, for that was the name of
the fair maiden. Though she had all her life been surrounded with luxury
and indulgence, though she had never known even a crumpled rose-leaf in
her path, her heart still remained tender, and she felt for the
sufferings of others whenever she knew of them, as if they were her own.

'"Who knows?" she would say softly to herself, "who knows but what some
day sorrow may come to me, and then how glad I should be to find
kindness and sympathy!"

'And when she thought thus there used to come a look in her eyes which
made her old nurse, who loved her dearly, tremble and cross herself.

'"I have never seen that look," she would whisper, though not so that
Auréole could hear it--"I have never seen that look save in the eyes of
those who were born to sorrow."

'But time went on, and no sorrows of her own had as yet come to Auréole.
She grew to be tall and slender, with golden fair curls about her face,
which gave her a childlike, innocent look, as if she were younger than
her real age. And with her years her tenderness and sympathy for
suffering seemed to grow deeper and stronger. It was the sure way to her
heart. In a glade not far from the castle she had a favourite bower,
where early every morning she used to go to feed and tend her pets, of
which the best-loved was a delicate little fawn that she had found one
day in the forest, deserted by its companions, as it had hurt its foot
and could no longer keep pace with them. With difficulty Auréole and her
nurse carried it home between them, and tended it till it grew well
again and could once more run and spring as lightly as ever. And then
one morning Auréole, with tears in her eyes, led it back to the forest
where she had found it.

'"Here, my fawn," she said, "you are free as air. I would not keep you a
captive. Hasten to your friends, my fawn, but do not forget Auréole, and
if you are in trouble come to her to help you."

'But the fawn would not move. He rubbed himself softly against her, and
looked up in her face with eyes that almost spoke. She could not but
understand what he meant to say.

'"I cannot leave you. Let me stay always beside you," was what he tried
to express. So Auréole let him follow her home again, and from that
day he had always lived in her bower, and was never so happy as when
gambolling about her. She had other pets too--numbers of birds of
various kinds, none of which she kept in cages, for all of them she had
in some way or other saved and protected, and, like the fawn, they
refused to leave her. The sweetest, perhaps, were a pair of wood-pigeons
which she had one day released from a fowler's snare, where they had
become entangled. It was the prettiest sight in the world to see Auréole
in her bower every morning, the fawn rubbing his soft head against her
white dress, and the wood-pigeons cooing to her, one perched on each
shoulder, while round her head fluttered a crowd of birds of different
kinds--all owing their life and happiness to her tender care. There was
a thrush, which she had found half-fledged and gasping for breath,
fallen from the nest; a maimed swallow, who had been left behind by his
companions in the winter flight. And running about, though still lame of
one leg, a tame rabbit which she had rescued from a dog, and ever so
many other innocent creatures, all with histories of the same kind, and
each vying with the other to express gratitude to their dear mistress as
she stood there with the sunshine peeping through the boughs and
lighting up her sweet face and bright hair.

[Illustration: 'It was the prettiest sight in the world to see Auréole
in her bower every morning.']

'But summer and sunshine do not always last, and in time sorrow came to
Auréole as to others.

'Her mother had died when she was a little baby, and her father was
already growing old. But he felt no anxiety about the future of his only
child, for it had long been decided that she was to marry the next heir
to his crown, the Prince Halbert, as by the laws of that country no
woman could reign. Auréole had not seen Halbert for many years, when, as
children, they had played together; but she remembered him with
affection as a bright merry boy, and she looked forward without fear to
being his wife.

'"Why should I not love him?" she said to herself. "I have never yet
known any one who was not kind and gentle, and Halbert will be still
more so to me than any one else, for he will be my king and master."

'And when the day came for the Prince to return to see her again, she
waited for him quietly and without misgiving. And at first all seemed as
she had pictured it. Halbert was manly and handsome, he had an open
expression and winning manners, he was devoted to his gentle cousin. So
the old King was delighted, and Auréole said to herself, "What have I
done to deserve such happiness? How can I ever sufficiently show my
gratitude?"

'She was standing in her bower when she thought thus, surrounded as
usual by her pets. Suddenly among the trees at some little distance she
heard a sound of footsteps, and at the same time a harsh voice, which
she scarcely recognised, speaking roughly and sharply.

'"Out of my way, you cur," it said, and then came the sound of a blow,
followed by a piteous whine.

'Auréole darted forward, and in another instant came upon Halbert, his
face dark and frowning, while a poor little dog lay bleeding at his
feet.

'"Halbert!" exclaimed Auréole. Her cousin started; he had not heard her
come. "Did _you_ do this? Did _you_ strike the little dog?"

'Halbert turned towards her; he had reddened with shame, but he tried to
laugh it off.

'"It is nothing," he said; "the creature will be all right again
directly. Horrid little cur! it rushed out at me from that cottage there
and yelped and barked just when I was eagerly hastening to your bower,
Princess."

'But Auréole hardly heard him, or his attempts at excusing himself. She
was on her knees before the poor dog.

'"Why, Fido," she said, "dear little Fido, do you not know me?" Fido
feebly tried to wag his tail.

'"Is it _your_ dog?" stammered Halbert. "I had no--not the slightest
idea----"

'But Auréole flashed back an answer which startled him. "_My_ dog," she
said. "No. But what has that to do with it? Oh, you cruel man!"

'Then she turned from him, the little dog all panting and bleeding in
her arms. Halbert was startled by the look on her face.

'"Forgive me, Auréole," he cried. "I did not mean to hurt the creature.
I am hasty and quick-tempered, but you should not punish so severely an
instant's thoughtlessness."

'"It was not thoughtlessness. It was cowardly cruelty," replied Auréole
slowly, turning her pale face towards him. "A man must have a cruel
nature who, even under irritation, could do what you have done.
Farewell," and she was moving away when he stopped her.

'"What do you mean by farewell? You are not in earnest?" he exclaimed.
But Auréole looked at him with indignation.

'"Not in earnest?" she repeated. "Never was I more so in my life!
Farewell, Halbert."

'"And you will not see me again?" he exclaimed.

'"I will never see you again," Auréole replied, "till you have learnt to
feel for the sufferings of your fellow-creatures, instead of adding to
them. And who can say if that day will ever come? Farewell again,
Halbert."

'The Prince stood thunderstruck, watching her slight figure as it
disappeared among the trees. He felt like a man in a dream. Then, as he
gradually became conscious that it was all true, his hot temper broke
out in anger at Auréole, in mockery at her absurdity and exaggeration,
and he tried to believe what he said, that no man could be happy with so
fanciful and unreasonable a wife, and that he had nothing to regret. In
his heart he was angry with himself, though to this he would not own,
and conscious also that Auréole's instinct had judged him truly. He was
selfish and utterly thoughtless for others, and far on the way therefore
to becoming actually cruel. He had, like Auréole, been surrounded by
luxury and indulgence all his life, but had not, like her, acquired the
habit of feeling for others and looking upon his own blessings as to be
shared with those who were without them.

'Auréole kept to her word. She would not see Halbert again, though the
King, her father, did his utmost to shake her resolution. She remained
firm. It was better so for both of them, she repeated. It would kill her
to be the wife of such a man, and do him no good. So in bitter and angry
resentment, rather than sorrow, Prince Halbert went away, and Auréole's
life returned to what it had been before his coming.



CHAPTER VI.

THE STORY OF A KING'S DAUGHTER

(_Continued_).

    'I have been enchanted, and thou only canst set me free.'

    GRIMM'S _Raven_.


'It seemed so at least, but in reality it was very different. Auréole
had received a shock which she felt deeply, and which she could not
forget. It grieved her, too, to see her father's distress and
disappointment, and sometimes she asked herself if perhaps she had done
wrong in deciding so hastily. But the sight of the little dog Fido,
which had recovered, though with the loss of one eye, always removed
these misgivings. "A man who could be so cruel to a harmless little
creature, would have quickly broken my heart," she said to herself and
sometimes to her father. And as time went on, and news came that Prince
Halbert was becoming more and more feared and disliked in his own home
from the increasing violence of his temper, the old King learnt to be
thankful that his dear Auréole was not to be at the mercy of such a man.

'"But what will become of you, my darling, when I am gone?" he would
say.

'"Fear not for me," Auréole assured him. "I have no fear for myself,
father, dear. Why, I could live safely in the woods with my dear
animals. If I had a little hut, and Fido to guard me, and Lello my fawn,
and the little rabbit, and all my pretty birds, I should be quite
happy!"

'For the forester to whom Fido belonged had begged Auréole to keep him,
as even before its hurt the dog had learnt to love her and spring out to
greet her, and wag his tail with pleasure when she passed his master's
cottage, which lay on the way to her glade. But though Auréole was not
afraid for herself, she was often very miserable when she thought of her
country-people, above all the poor and defenceless ones, in the power of
such a king as Halbert gave signs of being, after the long and gentle
rule of her father. Yet there was nothing to be done, so she kept
silence, fearing to cloud with more sorrow and anxiety the last days of
the old King.

'They were indeed his last days, for within a year of Halbert's
unfortunate visit her father died, and the fair Auréole was left
desolate.

'Her grief was great, even though the King had been very old, and she
had long known he could not be spared to her for many more years. But
she had not much time to indulge in it, for already, before her father
was laid in his grave, her sorrow was disturbed by the strange and
unexpected events which came to pass.

'These began by a curious dream which came to Auréole the very night of
her father's death.

'She dreamt that she was standing in her bower with her pets about her
as usual. She felt bright and happy, and had altogether forgotten about
her father's death. Suddenly a movement of terror made itself felt among
her animals--the birds fluttered closer to her, the little rabbit crept
beneath her skirt, the fawn and Fido looked up at her with startled
eyes, and almost before she had time to look round their terror was
explained. A frightful sound was heard approaching them, the terrible
growl of a bear, and in another moment the monster was within a few
yards. Even then, in her dream, Auréole's first thought was for her
pets. She threw her arms round all that she could embrace, and stood
there calmly, watching the creature with a faint hope that if she
showed no terror he might pass them by. But he came nearer and nearer,
till she almost felt his hot breath on her face, when suddenly, to her
amazement, the monster was no longer there, but in his place the Prince
Halbert, standing beside her and looking at her with an expression of
the profoundest misery.

'"I have brought it on myself," he said. "I deserve it; but pity me, oh,
Auréole! Sweet Auréole, pity and forgive me!" Then a cry of
irrepressible grief burst from his lips, and at this moment Auréole
awoke, to find her eyes wet with tears, her heart throbbing fast with
fear and distress.

'"What can have made me dream of Halbert?" she said to herself. "It must
have been seeing the messengers start yesterday," and then all came back
to her memory, which at the first moment of waking had been confused,
and she remembered her father's death and her own loneliness, and the
scarcely-dried tears rushed afresh to her eyes.

'"Has any news come from Prince Halbert?" she inquired of her attendants
when they came at her summons. And when they told her "none," she felt a
strange sensation of uneasiness. For the messengers had been despatched
at once on the death of the old King, which had been sudden at the last,
to summon his successor, and there had been time already for their
return.

'And as the day went on and nothing was heard of them, every one began
to think there must be something wrong, till late at night these fears
were confirmed by the return of the messengers with anxious faces.

'"Has the Prince arrived?" was their first question, and when they were
told that nothing had been seen of him, they explained the reason of
their inquiry.

'Halbert, already informed of the illness of the old King, had quickly
prepared to set out with his own attendants and those who had come to
summon him. They had ridden through the night, and had nothing untoward
occurred, they would have ended their journey by daybreak. But the
Prince had lost his temper with his horse, a nervous and restless
animal, unfit for so irritable a person to manage.

'"We became uneasy," said the messengers, "on seeing the Prince lashing
and spurring furiously the poor animal, who, his sides streaming with
blood, no longer understood what was required of him, and at last,
driven mad with pain and terror, dashed off at a frantic pace which it
was hopeless to overtake. We followed him as best we could, guided for
some distance by the branches broken as they passed and the ploughed-up
ground, which, thanks to a brilliant moonlight, we were able to
distinguish. But at last, where the trees began to grow more
thickly----" and here the speaker, who was giving this report to Auréole
herself, hesitated--"at last these traces entirely disappeared. We
sought on in every direction; when the moon went in we waited for the
daylight, and resumed our search. But all to no purpose, and at last we
resolved to ride on hither, hoping that the Prince might possibly have
found his way before us."

'"But this is terrible!" cried Auréole, forgetting all her indignation
against Halbert in the thought of his lying perhaps crushed and helpless
in some bypath of the forest which his followers had missed. "We must at
once send out fresh horsemen in every direction to scour the country."

'The captain who had had command of the little troop bowed, but said
nothing, and seemed without much hope that any fresh efforts would
succeed. Auréole was struck with his manner.

'"You are concealing something from me," she said. "Why do you appear so
hopeless? Even at the worst, even supposing the Prince is killed, he
must be found."

'"We searched too thoroughly," replied the officer. "Wherever it was
_possible_ to get, we left not a square yard unvisited."

'"Wherever it was _possible_," repeated Auréole; "what do you mean? You
do not think----" and she too hesitated, and her pale face grew paler.

'The captain glanced at her.

'"I see that you have divined our fears, Princess," he said in a low
voice. "Yes, we feel almost without a doubt that the unfortunate Prince
has been carried into the enchanted forest, from whence, as you well
know, none have ever been known to return. It is well that his parents
have not lived to see this day, for, though he brought it on himself, it
is impossible not to feel pity for such a fate."

'Auréole seemed scarcely able to reply. But she gave orders,
notwithstanding all she had heard, to send out fresh horsemen to search
again in every direction.

'"My poor father," she said to herself; "I am glad he was spared this
new sorrow about Halbert." And as the remembrance of her strange dream
returned to her, "Poor Halbert," she added, "what may he not be
suffering?" and she shuddered at the thought.

'For the enchanted forest was the terror of all that country. In reality
nothing, or almost nothing, was known of it, and therefore the awe and
horror about it were the greater. It lay in a lonely stretch of ground
between two ranges of hills, and no one ever passed through it, for
there was no pathway or entrance of any kind to be seen. But for longer
than any one now living could remember, it had been spoken of as a place
to be dreaded and avoided, and travellers in passing by used to tell how
they had heard shrieks and screams and groans from among its dark
shades. It was said that a magician lived in a castle in the very centre
of the forest, and that he used all sorts of tricks to get people into
his power, whence they could never again escape. For though several were
known to have been tempted to enter the forest, none of them were ever
heard of or seen again. And it was the common saying of the
neighbourhood, that it would be far worse to lose a child by straying
into the forest than by dying. No one had ever seen the magician, no one
even was sure that he existed, but when any misfortune came over the
neighbourhood, such as a bad harvest or unusual sickness, people were
sure to say that the wizard of the forest was at the bottom of it. And
Auréole, like every one else, had a great and mysterious terror of the
place and its master.

'"Poor Halbert!" she repeated to herself many times that day. "Would I
could do anything for him!"

'The bands of horsemen she had sent out returned one after the other
with the same tidings,--nothing had been seen or heard of the Prince.
But late in the day a woodman brought to the castle a fragment of cloth
which was recognised as having been torn from the mantle of the Prince,
and which he had found caught on the branch of a tree. When asked where,
he hesitated, which of itself was answer enough.

'"Close to the borders of the enchanted forest," he said at last,
lowering his voice. But that was all he had to tell. And from this
moment all lost hope. There was nothing more to be done.

'"The Prince is as lost to us as is our good old King," were the words
of every one on the day of the funeral of Auréole's father. "Far better
for him were he too sleeping peacefully among his fathers than to be
where he is."

'It seemed as if it would have certainly been better for his people had
it been so. It was impossible to receive the successor of Halbert as
king till a certain time had elapsed, which would be considered as equal
to proof of his death. And the next heir to the crown being but an
infant living in a distant country, the delay gave opportunity for
several rival claimants to begin to make difficulties, and not many
months after the death of the old King the once happy and peaceful
country was threatened with war and invasion on various sides. Then the
heads of the nation consulted together, and decided on a bold step. They
came to Auréole offering her the crown, declaring that they preferred to
overthrow the laws of the country, though they had existed for many
centuries, and to make her, at the point of the sword if necessary,
their queen, rather than accept as sovereign any of those who had no
right to it, or an infant who would but be a name and no reality.

'Auréole was startled and bewildered, but firm in her refusal.

'"A king's daughter am I, but no queen. I feel no fitness for the task
of ruling," she replied, "and I could never rest satisfied that I was
where I had a right to be."

'But when the deputies entreated her to consider the matter, and when
she thought of the misery in store for the people unless something were
quickly done, she agreed to think it over till the next day.

'The next day came, Auréole was ready, awaiting the deputies. Their
hopes rose high as they saw her, for there was an expression on her face
that had not been there the day before. She stood before them in her
long mourning robe, but she had encircled her waist with a golden belt,
and golden ornaments shone on her neck and arms.

'"It is a good sign," the envoys whispered, as they remarked also the
bright and hopeful light in her eyes, and they stood breathless, waiting
for her reply. It was not what they had expected.

'"I cannot as yet consent to what you wish," said Auréole; "but be
patient. I set off to-day on a journey from which I hope to return with
good news. Till then I entreat you to do your best to keep all peaceful
and quiet. And I promise you that if I fail in what I am undertaking, I
will return to be your queen."

'This was all she would say. She was forbidden, she declared, to say
more. And so resolute and decided did she appear, that the envoys,
though not without murmuring, were obliged to consent to await her
return, and withdrew with anxious and uneasy looks.

'And Auréole immediately began to get ready for the mysterious journey
of which she had spoken. Her preparations were strange. She took off,
for the first time since her father's death, her black dress, and clad
herself entirely in white. Then she kissed her old nurse and bade her
farewell, at the same time telling her to keep up her courage and have
no fear, to which the old dame could not reply without tears.

'"I do not urge you to tell me the whole, Princess," she said, "as it
was forbidden you to do so. But if I might but go with you." Auréole
shook her head.

'"No, dear nurse," she replied. "The voice in my dream said, 'Alone,
save for thy dumb friends.' That is all I can tell you," and kissing
again the poor nurse, Auréole set off, none knew whither, and she took
care that none should follow her. Some of her attendants saw her going
in the direction of her bower, and remarked her white dress. But they
were so used to her going alone to see her pets that they thought no
more of it. For no one knew the summons Auréole had received. The night
before, after tossing about unable to sleep, so troubled was she by the
request that had been made to her, she at last fell into a slumber, and
again there came to her a strange dream. She thought she saw her cousin;
he seemed pale and worn with distress and suffering.

'"Auréole," he said, "you alone can rescue me. Have you courage? I ask
it not only for myself, but for our people."

'And when in her sleep she would have spoken, no words came, only she
felt herself stretching out her arms to Halbert as if to reach and save
him.

'"Come, then," said his voice; "but come alone, save for thy dumb
friends. Tell no one, but fear not." But even as he said the words he
seemed to disappear, and again the dreadful, the panting roar she had
heard in her former dream reached Auréole's ears, in another moment the
terrible shape of the monster appeared, and shivering with horror she
awoke. Yet she determined to respond to Halbert's appeal. She told no
one except her old nurse, to whom she merely said that she had been
summoned in a dream to go away, but that no harm would befall her. She
clad herself in white, as a better omen of success, and when she reached
her bower, all her creatures welcomed her joyfully. So, with Fido, Lello
the fawn, and the little rabbit gambolling about her feet, the
wood-pigeons on her shoulders, and all the strange company of birds
fluttering about her, Auréole set off on her journey, she knew not
whither.

'But her pets knew. Whenever she felt at a loss Fido would give a little
tug to her dress and then run on barking in front, or Lello would look
up in her face with his pleading eyes and then turn his head in a
certain direction, while the birds would sometimes disappear for a few
moments and then, with a great chirping and fluttering, would be seen
again a little way overhead, as if to assure her they had been to look
if she was taking the right way. So that when night began to fall,
Auréole, very tired, but not discouraged, found herself far from home in
a part of the forest she had never seen before, though with trembling
she said to herself that for all she knew she might already be in the
enchanter's country.

'"But what if it be so?" she reflected. "I must not be faint-hearted
before my task is begun."

'She was wondering how she should spend the night when a sharp bark from
Fido made her look round. She followed to where it came from, and found
the little dog at the door of a small hut cleverly concealed among the
trees. Followed by her pets Auréole entered it, when immediately, as if
pulled by an invisible hand, the door shut to. But she forgot to be
frightened in her surprise at what she saw. The hut was beautifully made
of the branches of trees woven together, and completely lined with moss.
A small fire burned cheerfully in one corner, for the nights were still
chilly; a little table was spread with a snow-white cloth, on which were
laid out fruits and cakes and a jug of fresh milk; and a couch of the
softest moss covered with a rug made of fur was evidently arranged for
Auréole's bed. And at the other side of the hut sweet hay was strewn for
the animals, and a sort of trellis work of branches was ready in one
corner for the birds to roost on.

'"How pleasant it is!" said Auréole, as she knelt down to warm herself
before the fire. "If this is the enchanted forest I don't think it is at
all a dreadful place, and the wizard must be very kind and hospitable."

'And when she had had some supper and had seen that her pets had all
they wanted, she lay down on the mossy couch feeling refreshed and
hopeful, and soon fell fast asleep. She had slept for some hours when
she suddenly awoke, though what had awakened her she could not tell. But
glancing round the hut, by the flickering light of the fire, which was
not yet quite out, she saw that all her pets were awake, and when she
gently called "Fido, Fido," the little dog, followed by the fawn and the
rabbit, crept across the hut to her, and when she touched them she felt
that they were all shaking and trembling, while the birds seemed to be
trying to hide themselves all huddled together in a corner. And almost
before Auréole had time to ask herself what it could be, their fear was
explained, for through the darkness outside came the sound she had twice
heard in her dreams--the terrible panting roar of the monster! It came
nearer and nearer. Auréole felt there was nothing to do. She threw her
arms round the poor little trembling creatures determined to protect
them to the last. Suddenly there came a great bang at the door, as if
some heavy creature had thrown itself against it, and Auréole trembled
still more, expecting the door to burst open. But the mysterious hand
that had shut it had shut it well. It did not move. Only a low
despairing growl was heard, and then all was silent till a few minutes
after, when another growl came from some distance off, and then Auréole
felt sure the danger was past: the beast had gone away, for, though she
had not seen him, she was certain he was none other than the monster of
her dreams. The poor animals cowered down again in their corner, and
Auréole, surprised at the quickness with which her terror had passed,
threw herself on her couch and fell into a sweet sleep. When she woke,
the sun was already some way up in the sky; the door was half open, and
a soft sweet breeze fluttered into the hut. All was in order; the little
fire freshly lighted, the remains of last night's supper removed, and a
tempting little breakfast arranged. Auréole could scarcely believe her
eyes. "Some one must have come in while I was asleep," she said, and
Fido seemed to understand what she meant. He jumped up, wagging his
tail, and was delighted when Auréole sat down at the little table to eat
what was provided. All her pets seemed as happy as possible, and had
quite forgotten their fright. So, after breakfast, Auréole called them
all about her and set off again on her rambles. Whither she was to go
she knew not; she had obeyed the summons as well as she could, and now
waited to see what more to do. The animals seemed to think they had got
to the end of their journey, and gambolled and fluttered about in the
best of spirits. And even Auréole herself felt it impossible to be sad
or anxious. Never had she seen anything so beautiful as the forest, with
its countless paths among the trees, each more tempting than the other,
the sunshine peeping in through the branches, the lovely flowers of
colours and forms she had never seen before, the beautiful birds
warbling among the trees, the little squirrels and rabbits playing
about, and the graceful deer one now and then caught sight of.

'"Why," exclaimed Auréole, "_this_ the terrible enchanted forest! It is
a perfect fairyland."

'"You say true," said a voice beside her, which made her start. "To such
as _you_ it is a fairyland of delight. But to _me_!" and before Auréole
could recover herself from her surprise, there before her stood the
Prince Halbert! But how changed! Scarcely had she recognised him when
every feeling was lost in that of pity.

'"Oh, poor Halbert," she cried, "so I have found you! Where have you
been? What makes you look so miserable and ill?"

'For Halbert seemed wasted to a shadow. His clothes, torn and tattered,
hung loosely about him. His face was pale and thin, and his eyes sad and
hopeless, though, as he saw the pitying look in her face, a gleam of
brightness came into his.

'"Oh, Auréole, how good of you to come! It is out of pity for _me_, who
so little deserve it. But will you have strength to do all that is
required to free me from this terrible bondage?"

'"Explain yourself, Halbert," Auréole replied. "What is it you mean?
What bondage? Remember I know nothing; not even if this is truly the
enchanted forest."

'Halbert glanced at the sun, now risen high in the heavens. "I have but
a quarter of an hour," he said. "It is only one hour before noon that I
am free."

'And then he went on to relate as quickly as he could what had come over
him. Fallen into the power of the invisible spirits of the enchanted
land, whose wrath he had for long incurred by his cruelty to those
beneath him, among whom were poor little Fido, and the unhappy horse who
had dropped dead beneath him as soon as they entered the forest, his
punishment had been pronounced to him by a voice in his dreams. It was a
terrible one. For twenty-three hours of the twenty-four which make the
day and night, he was condemned to roam the woods in the guise of a
dreadful monster, bringing terror wherever he came. "I have to be in
appearance what I was formerly in heart," he said bitterly. "You cannot
imagine how fearful it is to see the tender innocent little animals
fleeing from me in terror, though I would now die rather than injure one
of them. And even you, Auréole, if you saw me you too would rush from me
in horror."

'"I have seen you," she replied. "I have twice seen you in my dreams,
and now that I know all I shall not fear you."

'"Do you indeed think so?" he exclaimed eagerly. "Your pity and courage
are my only hope. For I am doomed to continue this awful life--for
hundreds of years perhaps--till twelve dumb animals mount on my back and
let me carry them out of this forest. In my despair, when I heard this
sentence, I thought of you and your favourites, whom I used to mock at
and ill-treat more than you knew. They love and trust you so much that
it is possible you may make them do this. But I fear for your own
courage."

'"No," said Auréole, "that will not fail. And Fido is of a most
forgiving nature. See here," she went on, calling to the little dog,
"here is poor Halbert, who wants you to love him. Stroke him, Halbert,"
and as the Prince gently did so, Fido looked up in his face with wistful
eyes, and began timidly to wag his tail, while Lello and the rabbit drew
near, and the birds fluttered, chirping above their heads. It was a
pretty picture.

'"See," said Auréole, raising her bright face from caressing the good
little creatures, "see, Halbert, how loving and gentle they are! It will
not be difficult. In many ways they are wiser than we. But I can never
again believe that the spirits of the forest are evil or mischievous.
Rather do I now think them good and benevolent. How happy seem all the
creatures under their care!"

'"I know no more than I have told you," said Halbert; "but I too believe
they must be good, cruelly as they have punished me, for I deserved it.
And doubtless all those who are said to have disappeared in the forest
have been kept here for good purposes. And such as you, Auréole, have
nothing to fear in any country or from any spirits. But I must go," he
exclaimed. "I would not have you _yet_ see me in my other form. You must
reflect over what I have said, and prepare yourself for it."

'"And when, then, shall I see you again?" she asked.

'"To-night, at sunset, at the door of your hut, you will see--alas, not
_me_!" he whispered, and then in a moment he had disappeared.

'At sunset that evening Auréole sat at the door of the little hut,
surrounded by her animals. She had petted and caressed them even more
than usual, so anxious was she to prepare them for their strange task.
She had even talked of it to Fido and Lello with a sort of vague idea
that they might understand a little, though their only answer was for
Fido to wag his tail and Lello to rub his soft nose against her. But
suddenly both pricked up their ears, and then clinging more closely to
their mistress, began to tremble with fear, while the birds drew near in
a frightened flock.

'"Silly birds," said Auréole, trying to speak in her usual cheerful
tone, "what have _you_ to fear? Bears don't eat little birds, and you
can fly off in a moment. Not that I want you to fly away;" and she
whistled and called to them, at the same time caressing and encouraging
the animals, whose quick ears had caught sooner than she had done the
dreadful baying roar which now came nearer and nearer. It was exactly
the scene of her dreams, and notwithstanding all her determination,
Auréole could not help shivering as the form of the monster came in
sight. "Suppose it is not Halbert," she thought. "Suppose it is all a
trick of the spirits of this enchanted country for my destruction!" And
the idea nearly made her faint as the dreadful beast drew near. He
was so hideous, and his roars made him seem still more so. His great red
tongue hung out of his mouth, his eyes seemed glaring with rage. It was
all Auréole could do to keep her pets round her, and she felt that her
terror would take away all her power over them.

[Illustration: Auréole could not help shivering as the form of the
monster came in sight.]

'"Oh, Halbert," she exclaimed, "_is_ it you? I know you cannot speak,
but can you not make some sign to show me that it is you? I am so
frightened." She had started up as if on the point of running away. The
monster, who was close beside her, opened still wider his huge mouth,
and gave a roar of despair. Then an idea seemed to strike him--he bent
his clumsy knees, and rubbed his great head on the ground at her feet;
Auréole's courage returned. She patted his head, and he gave a faint
groan of relief. Then by degrees, with the greatest patience, she coaxed
the animals to draw near, and at last placed Fido and Lello on the
beast's immense back. But though they now seemed less frightened they
would not stay there, but jumped off again, and pressed themselves close
against her. It was no use; after hours, at least so it seemed to
Auréole, spent in trying, she had to give it up.

'"I cannot do it, Halbert," she said. A groan was his reply. Then
another thought struck her.

'"I will climb on your back myself," she exclaimed; "and then perhaps I
can coax the animals to stay there."

'The poor beast tried to stoop down still lower to make it easier for
Auréole to get on. She managed it without much difficulty, and
immediately Fido and Lello and the rabbit saw her mounted, up they
jumped, for they had no idea of being left behind. The wood-pigeons came
cooing down from the branch where they had taken refuge in their fright,
and perched on her shoulders. Auréole looked up, and called and whistled
to the other birds. Down they came as if bewitched, and settled round
her, all the seven of them on the beast's furry back.

'"Off, Halbert," cried Auréole, afraid to lose an instant, and off,
nothing loth, the beast set. It was hard work to keep on. He plunged
along so clumsily, and went so fast in his eagerness, that it was like
riding on an earthquake. But when now and then he stopped, and gave a
low pitiful roar, as if begging Auréole's pardon for shaking her so, she
always found breath to say: "On, Halbert, on; think not of me."

'And so at last, after hours of this terrible journey, many times during
which Auréole's heart had been in her mouth at the least sign of
impatience among the animals, they reached the borders of the enchanted
country, and as the panting beast emerged from the forest with his
strange burden, poor Auréole slipped fainting off his back. Her task was
done.

'When she came back to her senses and opened her eyes, her first thought
was for the beast, but he had disappeared. Fido and Lello, and all the
others were there, however; the dog licking her hands, the fawn nestling
beside her, and at a little distance stood a figure she seemed to know,
though no longer miserable and wretched as she had last seen him. It was
Halbert, strong and handsome and happy again, but with a look in his
eyes of gentleness and humility and gratitude that had never been there
in the old days.

'"Halbert," said Auréole, sitting up and holding out her hand to him,
"is all then right?"

'"All is right," he replied; "you can see for yourself. But, oh,
Auréole, how can I thank you? My whole life would not be long enough to
repay or----"

'"Think not about thanking me," interrupted Auréole. "My best reward
will be the delight of restoring to my dear country-people a king whose
first object will _now_, I feel assured, be their happiness;" and her
eyes sparkled with delight at the thought.

'She was right. Nothing could exceed the joy of the nation at the return
of Auréole, and thanks to her assurances of his changed character, they
soon learned to trust their new king as he deserved.

'No one ever knew the true history of his disappearance, but all admired
and respected the noble and unselfish courage of Auréole in braving the
dangers of the enchanted forest itself. Her pets all lived to a good old
age, and had every comfort they could wish for. It was said that
Halbert's only sorrow was that for long he could not persuade Auréole to
fulfil her father's wishes by marrying him. But some years later a
rumour came from the far-off country where these events happened,
telling of the beautiful "king's daughter" having at last consented to
become a king's wife as well, now that she knew Halbert to be worthy of
her fullest affection.

'And if this is true, I have no doubt it was for their happiness as well
as for that of their subjects, among whom I include the twelve faithful
animals.'



CHAPTER VII.

A WINDING STAIR AND A SCAMPER.

    'But children, to whom all is play,
      And something new each hour must bring,
    Find everything so strange, that they
      Are not surprised at anything.'

    _The Fairies' Nest._


Godmother's voice stopped. For a moment or two there was silence.

'I hope it _was_ true,' said Maia, the first to find her tongue. 'Poor
Halbert, I think he deserved to be happy at the end. I think Auréole was
rather--rather--_cross_, don't you, Silva?'

Silva considered. 'No,' she said. 'I can't bear people that are cruel to
little animals. Oh!' and she clasped her hands, 'if only Rollo and Maia
could see some of our friends in the wood! May they not, godmother?'

'All in good time,' said godmother, rather mysteriously.

Maia looked at her. 'Godmother,' she said, 'how funny you are! I believe
you like puzzling people better than anything. There are such a lot of
things I want to ask you about the story. Who was it lived in the
forest? _Was_ it a wizard? I think that would be much nicer than
invisible spirits, even though it is rather frightening. And who was it
made Auréole's breakfast and shut the door, and all that? I am sure you
know, godmother. I believe you've been in the enchanted forest yourself.
_Have_ you?'

Godmother smiled. 'Perhaps,' she said. But when Maia went on
questioning, she would not say any more. 'Keep something to puzzle
about,' she said. 'Remember that that is half the pleasure.'

And then she took Maia up on her knee and gave her such a sweet kiss
that the child could not grumble.

'You are _very_ funny, godmother,' she repeated.

Suddenly Rollo started.

'Maia,' he exclaimed, 'I am afraid we are forgetting about going home
and meeting Nanni and everything. It must be getting very late. It is so
queer,' he added with a sigh, glancing round the dear little kitchen, 'I
seemed to have forgotten that _this_ isn't our home, and yet we have
only been here an hour or two, and----'

'Yes,' said Maia, 'I feel just the same. Indeed Auréole and her pets
seem far more real to me now than Lady Venelda and the white castle.'

'And the old doctor and all the lessons you have to do,' said godmother;
and somehow the children no longer felt surprised at her knowing all
about everything. 'But you are right, my boy, good boy,' she went on,
turning to Rollo. 'There is a time for all things, and now it is time to
go back to your other life. Say good-bye to each other, my children,'
and when they had done so--very reluctantly, you may be sure--she took
Rollo by one hand and Maia by the other, Waldo and Silva standing at the
cottage-door to see them off, and led them across the little clearing,
away into the now darkening alleys of the wood.

'Are you going with us to where Nanni is?' asked Maia.

'Not to where you left her. I will take you by a short cut,' said
godmother, who, since they had left the cottage, had seemed to grow into
just an ordinary-looking old peasant woman, very bent and small, for any
one at least who did not peep far enough inside her queer hood to see
her wonderful eyes and gleaming hair, and whom no one would have
suspected of the marvellous crimson dress under the long dark cloak.
Maia kept peeping up at her with a strange look in her face.

'What is it, my child?' said godmother.

'I don't quite know,' Maia replied. 'I'm not quite sure, godmother, if
I'm not a little--a very little--frightened of you. You change so. In
the cottage you seemed a sort of a young fairy godmother--and now----'
she hesitated.

'And now do I seem very old?'

'_Rather_,' said Maia.

'Well, listen now. I'll tell you the real truth, strange as it may seem.
I am _very_ old--older than you can even fancy, and yet I am and I
always shall be young.'

'In fairyland--in the other country, do you mean?' asked Rollo.

Godmother turned her bright eyes full upon him. 'Not only there, my
boy,' she said. 'Here, too--everywhere--I am both old and young.'

Maia gave a little sigh.

'You are very nice, godmother,' she said, 'but you are _very_ puzzling.'
But she had no time to say more, for just then godmother stopped.

'See, children,' she said, pointing down a little path among the trees,
'I have brought you a short cut, as I said I would. At the end of that
alley you will find your faithful Nanni. And that will not be the end of
the short cut. Twenty paces straight on in the same direction you will
come out of the wood. Cross the little bridge across the brook and you
will only have to climb a tiny hill to find yourselves at the back
entrance of the castle. All will be right--and now good-bye, my dears,
till your next holiday. Have you your flowers?'

'Oh, yes,' exclaimed both, holding up the pretty bunches as they spoke;
'but how are we to----'

'Don't trouble about how you are to see me again,' she interrupted,
smiling. 'It will come--you will see,' and then before they had time to
wonder any more, she turned from them, waving her hand in farewell, and
disappeared.

'Rollo,' said Maia, rubbing her eyes as if she had just awakened,
'Rollo, is it all _real_? Don't you feel as if you had been dreaming?'

'No,' said Rollo. 'I feel as if _it_'--and he nodded his head backwards
in the direction of the cottage--'were all real, and the castle and our
cousin and Nanni and all _not_ real. You said so too.'

'Yes,' said Maia meditatively, 'while I was there with them, I felt
like that. But now I don't. It seems not real, and I don't want to begin
to forget them.'

'Suppose you scent your flowers,' said Rollo; 'perhaps that's why
godmother gave them to us.'

Maia thought it a good idea.

'Yes,' she said, poking her little nose as far as it would go in among
the fragrant blossoms, 'yes, Rollo, it comes back to me when I scent the
flowers. I think it is because godmother's red dress was scented the
same way. Oh, yes!' shutting her eyes, 'I can _feel_ her soft dress now,
and I can hear her voice, and I can see Waldo and Silva and the dear
little kitchen. How glad I am you thought of the flowers, Rollo!'

'But we must run on,' said Rollo, and so they did. But they had not run
many steps before the substantial figure of Nanni appeared; she was
looking very comfortable and contented.

'You have not stayed very long, Master Rollo and Miss Maia,' she said,
'but I suppose it is getting time to be turning home.'

'And have you spent a pleasant afternoon, Nanni?' asked Rollo quietly.
'How many stockings have you knitted?'

'How many!' repeated Nanni; 'come, Master Rollo, you're joking. You've
not been gone more than an hour at the most, but it is queer--it must be
the smell of the fir-trees--as soon as ever I sit down in this wood, off
I go to sleep! I hadn't done more than two rounds when my head began
nodding, so I had to put my knitting away for fear of running the
needles into my eyes. And I had such pleasant dreams.'

'About the beautiful lady again?' asked Maia.

'I think so, but I can't be sure,' said Nanni. 'It was about all sorts
of pretty things mixed up together. Flowers and birds, and I don't know
what. And the flowers smelt, for all the world, just like the roses
round the windows of my mother's little cottage at home. I could have
believed I was there.'

Rollo and Maia looked at each other. It was all godmother's doing, they
felt sure. How clever of her to know just what Nanni would like to dream
of.

By this time they were out of the wood. The light was brighter than
among the trees, but still it was easy to see that more than Nanni's
'hour' must have passed since they left her.

'Dear me,' she exclaimed, growing rather frightened, 'it looks later
than I thought! And we've a long way to go yet,' she went on, looking
round; 'indeed,' and her rosy face grew pale, 'I don't seem to know
exactly where we are. We must have come another way out of the wood--oh,
dear, dear----'

'Don't get into such a fright, Nanni,' said Rollo; 'follow me.'

He sprang up the hilly path that godmother had told them of, Maia and
Nanni following. It turned and twisted about a little, but when they got
to the top, there, close before them, gleamed the white walls of the
castle, and a few steps more brought them to a back entrance to the
terrace by which they often came out and in.

'Well, to be sure!' exclaimed Nanni, 'you are a clever boy, Master
Rollo. Who ever would have guessed there was such a short cut, and
indeed I can't make it out at all which way we've come back. But so long
as we're here all in good time, and no fear of a scolding, I'm sure I'm
only too pleased, however we've got here.'

As they were passing along the terrace the old doctor met them.

'Have you had a pleasant holiday?' he asked.

'Oh, _very_,' answered both Rollo and Maia, looking up in his face,
where, as they expected, they saw the half-mysterious, half-playful
expression they had learnt to know, and which seemed to tell that their
old friend understood much more than he chose to say.

'Did you find any pretty flowers?' he asked, with a smile, 'though it is
rather early in the year yet--especially for scented ones--is it not?'

'But we _have_ got some,' said Maia quickly, and glancing round to see
if Nanni were still by them. She had gone on, so Maia drew out her
bunch, and held them up. '_Aren't_ they sweet?' she said.

The old man pressed them to his face almost as lovingly as Maia herself.
'Ah, how _very_ sweet!' he murmured. 'How much they bring back! Cherish
them, my child. You know how?'

'Yes, _she_ told us,' said Maia. 'You know whom I mean, don't you, Mr.
Doctor?'

The old doctor smiled again. Maia drew two or three flowers out of her
bunch, and Rollo did the same. Then they put them together and offered
them to their old friend.

'Thank you, my children,' he said; 'I shall add the thought of you to
many others, when I perceive their sweet scent.'

'And even when they're withered and dried up, Mr. Doctor, you know,'
said Maia eagerly, 'the scent, _she_ says, is even sweeter.'

'I know,' said the doctor, nodding his head. 'Sweeter, I truly think,
but bringing sadness with it too; very often, alas!' he added in a lower
voice, so low that the children could not clearly catch the words.

'We must go in, Maia,' said Rollo; 'it must be nearly supper-time.'

'Yes,' said Maia; 'but first, Mr. Doctor, I want to know when are we to
have another holiday? Lady Venelda will do any way you tell her, you
know.'

'All in good time,' replied the doctor, at which Maia pouted a little.

'I don't like all in good time,' she said.

'But you have never known me to forget,' said the old doctor.

'No, indeed,' said Rollo eagerly, and then Maia looked a little ashamed
of herself, and ran off smiling and waving her hand to the doctor.

Lady Venelda asked them no questions, and made no remarks beyond saying
she was glad they had had so fine a day for their ramble in the woods.
She seemed quite pleased so long as the children were well and sat up
straight in their chairs without speaking at meal-times, and there were
no complaints from their teachers. That was the way _she_ had been
brought up, and she thought it had answered very well in her case. But
she was really kind, and the children no longer felt so lonely or dull,
now that they had the visits to the wood to look forward to. Indeed,
they had brought back with them a fund of amusement, for now their
favourite play was to act the story which godmother had told them, and
as they had no other pets, they managed to make friends with the castle
cat, a very dignified person, who had to play the parts of Fido and
Lello and the rabbit all in one; while the birds were represented by
bunches of feathers they picked up in the poultry-yard, and the great
furry rug with which they had travelled turned Rollo into the unhappy
monster. It was very amusing, but after a few days they began to wish
for other companions.

'If Silva and Waldo were here,' said Rollo, 'what fun we could have! I
wonder what they do all day, Maia.'

'They work pretty hard, I fancy,' said Maia. 'Waldo goes to cut down
trees in the forest a good way off, I know, and Silva has all the house
to take care of, and everything to cook and wash, and all that. But _I_
should call that play-work, not like lessons.'

'And _I_ should think cutting down trees the best fun in the world,'
said Rollo. 'That kind of work can't be as tiring as lessons.'

'Lessons, lessons! What is all this talk about lessons? Are you so
terribly overworked, my poor children? What should you say to a ramble
in the woods with me for a change?' said a voice beside them, which made
the children start.

It was the doctor. He had come round the corner of the wall without
their seeing him, for they were playing on the terrace for half an hour
between their French lesson with Mademoiselle and their history with the
chaplain.

'A walk with you, Mr. Doctor!' exclaimed Maia. 'Oh, yes, it _would_ be
nice. But it isn't a holiday, and----'

'How do _you_ know it isn't a holiday, my dear young lady,' interrupted
the doctor. 'How do you know that I have not represented to your
respected cousin that her young charges had been working very hard of
late, and would be the better for a ramble? If you cannot believe me,
run in and ask Lady Venelda herself; if you are satisfied without doing
so, why then, let us start at once!'

'Of course we are satisfied,' exclaimed Rollo and Maia together; 'but
we must go in to get our thick boots and jackets, and our nicer hats,'
added Maia, preparing to start off.

'Not a bit of it,' said the doctor, stopping her. 'You are quite right
as you are. Come along;' and without giving the children time for even
another 'but,' off he strode.

To their amazement, however, he turned towards the house, which he
entered by a side door that the children had never before noticed, and
which he opened with a small key.

'Doctor,' began Maia, but he only shook his head without speaking, and
stalked on, Rollo and his sister following. He led them some way along a
rather narrow passage, where they had never been before, then, opening a
door, signed to them to pass in in front of him, and when they had done
so, he too came in, and shut the door behind him. It was a queer little
room--the doctor's study evidently, for one end was completely filled
with books, and at one side, through the glass doors of high cupboards
in the wall, all kinds of mysterious instruments, chemical tubes and
globes, high bottles filled with different-coloured liquids, and ever so
many things the children had but time to glance at, were to be
perceived. But the doctor had evidently not brought them there to pay
him a visit. He touched a spring at the side of the book-shelves, and a
small door opened.

'Come, children,' he said, speaking at last, 'this is another short cut.
Have no fear, but follow me.'

Full of curiosity, Rollo and Maia pressed forward. The doctor had
already disappeared--all but his head, that is to say--for a winding
staircase led downwards from the little door, and Rollo first, then
Maia, were soon following their old friend step by step, holding by one
hand to a thick cord which supplied the place of a handrail. It was
almost quite dark, but they were not frightened. They had perfect trust
in the old doctor, and all they had seen and heard since they came to
the white castle had increased their love of adventure, without
lessening their courage.

'Dear me,' said Maia, after a while, for it was never easy for her to
keep silent for very long together, 'it isn't a _very_ short cut! We
seem to have been going down and down for a good while. My head is
beginning to feel rather turning with going round and round so often.
How much farther are we to go before we come out, Mr. Doctor?'

But there was no answer, only a slight exclamation from Rollo just in
front of her, and then all of a sudden a rush of light into the
darkness made Maia blink her eyes and for a moment shut them to escape
the dazzling rays.

'Good-bye,' said a voice which she knew to be the doctor's; 'I hope you
will enjoy yourselves.'

Maia opened her eyes. She had felt Rollo take her hand and draw her
forwards a little. She opened her eyes, but half shut them again in
astonishment.

'_Rollo!_' she exclaimed.

'And you said it was not much of a short cut,' replied Rollo, laughing.

No wonder Maia was astonished. They were standing a few paces from the
cottage door! The sun was shining brightly on the little garden and
peeping through the trees, just in front of which the children found
themselves.

'Where have we come from?' said Maia, looking round her confusedly.

'Out of here, I think,' said Rollo, tapping the trunk of a great tree
close beside him. 'I think we must have come out of a door hidden in
this tree.'

'But we kept coming _down_,' said Maia.

'At first; but the last part of the time it seemed to me we were going
up; we must have come down the inside of the hill and then climbed up a
little way into the tree.'

'Oh, I am sure we weren't going _up_,' said Maia. 'I certainly was
getting quite giddy with going round and round, but I'm _sure_ I could
have told if we'd been going up.'

'Well, never mind. If godmother is a witch, I fancy the doctor's a
wizard. But any way we're here, and that's the principal thing. Come on,
quick, Maia, aren't you in a hurry to know if Waldo and Silva are at
home?'

He ran on to the cottage and Maia after him. The door was shut. Rollo
knocked, but there was no answer.

'Oh, what a pity it will be if they are not in!' said Maia. 'Knock
again, Rollo, louder.'

Rollo did so. Still there was no answer.

'What shall we do?' said the children to each other. 'It would be too
horrid to have to go home and miss our chance of a holiday.'

'We might stay in the woods by ourselves,' suggested Rollo.

'It would be very dull,' said Maia disconsolately. 'I don't think the
old doctor should have brought us without knowing if they would be here.
If he knows so much he might have found that out.'

Suddenly Rollo gave an exclamation. He had been standing fumbling at the
latch.

'What do you say?' asked Maia.

'The door isn't locked. Suppose we go in? It would be no harm. They
weren't a bit vexed with us for having gone in and drunk the milk the
first time.'

'Of course not,' said Maia; 'they wouldn't be the least vexed. I quite
thought the door was locked all this time. Open it, Rollo. I can't reach
so high or I would have found out long ago it wasn't locked.'

With a little difficulty Rollo opened the door.

Everything in the tiny kitchen looked as they had last seen it, only, if
that were possible, still neater and cleaner. Maia stared round as if
half expecting to see Waldo or Silva jump out from under the chairs or
behind the cupboard, but suddenly she darted forward. A white object on
the table had caught her attention. It was a sheet of paper, on which
was written in round clear letters:

'Godmother will be here in a quarter of an hour.'

'See, Rollo,' exclaimed Maia triumphantly, 'this must be meant for _us_.
What a good thing we came in! I don't mind waiting a quarter of an
hour.'

'But that paper may have been here all day. It may have been sent for
Waldo and Silva,' said Rollo. 'You know they told us godmother only
comes sometimes to see them.'

'I don't care,' said Maia, seating herself on one of the high-backed
chairs. 'I'm going to wait a quarter of an hour, and just _see_.
Godmother doesn't do things like other people, and I'm sure this message
is for us.'

Rollo said no more, but followed Maia's example. There they sat, like
two little statues, the only distraction being the tick-tack of the
clock, and watching the long hand creep slowly down the three divisions
of its broad face which showed a quarter of an hour. It seemed a very
long quarter of an hour. Maia was so little used to sitting still,
except when she was busy with lessons, to which she was obliged to give
her attention, that after a few minutes her head began to nod and at
last gave such a jerk that she woke up with a start.

'Dear me, isn't it a quarter of an hour _yet_?' she exclaimed.

'No, it's hardly five minutes,' said Rollo, rather grumpily, for he
thought this was a very dull way of spending a holiday, and he would
rather have gone out into the woods than sit there waiting. Maia leant
her head again on the back of her chair.

'Suppose we count ten times up to sixty,' she said. 'That would be ten
minutes if we go by the ticks of the clock, and if she isn't here then,
I won't ask you to wait any longer.'

'We can see the time,' said Rollo; 'I don't see the use of counting it
loud out.'

Maia said nothing more. Whether she took another little nap; whether
Rollo himself did not do so also I cannot say. All I know is that just
exactly as the hand of the clock had got to fourteen minutes from the
time they had begun watching it, both children started to their feet and
looked at each other.

'Do you hear?' said Maia.

'It's a carriage,' exclaimed Rollo.

'How could a carriage come through the wood? There's no path wide
enough.'

'But it _is_ a carriage;' and to settle the point both ran to the door
to see.

It came swiftly along, in and out among the trees without difficulty, so
small was it. The two tiny piebald ponies that drew it shook their wavy
manes as they danced along, the little bells on their necks ringing
softly. A funny idea struck Maia as she watched it. It looked just like
a toy meant for some giant's child which had dropped off one of the
huge Christmas-trees, waiting there to be decked for Santa Claus's
festival! But the queerest part of the sight for them was when the
carriage came near enough for them to see that godmother herself was
driving it. She did look so comical, perched up on the little seat and
chirrupping and wo-wohing to her steeds, and she seemed to have grown so
small, oh, so small! Otherwise how could she ever have got into a
carriage really not much too large for a baby of two years old?

On she drove, and drew up in grand style just in front of where the
children were standing.

'Jump in,' she said, nodding off-handedly, but without any other
greeting.

'But how----?' began Maia. 'How can Rollo and I possibly get into that
tiny carriage?' were the words on her lips, but somehow before she began
to say them, they melted away, and almost without knowing how, she found
herself getting into the back seat of the little phaeton, with Rollo
beside her, and in another moment--crack! went godmother's whip, and off
they set.

They went so fast, oh, so fast! There did not seem time to consider
whether they were comfortable or not, or how it was they fitted so well
into the carriage, small as it was, or anything but just the delicious
feeling of flying along, which shows that they must have been very
comfortable, does it not? In and out among the great looming pine-trees
their strange coachman made her way, without once hesitating or
wavering, so that the children felt no fear of striking against the
massive trunks, even though it grew darker and gloomier and the
Christmas-trees had certainly never looked anything like so enormous.

'Or _can_ it be that we have really grown smaller?' thought Maia; but
her thoughts were quickly interrupted by a merry cry from godmother,
'Hold fast, children, we're going to have a leap.'

Godmother was certainly in a very comical humour. But for her voice and
her bright eyes when they peeped out from under her hood the children
would scarcely have known her. She was like a little mischievous old
sprite instead of the soft, tender, mysterious being who had petted them
so sweetly and told them the quiet story of gentle Auréole the other
day. In a different kind of way Maia felt again almost a _very_ little
bit afraid of her, but Rollo's spirits rose with the fun, his cheeks
grew rosier and his eyes brighter, though he was very kind to Maia too,
and put his arm round her to keep her steady in preparation for
godmother's flying leap, over they knew not what. But it was
beautifully managed; not only the ponies, but the carriage too, seemed
to acquire wings for the occasion, and there was not the slightest jar
or shock, only a strange lifting feeling, and then softly down again,
and on, on, through trees and brushwood, faster and faster, as surely no
ponies ever galloped before.

'Are you frightened, Rollo?' whispered Maia.

'Not a bit. Why should I be? Godmother can take care of us, and even if
she wasn't there, one couldn't be frightened flying along with those
splendid little ponies.'

'What was it we jumped over?' asked Maia.

Godmother heard her and turned round.

'We jumped over the brook,' she said. 'Don't you remember the little
brook that runs through the wood?'

'The brook that Rollo and I go over by the stepping stones? It's a very
little brook, godmother. I should think the carriage might have driven
over without jumping.'

'Hush!' said godmother, 'we're getting into the middle of the wood and I
must drive carefully.'

But she did not go any more slowly; it got darker and darker as the
trees grew more closely together. The children saw, as they looked
round, that they had never been so far in the forest before.

'I wonder when we shall see Silva and Waldo,' thought Maia, and somehow
the thought seemed to bring its answer, for just as it passed through
her mind, a clear bright voice called out from among the trees:

'Godmother, godmother, don't drive too far. Here we are waiting for
you.'

'Waldo and Silva!' exclaimed the children. The ponies suddenly stopped,
and out jumped or tumbled into the arms of their friends Rollo and Maia.

'Oh, Waldo! oh, Silva!' they exclaimed. 'We've had _such_ a drive!
Godmother has brought us along like the wind.'

Silva nodded her head. 'I know,' she said, smiling. 'There is no one so
funny as godmother when she is in a wild humour. You may be glad you are
here all right. She would have thought nothing of driving on to----'
Silva stopped, at a loss what place to name.

'To where?' said the children.

'Oh, to the moon, or the stars, or down to the bottom of the sea, or
anywhere that came into her head!' said Silva, laughing. 'For, you know,
she can go _anywhere_.'

'_Can_ she?' exclaimed Maia. 'Oh, what wonderful stories we can make her
tell us, then! Godmother, godmother, do you hear what Silva says?' she
went on, turning round to where she thought the carriage and ponies and
godmother were standing. But----



CHAPTER VIII.

THE SQUIRREL FAMILY.

    'How extremely pretty!
    Won't you jump again?'

    _Child-World._


----Godmother was no longer there. She and the carriage and the ponies
had completely disappeared. Maia opened her eyes and mouth with
amazement, and stood staring. Waldo and Silva and Rollo too could not
help bursting out laughing; she looked so funny. Maia felt a little
offended.

'I don't see what there is to laugh at,' she said; 'especially for
_you_, Rollo. Aren't you astonished too?'

'I don't think I should ever be astonished at anything about godmother,'
said Rollo. 'Besides, I saw her drive off while you were kissing Silva.
She certainly went like the wind.'

'And where are we?' asked Maia, looking round her for the first time;
'and what are we going to do, Silva?'

'We are going to pay a visit,' said Silva. 'Waldo and I had already
promised we would when we got the message that you were coming, so
godmother said she would go back and fetch you.'

'But who brought you a message that we were coming?' asked Maia.

'One of godmother's carrier-pigeons. Ah, I forgot, you haven't seen them
yet!'

'And _where_ are we going?'

'To spend the afternoon with the squirrel family. It's close to here,
but we must be quick. They will have been expecting us for some time.
You show us the way, Waldo; you know it best.'

It was dark in the wood, but not so dark as it had been when they were
driving with godmother, for a few steps brought them out into a little
clearing, something like the one where the cottage stood, but smaller.
The mossy grass here was particularly beautiful, so bright and green and
soft that Maia stooped down to feel it with her hand.

'I suppose no one ever comes this way?' she said. 'Is it because no one
ever tramples on it that the moss is so lovely?'

'Nobody but us and the squirrels,' said Silva. 'Sometimes we play with
them out here, but to-day we are going to see them in their house.
Sometimes they have parties, when they invite their cousins from the
other side of the wood. But I don't think any of them are coming
to-day.'

Silva spoke so simply that Maia could not think she was making fun of
her, and yet it was very odd to speak of squirrels as if they were
_people_. Maia could not, however, ask any more, for suddenly Waldo
called out:

'Here we are! Silva, you are going too far.'

Rollo and Maia looked round, but they saw nothing except the trees.
Waldo was standing just in front of one, and as the others came up to
him he tapped gently on the trunk.

'Three times,' said Silva.

'I know,' he replied. Then he tapped twice again, Rollo and Maia looking
on with all their eyes. But it was their ears that first gave them
notice of an answer to Waldo's summons. A quick pattering sound, like
the rush of many little feet, was heard inside the trunk, then with a
kind of squeak, as if the hinges were somewhat rusty, a door, so
cleverly made that no one could have guessed it was there, for it was
covered with bark like the rest of the trunk, slowly opened from the
inside, showing a dark hollow about large enough for one child at a time
to creep into on hands and knees.

'Who will go first?' said Waldo, lifting his little red cap as he looked
at Maia.

'What nice manners he has,' she thought to herself. 'I think you had
better go first, please,' she said aloud. For though she would not own
it, the appearance of the dark hole rather alarmed her.

'But we can't _all_ get in there,' said Rollo.

'Oh, yes,' replied Waldo. 'I'll go first, and when I call out "all
right," one of you can come after me. The passage gets wider directly,
or--any way there's lots of room--you'll see,' and, ducking down, he
crept very cleverly into the hollow, and after a moment his voice was
heard, though in rather muffled tones, calling out 'all right.' Rollo,
not liking to seem backward, went next, and Maia, who was secretly
trembling, was much comforted by hearing him exclaim, 'Oh, how
beautiful!' and when Silva asked her to go next, saying 'Maia might like
to know she was behind her,' she plunged valiantly into the dark hole.
She groped with her hands for a moment or two, till the boys' voices a
little way above her led her to a short flight of steps, which she
easily climbed up, and then a soft light broke on her eyes, and she
understood why Rollo had called out, 'Oh, how beautiful!'

They stood at the entrance of a long passage, quite wide enough for two
to walk abreast comfortably. It was entirely lined and carpeted with
moss, and the light came from the roof, though _how_ one could not tell,
for it too was trellised over with another kind of creeping plant,
growing too thickly for one to see between. The moss had a sweet fresh
fragrance that reminded the children of the scent of their other world
flowers, and it was, besides, deliciously soft and yet springy to walk
upon.

Waldo and Rollo came running back to meet the little girls, for Silva
had quickly followed Maia.

'Isn't this a nice place?' said Rollo, jumping up and down as he spoke.
'We might run races here all the afternoon.'

'Yes; but we must hasten on,' said Silva. 'They're expecting us, you
know. But we can run races all the same, for we've a good way along here
to go. You and Waldo start first, and then Maia and I.'

So they did, and never was there a race pleasanter to run. They felt as
if they had wings on their feet, they went so fast and were so untired.
The moss gallery resounded with their laughter and merry cries, though
their footfalls made no sound on the floor.

'What was the pattering we heard after Waldo knocked?' asked Maia
suddenly.

'It was the squirrels overhead. They all have to run together to pull
open the door,' said Silva. 'The rope goes up to their hall. But you
will see it all for yourself now. This is the end of the gallery.'

'This' was a circular room, moss-lined like the passage, with a wide
round hole in the roof, from which, as the children stood waiting,
descended a basket, fitted with moss cushions, and big enough to hold
all of them at once. In they got, and immediately the basket rose up
again and stopped at what, in a proper house, one would call the next
floor. And even before it stopped a whole mass of brown heads were to be
seen eagerly watching for it, and numbers of little brown paws were
extended to help the visitors to step out.

'Good-day, good-day,' squeaked a multitude of shrill voices; 'welcome to
Squirrel-Land. We have been watching for you ever so long, since the
pigeon brought the news. And the supper is all ready. The acorn cakes
smelling so good and the chestnut pasties done to a turn.'

'Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Bushy!' said Silva. 'I am sure they will be
excellent. But first, I must introduce our friends and you to each
other. Maia and Rollo, this is Mrs. Bushy,' and as she said so the
fattest and fussiest of the squirrels made a duck with its head and a
flourish with its tail, which were meant for the most graceful of
curtsies. 'Mr. Bushy----' she stopped and looked round.

'Alas! my dear husband is very lame with his gout to-day,' said Mrs.
Bushy. 'He took too much exercise yesterday. I'm sure if he went once to
the top of the tree he went twenty times--he is _so_ active, you know;
so he's resting in the supper-room; but you'll see him presently. And
here are my dear children, Miss Silva. Stand forward, my dears, you have
nothing to be ashamed of. _Do_ look at their tails--though I say it that
shouldn't, _did_ you ever see such tails?' and Mrs. Bushy's bright eyes
sparkled with maternal pride. 'There they are, all nine of them: Nibble,
Scramble, Bunchy, Friskit, and Whiff, my dear boys; and Clamberina,
Fluffy, Tossie, and sweet little Curletta, my no less beloved
daughters.'

Whereupon each one of the nine, who had collected in a row, made the
same duck with its head and flourish with its tail as Mrs. Bushy,
though, of course, with somewhat less perfection of style and finish
than their dear mamma.

'Such manners, such sweet manners!' she murmured confidentially to Silva
and Maia.

Maia was by this time nearly choking with laughter--'Though I say it
that shouldn't say it, I am sure you young ladies must be pleased with
their sweet manners.'

'Very pleased, dear Mrs. Bushy,' said Silva; 'I'm sure they've learned
to duck their heads and wave their tails beautifully.'

'Beautifully,' said Maia, at which Mrs. Bushy looked much gratified.

'And shall we proceed to supper, then?' she said. 'I am sure you must be
hungry.'

'Yes, I think we are,' said Waldo; 'and I know your chestnut cakes are
very good, Mrs. Bushy.'

Rollo and Maia looked at each other. _Chestnuts_ were very nice, but
what would chestnut cakes be like? Besides, it wasn't the season for
chestnuts; they must be very old and stale.

'How can you have chestnuts now?' asked Maia. Mrs. Bushy looked at her
patronisingly.

'Ah, to be sure,' she said, 'the young lady does not know all about our
magic preserving cupboards, and all the newest improvements. To be sure,
it is her first visit to Squirrel-Land,' she added encouragingly; 'we
can make allowance. Now, lead the way, my dears, lead the way,' she said
to her nine treasures, who thereupon set off with a rush, jumping and
frisking and scuttering along, till Maia could hardly help bursting out
laughing again, while she and Silva and Rollo and Waldo followed them
into the supper-room, where, at the end of a long narrow table, covered
with all sorts of queer-looking dishes, decorated with fern leaves, Papa
Bushy, in a moss arm-chair, his tail comfortably waving over him like an
umbrella, was already installed.

'I beg your pardon, my dear young friends,' he began, in a rather
deeper, though still squeaky voice, 'for receiving you like this. Mrs.
Bushy will have made my apologies. This unfortunate attack of gout! I
am, I fear, too actively inclined, and have knocked myself up!'

'Ah, yes,' said Mrs. Bushy, shaking her head; 'I'm sure if Mr. Bushy
goes once a day to the top of the tree, he goes twenty times.'

'But what does he go for if it makes him ill?' exclaimed Maia.

Mrs. Bushy looked at her and gasped, Mr. Bushy shut his eyes and waved
his paws about as if to say, 'We must excuse her, she knows no better,'
and all the young Bushys ducked their heads and squeaked
faintly,--evidently Maia had said something very startling. At last,
when she had to some extent recovered her self-control, Mrs. Bushy said
faintly, looking round her for sympathy:

'Poor child! Such deplorable ignorance; but we must excuse it. Imagine
her not knowing--imagine _any one_ not knowing what would happen if Mr.
Bushy did not go to the top of the tree!'

'What _would_ happen?' said Maia, not sure if she felt snubbed or not,
but not inclined to give in all at once.

'My poor child,' said Mrs. Bushy, in the most solemn tone her squeaky
voice was capable of, '_the world would stop_!'

Maia stared at her, but what she was going to say I cannot tell you, for
Silva managed to give her a little pinch, as a sign that she had better
make no more remarks, and Mrs. Bushy, feeling that she had done her
duty, requested everybody to take their places at table. The dishes
placed before them were so comical-looking that Rollo and Maia did not
know what to reply when asked what they would have.

'An apple, if you please!' said Maia, catching sight at last of
something she knew the name of. But when Mrs. Bushy pressed her to try a
chestnut cake she did not like to refuse, and seeing that Waldo and
Silva were careful to eat like the squirrels, holding up both hands
together like paws to their mouths, she and Rollo did the same, which
evidently gave the Bushy family a better opinion of the way in which
they had been brought up. The chestnut cakes were rather nice, but poor
Rollo, having ventured on some fried acorns which smelt good, could not
help pulling a very wry face. Supper, however, was soon over, and then
Waldo and Silva asked leave very politely to go 'up the tree,' which in
squirrel language was much the same as if they had asked to go out to
the garden, and Mrs. Bushy, with many excuses for not accompanying them
on account of her household cares, and Mr. Bushy, pleading his gout,
told her nine darlings to escort the visitors upstairs.

Now began the real fun of the afternoon. A short flight of steps, like a
little ladder, led them to the outside of the tree. The nine Bushys
scampered and rushed along, squeaking and chattering with the greatest
good-nature, followed more slowly by the four children. For a moment or
two, when Rollo and Maia found themselves standing on a branch very near
the top of the tree, though, strange to say, they found it wide enough
to hold them quite comfortably, they felt rather giddy and frightened.

'How dreadfully high up we seem!' said Maia. 'Rollo, I'm _sure_ we must
have grown smaller. The trees never looked so big as this before. It
makes me giddy to look either up or down.'

'You'll get used to it in a minute,' said Waldo. 'Silva and I don't mind
it the least now. Look at the Bushys, Maia, isn't it fun to see them?'

And Maia forgot her fears in watching the nine young squirrels. Had Mrs.
Bushy been with them, her maternal vanity would have been gratified by
the admiration their exploits drew forth. It really was the funniest
and prettiest sight in the world to see them at their gambols. No
dancers on the tight-rope were ever half so clever. They swung
themselves up by the branches to the very top of the tree, and then in an
instant--flash!--there they were ever so far below where the children
were standing. And in another instant, like a brown streak, up they
were again, darting hither, there, and everywhere, so that one felt as
if the whole tree were alive. When they had a little worked off their
spirits they squeaked to the children to join them; Waldo and Silva did
so at once, for they were used to these eccentric gymnastics, and to
Rollo and Maia they looked nearly as clever as the squirrels themselves,
as, holding on by their companions' paws and tails, they jumped and
clambered and slid up and down. So in a little while the new-comers too
took courage and found the performances, like many other things, not
half so hard as they looked. And oh, how they all laughed and screamed,
and how the squirrels squeaked with enjoyment! I don't think ever
children before had such fun. Fancy the pleasure of swaying in a branch
ever so far overhead quite safe, for there were the nine in a circle
ready to catch you if you slipped, and then hand in hand, or rather hand
in paw, dancing round the trunk by hopping two and two from branch to
branch, nine squirrels and four children--a merry baker's dozen. Then
the sliding down the tree, like a climber on a May-pole, was great fun
too, for the Bushys had a way of twisting themselves round it so as to
avoid the sticking-out branches that was really very clever. So that
when suddenly, in the middle of it all, a little silvery tinkling bell
was heard to ring, and they all stood still looking at each other, Rollo
and Maia felt quite vexed at the interruption.

[Illustration: I don't think ever children before had such fun.]

'Go on,' said Maia, 'what are you all stopping for?'

'The summons,' said Waldo and Silva together. 'We must go. Good-night,
all of you,' to the squirrels. Had their mother been there, I fancy they
would have addressed Clamberina and her brothers and sisters more
ceremoniously. 'Good-bye, and thank you for all the fun.'

'Good-bye, and thank you,' said Rollo and Maia, rather at a loss as to
whether they should offer to shake paws, or if that was not squirrel
fashion. But before they had time to consider, 'Quick,' said a voice
behind them, which they were not slow to recognise, 'slide down the
tree,' and down they slid, all four, though, giving one glance upwards,
they caught sight of the nine squirrels all seated in a row on a branch,
each with their pocket-handkerchief at their eyes, weeping copiously.

'Poor things,' said Maia, 'how tender-hearted they are!'

'They always do that when we come away,' said Waldo; 'it's part of
their manners. But they are very good-natured.'

'And where's godmother,' said Maia, when they found themselves on
terra-firma again. 'Wasn't it her voice that spoke to us up on the tree,
and told us to come down?'

'Yes,' said Silva; 'but she called up through a speaking-trumpet. I
don't know where she is herself. She may be a good way off. But that
doesn't matter. We can tell what to do. Lay your ear to the ground,
Waldo.'

Waldo did so.

'Are they coming,' asked Silva.

'Yes,' said Waldo, getting up; 'they'll be here directly;' and almost
before he had left off speaking the pretty sound of tinkling bells was
heard approaching, nearer and nearer every second, till the children, to
their delight, caught sight of the little carriage and the tiny piebald
ponies, which came dancing up to them all of themselves, and stood
waiting for them to get in.

'But where's godmother?' exclaimed Maia; 'how can we get home without
her?'

'All right,' said Waldo; 'she often lends Silva and me her ponies. I can
drive you home quite safely, you'll see. Get in, Maia and Silva
behind--Rollo and I will go in front.'

And off they set. It was not quite such a harum-scarum drive as it had
been coming. Waldo did not take any flying leaps--indeed, I think nobody
but godmother herself could have managed that! but it was very
delightful all the same.

'Oh, Silva,' exclaimed Maia, 'I do so wish we need not go back to the
white castle and Lady Venelda and our lessons! I do so wish we might
live in the cottage with you and Waldo, _always_.'

Silva looked a little sorry when Maia spoke thus.

'Don't say that, Maia,' she said. 'Godmother wouldn't like it. We want
to make you happy while you're here--not to make you impatient. If you
and Rollo were always at the cottage, you wouldn't like it half so much
as you do now, coming sometimes. You would soon get tired of it, unless
you worked hard like Waldo and me.'

'Do you work hard?' said Maia, with some surprise.

'Yes, of course we do. You only see us at our play-time. Waldo goes off
to the forester's at the other side of the wood every morning at six,
and I take him his dinner every day, and then I stay there and work in
the dairy till we come home together in the evening.'

'But you sometimes have holidays,' said Maia.

'Yes, of course we do,' said Silva, smiling. 'Godmother sees to that.'

'How?' asked Maia. 'Does she know the forester and his wife? Does she go
and ask them to give you a holiday?'

'Not exactly,' said Silva, smiling. 'I can't tell you how she does it.
She has her own ways for doing everything. How does she get you _your_
holidays?'

'Does _she_ get us them?' said Maia, astonished. 'Why, Lady Venelda
never speaks of her. Do you think she knows her?'

'I can't tell you,' said Silva, again smiling in the same rather strange
way as before, and somehow when she smiled like that she reminded Maia
of godmother herself; 'but she does know _somebody_ at the white castle,
and somebody there knows her.'

'The old doctor!' exclaimed Maia, clapping her hands. 'I'm _sure_ you
mean the old doctor. Ah! that's how it is, is it? Godmother sends to the
old doctor or writes to him, or--or--I don't know what--and then he
finds out we need a holiday, and--oh, he manages it somehow, I suppose!'

'Yes,' said Silva; 'but as long as you get your holiday it's all right.
When godmother tells us of anything we're to do, or that she has
settled for us, we're quite pleased without asking her all the little
bits about it.'

'I see,' said Maia; 'but then, Silva, you're different from me.'

'Of course I am,' said Silva; 'but it wouldn't be at all nice if
everybody was the same. That's one of the things godmother always says.'

'Yes, like what she says about how stupid it would be if we knew
everything, and if there was nothing more to puzzle and wonder about. It
_is_ nice to wonder and puzzle sometimes, but not always. Just now I
don't mind about anything except about the fun of going so fast, with
those dear little ponies' bells tinkling all the way. I shall be so
sorry to get to the cottage, for we shan't have time to go in, Silva. We
shall have to hurry home not to be too late for supper.'

Just as she spoke Waldo pulled up sharply.

'What's the matter?' called out Maia. She had been talking so much to
Silva that she had not noticed the way they were going. Now she looked
about her, and it seemed to her that she recognised the look of the
trees, which were much less close and thick than in the middle of the
forest. But before she had time to think more about it a voice close at
hand made both her and Rollo start.

'Well, young people,' it said, 'you have had, I hope, a pleasant day?
You, too, Waldo and Silva? It is some time since I have seen you, my
children.'

It was, of course, the voice of the doctor. All the four jumped out of
the little carriage and ran forward to their old friend, for to Rollo's
and Maia's surprise, the two forest children seemed to know him quite as
well as they did themselves.

He seemed delighted to see them all, and his kind old face shone with
pleasure as he patted the curly heads of the boys and Maia, and stroked
gently Silva's pretty, smooth hair.

'But you must go home,' he said to Waldo and Silva. 'Good-night, my
children;' and quickly bidding their little friends farewell, the
brother and sister sprang up again into the tiny carriage, and in
another moment the more and more faintly-tinkling bells were all left of
them, as Rollo and Maia stood a little sadly, gazing in the direction in
which they had disappeared.

'And you have been happy?' said the old doctor.

'_Very_ happy,' both replied together. 'We have had such fun.' But
before they had time to tell their old friend anything more he
interrupted them.

'You, too, must hurry home,' he said. 'You see where you are? Up the
path to the right and you will come out at the usual place just behind
the castle wall at the back.'

Rollo and Maia hastened to obey him.

'How queer he is!' said Maia. 'He doesn't seem to care to hear what
we've been doing--he never asks anything but if we've been happy.'

'Well, what does it matter?' said Rollo. 'I like only to talk to
ourselves of the queer things we see when we're with Waldo and Silva. I
wonder what they will show us or where they will take us the next time?'

'So do I,' said Maia.

'Waldo said something about the eagles that live up in the high rocks at
the edge of the forest,' said Rollo. 'He did not exactly say so, but he
spoke as if he had been there. Wouldn't you like to see an eagles' nest,
Maia?'

'I should think so, indeed!' replied Maia eagerly. 'But I don't think
that's what they call it, Rollo; there's another name.'

'Yes, I think there is, but I can't remember it,' he answered. 'But
never mind, Maia, here we are at the gate. We must run in and get ready
for supper.'



CHAPTER IX.

A COMMITTEE OF BIRDS.

               'Then a sound is heard,
    A sudden rushing sound of many wings.'


Nothing was asked of the children as to where or how they had spent
their day. Lady Venelda looked at them kindly as they took their places
at the supper-table, and she kissed them when they said good-night as if
she were quite pleased with them. They were not sorry to go to bed; for
however delightful squirrel gymnastics are, they are somewhat fatiguing,
especially to those who are not accustomed to them, and I can assure you
that Rollo and Maia slept soundly that night; thanks to which, no doubt,
they woke next morning as fresh as larks.

Their lessons were all done to the satisfaction of their teachers, so
that in the afternoon, when, as they were setting off with Nanni for
their usual walk, they met the old doctor on the terrace, he nodded at
them good-humouredly.

'That's right,' he said; 'holidays do you no harm, I see.'

'And we may have another before very long, then, mayn't we?' said Maia,
whose little tongue was always the readiest.

'All in good time,' said the old man, and as they had found his memory
so good hitherto, the children felt that they might trust him for the
future.

They did not go in the direction of the cottage to-day. Though they had
not exactly been told so, they had come to understand that when
godmother wanted them, or had arranged some pleasure for them and her
forest children, she would find some means of letting them know, and the
sort of desire to please and obey her which they felt seemed even
stronger than if her wishes had been put down in plain rules. And when
Nanni was with them they now took care not to speak of the cottage or
their friends there, for she could not have understood about them, and
she would only have been troubled and frightened. But yet the thought of
Waldo and Silva and godmother and the cottage, and all the pleasure and
fun they had had, seemed never quite away. It hovered about them like
the impression of a happy dream, which seems to make the whole day
brighter, though we can scarcely tell how.

The spring was now coming on fast; and what _can_ be more delightful
than spring-time in the woods? With the increasing warmth and sunshine
the scent of the pines seemed to waft out into the air, the primroses
and violets opened their eyes, and the birds overhead twittered and
trilled in their perfect happiness.

'How can any one be so cruel as to shoot them?' said Maia one afternoon
about a week after the visit to the squirrels.

'I don't think any one would shoot these tiny birds,' said Rollo.

'I am afraid they do in some countries,' said Maia. 'Not here; I don't
think godmother would let them. I think nobody can do anything in these
woods against her wishes,' she went on in a lower tone, glancing in
Nanni's direction. But that young woman was knitting away calmly, with
an expression of complete content on her rosy face.

'Rollo,' Maia continued, 'come close to me. I want to speak in a
whisper;' and Rollo, who, like his sister, was stretched at full length
on the ground, thickly carpeted with the tiny dry-brown spikes which
had fallen from the fir-trees during the winter, edged himself along by
his elbows without getting up, till he was near enough to hear Maia's
lowest murmur.

'Lazy boy,' she said, laughing. 'Is it too much trouble to move?'

'It's too much trouble to stand up any way,' replied Rollo. 'What is it
you want to say, Maia? I do think there's something in these woods that
puts one to sleep, as Nanni says.'

'So do I,' said Maia, and her voice had a half sleepy sound as she
spoke. 'I don't quite know what I wanted to say, Rollo. It was only
something about _them_, you know.'

'You needn't be the least afraid--Nanni can't hear,' said Rollo, without
moving.

'Well, I only wanted to talk a little about them. Just to wonder, you
know, if they won't soon be sending for us--making some new treat. It
seems such a long time since we saw them.'

'Only a week,' said Rollo, sleepily.

'Well, a week's a good while,' pursued Maia; 'and I'm sure we've done
our lessons _very_ well all this time, and nobody's had to scold us for
anything. _Rollo_----'

'Oh, I do wish you'd let me take a little sleep,' said poor Rollo.

'Oh, very well, then! I won't talk if you want to go to sleep,' said
Maia, in a slightly offended tone; 'though I must say I think it is very
stupid of you when we've been shut up at our lessons all the morning,
and we have only an hour to stay out, to want to spend it all in
sleeping.'

But she said no more, for by this time Rollo was quite asleep, and the
click-click of Nanni's knitting-needles grew fainter and fainter, till
Maia, looking round to see why she was stopping, discovered that Nanni
too had given in to the influence of the woods. She was asleep, and
doubtless dreaming pleasantly, for there was a broad smile on her
good-natured face.

'Stupid things!' thought Maia to herself. And then she began wondering
what amusement she could find till it was time to go home again. 'For
_I'm_ not sleepy,' she said; 'it is only the twinkling way the sunshine
comes through the trees that makes my eyes feel rather dazzled. I may as
well shut them a little, and as I have no one to talk to I will try to
say over my French poetry, so that I shall know it _quite_ well for
Mademoiselle Delphine to-morrow morning.'

The French poetry was long and dull. The complaint of a shepherdess for
the loss of her sheep was the name of it, and Maia had not found it easy
to learn, for, like many things it was then the custom to teach
children, it was neither interesting nor instructive. But if it did her
good in no other way, it was a lesson of patience, and Maia had worked
hard at it. She now began to say it over to herself from the beginning
in a low monotonous voice, her eyes closed as she half lay, half sat,
leaning her head on the trunk of one of the great trees. It seemed to
her that her poetry went wonderfully well. Never before had it sounded
to her so musical. She really felt quite a pleasure in softly murmuring
the lines, and quite unconsciously they seemed to set themselves to an
air she had often been sung to sleep to by her nurse when a very little
girl, till to her surprise Maia found herself singing in a low but
exquisitely sweet voice.

'I _never_ knew I could sing so beautifully,' she thought to herself; 'I
must tell Rollo about it.' But she did not feel inclined to wake him up
to listen to it. She had indeed forgotten all about him being asleep at
her side--she had forgotten everything but the beauty of her song and
the pleasure of her newly-discovered talent. And on and on she sang,
like the bewitched Princess, though what she was singing about she could
not by this time have told, till all of a sudden she became aware that
she was not singing alone--or, at least, not without an accompaniment.
For all through her singing, sometimes rising above it, sometimes gently
sinking below, was a sweet trilling warble, purer and clearer than the
sound of a running brook, softer and mellower than the music of any
instrument Maia had ever heard.

'What can it be?' thought Maia. She half determined to open her eyes to
look, but she refrained from a vague fear that if she did so it might
perhaps scare the music away. But unconsciously she had stopped singing,
and just then a new sound as of innumerable wings close to her made her
forget all in her curiosity to see what it was. She opened her eyes in
time to see fluttering downwards an immense flock of birds--birds of
every shape and colour, though none of them were very big, the largest
being about the size of a parrot. There lay Rollo, fast asleep, in the
midst of the crowd of feathered creatures, and something--an instinct
she could not explain--made Maia quickly shut her eyes again. She was
not afraid, but she felt sure the birds would not have come so near had
they not thought her asleep too. So she remained perfectly still,
leaning her head against the trunk of the tree and covering her face
with her hand, so that she could peep out between the fingers while yet
seeming to be asleep.

The flutter gradually ceased, and the great flock of birds settled
softly on the ground. Then began a clear chirping which, to Maia's
delight, as she listened with all her ears, gradually seemed to shape
itself into words which she could understand.

'Do you think they liked our music?' piped a bird, or several birds
together--it was impossible to say which.

'I think so,' answered some other; '_he_'--and Maia understood that they
were speaking of Rollo--'has heard it but dimly--he is farther away. But
_she_ was nearer us and will not forget it.'

'They seem good children,' said in a more squeaky tone a black and white
bird, hopping forward a little by himself. He appeared to Maia to be
some kind of crow or raven, but she disliked his rather patronising
tone.

'Good children,' she said to herself. 'What business has an old crow to
talk of us as good children!'

'Ah, yes!' replied a little brown bird which had established itself on
a twig just above Rollo's head. 'If they had not been so, you may be
sure _she_ would have had nothing to do with them, instead of making
them as happy as she can, and giving orders all through the forest that
they are to be entertained. I hear they amused themselves very well at
the squirrels' the other day.'

'Ah, indeed! A party?'

'Oh, no--just a simple gambolade. Had it been a party, of course _our_
services would have been retained for the music.'

'Naturally,' replied the little brown bird. 'Of course no musical
entertainment would be complete without _you_, Mr. Crow.'

The old black bird giggled. He seemed quite flattered, and was evidently
on the point of replying to his small brown friend by some amiable
speech, when a soft cooing voice interrupted him. It was that of a
wood-pigeon, who, with two or three companions, came hopping up to them.

'What are we to do?' she said. 'Shall we warble a slumber-song for them?
They are sleeping still.'

The old crow glanced at the children.

'I fancy they have had enough music for to-day,' he said. 'I think we
should consult together seriously about what we can do for their
entertainment. It won't do to let the squirrels be the only ones to show
them attention. Besides, children who come to our woods and amuse
themselves without ever robbing a nest, catching a butterfly, or causing
the slightest alarm to even a hare--such children _deserve_ to be
rewarded.'

'What can we do for them?' chirruped a brisk little robin. 'We have
given them a concert, which has had the effect'--and he made a
patronising little bow in the direction of Rollo and Maia--'the
effect--of sending them to sleep.'

'I beg your pardon,' said a sparrow pertly. 'They were asleep before our
serenade began. It was _intended_ to lull their slumbers. That was _her_
desire.'

'Doubtless,' said the crow snappishly. 'Mr. Sparrow is always the best
informed as to matters in the highest quarters. And, of
course--considering his world-wide fame as a songster----'

'No sparring--no satirical remarks, gentlemen,' put in a bird who had
not yet spoken. It was a blackbird, and all listened to him with
respect. 'We should give example of nothing but peace and unity to
these unfeathered visitors of ours, otherwise they might carry away a
most mistaken idea of our habits and principles and of the happiness in
which we live.'

'Certainly--certainly,' agreed the crow. 'It was but a little amiable
repartee, Mr. Blackbird. My young friend Sparrow has not quite thrown
off the--the slight--sharpness of tone acquired, almost unconsciously,
by a long residence in cities.'

'And you, my respected friend,' observed the sparrow, 'are
naturally--but we can all make allowance for each other--not altogether
indisposed to croak. But these are trifling matters in no way
interfering with the genuine brotherliness and good feeling in which we
all live together in this favoured land.'

A gentle but general buzz, or twitter rather, of applause greeted this
speech.

'And now to business,' said the robin. 'What are we to arrange for the
amusement of our young friends?'

'A remark reached my ears--I may explain, in passing, that some members
of my family have a little nest just under the eaves of the castle,
and--and--I now and then hear snatches of conversation--not, of course,
that we are given to _eavesdropping_--of course, none of my family could
be suspected of such a thing--but, as I was saying, a remark reached my
ears that our young friends would like to visit what, in human language,
would be called our king's palace--that is to say, the eyrie of the
great eagle at the summit of the forest,' said a swallow, posing his
awkward body ungracefully on one leg and looking round for approval.

'Nothing easier,' replied the robin. 'We are much obliged to you for the
suggestion, Mr. Swallow. If it meets with approval in the highest
quarters, I vote that we should carry it out.'

Another twitter of approval greeted this speech.

'And when shall the visit take place?' asked the wood-pigeon softly,
'and how shall it be accomplished?'

'As to _when_, that is not for us to decide,' said the robin. 'As to
_how_, I should certainly think a voyage through the air would be far
the greatest novelty and amusement. And this, by laying our wings all
together, we can easily arrange. The first thing we have to do is to
submit the idea for approval, and then we can all meet together again
and fix the details. But now I think we should be on the wing to regain
our nests. Besides, our young friends will be awaking soon. It would not
do for them to see us here assembled in such numbers. It might alarm
them.'

'That is true,' said the crow. 'Their education in some respects has
been neglected. They have not enjoyed the unusual advantages of Waldo
and Silva. But still--they are very good children, in their way.'

This last speech made Maia so angry that, forgetting all pretence of
being asleep, she started up to give the old crow a bit of her mind.

'You impertinent old croaker,' she began to say, but to her amazement
there was neither crow nor bird of any kind to be seen! Maia rubbed her
eyes--was she, or had she been dreaming? No, it was impossible. But yet,
how had all the birds got away so quickly, without the least flutter or
bustle, and in less than half a second? She turned to Rollo and gave him
a shake.

'Rollo,' she said, 'do wake up, you lazy boy. Where have they all gone
to?'



CHAPTER X.

A SAIL IN THE AIR.

    'Bright are the regions of the air,
    And among the winds and beams
    It were delight to wander there.'

    SHELLEY.


'What are you talking about?' said Rollo, sitting up, and in his turn
rubbing his eyes. 'Where have "who" gone to?'

'The birds, of course,' replied Maia. 'You can't be so stupid, Rollo, as
not to have seen them.'

'I've been asleep,' said the poor boy, looking rather ashamed of
himself. 'What birds were they? Did you see them? I have a queer sort of
feeling,' and he hesitated, looking at Maia as if she could explain it,
'as if I had dreamt something about them--as if I heard some sort of
music through my sleep. What did _you_ see, Maia? do tell me.'

Maia described it all to him, and he listened with the greatest
interest. But at the end he made an observation which roused her
indignation.

'I believe you were dreaming too,' he said. 'Nobody ever heard of birds
speaking like that.'

'And yet you say you heard something of it through your sleep? Is it
likely we both dreamt the same thing all of ourselves?'

'But I didn't dream that birds were talking,' objected Rollo. 'They
can't talk.'

Maia glanced at him with supreme contempt.

'Can squirrels talk?' she said. 'Would anybody believe all the things we
have seen and done since we have been in this Christmas-tree land? Think
of our drives in godmother's carriage; think of our finding our way
through a tree's trunk; think of godmother herself, with her wonderful
ways and her beautiful dress, and yet that she can look like a poor old
woman! Would anybody believe all that, do you think? And we know it's
all true; and yet you can't believe birds can talk! Oh, you are too
stupid.'

Rollo smiled; he did not seem vexed.

'I don't see that all that prevents it being possible that you were
dreaming all the same,' he said. 'But dreams are true sometimes.'

'Are they?' said Maia, looking puzzled in her turn. 'Well, what was the
use of going on so about birds never talking, then? Never mind, now;
just wait and see if what I've told you doesn't come true. _I_ shall go,
Rollo; if the birds come to fetch us to go to see the eagle, _I_ shall
go.'

'So shall I,' said Rollo coolly. 'I never had the slightest intention of
not going. But we must go home now, Maia; it's getting late, and you
know we were not to stay long to-day.'

'Where's Nanni?' said Maia.

'Perhaps the birds have flown off with her,' said Rollo mischievously.
But for a moment or two neither he nor Maia could help feeling a little
uneasy, for no Nanni was to be seen! They called her and shouted to her,
and at last a sort of grunt came in reply, which guided them to where,
quite hidden by a little nest of brushwood, Nanni lay at full length,
blinking her eyes as if she had not the slightest idea where she was.

As soon as she saw them, up she jumped.

'Oh, I am so ashamed,' she cried. 'What could have come over me to fall
asleep like that, just when I thought I should have got such a great
piece of Master Rollo's stockings done! And you have been looking for
me, lazy girl that I am! But I can assure you, Miss Maia, when I first
sat down I was not here--I was sitting over there,' and she pointed to
another tree-stump a little way off, 'not asleep at all, and knitting so
fast. There are fairies in the wood, Miss Maia,' she added in a lower
voice. 'I've thought it many a time, and I'm more sure than ever of it
now. I don't think we should come into the woods at all, I really
don't.'

'We shouldn't have anywhere to walk in, then,' said Rollo. 'I don't see
why you should be afraid of fairies, Nanni, even supposing there are
any. They've never done us any harm. Now, have they?'

But though she could not say they had, Nanni did not look happy. She was
one of those people that did not like anything she did not understand.
Maia gave Rollo's sleeve a little pull as a sign to him that he had
better not say any more, and then they set off quickly walking back to
the castle.

For some days things went on as usual, though every morning when she got
up and every evening when she went to bed Maia wondered if the summons
would not come soon. She went all round the castle, peeping up into the
eaves to see if she could find the swallows' nest; but she did not
succeed, and it was no wonder, for the solitary nest was hidden away in
a corner where even Maia's sharp eyes could not penetrate, and the
swallows flew out and in through a hole in the parapet round the roof
which no one suspected.

'I know there _are_ swallows here,' she said to Rollo, 'for I've seen
them. But I can't fancy where they live.'

'Nanni would say they were fairies,' said Rollo, smiling. He was more
patient than his sister, and he was quite sure that godmother would not
forget them. And by degrees Maia began to follow his example, especially
after Rollo happened to remark one day that he had noticed that it was
always when they had been working the most steadily at their lessons,
and thinking the least of holidays and treats that the holidays and
treats came. This counsel Maia took to heart, and worked so well for
some days that Mademoiselle Delphine and the old chaplain had none but
excellent reports to give of both children, and Lady Venelda smiled on
them so graciously that they felt sure her next letter to their father
would be a most satisfactory one.

One evening--it was the evening of a most lovely spring day--when Rollo
and Maia had said good-night in the usual ceremonious way to Lady
Venelda, they were coming slowly along the great corridor, white like
the rest of the castle, which led to their own rooms, when a sound at
one of the windows they were passing made them stop.

'What was that?' said Maia. 'It sounded like a great flutter of wings.'

Rollo glanced out of the window. It was nearly dark, but his eyes were
quick.

'It was wings,' he said. 'Quite a flight of birds have just flown off
from under the roof.'

'Ah,' said Maia, nodding her head mysteriously, 'I thought so. Well,
Rollo, _I_ don't intend to go to sleep to-night, whether you do or not.'

Rollo shook his head.

'I shall wake if there's anything to wake for,' he said. 'I'm much more
sure of doing that than you can be of keeping awake.'

'Why, I couldn't _go_ to sleep if I thought there was going to be
anything to wake for,' said Maia.

Before long they were both in bed. Rollo laid his head on the pillow
without troubling himself about keeping awake or going to sleep. Maia,
on the contrary, kept her eyes as wide open as she could. It was a
moonlight night; the objects in the room stood out in sharp black
shadow against the bright radiance, seeming to take queer fantastic
forms which made her every minute start up, feeling sure that she saw
some one or something beside her bedside. And every time that she found
it a mistake she felt freshly disappointed. At last, quite tired with
expecting she knew not what, she turned her face to the wall and shut
her eyes.

'Stupid things that they all are!' she said to herself. 'Godmother, and
the birds, and Waldo, and Silva, and the old doctor, and everybody.
They've no business to promise us treats, and then never do anything
about them. I shan't think any more about it, that I won't. I believe
it's all a pretence.'

Which you will, I am sure, agree with me in thinking not very reasonable
on Maia's part!

She fell asleep at last, and, as might have been expected, much more
soundly than usual. When she woke, it was from a deep, dreamless
slumber, but with the feeling that for some time some one had been
calling her, and that she had been slow of rousing herself.

'What is it?' she called out, sitting up in bed, and trying to wink the
sleep out of her eyes. 'Who is there?'

'Maia!' a voice replied. A voice that seemed to come from a great
distance, and yet to reach her as clearly as any sound she had ever
heard in her life. 'Maia, are you ready?'

Up sprang Maia.

'Godmother, is it you calling me?' she said. 'Oh, yes, it must be you!
I'll be ready in a moment, godmother. If I could but find my shoes and
stockings! Oh, dear! oh, dear! and I meant to keep awake all night. I've
been expecting you such a long time.'

'I know,' said the voice, quite close beside her this time; 'you have
been expecting me too much,' and, glancing round, Maia saw in the
moonlight--right _in_ the moonlight, looking indeed almost as if the
bright rays came from her--a shadowy silvery figure, quite different
from godmother as she had hitherto known her, but which, nevertheless,
she knew in a moment could be no one else. Maia flung her arms round her
and kissed her.

'Yes,' she said, 'now I'm _quite_ sure it's you and not a dream. No
dream has cheeks so soft as yours, godmother, and no one else kisses
like you. Your kisses are just like violets. But what am I to do? Must I
get dressed at once?'

Godmother passed her hands softly round the child. She seemed to stroke
her.

'You are dressed,' she said. 'The clothes you wear generally would be
too heavy, so I brought some with me. You do not need shoes and
stockings.'

But Maia was looking at herself with too much surprise almost to hear
what she said. 'Dressed,' yes, indeed! She was dressed as never before
in her life, and though she turned herself about, and stroked herself
like a little bird proud of its plumage, she could not find out of what
her dress was made, nor what exactly was its colour. Was it velvet, or
satin, or plush? Was it green or blue?

'I know,' she cried at last joyously; 'it's the same stuff your red
dress is made of, godmother! Oh, how nice, and soft, and warm, and light
all together it is! I feel as if I could jump up to the sky.'

'And not be seen when you got there,' said godmother. 'The colour of
your dress _is_ sky colour, Maia. But when you have finished admiring
yourself we must go--the others have been ready ever so long. They had
not been expecting me _too_ much, like you, and so they were ready all
the quicker.'

'Do you mean Rollo?' said Maia. 'Rollo, and Silva, and Waldo?'

Godmother nodded her head.

'I'm ready now, any way,' said Maia.

'Give me your hand,' said godmother, and taking it she held it firm, and
led Maia to the window. To the little girl's surprise it was wide open.
Godmother, still holding her hand, softly whistled--once, twice, three
times. Then stood quietly waiting.

A gentle, rustling, wafting sound became gradually audible. Maia
remained perfectly still--holding her breath in her curiosity to see
what was coming next. The sound grew nearer and louder, if one can use
the word loud to so soft and delicate a murmur. Maia stretched out her
head.

'Here they are,' said godmother, and as she spoke, a large object,
looking something like a ship with two great sails swimming through the
air instead of on the sea, came in sight, and, as if steered by an
invisible hand, came slowly up to the window and there stopped.

'What is it?' cried Maia, not quite sure, in spite of godmother's firm
clasp, whether she was not a little frightened, for even godmother
herself looked strangely shadowy and unreal in the moonlight, and the
great air-boat was like nothing Maia had ever seen or dreamt of.
Suddenly she gave a joyful spring, for she caught sight of what took
away all her fear. There in the centre of the huge sails, seated in a
sort of car, and joyfully waving their hands to her, were Rollo, and
Silva, and Waldo.

'Come, Maia,' they called out; 'the birds have come to fetch us, you
see. There's a snug seat for you among the cushions. Come, quick.'

How was she to come, Maia was on the point of asking, when she felt
godmother draw her quickly forward.

'Spring, my child, and don't be afraid,' she said, and Maia sprang
almost without knowing it, for before she had time to ask or think
anything about it, she found herself being kissed by Silva, and
comfortably settled in her place by the boys.

'All right--we're off now,' Waldo called out, and at once, with a steady
swing, the queer ship rose into the air.

'But godmother,' exclaimed Maia, 'where is she? Isn't she coming with
us?'

'I am with you, my child,' answered godmother's clear, well-known voice.
But where it came from Maia could not tell.

'Godmother is steering us,' said Silva softly, 'but we can't see her.
She doesn't want us to see her. But she'll take care of us.'

'But where are we?' asked Maia bewildered. 'What is this queer ship or
balloon that we are in? What makes it go?'

'Look closer, and you'll see,' said Silva. 'Look at the sails.'

And Maia looking, saw by the bright moonlight something stranger than
any of the strange things she had yet seen in Christmas-tree land. The
sails were made of an immense collection of birds all somehow or other
holding together. Afterwards Silva explained to her that they were all
clinging by their claws to a great frame, round which they were arranged
in order according to their size, and all flapping their wings in
perfect time, so as to have much the same effect in propelling the
vessel through the air as the regular motion of several pairs of oars in
rowing a boat over the sea. And gradually, as Maia watched and
understood, a soft murmur reached her ears--it was the waft of the many
pairs of wings as they all together clove the air.

'Oh, the dear, sweet birds!' she exclaimed. 'They have planned it all
themselves, I am sure. Oh, Silva, isn't it lovely? Have you ever had a
sail in the air like this before?'

'Not exactly like this,' said Silva.

'We've had _rides_ in the air,' said Waldo mysteriously.

'_Have_ you?' said Maia eagerly. 'Oh, do tell us about them!'

But Rollo laid his hand on her arm.

'Hush!' he said softly; 'the birds are going to sing,' and before Maia
had time to ask him how he knew, the song began.

'Shut your eyes,' said Waldo; 'let's all shut our eyes. It sounds ever
so much prettier.'

The others followed his advice. You can imagine nothing more delicious
than the feeling of floating--for it felt more like quick floating than
anything else--swiftly through the air, with the sweet warbling voices
all keeping perfect time together, so that even the queer sounds which
now and then broke through the others--a croak from the crow, who was
quite satisfied that he alone conducted the bass voices, or a sudden
screech from an owl, who had difficulty in subduing his tones--did not
seem to mar the effect of the whole. The children did not speak; they
did not feel as if they cared to do so. They held each others' hands,
and Maia leant her head on Silva's shoulder in perfect content. It was
like a beautiful dream.

Gradually the music ceased, and just as it did so godmother's well-known
voice came clearly through the air. It seemed to come from above, and
yet it sounded so near.

'Children,' she said, 'we are going higher. It will be colder for a
while, for we must hasten, to be in good time for the dawn. Wrap
yourselves up well!'

And as she spoke down dropped on their heads a great soft fleecy shawl
or mantle. Softer and fleecier and lighter than any eider-down or lambs'
wool that ever was seen or felt, and warmer too, for the children had
but to give it the tiniest pull or pat in any direction and there it
settled itself in the most comfortable way, creeping round them like the
gentle hand of a mother covering up the little ones at night.

'It must be godmother who is tucking us up, though we can't see her,'
said Rollo.

'Dear godmother,' said Maia, and a sort of little echo was murmured all
round, even the birds seeming to join in it, of 'dear godmother.'

It did get colder, much colder; but the well-protected children,
nestling in the cushions of their air-boat, did not feel it, except when
inquisitive Maia poked up her sharp little nose, very quickly to
withdraw it again.

'Oh, it _is_ so freezy,' she said. 'My nose feels as if it would drop
off. Do rub it for me, Silva.'

'I told you it would be cold,' said godmother's voice again. 'Stay where
you are, Maia; indeed, I think I don't need to warn you now. A burnt
child dreads the fire. I will tell you all when the time comes for you
to peep out.'

Maia felt a very little ashamed of her restlessness, and for the rest of
the journey she was perfectly quiet. Especially when in a few moments
the birds began to sing again--still more softly and sweetly this time,
so that it seemed a kind of cradle song. Whether the children slept or
not I cannot tell. I don't think they could have told themselves; but in
any case they were very still for a good long while after the serenade
had ceased.

And then once more--clearer and more ringing than before--sounded
godmother's voice.

'Children, look out! The dawn is breaking.'

And as the strange air-boat slowly relaxed its speed, floating downwards
in the direction of some great cliffs almost exactly underneath where it
was, the four children sat up, throwing off the fairy mantle which had
so well protected them, and gazed with all their eyes, as well they
might, at the wonderful beauty of the sight before them.

For they had sailed up to the eagles' eyrie in time to see the sun
rise!



CHAPTER XI.

THE EAGLES' EYRIE.

    'Where, yonder, in the upper air
    The solemn eagles watch the sun.'


Did you ever see the sun rise? I hope so; but still I am sure you never
saw it from such a point as that whereon their winged conductors gently
deposited the castle and the forest children that early summer morning.

'Jump out,' said the voice they had all learnt to obey, when the
air-boat came to a stand-still a few feet above the rock. And the
children, who as yet had noticed nothing of the ground above which they
were hovering, for their eyes were fixed on the pink and azure and
emerald and gold, spreading out like a fairy kaleidoscope on the sky
before them, joined hands and sprang fearlessly on to they knew not
what. And as they did so, with a murmuring warble of farewell, the birds
flapped their wings, and the air-boat rose swiftly into the air and
disappeared from view.

The four looked at each other.

'Has godmother sailed away in it? I thought she was going to stay with
us,' exclaimed Maia in a disappointed tone.

'Oh, Maia,' said Silva, 'you don't yet understand godmother a bit. But
we must not stand here. You know the way, Waldo?'

'Here,' where they were standing, was, as I said, a rock, ragged and
bare, though lower down, its sides were clothed with short thymy grass.
And stretching behind them the children saw a beautiful expanse of hilly
ground, beautiful though treeless, for the heather and bracken and gorse
that covered it looked soft and mellow in the distance, more especially
with the lovely light and colour just now reflected from the sky.

But Waldo turned in the other direction. He walked a little way across
the hard, bare rock, which he seemed to be attentively examining, till
suddenly he stopped short, and tapped on the ground with a little stick
he had in his hand.

'It must be about here,' he said. The other three children came close
round him.

'Here,' exclaimed Silva, and she pointed to a small white cross cut in
the stone at their feet.

Waldo knelt down, and pressed the spot exactly in the centre of the
cross. Immediately a large slab of rock, forming a sort of door, but
fitting so closely when shut that no one would have suspected its
existence, opened inwards, disclosing a flight of steps. Waldo looked
round.

'This is the short cut to the face of the cliff,' he said. 'Shall I go
down first?'

'Yes, and I next,' said Rollo, eagerly springing forward.

Then followed Silva and Maia. The flight of steps was a short one. In a
few moments they found themselves in a rocky passage, wide enough for
them to walk along comfortably, one by one, and not dark, as light came
in from little shafts cut at intervals in the roof. The passage twisted
and turned about a good deal, but suddenly Waldo stopped, calling out:

'Here we are! Is not this worth coming to see?'

The passage had changed into a gallery, with the rock on one side only,
on the other a railing, to protect those walking along it from a
possible fall; for they were right on the face of an enormous cliff,
far down at the bottom of which they could distinguish the tops of
their old friends the firs. And far as the eye could reach stretched
away into the distance, miles and miles and miles, here rising, there
again sweeping downwards, the everlasting Christmas-trees!

The passage stopped suddenly. It ended in a sort of little shelf in the
rock, and higher up in the wall, at the back of this shelf as it were,
the children saw two large round holes cut in the rock: they were the
windows of the eagles' eyrie.

Waldo went forward, and with his little stick tapped three times on the
smooth, shining rock-wall. But the others, intently watching though they
were, could not see how a door opened--whether it drew back inwards or
rolled in sidewards. All they saw was that just before them, where a
moment before there had been the rock-surface, a great arched doorway
now invited them to enter.

Waldo glanced round, though without speaking. The other three
understood, and followed him through the doorway, which, in the same
mysterious way in which it had opened, was now closed up behind them.
But that it was so they hardly noticed, so delighted were they with what
they saw before them. It was the prettiest room, or hall, you could
imagine--the roof rising very high, and the light coming in through the
two round windows of which I told you. And the whole--roof, walls,
floor--was completely lined with what, at first sight, the children took
for some most beautifully-embroidered kind of velvet. But velvet it was
not. No embroidery ever showed the exquisite delicacy of tints, fading
into each other like the softest tones of music, from the purest white
through every silvery shade to the richest purple, or from deep glowing
scarlet to pink paler than the first blush of the peach-blossom, while
here and there rainbow wreaths shone out like stars on a glowing sky. It
was these wreaths that told the secret.

'Why,' exclaimed Maia, 'it is all _feathers_!'

'Yes,' said Silva, 'I had forgotten. I never was here before, but
godmother told me about it.'

'And where----?' Maia was going on, but a sound interrupted her. It was
that of a flutter of wings over their heads, and looking up the children
perceived two enormous birds slowly flying downwards to where they
stood, though whence they had come could not be seen.

They alighted and stood together--their great wings folded, while their
piercing eyes surveyed their guests.

'We make you welcome,' they said at last, in a low soft tone which
surprised the children, whose heads were full of the idea that eagles
were fierce and their only voice a scream. 'We have been looking for
your visit, of which our birds gave us notice. We have ordered a
collation to be prepared for you, and we trust you will enjoy the view.'

Waldo, who seemed to be master of the ceremonies to-day, stepped forward
a little in front of the others.

'We thank you,' he said quietly, making his best bow as he spoke.

The eagle queen raised her great wing--the left wing--and with it
pointed to a spot among the feather hangings where, though they had not
noticed it, the children now saw gleaming a silver knob.

'Up that stair leads to the balcony overhanging the cliff,' she said.
'There you will find our respected attendants, the falcon and the hawk,
who have purveyed for your wants. And before you leave, the king and I
hope to show you something of this part of our domains. _Au
revoir!_--the sun awaits us to bid him good-morning.'

And with a slow, majestic movement the two strange birds spread their
wings and rose upwards, where, though the children's eyes followed them
closely, they disappeared they knew not how or where.

Then Waldo turned the silver knob and opened a door, through which, as
the eagle queen had said, they saw a staircase mounting straight
upwards. It led out on to a balcony cut in the rock, but carefully
carpeted with moss, and with rustic seats and a rustic table, on which
were laid out four covers evidently intended for the four children. Two
birds, large, but very much smaller than the eagles, stood at the side,
each with a table-napkin over one wing, which so amused the children
that it was with difficulty they returned the exceedingly dignified
'reverence' with which the hawk and the falcon greeted them. And they
were rather glad when the two attendants spread their wings and flew
over the edge of the balcony, evidently going to fetch the dishes.

'What will they give us to eat, I wonder?' said Maia. 'I hope it won't
be pieces of poor little lambs, all raw, you know. That's what they
always tell you eagles eat in the natural history books.'

'Not the eagles of _this_ country,' said Silva. 'I am sure you never
read about them in your books. _Our_ eagles are not cruel and fierce;
they would never eat little lambs.'

'But they must kill lots of little birds, whether they eat them or not,'
said Maia, 'to get all those quantities and quantities of feathers.'

'Kill the little birds!' cried Silva and Waldo both at once. 'Kill their
own birds! Maia, what are you thinking of? As if any creature that lives
in Christmas-tree Land would kill any other! Why, the feathers are the
birds' presents to the king and queen. They keep all that drop off and
bring them once a year, and that's been done for years and years, till
the whole of the nest is lined with them.'

'How nice!' replied Maia. 'I'm very glad the eagles are so kind. But
they're not so _funny_ as the squirrels. They look so very solemn.'

'They must be solemn,' said Waldo. 'They're not like the squirrels, who
have nothing to do but jump about.'

'I beg your pardon,' said Rollo. 'Have you forgotten that the world
would stop if Mr. Bushy didn't climb to the top of the tree?'

'And what would happen if the eagles left off watching the sun?' said
Waldo.

'I don't know,' said Maia eagerly. 'Do tell us, Waldo.'

Waldo looked at her.

'I don't know either,' he said. 'Perhaps the sun would go to sleep, and
then there would be a nice confusion.'

'You're laughing at me,' said Maia, in rather an offended tone. 'I don't
see how I'm to be expected to know everything; if the squirrels and the
eagles and all the creatures here are different from everywhere else,
how could I tell?'

'Here's the collation!' exclaimed Rollo, and looking up, the others saw
the falcon and the hawk flying back again, carrying between them a large
basket, from which, when they had set it down beside the table, they
cleverly managed, with beaks and claws, to take all sorts of mysterious
things, which they arranged upon the table. There was no lamb, either
raw or roasted, for all the repast consisted of fruits. Fruits of every
kind the children had ever heard of, and a great many of which they did
not even know the names, but which were more delicious than you, who
have never tasted them, can imagine.

'You see the eagle king and queen have no need to kill poor little
lambs,' said Silva. And Maia agreed with her that no one who could get
such fruits to eat, need ever wish for any other food. While she was
speaking, the same soft rustle which they had heard before sounded
overhead, and again the two great majestic birds alighted beside them.
The four children started to their feet.

'Thank you so much for the delicious fruit, eagle king and eagle queen,'
said Maia, who was seldom backward at making speeches.

'We are glad you found it to your taste,' said the king. 'It has come
from many a far-away land--lands you have perhaps scarcely even dreamt
of, but which to us seem not so strange or distant.'

'Do you fly away so very far?' asked Maia, but the eagles only gleamed
at her with their wonderful eyes, and shook their heads.

'It is not for us to tell what you could not understand,' said the king.
'They who can gaze undazzled on the sun must see many things.'

Maia drew back a little.

'They frighten me rather,' she whispered to the others. 'They are so
solemn and mysterious.'

'But that needn't frighten you,' said Silva. 'Rollo isn't frightened.'

'Rollo's a boy,' replied Maia, as if that settled the matter.

Waldo now pointed out some steps in the rock leading up still higher.

'The eagles want us to go up there,' he said. 'We shall see right over
the forest and ever so far.'

And so they did, for the steps led up a long way till they ended on
another rock-shelf right on the face of the cliff. From here the great
fir-forests looked but like dark patches far below, while away, away in
the distance stretched on one side the great plain across which the
children had journeyed on their first coming to the white castle; and on
the other the distant forms of mountain ranges, gray-blue, shading
fainter and fainter till the clouds themselves looked more real.

It was cold, very cold, up here on the edge of the great bare rocks. The
beauty of the sunrise had sobered down into the chilly freshness of an
early summer morning; the world seemed still asleep, and the children
shivered a little.

'I don't think I should like to live always as high up as this,' said
Maia. 'It's very lonely and very cold.'

'You would need to be dressed in feathers like the eagles if you did,'
replied Silva; 'and if one had eyes like theirs, I dare say one would
never feel lonely. One would see so much.'

'I wonder,' said Maia--and then she stopped.

'What were you going to say?' asked Rollo.

Maia's eyes looked far over the plain as if, like the eagles, they would
pierce the distance.

'It was from there we came,' she said. 'I wonder if it will be from
there that father will come to take us away. Do you think that the
eagles will know when he is coming? do you think they will see him from
very far off?'

Silva looked over the plain without speaking, and into her dark eyes
there crept something that was not in Maia's blue ones.

'Maia,' exclaimed Rollo reproachfully, 'Silva is crying. She doesn't
like you to talk of us going away.'

In an instant Maia's arms were round Silva's neck.

'Don't cry, Silva--you mustn't,' she said. 'When we go away you and
Waldo shall come too--we will ask our father, won't we, Rollo?'

'And godmother?' said Silva, smiling again. 'What would she say? We are
her children, Maia, and the children of the forest. We should not be fit
to live as you do in the great world of men out away there. No; we can
always love each other, and perhaps you and Rollo will come away out of
the world sometimes to see us--but we must stay in our own country.'

'Never mind--don't talk about it just now,' said Maia. 'I wish I hadn't
said anything about father coming. I dare say he won't come for a very
long while, and when we can see you and Waldo we are never dull. It's
only at the castle when they give us such lots of lessons and everybody
is so prim and so cross if we're the least bit late. Oh, dear!--I was
forgetting--shan't we be late for breakfast this morning? Is godmother
coming to fetch us?'

'We are going home now,' said Waldo. 'But first we must say good-bye to
the eagles. Here they are,' for as he spoke the two royal birds came
circling down from overhead and settled themselves on the very edge of
the cliff, whose dizzy height they calmly overlooked--their gaze fixed
far beyond.

'That is where they always stay watching,' said Waldo, in a low voice,
and then the children went forward till they were but a few steps behind
the pair. Farther it would not have been safe to go.

'Good-bye, king and queen,' they said all together, and the eagles,
slowly turning round, though without moving from their places, answered
in their grave voices:

'Farewell, children. We will watch you, though you may not know it.
Farewell.'

Then Waldo led the others down the rock stair by which they had come
up--down past the balcony where they had had their collation of fruit,
till they found themselves in the feather-lined hall.

'There is something rather sad about the eagles,' said Maia. 'Do you
think it is watching so much that makes them sad?'

'Perhaps,' said Silva. 'Come and sit down here in this snug corner.
Look, there is a feather arm-chair for each of us--it is a little
chilly, don't you think?'

'Yes, perhaps it is. But tell me if you know why the eagles are sad.'

'I think they are more grave than sad,' replied Silva. 'I dare say
watching so much does make them so.'

'Why? Do they see so far? Do they see all sorts of things?' asked Maia
in a rather awe-struck tone. 'Are they like fairies, Silva?'

'I don't know exactly,' said Silva. 'But I think they are very wise, and
I expect they know a great deal.'

'But they can't know as much as godmother, and she isn't sad,' said
Maia.

'Sometimes she is,' said Silva. 'Besides, she has more to do than the
eagles. They have only to watch--she puts things right. You'll
understand better some day,' she added, seeing that Maia looked puzzled.
'But isn't it cold? Oh, see there--that's to wrap ourselves up in,' for
just at this moment there flapped down on them, from no one could tell
where, the great soft fluffy cloak or rug which had kept them so
beautifully warm during their air-journey.

'Come under the shawl,' cried Maia to the two boys, and all the children
drew their seats close together and wrapped the wonderful cloak well
round them.

'But aren't we going home soon?' said Maia. 'I'm so afraid of being
late.'

'Godmother knows all about it,' said Waldo. 'She's sent us this cloak on
purpose. There's nothing to do but sit still--till she tells us what
we're to do. I don't mind, for somehow I'm rather sleepy.'

'I think I am too,' said Rollo, and though Silva and Maia were less
ready to allow it, I think they must have felt the same, for somehow or
other two minutes later all the four were taking a comfortable nap, and
knew nothing more till a soft clear voice whispered in their ears:

'Children, it is time to wake up.'

'Time to go home! Are the birds coming for us again?' said Maia, rubbing
her eyes and staring about her. A voice softly laughing replied to her:

'Birds--what birds are you talking about? You're not awake yet, Maia,
and I've been telling you to wake ever so long.'

It was Rollo.

'You, why I thought it was godmother,' said Maia; 'I heard her say,
"Children, it is time to wake up," and I thought we were all in the
feather-hall still. How did we get back, Rollo?'

For 'back' they were. Maia in her own little bed in the white castle,
and Rollo standing beside her in his ordinary dress. Where were Waldo
and Silva--where the feather-hall--where the wonderful dresses in which
godmother had clothed them for the air-journey? Maia looked up at Rollo
as she spoke, with disappointment in her eyes.

'We _are_ back,' he said, 'and that's all there is to say about it, as
far as I can see. But come, Maia, don't look so unhappy. We've had great
fun, and we must be very good after it to please godmother. It's a
lovely day, and after we've finished our lessons we can have some nice
runs in the fields. Jump up--you're not a bit tired, are you? I'm not.'

'Nor am I,' said Maia, slowly bestirring herself. 'But I'm rather dull.
I'm afraid we shan't see them again for a good while, Rollo.'



CHAPTER XII.

A VISION OF CHRISTMAS TREES.

    'The angels are abroad to-night.'

    _At Christmas-tide._


It was early summer when _we_ saw them last. It is
mid-winter--December--now. And winter comes in good earnest in the
country where I have shown you the white castle, and told you of the
doings and adventures of its two little guests. Many more could I tell
you of--many a joyous summer day had they spent with their forest
friends, many a wonderful dance had godmother led them, till they had
got to know nearly as much as Waldo and Silva themselves of the strange
happy creatures that lived in this marvellous Christmas-tree Land, and
in other lands too. For as the days shortened again, and grew too cold
for air-journeys and cave explorings and visits to many other denizens
of the forest than I have space to tell you about, then began the
season of godmother's story-tellings, which I think the children found
as delightful as any other of her treats. Oh, the wonderful tales that
were told round the bright little fire in Silva's dainty kitchen! Oh,
the wood-fairies, and water-sprites, and dwarfs, and gnomes that they
learnt about! Oh, the lovely songs that godmother sang in that witching
voice of hers--that voice like none other that the children had ever
heard! It was a true fairyland into which she led them--a fairyland
where entered nothing ugly or cruel or mean or false, though the
dwellers in it were of strange and fantastic shape and speech, children
of the rainbow and the mist, unreal and yet real, like the cloud-castles
that build themselves for us in the sky, or the music that weaves itself
in the voice of the murmuring stream.

But even to these happy times there came an end--and the beginning of
this end began to be felt when the first snow fell and Christmas-tree
Land was covered with the thick white mantle it always wore till the
spring's soft breath blew it off again.

'A storm is coming--a heavy storm is on its way, my darlings,' said
godmother one afternoon, when she had been spinning some lovely stories
for them with her invisible wheel. She had left the fireside and was
standing by the open doorway, looking out at the white landscape, and as
she turned round, it seemed to the children that her own face was whiter
than usual--her _hair_ certainly was so. It had lost the golden tinge it
sometimes took, which seemed to make a gleam all over her features--so
that at such times it was impossible to believe that godmother was
old--and now she seemed a very tiny little old woman, as small and
fragile as if she herself was made out of a snowflake, and her face
looked anxious and almost sad. 'A storm is on its way,' she repeated;
'you must hasten home.'

'But why do you look so sad, godmother dear?' said Maia. 'We can get
home quite safely. _You_ can see to that. Nothing will ever hurt us when
_you_ are taking care of us.'

'But there are some things I cannot do,' said godmother, smiling, 'or
rather that I would not do if I could. Times and seasons pass away and
come to an end, and it is best so. Still, it may make even me sad
sometimes.'

All the four pairs of eyes looked up in quick alarm. They felt that
there was something--though what, they did not know--that godmother was
thinking of in particular, and the first idea that came into their
minds was not far from the truth.

'Godmother! oh, godmother!' exclaimed all the voices together, so that
they sounded like one, 'you don't mean that we're not to see each other
any more?'

'Not yet, dears, not yet,' said godmother. 'But happy times pass and sad
times pass. It must be so. And, after all, why should one fret? Those
who love each other meet again as surely as the bees fly to the
flowers.'

'In Heaven, godmother? Do you mean in Heaven?' asked Maia, in a low
voice and with a look in her eyes telling that the tears were not far
off.

Godmother smiled again.

'Sooner than that sometimes. Do not look so distressed, my pretty Maia.
But come now. I must get you home before the storm breaks. Kiss each
other, my darlings, but it is not good-bye yet. You will soon be
together again--sooner than you think.'

No one ever thought of not doing--and at once--what godmother told them.
Rollo and Maia said good-bye even more lovingly than usual to their dear
Waldo and Silva, and then godmother, holding a hand of each, set out on
their homeward journey.

It was as she had said--the storm-spirits were in the air. Above the
wind and the cracking of the branches, brittle with the frost, and the
far-off cries of birds and other creatures on their way to shelter in
their nests or lairs, came another sound which the children had heard of
but never before caught with their own ears--a strange, indescribable
sound, neither like the murmuring of the distant sea nor the growl of
thunder nor the shriek of the hurricane, yet recalling all of these.

''Tis the voice of the storm,' said godmother softly. 'Pray to the good
God, my darlings, for those that travel by land or sea. And now,
farewell!--that beaten path between the trees will bring you out at the
castle gate, and no harm will come to you. Good-bye!'

She lingered a little over the last word, and this encouraged Maia to
ask a question.

'When shall we see you again, dear godmother? And will you not tell us
more about why you are sad?'

'It will pass with the storm, for all is for the best,' said godmother
dreamily. 'When one joy passes, another comes. Remember that. And no
true joy is ever past. Keep well within shelter, my children, till the
storm has had its way, and then----' she stopped again.

'Then? What then? Oh, _do_ tell us,' persisted Maia. 'You know, dear
godmother, it is _very_ dull in the white castle when we mayn't go out.
Lady Venelda makes them give us many more lessons to keep us out of
mischief, she says, and we really don't much mind. It's better to do
lessons than nothing. Oh, godmother, we would have been _so_ miserable
here if we hadn't had you and Waldo and Silva!'

Godmother stroked Maia's sunny head and smiled down into her eyes. And
something just then--was it a last ray of the setting sun hurrying off
to calmer skies till the storm should have passed?--lighted up
godmother's own face and hair with a wonderful glow. She looked like a
beautiful young girl.

'Oh, how pretty you are!' said the children under their breath. But they
were too used to these strange changes in godmother's appearance to be
as astonished as many would have been.

'Three nights from now will be the day before Christmas Eve,' said
godmother. 'When you go to bed look out in the snow and you will see my
messenger. And remember, remember, if one joy goes, another comes. And
no true joys are ever lost.'

And as they listened to her words, she was gone! So hand-in-hand,
wondering what it all might mean, the children turned to the path in the
snow she had shown them, which in a few minutes brought them safely
home.

Though none too soon--scarcely were they within shelter when the tempest
began. The wind howled, the sleet and hail dashed down, even the
growling of distant thunder, or what sounded like it, was heard--the
storm-spirits had it all their own way for that night and the day
following; and when the second night came, and the turmoil seemed to
have ceased, it had but changed its form, for the snow again began to
fall, ever more and more heavily, till it lay so deep that one could
hardly believe the world would ever again burst forth from its silent
cold embrace.

And the white castle looked white no longer. Amid the surrounding purity
it seemed gray and soiled and grimly ashamed of itself.

Three days had passed; the third night was coming.

'The snow has left off falling, and seems hardening,' Lady Venelda had
said that afternoon. 'If it continues so, the children can go out
to-morrow. It is not good for young people to be so long deprived of
fresh air and exercise. But it is a hard winter. I only hope we shall
have no more of these terrible storms before----,' but then she stopped
suddenly, for she was speaking to the old doctor, and had not noticed
that Rollo and Maia were standing near.

The children had seen with satisfaction that the snow had left off
falling, for, though they had faith in godmother's being able to do what
no one else could, they did not quite see how she was to send them a
message if the fearful weather had continued.

'We might have looked out the whole of last night without seeing
anything,' said Maia, 'the snow was driving so. And if godmother means
to take us anywhere, Rollo, it _is_ a good thing it's so fine to-night.
She was afraid of our being out in the storm the other day, you
remember.'

'Because there was no need for it,' said Rollo. 'It was already time for
us to be home. I'm sure she could prevent any storm hurting us if she
really wanted to take us anywhere. There's Nanni coming, Maia--as soon
as she's gone call me, and we'll look out together.'

Maia managed to persuade Nanni that she--Nanni, not Maia--was extra
sleepy that evening, and had better go to bed without waiting to
undress her. I am not quite sure that Nanni _did_ go at once to bed, for
the servants were already amusing themselves with Christmas games and
merriment down in the great kitchen, where the fireplace itself was as
large as a small room, and she naturally liked to join the fun. But all
Maia cared about was to be left alone with Rollo. She called to him, and
then in great excitement the two children drew back the window-curtains,
and extinguishing their candles, stood hand-in-hand looking out to see
what was going to happen. There was no moon visible, but it must have
been shining all the same, faintly veiled perhaps behind a thin cloud,
for a soft light, increased by the reflection of the spotless snow,
gleamed over all. But there was nothing to be seen save the smooth white
expanse, bounded at a little distance from the house by the trees which
clothed the castle hill, whose forms looked strangely fantastic, half
shrouded as they were by their white garment.

'There is no one--nothing there,' said Maia in a tone of disappointment.
'She must have forgotten.'

'_Forgotten_--never!' said Rollo reproachfully. 'When has godmother ever
forgotten us? Wait a little, Maia; you are so impatient.'

They stood for some minutes in perfect silence. Suddenly a slight, very
slight crackling was heard among the branches--so slight was it, that,
had everything been less absolutely silent, it could not have been
heard--and the children looked at each other in eager expectation.

'Is it Silva--or Waldo?' said Maia in a whisper. 'She said her
_messenger_.'

'Hush!' said Rollo, warningly.

A dainty little figure hopped into view from the shade of some low
bushes skirting the lawn. It was a robin-redbreast. He stood still in
the middle of the snow-covered lawn, his head on one side, as if in deep
consideration. Suddenly a soft, low, but very peculiar whistle was
heard, and the little fellow seemed to start, as if it were a signal he
had been listening for, and then hopped forward unhesitatingly in the
children's direction.

'Did _you_ whistle, Rollo?' said Maia in a whisper.

'No, certainly not. I was just going to ask if _you_ did,' answered
Rollo.

But now the robin attracted all their attention. He came to a stand just
in front of their window, and then looked up at them with the most
unmistakable air of invitation.

'We're to go with him, I'm sure we are,' said Maia, beginning to dance
with excitement; 'but _how_ can we get to him? All the doors downstairs
will be closed, and it's far too high to jump.'

Rollo, who had been leaning out of the window the better to see the
robin, suddenly drew his head in again with a puzzled expression.

'It's _very_ strange,' he said. 'I'm _sure_ it wasn't there this
morning. Look, Maia, do you see the top of a ladder just a tiny bit at
this side of the window? I could get on to it quite easily.'

'So could I,' said Maia, after peeping out. 'It's all right, Rollo.
_She's_ had it put there for us. Look at the robin--he knows all about
it. You go first, and when you get down call to me and tell me how to
manage.'

Two minutes after, Rollo's voice called up that it was all right. Maia
would find it quite easy if she came rather slowly, which she did, and
to her great delight soon found herself beside her brother.

'Dear me, we've forgotten our hats and jackets,' she exclaimed. 'But
it's not cold--how is that?'

'_You_ haven't forgotten your--what is it you've got on?' said Rollo,
looking at her.

'And you--what have you got on?' said Maia in turn. 'Why, we've _both_
got cloaks on, something like the shawl we had for the air-journey, only
they're quite, _quite_ white.'

'Like the snow--we can't be seen. They're as good as invisible cloaks,'
said Rollo, laughing in glee.

'And they fit so neatly--they seem to have grown on to us,' said Maia,
stroking herself. But in another moment, 'Oh, Rollo!' she exclaimed,
half delighted and half frightened, 'they _are_ growing, or we're
growing, or something's growing. Up on your shoulders there are little
_wings_ coming, real little white wings--they're getting bigger and
bigger every minute.'

'And they're growing on you too,' exclaimed Rollo. 'Why, in a minute or
two we'll be able to fly. Indeed, I think I can fly a little already,'
and Rollo began flopping about his white wings like a newly-fledged and
rather awkward cygnet. But in a minute or two Maia and he found--thanks
perhaps to the example of the robin, who all this time was hovering just
overhead, backwards and forwards, as if to say, 'do like me'--to their
great joy that they could manage quite well; never, I am sure, did two
little birds ever learn to fly so quickly!

All was plain-sailing now--no difficulty in following their faithful
little guide, who flew on before, now and then cocking back his dear
little head to see if the two queer white birds under his charge were
coming on satisfactorily. I wonder in what tribe or genus the learned
men of that country, had there been any to see the two strange creatures
careering through the cold wintry air, would have classed them!

But little would they have cared. Never--oh, never, if I talked about it
for a hundred years--could I give you an idea of the delightfulness of
being able to fly! All the children's former pleasures seemed as nothing
to it. The drive in godmother's pony-carriage, the gymnastics with the
squirrels, the sail in the air--all seemed nothing in comparison with
it. It was so perfectly enchanting that Maia did not even feel inclined
to talk about it. And on, and on, and on they flew, till the robin
stopped, wheeled round, and looking at them, began slowly to fly
downwards. Rollo and Maia followed him. They touched the ground almost
before they knew it; it seemed as if for a moment they melted into the
snow which was surrounding them here, too, on all sides, and then as if
they woke up again to find themselves wingless, but still with their
warm white garments, standing at the foot of an immensely high
tree--for they were, it was evident, at the borders of a great forest.

The robin had disappeared. For an instant or two they remained standing
still in bewilderment; perhaps, to tell the truth, a _very_ little
frightened, for it was much darker down here than it had been up in the
air; indeed, it appeared to them that but for the gleaming snow, which
seemed to have a light of its own, it would have been quite, _quite_
dark.

'Rollo,' said Maia tremulously, 'hold my hand tight; don't let it go.
What----' 'Are we to do?' she would have added, but a sound breaking on
the silence made her stop short.

A soft, far-away sound it was at first, though gradually growing clearer
and nearer. It was that of children's voices singing a sweet and
well-known Christmas carol, and somehow in the refrain at the end of
each verse it seemed to Rollo and Maia that they heard their own names.
'Come, come,' were the words that sounded the most distinctly. They
hesitated no longer; off they ran, diving into the dark forest
fearlessly, and though it was so dark they found no difficulty. As if by
magic, they avoided every trunk and stump which might have hurt them,
till, half out of breath, but with a strange brightness in their hearts,
they felt themselves caught round the necks and heartily kissed, while a
burst of merry laughter replaced the singing, which had gradually melted
away. It was Waldo and Silva of course!

'Keep your eyes shut,' they cried. 'Still a moment, and then you may
open them.'

'But they're _not_ shut,' objected the children.

'Ah, aren't they? Feel them,' said Waldo; and Rollo and Maia, lifting
their hands to feel, found it was true. Their eyes were not only shut,
but a slight, very fine gossamer thread seemed drawn across them.

'We could not open them if we would,' they said; but I don't think they
minded, and they let Waldo and Silva draw them on still a little
farther, till--

'Now,' they cried, and snap went the gossamer thread, and the two
children stood with eyes well open, gazing on the wonderful scene around
them.

They seemed to be standing in the centre of a round valley, from which
the ground on every side sloped gradually upwards. And all about them,
arranged in the most orderly manner, were rows and rows--tiers, perhaps,
I should say--of Christmas trees--real, genuine Christmas trees of every
kind and size. Some loaded with toys of the most magnificent kind, some
simpler, some with but a few gifts, and those of little value. But one
and all brilliantly lighted up with their many-coloured tapers--one and
all with its Christmas angel at the top. And nothing in fairy-doll shape
that Rollo and Maia had ever seen was so beautiful as these angels with
their gleaming wings and sweet, joyous loving faces. I think, when they
had a little recovered from their first astonishment, that the beauty of
the tree-angels was what struck them most.

'Yes,' said a voice beside them, in answer to their unspoken thought;
'yes, each tree has _always_ its angel. Not always to be seen in its
true beauty--sometimes you might think it only a poor, coarsely-painted
little doll. But _the_ angel is there all the same. Though it is only in
Santa Claus' own garden that they are to be seen to perfection.'

'Are we in Santa Claus' garden now, dear godmother?' asked Maia softly.

'Yes, dears. He is a very old friend of mine--one of my oldest friends,
I may say. And he allowed me to show you this sight. No other children
have ever been so favoured. By this time to-morrow night--long before
then, indeed--these thousands of trees will be scattered far and wide,
and round each will be a group of the happy little faces my old friend
loves so well.'

'But, godmother,' said Maia practically, 'won't the tapers be burning
down? Isn't it a pity to keep them lighted just for us? And, oh, dear
me! however can Santa Claus get them packed and sent off in time? I
_hope_ he hasn't kept them too late to please us?'

Godmother smiled.

'Don't trouble your little head about that,' she said. 'But come, have
you no curiosity to know which is your own Christmas-tree? Among all
these innumerable ones, is there not one for you too?'

Maia and Rollo looked up in godmother's eyes--they were smiling, but
something in their expression they could not quite understand. Suddenly
a kind of darkness fell over everything--darkness almost complete in
comparison with the intense light of the million tapers that had gleamed
but an instant before--though gradually, as their eyes grew used to it,
there gleamed out the same soft faint light as of veiled moonbeams, that
they had remarked before.

'You can see now,' said godmother. 'Go straight on--quite straight
through the trees'--for they were still in the midst of the
forest--'till you come to what is waiting for you. But first kiss me, my
darlings--a long kiss, for it is good-bye--and kiss, too, your little
friends, Waldo and Silva, for in this world one may _hope_, but one can
never be as _sure_ as one would fain be, that good-byes are not for
long.'

Too overawed by her tone to burst into tears, as they were yet ready to
do, the children threw themselves into each other's arms.

'We _must_ see each other again, we must; oh, godmother, say we shall!'
cried all the four voices. And godmother, as she held them all together
in her arms seemed to whisper--

'I hope it. Yes, I hope and think you will.' And then, almost without
having felt that Waldo and Silva were gently but irresistibly drawn from
them, Rollo and Maia found themselves again alone, hand-in-hand in the
midst of the forest, as they had so often stood before. Without giving
themselves time to realise that they had said good-bye to their dear
little friends, off they set, as godmother had told them, running
straight on through the trees, where it almost seemed by the clear
though soft light that a little path opened before them as they went.
Till, suddenly, for a moment the light seemed to fade and disappear,
leaving them almost in darkness, which again was as unexpectedly
dispersed by a wonderful brilliance, spreading and increasing, so that
at first they were too dazzled to distinguish whence it came. But not
for long.

'See, Rollo,' cried Maia; 'see, there is _our_ Christmas tree.'

[Illustration: 'See, Rollo,' cried Maia; 'see, there is _our_ Christmas
tree.']

And there it was--the most beautiful they had yet seen--all radiant with
light and glistening with every pretty present child-heart could desire.

'We are only to _look_ at it, you know,' said Maia; 'it has to be packed
up and sent us, of course, like the others. But,' she stopped short,
'who is that, Rollo,' she went on, 'standing just by the tree? Can it be
Santa Claus himself come to see if it is all right?'

'Santa Claus,' exclaimed a well-known voice, 'Santa Claus, indeed! Is
that your new name for me, my Maia?'

Then came a cry of joy--a cry from two little loving hearts--a cry which
rang merry echoes through the forest, and at which, though it woke up
lots of little birds snugly hidden away in the warmest corners they
could find, no one thought of grumbling, except, I think, an old owl,
who greatly objected to any disturbance of his nightly promenades and
meditations.

'Papa, papa, dear papa!' was the cry. 'Papa, you have come back to us.
_That_ was what godmother meant,' they said together. And their father,
well pleased, held them in his arms as if he would never again let them
go.

'So you have learnt to know what godmother means--that is well,' he
said. 'But kiss me once more only, just now, my darlings, and then you
must go home and sleep till the morning. And keep it a secret that you
have seen me to-night.'

He kissed them again, and before their soft childish lips had left his
face, a strange dreamy feeling overpowered them. Neither Rollo nor Maia
knew or thought anything more of where they were or how they had come
there for many hours.

And then they were awakened--Rollo first, then Maia--by the sound of
Nanni's delighted voice at their bedside.

'Wake up, wake up,' she said, 'for the most beautiful surprise has come
to you for this happy Christmas Eve.'

And even without her telling them, they knew what it was--they knew who
was waiting for them downstairs, nor could all their awe of Lady Venelda
prevent them rushing at their father and hugging him till he was nearly
choked. But Lady Venelda, I must confess, was too happy herself to see
her kinsman again to be at all vexed with them. And her pleasure, as
well as that of the kind old doctor, was increased by the thanks they
received for all their care of the children, whom their father declared
he had never seen so bright or blooming.

And, a few days afterwards, they went back with him to their own happy
home; and what then?--did they ever see godmother and Waldo and Silva
again? I can only answer, like godmother herself, 'I hope so; yes, I
hope so, and think so.' But as to how or where--ah, that I cannot say!


THE END.





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