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"And I have money to get some more bread and milk for breakfast," added Paul, jingling the two coppers in his pocket, "so that will be all right."
With the help of the two young men, a bed was soon made up for the boy on the old kitchen settle, as there was room for little Mattie beside the dame. Everything in the cottage was scrupulously clean, for to have had it otherwise would have broken Dame Martha's heart, and by the handy way that the children moved about, tired though they were, she was pleased to see that they had been well and carefully brought up. So for the moment she tried to dismiss her anxiety.
But when the cousins said good-night and set off on their way home Michael's heart felt heavy for the little family.
"Good Lord!" he murmured, "if only I were rich!"
"What then?" asked Giles. "You'd be for taking the lot of them on your shoulders, I suppose. Well, as things are, you can't do so. Of course they must all go to the workhouse, though to-night it would have been cruel to hint at such a thing."
Michael said nothing, but he had some hope that this might be avoided.
That very day – I have said it was a Saturday – a long conversation had taken place at old Peter's between himself and his favourite Ysenda.
She had looked in as she often did, and was startled and distressed to find him far from well.
"Yes," he said, in answer to her kindly enquiries, "yes, my dear young friend, I am failing fast. You must not grieve about it – the thought of dying is very familiar to me and far from unwelcome. But there is something I wish to consult you about. You know my secret. You know the only legacy I can leave behind me. It is as to this that I want to know your opinion, for you have a good sound judgment as well as a kind heart. To me myself the greatest pleasure would be to bequeath my magic gift to you, my dear Ysenda."
But the girl, as he had in his heart expected, shook her head.
"No, dear Peter," she replied. "There are those nearer to you than I, and more in need of help. Besides – I know the secret; the fulfilling its conditions would therefore be no test of my deserving its benefits. Nor do I stand in want of them. No – dear friend – if, as you kindly say, you consider my advice worth attending to, I would propose this. Bequeath the enchanted table to whichever of your three nephews discovers the inner spell which governs it. In this there will be nothing unfair. You can teach them the magic words, and then inform them that the further secret must be sought and found by themselves – or by himself. Hodge is the eldest – let him have the first trial, then Giles, and lastly Michael."
"And if – supposing Hodge succeeds?" said Peter with a rather curious enquiry in his tone.
Ysenda's face flushed a little.
"Well then, it would be all right. He would continue to use his power as it should be used."
"In the same way, of course," she replied.
"But – if both failed, and Mike came to have his try at it?"
Ysenda raised her pretty head with a gesture of pride.
"Then," she replied, "it would most certainly be all right.As to Michael's good heart I have no misgiving whatever. Quite independently of the spell, no sooner would he have it in his power to show kindness to any one in need of it than he would be eager to do so."
"I agree with you," said her old friend; and to himself he added, "I suspected as much. Ah well, they are worthy of each other, and I trust that all will prosper with them."
Then after a moment's silence he went on again:
"I will do as you advise, my child. To-morrow I will announce my intention, and take the three into my confidence as far as is necessary. Then when my own summons comes I shall feel that I have acted for the best – fairly by all, though my own wishes are with that good young fellow, Michael."
Ysenda rose to go.
"You will come again soon?" said the old man. "The sands are running out quickly, I feel, and I am not likely to be mistaken."
"Dear Peter," whispered the young girl, and the tears rose to her eyes.
"Bless you, my child," laying his hand on her shoulder. Then just as she was turning away, a curious, listening expression crept over his face. "Yes, yes," he murmured, as if in reply to some inaudible voice, "yes."
Ysenda felt a little frightened, and of this Peter seemed at once aware. He patted her again.
"Do not be alarmed," he said, with a smile. "I have no dealings with the black arts. But certain things are communicated to me in ways that I must not reveal. And just now – I am glad you were still here. Trouble, or rather perplexity – for the trouble is mingled with joy – is at hand for our good old friend Dame Martha. Will you go to see her to-morrow, Ysenda, and learn about it?"
"I was already intending to enquire how she is," said the girl. "I will certainly not fail to see her, and I will do all I can to help her, you may be sure."
"Of that I have no doubt," said Peter. "Good-night, my child."
Many things passed through Ysenda's mind as she walked slowly home. She had no mother, and her father, though devoted to her, his only child, was a hard man. He thought her fanciful and romantic, as she had on several occasions refused to marry to please him. For his great idea was that her husband should be a wealthy man.
"He must at least show on his side as handsome a sum as will be the dowry I give you," he had often repeated. But so far, none of the suitors that in this respect were approved of by the father had found favour in his daughter's eyes, so that he began to think the girl had determined against marrying at all, little suspecting the love that had already crept into her sweet heart.
"Ah, well," he thought to himself, "better live single than make a poor choice of some pauper who would squander her fortune, though for that matter, unless I look to it, she will be for giving it all away in charity once the breath's out of my body. Ysenda is too 'giving' by half."
And with this idea, rich though he was, the father kept the girl but slenderly supplied with money. She had to account to him for every farthing, and only by denying herself many little things she had naturally a right to expect, was she able to help her poorer neighbours. And without old Peter's contributions, though in cash he had not much to give, still less would it have been possible for her to assist those in need.
"How I shall miss him!" she said to herself. "For some reasons I could wish he had bequeathed the magic table to me – to what advantage I could have used it! But it would not have been fair or right. Oh if only Michael wins it! Somehow – " and vague hopes began to flutter in her heart, for that the young fellow – no less than the others, in their own way – adored her, she could not doubt. "It might make things different," she thought. But then she resolutely put the idea away. "No, no, I must not dwell on it. It is almost as if I were looking forward to dear old Peter's death. And oh, by the bye, I must not forget to go to see old Martha Swann to-morrow. I wonder what new trouble has befallen her – trouble mingled with joy, he said, and of course I know, as no one else knows, that Peter is in touch with the good people; the really good fairies, they must be, for he would have no dealings with mischievous, spiteful imps."
Now I must tell you what happened the next day – the eventful Sunday on which the old man felt that the time had come for his strange secret to be revealed to his three godsons.
They were there in good time as usual, waiting outside for the opening of the door and their host's appearing.
Hodge, as was his way, was very hungry and in a hurry to set to work at the excellent dinner which no doubt awaited them. Giles too agreed with him that under the circumstances time passed far too slowly. Michael, who of the three had every reason for more than ordinary hunger, as he had not tasted food since his early supper the day before, his breakfast, as you will remember, having been otherwise disposed of – poor Michael said nothing. His thoughts were running on the two little waifs that he had escorted to their grandmother, and not only on them and Dame Martha, but on kind Ysenda. For, coming out of church, she had whispered to him that she feared their old friend was in trouble. "I am going to her at once," she said, and ran off before the young man had time to reply.
"How did she know?" Michael wondered. "Perhaps through Uncle Peter's queer ways. However, she'll look after the poor things for a day or two, though it isn't very much that even Ysenda, bless her, can do, rich though her father is," for the farmer's peculiarities were no secret.
So Michael had plenty to think of, as well as of being hungry, while standing with his cousins outside the old man's cottage.
And after all, they were kept waiting a shorter time than usual. It still wanted some minutes to the half-hour after noon when the door opened and their uncle beckoned to them to enter.
Even as they did so, they felt that things were not quite the same as on former occasions. To begin with, the dinner was not ready; far from it, the table was not even to be seen!
Hodge's face fell, so did Giles's, as the same misgiving seized them.
"Supposing he's not going to give us any dinner at all," they thought. "Maybe he's been too feeble to see to it."
For a glance showed them that their host had sadly changed, even in a week. His face was as white as his hair, and as he sank into his old armchair he almost looked as if he was going to faint. Michael sprang forward.
"Dear uncle," he cried, and you may be sure that the fear of losing his dinner had no place in his thoughts, "dear uncle, you are ill – suffering. Will you let me run for the doctor?"
But even as the young man spoke, a little colour returned to Peter's cheeks and he smiled.
"No, no, my boy," he said, and his voice was very gentle, "no need for doctors. I can manage for myself. It was just a turn, but I shall be better again now for a bit, though not for long. I have been anxious to see you all to-day, for I misdoubt me if it is not the last time – " Michael gave a little exclamation of distress, and the other two looked very grave. "I am very old, you know, my dear nephews, and tired. I shall be glad to rest. But first I have something to tell you. I have no money to leave behind me, and but few little possessions, but I have a secret, and the time has now come for me to reveal it to you three, my only living relations."
He stopped for a moment and drank a little water, which seemed to revive him.
"The country-folk, you know, call me a wizard," he went on. "Well – well – it does me no harm! I have learnt some strange things – I have wandered some little way into regions where few mortals are allowed to tread; I have had some dealings with beings of another kind of life than ours; in some ways I have been of use to the 'good people,' as they are called, and they to me. But such knowledge as I have acquired I can truly declare I have only used for the advantage of my fellows. My learning of this sort will pass away with me – I can leave behind me none of my secrets save one, and this – this spell I am now about to reveal to you three."
He stopped again. The eyes of the young men were fixed upon him in breathless eagerness. What were they about to hear? But some instinct kept them all silent. Time enough for thanks, thought Hodge and Giles, when they knew what there was to thank for. And as for Michael, his curiosity was kept back by the real sorrow he felt at the idea of the old man's approaching death.
Peter went on again:
"As children," he said, "I daresay you heard many of the old fairy tales handed down for generations – tales to be found in one shape or another all the world over, it seems to me. So it often struck me that for some of them, at least, there must be a foundation of truth at bottom, and I set myself to use my little knowledge of these matters to discover it. I failed in several cases – I was wanting in certain qualifications. But as to one so-called legend I succeeded. Do you remember the old tale of the grateful gnome who taught his human benefactor how to make sure of a good dinner, by using a certain spell?"
Hodge pricked up his ears at the word "dinner." So did Giles, but though they had some vague memory of the well-known story, they were half afraid to say so, for fear of Peter's cross-questioning them. But Michael answered at once, for he had always loved fairy stories, that he remembered the one of the magic table quite distinctly.
"Well, then," said the old man, "I am going to show you that it was true, for the spell by which the feast was made to appear still exists. Now, all of you, listen carefully to my words. I may repeat them thrice, which will enable you to learn them perfectly, but after the third time you must trust to your memory."
Then sitting up erect on his chair, he recited, slowly and distinctly thrice, as he had said, these words:
and after a moment's silence, when he had ended the incantation, he drew out a tiny silver bell – a mere toy of a thing – and rang it sharply.
Then there reached the ears of the astonished guests a whirring sound as if of invisible wheels revolving quickly. It was faint at first, but gradually seemed to come nearer, or rather, I should say, to rise upwards. It was of course the same sound which Michael had heard that Sunday, when he had unwittingly approached too near the cottage before the appointed time. And suddenly, with a sort of swing as of well-oiled doors opening swiftly, the flooring drew apart, and before the watchers could see how or whence it came, there stood in its accustomed place, in the centre of the kitchen, the table they all knew so well, bearing on its snow-white cover the tempting savoury dishes, neatly arranged and steaming hot. Enough truly, so tempting did they look, so excellently did they smell, to make even the least greedily disposed person's mouth water.
For a minute or two the young men were too astounded to speak. Then Peter smiled.
"Do not look so startled," he said reassuringly. "The dinner is what you have enjoyed many and many a time, and it has been sent in the same way. Have no misgivings. Draw round it, and make a hearty meal."
They did so with many murmurs of surprise and admiration; and for once, perhaps, it may be of interest to know of what the dinner consisted. At one end was a roast capon, cooked to perfection, at the other a ham, of so delicate a colour and flavour that it must surely have belonged to a fairy pig! Then there were potatoes, so white and floury that I feel convinced they must have been whisked over from Ireland, and delicious green sprouts of the kind that I, as a child, and I daresay many other children with me, used always to call "fairy cabbages," so exactly like miniatures of the large ordinary kind are they. And as side dishes, which apparently were still in fashion in the land of the gnomes or brownies, stood fruit pies whose pastry melted in your mouth, so light and flaky was it. And last, not least, a crystal bowl filled with cream, which surely must have come from Devon or Cornwall, or the places which match those in fairyland!
And in spite of their wonder and astonishment the three guests did justice to the feast, I assure you, for they were all very hungry.
Their host watched them with satisfaction, though eating but little himself. And when they had finished and turned to him, as was their custom, to thank him for their excellent repast, he smiled kindly.
"Now," he said, "you shall see the end of the matter."
He rang the bell, and in a moment or two the whirring noise was heard, the floor gently opened and the table descended, then the aperture closed and all was as it had been when the three entered the cottage. And again they gazed in amazement, for on former occasions they had bidden Peter good-bye and taken leave, with the table and the remains of the meal still standing in the kitchen.
"Yes," said the old man. "I do not wonder at your surprise. And now I must explain further. It is in my power to bequeath my secret to one of you. In fact I have told a part of the spell to you all. But a part only. There is a condition attached to its acting successfully which I cannot and must not tell you. The very fact of my doing so would destroy the whole. You shall each have a fair chance. You, Hodge, as the eldest must have the first. Here is the magic bell," and he handed him the pretty toy as he spoke. "Keep it safely, and use it as you have seen me do, after repeating the verse I have taught you. Next Sunday at the same hour; that is the appointed time. But – remember there is a condition which you must fulfil; consider the matter well in your own mind; ponder it during the next few days. If you succeed, well and good; if not, you must pass on the bell to Giles, that he may have his chance. And if he fails, it will be for Michael. There must be no disputes about it – to do you justice I do not fear that there will be, for I have watched you all, and have been pleased to see that you lived in amity, without jealousy or ill-will. And I have treated you all with perfect fairness."
"You have indeed," said all the three together, adding, "and we shall not forget it. Fair play's a jewel."
"But," said Michael anxiously, "you speak of next Sunday, dear uncle. May we not meet here again as usual while you are still with us?"
The old man laid his withered hand kindly on the young fellow's shoulder.
"I shall not be here next Sunday, my boy," he said, "and for this you must not grieve. Now farewell to you all."
And realising that he wished to be alone, they wrung his hand and went quietly away.
And before the sun sank on the following evening the old man had gone, as he had predicted.
The three young men all felt saddened by their loss – Michael especially, the more so when he saw Ysenda dissolved in tears, at the simple little funeral. How he longed to have a right to comfort her!
Hodge and Giles, though not without good feeling and gratitude to their old uncle, were too excited at the prospect of trying to benefit by his strange legacy, to give very much thought to mourning him.
"It's my turn first," said Hodge, "and I mean to succeed. But I'm not going to talk about it. Just you, Giles, and you, Mike, leave me alone. I have my own ideas."
"All right," said Giles, "I'm not going to meddle."
"And as for me," said Michael, "I've really scarce given the matter a thought."
Both noticed, however, that Hodge said nothing about their joining him on Sunday at the usual hour, as they had naturally expected. The loss of the one really good meal they had till now been sure of, was of consequence to them, though they were not greedy. To Mike, just at present, it mattered the most, for the poor fellow was denying himself in every way he could, so as to help Dame Martha with her grandchildren. Ysenda was doing her utmost, but just now her father was in a far from amiable humour, as she had again refused to accept a wealthy suitor, and to punish her the farmer was doling out even less money than his wont. So several people whom this little story concerns were in rather low spirits – Paul and Mattie less so than their elders, for though it was all their grandmother could do to give them the plainest of food and by no means very much of that, her love made up for her poverty, and they were at an age when hopefulness is easy.
Well – the days passed till came the Sunday on which Hodge was to try the working of the spell. He was up with the dawn, and instead of going to church as usual, spent the morning in scrubbing and scouring, till his kitchen shone like a new pin. For this was the idea that had come to him as the condition of success. Perfect cleanness! Peter's cottage had always been a marvel of this; it was whispered that the brownies or some mysterious beings of the kind acted as his housemaids, and perhaps it was so, for feeble and stiff as he was, it seemed impossible that he himself could have kept the boards so spotless, the stove so polished, the few pots and pans, which were of antique copper, so shining. And for all we know, the saying was a true one.
Now Hodge was naturally a bit lazy, and his house by no means as well cared for as it might have been, and knowing this, it is scarcely to be wondered at that he hit upon this solution of the riddle. But he was not of course absolutely certain that it was correct, and for this reason, regardless of the probable disappointment to his companions, he let them understand that he did not expect them to be his guests.
"Another time I may invite them," he said to himself, "but best not begin by making a rule of it. Besides, if I fail I don't want them to sit here laughing at me. Not that there's much fear. The good people can't but be pleased with the way I've scrubbed and tidied. And I don't object to dining alone. I feel as if I could eat a whole capon to myself, not to speak of the other toothsome things! And after dinner I'll be glad of a rest, for working as hard as I've been doing, makes one ache."
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