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He tidied up himself as well as his room, and then sat down to wait, the little bell in his hand. Twelve o'clock, a quarter past, then the half-hour, and at the moment, Hodge, having locked the door and closed the shutters for fear of intrusion or interruption, began solemnly to recite the incantation, which he had got well by heart, and as he uttered the last words "prithee haste" he lifted the silver toy and rang it vigorously, then sat listening with intensity.
For a moment or two he fancied he heard the whirring sound drawing near, but no Ц it was the buzzing in his head from his nervousness, for, stolid as he was, he was strung up with mingled hopes and fears. He rang again Ц no result; again he repeated the lines, half hoping he had not been quite accurate. No Ц they were as he had written them down and as he had compared them with the copies taken by his cousins. All was correct. But Ц nothing happened! And Hodge, slow and unemotional though he was, felt ready to shed tears!
Then he remembered that he was very hungry, and there was nothing but a crust of dry bread and a scrap of cheese in the house, and on Sundays there was no means of getting anything else. He had to be content, therefore, and to make the best of his scanty fare, and then he lay down on his bed and went to sleep and slept till it was dark, consoling himself with the thought that as he had failed there was not much chance of either of the others succeeding, and when he awoke, being on the whole a good-natured sort of fellow, he put his pride in his pocket and set off for Giles's, inspired partly, I dare say, by the hope of getting something to eat!
He found his two cousins supping together. Their fare was not luxurious nor abundant, but as he handed the bell to Giles and they saw his downcast face they at once understood the state of things and invited him to join them. He was glad enough to do so, and told them his story.
"And now, Giles," he ended, "it's your turn. Though what you can do to please the good people more than I did, I can't think."
"I'll tell you where you went wrong," said Giles. "You should have invited us too! There's something in numbers, you know Ц especially in the number three. And we've always been together at the dinner. Anyway, I now ask you two to be here next Sunday at the usual time to see me try my luck."
"Thank you," said Hodge rather sheepishly.
"Thank you," repeated Michael half absently, for his thoughts were running on other things. Ysenda's face had looked very sad in church that morning, and he fancied that Dame Martha and her charges were growing thinner and paler steadily.
"I'm certain they haven't enough to eat," he thought. "Maybe Giles will help a bit, if he succeeds," but in his heart he doubted if either Giles or he himself would fare better than Hodge had done.
"Yet," he said to himself, "Uncle Peter wasn't the sort to play a trick on us. And we saw the magic with our own eyes! But I scarce dare hope that we'll find the secret."
Sunday Ц the second Sunday Ц arrived in due time, and the three cousins met as arranged at Giles's cottage.Hodge was feeling of two minds. In one way he did not want Giles to succeed when he had failed; on the other hand, he greatly missed the excellent weekly dinner, and said to himself that after all it would be better to enjoy it at his cousin's than not to get it at all.
Giles was awaiting them at his door, the little bell in his hand.
"Come along in," he said. "Uncle Peter used to keep his guests waiting outside till it was all ready, but as we all saw the whole of it that last day, I don't see that I need start it all alone. It makes one a bit shaky and nervous, you see."
So Hodge and Mike, by no means unwillingly, followed him into the kitchen. Hodge was as usual very hungry, and again rather excited in hopes of a good dinner. Michael seemed depressed. He didn't care whether he was hungry or not; he was far from sanguine as to success for either Giles or himself; he missed his old uncle, and was rather in low spirits all round. Still of course he had no thought of refusing to take part in Giles's effort.
The three seated themselves, leaving the space for the table's hoped-for appearance. Giles held the bell in his hand, every now and then glancing at the old clock in the corner, of which he was the happy possessor.
"It doesn't keep such very good time," he said in a low voice, "but I set it right this morning, so it can't be more than a moment or two slow."
And then they waited till the long hand approached and slightly passed the twenty-nine minutes to the fateful half-hour.
Giles began to recite the charm, the two others listening. He said it quite correctly, then slowly raising the bell he rang it clearly. Utter silence. Then Ц yes Ц the first whirring was heard, gradually growing louder as it went on, till with the same sort of spring or swing the floor opened and up came the table, the mysterious space closing again at once.
"Hurrah!" exclaimed Giles, starting up, and even Michael's heart beat faster with excitement. But Hodge, whose one thought was his dinner, Hodge's red face grew paler and his expression darkened.
"Not so fast," he said; "not much hurrahing about it." And then the others saw what his greedy eyes had at once perceived. The table was, as ever, covered with a spotless cloth Ц three places were laid for, as far as plates and knives were concerned, but on each lay a small loaf of black or brown bread and a wedge of cheese. That was all! No end dishes, no side ones Ц no centre with fruit Ц nothing but the plain everyday luncheon they were used to when at work in the fields, and none too much of it either, and as Hodge added, muttering, "not even a glass of beer"!
The three looked at each other. Giles and Mike began to laugh, as much at Hodge's angry disgust as at the thing itself.
"You've not hit it off, after all," said Michael to his host. "Still, anything's better than nothing. I vote that we eat what there is," and he cut a slice off his loaf. The others Ц Hodge very gloomily Ц did the same and began to eat. The provisions were good of their kind.
"I wonder what I did wrong, or didn't do right," said Giles. "At worst, Hodge, I've got on better than you, and next Sunday maybe Michael will manage best of all. Surely you'll get some hot potatoes at least, Mike?"
"I don't think I'm going to try at all," said the youngest of the cousins.
"It's been a mean sort of lega Ц " began Hodge.
But before he finished the word, Michael stopped him. "You mustn't speak against Uncle Peter," he said. "He did his best for us, of that I'm sure. The spell was not of his making. He had no power over it. He taught us all he could. Strikes me we're not good enough to succeed, somehow. Think what he was! So contented and patient, and so unselfish! Giving away of the little he had, keeping scarce anything for himself."
"He was always sure of a good Sunday dinner, anyway," grumbled Hodge.
"And did he keep even that to himself?" queried Michael.
By this time the table was cleared of the little it had offered. Giles stood up and held out the bell.
"We may as well send it back again," he said, ringing, as he spoke, and in a few moments the whole had disappeared as they had seen it do that last Sunday at old Peter's.
Hodge walked off without speaking. Giles turned to Michael Ц he was still holding the little bell.
"Are you in earnest, Mike," he asked, "about giving up your try? If so, what's to be done with this?"
He waved the pretty thing in his hand as he spoke. Strange to say, it gave out no sound. The cousins looked at it curiously. The queer incident impressed them afresh, and Michael hesitated in his reply.
"There is no tricking of us in it," he murmured. Then he turned to Giles.
"You may as well give it to me," he said. "I'll think it over and let you know before next Sunday Ц and Hodge too, for that matter."
A new idea had struck him and his face brightened. He would consult Ysenda and abide by her advice, and in the meantime he carefully hid away the silver bell.
For two or three days to come he had no opportunity of meeting the farmer's pretty daughter. But one evening when he had looked in at Dame Martha's to see how she and the orphans were getting on, he met Ysenda, on her way thither. She was carrying a basket with what provisions she had got leave to bring them. For she was too honest to give away anything belonging to her father without his permission. She stopped at once, on seeing Mike, who doffed his hat.
"Good evening," she said, "I am Ц " but he interrupted her. "Let me carry that for you. It is heavy," he began, taking hold of the handle.
"I could wish it were heavier," she said, with a rather pitiful smile. "I do what I can for the good dame and those dear children, but it isn't much."
"It's more than I do," said Michael regretfully.
"Don't say that," she replied eagerly. "You give all you have to give. But what irks me is the knowing I should be able to do all needed for the poor things, if only Ц my father Ц " she stopped short. "How are they?" she went on again. "You have been there, I make sure?"
"They're fairly well," he said. "It was only a bundle of fire-wood, and, and Ц some windfall apples I found Ц nothing to speak of. The boy Ц Paul Ц has had a bit of work this week. I spoke to our master for him, but it's a slack time of year, you see."
Ysenda nodded. Michael had turned and was retracing his steps with her. For a moment or two neither spoke. Then suddenly the young man looked at her, with a grave face.
"Ysenda," he said, "I want your advice," and he went on hurriedly to relate to her the experiences of the last two Sundays in his cousins' cottages. She listened attentively, but somewhat to his perplexity she seemed in no way surprised or discouraged by his story, for when he ended by saying, "Don't you think I'd best give it up? It doesn't seem meant for the like of us. Uncle Peter didn't understand maybe that we're not the same as him Ц we're too thick-skulled and dull, and not full of benevolence and charity as he was. The good people don't care to bestow their benefits on common rough fellows like us," she replied quietly:
"No, Michael, I don't agree with you. You've got wrong notions. There's a condition attached to the spell, which must be discovered by yourself. Uncle Peter told you this plainly. He said nothing about success depending on your being very clever, or learned in the ways he was, and he knew none of you were. He knew the condition was one quite possible for you to fulfil, but it had to be your own doing. Well Ц Hodge and Giles have failed Ц Giles less than Hodge Ц "
"Because he wasn't such a selfish pig as Hodge," Michael interrupted, "still Ц "
"Still," she went on, "a meal of bread and cheese isn't worth the trouble. I agree with you. But I don't see why you should not succeed, though the others have failed."
"I don't know why I should!" exclaimed he. "I can think of nothing new to try, and it worries me. I keep dreaming about it night and day, till I want to throw it over and have done with it. I had a plan Ц " but he hesitated.
"Tell me your plan," she urged.
"It was this. I thought maybe Hodge and Giles would forget the right words or miss the time or do something stupid that I could see and guard against when my turn came, and if so I had planned how I'd invite the poor dame and her children to the Sunday feast Ц I'd have just bid them come a few minutes before the time, the way uncle did with us Ц and when I'd got it all ready Ц steaming hot and all beautiful and tempting, I'd throw open the door and show them in. My! just to think of it," and his blue eyes danced with pleasure.
So did Ysenda's pretty grey ones, but she kept her self-control.
"Well," she said gently, "why shouldn't you carry out your plan?"
"Ysenda!" exclaimed Michael, "how could I risk it after the failure of the others? Supposing I had as good luck as Giles Ц and how can I be sure of even that?†Ц a nice feast it would be to invite the poor things to Ц a lump of bread and a wedge of cheese! I'd be ashamed past words."
"You'd have a nice, dainty table, and no doubt, if the good people knew how many guests you'd asked, they'd lay places for them all, as has always been the case so far as I understand," said Ysenda. "I'll tell you what I'd do Ц I'll help you all I can Ц let's have some simple fare ready to fall back upon if need be. I'm sure I can manage a joint of cold meat and some potatoes, which you can roast in readiness. Then when you invite Dame Martha and the children just say it's really to take 'pot-luck' with you, so they won't expect over much."
Michael's face brightened.
"Thank you, Ysenda," he said, "thank you a thousand times. You've cheered me greatly, and made me think I'd be a coward not to take my chance. So I'll do as you say. Maybe I can get some vegetables or fruit to help out the dinner. And I'll just invite them in an off-hand sort of way, as you advise. A case of 'pot-luck' it certainly will be, if there never was one before!" and he laughed quite heartily.
That very evening he invited the dame and her grandchildren, and the first time he met Hodge and Giles he told them of these expected guests. Hodge was rather scornful about it, but Giles was more cheery.
"There's something in numbers," he maintained, "and three's a lucky one. You're the third to try, and you've invited three, besides us three ourselves. And Ц " he added, slapping his cousin on the shoulder as he spoke Ц "why yes, Mike, old fellow, fate's smiling on you and no mistake! Sunday's the third of the month, for sure!"
Michael's spirits rose still higher.
"Thank you, Giles," he said. "Well, we'll know before long. And you two mustn't fail me. If we don't meet at church, I'll depend on you soon after twelve o'clock on Sunday. Don't be late."
"No fear," said Giles, and Hodge, who was influenced by the others' hopefulness, felt his mouth already watering in anticipation of the excellent fare, echoed "no fear."
And some quarter of an hour or so before the usual time the three were settled in their places, Mike, bell in hand, all three pair of eyes glancing every minute or so at the clock. Now and then Michael's strayed to the cupboard in the corner, with a comfortable expression, for there, thanks to Ysenda and his own precautions, there was a good piece of meat and a few other odds and ends, sufficient for a plain though not very choice or ample meal.
At last Ц and how very slowly do the hands of a clock seem to move, if one is watching them!†Ц at last the long needle approached the figure "six" at the bottom of the dial. Mike glanced at his companions.
"Now for it," he said, and for the life of him he could not prevent his voice shaking a little. "Here goes," and then pulling himself together he repeated the rhyme of incantation in a firm clear voice:
and after a moment's pause he lifted the silver toy and rang it cheerily.
Then Ц utter silence, save for Michael's drawing a deep breath or two Ц and Ц oh, joy! the whirring sounds began to be heard Ц no mistake about it, as they grew louder and nearer. Giles chuckled as he whispered, "Some good honest bread and cheese, hey, Mike?"
But he laughs best who wins!
Michael made no reply. In another moment came the soft swing of the invisible hinges Ц the floor opened, and up came the table. You could almost have fancied that it or its burdens were laughing with pleasure, for there was a merry clatter among the pretty china plates and dishes Ц so closely were they packed, so many were they, though as the whole finally emerged and settled down as it were, the table seemed to grow longer, till there was ample space for its six guests. Then the floor closed, and all was quiet.
Not so the three cousins.
"Hurrah in good earnest this time," cried Giles.
"Hush, my good fellow," said Michael, though his own face was by this time one broad smile "they'll have come, I'm sure. I must fetch them in," and he turned towards the door.
"Stay a moment," interrupted Hodge, who by this time was in high spirits, busily lifting the covers and examining the viands, "stay, till I tell you what there is for dinner. The giver of the feast should know the fare."
"Well, then," said Michael, "tell me quickly."
"There's a couple of ducks," replied Hodge, "stuffed, and roasted to a turn. How good they smell! And apple sauce and mashed potatoes, and a plum-pudding Ц to be sure Christmas is not so very far off now Ц and a whole pile of gingerbread snaps with whipped cream, and oranges galore, for dessert. My word, but the brownies keep first-rate cooks and caterers."
Michael had opened the door before his hungry friend had left off speaking, but he heard Hodge calling after him, "Stop, stop, I've forgotten the pork pie. Oh, my goodness, such a beauty!"
In another moment Michael had seized Dame Martha by the hand and was leading her into the cottage, followed by Paul and Mattie, looking very neat and clean in spite of their poor clothes, and in not a little excitement at this visit to the kind young man who had been their first friend in this strange land.
"I hope you've not been waiting long," said Mike.
"Oh no, thank you," the dame replied. "Just a very few minutes. We heard the church clock strike the half-hour as we drew near."
The door was wide open. Hodge and Giles greeted the new-comers heartily, Hodge adding that they'd better set to at once, before the dishes got cold. But though Dame Martha had very good manners by nature and even by habit, for in her better days she had been a much-respected upper servant in an excellent family, she could not restrain an exclamation of the greatest astonishment when she caught sight of the wonderful display of good things, and perceived their appetising odour.
"My dear boy Ц Michael!" she cried. "What extravagance is this? And you said it would be just a simple meal Ц 'pot-luck' you called it, if I remember right?"
"And pot-luck it is," he replied, laughing. "There's no reason that I know of why pot-luck shouldn't be good fare, as I hope you will find our dinner to be."
There is no need to tell you how the feast was enjoyed. To begin with, it was flavoured not only with the "best sauce" of the old proverb Ц hunger Ц but also with the excellent additions of friendliness and gratitude and goodwill, and besides these even, there was a mysterious feeling of graciousness and prettiness over it all, which I am inclined to think must have been wafted with the viands from fairyland itself.
Never had the children had such a treat, and being modest and unselfish and far from greedy they enjoyed it all the more, nor was there any necessity for their grandmother to warn them not to eat too much.
Every one had enough Ц indeed Hodge's appetite seemed equal to that of two ordinary people Ц but yet when all had replied, "No thank you, nothing more," to Michael's hospitable offers, the dishes looked by no means empty, and though he made the children carry off a couple of oranges each, for a little Sunday treat at home, the pile of fruit scarcely appeared to have been touched. The thought did cross Michael's head that he wished he could keep the remains of the feast in his larder. But "No," he decided, "it would be greedy and might displease the fairies."
So when the dame and her grandchildren, with many and many expressions of gratitude, took their leave Ц though, by the bye, I must not forget to tell you that what brought the poor things' pleasure to the highest height was Michael's telling them that he would expect them at the same hour and in the same way the following Sunday, "and every Sunday, so long as my pot-luck continues to suit you," he added Ц well then, as soon as the three had left he re-entered the cottage with his cousins and carefully closing the door, rang the fairy bell for the invisible attendants to remove the table.
It disappeared as it had come, obediently to his summons. Then Hodge and Giles turned to him.
"The luck's with you, Mike, no doubt about it," they said, but without any ill-will, it must be allowed.
"Let's count it as belonging to us all," said hospitable Michael. "It shall be a fixed rule that you two dine with me every Sunday, same as to-day. And as long as the good people favour us as they've done this time, the least we can do is to let those who are less well off than we, share in our prosperity. I've a feeling that it's what old Uncle Peter would wish."
"That's why you mean to have the dame and her boy and girl every Sunday?" said Hodge. "Well, for my part I wouldn't take upon me to object. They're nice-mannered children, and the dame's an old friend. And there was enough and to spare."
Giles was looking very thoughtful.
"Yes, indeed," he exclaimed. "It's the right thing to do, and, as you say, it's following after our kind old godfather. I say, Mike," he went on, "maybe Ц I shouldn't be very surprised if that's how you've hit the nail on the head Ц eh, what do you think of that?"
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