Max and Molly were in the rickyard.
As a matter of fact they spent most of their waking time in the rickyard, although they paid occasional visits to the cowshed, the pigsties, and the backgarden where the fruit grew, — all places of great interest.
Max and Molly found the farm — where they had been sent to stay for an indefinite period — a much more delightful place than their own grand home.
There was no rickyard at Warvyle Chase, no cow shed, and not even a pigsty.
Fruit had to be eaten off plates, and they were expected to behave properly all day long.
Now, of course, all good children desire to behave properly; but it is hard upon them if they may never rumple their hair, roll on the grass, shout at the top of their voices, or just once in a while get themselves and their clothes in a "dreadful mess" by making mud pies.
Max and Molly were never allowed to indulge in these delights.
Their nurse was a grim-looking person, whose ideas were very much like those of the lady who said to her little daughter, "My dear, just go and see what baby is doing, and tell him not to do it".
Nurse was continually telling Max and Molly "not to do it"; and really there were so few things the poor children might do that were agreeable, that they were hardly worth mentioning.
Then there was Fraulein, the German governess, who wore blue spectacles, and was as dry and dusty as the great books she studied.
Fraulein was no better than Nurse, for if the children made the least bit of noise she cried, "Ach, Himmel! have we the tower of Babel again, for example?"
and told them to be quiet.
The twins had never known either their father or their mother, who had died within a few weeks of each other.
The owner of the stately house in which they lived was their grown-up step-brother, Sir Gilbert Warvyle, of whom both Max and Molly stood in considerable awe.
He was not, indeed, an agreeable man, although he had his good points, and as a matter of fact he did not want the children there at all.
His father, Sir Philip Warvyle, had married for the second time, and Gilbert, the heir, did not at all approve of the new Lady Warvyle.
She was beautiful, and sweet, and winning, but she possessed neither rank nor money, and Gilbert the haughty would have nothing to say to her.
He left the Chase, vowing never to enter it again until he should do so as its master.
Two years later he came back as Sir Gilbert Warvyle, and up in the nursery two orphaned yellow-haired babies were screaming lustily.
Sir Gilbert was sorry that they were there.
He had disliked the children's mother so much — she had driven him out of his home, he’ said, — that he took it into his head to dislike her babies too.
He did what he considered his duty by them, however; that is to say, he had nurses for them, who understood that they were to keep the yellow haired toddlers out of his way.
But he gave them no love at all, and Max and Molly grew up with only each other to cling to; as lonely a little pair as could be found anywhere.
They were to be pitied, in spite of fine clothes and a grand house to live in, a house where there were so many servants, that it took quite half of them to wait upon the other half.
But I must tell you how it was that the twins came to be in such an unlikely place as the rickyard of Dandelion Farm.
Sir Gilbert was going to be married, and the old house which had sheltered many generations of Warvyles was to be put in order from attic to cellar.
This was a good excuse to get rid of the children, at any rate until after the wedding.
So Sir Gilbert sent them to lodge at one of the farms that belonged to his estate.
When Max and Molly heard what was in store for them, they were not wildly excited about it.
Fraulein, they supposed, would go too; and they would still have to talk German, walk along sedately, and keep their hands in a painful state of cleanness.
But when they discovered that Fraulein was returning to her native land, that Nurse wished to take a holiday, and that Penelope, the housekeeper's daughter, was to accompany them, then their joy was great, if subdued.
Plump Penelope had always smiled at them, and had even given Molly a mince-pie when Fraulein was not looking.
The twins felt convinced, although they kept it to themselves, that with Penelope a variety of things would be possible.
Molly indulged in dreams of nursing downy little ducks and feeding chickens; while Max hoped that, for once in his life, he would be in a position to eat more fruit than was good for him, and climb trees without being ignominiously pulled down by the ankles.
In the whole of their lives the children had never been away from home.
They had had no playmates except each other; and although a venturesome kitten had once found its way into the nursery, Nurse very quickly drove it away with an angrily-waved duster.
How Molly sobbed at the sight of that dear black kitty's disappearing tail!
Max and Molly arrived in course of time at Dandelion Farm, under the charge of Penelope the Plump, who, being "own cousin" to Mrs. Wither-spoon the farmer's wife, had so much to say to her, that she naturally could not be running after the two children from morning till night.
And thus there began for Max and Molly the most wonderful and delightful time; the amusing part being, that neither Penelope, nor Mrs. Witherspoon, nor any one else had the faintest glimmering of an idea of what was happening.
This was because fairies were concerned in the matter; for when you have to deal with fairies, the very strangest things may take place under your guardian's nose, and she know no more about them than a garden roller.
Max and Molly, to go back to the beginning of the chapter, were amusing themselves in the rick-yard.
All at once the little girl's attention was attracted by a small dark object, which came tumbling down, as it seemed, from the clouds, and struck a respectable old hen on the nose.
Molly would not have thought much of this, had not the hen fallen into a state of extreme agitation over it.
She clucked and set up her feathers; she shut one eye and gazed up into the clouds with the other; she, ran to and fro, and finally cried in an excited tone to no one in particular:
"My dears, it is certainly my duty to go at once and tell the King the sky ‘s falling!"
said Molly in an awestruck whisper; and as he looked round the hen remarked again:
"The sky has begun to tumble about my ears, and the King ought to be told of it!"
Max's eyes grew as round as marbles: "It ‘s a talking hen!"
said he, aghast.
The hen seemed now to have made up her mind what to do, for she was walking in a very deliberate way towards the gate.
"Let‘s run after her," cried Molly, catching hold of her brother's hand — oh, such a grubby little hand! — " we never saw a king, Max, except in a picture, and she's going to tell him the sky ‘s falling.
I don't understand, ‘cause it was only a bean that fell on her nose;" and Molly looked puzzled.
They ran after the hen, who was now through the gate and marching steadily across a field; it was astonishing how fast she walked, the twins were out of breath when they caught her up.
"Please," gasped Max, "may Molly and me go with you to see the King?
We never saw one ‘cept in a book, and he had a crown on, and Penelope said she didn't believe he wore it when he went to bed."
The hen turned a benevolent eye upon the children.
"My chick-a-biddies," she replied, "it is a long way and a queer way, but you may come with me if you like.
I shall be happy to take you under my wing as far as it will go; you see, you are rather large for chickens."
"But we are not chickens at all," began Molly, when she was interrupted by a shrill voice, which exclaimed:
"Why, Mrs. Henny-penny, Max and Molly, wherever are you all going to?"
The hen gave a little jump of surprise, and the children turning round, saw a fine handsome cock, dressed in a tight military coat with shining buttons, a little round scarlet cap stuck jauntily on one side of his head, and red spurs on his heels.
"Oh, my dear Major Cocky-locky, you are the very person I was wanting to see!"
cried the hen.
"I am just off on most important business — to tell the King the sky is falling."
"In that case a military escort is absolutely necessary," said the Major, gallantly.
"Mrs. Hennypenny, Max and Molly, I will go with you to tell the King the sky's falling, and if any wicked person attacks us, I promise you that I will cut off his comb."
At which awful threat Molly giggled.
"We shall be delighted to accept your polite offer," rejoined Mrs. Henny-penny with a curtsy.
"And now, do not let us allow the grass to grow under our feet, or the sky will have fallen before the King can send carpenters to prop it up."
"You have so much common sense!"
said the Major, and he offered one arm to Mrs. Henny-penny and the other to Molly.
Max took hold of Molly's disengaged hand, and the party set out at a rapid pace.
They had traversed three or four fields in this manner, when a peculiar grating noise struck their ears, upon which the hen, stopping, and pointing to a pond surrounded by trees, observed in a tone of disgust: "There! She is singing again down among those frogs.
A more obstinate creature never waddled upon webbed feet!"
"Who is it?"
asked Max, with great curiosity, and just at that moment there was a dreadful shriek from the pond.
"Isn't it enough to make your feathers stand on end?"
cried Mrs. Henny-penny.
"You have heard of Madam Ducky-daddles, the famous opera-singer, haven't you?
Well, she ruined her voice drinking buckets of cold water, and between the acts she used to go and sit in a tub, that is, if there were no pond handy.
I told her no voice would stand tricks like those, but she went on all the same, and now she is as hoarse as a door-scraper.
She comes out here sometimes and gives a concert in aid of the ‘Frogs’ Provident Society ‘ — they are always hoarse themselves, so of course they rather admire her style."
Max and Molly crept down quietly and peeped through the trees, and there they saw a very funny sight.
Along the edge of the pond were placed pebbles, three deep, and upon each pebble sat a frog, his hands clasped in front of him, and his goggle eyes fixed in admiration upon the singer.
Madam Ducky-daddles, like many celebrated singers, was very stout.
It was evident that she liked gay colours, for she wore an orange velvet dress, turkey-red shoes, and a bright green bow in her hair.
Altogether she was an exceedingly odd-look-ing lady, while the extent to which she opened her mouth was really alarming.
The song she was delighting her audience with came to an end.
Then there was a storm of applause, in the midst of which Madam Ducky-daddles, without the slightest regard for her orange velvet gown, stepped calmly off the stone that served for a platform, into the water.
This was more than good Mrs. Henny-penny could bear.
she screamed, rushing down the bank and upsetting half a row of frogs.
"Come out of that horrid wet water this minute; you'll catch your death of cold, and spoil your clothes too!"
"Now don't be fussy, my good Jemima" ("My name isn't Jemima," interposed the hen, indignantly), croaked the singer with a twinkle in her eye.
She clambered up the bank again, adding:
"I was just about to take a quiet paddle, but I would much rather go with you and the Colonel, and George and Amanda, to tell the King the sky‘s falling.
Indeed, I put on my best clothes on purpose."
"You haven't any of the names right," said Mrs. Henny-penny, desperately; "but come, by all means."
"The more the merrier!"
put in the Major, with a military salute.
Max and Molly began to think that never in all their lives had they been in such extraordinary company.
But it never entered their heads to turn back.
Oh dear, no! Besides, they had by this time no idea in which direction the farmhouse lay.
"Come along, Tom and Margaret; you had better not dawdle, my dears," called Madam Duckydaddles, as she waddled off on the arm of the gallant Major.
"If you could manage to remember that their names are Max and Molly, I daresay the children would answer to them better," observed Mrs. Henny-penny in a resigned tone.
To which her friend replied comfortably:
"My dear Caroline, you know perfectly well that I have no head for names; I say the first one that occurs to me, and a deal of trouble it saves.
After all, what‘s in a name?
It is only a peg to hang a string of words on; and if a person doesn't know you ‘re speaking to him, just give him a poke with your umbrella, and he'll guess it fast enough.
Don't you agree with me, General Huffymuffy?"
The twins burst out laughing at this, but their military escort drew himself up and looked offended.
"Major Cocky-locky, madam, at your service.
I do not call it a difficult name to remember.
Major, two syllables; Cocky-locky with a hyphen, four syllables."
"You need not get into a temper over it, Major Cocky-locky-with-a-hyphen; because our good Elizabeth here" ("My name is not Elizabeth," exclaimed Mrs. Henny-penny) "will tell you that never in my life did I recollect a person's name.
It is a family failing; my poor dear papa was afflicted in a similar manner.
But he managed very well; he used to carry a long stick with a claw at the end, and if folks did not attend when he said ‘Quack!’
he poked them with it.
How they did jump sometimes!"
and the good lady went off into a fit of laughter at the remembrance.
"I was only a chicken at the time, but I recollect what an old nuisance he was," whispered Mrs. Henny-penny to Molly; "and how everybody hated that stick with the claw at the end of it.
The whole farmyard was glad when he gave his last quack.
— But what can be the matter with the Major and Ducky-daddles?"
"Do they want to run away and leave us?"
asked Max; and certainly it looked like it, for the two were scuttling across the meadow in fine style.
The great singer had picked up her velvet skirt with one hand, and her turkey-red shoes were getting over the ground at a surprising rate, quite as fast as the Major's neat spurred boots.
She looked back, however, to shriek in hoarse tones:
"My dear Arabella, why don't you bring Dick and Lucy along?
There ‘s going to - be such a thunderstorm in about two minutes, and the Colonel is afraid of spoiling his best uniform."
"Come, children," cried Mrs. Henny-penny, beginning to run; "if Ducky-daddles says it will rain, you may be very sure that you‘ll want an umbrella shortly.
She is as good as a weather-glass."
The sky grew darker and darker.
Max and Molly ran as they had never run before, and still the hen cried, "Faster, faster!"
It was a most exciting scamper.
In front of them was a wood, and they saw the Major's red-coat and his companion's orange skirt disappear into it.
Then came a clap of thunder, followed by a second and louder one; large drops of rain fell thick and fast; it was evident that a heavy storm was at hand.
screamed Mrs. Henny-penny.
"Twice to the right, once to the left, round the oak-tree, and here we are!"
Max was in front, and he was just in time to see the tail of the orange skirt whisk into a large hole at the foot of the oak-tree.
"It ‘s all right," gasped Mrs. Henny-penny, encouragingly; "the passages are a trifle dark, but you will like it when you get there.
Count and Countess Foxy-woxy are the most delightful people in the world, though they live in rather a retired situation."
"Max," whispered Molly, as they crept into the passage after the hen, "what would Penelope say if she knew we were going down a fox-hole?"
"She’d say it was all rubbish," answered Max, unconcernedly.