To The Palace of the Seasons
IT WAS the Professor from the beetle school; he wore his horn spectacles, and was reclining at his ease upon the train of Estate's brocaded gown.
Max was the first to discover him, and he told the Professor that he was very glad they had met again.
This seemed to gratify the old gentleman, for he made a curious grating sound, which he explained to be his method of laughing.
"It is my invariable habit," observed the Professor, "to laugh with my hind legs; I learnt to do so on my travels, when I was studying the manners and customs of the grasshopper tribe.
I like it because it is original Now, what do you laugh with, for instance?"
"I never thought of what I laughed with, but what I laughed for," said he.
"Then I will tell you," cried the Professor triumphantly; "when you laugh, you laugh with all your heart, don't you, — hey?"
"And that makes a hearty laugh," put in Molly, surprised at her own cleverness.
"Quite so," answered the Professor, pleased; "and now you see why I prefer my way.
Anybody can laugh with all their heart, but very few can do it with their back paws, as some people call them.
I may say — drawing his small person up — that it takes a professor to do that."
He then very kindly gave the children, a few illustrations of his original method of laughing, which they thought extremely ugly, but were too polite to say so.
After this he pushed his spectacles on to the top of his head, which he generally did when he wanted to see anything, and glanced at Estate and Heartsease, who were talking earnestly.
"Ah! those two are too busy to attend to the likes of us," remarked the Professor, hopping up briskly; "I suppose you want to take a peep at the other sisters, so come with me, and I'll be showman."
The twins looked at Heartsease; she nodded assent, and they followed the Professor, who trotted along nimbly, his tongue going all the time like a saw-mill.
In the third great hall they found Autunna sleeping; a beautiful, queenly woman, with a wreath of vine leaves on her dark hair.
Her dress was of royal velvet, clasped by a wondrous girdle of precious stones, that flashed and shone like sparks of living flame.
The whole place was a dream of brilliant flowers and richly-glowing fruits.
"This one will be the next to wake," said the Professor in his shrill voice; "Autunna is a splendid creature, but I am not so fond of her as I am of Estate.
You see Estate is more settled in her principles than either of the others.
Primavera cries too often.
And Autunna sometimes takes it into her head to mope.
As for Inverna, ugh! she's as cold as a cucumber and as hard as marble.
I wish she would sleep for ever; but I suppose she is useful, too, in her way.
Have you seen enough of Autunna, my young friends?
Well, then, move on the caravan."
The Professor chattered so fast that neither Max nor Molly could get a word in.
They simply followed the queer little fellow, who turned up the collar of his coat, as he pushed open the door of the fourth and, last hall.
"Prepare to shiver," he said impressively, "prepare to shiver, and shake, and shudder, and shrink, and shrivel, and shrug!"
"What a lot of S's," whispered Molly.
"O — h!"
"O — o — h!"
repeated Max, for it was so cold it nearly took his breath away.
"I told you to prepare," observed their guide complacently; "the thermometer plays nice little games here, I can tell you.
Some people call Inverna, the Ice Queen, and it isn't a bad name for her.
Handsome, yes, but decidedly chilly."
The fourth hall was as beautiful as the other three, but in a totally different way.
There were scarcely any flowers; the floor was covered with crisp, sparkling snow, and snow lay thickly upon the boughs of the dark, silent fir-trees, that seemed to stand like sentinels guarding the slumbers of their queen.
Red-berried holly was there in abundance and great bunches of mistletoe, while in one corner lay a huge pile of Yule logs.
The children could not at first find the mistress of this chilly realm, but presently.
they spied her, asleep upon a heap of furs within a grotto carved out of blocks of solid ice.
And oh, she was lovely! in her dazzling white robes with a diamond star gleaming upon her pale forehead.
So lovely, but icily, icily cold! A robin perched upon her shoulder looked frozen to death, but the children knew that it would come to life when Inverna rose from her couch.
Then they noticed a figure that seemed strangely familiar, sitting at the Ice Maiden's feet.
"It's Father Christmas," uttered Max in a tone of delight; "look, he has got a Christmas tree, and a stocking to hang up, and a sack.
I suppose the sack ‘s full of presents."
"I wonder if there are any for us," returned Molly; "we hardly ever have any, have we, Max?"
It was very extraordinary, but it really did seem as if Father Christmas half woke up at this point, looked at the two with a benevolent twinkle in his eye, and slightly nodded his venerable head.
and Molly were convinced of this, but when they left the hall, the’ Professor declared that they must have been dreaming.
"Nonsense, my young friends, nonsense! I tell you there is an order about these things.
You don't get strawberries in December, or snowballs in the middle of July!"
"He did look at us with both his eyes," persisted ‘Max stoutly, while Molly chimed in: "And I believe he means to bring us some presents."
"Tut, tut," said the Professor, "don't tell me! I assure you the old man doesn't wake up until the middle of December.
He snoozes as long as he can, because Inverna works him so hard; she keeps him running about with that heavy pack on his back, until it is a wonder the old fellow doesn't drop."
The three were now crossing the court, and ‘the children, catching sight of Heartsease standing at the head of the marble steps, ran to her gleefully.
Pip looked up from the gondola with a smile of welcome, and stood ready to help them in.
"Well, dears, and which of the four sisters did you like the best?"
asked Heartsease, as she stepped into the boat.
"Oh, Inverna, cause she has Father Christmas with her!"
cried both promptly, while Max added:
"He had a sack ‘full of presents, and we were wondering ‘whether there were any for us."
I am not going to betray secrets," said the fairy, laughing; while the Professor remarked, as he took a seat upon the top step: "Children, I notice, are apt to be inquisitive; especially about Christmas time and birthdays.
It is a most catching complaint, I believe, but not dangerous."
"I keep wondering, and wondering, and wondering what will happen next," said Molly, sighing with satisfaction; "it is so lovely to wonder!"
"And so cheap," observed the Professor dreamily; "why, it's the cheapest entertainment in the world.
For instance you can wonder, without paying a farthing for it, whether there will be plum-pudding for dinner to-morrow three weeks; or what makes your Aunt Matilda wear a cockatoo in her best bonnet.
Or you can wonder what would happen if you met a crocodile in a narrow lane, and he wouldn't take sixpence to turn back; or, on the other hand, you can wonder —"
"Good-bye, Mr. Professor Beetle," Max called out saucily; "you can wonder where we are going, and how long it will take us to get there!"
echoed Molly, waving her hand.
"You will see me again," announced the Professor, waving back; and he commenced to sing in a high-pitched voice:
"When the peritwinkles are twinkling on the lea,
And the gadding grasshopper skippeth home to tea;
When the elves are dancing ‘neath the harvest moon,
Then, oh, Max and Molly! we'll be meeting soon."
The children laughed as they nestled close to Heartsease.
The gondola sped swiftly on, and the fairy-like Palace of the Seasons gradually faded away into the distance.
The sun went down, and the soft silence of the night enfolded them, while one by one the stars peeped out in the blue canopy of heaven.
Presently Pip steered the boat into a side stream, which became narrower and narrower as it went on.
Rocks towered on either side and threw fantastic shadows on the water.
Max and Molly began to have that curious kind of feeling that comes when it is long past your bedtime.
Not that they were sleepy, oh dear no!
Max explained that he was never tired, only when he had to do long-division sums.
"They are so aggeravating," said he; "they wiggle-waggle right down to the bottom of the slate; and when they get there, they’re wrong!"
Heartsease smiled, and tucked a silken rug round each of them.
"You had better go to sleep," she said; "we shall enter the subterranean passage that belongs to the gnomes directly, and as it will take several hours to traverse, some of them will help Pip with the boat Go to sleep, my darlings, and wake up when we get to the landing-stage; our friends will be there to welcome us."
Instantly the rocks were lighted up by hundreds of tiny lanterns, carried by queer little figures in pointed red caps.
There was a sound of grinding chains and shooting bolts; then a huge piece of rock rolled slowly back, disclosing a tunnel about three yards wide.
As the gondola passed in, a number of gnomes sprang on to the, stern, holding up their lanterns to throw a little light upon this mysterious and watery path.
The twins tried hard to keep awake, nevertheless their yellow heads drooped and their eyes closed.
Before the boat had gone a dozen yards, both of them were sound asleep.
"Here they come at last, the precious poppets!"
cried a familiar voice; and Max and Molly woke up to find themselves being rapturously hugged by good Mrs. Henny-penny.
It was broad daylight, and she was surrounded by quite a party, including a long-necked lady who was introduced to the children as the Baroness Goosey-poosey.
"A poetess, my dears," said Mrs. Henny-penny in a whisper which everybody could hear, "she intends to tell the King that the sky is falling, in rhyme.
Think how impressive it will be!"
Before Molly could find a suitable response, she was suddenly pounced upon by a fashionably-dressed young person with beady black eyes, very red cheeks, and an exceedingly broad smile, who shrieked volubly:
"Why, Henny-penny, Ducky-daddles, Cocky-locky, Turkey-lurkey, Goosey-poosey, Foxy-woxy, Max and Molly, wherever are you all going to?"
"Belinda! it can't be really you, Belinda?"
cried Molly in wondering tones; "how ever did you get here?"
It was certainly Belinda, the only doll she had ever possessed; and for whom she had mourned, when, in some mysterious way, Belinda had disappeared.
"Ho, yes, it's me!"
replied the black-eyed young lady, still smiling broadly; "and I am glad to see you, Molly; you were always kind to me, though I must say you put me to bed much too often.
Even the laziest doll doesn't want to go to sleep more than fourteen times a day, you know.
However, it is of no consequence now; I am married to a naval officer, and we live in a very nice house."
cried Max; "Heartsease is going."
The fairy was indeed seated in the gondola, and already it was a few feet from the bank.
"Don't be alarmed," said Heartsease merrily, "we shall meet again in a few hours.
Go with Belinda, and she will see that you are properly dressed to appear at court."
"Will it be to-day?"
exclaimed both the children in awed voices.
"Certainly," said Belinda.
"I could have told you that myself, only you didn't give me time.
Come along, dears, my carriage is waiting."
Of all her strange experiences Molly felt that the very strangest was that of being patronized by her own doll, Belinda.
For Belinda was so affable and condescending that she made her former mistress feel quite small and young.
The naval officer was waiting with the carriage.
He was introduced as Washington Achilles, and turned out to be a midshipman, with very curly hair and very pink cheeks.
He drove with extreme care; all the same the carriage was overturned six times before it drew up at No.
3 Paradise Row.
Nobody seemed to mind such trifling accidents, however.