PIP gave a couple of vigorous strokes, and the boat shot alongside the bank.
Max and Molly looked with bewilderment at the laughing faces and peculiar dresses of the merry-makers; and truly, it was such a mix-medley of a party, that it might well have astonished older people.
For there was Cinderella and her Prince, and Red Riding-hood, and Jack Horner, who had brought a banjo, and was making a dreadful tum-tum-tuming with it; and there was Mary-quite-contrary, dangling her little red shoes in the water, and spoiling the leather, like the naughty little puss she was.
The Sleeping Beauty, now wide awake, had of course her Prince in attendance; and a handsome fellow he was, only dark, while Cinderella"s was fair.
There was Old King Cole, drinking currant-wine out of a decanter, and with his crown all on one side; while Jack had a red rose gaily stuck behind one ear, and Jill wore a brand-new scarlet bodice.
Peter Piper wrangled fiercely with Simple Simon over the lobster salad, while the Knave of Hearts crammed tarts into his mouth whenever he thought no one was looking.
They all left off their several occupations to greet the new-comers, which they did with the air of old acquaintances.
"We have been expecting you along this way for some time," observed King Cole, smiling benevolently; "let me see, — when we began this picnic about five years ago, or was it six years ago come Michaelmas?
Really, what with my tiresome fiddlers giving notice every three weeks or so, on account of the fog getting into their fiddles, and the currant-wine turning into vinegar if you are not as nimble as ninepence —"
"Don"t talk so much, you dear old thing, or you"ll have a sun-stroke," interrupted Cinderella sweetly.
"And your dates are all wrong, too; we only began the picnic yesterday fortnight."
Max looked so astonished at this conversation, that Heartsease hastened to say to him:
"Dear boy, Father Time has no power over the people who dwell in Story-land; ten minutes and ten years are just the same to them, because they are immortal."
"And what I wish to remark," said the Knave of Hearts, fixing his eye upon Molly, "is, that the tarts they make nowadays are nothing like the tarts my old granny made, before they cut her up to make a pocket-pincushion with."
"You"ll just ruin your constitution with that pastry, young man," said Peter Piper; "even a knave couldn"t stand it for ever.
Mary, my dear, try some turtle soup?"
replied Mary-quite-contrary, splashing her red heels in the water; "and that isn"t soup either, it"s the sauce for the cabinet pudding."
"There, who"s simple, now?"
asked Simon triumphantly.
"And perhaps, after that, you"ll leave off telling me that I oughtn"t to flavour the lobster salad with beeswax; why, it gives it a most Parisian flavour; a little like kidney beans, a trifle like pineapple cream, and yet not enough like either to spoil the whole.
Don"t you pretend to understand High Cookery!"
"I wish you would leave off squabbling," said the Sleeping Beauty with a yawn; "and nobody has asked Max or Molly what they will take.
Prince, where are your manners?"
The Prince was all alacrity in a moment.
"A thousand pardons, Madam," he cried, doffing his plumed cap to Molly.
"Now, what will you have?"
Then he added encouragingly: "Try something we haven"t got, won"t you?"
Molly hesitated; the Prince looked charmingly handsome with his dark curls falling over his deep lace collar, but surely he was a little crazy.
"I think I would rather try something that you have got," she answered gravely; "as long as it isn"t lobster salad," she added, glancing in the direction of Simple Simon, who luckily did not hear her.
The Prince looked rather embarrassed.
"To tell you the truth," he murmured confidentially, "we make it a rule to give everything a turn, for fear of jealousy, you understand.
And today is an L.S.D.
day, that is, a Lobster Salad Day.
But there"s a cabinet pudding for Mary, who is too contrary to eat the same things we do, at least on the same days; I'll make her give you some."
He called out to Miss Mary; "I say, here"s Molly wants some of your pudding, but don"t you give her any for the world, nor a drop of the sauce either!"
"Yes, I shall, Prince Impertinent," retorted Mary; "I shall give her half the pudding and all the sauce; so there!"
"I told you I knew how to manage her," chuckled the Prince, going back to the Sleeping Beauty, who received him with a smile.
"You are so clever, Ferdinando, darling.
No one but you would ever have got through that dreadful wood."
"My sweetest love, I was coming to you," responded the Prince gallantly; whereupon Old King Cole rapped the decanter with the stopper and called out: "Ladies and gentlemen, let us change the subject."
"That"s the thirty-fifth subject you have wanted changed during the last two hours," complained Peter Piper, consulting his pocketbook; "if you will be so extravagant, I think you ought to pay extra; we can"t afford so many subjects, and that I stick to!"
Old King Cole grew very red in the face.
"You miserable picker of pickled pepper!"
— he began wrathfully.
But Cinderella, who seemed to consider the old monarch her special charge, pulled him by the coat-tails.
"Never mind that foolish Peter," she said soothingly; "his temper has been heated by the pepper, and I am sure I don"t wonder.
Take some more currant-wine, dear;" and Cinderella landed him a fresh decanter and put his crown straight.
"You are a good child," said old King Cole, appeased; "and as you remark, that whippersnapper of a pickled piper isn"t worth troubling about.
Let us — ahem — let us change the subject."
In the meantime, while Molly ate her cabinet pudding, which was unlike any other pudding she had ever tasted, Max had been making friends with that roguish lad, little Jack Horner, and had persuaded Jack to let him try his banjo.
"No, it"s not difficult to play it when you know how," said Jack, in answer to Max"s question.
"I learnt it from old Black Joe long before you were born.
Sometimes I sit for hours in my corner, singing to it.
But, I say, are you off so soon?"
Max looked round; yes, Pip was slowly moving his oar; the boat was leaving the bank, while Molly kissed her hand to Mary - quite - contrary.
The whole merry party had gathered into a group to watch the departure of their visitors.
Jack and Jill stood with their arms round each other's necks.
Cinderella, the Prince, and old King Cole were close together, while Simple Simon and Peter Piper forgot their differences of opinion and waved a pockethandkerchief between them.
said Heartsease, with her beautiful smile; "be sure that the children will not forget you."
"No, don"t forget us, little Max and Molly," they cried in chorus; and the twins declared fervently that they never, never would.
And so they passed on, until the thrum of Jack Homer's banjo could no longer be heard.
Pip"s sure, steady strokes propelled the gondola so swiftly onwards that it seemed to fly through the water.
Now and then a fish popped up its head, gazed at the boat with a curious eye, gave its tail a flirt, and dived down again.
Sometimes a bird paused in its flight to perch for a moment on the fairy"s shoulder, fearless add unconcerned; or a brilliant butterfly settled upon her hand, and seemed loath to leave her.
It was as if all living creatures loved the sweet maid-of-honour.
Presently the boat passed through a perfect garden of water-lilies, most of them half-closed.
The children, peeping in between the snowy petals, saw to their surprise that each lily had its occupants.
Delicate, graceful little creatures were they, with filmy wings, and some of them wore crowns.
Pip ceased rowing, and Heartsease stretched out her hand and drew one of the lilies into the boat, without breaking its long green stem.
Inside it was a little lady, sitting upon a golden stool, and she began at once to speak, in a soft monotonous voice.
"I live here," said the little lady, "with my little husband, who is no taller than I am.
We are exactly one inch high, and that is a very good height for our race who live in water-lilies.
We are very happy, for we love each other dearly; and when it rains upon the river we shut the shutters and sit close together on two golden stools and tell a story.
We only know one story, and we take it in turns to tell it; but it is a lovely story and we never get tired of it.
Some of our friends like to fly from flower to flower paying visits, but my little husband and I like to stay at home best.
He is gone to market now, to buy honey for supper.
That is all I have to tell you; put me back in the river, please, for my stem is getting dry, and if my little husband came back and found me gone, it would break his little heart."
Max and Molly had been listening very attentively to the little lady"s speech, and now Max said: "Couldn"t we snap the stem and take the lily and the little lady with us?
I would hold it all the time."
"We could wait till the little husband came back from market, so she wouldn"t be lonely!"
put in Molly eagerly.
"That would never do," said Heartsease gently; "if you broke the stem of the lily both of them would die; and see, this one has already been too long out of the water."
In truth, the little lady"s wings were losing their brilliant tints and turning a dull gray, while she herself hung her head, and drooped upon her golden seat.
"Oh, let us put her back directly!"
cried both children together; and Max carefully placed the lily in the river again.
As they floated on, they could see that the little lady looked quite sprightly once more, and Molly, catching sight of a tiny brilliant creature flying towards that particular flower, exclaimed with delight:
"There"s the little husband! I"m so glad; and I hope he has brought lots of honey."
suddenly came from a sharp voice near.
Max and Molly stared about to see where it hailed from.
At length they discovered two bright eyes grinning at them from a hole in the bank.
It was a water-rat, and he poked his head a little farther out and cried:
"Come in and have a cup of tea, won"t you?
I know all about you, though I live mostly in my country house, and seldom go into society.
Step in and try my Souchong at one and fourpence - half -penny per lb.; the kettle"s boiling."
The twins did not fancy the look of the dark hole and the rat"s sharp teeth, and drew nearer to Heartsease.
Molly answered hesitatingly, for fear it might hurt his feelings to be refused:
"Thank you very much, sir, but I"m afraid we haven"t time to stop to-day.
We are on our way to tell the King the sky is falling, and it"s very important."
cried the rat, snapping his teeth; and then he drew in his head with a jerk, and retired into his country house as he was pleased to style it.
"Don"t mind him," said Heartsease, "he means well, but his manners are not polished; it comes from living in a hole all by himself.
But, children, sit up and look before you; we are coming to the most wonderful thing on the river; to the Palace of the Seasons."
On swept the gondola; the river widened majestically, while the trees and shrubs on either side became more varied and magnificent.
Every minute revealed fresh beauties; birds of tropical plumage darted from branch to branch, and the air was full of sweet sounds and scents.
All at once a marvellous palace came in sight, rising as it were out of the very heart of the river, which rippled softly to its base, and seemed to inclose it within a silver girdle.
It was a fairy-like structure built of many-tinted marbles, so blended together as to form a perfect whole, beyond expression beautiful.
A broad flight of steps ran down right into the water; above rose a carved portico, upheld by massive twisted pillars; beyond, one caught glimpses of a court adorned with statues, in the centre of which towered a fountain.
Such a palace might have been reared in a single night by a Slave of the Lamp; but except for the twittering of the birds and the soft monotonous splash of the fountain, nothing broke the dreamy silence that reigned over all.
Was it then uninhabited?
Did no one live in this princely residence?
Max and Molly did not speak, but clasped each other's hands, and gazed with eyes that were large with wonder.
When Pip rowed the gondola close to the marble steps, and Heartsease stepped out, they followed her closely, feeling that it must be a dream.
It was all so silent and so mysterious.
They passed into the court, and Heartsease broke the spell by saying aloud, in her ordinary tone:
"You are wondering where we are, little Max and Molly, and what we are going to see.
I will tell you.
"In this beautiful, silent palace live four sisters, and always one of them is working while the other three sleep; they take it in turns, and this has been their unchanging rule ever since they were born, centuries and centuries ago.
You see that there are four great doors leading out of this court; these open into four spacious halls, in each of which lives one of the sisters.
Come, we will go into this one; it is the home of Primavera, the youngest.
Do not fear to wake her, for she lies dreaming, and the loudest noise in the world would not disturb her deep, deep sleep."
The massive door rolled back at the touch of the fairy"s hand, and she entered with the children close beside her.
It then shut softly behind them.
If it were meant for a hall, the place in which they now found themselves was very unlike a hall in the ordinary sense of the word.
Rather did it seem like a marvellous garden; for the carpet was thick velvety moss; there were patches of violets and primroses, hyacinths and daffodils, all growing and blowing.
There were cherry and apple trees in full blossom, and a cuckoo, actually a cuckoo, perched upon one of the branches.
But it was a cuckoo without a song; it sat there dull and motionless and never moved a feather.
The prevailing hue of the whole place was a fresh, tender green, while the air felt soft and warm.
Heartsease stepped lightly across the mossy carpet, and, in answer to Molly"s inquiring look, she took her hand,.
saying: "I will show you where Primavera lies dreaming. Come!"
Beneath a bower of climbing plants, upon a touch, lay the youngest of the four strange sisters, a slender, lovely maiden, with long fair hair streaming over the cushions, and crowned with a wreath of snowdrops.
She was robed in some delicate tissue that might have been a piece of the rainbow itself, so changeful were its tints; a roll of music lay at her feet, and one listless hand held a branch of white hawthorn.
A faint smile hovered upon her lips, but tears glistened on her eyelashes, and Molly whispered, in a tone of concern:
"She has been crying."
"Ah! child, things are different to what they used to be," said Heartsease, shaking her head a little sadly.
"I remember the time when Primavera was always gay, always smiling; or if she pouted or wept once in a while, it was over directly, and only made her smiles appear the brighter.
She was the sweetest, loveliest creature that ever lived, and when she awoke from her long sleep all the world rejoiced.
But now I do not know what has happened to my poor Primavera! Often she is so cold and dull and dreary, that people hug themselves close, and sit over the fire, saying: "Primavera is still sleeping".
Sometimes, too, she sits whole days together, doing nothing but weep, weep, weep!"
"I wish I might kiss her," said Molly; "she is so very pretty."
"You will not wake her," replied Heartsease, smiling.
"Primavera has still many months to slumber;" and Molly stole nearer and dropped a butterfly kiss upon her soft cheek.
"Come, we will visit Primavera"s elder sister," said the fairy; "her name is Estate, and we shall find her awake."
"Es-ta-te," repeated Max, pronouncing the three syllables slowly.
"What queer names they have! What are the others called?"
"Autunna and Inverna," and Heartsease passed across the court, and they went through the second of the great doors, which swung back as noiselessly as the first had done.
What a bright and joyous scene met their astonished eyes upon entering! Instead of the dreamy silence that pervaded the abode of the Maid of Spring, Estate"s hall was full of life and flooded with sunshine.
It was like a bower of roses, birds were twittering and bees humming, and there was a delicious scent of new-mown hay in the air.
The queen of this beautiful abode sat embroidering a wonderful piece of stuff with all sorts of flowers and fruits, intermixed with curious signs and figures.
She worked so rapidly that they seemed to appear upon the surface of the silk as if by magic, and while she worked, Estate sang in a full, rich voice, this song:
Sleep, sleep, sisters three,
While I pour my treasure
On the woods and fragrant earth;
While I give the roses birth,
Scattering love, and joy, and mirth
All in richest measure! Sleep, sleep, sisters mine,
Each within her bower;
Spring, with tender buds and leaves,
Autumn, crowned with golden sheaves,
Winter, with her snow-thatched eaves;
Sleep; but wake with power! Dream, dream, sisters fair! Time his flight is winging;
Daughters of the year are we,
One to work, to slumber three;
Now the whole earth lists to me,
Sweetly singing, singing! Estate was not slender and delicate like Primavera, although she did not seem to be much older than that white-and-gold maiden.
Everything about her glowed with life and health; there was such colour in her cheeks and on her lips, such brightness in her eyes, such a lustre upon her brown hair, that it was quite delightful to look.
And when she smiled, one felt that the whole world must sing for very gladness.
Her dress was of rich brocade, quaintly fashioned, and jewels flashed in her hair and upon her fingers.
Max and Molly thought her the most wonderful person they had ever seen, and were so overcome by her appearance that they hardly dared to move.
"And so these are the two little mortals whom you have taken under your protection, my pretty Heartsease," said Estate, glancing at the children with kindly eyes.
"It was Her Majesty"s good pleasure," answered Heartsease simply; "you know what our Titania is; how compassionate and sweet.
The whole fairy realm does not contain her equal!"
"But you cannot keep the bonnie wee things for ever," said Estate gravely; "mortals ere now have passed through the ivory gate and golden, into Fairyland, but no mortal has ever stayed there."
"They must go back, I know," replied Heartsease wistfully; "to keep them with us always is beyond even Titania"s power.
But we shall not forsake them, and at least they are happy now.
It takes so little to make a child happy!"
Estate glanced at Max and smiled.
"What do you want to know, little one?"
she asked, and Max turned rather red.
"I was wondering how you did that beautiful work all out of your head, without a pattern."
"I make the pattern myself," replied Estate composedly, "and besides, I have been working for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I ought to know something by this time, don"t you think?"
For hundreds and hundreds of years! Max and Molly found it hard to believe this, for Estate, to their thinking, looked much younger than Fraulein.
Yet she did not appear to be joking, nor did Heartsease show any surprise.
Just then a voice was heard that somehow sounded familiar.
"When I was a young man and a student," said the voice, "I used to open my mouth and be more astonished at things than anybody.
But now that I am old and a professor, I take precious good care not to be astonished at anything at all.
I talk through my nose, and I never open my mouth except to put something into it."