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The House with the High Wall
Most people, looking back at their childhood, see it as a misty country half forgotten or only to be remembered through an evocative sound or scent, but some episodes of those short years remain clear and brightly colored like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope. It was thus that Louise Melville was always to remember the house with the high wall and the adventure connected with it. Antonia was to remember it, too, but not so vividly, for really and truly it was Lou's adventure. Lou was the adventurous one.
The house with the high wall was within five minutes' walk of their own house (the house in which they had been born and in which they lived with their father and mother), but, whereas their own house was one of many, all exactly alike, and was situated in a square with a small and very sooty garden in front, the house with the high wall stood alone, surrounded by a solid gray stone wall and half hidden by trees. In the summer a laburnum flung careless streams of golden blossom over the top of the wall and a snow-white hawthorn tree filled the air with sweetness.
The children often walked around that way in the afternoon, and they used to linger as they passed the tall wooden door in the hope that it would open and give them a glimpse of the garden and the house, but Nannie did not approve of lingering here. She never said anything but always hurried them on...
Lou and Tonia did not ask why, of course, for they were aware that Nannie would not tell them. Nannie was an adept at the art of turning questions aside-questions that she could not or would not answer.
"P'raps an ogre lives there," Tonia said. "An ogre who eats children for his breakfast."
"Or p'raps a wicked magician who would turn us into frogs," countered Lou with relish.
They did not really believe in ogres and magicians, for they were sensible children, but it was fun to pretend to believe in these monsters of iniquity and it was an absorbing topic of conversation.
"Grown-ups are queer," said Tonia, referring to Nannie's inexplicable behavior.
"Yes," agreed Lou. "Yes, they get queer ideas. I think Nannie must have gotten a queer idea about the house with the high wall."
"Mother has it, too," said Tonia, nodding. "Mother wouldn't let me look at the house when we drove past yesterday."
One blustery day toward the end of March, the east wind was sweeping through the streets of Edinburgh, raising the dust in clouds and playing all sorts of impish tricks with the hats and skirts of the citizens. The children were out with Nannie as usual, but there was an unusual feeling in Lou's heart. Perhaps it was the sunshine and the breeze, or perhaps it was the fact that the flower shop windows were full of daffodils, showing that spring was really on its way. Whatever it was, Lou's heart felt light and her feet wanted to dance...and when she got to the corner of the high gray wall she took to her heels and ran. Tonia followed, of course, she always followed Lou, and Nannie was left panting along behind.
The children stopped at the big brown door and looked at each other, smiling.
"I won," said Lou, breathlessly.
"You-started-first," said Tonia, more breathlessly still.
"You could have started first if you'd wanted-"
"But I didn't know," began Tonia in reproachful tones.
At this moment the big brown door swung open and a lady appeared. She stepped out into the street and looked up and down-as if she were looking for someone. She was dressed in a soft blue coat with gray furs and a little hat made of gray feathers, but it was her face that riveted the eyes of Tonia and Lou; her face was beautiful. It was pink and white like the Dresden china lady in the drawing room cabinet, and her eyes were bright and brown and sparkling with life.
The lady stopped and smiled. "Two dear little mice!" she exclaimed. She might have said more-she looked as if she were going to say more-but Nannie was just behind and swept the children on.
"The idea!" said Nannie under her breath.
They talked about the lady all the way home, walking along in front of Nannie very sedately.
"What a lovely smell she had!" whispered Lou.
"It was violets," said Tonia, whispering back.
"She was like a picture-"
"Like a queen-that's what I thought."
"She called us mice."
"Because of our gray coats, of course."
For days on end they talked of nothing else, for the sudden appearance of the picture lady and her unusual beauty had kindled their imaginations; unfortunately they had been so entranced that neither of them had looked in through the open door, so the house with the high wall was as mysterious as ever-perhaps even more mysterious.
"She lives there, of course," said Lou. "It must be lovely if she lives there. How I wish I had remembered to look!"
Tonia said nothing for she was content with the mystery. It was pleasant to speculate, to make up stories about the garden and the house and the beautiful picture lady who lived there...but Lou was different. Lou always wanted to know.
It was the end of May or perhaps the beginning of June when Nannie went home for the weekend. She went home to see her mother who was "getting on" (as Nannie put it), and while she was away the children's mother looked after them and Maggie, the housemaid, put them to bed. Maggie was young and enjoyed having games with the children, so, although they were fond of Nannie, her absence was a pleasant change.
On Sunday afternoon, Lou and Tonia went down to the drawing room dressed in their best frocks-blue Liberty smocks, the color of their eyes. Mrs. Melville intended to have them with her for tea, but after about twenty minutes of their company she changed her mind, for they were in a tiresome sort of mood and she could not be bothered with them. If only one of them had been a boy, thought Mrs. Melville, looking at her daughters regretfully, or even if one of them were really interesting; they were both rather dull. The children of Mrs. Melville's friends were bright and entertaining and frequently made amusing remarks, but neither Lou nor Tonia ever said anything worth repeating.
"I think you might go upstairs and play with the dollhouse," suggested Mrs. Melville. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? And I'll tell Maggie to take your tea up to the nursery."
"Do you love Mother?" asked Tonia, as they toiled upstairs together.
"Why, of course," replied Lou in horrified tones. "It would be frightfully wicked not to love Mother. You love her, don't you?"
"Of course," said Tonia hastily...but did she? Perhaps she was frightfully wicked. How could you be sure?
"And Father," continued Lou in earnest tones. "You love Father, don't you?"
"Oh, of course," agreed Tonia. She hesitated and then added in a doubtful voice, "But we don't see him often, do we?"
"He buys your clothes, Tonia. He buys your food. You would starve if Father didn't buy you things."
"Yes, of course," said Tonia for the third time, but without much conviction.
They had arrived at the nursery. Tonia opened the dollhouse, but Lou ran across to the window and leaned out. There were bars across the window, but you could get your head between the bars-if Nannie was not there-and you could look down into the street, far below. People were walking along, dressed in their Sunday clothes, and it was amusing because you could see their hats and a dumpy sort of figure beneath. A dog ran across the street and a black-and-white cat sprang onto the railing of the garden and crouched there, spitting with rage. There was a hawthorn tree in the garden, and the afternoon sun was shining on the snow-white blossoms with a golden light.
"Let's go out," said Lou.
"Alone!" exclaimed Tonia in amazement.
"Why not?" demanded Lou. Her cheeks were suddenly pink, and her eyes were sparkling. Her very hair seemed full of excitement; a few moments ago it had been lying flat with boredom, but now her golden curls were bobbing and dancing as if they were alive. "What could happen to us, Tonia?" she continued. "I suppose you're frightened of getting lost or something. We always go for a walk in the afternoons-it's good for us. I'll take care of you," added Lou grandly.
Five minutes later the hall door opened, and two little girls in little blue frocks came out and walked sedately down the steps. Nothing had been arranged about the direction of their walk, but neither of them showed any hesitation. They turned to their left and proceeded upon their way, hand in hand.
The wall was just as mysterious as ever, and the brown door was shut. Lou and Tonia walked past very slowly, turned at the corner, and walked back.
"It won't open," said Tonia, breaking the silence. "I know it won't open; I've got a sort of feeling-"
Lou said nothing. She reached up and pulled the bell. Far in the distance, there was a jangling noise that died away into silence.
"I had to. I just had to, Tonia."
"But what will you say?"
"I don't know-but I must see inside," declared Lou breathlessly.
They waited for a few moments and then they heard footsteps approaching and the door swung open...it was the lady they had seen before, the picture lady. Today she was all in pale gray with a string of pearls around her neck, and her dark hair was waved and curled.
The lady looked at her visitors in some surprise and then she smiled. "It's the two little mice!" she exclaimed.
Lou and Tonia were dumb. They walked into the garden, and the door was shut behind them. It was not a big garden, but it was even more wonderful than they had imagined, for it was full of sunshine and flowers. There was a paved courtyard with a pool in the middle, and all around the paved space was high rockery, covered with pink and yellow and purple flowers; they looked like colored waterfalls streaming down between the stones. At one side was a swinging garden seat with a gaily striped red and white canopy, and in front of it was a tea table with a white lace cloth and silver that sparkled in the sun. A fat lady was sitting in the swinging seat and a young man in white flannels was sitting near her in a deck chair, reading a paper.
Lou and Tonia stood there, hand in hand, and gazed about them.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the young man, throwing down his paper. "Good heavens, where did you find them, Mother?"
"They're perfect," declared the fat lady, holding up a lorgnette.
"Yes, quite perfect," agreed the picture lady, laughing to herself in a pleased way. "I thought you'd like them, Daisy. Wasn't it clever of me to produce them for you on a dull Sunday afternoon?"
"It's never dull when you're about," declared the young man.
"It was very clever of you, Wanda," declared the fat lady.
"They're two little mice, you know," said the picture lady, nodding. "Two dear little mice."
"Not mice, Wanda," objected the fat lady.
"No," agreed the young man. "Aunt Daisy is right. They aren't mice. I can't quite make up my mind what they are-babes in the wood, perhaps."
"They're Alices in Wonderland," said Aunt Daisy, closing her lorgnette with a snap.
A short silence ensued. It was broken by the young man. "Can they talk?" he inquired in a grave, interested voice.
"I don't think so," replied the picture lady. "But they don't have to talk, do they? I mean, they're so entrancing to look at."
"Entrancing," agreed Aunt Daisy with a sigh. "And how fortunate they are! They go together so beautifully, don't they? One fair and one dark-and they both have dark blue eyes and rose-leaf complexions. When we were young, you were so much fairer."
"I couldn't help it, Daisy," said the picture lady regretfully.
Lou and Tonia had never heard this sort of conversation before (it was entirely different from the conversation of their mother's friends), but the whole adventure was so strange, so different from everyday life, that nothing would have surprised them.
"Of course we can talk," said Lou, waking suddenly from the daze into which she had fallen.
"They can talk!" exclaimed the young man in amazement.
"Perhaps they can eat and drink," suggested Aunt Daisy.
The young man immediately rose, produced two cushions, and, putting them on the broad stone rim of the pool, invited the children to sit down. The picture lady poured out two cups of tea and offered them a plate of chocolate éclairs.
"We usually start with bread and butter," said Lou, doubtfully.
"We always start with éclairs," said the young man gravely. "You see we haven't been very well brought up."
"Speak for yourself, Jack," interposed Aunt Daisy with asperity. "Your mother and I were very well brought up. We always started with bread and butter, didn't we, Wanda?"
"You can be too well brought up," replied her sister sadly. "I mean, you have so much further to backslide-"
"But respectability is so dull-"
"So difficult to achieve-"
"Who wants to achieve it?" asked Jack. "Give me chocolate éclairs every time."
The picture lady looked at him and smiled.
"Are they twins, I wonder," said Aunt Daisy suddenly.
"No, we aren't," declared Lou.
"They aren't twins." Jack nodded. "As a matter of fact, I was pretty certain they were not. The pretty one is the elder."
"They're both pretty," objected Aunt Daisy, "but of course I know what you mean. The fair one is more obviously pretty."
"She's adorable," said Jack.
"The dark one has better features," said his mother, "but you always prefer blonds."
"Except one," put in Jack, smiling at her affectionately.
"Sentimental nonsense," grumbled Aunt Daisy, handing in her cup for more tea.
Neither Lou nor Tonia had any sense of social obligation, so they sat and ate chocolate éclairs and made no attempt to join in the conversation of their hosts. They listened, of course, in a slightly dazed manner, and not much of it escaped them. It was very pleasant in the garden, warm and bright. Bees buzzed among the flowers, and an occasional car passed by outside the high wall and hooted at the corner. Presently, the church bells began to ring for evening service, and the picture lady rose.
"Are you going to church?" asked Lou.
She smiled and shook her head. "It's time for you to go home, isn't it?"
"Let's keep them," suggested Jack. "This is Liberty Hall. They would like to live here-"
"Yes, let's keep them," agreed Aunt Daisy.
"I'm afraid you can't," said Lou. "Mother might wonder where we had gone, and Nannie is coming home tomorrow-so you see-"
"I see," said Jack sadly.
Their hosts accompanied them to the door and shook hands with them. "Come back soon," said Jack.
"Nannie won't let them," said the picture lady.
Aunt Daisy laughed and said, "Oh, you know who they are!"
Lou and Tonia walked home in silence, for there was so much to think about that they had no words at all. It was not until they had regained the familiar haven of the nursery and had seated themselves upon the blue cretonne-covered window seat that they found their tongues.
"Her name is Wanda," said Tonia in a low voice.
"And Jack is her son," said Lou. "And the house is called Liberty Hall."
"She knows who we are," said Tonia. "How does she know, Lou?"
"I wonder," said Lou, frowning.
"They were laughing at us-"
"But not nastily-"
"All the same," said Lou slowly. "All the same...we were silly. Next time..."
Tonia nodded. She knew what Lou meant, for they were so close to each other that they needed very few words. Next time they went to Liberty Hall they must behave like Mother's friends. Tonia knew how they behaved because she and Lou were sometimes present at Mother's tea parties and were permitted to hand around the cakes. Mother's friends talked all the time; they talked about their children, their servants, and their clothes. It was quite different sort of talk.
"I don't think we could," said Tonia suddenly.
"What?" asked Lou, whose thoughts had strayed in a different direction.
"Talk to them," said Tonia with a sigh.
While they were out, Maggie had brought up the nursery tea and laid it on the table. There were two large mugs of milk, a pile of thick bread and butter, and several slices of nursery cake-very plain and uninteresting.
"I couldn't," said Lou, looking at it in disgust.
Tonia had not eaten as many éclairs as Lou, but she had eaten enough to make bread and butter distasteful. "I suppose we ought to," she said in doubtful tones.
"I couldn't," repeated Lou.
They were still looking at the spread and wondering what to do when Maggie returned to clear away.
"You've eaten nothing. Are you feeling well enough?" she inquired, looking at the children anxiously.
"We've had tea, thank you," said Lou with a grand air. "We called on a lady and she asked us to stay."
Lou did not hesitate to tell Maggie about their adventure, for Maggie was an ally. She was not like other grown-ups (who were apt to take strong views and were nearly always unreasonable). Maggie was young and friendly and amenable to suggestion. The story was a good one and Lou told it well, encouraged by the absorbed attention of her audience.
"Well now, did you ever hear the like!" exclaimed Maggie. "In the name of Fortune what will you think of next! You rang the bell as bold as brass and Mrs. Halley asked you in to tea!"
"Mrs. Halley-is that her name?" asked Lou.
"That's her name," replied Maggie, nodding portentously. "My cousin is there as kitchen maid and I've been there two or three times. It's a very comfortable place if you don't mind the goings-on."
"Parties and the like. It's a gay house-not like here. I had the offer to go as housemaid, but Father put his foot down," added Maggie regretfully. "Father is all for respectability."
"What is respectability?" inquired Tonia. The word had intrigued her when she had heard it used by her new friends-and here it was again.
"Well, there now," said Maggie. "You're a funny one and no mistake. Respectability is living with your husband, quiet-like, and going off to bed at the proper time... And my goodness if it's not your bedtime this minute and me with the tea dishes to wash. You get started now," added Maggie, lifting the heavy tray with a swing of her strong young arms. "You turn on the bath and get your things ready. I'll be up in a minute-"