Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggin
VIII. The Knight of Beulah Castle
Nancy's flushed face was glued to the window-pane until Gilbert turned the corner. He looked back, took off his cap, threw a kiss to them, and was out of sight!
"Oh! how I wish I could have gone!" cried Nancy. "I hope he won't forget what he went for! I hope he won't take 'No' for an answer. Oh! why wasn't I a boy!"
Mrs. Carey laughed as she turned from the window.
"It will be a great adventure for the man of the house, Nancy, so never mind. What would the Pathfinder have done if she had gone, instead of her brother?"
"I? Oh! Millions of things!" said Nancy, pacing the sitting-room floor, her head bent a little, her hands behind her back. "I should be going to the new railway station in Boston now, and presently I should be at the little grated window asking for a return ticket to Greentown station. 'Four ten,' the man would say, and I would fling my whole eight dollars in front of the wicket to show him what manner of person I was.
"Then I would pick up the naught-from-naught-is-naught, one-from-ten-is-nine, five-from-eight-is-three,--three dollars and ninety cents or thereabouts and turn away.
"'Parlor car seat, Miss?' the young man would say,--a warm, worried young man in a seersucker coat, and I would answer, 'No thank you; I always go in the common car to study human nature.' That's what the Admiral says, but of course the ticket man couldn't know that the Admiral is an intimate friend of mine, and would think I said it myself.
"Then I would go down the platform and take the common car for Greentown. Soon we would be off and I would ask the conductor if Greentown was the station where one could change and drive to Beulah, darling little Beulah, shiny-rivered Beulah; not breathing a word about the yellow house for fear he would jump off the train and rent it first. Then he would say he never heard of Beulah. I would look pityingly at him, but make no reply because it would be no use, and anyway I know Greentown is the changing place, because I've asked three men before; but Cousin Ann always likes to make conductors acknowledge they don't know as much as she does.
"Then I present a few peanuts or peppermints to a small boy, and hold an infant for a tired mother, because this is what good children do in the Sunday-school books, but I do not mingle much with the passengers because my brow is furrowed with thought and I am travelling on important business."
You can well imagine that by this time Mother Carey has taken out her darning, and Kathleen her oversewing, to which she pays little attention because she so adores Nancy's tales. Peter has sat like a small statue ever since his quick ear caught the sound of a story. His eyes follow Nancy as she walks up and down improvising, and the only interruption she ever receives from her audience is Kathleen's or Mother Carey's occasional laugh at some especially ridiculous sentence.
"The hours fly by like minutes," continues Nancy, stopping by the side window and twirling the curtain tassel absently. "I scan the surrounding country to see if anything compares with Beulah, and nothing does. No such river, no such trees, no such well, no such old oaken bucket, and above all no such Yellow House. All the other houses I see are but as huts compared with the Yellow House of Beulah. Soon the car door opens; a brakeman looks in and calls in a rich baritone voice, 'Greentown! Greentown! Do-not-leave-any-passles in the car!' And if you know beforehand what he is going to say you can understand him quite nicely, so I take up my bag and go down the aisle with dignity. 'Step lively, Miss!' cries the brakeman, but I do not heed him; it is not likely that a person renting country houses will move save with majesty. Alighting, I inquire if there is any conveyance for Beulah, and there is, a wagon and a white horse. I ask the driver boldly to drive me to the Colonel's office. He does not ask which Colonel, or what Colonel, he simply says, 'Colonel Foster, I s'pose,' and I say, 'Certainly.' We arrive at the office and when I introduce myself as Captain Carey's daughter I receive a glad welcome. The Colonel rings a bell and an aged beldame approaches, making a deep curtsy and offering me a beaker of milk, a crusty loaf, a few venison pasties, and a cold goose stuffed with humming birds. When I have reduced these to nothingness I ask if the yellow house on the outskirts of the village is still vacant, and the Colonel replies that it is, at which unexpected but hoped-for answer I fall into a deep swoon. When I awake the aged Colonel is bending over me, his long white goat's beard tickling my chin."
(Mother Carey stops her darning now and Kathleen makes no pretence of sewing; the story is fast approaching its climax,--everybody feels that, including Peter, who hopes that he will be in it, in some guise or other, before it ends.)
"'Art thou married, lady?' the aged one asks courteously, 'and if not, wilt thou be mine?'"
"I tremble, because he does not seem to notice that he is eighty or ninety and I but fifteen, yet I fear if I reject him too scornfully and speedily the Yellow House will never be mine. 'Grant me a little time in which to fit myself for this great honor,' I say modestly, and a mighty good idea, too, that I got out of a book the other day; when suddenly, as I gaze upward, my suitor's white hair turns to brown, his beard drops off, his wrinkles disappear, and he stands before me a young Knight, in full armor. 'Wilt go to the yellow castle with me, sweet lady?' he asks. 'Wilt I!' I cry in ecstasy, and we leap on the back of a charger hitched to the Colonel's horseblock. We dash down the avenue of elms and maples that line the village street, and we are at our journey's end before the Knight has had time to explain to me that he was changed into the guise of an old man by an evil sorcerer some years before, and could never return to his own person until some one appeared who wished to live in the yellow house, which is Beulah Castle.
"We approach the well-known spot and the little picket gate, and the Knight lifts me from the charger's back. 'Here are house and lands, and all are yours, sweet lady, if you have a younger brother. There is treasure hidden in the ground behind the castle, and no one ever finds such things save younger brothers.'
"'I have a younger brother,' I cry, 'and his name is Peter!'"
At this point in Nancy's chronicle Peter is nearly beside himself with excitement. He has been sitting on his hassock, his hands outspread upon his fat knees, his lips parted, his eyes shining. Somewhere, sometime, in Nancy's stories there is always a Peter. He lives for that moment!
Nancy, stifling her laughter, goes on rapidly:
"And so the Knight summons Younger Brother Peter to come, and he flies in a great air ship from Charlestown to Beulah. And when he arrives the Knight asks him to dig for the buried treasure."
(Peter here turns up his sleeves to his dimpled elbows and seizes an imaginary implement.)
"Peter goes to the back of the castle, and there is a beautiful garden filled with corn and beans and peas and lettuce and potatoes and beets and onions and turnips and carrots and parsnips and tomatoes and cabbages. He takes his magic spade and it leads him to the cabbages. He digs and digs, and in a moment the spade strikes metal!
"'He has found the gold!' cries the Knight, and Peter speedily lifts from the ground pots and pots of ducats and florins, and gulden and doubloons."
(Peter nods his head at the mention of each precious coin and then claps his hands, and hugs himself with joy, and rocks himself to and fro on the hassock, in his ecstasy at being the little god in the machine.)
"Then down the village street there is the sound of hurrying horses' feet, and in a twinkling a gayly painted chariot comes into view, and in it are sitting the Queen Mother and the Crown Prince and Princess of the House of Carey. They alight; Peter meets them at the gate, a pot of gold in each hand. They enter the castle and put their umbrellas in one corner of the front hall and their rubbers in the other one, behind the door. Lady Nancibel trips up the steps after them and, turning, says graciously to her Knight, 'Would you just as soon marry somebody else? I am very much attached to my family, and they will need me dreadfully while they are getting settled.'
"'I did not recall the fact that I had asked you to be mine,' courteously answers the youth.
"'You did,' she responds, very much embarrassed, as she supposed of course he would remember his offer made when he was an old man with a goat's beard; 'but gladly will I forget all, if you will relinquish my hand.'
"'As you please!' answers the Knight generously. 'I can deny you nothing when I remember you have brought me back my youth. Prithee, is the other lady bespoke, she of the golden hair?'
"'Many have asked, but I have chosen none,' answers the Crown Princess Kitty modestly, as is her wont.
"'Then you will do nicely,' says the Knight, 'since all I wish is to be son-in-law to the Queen Mother!'
"'Right you are, my hearty!' cries Prince Gilbert de Carey, 'and as we much do need a hand at the silver-polishing I will gladly give my sister in marriage!'
"So they all went into Beulah Castle and locked the door behind them, and there they lived in great happiness and comfort all the days of their lives, and there they died when it came their time, and they were all buried by the shores of the shining river of Beulah!"
"Oh! it is perfectly splendid!" cried Kathleen. "About the best one you ever told! But do change the end a bit, Nancy dear! It's dreadful for him to marry Kitty when he chose Nancibel first. I'd like him awfully, but I don't want to take him that way!"
"Well, how would this do?" and Nancy pondered a moment before going on: "'Right you are, my hearty!' cries Prince Gilbert de Carey, 'and as we do need a hand at the silver-polishing I will gladly give my sister in marriage.'
"'Hold!' cries the Queen Mother. 'All is not as it should be in this coil! How can you tell,' she says, turning to the knightly stranger, 'that memory will not awake one day, and you recall the adoration you felt when you first beheld the Lady Nancibel in a deep swoon?'
"The Young Knight's eyes took on a far-away look and he put his hand to his forehead.
"'It comes back to me now!' he sighed. 'I did love the Lady Nancibel passionately, and I cannot think how it slipped my mind!'
"'I release you willingly!' exclaimed the Crown Princess Kitty haughtily, 'for a million suitors await my nod, and thou wert never really mine!'
"'But the other lady rejects me also!' responds the luckless youth, the tears flowing from his eagle eyes onto his crimson mantle.
"'Wilt delay the nuptials until I am eighteen and the castle is set in order?' asks the Lady Nancibel relentingly.
"'Since it must be, I do pledge thee my vow to wait,' says the Knight. 'And I do beg the fair one with the golden locks to consider the claims of my brother, not my equal perhaps, but still a gallant youth.'
"'I will enter him on my waiting list as number Three Hundred and Seventeen,' responds the Crown Princess Kitty, than whom no violet could be more shy. ''Tis all he can expect and more than I should promise.'
"So they all lived in the yellow castle in great happiness forever after, and were buried by the shores of the shining river of Beulah!--Does that suit you better?"
"Simply lovely!" cried Kitty, "and the bit about my modesty is too funny for words!--Oh, if some of it would only happen! But I am afraid Gilbert will not stir up any fairy stories and set them going."
"Some of it will happen!" exclaimed Peter. "I shall dig every single day till I find the gold-pots."
"You are a pot of gold yourself, filled full and running over!"
"Now, Nancy, run and write down your fairy tale while you remember it!" said Mother Carey.
"It is as good an exercise as any other, and you still tell a story far better than you write it!"
Nancy did this sort of improvising every now and then, and had done it from earliest childhood; and sometimes, of late, Mother Carey looked at her eldest chicken and wondered if after all she had hatched in her a bird of brighter plumage or rarer song than the rest, or a young eagle whose strong wings would bear her to a higher flight!