Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Jane in Winter

JANE IN WINTER

a novel for young people

Chapter 1

In which Mrs. Parsifal asks Jane for Water

If someone had wanted to play with Jane that November morning she might never have met Mrs. Parsifal and her adventures would never have begun. Her brother, Ian, who was two years older, was locked in the clubhouse in the garden with TheBoysNextDoor planning a war between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys and hadn’t invited her. The two girls who lived nearest her had gone to ballet lessons, which meant they were wearing little pink slippers and fluffy boleros, something Jane Mabry thought very silly indeed.
“So what are you going to do this morning, Jane?” her mother asked.
“Nothing. I never have anything to do.”
“Won’t the boys let you join in?”
“Of course they won’t; you know that.” Jane sometimes thought her mother ought to make Ian include her — but if she did, Ian would only tie her up or tell her to be an Indian Squaw who was meant to provide the noble warriors with food instead of allowing her to fight in their battles.
“Then you’d better come and help me arrange the church flowers. It won’t take long.”
Of course it took much longer than Mrs. Mabry had suggested it would; the chrysanthemums kept threatening to fall out of the tall, awkward vases. Then Mrs. Mabry had to clean the brasses too, so Jane went outside and wandered round the churchyard and read what was written on the graves. Some were so old that it was almost impossible to understand the writing on them. The new ones had bunches of dead flowers that were sadder than things etched in stone.
After a little while, Mrs. Mabry appeared in the church doorway with a plastic bucket and said, “Since you’re here, Jane, you might as well make yourself useful. Why don’t you go onto the allotments and fill this up for me?”
Jane walked under the dripping yew hedge and set the bucket down in the muddy patch under the tap. While she was waiting for it to fill up with water, an old woman hobbled towards her from the direction of the village.
“Well, me dearie,” she said seeing Jane, “It must be a lucky day for me. Would you be so kind as to fill up me bucket too? Me arthritis, you see. Sometimes it’s awful hard to turn the handle.” She showed Jane her knobbly hands whose knuckles were so swollen that they looked like the roots of trees.
Jane didn’t recognize the old lady whose bucket was made of leather, not plastic like her mother’s. Even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, the old lady looked so sad and was so polite that Jane didn’t think there would be any harm in filling her bucket for her.
“I’m right glad to be helped,” the old woman said. “So many people aren’t obliging nowadays. So few people think of others, you know. Thank you, me dearie, I will remember your kindness.”
“That’s all right,” said Jane. “Mum always wants me to be helpful.”
“She’s that nice Mrs. Mabry, isn’t she?” the old lady said.
“Yes,” said Jane. “How did you know?”
“I know more than you think, my dear,” the old lady said as she turned to walk off past all the cabbage stalks that smelled moldy. She vanished between the overhanging trees.
As Jane walked back towards the church, she worried about all the water slopping out of the bucket. But there was quite a lot left when she got to the porch and put down the heavy bucket. “Mum!” she called. “I’ve got the water.”
But no one replied.
“Mum?” Jane called again. “ Where are you?”
For a brief moment, Jane had that sort of sick panicky feeling in her stomach. It was like the day when her mother had been late picking her up from school and Jane though she would never arrive. What would it be like not to have a mother?
Mrs. Mabry had just gone into the vestry to look for a pair of scissors.
“I was worried that you’d vanished,” Jane said when she reappeared.
“I don’t think that’s very likely to happen,” her mother replied.
“It would be awful if you did,” Jane said. “Anyway guess what happened? I met a very old lady who I’ve never met before who wanted her bucket filled. It was a very old bucket, made of leather and I think it leaked.”
“Perhaps she’s too poor to get a new one,” Mrs. Mabry said. “I hope you didn’t say anything about the bucket being old?”
“Of course I didn’t, but I wonder who she was? She knew who you were.”
“She’s probably from one of those old cottages behind the village hall. Some of them still don’t have running water. Mrs. Boxall perhaps?”
“I would have known her,” Jane said. “I thought I knew everyone.”
“Perhaps you didn’t recognize her if she was all bundled up because of this vile weather.” Mrs. Mabry looked at her watch. “Nearly lunch time, Jane. We’d better be going home now.”
Long ago Jane’s house had been a gamekeeper’s cottage on Lord Myrtle’s estate. There were three dog kennels in the garden and all sorts of hooks for hanging pheasants and rabbits in the larder. These hooks would have been useful if anyone in Jane’s family ever shot anything. No one even thought of wanting to, not even Jane’s father who had been in the war.
After Lord Myrtle had gone away and the big mansion became a ruin, all the little cottages that had been lived in by the estate workers were sold off to ordinary people. Jane’s father, Mr. Mabry, a kind but not at all imaginative man, had turned what had once been a charming cottage with a thatched roof and leaded glass windows into a very practical sort of modern house. It had red tiles on the roof and new metal windows. Jane thought it would be better to live in a house that looked like an illustration from Alice. Instead she was left with a dull house and a dull family: a mother who cooked meals and tidied up, a father who vanished every day to London on the train and a brother who never, ever, wanted anything to do with her at all.
At lunch, which was liver and bacon, Jane’s favorite, she said, “Perhaps it’s like Toads and Diamonds and the old woman in the allotments was a fairy just testing me to see if I was kind.”
“I rather doubt it, darling,” Mrs. Mabry said. “Would you like custard on your stewed plums?”
After lunch Jane was forced to have a rest, which she thought was rather babyish. Instead of going to sleep, she read part of Five Children and It — a most satisfactory story even if the Psmead was so very grumpy. Later in the afternoon Ian was playing football with the BoysNextDoor and Jane hung around for a bit until Ian said, “Oh, do go away, Jane. Don’t you ever know when you’re not wanted?”
Roger, the kindest of TheBoysNextDoor said, “You shouldn’t be quite so beastly to her, Ian. She isn’t that bad.”
“You wouldn’t say that if she was your sister and you had to put up with her all the time.”
“Well, I’ve got something important to do anyway,” Jane said. When no one bothered to ask her what the very important thing was, she walked off down the road to visit the Bullens who lived in a dwelling so small and humble it was scarcely a cottage at all. Even though they were grownups, Jane always called them Ivy and Tim.
Instead of children the Bullens had a big black dog called Buster whom they sometimes called “Buster-Wuster.” They loved him very much, but were always pleased to see Jane.
Their little home was lit by gaslight; the larder was an Anderson shelter and when Ivy had to do ironing, instead of plugging an electric iron into the wall like Mrs. Mabry did, Ivy had two irons, one being used and the other heating on the stove. According to Jane’s father, the cottage should have been pulled down long before but Tim had been born there in the old century and his ancient father lived there too. Jane hoped old Mr. Bullen would live to be a hundred so the Queen would send him a telegram.
Ivy, who was small and spry, opened the door. “To what do we owe the honor of your company?”
“I’m bored,” Jane said. “I haven’t got anything to do.” She stood and looked at Old Mr. Bullen dozing in his chair in the corner and watched Ivy peeling vegetables for dinner; she was always busy doing something. Ivy had once said: “The devil finds work for idle hands.”
“What did you do this morning?” Ivy asked.
“Nothing. I went to help Mum do the church flowers and met an old woman I didn’t know in the allotments when I went to fill up the bucket.”
“What did she look like?”
“Just very old and wrinkly, and her clothes were all dark and tattered. She said her hands were bad and I was kind to help her.”
Ivy stopped chopping the carrots and looked at Jane. “Did she ask you for anything else?”
“No. Only said that some people aren’t obliging nowadays.”
“That’s all, really?”
“All I can think of.”
“You must be very careful. I’m sure your mother has told you lots of times not to accept things from strangers.”
“She didn’t give me anything, just asked for water. I thought she was rather sad. Anyway she was just an old lady who couldn’t hurt me.”
Ivy went back to her chopping, cutting the ends off green beans rather viciously. “That’s what you think,” she said. “Don’t think I haven’t warned you.”

Chapter 2


In which Jane Mabry is asked for fire


The next Wednesday was Bonfire Night and the Mabrys had a party. Ian had allowed Jane to help him make a Guy stuffed with leaves that they dressed in an old pair of Mr. Mabry’s trousers and a sweater the moths had attacked. They painted a grim looking face on a piece of brown paper and made a hat out of newspaper, and placed him on top of the big bonfire in the garden. For weeks Ian and Jane had gathered sticks and leaves for the bonfire so it would be huge by the time it was lit.
When it began to get dark, TheBoysNextDoor arrived and some other friends of their family including Poppy Elstead who always cried when the fireworks went off. When the Haynes and the Howe-Brownes got there, the fathers drank beer and the mothers sipped sherry and the children were allowed fizzy lemonade as a treat. Mrs. Mabry was busy in the kitchen cooking sausages and wrapping potatoes in tin foil.
Jane heard Michael Graves and some of the older boys whispering that they had gone into Brentwood and bought bangers. They were going to throw at the girls when no one was looking — even though the fathers had threatened them with awful punishments if they did. All the children had been told countless times not to play with matches or anything that could catch fire.
It was cold, but not horribly cold, and Jane wore her plaid trousers and a red sweater with a jacket on top. Her mother said she ought to wear a hat but she didn’t because the wool always itched her head. Ivy and Tim came up from Park Cottage because they always came to everything. Sometimes Ivy helped Mrs. Mabry in the kitchen when there were guests.
Then, at last, the bonfire was lit, bright sparks flew up into the air and the smoke filled the air with the scent of winter’s approach. Mr. Mabry and Mr. Hayne set off the fireworks: bright rockets which went up very high and Catherine wheels which stuck and had to be prodded to continue going round. Jane thought about poor Saint Catherine and how awful she must have felt as she died. Like when you put your arms out and spin round and round until you feel so dizzy you fall over.
Michael Graves, who was always mean, threw a banger at Poppy and got punished for making her cry. Mr. Mabry sent Michael indoors so he could only watch through the window. Jane thought this served him right because Michael playing with matches only led to trouble.
Then the best bit started. It was pitch dark now and the Guy had vanished after his faced sneered at them as he turned to ashes. The children were given sparklers of their own to hold and they could make great circles in the air with them and rush around amidst the mothers’ cries of, “Do be careful, darling!” and, “You’ll be awfully sorry if you burn yourself.”
There were always enough sparklers for each child to have more than one and you could light the next one by holding it against one that was already lit.
Jane was standing in the shadows behind the bonfire when a girl came up to her and asked if she could light her sparkler from Jane’s. She was wearing a long cloak with the hood up and wasn’t anyone from school. Perhaps she had come with Poppy Elstead.
“Who are you?” Jane asked.
“Aminta,” the girl said. “Please help me. I just need my sparkler to catch on fire.”
“OK,” Jane said. “Just hold it next to mine. Did you come with Poppy?” Jane was concentrating so hard she didn’t look at the girl’s face but said, “Why are you wearing a cloak? It’s not fancy-dress you know.”
The girl only said, “I can’t thank you enough,” and ran off.
Jane found Poppy standing next to the grown-ups who were saying things like, “I’m sure you’ll be brave enough to hold a sparkler next year, Poppy.”
Jane said, “I don’t know why you weren’t brave enough this year. Your friend Aminta was.”
“What friend?” said Poppy, “I don’t have any friends.”
“Don’t be silly, Poppy,” Mrs. Elstead said. “Everyone likes you.”
“No, they don’t. Everyone thinks I’m a baby,” Poppy said.
Jane thought this was true but was too polite to say it. “No, I mean the girl in fancy dress. She said her name was Aminta. Didn’t she come with you?” Jane looked around in the shadowy dark to see if the girl was still there but she wasn’t.
Instead she saw Ivy watching her from by the embers of the bonfire where the potatoes were almost ready to eat. “Did you see the girl in the cloak, Ivy? The one who wanted her sparkler lit?”
Ivy looked at Jane as if she was worried. “Yes, I saw her well enough. Did she ask you for fire?”
“I suppose so. I mean, it isn’t much fun having a sparkler with no sparks.”
Ivy pursed her lips. “I suppose not,” she said.

Chapter 3


In which winter approaches


The weather turned awful and blustery cold. When Jane and Ian walked to school they had to wear the scarves their grandmother had knitted and mittens they were warned not to lose. Even so, Jane thought it was a good time of year with her birthday to look forward to and then Christmas. At school they were practicing carols like The Holly and the Ivy and learning about the meaning of things like mistletoe, which had been important even before Jesus was born and was Pagan — which was why you couldn’t have it in churches. There had been a celebration at midwinter even then.
“In those long ago days,” Jane’s teacher said, “people were very frightened that the nights would just keep getting longer and longer and the days shorter and shorter. They were worried the sun would never come back. So they brought logs into the house to burn like the Yule log, and evergreen trees that never lose their leaves, and lit candles to bring light, and then, of course, after the winter solstice, it did start to get lighter. So those olden days people knew whatever they did worked. They didn’t know about astronomy and the earth turning, it all seemed like magic to them.”
“Perhaps it is magic,” Jane said. “What would happen if it did just get darker and darker?”
In those short days of December, as Jane trudged home from school with Ian, scuffing the thick fallen leaves beside her, the light was fading already and cars put their headlights on. Because it was quite black outside the dining room window before Jane and Ian finished their tea, their mother would draw the red velvet curtains to keep the warmth in.
The Mabrys did not have a television set because Mr. Mabry said watching television rotted your brain, but TheBoysNextDoor did. Their real names were Peter, Roger, Nigel and Nicky Elliott. Between five and six every afternoon Jane and Ian were allowed to watch RintinTin, Whirlybirds and Popeye with them. After tea, Ian and Jane would put on their boots by the back door and run across the lawn and through the gap in the fence which separated their garden from the one next door. The light by the Mabrys’ back door only lit half of the lawn. A big laurel bush overshadowed the gap in the fence where there was a big pile of logs behind which almost anything could hide. If Jane called for Ian to wait for her he would know she was scared, so she just had to make a mad dash for it and hope nothing caught up with her and be quite breathless when she reached the Elliotts’ warm kitchen.
“I hear you are having a conjurer for your birthday party,” Mrs. Elliott said. “What fun that sounds. I always liked magicians when I was your age. All those rabbits popping out of hats and doves appearing.”
“Except you never are allowed to keep the rabbits,” Jane said. “It would be much better if you were.”
“Perhaps they are magic rabbits and wouldn’t last.”
“What do you mean — wouldn’t last?” Jane asked.
“Well, if you put them in a hutch they might vanish by morning,” Mrs. Elliott said
“I suppose so.” Jane was certain they were real rabbits. How could a grown-up possibly think they weren’t? She hated it when grownups pretended to believe in magic when she knew they didn’t.
On the morning of Jane’s birthday, Mrs. Mabry was pouring red jelly into little crinkle-edged paper party cups when the telephone rang in the hall. “Do go and get it, Jane. I don’t want to pour boiling water all over myself.”
When Jane said, “Hello,” the person on the other end of the line asked to speak to Mrs. Mabry. When Jane said her mother was busy the woman asked her to take a message.
“What was it?” Mrs. Mabry asked when Jane came back into the kitchen.
“Just the conjurer saying that because of a mistake Mr. Potifar isn’t coming. They said they’re sending someone else just as good. If it isn’t all right you can telephone them back.”
“Well, just so long as they’re sending someone. I know how disappointed you would be if they didn’t. Darling, could you just check the oven is set at 375’? I need to put the fairy cakes in.”
The morning and then lunch seemed to take an awful long time as Jane waited for her party to begin. It was a complete waste of time to even pretend to have a rest after lunch, even though she was sent to her room to try. Her blue party frock was laid out on a chair beneath which were her new red shoes. Jane wondered if Mr. Parsifal would be exactly the same as Mr. Potifar who had been at Poppy’s party last month, but, when he eventually arrived, Jane saw he was a great deal older, almost as ancient as Old Mr. Bullen and his car was the oldest one Jane had ever seen.
Then all the children arrived with their mothers. First there were sandwiches followed by ice cream and jelly. Then the chocolate cake decorated with Smarties and ten candles that Jane blew out all at once. Her secret wish was that something would happen — something so special and extraordinary that even she didn’t know exactly what it was.
After tea there was the opening of the presents: a jigsaw puzzle of the Tower of London, several books, some popper beads and a real china miniature tea set which Jane didn’t think she would ever use since she’d never been much interested in dolls. Then there were games like Pass the Parcel, Musical Chairs and Statues, which Mrs. Mabry had warned Jane not to try to win since she’d had quite enough presents already. After that all the children were asked to sit down quietly while the conjurer set up his table which had a green cloth with bobbles on it.
Mr.Parsifal wore a top hat and a black cape and shoes so shiny you could see your reflection in them. The first things he did were quite ordinary like card tricks that Ian said he could do himself. Then Mr. Parsifal produced a white rabbit and some doves from his hat.
Ian said he had hidden the birds and the rabbit under the tablecloth. When Mr. Parsifal asked who the birthday girl was, Jane stepped forward and felt important.
She looked round the room at the children sitting cross-legged on the floor and the grown-ups who stood at the back, including Ivy and Tim, whom she had asked specially.
Mr.Parsifal studied Jane from under his bushy white eyebrows. In spite of being so old, his eyes were very bright and sharp. He produced a glass vial and asked Jane to breathe into it — to puff as hard as she possibly could. Then he put a rubber stopper into the top of the vial and hid it under the green bobbled cloth. Then he produced another vial, exactly like the first one, and asked Jane to puff into it again and asked her what color he should turn the air into.
“A blue as beautiful as the sky,” Jane said and suddenly the air inside the vial turned the same periwinkle blue as her dress.
“You see, I can match any color in the universe,” Mr. Parsifal said.
“Even sky-blue-pink-with-yellow-spots-on?” Ian called out from the audience, a bit rudely Jane thought.
“Particularly sky-blue-pink-with-yellow-spots-on, young man. Step up and I’ll prove it.”
When Ian stepped forward, Mr. Parsifal produced a bigger vial and Ian’s breath coated the glass with a most beautiful design that lasted long enough for everyone to admire it. The color slowly faded when Mr. Parsifal took the stopper out.
Mr. Parsifal did lots more tricks but none as beautiful as making colors out of nothing. Jane was sad when he looked at his fob watch and said he had to disappear.
“Surely you mean go, Mr. Parsifal. You don’t really mean disappear do you?” Jane asked.
“I mean precisely what I said, young lady. I always mean what I say.” Mr. Parsifal looked very carefully into Jane’s eyes when he said this, as if considering something.
Then Mrs. Mabry called to Jane. “You really must come and say goodbye to your guests, sweetheart, and thank them for their lovely presents,”
So Mrs. Mabry and Jane stood in the hall by the front door, which let in the chilly evening air, and Jane shook hands with people and thanked them for the presents, even the ones she didn’t particularly like.
Ivy was helping Mrs. Mabry tidy up and Mr. Mabry was smoking his pipe in the study when Mrs. Mabry called out, “Did you pay Mr. Parsifal, Richard? I’m sure I didn’t, and now he seems to have vanished.”
“Well, they’ll be certain to send a bill if no one paid him. I wouldn’t worry about it. Just look out for it in the post next week.” Mr. Mabry went back to doing The Times crossword. Jane knew he was glad that the house wasn’t full of noisy children and their chatty mothers any more.
Jane was helping Ivy dry teacups when Ivy said, “Do you know what Mr. Parsifal did with that first vial you breathed into? The one before the blue one.”
“I don’t know. I suppose he took it with him,”
“Oh,” Ivy said. “I guessed as much. Think of it Jane. Now you have given away water and fire and air–all to people you know very little about. These are three of the four elements which make up all of the world.”
“What is the forth element, Ivy?”
“Earth.”
“Oh,” said Jane. “But, Ivy, why are you worried? The old lady and Aminta and Mr. Parsifal didn’t seem very dangerous people.”
“I didn’t say they were dangerous, Jane. Just that you should be very careful in case you get involved in things that are difficult and strange.”
“I might enjoy that,” Jane said. “I told you nothing exciting ever happens to me.”

Chapter 4


In which Jane Mabry makes a miniature garden


After the excitement of her birthday was over, there was Christmas to look forward to. Cards dropped through the post box at quite different times from usual, and there were presents to be made or bought and then hidden. Jane always gave her father the same thing: a box of Swann Vestas matches which cost four pence and pipe cleaners which cost three pence. This left her with five pence of her shilling pocket money that she spent on sweets for herself: two Double Lollies and a Sherbet Fountain.
Jane was allowed to go into Brentwood with Ian on the bus so long as they were back before dark — which seemed to be coming earlier and earlier.
As they sat on the bus Jane said, “What are you going to give Mummy, Ian?”
“A brooch I saw in Woolworth’s. It’s shaped like a fish and has all sorts of different colored jewels in it. It costs two shillings and six pence.”
“How on earth did you save enough money? That seems an awful lot.”
“I don’t spend all mine on sweets, unlike some people.”
“But Mummy says she likes things we make just as much as things bought in shops.”
“Well, that’s lucky for you, isn’t it?” Ian said unkindly.
So Jane had to think very hard what to give her mother that would seem wonderful too. It was Ivy who came up with the idea that Jane could make a miniature garden with all sorts of things found in the woods: little bits of holly with berries on it and pine cones she could decorate with glitter to make them look like trees. Ivy had given her a small mirror, the sort you get in new handbags, which could be a lake. She could surround it with fresh-dug earth and stick the greenery in the earth so it wouldn’t dry up. It would be the whole world in miniature.
Ivy said she would go with Jane when she wanted to collect all the things she needed. Mrs. Mabry mustn’t go in case she guessed. Anyway Jane’s mother was so busy ordering hams, tangerines, dates and nuts from the shops and polishing the silver that she was quite glad for Jane to go out with Ivy.
It was the Saturday before Christmas, and the sky was a lowering gray like steel. The wind seemed as if it was blowing all the way from the Steppes of Russia. Jane, Ivy and Ivy’s dog Buster went into the woods which smelled like decaying vegetation; only a few leaves clung to the beech trees and rattled sadly.
Jane had bought a basket to put her treasures in and a trowel to dig into the earth. Ivy showed her a glade with tall pines where the cones lay plentifully on the ground, and later a holly tree near the old chapel in the woods where very few people went so there were still plenty of berries left. Buster bounded about looking for rabbits and ran off into another part of the wood.
Ivy called him but he didn’t come, so she left Jane alone for a moment and went to look for him.
Jane gathered lots of pinecones, many more than she needed really, but extra in case she messed up some of them. It was when she was half way through digging in the earth and putting it into a plastic bag that she first noticed the boy standing watching her. He was about her own age but rather thin and white looking.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m collecting things to make my mother a miniature garden. What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“Well, why don’t you make your mother a garden too? She’d probably like it.”
“I don’t have a mother,” the boy said.
“Well, you could make one anyway and give it to someone.”
“I didn’t bring a trowel to dig up the earth.”
“That’s all right, you can have some of mine. I think I’ve got an extra plastic bag.” Jane explained exactly how to make the garden — she was rather proud of herself for knowing how to. Then she handed the boy the bag of earth and said he should go and get all the other things.
“Are you here by yourself?” he asked.
“No, I’m not,” Jane said, feeling slightly scared. “Ivy’s with me, but she’s gone after the dog.”
“You shouldn’t be here all alone, you know,” the boy said. The light was fading now, and it was getting very cold in the wood.
“Ivy! Buster!” Jane called. “Where are you?”
Then Buster appeared, followed by Ivy. Jane was so glad to see them that she didn’t notice at first that the boy had gone away.
“Got everything you need?” Ivy asked. “We should be going home now or your mother will worry.”
Jane looked around her. “Did you see the boy that was here just a minute ago, Ivy?”
“No, I didn’t see anyone.”
As they walked down the overgrown old carriage path that joined the chapel with Myrtle Hall, they had to push brambles and branches away to stop them scratching their eyes.
“Ivy,” Jane said. “Are you sure you don’t know any boys who live near the chapel? One came and talked to me while I was digging.”
“Did he ask you for anything?”
“No, I just told him about how to make a garden and gave him a little bit of earth.”
Ivy held Jane’s hand tighter. “I think you’ve done it now,” Ivy said under her breath.
“Done what, Ivy? It isn’t fair not to tell me.”
Ivy waited a moment and then said, “Well, you’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Think very carefully about all the things you have given away: Earth to the boy; Air to Mr. Parsifal; Fire to the little girl, and water to the old lady in the allotments. Now they’ve got everything they need.”
“But who are THEY?” Jane shivered.
“People who lived here a long time ago.”
“Then why aren’t they dead?”
“That’s rather difficult to explain. But now, since you have shown your willingness to help them, perhaps you should meet them properly.”
“You mean there are people living here I’ve never met?’
“Yes, from a wonderful, ancient family but very sad. Tomorrow I’ll take you to visit them. But I wish it wasn’t you that they have chosen to help them.”
“Help them do what?” Jane asked.
“They’ll probably tell you tomorrow,” Ivy said.
“And we won’t bring Ian? You mean it will be a secret for just me?”
“Yes, just for you since it’s you they want to meet.”
It was colder now, as Ivy and Jane turned for home. Jane was excited at the thought of having a secret from Ian, but was happy when she saw her house lit up warm and bright. Through the window, she saw her mother putting toasted crumpets onto the tea table. After she had hidden her collection of pine cones in one of the unused dog-kennels, and taken off her gumboots by the back door, she sat down to eat.

Chapter 5


In which Jane goes to the hidden cottage in the woods and hears a sad story

The next afternoon Ivy called for Jane and together they set off through Myrtle Park, skirting the part that had once been the deer park and was now a golf course. Ivy carried a wicker basket full of apples.
“I wish it was back like the olden days, Ivy,” Jane said. “I think deer are much more interesting than golfers.”
When they got closer to Myrtle Hall, Ivy took a path that led deep into the woods and was overgrown with brambles. After walking for a little while, and passing the chapel, they and could see a thatched-roof cottage with leaded-glass windows.
Jane said, “But it’s exactly the same as our house once was when Mummy and Daddy first bought it. Before they added bits on to it. I saw a photo of it.”
Ivy said, “I think there were six little cottages altogether, each for a worker on the estate and his family. Three of them are gone now. You’re right, Jane. It is exactly like your house once was.”
Unlike Jane’s house, which was very warm with a log fire burning in the sitting room and nice thick curtains on the windows, the small house near the chapel looked terribly cold. No smoke rose from the single chimney, and it was so hidden by overgrown rhododendrons and laurels that almost everyone had forgotten it was there. The windows were grimy with cobwebs and most of the paint had peeled off the front door. Just outside was a rusted old car, which looked as if no one had driven it for years, but when Jane looked very carefully, she could see Mr. Parsifal Magician painted on it in faded letters.
Inside the little house it was equally desolate. There was no fire in the grate and no curtains on the windows. Even though most people would have sworn nobody could possibly live there, the light from one candle showed that people did.
When the door was opened, Jane had recognized Mrs. Parsifal at once. Her gnarled hands were wrapped now in gray mittens. “How wonderful to see you, Ivy,” the old woman said. “How kind you are to bring the apples– and kinder yet to bring us Jane. Welcome, my dear.”
Sitting beside the empty hearth was Mr. Parsifal still wearing his top hat, but instead of his shiny work shoes he wore yellow slippers.
Two children — a girl whose hair was white as the snow, and a boy whose hair was as dark as a raven’s — were sitting at either end of a little bed. On it was a quilt made of scraps of fabric, which, had you been able to see them properly in the gloom, were all the colors of the rainbow. It was then that Jane realized that she had met all of these people before.
“Welcome, Ivy,” Mr. Parsifal said. “Welcome, Jane. You don’t know how delighted we are to see you. You must be introduced to my grandchildren. Melchior, say hello to Jane.”
The dark haired boy smiled and nodded to Jane.
“This is Aminta,” Mr. Parsifal said. The girl with pale hair, the very same one who had asked Jane to light her sparkler, smiled at Jane too.
“I’m sorry it’s so terribly cold,” Mr. Parsifal continued. “Jane, won’t you sit in the bed with the children?”
Melchior and Aminta patted the bed beside them, and she went and sat with them.
“It breaks my heart not to be able to offer you even a little bit to eat,” Mrs. Parsifal said.
“It’s perfectly all right.” Jane said. “I had lunch only a little while ago. I don’t need anything. I’ll have tea when I get home.”
“So you will. So you will. That’s all right then.” Mr. Parsifal clapped his hands and his tired face lit up. He smiled at his grandchildren. “Everything is about to change now, children. And you, Jane, will be the one to help us.” He looked at Jane expectantly.
“I would help you if I could,” Jane said, thinking the room held so very many sad people. “But I don’t know what it is you want me to do.”
“Yes, yes. We’ll get to that,” Mr. Parsifal said, “I suppose we’d better explain how we came to be in this sad state.”
“ If only May hadn’t upset Lord Myrtle, we wouldn’t be suffering so.” Mrs. Parsifal said.
“Who is May?” Jane asked. “What did she do to Lord Myrtle?”
“She’s our daughter, the most lovely daughter in the world, and mother to Aminta and Melchior. She’s lost.”
“What do you mean lost?” Jane asked.
“Taken. Stolen away from us. Held captive against her will.” With a grievous sigh, the old woman pulled her shawl tighter around her and crept to the bed. She wrapped her arms round Aminta who had started crying. “So many nights Mr. Parsifal has sat up studying his ancient books, looking to see how we could get her back. But we are old now, too old, dear, and we need your help desperately. There is so much to do and so little time.”
Mr. Parsifal took up the tale. “It was the first Lord Myrtle who had started it by building Myrtle Hall without bothering to discover if this land was owned by other people, even unseen ones. As you have probably heard, Jane, Lord Myrtle was proud and vain. Such a magnificent house with Corinthian columns! Such sweeping colonnades! What an astonishing fountain with four stone lions spouting water all the time into a marble pool.
Then he built all those little cottages for his workers — like this one and like your house, Jane. And the lake! Why it took a hundred men two months to build it by damming the stream — just for his lordship’s boating parties for all those languid ladies to recline beneath parasols in punts to the sound of the flute and the viol. All laid out by Capability Brown, no less!”
Mrs. Parsifal shook her head. “No, people like Lord Myrtle never think what they’re doing. They’re only concerned with making people think how splendid they are. They don’t care how many trees they cut down.”
“It isn’t just Lord Myrtle, of course,” Mr. Parsifal said, “it’s happening all over the place, Now the first owners of the land have to hide themselves in trees, streams and at the bottom of lakes.”
“But who were the first owners?” Jane asked, “and why do they have to hide themselves?”
“The people who were always here: the people who loved the earth and the air and the trees. They know they’re not wanted now.” Mrs. Parsifal’s eyes filled with tears. “They’ve turned nasty some of them. Hidden away from everything that’s good. It was them that lured May down to the water and made the sky all silver and shimmery reflected in it. If it hadn’t been so pretty she would never have stepped in.”
“There, there, Mrs. Parsifal,” said her husband, patting her fragile shoulder. “We don’t know for certain. All we do know is they’ve right vengeful.” Mr. Parsifal took out his handkerchief and dabbed his eyes too.
“But if May is in the lake, isn’t she drowned?” Jane asked.
“No, not drowned: trapped. If she were drowned we would have found her body. It’s Ida’s fault of course, Queen Ida, she calls herself now, uppity cruel thing, but powerful of course,” Mrs. Parsifal said.
“How can I help you get May back?” Jane asked.
“ I’ve known since midsummer’s night that this was to be the last year I had to find a child to help me make things right. I saw all the signs: the rooks circling the trees and bats swooping low on August evenings. Even the harvest moon glowed huge and orange like a great bonfire. I’d face Queen Ida myself if I were still young and strong, and my power had not diminished. I have been searching for a child who is innocent and pure and it’s fallen to you, Jane; you’re our best and only hope.”
“I don’t know any Queen Ida,” Jane said looking at Ivy.
“You will, Jane,” Mr. Parsifal said. “You will.”
“But when?” Jane asked Mr. Parsifal.
“Just be patient and you’ll see,” he said.

Chapter 6


In which Jane enters the world under the lake


Jane was very upset that Aminta and Melchior’s mother was lost and she longed to know how she could help them get her back. But perhaps if she tried to help but made a mistake May Parsifal would never come home. That would be awful. Jane remembered how scared she had been that day in the church when she thought her own mother was missing.
She wished someone would hurry up and explain what she had to do. All this made Jane like her own mother even more. She was very glad she had someone to make a miniature garden for.
In church on Sunday, three candles glowed in the Advent wreath, which looked very pretty, but Jane was so anxious it was hard for her to concentrate on the service. If she started making her garden before lunch, if she was lucky, she could finish it before teatime. That was if no one interrupted her. Perhaps while she was making it someone would come with a secret message to tell her how to help the Parsifals. Having so many important things to do and think about made her feel quite wobbly in her tummy.
When they got back from church, TheBoysNextDoor and Ian started kicking a football round in the garden.
Roger said, “If we let Jane play, we would have three on each side.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” Ian said, “a girl only counts as about half a person.”
“Well, as it happens, I don’t even want to,” Jane said. “I’ve got something much more important to do.”
As usual, no one asked her what it was.
Mrs. Mabry was getting things ready for lunch. She was cutting “X” shapes with a sharp knife into the stalks of the Brussels sprouts so the stalks would cook properly. Jane offered to help her but her mother said that the knife was very sharp and she’d only cut herself. Jane laid the table as quickly as she could to get that out of the way. Mr. Mabry was smoking his pipe in the sitting room and doing the crossword.
“I’m just going out into the garden for a little while, Mum,” Jane said. “Call me when lunch is ready.”
Jane went out into one of the dog kennels, which were more like outbuildings than the usual sort of kennels, and sat at the table her mother used for potting geraniums and tomatoes. She shut the door so Ian didn’t barge in. Even though it was a bit gloomy, there was just about enough light for her to see what she was doing.
It was very important to get everything right, and make this a wonderful garden that her mother would know she had worked especially hard at. Perhaps she shouldn’t have spent all her money on sweets and saved up like Ian had so she could have bought something at a shop. She secretly hoped her mother would like her present better than Ian’s, but she knew in the end her mother would say she liked both presents exactly the same.
Ivy had given her an old tray, which she covered in tin foil and then spread with a thin layer of earth. Next she had to decide where to put the mirror that was to be the lake. It shouldn’t go right in the middle because that would be boring, so she set it slightly to the left and put a little more earth round the edges. On the lake she put a plastic duck from her farm set. It was a little too big but it was the only size she’d got. It wasn’t like the moorhens on the real lake in Myrtle Park, but she thought her mother would get the idea. Then she started putting the pine cone trees in round the lake and put glue on their edges. She sprinkled with silver glitter on the wet glue to look like snow. So far it was coming out exactly how she wanted it to.
Just then she heard her mother calling her in for lunch. This was quite convenient because it would take a little while for the glue to set. She shut the door and told Ian, on pain of death, not to go into the kennel.
Lunch was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with roast potatoes and sprouts. Pudding was apple crumble. After lunch Mr. Mabry washed the plates and the saucepans then went to sit in his armchair and read the paper.
“I really can’t have a rest today, Mum,” Jane said. “I’ve got something I really, really must do.”
“Well, just this once, if it’s something very important, darling.”
Jane slipped out of the back door and into the kennel where she found everything exactly as she left it, except the light was a little bit dimmer than before. As she was gazing into the lake, wondering where to put the holly sprigs with berries on so they would make an interesting reflection, she heard a noise outside the door and wondered if it was Ian come to spy on her. So she went to the door and looked out, but it wasn’t him, only the wind, so she got back to work concentrating really hard.
Then, as she looked into the mirror lake, she thought she saw someone looking out at her. The face was very small and far away and the surface of the water shimmered as if stirred by a slight breeze. Jane looked closer, and saw she was not mistaken, for there just below the surface, a sad, pale woman beckoned to her. She looked as if being under the water for a long time had drained all her color away. The face seemed to be becoming bigger and bigger and the surface of the lake was covered with little waves as if the wind had grown stronger. The mirror-lake was growing larger and larger too.
When Jane put out her hand to touch the glittering water’s icy surface, she found it bitter cold.
The woman came nearer and nearer to Jane and her face was now almost the size of a normal face as it rose to the surface and whispered to Jane. Tears rolled down the strange woman’s cheeks. “Please help me, whoever you are. I need help so terribly much. She’s trapped me here and I can’t escape. More than anything, I want to see my children again — to see Aminta and Melchior.”
Jane knew that this must be May Parsifal, and it made her feel both scared and excited at the same time. Jane saw that May’s wrists were encircled with metal bands from which thin chains vanished into the murky depths of the water.
“I know who you are,” Jane said, astonished. “You’re May Parsifal.”
“Yes, yes, I’m May. But who are you?”
The woman did look terribly sad, Jane thought. “ I’m Jane Mabry. How did you get to be in this lake? I thought you were in the real lake, the one in Myrtle Park?”
It was very strange how much her little mirror lake had expanded and how big it was. Jane was now standing on muddy ground on the bank near real water.
“It’s much too complicated to explain,” May said. “I can’t stay near the surface of the water any longer or they’ll catch me. Tell me one thing, Jane. Would your mother be very sad if she couldn’t see you?” Tears rolled down May’s cheeks.
“Of course she would. I think Aminta and Melchior miss you very much.”
“Then, if you could find it in your heart to help me, be brave and follow me into the water.” May looked desperate now. “Please, you really must.”
Jane knew that Ivy, who loved as if she were her own daughter, would never put her into mortal danger. She would never have taken her to the Parsifals’ cottage unless it was really important. But the trouble was that she wasn’t sure if she was brave, but May was so pitiful and imploring that she couldn’t bear her looking sad any more. So Jane took her heart into her hands and plunged headlong into the lake.
The water was so astonishingly cold that it took her breath away — the sort of cold that hurts the top of your head and chills your bones. But oddly she found, once she was beneath the surface, that she was able to breathe which was the strangest thing of all.
May grabbed her hand and dived ever downwards. “I’m afraid we have to hurry now and hide before they see us.”
The water was so thick with weeds and mud that Jane thought it unlikely that anyone could see anything. “You mean there are more people here?”
“Not people exactly, but creatures, and I’m afraid they aren’t very nice ones. Follow me and watch out for the water serpents.” May dived behind some oozy vegetation and Jane followed her, swimming as fast as she could, further and further downwards until, at last, they entered a dismal cavern hidden behind a thick curtain of gray-blue weed. In side the cavern there was no water but it was very damp and smelled of mold and rotting fish. It was sort of like a small cheerless house with a rusted iron bedstead, covered with a pale, threadbare blanket, beside which was something that looked like a large mouse trap baited with a fish’s head.
“That’s for the water serpents I told you about,” May said, when she saw Jane looking at it. “They mostly eat fish, but I’m sure they’d bite me if they got the chance. Their venom is exceedingly dangerous. They always come out when it’s dark outside.’
“I don’t like the sound of them,” Jane said. “Will I be able to go home before they come out?”
“If you’re terrifically lucky you will.”
“And if I’m not terrifically lucky, what then?”
May took Jane’s icy hands in her equally cold ones. “Much better not to think about that.”
Jane was miserable as she sat in the dank cave, but not quite as frozen as she had felt in the water. Her clothes had dried very slightly but still felt clammy. “Please tell me what I have to do to help you escape because I really have to go home before too very long. My parents will miss me if I’m not in by tea time.”
“I’m sure they will. It’s a terrible thing to miss your family.” Here the heavy-hearted May put her face in her hands and started to sob.
Jane patted her shoulder. “I can’t help you unless you explain how to.”
“It’s a long story,” May said, “so you must be patient. Perhaps you know some of it already? You must, if you knew I was May. But you probably don’t know all of it. It would make me so happy if you knew my family.”
“I know your father is the Mr. Parsifal who goes to children’s parties and does magic.”
May’s face brightened at the news. “So you’ve met him already?”
“He came to my party and did wonderful tricks.”
May’s face fell again. “He used to do real magic you know. Not just party tricks.”
“But they were wonderful,” Jane said. “In spite of the fact he is so very old.”
Here May shook her head sadly. “I think he only stays alive so he can look after the children. Almost all his strength must be gone by now.”
“I’ve met the rest of your family. I didn’t know who they were at first, of course, but I met Mrs. Parsifal when she asked me for water, and Aminta at Guy Fawkes when she asked me to light her sparkler by the bonfire. And Melchior when I was collecting stuff for my miniature garden and he told me he didn’t have a mother to give a garden to.”
May looked a bit sad when Jane said that.
Then Jane went on. “Ivy took me to their cottage yesterday and they told me all about how Lord Myrtle stole the land and Queen Ida lured you into the lake and captured you and won’t let you go.” Jane saw how the long chains that bound May’s hands chafed at her wrists and clanked as she wrung her hands.
May continued the story. “It made the Old Spirits wild with fury when Lord Myrtle built his big house. They won’t rest until it is utterly destroyed. Queen Ida is the worst of them. She asked my father to burn down Myrtle Hall but he can’t because he’s not fully human.”
“What a horrible thing to ask someone to do,” Jane said. “ Queen Ida must be a very mean person.”
“I’m afraid she is,” May said. “Years ago, we were all friends, of course, back in the long ago days before Ida’s heart withered up. I think it was because of our long ago friendship, that Ida lured me to the lake. She wanted me to live with her in her palace, but I hated it there without air and sun. When I told her I wanted to go home, she chained me up here, and here I will remain until every trace and vestige of Lord Myrtle is gone. Unless of course someone destroys Myrtle Hall.”
“Why can’t the Old spirits and Queen Ida destroy the Hall themselves if they’re so powerful and so keen to? It’s very rotten to try to make other people do bad stuff for you and even meaner to keep them prisoner.” Jane could remember how horrid it was when Ian tied her up and locked her in a cupboard in the dark — and that was only for half an hour.
“They can’t destroy the Hall themselves, Jane, because they need a human to do it. I think my father has chosen you.”
“Me?” Jane said. “How could I possibly do that?” She looked at May in alarm.
May looked sad again. “I’m sure I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing to destroy something by fire.” May suddenly stopped talking and clutched Jane’s hand. “I’m afraid I hear something,” she said. ” It might be Queen Ida herself.”

Chapter 7


In which Jane encounters Queen Ida for the First Time

The water outside the cavern stirred and May cowered. “It is Queen Ida. Quick! You’d better hide in case she smells you.”
“I don’t smell,” Jane said. “I had a bath yesterday.”
“I don’t mean smell bad, only human. Hurry! Under the bed with you.”
It was very damp and clammy there and bits of waterweed brushed against Jane’s face. Nothing happened for a minute, then the water churned again. Jane caught sight of a black tail, scaled like a lizard’s or a dragon’s and saw the wheels of a chariot swish by. It was traveling so fast that the bells on the chariot’s harness made an eerie tintinnabulation that echoed against the dripping cavern walls. The sound of the chariot then vanished for a moment to be replaced by the slow drip of green slime.
“Perhaps she won’t come back,” May whispered. “But you can never be sure. You wouldn’t want her to capture you too.”
Then the sounds of the chariot came again, more slowly this time and the bells sounded singly, like a death knell.
From her hiding place, Jane heard brisk footsteps entering the cave.
“So, May,” a voice said. “Another Christmas approaches –very sad for you and your poor little children. How horrid it will be for them when your parents die, as they surely must soon. They won’t last long, old as they are and with so little to eat. Such a stubborn old man, your father! You’d have thought with all his magic tricks he could have done something. Nothing to say for yourself, May?”
The speaker seemed to be a woman, although her voice was very deep. Jane could only see her shoes that had sharp pointed toes, which curled upwards and were made from the skins of snakes.
May sounded defeated when she answered. “No, I have nothing to say.”
“Well,” said Queen Ida. “I hear your father paid a visit to a nasty little girl, but I’m sure, like all the others, she is a very stupid one. Because she might try to visit you, I’m going to set Astrophel at your door to stop her getting in.”
Astrophel, as far as Jane could see from under the bed, was something like a large dog, but his head and jaw were much bigger than they should have been, rather like the sort of dogs they call Pit Bulls. His tail was very skinny like a rat’s. Spines stuck out all along the top of his back. He looked both stupid and vicious.
“I’m sure it’s not necessary to leave Astrophel, Queen Ida,” May ventured. “Who could possibly visit me here?”
“Who are you, May, to say what’s necessary or not? I think you rather forget your place. To remind you, I will remove your light and your blanket. Then you’ll be really cold.” With that Queen Ida swept the tattered blanket off the bed and blew out the little guttering candle. Perhaps it was just as well she had blown out the light. Had it stayed lit, Queen Ida might have spied Jane’s frightened face under the bed.
After Queen Ida had departed it was dark and quiet in the cave. Jane could hear May’s muffled sobs and, in the distance, Astrophel licking his claws. After a time both those sounds ceased. Jane thought Astrophel had probably gone to sleep. She seemed to have been in the cave for a very long time and was anxious to get home.
“May,” she whispered, “is it safe for me to come out now?
“Yes, but very quietly. Astrophel’ will sleep for some time, I hope. So now you’ve seen Queen Ida. What did you think of her?”
“I don’t know, I only saw her feet.”
“Well, the rest of her is just as nasty, you can be sure.”
“Will you be very cold without your blanket? It wasn’t very nice of her to take it.”
“If you can think of anything kind or helpful someone can do, Ida’s certain to do the opposite.”
“But why?” asked Jane who could not understand why anyone would be unkind on purpose.
“Because she’s evil and wants to keep her power. She’s vengeful and uses others to do her evil deeds. No one has loved her for the longest time, so most of what she does is out of spite. If no one loves her, at least they can fear her. She wants to have notice taken of her.”
“How very unhappy she must be,” Jane said. “How awful it must be to be held by her. Do you really think if the Hall were destroyed she would set you free? Why does she hate the Hall so much?”
“It all happened so long ago now, but when Lord Myrtle arrived, a handsome young man then, with the plans in his hands, he let Ida believe he was building the magnificent house just for her. After all, Ida had lived here forever, you know. Such a fine pair they made! Him flattering her and kissing her too! I’m not sure who he thought she was, always appearing whenever he was there.”
“You’re like the spirit of the place,” Lord Myrtle told Ida. “Don’t you admire its magnificence?”
“He didn’t mean a bit of it,” May went on. She kept her voice quiet so the evil dog-creature didn’t wake up. “That’s just how he was with women. Then, when the Hall was quite finished, he arrived with his bride, poor pretty young thing she was, and Ida realized he had deceived her and didn’t love her at all. It was then she retreated to the bottom of the lake with her horrible toadies and minions and spent her time plotting revenge.”
“Doesn’t she realize that Lord Myrtle has gone away and quite ordinary people live here now?”
“Oh, she knows that all right. It’s just that having become so consumed with bitterness, she wants to destroy every trace and vestige of him. In some ways I can’t blame her. Lord Myrtle was a very cruel man, I know that myself. For some years I was his wife’s maidservant, but he tried his evil wiles on me too. Said he had fallen in love with me.”
“How could he love you when he had a wife already?” Jane asked. “It seems very greedy to want two wives.”
“He didn’t want me to become his wife exactly, only to do his bidding. By this time he had become so enormously fat that great rolls of flesh hung off him. His breath smelled of onions and decay. I had to fight him off when he tried to kiss me.”
“How horrid that must have been! This is a very sad story, May. I promise I will help you. I haven’t quite worked out how to yet, but I need to go home in case my mother starts looking for me.”
May took Jane’s face between her thin, chilled hands and looked into her eyes. “I know you will help me, my child.”
Astrophel still slept, snoring with his broad snout resting on his pointed claws.
“It’s best you go now, Jane. Don’t tell my family yet that you have seen me. It might give them false hope. What you must do to get home is to breathe as much air as you can into your lungs and then the air will carry you to the surface like bubbles rising to the top of fizzy lemonade. When you get home you will discover time has passed but not so long as you thought. How I wish I could go with you.” The chains on May’s arms clanked eerily as she stood up to lead Jane to the entrance to the cave where she bid her a sad farewell.
“Take care and look out for the snakes,” she said as Jane pushed upwards through the murky water which was as bitter cold as it had been before, so cold that Jane could not think of anything except to avoid the serpents which swam quite close to her. Some of the snakes had evil looking yellow eyes and some had livid red spots on them.
It was dark and her lungs were almost full to bursting as she struggled upwards through the weedy dim water. A long time seemed to pass in a strange cold state before she found herself standing in the kennel with her world in miniature before her. It was almost pitch dark in the kennel and she shivered, for, although not at all as wet as she should have been, she felt a little freezing water on the back of her neck.
It was dusk outside and she could smell the wood smoke from the log-fire in the sitting room in her house. Jane was really glad that somehow she had escaped from the lake. It was really awful that May was still trapped there. She knew she would have to think of some way of helping May get free, but she couldn’t possibly destroy Myrtle Hall — much less burn it down. Whatever she did, she’d better do it soon, because May looked very ill and pale indeed. How worrying it all was.
“Jane, sweetheart,” she heard her mother call as she stood there thinking. “You must come in now. I’m sure you’re frozen, and I’m certain you can’t see what you’re doing — whatever it is.”
“Coming!” Jane called as she shut the kennel door and ran toward the back door where the light shone brightly.

Chapter 8


In which Poppy Elstead comes to lunch

Because it was almost Christmas, Mrs. Mabry had made a cake that looked like a log. It was a chocolate Swiss roll with white icing on top of that to look like snow. It was decorated with a little plastic robin with a bright red breast. Jane liked this cake much better than real Christmas cake that had too much dried fruit and candied peel in it. But today she only managed a little piece.
“I do hope you’re not getting something, darling,” Mrs. Mabry said. “It’s not like you to not eat your cake.”
“No, I’m all right. Mum, have you ever wondered if anything lives at the bottom of the lake?”
“Which lake, darling?”
“The one in the park.”
“Well, I suppose fishes and things do. Frogs perhaps,” Mrs. Mabry said vaguely.
“She means the Loch Ness monster,” Ian said. “Made-up stuff like that.”
“No, I don’t. But what if something or someone did?” Jane asked.
“A person obviously couldn’t,” Mr. Mabry said. “Human beings need oxygen to breathe.”
“I know that, Dad, I just wondered, that’s all. What if someone was trapped there?”
Mrs. Mabry got up and went over and felt Jane’s forehead. “You do feel a little bit warm, Jane, and you didn’t have your rest. Do you think you should go to bed early tonight?”
Oddly, that was just what Jane did want to do. Usually she wanted to stay up as long as possible. So her mother lit the gas fire and filled her hot water bottle, which was shaped like a teddy bear. Jane lay awake for a little while wondering and worrying what to do to help May. But soon the warmth of her cozy bed soon made her fall asleep.
She felt better the next morning and put the finishing touches on her miniature garden. She thought her mother would be very pleased with.
When she had finished the garden, she walked down to Ivy and Tim’s little cottage. Tim was in his barn where the skins of moles were tacked to the walls. Tim was doing something to the generator, which was their only source of electricity.
“Hello, Tim. Is Ivy at home? I need to talk to about a most important matter.”
“Of course she is, Jane,” Tim said. “I think she’s making mince pies for Christmas.”
Jane wished Ivy was making something she liked better. Mince pies were quite as horrid as fruitcake.
“Ivy,” Jane said as she sat on her stool and patted Sam, “something amazing happened yesterday. I went under the lake and met May and saw how sad she was. I saw Queen Ida too, but I didn’t talk to her. Of course I’ll do everything I can to help save May.”
“How did you get under the lake, Jane?” Ivy asked.
“Well, it was really weird. I was working really hard on my garden and suddenly the mirror-lake seemed to get bigger and bigger and there were waves on the water. May came up to the surface, but she was on the end of a long chain so I had to dive in and go with her,” Jane said.
“So you entered the world under the lake?” asked Ivy looking at Jane carefully. “Were you very frightened?”
“I wasn’t really scared. I just felt so sad for May. It was really weird how the mirror-lake changed and everything.”
Ivy nodded as she placed the little pastry lids on the mince pies. “Yes, that’s what sometimes happens. You make a copy of something and it turns into the thing itself –like Gepetto making the puppet, which turned into the little boy Pinocchio. You must tell me about May.”
“She doesn’t seem very well. She was dreadfully pale. Like when you have grass under a stone and it hasn’t got any sunshine on it and it’s all white. I think the best thing is if I get the key to her chain and unlock her. I couldn’t possibly destroy Myrtle Hall,” Jane said. “ Do you think it is only Queen Ida who has the key to unlock May’s chains?”
“I’m afraid so,” Ivy said, bending down to put the mince pies in her little gas oven. She gave Jane a little tiny piece of uncooked pastry.
“Then I have to go back under the lake and get the key from Queen Ida,” Jane said.
“I wish it wasn’t you who had to go, Jane,” Ivy said. “ Because I think it’s terribly dangerous. I’d go myself if I were young enough. So would Tim. So would both of May’s parents, but we can’t. Mr. Parsifal has been looking for a child for a long time now. He was beginning to give up hope. You were chosen because you were kind and gave each of the Parsifals what they asked for. Then they knew they could ask you for one more thing.”
“Actually,” Jane said, hugging Sam rather tight round the neck, “I’m glad I have something very important to do. Not something pretend important but really important. I wish I could go to the lake sooner, but I’ll have to wait until after tea because Mummy has invited Poppy and Mrs. Elstead to lunch.”
“Well, it will be nice for you to play with a girl for a change,” Ivy said.
“It won’t be a bit nice. Mummy thinks just because she likes Mrs. Elstead that I should like Poppy, but I don’t. Why do grownups always think that you will like their friends’ children?”
Ivy shrugged her shoulders because she didn’t have any children.
“Anyway,” Jane continued, “Ian is having Michael Graves to play. He’s the one who made Poppy cry at the bonfire party. He makes Ian behave even worse than usual. So you see I’m going to have a really horrible day until I can get back into the lake and that might be horrid too,” Jane said with a sigh. “I suppose I’d better go home now.”
Lunch was ham with a white sauce with parsley in. Then “Snow on a Mountain’ which is a steamed chocolate pudding turned upside down with sugar sprinkled on it.
When the lunch guests arrived Poppy Elstead was wearing her fluffy bolero from ballet lessons. Mrs. Elstead talked to Mrs. Mabry about wallpaper patterns and how long it took to order the wallpaper. Michael Graves kicked Poppy under the table.
Jane though that the food was much nicer than the people. She was glad when her mother said, “After lunch you children should go for a walk. It’s lovely and bright out.”
Ian said, “Do we have to take the girls?”
“Of course you do,” Mrs. Mabry said. “It’s not as if you were taking the girls, Ian. You’ll just all go together.”
Jane liked it when sometimes, only sometimes, her mother told Ian off.
So the four children put on their boots and set out into Myrtle Park, making sure to keep out of sight of the few golfers who were playing that day so soon before Christmas.
First they went to play on the low branches of a huge old beech tree that the children called Pegasus. They could bounce up and down just as if they were riding a horse. After taking turns for about half an hour they got bored.
“What are we going to do now?” Michael Graves asked.
“We could go and look at the lake,” Jane said, thinking it might be interesting to look into the water of the real lake to see if she could somehow see May underneath the water.
“Don’t want to do that,” Ian said, scuffing his boots in the deep fallen leaves.
Then Michael said, “You know what I want to do? I want to explore Myrtle Hall. I bet we could get in to the ruined bit where they stabled horses during the war. It would be fun.”
“Mum says we really shouldn’t go there, doesn’t she, Ian? She thinks it’s dangerous,” Jane said. “She thinks that if it gets windy, the old rotted beams will fall down on our heads.”
“I never take any notice of what my mother says,” Michael boasted.
Ian didn’t say anything because he probably didn’t want Michael to think he was a sissy. Jane was worried because May had said Queen Ida wanted the Hall burned down. Michael Graves liked playing with matches. They all knew that. If Michael burned down the Hall then Queen Ida would be happy. But it is a terrible thing to cause a fire.
“You’re not going to play with matches if we go there, are you, Michael?” Jane asked.
“I haven’t decided,” Michael said. “You girls can go home if you want.”
So the boys set off anyway, and the girls went too. It only took about ten minutes to get to the dilapidated old hall.
When they got there, Ian pushed past some dried up buddleia bushes, and the children entered in a part of the ruined building where the roof had caved in and was open to the blue sky.
“There’s no one around,” Michael said.
The children wandered through the desolate rooms where rain had stained the walls and weeds had taken root. Finally they came to the old stables where an old manger still had bits of straw in it left over from when there were horses there. “We could light that on fire then we could stamp it out.” Michael said.
“No, we couldn’t,” Jane said, “I think that’s a very bad idea. I told you not to light anything on fire.”
“Mummy said I should never play with matches,” Poppy said.
“Well, you don’t have to because you’re a baby, Poppy. We all know that.” Michael said, groping in his pockets and drawing out a box of matches.
Even Ian looked alarmed when Michael lit one.
“See what I can do,” Michael said as he did the trick where you light one end of the match and then let it burn for a bit and then turn it upside down until it is burned end to end.
“I can do that too,” Ian said and succeeded very well.
“Your turn, Poppy,” Michael said waving a lit match under her nose.
Poppy started crying.
“You shouldn’t be quite so beastly,” Jane said. “You know she’s scared of things going on fire.”
“Oh, shut up, Jane,” Michael said. “Girls are always so silly. Here, take hold of this.” He handed a lighted match to Jane who blew it out straight away.
“Here, Poppy,” Michael handed another lit match to Poppy who dropped it. The match made a little blaze on the straw which Jane stamped on until she was quite sure it was out,
“That was a really stupid thing to do, Michael,” Jane said. “Do stop crying, Poppy. You know it only makes boys worse.”
Poppy was still crying when they heard the whistling of one of the workers who tended what was left of the estate. Knowing how much trouble they would be in if the workman found them there, the children slipped out and set off through the woods.
“Do you think the straw was quite out?” Jane asked Ian.
“Of course it was. Why do you always have to worry about everything? But you’d better not tell Mum anything about where we went,” Ian said. “I don’t think she’d be very pleased about it.”
“Then we shouldn’t have gone. You always do anything Michael wants you to. You always let him choose.”
The children walked down the overgrown path to look at the little chapel near where Jane had collected the pinecones.
“When I was here last I met a boy I gave some earth to,” Jane said. “ He lives round here somewhere.” Then she was sorry she had said anything since the world of the Parsifals was something Ian knew nothing about.
“No one lives round here,” Ian said, “unless you mean in that weird little house under the laurel bushes, but that’s been empty for years.”
“Should we go and explore that too?” Michael said.
“No, we ought to go home now,” Jane said, thinking that she had better hurry everything up if she was to have time to visit the world under the lake. She would have to take a flashlight into the dog-kennel later because there was no electric light there. It would be awful if she couldn’t get in.
Even now it was beginning to get gloomy out. There were dark clouds and a chilly, gusty wind had got up. When Ian looked at his watch it was past three o’clock and they had to get back for tea.
“We’ll explore the cottage some other time,” Ian said, “when we haven’t got the wet and weedy girls with us.”
When Jane glanced back into the woods, she thought she saw Melchior’s pale face looking at her. She didn’t say anything because Ian always accused her of making things up. Anyway, Melchior was part of something Ian didn’t know anything about.
When the children got home, Mrs. Elstead and Mrs. Graves were having tea with Mrs. Mabry.
“Did you have a lovely afternoon, Poppy?” her mother asked her. “What did you children get up to?” Mrs. Elstead was always happy when Poppy was included in anything.
“We played on Pegasus and then looked at the little chapel in the woods,” Poppy said.
Jane was glad she left out the bit about playing with matches in the Hall. Even though Poppy had been sworn to secrecy, you never know when someone is going to tell on you.
After the visitors had gone home, Mrs. Mabry went to shake the crumbs off the table cloth outside the back door and Jane took the flashlight and went out to the kennel to shine a light on her miniature garden to see if she could get in to the water again. However much the light glittered on the water, nothing happened.
Then her mother called to her. “Jane! Come here. What is that extraordinary smell? It reminds me of the war.”
It smelled like burning to Jane, and when she looked in the distance she could see a red glow behind the trees just where Myrtle Hall was. The sun had set long before, so it couldn’t be that. Jane was very frightened when she realized that the smell and glow must mean that the Myrtle Hall was on fire.

Chapter 9

In which some of Queen Ida’s Wishes Come True

Suddenly they heard the sirens of fire engines, and Ian rushed past them and put on his boots. “I’m going to see what it is,” he yelled. “ I think the Hall’s on fire.”
“Wait for us, Ian,” Mrs. Mabry said. “I forbid you to go anywhere near the Hall.”
Mrs. Mabry put on her coat, and taking Jane by the hand, they went out into the park and looked towards Myrtle Hall. Jane stood with her mother and Mrs. Elliott, Ian and TheBoysNextDoor. Firemen stood on top of the Hall, silhouetted black against the scarlet sky. They aimed their hoses at the vivid, licking flames that leapt up into the night. It was better than Guy Fawkes Night but much more frightening. Blazing beams must be crashing to the ground, Jane thought, though it was too far away for her to actually hear.
Ian and TheBoysNextDoor were very excited, but Jane could tell that Ian felt a bit uncomfortable all the time. She wondered if Aminta and Melchior could see the flames from their little cottage under the laurel bushes.
A fire engine was pumping water out of the lake to put out the blaze and Jane wondered if May, too, could tell that something strange was happening from her dismal cavern under the water. The whole thing was almost too horrid to bear.
“Whatever could have started it?” Mrs. Mabry said to Mrs. Elliott. “I suppose one of the workmen crept in for a quick cigarette and didn’t put it out properly. I’m so glad our children never go there.”
Jane felt both scared and guilty.
“How long does a cigarette take to catch something on fire?” Jane asked her mother.
“I don’t know, darling. Sometimes people think they’ve put it out properly, but it goes on smoldering and only bursts out later on.”
“Oh,” said Jane.
The fire burned for a very long time; even the big middle bit of the Hall, which had been almost intact, where boxes of television sets had been stored, blazed up. The smell was awful and burned your nose. After a while Jane and Mrs. Mabry went back indoors.
When Mr. Mabry arrived home from work, he went outside with all the other fathers from nearby to see what all the commotion was.
When Ian eventually came in, his eyes bright with excitement, Jane pulled him aside. “It wasn’t us, was it?”
“Of course it wasn’t, silly. How could it have been?” Ian said.
Jane wondered if it was. “It could have been, you know. What if one of Michael’s sparks smoldered a bit? Mum says sometimes things smolder for ages.”
The one person who would be pleased by all this was Queen Ida, Jane thought. As she lay in bed, just before she went to sleep, Jane knew that it was desperately important for her to find out how May was doing. First thing in the morning, however difficult it was, she would have to go back into the lake and face Queen Ida.
The next day the local paper reported the fire on the front page. The headline said: Myrtle Hall destroyed in Historic Blaze. In smaller writing it said: Vagrant’s body found in ashes.
“What’s a vagrant, Mum?” Jane asked.
“A person who hasn’t got a real home who just wanders about. Poor soul, he was probably just trying to make a little fire to warm himself.”
“They didn’t put his name in the paper,” Jane said.
“That’s probably because no one knows who he was. Nothing’s sadder than not having a family.” She bent down and kissed Jane on the head.
Jane was horrified to think that Michael Grave’s matches might have ended up killing someone. It made her feel quite sick in her stomach. So she was very relieved when, after she read the paper very carefully, she realized that the police said the fire was almost certainly started by an electrical fault in the part of the hall where the TV sets had been stored.
The paper said, almost certainly which meant that the firemen and the police were almost sure. The paper didn’t say anything about cigarettes or matches. Even so, the poor vagrant was dead.
The one thing she was sure of was that Melchior and Aminta needed their mother, and it was only she, Jane, who could help her get home. She would first go to Ivy and tell her what happened and then visit the Parsifals to see if they knew anything about the fire.
“I’m just going out for a little walk, Mum,” Jane said after breakfast. “I’ll probably go to see Ivy.”
Jane walked down to Ivy and Tim’s little cottage and knocked on the door. Ivy was busy making more mince pies. Old Mr. Bullen was dozing in the corner.
“Well, what excitement we’ve been having,” Ivy said. “Nothing like this has ever happened even so long as old Mr. Bullen can remember. A notable day, but a tragic one too.”
Jane said nothing for a moment, and Ivy studied her carefully.
“You look a little out of sorts, Jane. Is there something you want to tell me?”
Jane looked at her feet. “Ivy,” she said eventually, “ I’m worried it was us who burned down the Hall. We went there yesterday without telling Mum, and Michael Graves was playing with matches, and I didn’t stop him. Poppy dropped one and I stamped it out as hard as I could and I’m sure I did put it out. Mummy said yesterday it was probably one of the workers. The newspaper said it was an electrical fault, but what if it wasn’t?”
“It wasn’t you, Jane,” Ivy said. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers, but in this case I think it’s true.”
“May told me she couldn’t be free until Myrtle Hall was destroyed and now it is burned down. I don’t know what’s going to happen next except I have to save May.”
“ I’ve known that you had been chosen,” Ivy said, “ever since that first day when you met Mrs. Parsifal by the water tap in the allotments. Perhaps I should never have taken you to visit them.”
“No, I’m very glad to have met them, and I want to help them awfully much. I didn’t know it would mean killing someone even if it wasn’t me who did it directly. And why do the Parsifals have to hide? I don’t understand it. Why don’t Aminta and Melchior go to school? Why haven’t I met them like ordinary children?”
“Because they aren’t ordinary children, that’s why,” Ivy said. “May married someone quite strange and they’re half human and half spirit. Of course they would like to be ordinary children; that’s the sad part. Mr. Parsifal needs you to help him fight Queen Ida for their freedom and then he can die in peace.”
“I wouldn’t want Mr. Parsifal to die too,” Jane said. “That would be awful.”
“Not if you’re as old as he is, Jane. Not if your work on earth is done. When they asked you for the water, fire, air and water they were testing you to see if you were kind, and when you went to help May in the lake, they knew you were brave.”
“I’m not a bit brave. I get scared running over to TheNextDoors at night.”
“You are brave when you have to be, when someone else needs help,” Ivy said.
Jane patted Buster, who came over and licked her hand. “I bet Buster’s not frightened of anything,” she said.
“That’s because he hasn’t got any sense. It’s sometimes good to be scared of things. It makes you more careful.”
“I promised to go and see May again to help her escape. I don’t really want to go down into that icy cold water again. But first I want to ask Melchior and Aminta what they thought about the fire. I’d better go now because I’ve got so many things to do.”
Ivy took four mince pies and put them in a small brown paper bag. “Take these to the Parsifals,” she said. “I wish I could give them more but we’ve got very little to spare ourselves. Mrs. Parsifal is so very proud she hates to take charity from anyone.”
About a quarter of an hour later, Jane approached the desolate cottage under the laurels. She saw Melchior outside picking up sticks for kindling and putting them in to a basket.
“I’ve come to see you,” Jane said. “I’ve brought you an apple and some mince pies from Ivy. Did you see what happened yesterday?”
“Of course I did,” said Melchior. “I saw you in the afternoon too, before it all happened, but you were with your brother and those other children. I wanted to talk to you, but I couldn’t because of them.”
“No, I suppose you couldn’t,” said Jane. “The boy with my brother isn’t very nice. I thought at first it was him who started the fire. What did you see?”
“Well,” Melchior said, “It was almost dark, you know. I was in the woods and the wind was rattling the leaves. Then I smelled smoke. I thought perhaps Grandma had lit the fire already, so I thought I’d better hurry home with my sticks. Then I saw a red glow then the flames and three fire engines. Two were spraying water on Myrtle Hall. The other one went down to the lake to pump water out.”
“I wonder if your mother could notice that?” Jane said, then thought she shouldn’t have mentioned May.
But Melchior was caught up in telling Jane about the fire. “ What a noise the fire made, Jane! A great crackling and groaning. It sounded almost as if the building was in pain. There was a tremendous crashing when the beams collapsed. I didn’t want anyone to notice me, so I went home to tell everyone what was happening.
I said, “Granny, Grandpa, Aminta! The most amazing thing! The Hall is burning up. It’s so bright if you stand outside the door you’ll see it. You can almost get warm by it! Then Grandpa looked at Granny and said something really strange. He said, ‘I always knew Jane would help us.’ Then he put on his hat and cloak and went outside to watch and I went with him. Why did she say that about you, Jane?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes old people get things muddled up,” Jane said.
“Grandpa doesn’t. Granny says his mind is still sharp as a whip, even if the rest of him is getting old.” Melchior bit on the apple Jane had given him. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s a really good apple. Ivy sometimes brings us things but Granny says she has to be frugal so she can’t spare too much.”
Jane and Melchior had almost reached the cottage door.
“Don’t tell Aminta,” Melchior said, “but the next best thing to having Mother home, would be to have a present for Christmas. Grandpa used to be paid for his magic act, but now, because we be so secretive about everything, he doesn’t go to many parties.”
“He came to my party,” Jane said. “I’m sure Mummy and Daddy paid him. Of course, I didn’t ask, but they must have done.”
“Did he really? Granny says he just goes to parties looking for people to help us. That’s why he won’t take any money.”
Jane and Melchior went into the little cottage where a very small fire burned in the hearth. Jane said hello to everyone, and they seemed pleased to see her, but she didn’t want to stay long because she needed to get home to look into the mirror-lake. She needed to get the key to unlock May’s chain that very day.
Mr. Parsifal looked at Jane and gave her a little secret sort of smile. She smiled back, but she didn’t want to say anything to give them false hope.
“I think I have to get going now,” she said. “I told Mum I was only going out for a little while.”
“Well, take care, dear,” Mrs. Parsifal said. “Hurry home. It seems to be getting very dark out suddenly.”
When Mrs. Parsifal shut the door behind her and Jane stepped outside, she realized that Mrs. Parsifal was right. It wasn’t just the overhanging laurels; it had got much darker suddenly and the wind had got up. Jane was glad of the scarf and gloves her mother had insisted she wear. It was a bit eerie in the wood, so she walked a little faster, listening to the wind pushing at the bare creaking tree branches.
Then she heard another sound, like someone stepping on twigs and other sticks. Jane looked round but she couldn’t see anyone else in the wood. Then she heard it again. It did sound like footsteps and they went on for a little while. Jane walked faster and faster until she was almost running.
Then, there, standing right in front of her, barring the middle of the path, was Queen Ida. Jane recognized her nasty pointed shoes made of snakeskins. She was wearing a long dark cloak made of something that looked like the moleskins that Tim tacked up in his barn.
“Well, my dear,” said Queen Ida, in a sickly sweet sort of voice. “I know who you are.”

 

 

Chapter 10


In which Jane visits Queen Ida’s Palace under the Lake


“I know who you are, too,” said Jane who was very frightened indeed. “You are the person who keeps May locked under the lake. Actually, I needed to find you.” She was doing her best to be brave.
“Did you indeed, my dear?”
When Queen Ida smiled, Jane could see her teeth were very long and pointed.
Jane thought Queen Ida was trying to sound nice, even though she knew Queen Ida wasn’t nice at all.
“I suppose you have been to visit the Parsifals. Such a sad little family! I’ve got something to tell you that will make you very happy,” Queen Ida said. “I know you are on my side now.”
Queen Ida stretched out her hand and put it on Jane’s sleeve. “I want to thank you for burning down Myrtle Hall.”
“I didn’t burn it down,” Jane said. “You’ve made the most awful mistake. In the paper it said it was an electrical fault. It wasn’t me at all.”
“Electrical fault! Fiddlesticks!” Queen Ida said. Her nasty skinny hand with scarlet painted nails was still on Jane’s sleeve. “As a prize, I’m going to invite you to my palace under the lake.”
Jane had to think very quickly. She knew Queen Ida was very wicked and she knew she had to set May Parsifal free. She also knew that her mother would be expecting her home for lunch and would be very upset and worried if she was late, or, even worse than that, missing.
“That’s a very kind invitation, Queen Ida,” Jane said, stalling for time. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“ Think about it, Jane. No need to think about it! You will see such wonders! The prettiest things you ever saw in your life. Perhaps, if you agree to be my friend, I’ll let that pathetic May go. She’s no use to me now. She mopes all the time.”
Jane did not in the least want to be Queen Ida’s friend. The very idea of it! “Can I go home first and tell my mother?”
“Of course you can’t. You see your mother every day. This is your chance to know me.” Queen Ida smiled but it wasn’t a pretty smile. It was more like a baring of her teeth.
Jane’s mother had always told her never to go anywhere with strangers, and Jane had never wanted to. In this instance Jane’s desire to help May overcame her caution. “All right,” she said. “Just so long as you promise to set May free and so long as I’ll be home before lunch time.”
“Why ever would you not be?” Queen Ida said in a voice that Jane didn’t think sounded very sincere.
Jane walked with Queen Ida towards the lake. There was a small brick construction, almost like a tunnel, where boats had been moored when Lord Myrtle first built the estate. Queen Ida drew a key from the key ring that hung from her belt and opened a small mossy door that Jane hadn’t seen before. Inside there was a very steep chute, as steep as a slide at a fun fair, that sloped down into blackness.
“Follow me,” Queen Ida said. “Don’t be nervous,” she continued, with a hint of impatience in her voice. “Come along; we’ve no time to waste. Here, give me your hand.”
Before Jane knew it, she was chilled to the bone, soaked though to the skin, and sliding down the steep chute very fast indeed. Then she was being dragged deep under the icy water.
When, finally, Jane and Queen Ida had come to the bottom of the slimy chute, Jane realized she could breathe under the water, as she did before, but she was still shaking with cold. All about her was dim green gloom.
And there was Queen Ida’s chariot, the one she had spied when she was hidden under May’s bed. Queen Ida indicated that she should climb into it, then covered her with a leopard spotted wrap which warmed her only a very little.
Queen Ida then whipped the ugly beasts who drew the chariot until little flecks of beast-blood dissolved into the water coloring it a murky red. Jane thought Queen Ida was being cruel, for surely the creatures were rushing as fast as they possibly could.
They sped past the entrance to the little cavern where May was held captive, but they didn’t stop to set May free as she hoped they would. For all Jane knew May might be dead already. Outside the cavern Jane saw that vicious Astrophel was still chained there, and he snarled as they swept by.
They drove in silence though the dim colorless world under the lake until Queen Ida said, “Nearly here.”
When they finally arrived, Jane could see that Queen Ida’s dwelling was magnificent. Tall outer doors emblazoned with heraldic designs opened inward upon an enormous hall with tall marble columns and intricately carved plaster designs on the walls. The lofty ceilings were made of wood decorated with thousands of stars in intricately wrought devices. In the middle of the great hall was a slender fountain whose water splashed into a shallow marble bowl. Around the hall were countless small rooms each decorated like the great hall in miniature.
“What an amazing palace you have,” Jane said. “I’m surprised you aren’t happy here.”
Queen Ida led Jane into a little sitting room where a bowl of rose petals scented the air, but, when Jane looked closer, she saw that what she had thought were petals were really little pieces of velvet. Jane sat on a divan with an embroidered cover and leant against plump, soft cushions.
“It’s no use having exquisite things if you’ve no one to share them with,” Queen Ida said. “When May saw them, all she wanted was to go home to her stupid family. I had thought she would have liked it here, away from that evil Lord Myrtle. But no, all this wasn’t enough for her. Some tea, my dear?”
“No, thank you. I haven’t had lunch yet. Besides which I don’t drink tea,” Jane said as politely as she could. The palace was really quite astoundingly lovely. It was quite different from the rest of the under-the-lake world.
“I didn’t know you wanted May to live in your palace,” said Jane. “I thought you lured her here just to keep her captive and make her family suffer.”
“No,” said Queen Ida, “it wasn’t that at all. You see, though I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, I had rather hoped May would be my friend.”
“I didn’t know you needed any friends,” Jane said, “though I suppose everyone does.”
Queen Ida then snapped her fingers and a servant appeared bearing a silver container from which he withdrew a pure white towel. The servant was a very odd figure indeed. He was wearing a dark costume that resembled a suit but his face was that of a fish with pale watery eyes.
“Put your hands out, Jane,” Queen Ida said.
Then the servant poured delicious warm water, which smelled of roses too, over Jane’s hands, which he then patted dry with the white towel. The almost-rose smell was nice but not quite like real flowers. Another servant appeared and set little pink and gold glasses in front of Jane and Queen Ida. Then he poured hot tea from a great height into them so the tea was a little bit frothy.
“Tea attay,” Queen Ida said. “You don’t need milk in it. I learned the recipe from a Moroccan sorcerer of my acquaintance. You must try it.”
The tea smelled of mint, not of poison, and the room was so lovely and warm, and Queen Ida being so nice to her, that Jane forgot for a moment what a bad person Ida was and took a sip of the tea anyway.
“Delicious, isn’t it?” Queen Ida said. “But wait until you taste the cakes.”
Another servant, who exactly resembled the first one, except his face was like an owl’s, produced a silver salver upon which a dozen little yellow, pink and green pastries were arranged. One looked like an eye, another like a little sack, another pastry like a green flower with a little nut in the middle.
Jane was a little hungry because breakfast seemed to have been a very long time before. Since the tea hadn’t killed her, thought she might risk a little cake. It tasted like peanut butter and was so delicious she had another.
A musician, whose face was that of a small, wizened monkey, played soft, strange music on a lute. Jane began to think Queen Ida wasn’t quite so wicked after all.
“I don’t know why May didn’t like it here. I think it’s very beautiful,” Jane said.
“Then you will be happy to stay here?” Queen Ida said.
“I’ll have to think about it,” Jane said.
“What’s there to think about? You are always saying you’ll have to think about things. You would have everything you desired. So many pretty trinkets and whatever you wanted to eat whenever you wanted it. I’ve even got a room made up especially for you. Would you like to see it?”
Jane nodded. The idea of a little room just for her in such a magnificent palace was tempting. She got up from the comfy cushions and followed Queen Ida down a long corridor and up a curved staircase. Queen Ida stopped outside a door all covered in seashells of the prettiest pink hues. “Here it is, my dear. Just exactly what every young girl desires.”
The room was very charming indeed. There was a wash basin made of silver, and a mirror surrounded by black and white camel bone decorated with stars like on the ceiling in the great hall. The bed had a pink velvet coverlet and was heaped high with cushions.
“This is a very nice room,” Jane said to Queen Ida, “but it is quite warm in here. I think we need some fresh air.” Behind a gauzy curtain was a window with little panes of multicolored glass, but when Jane tried to open it, she realized that the window was only a decoration.
Jane was beginning to feel sleepy because she had started the morning feeling so cold and now she was so warm and so full of sweet cakes, all she wanted to do was sleep. She remembered that there was something she had to do, but felt so drowsy she decided she would think about that when she woke up. She lay down on the little bed and very soon fell fast asleep.
When she woke up she remembered exactly what it was she had to do. However pretty the palace was, the most important thing was to find May’s cavern and save her. She had to get the key to unlock the long chain that kept May shackled. She knew that the key must almost certainly be on the belt Queen Ida wore at her waist and she would somehow have to steal it. Or else she would have to persuade Queen Ida to let May go. She wondered which would be easier.
Very soon there was a brisk knock at the door, Before Jane could say anything, the door opened and Queen Ida came in. “I trust you enjoyed your little nap, my dear? Such comfortable quarters I’ve arranged for my guests,” Queen Ida said and seated herself beside the bed. In her hands was a silver box decorated with a silken ribbon. “A present, my dear. I do hope you like it.”
“I think I’ll probably like it very much,” Jane said. “But I haven’t got a present for you and I’m not allowed to take things from strangers. So I’d better not open it,”
“Why ever not? It’s rude not to be grateful when you’re given things, Jane. Never mind that. I think suppertime approaches. You can open your present later, after we have eaten.”
Jane wondered why Queen Ida was talking about supper when she hadn’t had lunch yet. She hoped she hadn’t been asleep for a very long time.
She didn’t want to eat at all. She wanted to rescue May. Perhaps, by pretending to be polite, she could find a way to make Queen Ida set May free.
Jane hoped what they were going to have for supper would be as tasty as the shepherd’s pie her mother was making at home. When she thought of her house, she felt the little teeniest twinge of regret that she was not there, but suddenly there rushed over her the importance of what she had to do.
Queen Ida noticed Jane looking about her. “You didn’t imagine anything as exquisite as this under the lake, did you? The sorcerer designed it, the very same sorcerer who gave me the recipe for the tea you enjoyed so much. He put in every pleasure you can imagine. If Lord Myrtle seized my domain above, I would prove I could live just as well below.”
The food was served by the silent minions. They placed the loaded platters on the long table in the lofty hall whose walls were inlaid with mother of pearl. Instead of windows, mirrors reflected the diners so it looked as if there were many people instead of just two. Jane wondered if the mirrors were there so Queen Ida could pretend there were more people.
“Doesn’t anyone live here with you, Queen Ida?” Jane asked. “It’s an awfully big place for just one person.”
When Queen Ida answered Jane realized that Queen Ida was sorry she had let Jane know how lonely she was. “Everywhere I look, everything belongs to me. All the servants have to obey me. Everything is as I wish it to be. A little more fish soup?”
Queen Ida summoned a servant to refill Jane’s plate.
“It’s all right, thank you,” said Jane. “ I think I’ve had enough.”
“Of course you haven’t. I like fish soup very much myself.”
“But I don’t like it specially much.”
“Eat it anyway,” Queen Ida said, so Jane had to.
The soup was followed by a whole roasted pigeon. Jane felt sad for the bird with all its little delicate bones. She was beginning to wish the meal were over with. Because of the cakes she had eaten earlier, she wasn’t a bit hungry. There were four more rich, spiced courses with all sorts of ingredients Jane didn’t recognize. Shepherd’s pie would have been much nicer.
“Thank you for my dinner,” Jane said, trying her best to be polite.
A fire blazed in the hearth and the room was getting stuffier and stuffier.
“Queen Ida,” Jane ventured at last, “ if you don’t mind, I’d love a little breath of fresh air.”
“Oh, we don’t have fresh air here. No windows, and outside only the mucky weeds at the bottom of the lake. Now open your present.”
So Jane untied the glittering gold ribbon and set aside the crinkly paper.
The present was a little enameled portrait of Queen Ida. “You can put it on the little table by your bed in your pretty little room, so every morning it will be the first thing you see. You do like it, my dear, don’t you?”
When Queen Ida said ’every morning’ Jane felt chilled. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll take it home and put it by my bed there,” she said.
“Surely you realize that this is your home now?”
“No, it isn’t. My real home is with Mum and Dad and Ian.”
“I fear you are quite mistaken, my dear,” said Queen Ida. “You are getting to sound exactly like that poor unfortunate May. What could you possibly want to do in your ordinary little house with your very ordinary little family?”
“Well, for one thing,” Jane said, “we’re going to have Christmas soon and we have to go to church on Christmas Eve. The tree will be so lovely and everyone I know will be there. Then we’ll sing carols. I’d be awfully sad not to be there.”
“You have a tree in the church?” Queen Ida asked.
“Of course we have a tree. It’s from the olden days but Queen Victoria made it popular. My teacher told me that.”
“Who is this Queen Victoria? Is she a very important queen? As important as me?”
“Well, she’s not queen now. She’s dead. We’ve got Queen Elizabeth instead.”
“So you would rather go and look at a tree with a lot of grubby children than stay here with me?” Queen Ida asked.
“Yes,” said Jane.

Chapter 11


In which Jane asks Queen Ida to set May Free


Queen Ida turned to Jane and said, “Then I’d better show you all the other delights of my palace and you’ll see how entrancing my world is. How much more fabulous than your dull little house.”
Jane was beginning to think Ida’s palace wasn’t entrancing at all. It was feeling more and more like a trap. She knew exactly how May had felt before her. All she really wanted to do was go back to her ordinary house, which was not at all magnificent at all.
“ Yes, I’d love to see all of your palace,” Jane said, thinking it would be a good idea for her to get the lie of the land. “What I’d really like to see is where you sleep, Queen Ida, I’m sure that’s the most lovely room of all,” Jane said.
“Very well. Come along.” Queen Ida led Jane down a long hallway hung with blood red tapestries embroidered with scenes of mythical battles, some of which brutal and wild. Next there were a series of portraits of people Jane almost recognized: Mr. and Mrs. Parsifal when they were much younger and a fat man in18th century clothing whom Jane thought must be the first Lord Myrtle.
One picture in particular, caught Jane’s attention; in it a beautiful young woman wearing a white robe, with flowers entwined in her hair, stood in a spring meadow with small birds resting on her outstretched arms. Behind her the newly unfolded leaves of slender birch trees were outlined against a bright blue sky. “How lovely that lady is,” Jane said, looking at the picture carefully. Something about the figure reminded her of Ida’s shape. She looked again at Queen Ida. “It’s you, isn’t it? It must have been done a long time ago.”
“Of course it’s me,” Queen Ida said. “ A very fine likeness. It was painted when all was right with the world, before Lord Myrtle came and took my land and took my love and destroyed them both. Then I lived among people. Then the Parsifals were my friends. Then I lived by daylight beneath the open sky.” She snapped her fingers. “But that’s all in the past. Now I have other things to amuse me. You said you wanted to see my room?”
Queen Ida then led Jane up a long flight of marble stairs that twisted and turned, lit by hundreds of candles which were reflected off shiny polished surfaces of armor and ancient weapons. Jane tried to take note of all the things that she passed so she would be able to find her way back, but Queen Ida walked so fast and talked so much that it was hard to remember everything she saw on the way to Queen Ida’s chamber.
Queen Ida’s four-poster bed was enormous, hung about with gossamer draperies that almost had the look of spider webs, covered with a quilt made out of the skins of snakes. Beside the bed was a glass bottle in which a tarantula was trapped.
Because the quilt somewhat resembled Queen Ida’s pointed and uncomfortable looking shoes, Jane thought it might be polite to mention it. “I see you are very fond of snakes, Queen Ida. Very few people are, of course. My brother is. He wants to keep one as a pet, but my mother won’t let him.”
“Foolish woman, your mother. How very thoughtless she must be. A snake is a most suitable pet for a boy.”
In Queen Ida’s bedchamber, before a large looking glass on a dressing table, was an inlaid box overflowing with glittering jewels in every color imaginable. It was quite different from Mrs. Mabry’s modest leather jewelry box which held the pearls she had worn at her wedding.
“What lovely jewels,” Jane said with some effort since she wasn’t particularly fond of jewelry, though some of her friends were. “Perhaps when I’m grown up, I’ll have some too. All I have now are the corals I got for my christening, but I’m only allowed to wear them for best.”
“Here, Jane, we wear jewels every day.” Queen Ida picked up a cameo brooch that bore her profile upon it. “Exquisite work. They made these first in ancient Greece, when people worshipped quite differently than they do now. I will allow you to wear it, Jane.”
“Actually,” said Jane, “my mother says flowers are prettier than jewels.”
“Why would she say that?” Queen Ida asked.
“She just did. She likes flowers a lot. Delphiniums, dahlias, daffodils and things like that She’s keen on growing them in the garden.”
“Things that grow under the earth last so much longer and gleam so much brighter,” Queen Ida said.
Jane suddenly realized that since she had entered Queen Ida’s palace she hadn’t seen any real fruit or flowers. Even though things smelled a bit like roses, they didn’t smell like the rose water Jane sometimes made from petals in the summer.
While Queen Ida toyed with her jewels, Jane looked about her and wondered what to do next.
Then she thought of an idea.
“You do have a pretty palace, Queen Ida. And I would like to wear jewels. Perhaps I would like to live here with you, but first you would have to let May go. It’s not fair to keep her locked up and so cold and miserable.”
Jane knew she was lying and it made her feel guilty. She was brought up to tell the truth. ‘White lies’ — like saying ‘I had a very nice time, thank you’ when she hadn’t really — or ‘What a delicious pudding!’ when it wasn’t delicious, were all right. They weren’t lies intended to deceive exactly, just sort of things you said to make the other person feel better.
It was a lie to say she wanted to stay in Queen Ida’s palace when she didn’t, even though it was fascinating and beautiful in a sort of way. She knew that she, like May, would always be wanting to escape. But maybe if you tell a lie to get something important it didn’t count as a bad lie?
Queen Ida was looking at Jane carefully. “On the whole you seem a very honest child, but you tell me it wasn’t you who burned down Myrtle Hall. If it wasn’t you, who was it?”
“The newspaper said it was an electrical fault. Mum said it could have been the vagrant or even Michael Graves. I don’t know. It should make you happy that the Hall isn’t there any more.” Jane said beginning to feel discouraged. “If I promise to visit you again, will you let me take May home to her family? I told you I think your palace is very beautiful and I want to come back to see all your pictures and other interesting things.” Jane picked up a little mirror whose back was inlaid with silver and Queen Ida’s initials.
“How am I to know if you are telling the truth?” Queen Ida asked.
“I pretty much always tell the truth,” said Jane with her fingers crossed behind her back. “I will come back. There is so much I can learn from you.” She had caught sight of a book bound in soft black leather with gold edging to the pages like a prayer book. She wondered what it was.
Queen Ida noticed her looking at it. “I see you looking at my little book, Jane, a very valuable one if I may say so. It is a book of spells. Perhaps later on, if you prove to me you are my real friend, I’ll let you look at it.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jane said. “I always wanted to know about magic.”
“So you shall, my dear.” Queen Ida said, a smile playing on her thin, scarlet-painted lips. ‘And so you shall.”
“But just now I have to see May, you know,” Jane insisted.
“May, always May! What’s May got to do with you? I suppose I should just let her go so you at least shut up about the wretched woman,” Queen Ida said.
“Well, if she was back with her family, I wouldn’t have to worry about her any more. I could spend more time thinking about you.” Jane thought what a horrible person she had become. She hoped it would turn out to be worth it. She knew she was acting like a toady: someone who tells an important person things to make the important person even more stuck up than they ordinarily are.
“All right. All right. We’ll set the stupid woman free.” Queen Ida pulled on a long tasseled rope and a bell sounded far away.
Soon one of the minions who looked like a fish appeared. “Your chariot awaits, Queen Ida.”
Soon Queen Ida and Jane were traveling fast through the gray damp and the cold of the underwater world.
“Be certain not to let your hands dangle outside the chariot, Jane,” Queen Ida said. “It’s the time of day when the water serpents are most venomous and hungry, you know –wretched things those serpents. Place is running over with them.”
Jane did see some of the snakes wriggling by and thought they looked disgusting. Before very long they arrived at the cavern that served as May’s prison. Astrophel guarded the entrance and his wide nostrils twitched in the air. Jane thought his breath smelled awful, as if he had been eating something ancient out of the dustbin.
“May!” Queen Ida called. “Come out of there this minute!”
After a moment pale, wan May appeared. She looked astonished to see Jane with Queen Ida. When Jane looked at May’s leg she noticed with horror that there was a little bit of blood trickling down it and staining her pale robe. She was too late to save May because one of the snakes must have bitten her already. She almost burst into tears.
“Ah, May,” Queen Ida said, in an oddly pleasant tone, “What a pity one of the serpents got you. Trying to escape where you in all the excitement of Myrtle Hall burning down? How kind you were to convince dear Jane to do what your father would not.” Queen Ida looked again at May’s leg and at the bright blood that was coloring the water. “A bad bite, is it?” Queen Ida stood with her hand on Jane’s shoulder so Jane couldn’t say anything to May.
“Oh dear,” Queen Ida continued in a very nasty voice indeed. “I think now is the moment to unlock your chain and allow you to go home to end your miserable life in front of the very eyes of those who love you most. The bite is sure to be fatal you know, and only I have the antidote.”
May looked horribly sick now and Jane wondered how long the poison took to kill someone. Some snake bites kill you right away and others take a long time.
Why on earth did Queen Ida think Jane would want to stay with her when she was so cruel? She was going to let May free but she was going to allow her to die too — so she wasn’t being the least bit kind really. The cavern was so miserable that surely May would be glad to get out of it– but to go home only to die straight away!
Then Queen Ida drew a key from the huge bunch that was hanging at her waist. She then unlocked May’s chain, which slid silently off into the depths of the water outside the cavern.
May looked stunned as if she did not know what to make of Queen Ida’s change of heart. “So you knew about Jane?” she said to Queen Ida.
“Of course I did. I have my informants, May. There is little that escapes me. You see, Jane is on my side now.”
Silently, inside herself, Jane said, “No, I’m not!”
Then Queen Ida turned to May. “Hadn’t you better get going now? Before the venom has time to addle your brain?” She rubbed her hands together. “You have about twenty-four hours left, so you had better hurry along. Such a wonderful day for me! What fun it all is! I’m quite finished with you, May. Jane is a much better companion.”
Jane wondered why May didn’t just make a run for the entrance of the cave, then realized that the serpent’s bite must be making May tired and perhaps her brain confused.
“I’ll take you home, May,” Jane said running toward May. “Just hold on to my hand and we’ll go together. I told your family I’d save you.”
“Who said anything about you leaving, Jane? After all, you’ve only just arrived,” Queen Ida said grabbing at Jane’s hair and yanking her head backwards.
Jane felt tears spring up into her eyes. “If you aren’t nice to me and if you don’t let May go, I’ll never come back. No one will ever speak to you again. No one will ever enjoy your palace and your jewels, or eat your little cakes. Please let us go! I’ll go and then I will come back,” Jane said desperately, pleadingly.
Queen Ida lessened her grip on Jane’s hair.
“You know how much I liked my little room in your palace, and I want all the jewels you said I could wear and I do want to eat all those little cakes again. I’ve never been anywhere more lovely.”
` Queen Ida looked straight into Jane’s eyes. “Do you promise me, on all you hold most dear, that you’ll come back?”
“Of course I will,” Jane said. “I’m not the least like May, you know. Now give me your hand, May. Quick! Before she changes her mind again.”
Jane drew in a great gulp of air, pulling May after her, plunged into the frigid, murky waters of the lake.

 

 

Chapter 12


In which May Parsifal’s homecoming is Bittersweet


Jane and May passed for a long time through the freezing water traveling up and up, past the evil yellow snakes and the gray-blue waterweed. It was dreadfully hard getting May to the surface. Even though she was thin, she was much bigger than Jane. Jane’s lungs were bursting and she had never felt colder in her life. She wondered where she would find herself when she got out of the lake — whether it would be in the kennel in her garden or by the boathouse where she had got in that morning.
When Jane and May finally broke the surface of the water, the first thing Jane noticed was that it was still midday. A wintry sun shone on the smooth surface of the water making it look like gray steel. So Jane knew that not too much time had passed.
With great difficulty, Jane and May pulled themselves through the bulrushes and frozen mud. It was just where tire tracks from the fire engines led onto the path towards Myrtle Hall.
“Are you all right, May?” Jane asked. “You look dreadful.”
“My leg does sting something fierce but I’m so happy I’ll see my family, if only for a little while. Without you, Jane, I would never have seen them again.”
Jane held May’s hand and they set off towards the Parsifals’ cottage. Now they were moving again, Jane didn’t feel quite so cold though she was very muddy indeed.
“Maybe Queen Ida was lying,” Jane said. “Maybe your father will be able to make a potion to help your leg,” Jane said. “I think he’s a very clever magician.”
“Just to see him again would make me happy,” May said. “Look!” May pointed into the distance.
There, standing at the edge of the wood, was Mr. Parsifal in his top hat and cape. It was very hard for May to walk quickly, but she hurried forward as best she could.
“Father,” she called as she drew closer. “Father, I’ve come home at last!”
When Mr. Parsifal did not at first turn to her, she called again. “Father, it’s me!”
Mr. Parsifal turned towards her, amazed. He gazed at May as if she were a vision.
“My darling child,” he said, clasping May to him. “Is it really you? This is my fondest dream come true. How thin and bedraggled you are. Come. Let me help you. Jane!” He bent forward and kissed Jane’s cheek. “I knew we could trust you!” he said.
So together May and Mr. Parsifal and Jane approached the cottage hidden beneath the laurels and rhododendrons. How excited May was to see her children! Melchior and Aminta were wild with delight. Melchior rushed towards his mother and encircled her waist with his arms, shouting, “Oh Mother we are so glad to see you. We thought we never would.”
Aminta first smiled and then burst into tears. She buried her face in her mother’s damp, muddy dress. May bent forward and kissed the top of Aminta’s pale hair.
Old Mrs. Parsifal’s lovely, wrinkly face was wreathed in smiles. Her pale blue eyes brimmed over with happy tears.
“Oh my darling,” Mrs. Parsifal said, “if I’d known you were coming I would have tidied up. I would have cooked something to welcome you.”
“Mother, it doesn’t matter in the least what the place looks like. I just wanted to see you!” May said, hugging her mother.
Mrs. Parsifal picked up the patchwork quilt from the children’s bed and put it round May’s shoulders. May sat with Aminta on her knee and her arm round Melchior and all the family beamed at one another through their tears. Even Mr. Parsifal wiped away a tear with the back of his hand.
Jane was thrilled that the whole family looked so happy. She felt rather proud of herself. “I have to go home now. I told Mum I’d be home before lunchtime. I think she’ll be pretty cross about me being so muddy.”
“Can’t you stay just a little while to celebrate with us?” Mr. Parsifal said. “We owe you so much. If she knew the great thing you have done, she wouldn’t mind in the least that you are muddy.”
“Only about five more minutes,” Jane said as Mr.Parsifal threw heaps of sticks on the fire. He said it was a day of celebration, not a moment to be abstemious. He produced a miniature bottle of brandy he had been saving for the most important of occasions and offered thimblefuls to his wife and daughter.
Mrs. Parsifal said, “I think I’ll boil five of the eggs I’ve been saving for Christmas because isn’t this as wonderful as Christmas itself?”
So, for the first time, Jane thought the little house was snug and merry and warm. She wondered, though, when May was going to tell her father about her leg because really there was no time to waste. Twenty-four hours wasn’t a very long time and May would get sicker every minute. Either Mr. Parsifal had to make a remedy very soon indeed or else, she, Jane, would have to go back to get the antidote from Queen Ida. That was the very last thing she wanted to do. Of course, she had promised Queen Ida that she would go back but do you have to keep promises you make to evil people? She was sure that if she did go back Queen Ida would make her a prisoner too.
As she was about to leave, Jane beckoned to May who came to see her off at the door. “You’ve got to tell your father very soon about your leg, so he can start looking up potions right away.”
“I know,” said May, “just give us a few more minutes of happiness. I can’t let the children find out. Thank you, thank you, thank you for everything, dear Jane.”
“That’s all right,” said Jane who was the teeniest bit embarrassed about being thanked so much. “I only did it because I’d be sad without my mum. I’ll come back after lunch and maybe we can tell your father about the snake thing together.”
As Jane walked home she thought over the extraordinary events of the day. So very many things had happened and so very many things were to happen yet.
Luckily, when Jane got home, Mrs. Mabry was so busy organizing the food for the Christmas holidays that she didn’t notice how muddy Jane was. Jane rushed upstairs and changed her clothes.
Lunch was grilled cheese on toast with stewed apples afterwards. Jane would have preferred one of the tangerines which sat on the fruit stand in the dining room beside the bowl of mixed nuts, but it was quite hard for her to think about food at all.
“I think I have to go out again after lunch,” Jane said.
Ian looked at her oddly. “You mean you’re not going to hang around and pester us?”
“No, I’m not. I have something really important to do,” said Jane.
“So you’re always saying, but I’ve never seen any thing important you’ve ever done. I’m going to play Risk with the BoysNextDoor. We were going to let you play just this once.”
“Only so you could wipe me off the face of the earth,” said Jane. She hated it when people ganged up on her and her last soldier fell in Kamchacta or somewhere weird like that.
Mrs. Mabry said, “I don’t like you wandering about all the time by yourself, darling. Especially when it gets dark so early this time of year.”
“I was going to ask Ivy if she would go for a walk with me. She always says Buster needs the exercise. She says he’s getting very fat.”
“What a good idea, Jane,” Mrs. Mabry said. “They give that dog much too much to eat. I’ve got so much to do this afternoon. I offered to make sausage rolls for the party after the carol singing, and I ought to telephone the butcher to make sure…”
Jane had stopped listening to her mother. “I’ll be back later,” she said as she put on her boots by the back door and set off down the road to Ivy and Tim’s cottage.
Luckily Ivy was home and Jane quickly told her what had happened and how May Parsifal was rescued. “Except it isn’t all good news, Ivy. One of the snakes bit May and she has to tell her father.”
“Yes,” Ivy said, grabbing for her coat. “Come along, Buster-Wuster. We’ve no time to waste.”
When, about twenty minutes later, Ivy, Jane and the dog arrived at the Parsifals’ cottage May whispered to Jane that she had had a chance to tell her father the awful thing about her leg — how the serpent’s poison would creep, invidiously and nastily, though her body. How unless a remedy was found she would very soon be dead.
“When I told Father, he looked so horribly sad. He started studying all his old books of magic and told me not to worry because he has still got a little time left. He feels awful that he’s not young and strong any more.”
“Queen Ida has the antidote. She told us she did,” Jane whispered.
“We don’t want to have anything more to do with her unless we absolutely must. Except everything has to be done so quickly. Father is going to stay up all tonight to try to discover a remedy.”
Jane could see Ivy and Mrs. Parsifal talking together. Then for a little while she played with Aminta and Melchior who were so happy to be with their mother again. Jane realized they had not been told yet that their mother was sick. She didn’t want to be the one to tell them.
Aminta showed Jane a little handkerchief, made from a tiny scrap of linen that she had just started embroidering with an “M” for her mother.
“That’s such neat embroidery, Aminta,” said Jane. “My needlework’s always so messy they put it at the bottom of the pile on Open Day at school.”
Melchior told Jane he was going to make his mother a miniature garden too. He was going out to gather all the pinecones that afternoon.
Jane though how awful it would be if May died before she could be given her presents.
As they walked home through Myrtle Park, Jane said, “Ivy, do you think Mr. Parsifal will be able to find an antidote to the poison? How awful it will be if he can’t
“I’m not sure, Jane. I certainly hope so. We’ll know tomorrow morning,” Ivy said. “We’ll have to go back.”
Of course, neither the Parsifals nor the Bullens had anything so modern as a telephone so they couldn’t find out that way. Now the only thing Jane had to do was wait.

Chapter 13

In which it starts to Snow

When Mr. Mabry got home from his office about six o’clock that evening, he threw his briefcase onto the chair in the hall, rubbed his hands together and said, “It feels like snow to me.”
“Are you quite positive, Daddy?” Jane asked. “It would be lovely if there was.”
“Blasted nuisance, if you ask me,” Mr. Mabry said smiling. “All that shoveling and the trains being late and all that.”
“I’d help you shovel, Dad,” Ian said. “ I love snow. I want to try out the toboggan the Nunnelys gave us last year when there wasn’t any snow. I bet it would whizz down the hill.”
In the sitting room, a log fire burned in the hearth and after supper Mr. Mabry read the opening part of A Christmas Carol aloud. The clanking chains of Marley’s ghost always upset Jane and now when she thought of the chain which had held May’s leg it was even worse.
“Do you think there really are people as mean as Scrooge, who would grudge someone even a little bit of coal?” Jane asked, thinking of Queen Ida.
“I’m quite sure there are, but not very many. I don’t think at your stage of life you need worry about people like that,” Mr. Mabry said.
But Jane worried about Queen Ida a lot. She drew nearer the hearth so she was almost touching the fireguard. Soon she would have to go upstairs to put on the gas fire in her bedroom so it wasn’t too chilly to undress and get ready for bed.
When she did go up, she saw her mother had forgotten to pull the curtains. When she looked out of the window, to her great delight she saw a few, tiny flakes of snow falling against the black sky. The night garden was washed with moonlight, for the flakes were falling from a few high clouds. The trees looked silver in the moon’s rays. How different it was from the day. How colorless and cold!
Jane stood in her nightdress and dressing gown gazing out onto the transformed world. She tried not to breathe too much onto the windowpane because then her breath would turn into ice crystals and the glass would be very hard to look through.
Then she looked towards the stand of aspen trees that divided her garden from the park. In the bright shadows cast by the moon, she saw a tall figure standing perfectly still beneath the bare branches. Her stomach lurched. From the look of the strange shoes and the large creature beside her, Jane knew it was Queen Ida and Astrophel, and a shudder went through her. Queen Ida gazed directly at Jane and pointed her scepter at the window, as if pointing it out to someone else whom Jane couldn’t see. So Queen Ida knew exactly where she lived, and had come looking for her. Maybe there was some way she could break in and steal her from her bed.
Just then Jane heard her mother’s footsteps on the stairs. “Mum,” she called out, “come quickly, I think there’s someone just outside the garden looking in.”
“Nonsense, darling. There couldn’t be at this time of night and in this weather. They’d freeze to death.” Even so, Mrs. Mabry looked out of the window, but, seeing nothing, proceeded to tuck Jane into bed. “ I think you’re getting overexcited what with Christmas and everything. Are you sure you feel all right? You seem rather nervous and jumpy lately.” She put her hand on Jane’s forehead to see if she had a temperature.
“Dad did lock the doors, didn’t he? Nothing could get in, could it?”
“No, nothing could get in, never has and never will. Now go to sleep,” said Mrs. Mabry.
“May I read, just for a little bit? I’m not at all sleepy.”
“Since it’s the holidays and you don’t have to get up early, you can read for just for a quarter of an hour more and then I expect you to turn your light off.”
As soon as her mother had gone back downstairs, Jane crept out of bed. She looked again at the aspen trees but saw no one, only the indentations of two sets of prints crossing the lawn in the direction of her house. One was narrow, pointed footprints and the other some sort of ugly paws. So Jane was certain that Queen Ida knew where she lived. It was very hard to go to sleep with this thought going round in her head.

Chapter 14

In which a plan to get the antidote to save May is hatched during Winter Solstice

The first thing Jane thought of when she woke up the next morning was whether Mr. Parsifal had found the antidote. She felt sick in her stomach when she thought she might have to go back to face Queen Ida.
It was December 21st, the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. During the night the weather had changed for the worse and real snow had fallen. When Jane looked out of the window she could see dark lowering clouds. The ground was already covered with a bright layer of snow. How wonderful she would have thought this if everything were normal! But nothing was normal.
Jane looked to see if she could see Queen Ida’s footprints, but they must have got covered up. Perhaps she had just imagined seeing Queen Ida and it had been part of a dream she’d had before going to bed. Except you don’t have dreams like that when you are awake.
Jane wished she was thrilled to see snow. Now she wondered if it would stop her from all she had to do. Today was the day she and Ian had planned to decorate their playroom with paper chains. Jane always really enjoyed doing this even though the glue on the colored paper strips tasted awful after a while. There was no way she could get out of helping Ian do it without everyone thinking she had gone very odd indeed. So she spent the best part of an hour licking the bright paper strips then fixing them to the walls with drawing pins.
Mrs. Mabry came upstairs to inspect the playroom. “ How lovely it looks, darlings! How hard you must have worked!”
Even this didn’t cheer Jane up, because all she could do was think she was how sick May must be by now if Mr. Parsifal hadn’t been able to make the antidote to save her. She was very impatient to go and ask Ivy.
“I think it’s going to snow more,” Mrs. Mabry said. “Aren’t you excited? You’ll be able to take out your toboggan and slide down the hill by the lake.”
“I think there’s almost enough snow now,” Ian said .“Isn’t there, Jane?”
Snow was one of the things that was wonderful about winter. In stories it always snowed at Christmas though it probably hadn’t all those years ago in Bethlehem because of all the camels and palm trees and things.
“I hope it does snow more,” Jane said, “but first I have to talk to Ivy.”
“You’re always going off to see Ivy lately,” Ian said. “Have you got a big secret or something?”
“Of course I haven’t. I just don’t want to spend the whole day with you,” Jane said.
“Not even tobogganing?” Ian asked.
“I’ll do that later. Maybe after lunch,” Jane said.
When they had finished with the paper chains, Ian said, “I’m going to TheBoysNextDoor to ask them if they want to go tobogganing with me. You’ll be sorry, Jane.”
She didn’t say anything but secretly agreed with him. She might be very sorry indeed. Jane put on her boots and wrapped her coat tightly round her. She ran down the road to Ivy and Tim’s house. It was very cold as well as gloomy out. The little bit of snow that had already fallen was slushy under her feet.
She sat in the Bullens’ cosy kitchen anxiously patting Buster. “We ought to go to the Parsifals straight away you know, or else I’ll go by myself.”
“I agree,” said Ivy looking worried as she put on her coat. They walked through the village instead of through the park, and Jane could feel the silver sixpence Ivy held in her glove that meant they were going to the village shop. Usually she was happy when Ivy bought her sweets, now she just wondered if they were wasting time. How odd that everything that she usually enjoyed was overshadowed by worry!
When they got to the shop, which was also the post office, Ivy asked Jane what she’d like for a treat.
“I’d like Smarties, please,” Jane said, looking over the counter. When the shopkeeper handed them to her, Jane jiggled the tube, pleased there were so many of them. She’d save them for later when she felt happier.
“Nasty day to be out,” Mrs. Thompson, who owned the shop, said. “All that slush about. You’ll be right glad to get home.”
Ivy nodded and smiled. “Very nasty,” she agreed. “It’s just we’ve got errands to do.”
Ivy and Jane walked to the gates of the Hall, skirted the ruins, and continued down the long path near the chapel in the woods. Deep under the rhododendrons and laurels, they came upon the hidden cottage.
With one gloved hand, Ivy knocked at the door, in the other she held Jane’s hand tight. The door opened a crack and Mrs. Parsifal looked out. “Ivy, it’s good to see you and Jane. Do please come in.”
In the dim light from the one candle, Jane could see the whole family. However, the whole mood of the cottage was quite changed from the previous day. Mr. Parsifal was sitting by the little bit of fire with a book in his lap. Jane thought though it must have been difficult to read in the gloom. Aminta and Melchior sat at his feet doing nothing. May rested on a low bed and her face lit up to see Jane.
At first no one said anything as Ivy unpacked her basket and produced mince pies, tangerines and a small plucked pheasant.
Mrs. Parsifal said, “So kind of you, Ivy, but you shouldn’t have troubled. How can we ever repay you?” She looked almost as if she were about to cry.
“No use being proud, Mrs. Parsifal. It’s the least I could do.”
Jane felt for the Smarties in her pocket, took them out, and said, “Would you like some?” to Aminta and Melchior who took a very few each and smiled a very little bit.
“I’ll save mine for later,” Aminta said. “I don’t often have sweets, you know. Only for very special occasions.”
“I have them quite often,” Jane said. “Mum says I’ll get holes in my teeth if I eat too many.”
Looking round her, Jane noticed again how bleak and dismal the room was. The only really interesting things were Mr. Parsifal’s cloak and hat, hanging on the back of the door, and the little table with the green bobbled cloth. Jane realized with a sinking heart that Mr. Parsifal probably hadn’t been able to find a remedy
“Well,” Mr. Parsifal said, calling for everyone’s attention. “I think we all know now how serious a problem we face. Queen Ida has cursed us. It was she who held May captive, she who allowed the serpent to bite May.” He looked horribly sad. “Ever since May got homed, I have done everything in my power can to find a recipe for the antidote. I have tried combining tincture of celandines with ashes of newt. I have tried crushed vole bone and heart of begonia — catkin pollen with saliva of toad. But nothing comes close to working.”
He turned to Jane, and said what she most dreaded. “Going to Queen Ida is our only hope. It is only you, Jane, who can enter the world under the water. Mrs. Parsifal and I would gladly give up our lives for May but it would be no use. Neither Melchior nor Aminta can, being part faerie. You, Jane, have proved with your courage that you can enter Queen Ida’s horrid realm and return.”
Everyone looked at Jane who turned to all the sad faces turned expectantly towards her. She thought of how she would feel if her own mother was ill.
“I don’t want to go,” she said, “but, I will, because….because …it would be too awful if I didn’t.” Jane wondered if she was going to cry.
“Good girl,” said Mr.Parsifal said, patting Jane on the shoulder. “I knew we could trust you. Listen very carefully. This is the plan. What you must do, Jane, is trick Queen Ida. Make her think you are really on her side. You must make her believe that you want to spend time with her in her lovely palace. She still thinks it was you who burned down Myrtle Hall.”
“But you know it wasn’t me, whatever Queen Ida thinks.” Jane said. “I’m so sad about the poor vagrant.”
“So are we all, Jane,” Mr. Parsifal said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t die in the fire. I think Ida killed him long ago because he was living in her house without permission. She probably fed him poisoned mushrooms. It was only after the fire they found his body.”
“If Queen Ida can poison people, why can’t she set fire to things?” Jane asked.
“It does seem odd, doesn’t it? The powers and the rules are very complicated. Queen Ida has power over poison and water, but fire was never within her realm. When I die, there will be almost no one left who does know how these ancient things are governed.”
Mr. Parsifal turned to Jane intently, “But back to today. You still have your miniature garden, Jane? The one you made for your mother?”
“Of course I do; it’s her present.”
“Then as soon as you get home, you must go into the kennel and dive into the lake. Queen Ida will be pleased to see you again. She will probably ask you to eat with her again.”
“But why would I want to eat with her now I know she poisons people?” Jane said. “Her fish soup was really, really nasty. I won’t be pleased to see her at all,” Jane said. “I saw her outside my house last night. I’m frightened of her.”
“I’m hardly surprised. She is a formidable enemy. But you must convince her that you liked seeing her treasures. You tell her how beautiful she is and how lovely her jewels are.” Mr. Parsifal said.
“Won’t she guess I’m just trying to trick her? I’m not very good at telling lies. I always get caught because I look guilty. When I was younger Mum asked me if I had been taking sugar lumps and I told her I hadn’t, and she just looked at me and knew I wasn’t telling the truth. So I don’t tell lies any more.”
“In this case you will lie to bring about a greater good. Queen Ida is very vain indeed. As you said, her jewels are kept in her bedroom which is where she keeps her book of spells. You need to go to her bedroom again. Now listen carefully. Because I’m old and my power has diminished, all I’m able to give you is this potion which will allow you to summon help if you should need to,” Mr. Parsifal said, handing Jane a tiny vial of the deepest blue. “You’re only to use it if you really must. It’s the most precious potion I have. And this,” — here Mr. Parsifal produced a rather plain velvet necklet with mistletoe berries decorating it. You must say it is a present from you. She will not expect you to be able to give her jewels — which are what she’d most like. What you say is that you tried as hard as you could to make something she’d like. You can tell her the mistletoe represents diamonds.”
“I usually only give presents to people I like,” Jane said interrupting Mr. Parsifal.
“Wait and I will explain. When Queen Ida puts on the necklace, she will discover that there is a little pointed briar thorn in it. You, Jane, will have to avoid touching the point. I will show you exactly how to avoid it.”
Jane almost wavered in her resolve, but just then she noticed Aminta sobbing quietly.
Melchior said, “It’s just that we don’t want Mother to die. I’d go into Queen Ida’s realm in a flash. I’d kill her straight away myself if only I was a human child.”
“You look like a human child to me,” Jane said.
“I wish I was.”
Because Melchior looked so very sad, Jane didn’t say anything more to him. “What happens when Queen Ida puts on the necklet?” she asked Mr. Parsifal.
“ The thorn will pierce her skin causing such a burning that it will make her quite mad. While she’s writhing in pain, you will take the book she keeps beside her great bed, the book in which her spells are written and you will bring it here.” Mr. Parsifal looked very tired and old. “It’s our only hope, you know.”
“I wish it wasn’t,” Jane said. “Yes, I did see the book with the spells in it last time. If I get the book, will everything turn out all right?”
“It will, my child,” Mr. Parsifal said. “It will for us but not for Ida. After this I’m sure we won’t hear from her again in my lifetime. It’s a great thing you are going to do.”
Walking home with Ivy, Jane knew she would be brave enough to face Queen Ida. She had the two things Mr. Parsifal had given her: the necklet for Queen Ida and the potion for emergencies to summon help. More than anything she wanted to make May well again and let Mr. Parsifal die in peace, if that was what had to happen.
As soon as she got home she told Ian she had to make the finishing touches to her mother’s present.
“Then it’s a pity you didn’t buy one,” Ian said. “You’re going to miss television.”
“I know,” said Jane, thinking how much she enjoyed watching it. “But I have something more important to do.”
“I can’t imagine what that might be,” Ian said suspiciously.
“No, you couldn’t possibly imagine. And I’m never going to tell you. So, there!”

 

 

Chapter 15


In which Jane visits Queen Ida again

When Ian put on his boots to run next door, Jane put on her jacket again and slipped a torch into her pocket. When she entered the kennel, she shone the torch’s light onto the miniature garden and the mirror that looked like the lake. Now it just looked decorative, not like anything you could get into at all. Perhaps it was just that one time that she had been able to pass through it into the world under the lake. But now she had to get in!
The torch’s light glistened on the glitter she had scattered on the pine cone trees and lit up the red berries of the holly. The duck she had placed on the water’s surface still looked too big but seemed to be swimming happily. Suddenly the water’s surface was ruffled and the duck lifted her wings and flew away. Jane had the same feeling she had before — of the little mirror-lake getting bigger and bigger and the air getting colder and colder. For a while nothing happened. Jane heard the wind in the branches of the trees that surrounded the lake that looked dismal now, not festive like it had when it was the miniature garden she had made for her mother. Then she waited and waited, staring into the water. She knew she mustn’t give up or all would be lost.
Then, after ages and ages, just when she was beginning to lose heart, she heard a voice coming out of the water, an insinuating, sickly sweet, soothing voice that she recognized.
“Jane, my dear, how wonderful to see you. I knew you would want to visit me again.” Queen Ida arose from the lake and stood on the bank in front of her. “I will have to forgive you for running away last time. I know how kindhearted you are and how taken with those silly Parsifals. But let’s not think about them any more now. I just knew you’d want to come back.” Queen Ida continued. “How kind you were to burn down the hall. Now it’s time for our little visit. I’ve even got another present for you. A present even more lovely than the last one.”
“I would like to see my present very much,” Jane said with her fingers crossed behind her back. She tried to smile and look excited. “And I’ve even got a present for you, Queen Ida.”
“Very well, come along!”
As before, Jane was chilled to the bone, soaked though to the skin and dragged deep under the icy water. As before, Queen Ida seated Jane beside her and urged on the ugly beasts who drew the chariot. They traveled past the entrance to the little cavern where May had been held captive. Outside it lay the remains of what had been Astrophel, chained lifeless at the entrance. The fishes had picked his ugly tail clean. “Is….is he dead?” ventured Jane.
“Suppose he must be,” answered Queen Ida. “I didn’t have any use for him any more.”
“You had him with you when you spied on my house,” Jane said.
“I wasn’t spying, Jane. Merely looking about me.”
“It looked a bit like spying to me,” Jane said and then she remembered she was meant to be being polite.
Queen Ida seemed about to say something mean, and then checked herself. “Nearly here,” she said.
Queen Ida’s dwelling was still magnificent and Jane couldn’t help being impressed.
“Your palace is wonderful,” Jane said. “Much better than Myrtle Hall was. You have many more patterns on things. I don’t think Corinthian columns are that important. It’s a pity you can’t have a garden under all the water.”
“I haven’t the least use for a garden, Jane. The days are long past when I loved the fresh air and the trees and the flowers.”
“It sounds like you miss them a bit,” Jane said.
Then they entered the splendid hall with the richly patterned ceiling and the bowls with velvet petals that almost looked like roses.
As before, Queen Ida then snapped her fingers and the fish-faced servant appeared bearing the silver container from which he withdrew a pure white towel.
“Put your hands out, Jane,” Queen Ida said.
The servant poured the warm water, which still smelled of roses, over Jane’s hands. Then he then patted them dry with the white towel. Then another servant appeared, one Jane hadn’t seen before, and set the little pink and gold tea glasses on the table where the same yellow, pink and green pastries were arranged.
“May should have liked it here,” Jane said. “Because it is very beautiful. She was silly not to.”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about the boring Parsifals,” Queen Ida said. “So you’ve decided to stay? Your room is still sitting waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” said Jane, wondering how long she was going to have to stay under the lake. She wanted to get out of there as soon as she possibly could. “Yes, I would like to look at my room again, if you don’t mind. Then I would like a tour all over the palace. I bet there are wonderful bits I didn’t see last time.”
“Of course there are large numbers of astounding things you haven’t seen yet. For example my cabinets full of scorpions from all over the universe and spiders trapped in amber. I even have the remains of a beetle that lived in the time of the pharaohs. All kinds of things to delight you!”
In the room Queen Ida had made for her, Jane looked at the silver washbasin and the mirror surrounded by black and white camel bone. She looked at the pretty windows that you couldn’t open with all their sparkling colored glass. As before, Jane felt that there was no fresh air — something her mother thought was very important.
“It is entrancing, isn’t it?” Queen Ida said. “You’ll enjoy living here.”
“Mostly I will,” Jane said.
Jane knew it wasn’t entrancing at all. It was a trap.
“There are some things I’ll miss though,” Jane said. “Do you have Christmas here?”
“Of course we don’t have Christmas,” Queen Ida said. “As far as I can tell, Christmas is a holiday you share with your friends. It wasn’t celebrated when I was young.”
“It’s very exciting,” Jane said. “All my family like it. One of the best things is the Christmas tree: a real tree inside the house. I’ve heard that some people have fake ones but that’s awful.”
Suddenly Jane felt frightened that she wouldn’t manage to get home in time for Christmas. She felt in her pocket for the necklet Mr. Parsifal had given her, and remembered how unhappy the Parsifals would be if she failed to get the book with the spell to save May. Once she had got that, she could try to escape.
“We could visit your bedchamber again, Queen Ida,” Jane said. “Then you could open your present.”
“Very well. Come along.” Queen Ida led Jane down the long hallway hung with blood red tapestries and portraits of the Parsifals when they were young. Jane looked at the picture of the first Lord Myrtle and the one of Queen Ida when she was young and beautiful before her heart withered up. Jane though Queen Ida must have been quite different long ago and, for a very short moment, felt sorry for her.
“No time to waste dithering,” Queen Ida said, tugging at Jane’s sleeve. “There is so much to see.”
When they got to Queen Ida’s bedchamber, Jane though she had better not look round straight away for the book of spells. That would be too obvious.
“What lovely jewels you have,” Jane said. “I’ve been thinking about them a lot. What huge diamond rings you have! The only diamond Mum has is a little one in the engagement ring Dad gave her.”
“Yes,” Queen Ida said, “I know people give diamonds as symbols of love.” Here she looked rather sad and bit her lower lip. “No one has ever given me a jewel because they loved me.”
“Perhaps they will one day,” Jane said, thinking this was probably not true in Queen Ida’s case. “But you have lots and lots of jewels, anyway, however you got them.”
Jane realized Queen Ida was trying to be nice. That was what made what came next so difficult. What if the necklet from Mr. Parsifal actually killed Queen Ida? For, however horrible someone was, Jane didn’t think it right to kill them. She knew she had tricked Queen Ida and pretended to like her, at least a little bit.
But it was all Queen Ida’s fault that the Parsifals were suffering so much. Perhaps she should have some of her own medicine!
Jane’s hand trembled as she felt for the necklet in her pocket. She’d better act quickly before she thought about things too much and lost her courage.
“Here is your present, Queen Ida,” Jane said looking at all the glittering jewels that tumbled from open caskets. “It’s from me. Perhaps it’s too humble for you, but I made it myself. You have so many jewels already, maybe you wouldn’t want it.”
Jane opened the velvet bag and took out the velvet necklet with the mistletoe berries on it.
“My present? Yes, it is a little thing, but pretty even so, if you give it to me from your heart.” Queen Ida looked as if she was trying to seem pleased.
She stooped forward as Jane, with heart beating very fast, fixed the necklet on her. Queen Ida turned to the mirror and patted the necklet in place. As she did so, the thorn pierced her skin.
Jane and Queen Ida’s eyes met for a moment in the big mirror. Queen Ida had almost begun to smile, but then the smile turned to the most horrible grimace. Her lips turned outwards to reveal scarlet gums. Queen Ida clutched at her throat as her face turned lividly pale and she gave out the most terrible scream Jane had ever heard.
As she fell to the floor, gasping for breath, Queen Ida held Jane with a bitter gaze. “And so you, like all the others, betray me. I should have known as much.” Then she lay still.

 

 

Chapter 17


In which Jane attempts to escape from Queen Ida’s palace


At first, Jane thought that Queen Ida might be dead, but when she looked very carefully she could see her chest rising and falling with quick, shallow breaths. Terrified that Queen Ida might awaken, Jane grabbed the small, black bound volume that looked like a prayer book and put it under her sweater next to her skin. Now all she had to do was to escape from the palace, emerge from the surface of the lake and, somehow, get the book of spells to the Parsifals before May weakened further.
The only thing was that the palace was so vast, and the objects in it so interesting, that Jane hadn’t been able to remember exactly how she had come to be in Queen Ida’s bedchamber. She remembered the long flight of stairs and the hallway with the portraits and the gruesome tapestries, but how was she to get there? If only she had thought to drop breadcrumbs or stones like in Hansel and Gretel.
If only there were someone to guide her. Queen Ida’s servants, the ones with the smart black suits and the animal faces, had vanished behind small doors set into the walls. Anyway, they had all had such blank expressions that it had been impossible to know what they thought, if they thought anything. For all Jane knew, they were spying on her from peepholes hidden in the tapestries.
At least she had the book of spells safe, and the potion Mr. Parsifal had given her. She needed to hurry and get home as soon as possible. She rushed through the labyrinthine passages for what seemed like hours and hours, wishing she had been more careful about noticing what order things appeared in. She passed statues and glass-fronted cases full of fossils and stuffed moth-eaten mammals. She even found the glass case full of scorpions Queen Ida had told her about. But she couldn’t find her way out. She hoped she wasn’t going in circles because after a time all the passages seemed to look much the same as the ones she had already traveled through.
After a very long time, when she was quite out of breath, she realized she was no closer to finding her way out. A clock ticked loudly in the distance, but when Jane found her way to it, it was no help at all; it had four hands instead of two. All the clock hands were of the same length, so how could she possibly know what time it was?
If she were at home now, her father would be reading the paper beside the fire; Ian would be gluing bits of balsa wood airplane together after he had got in from watching television next door. The Christmas tree’s lights would be flashing on and off and reflecting off the colored glass balls.
Jane felt very wretched indeed, realizing she was the only one, other than Queen Ida, who was completely alone. Even the Parsifals were together, even if they were really worried and sad.
She sat down on a low chair made of the antlers of some long dead stag and wondered what to do. If she shouted, there was no one to hear her except perhaps some of the strange, silent servants. She wasn’t quite sure that that would be a good idea.
Perhaps this was the moment to use the potion Mr.Parsifal had given her — the one ‘only to be used as a very last resort’. This was the last resort!
If she didn’t get out soon, May would die and the whole thing wouldn’t have been worth it. It was too awful. Aminta and Melchior would be really unhappy. Her own mother and father’s hearts would break because they had lost her. Ian might even be the teeniest bit sorry too. Ivy would feel guilty that she had ever allowed Jane to know the Parsifals. Jane thought that she was going to cry herself.
A tear formed in one corner of her eye and she brushed it off with the back of her hand. Then she took the small bottle out of her pocket and tried to read the label by the flickering light of the candles. “Potion allows user to summon help. Cries will only be heard by those sympathetic to the user. Use with great care.”
Jane wondered who would be considered sympathetic to her. By this time she didn’t much care who it was so long as it was someone.
Jane raised the little bottle to her lips and drank it quickly. She was frightened it would taste bad, like medicine, but when she tasted it, it was sweet like the drop of nectar in nasturtium flowers. She felt braver now and stood up and looked about her and cried with all her might. “Help! Please help me! Come as quickly as you can, whoever you are!”
Nothing happened. The corridor was still silent as the tomb, and a musty smell filled the dank air.
“Please can you help me! Please someone answer me!” Jane called again.
All she could hear was the scurrying of tiny feet behind the walls. They were probably mice or large insects. She tried to think who might possibly be considered sympathetic to her. She was sure, if Mr. Parsifal had given it to her, that the potion must work. But when would it work?
Things never seemed to happen exactly the way you thought they would. For example, May Parsifal needed the Hall to be destroyed and it was. May had hoped Jane might do it, but she didn’t — she was merely there that day. And in spite of May getting free, she wasn’t really free because of being poisoned by the snake. It was all very puzzling.
It was no use just sitting round waiting for something to happen. She would walk the length of all the long passages once again, but this time trying to take notice of all the different things so she knew which she had passed before. She would keep calling out to someone to help her. The one good thing was that she had the book of spells safe under her sweater.
She set off down the echoing passages and passed the armor and the tapestries of battles. She passed the stuffed bear and the porcupine whose quills stuck up sharply. Then she entered a long passage that she didn’t recognize.
Then, at the very far end of the dark corridor, Jane saw the light from a torch playing off the walls. Jane was terrified it was Queen Ida woken up and coming to get her. She looked round to see if there was anywhere to hide and couldn’t see anywhere.
“Jane?” a voice called. “Jane? Are you there? Answer me for heaven’s sake.”
The voice was familiar. It sounded quite a lot like Ian, but how could he possibly have got there?
She rushed towards the torch’s light. “Ian? Ian? Is it really you?”
“Of course it is, silly. Who did you think it was? Father Christmas come early?”
Jane was not accustomed to hugging her brother, so she didn’t, though she wanted to. “I am awfully glad to see you,” she said. “I think we’d better get out of here as quickly as we possibly can.”
“Why?” Ian said, looking about him. “It’s the best place I’ve ever been in. Better than the Tower of London. I like all the old weapons and stuff. I liked the snakes I saw getting here. Why didn’t you tell me about this place?”
“Because I was only here twice before today and I hope I never am again. I wanted to have an important secret. How did you know where to find me? You must tell me while we try to escape.”
Ian was looking round at everything with intense curiosity. In the end, he told Jane what had happened at home.
“Well,” said Ian, “first Mum started looking for you and accused me of leaving you outside on your own. It had started snowing again, you know, and we had to come in for lunch. I said I hadn’t a clue where you were. I told her that you weren’t tobogganing with us because you had something important to do. I told Mum you had been all secretive lately. So she got really upset and worried.”
“I had to be secretive,” Jane said, “what with one thing and another.”
“Then Mum made me put on my coat and search in all the kennels and outbuildings while she went to ask Ivy and Tim if they’d seen you. When I looked in the dog kennel I saw the miniature garden that you must be making for Mum.”
The children were walking quickly now beneath the rusted suits of armor which hung high up on the walls. There were banners, too. Some of them looked as if they were stained with the blood of ancient battles.
“Those are really amazing,” Ian said. “I wonder how Queen Ida got them here?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Jane said. “Hurry up and tell me how you got here.”
“Well, everyone was in a big panic. That was when Ivy said she wanted talk to me privately. She told me all the stuff about the Parsifals and how she knew we went to Myrtle Hall the day it burned down. I suppose you told her that.”
“I always tell Ivy things,” Jane said.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Ian said. “I thought I was going to get in trouble, but Ivy just said you were in great danger. She told me about how you got into the world under the lake though your little garden. At first I didn’t believe her. She said stuff about me leaving you out of things. Actually,” Ian admitted, “I was sort of worried about you too.”
“I’m glad you managed to get here. Was it horribly difficult?” Jane asked.
“Not really. I just stared as hard as I could at the garden and waited. Then I heard you calling in the distance and the mirror lake got bigger and bigger and the room got colder and colder. Then suddenly I was in the water and all the snakes were swimming by and I saw this palace in the distance. So here I am come to rescue you and have an adventure.”
“I’ve had enough adventures, thank you,” Jane said. “ But I have the book that tells how we can cure May’s leg from the serpent bite. What time is it, Ian?”
Ian squinted at his watch in the torchlight. “Just before three,” he said.
“Then we’ve got about an hour left. If we don’t get it to the Parsifals really soon May will die.”
“So you know how to get out?” Ian asked.
“No,” Jane said, “that’s just it. But now there are two of us and you’ve got the torch we stand a better chance.”
“Well, I know how to get out,” Ian said, “I tied a bit of string to the place that’s a bit like the front door and I’ve been unraveling it. Just as well I’ve found you though. It almost ran out. Here, take my hand.”
They tried to be as quiet as they could. Even though the long, eerie corridors looked deserted, the children couldn’t be sure they were not being watched. They had to talk in whispers. Jane was glad Ian was with her, but she still trembled a bit.
As they retraced the journey Ian had taken, he asked Jane a million questions about how she had first come to enter the lake and whom she met there, and if he would get to meet the Parsifals, and why it was she who was chosen, rather than him.
“Well, it was me who made the world in miniature. It was me who gave them water, fire, air and earth. You were always too busy playing with the BoysNextDoor.”
The two children ascended the marble stairs, passed the gruesome tapestries, and came at last into the tall hall with the marble columns where nothing stirred. No sentinels guarded the entry. The last two times Jane was there, there were always the odd looking servants with the animal faces. Where could they possibly be now? They couldn’t have vanished entirely. “It’s very odd, Ian,” Jane said. It’s never been deserted like this before.”
“Well, I can’t see anyone. Couldn’t we just have a little look round? It’s really interesting.”
“No, we can’t. I’m sorry, because it’s really kind of you to come to help me. But we must get out!”
They hurried to where Ian had tied the string to a large metal ring and stopped to untie the knot.
Because it was so quiet, the ticking of the fourhanded clock could be heard. Jane thought Ian might be able to hear the thumping of her heart too since it was pounding so loudly. Then, from very far away, she head footsteps, brisk, peremptory footsteps. They were far away but getting closer.
“Do hurry up, Ian, someone’s coming. It sounds like Queen Ida.”
“I can’t hurry up, I tied it so tight.” Ian fumbled with the awkward knot that he hadn’t made quite right. He ought to have paid more attention at Cub Scouts “Why do you even need the stupid bit of string, Ian? There’s a whole drawer full of it at home. Please, we’ve got to go now.” It was then that Jane realized that she had left her jacket on the bed in the room that Queen Ida said was hers.
The footsteps were growing closer and closer. Jane could see Queen Ida’s eyes flashing with anger.
“PLEASE, Ian!” Jane cried, “She’s coming!”
Suddenly, from a doorway cleverly hidden in the wall’s paneling, the servant with the face like a fish leapt out and grasped Ian’s arm and twisted it behind his back.
“Ow! That hurt’s!” Ian shouted. “Let go of me, you beast!”
But the servant did not let go. It was then that Ian dropped his torch.
Another of the servants –the one with the face like an owl — appeared and held Jane.
Then Queen Ida was upon them both. Her face was sickly white, and there was a red mark round her neck.

 

Chapter 18


In which Jane and Ian face the wrath of Queen Ida


“So here you both are,” Queen Ida said nastily. “This must be your brother, the one who likes snakes so much. I wonder how much you will like living in the cavern where the snakes swim by all the time? Since May left, there isn’t a tenant for it.” She snapped her fingers and her chariot appeared by the front door where the murky water full of yellow serpents lapped at the steps of the palace.
“You won’t be able to keep me prisoner for long, you know,” Ian said to Queen Ida.
Jane thought he was being rather brave.
“You must be even stupider than you look,” Queen Ida replied. “There’s no one left to save you now.”
This time Queen Ida did not bother to put the rug round Jane. She was freezing cold. She could tell that Ian was too.
The dismal cavern where Queen Ida chained the children was as bleak as it had been when May was held there, but it smelled worse. The moldering remains of Astrophel had attracted horrid little fish with tiny sharp teeth that swarmed like blue bottles. The water snakes were more plentiful than ever.
Queen Ida slammed a metal grille that acted as a door, so, even if the children found a way to undo their chains, they’d still be trapped in the cavern.
“Now what?” said Ian, looking glum.
“I don’t know,” Jane said. “I do have the book of spells still. I made very sure Queen Ida didn’t see I had it. Perhaps she hasn’t missed it yet. Maybe there is something that can help us written in it.”
“But it’s too dark to read it here, even if we can understand the writing,” Ian said.
“There’s nothing to stop us trying.” Jane was doing her best to be cheerful. “It’s a pity you dropped the torch.”
She took out the leather-bound book and squinted at the first page. “Come and sit beside me on the so-called bed,” Jane said.
“I can’t see anything either,” Ian said after a while. Then he started rubbing at the shackle that bound his leg. “If I had a pointy bit of metal, I bet I could unpick this lock.”
“Maybe you could try a fish bone. They’re sort of pointy and bendy,” Jane said.
On the other side of the room was a pile of bones exactly like when a fish is filleted and Jane brought one to Ian.
It wasn’t easy to unlock the shackles but Ian was persistent. After wiggling and wiggling the fish bone and many false starts, at last he got first his chains off, and then Jane’s.
“Well, I’m glad I’ve done that,” Ian said. “At least I’ve done something to help us. I have just remembered something that might help us see. I’ve got matches in my pocket.”
“You should have said that before,” Jane said, “But they’re probably wet.”
“No, they’re not. Michael Graves told me a survival tip once. You are always meant to put matches in something waterproof like a tin.”
“Exactly the sort of thing Michael Graves would know,” Jane said. “But maybe it’s helpful.” As Ian lit the first match, Jane thought of the story of The Little Match Girl, one of the saddest stories she had ever read. She opened the book of spells and leaned back against the damp cavern wall. There was a sort of drapery hanging off it. She could feel something poking into her back.
“Hey, Ian,” she said. “Can you see this sort of metal ring thing hanging off the wall?”
Then the match went out and they had to light another one.
“What do you think will happen if we pull on the ring?” Jane asked.
“We’d better pull on it or we’ll never find out,” Ian said, tugging at it. Nothing happened.
“I’ll try twisting it,” Jane said.
As she twisted the ring, they heard a sort of scraping of metal on metal. The ring twisted very slowly and gratingly. Then, to their surprise, part of the wall opened up leading to a passageway that sloped upwards. It was not nearly as steep as the chute Jane had come down with Queen Ida but it was slippery nonetheless.
After some minutes of difficult clambering, the children came to a rusted door. It seemed locked. Ian tried to force it open with his shoulder. Then both children tried together — and Jane’s shoulder got bruised when they rushed at it. It opened a little crack. Then a little bit more. It was very odd. They were under the lake but in a sort of airlock, but could see through the water to the sky above.
“How do we pass through the water to get out into your garden, Jane?” Ian asked, looking worried for the first time.
“Draw as much air into your lungs as you can, then dive in. Watch out very carefully for the serpents. Now, Ian!” Jane pushed her brother out off the edge of the steps and followed after him.
It was bitter cold, as it always was in the dark water. Jane swam ever upwards with the shadowy form of Ian above her and the yellow snakes flitting by her. She kicked her legs to keep the snakes off her. As she ascended, she thought her lungs might burst. With one hand she held the book of spells next to her tummy. The rising up took forever it seemed. Then suddenly Jane and Ian found themselves in the kennel.
“Are you all right?” Jane asked as Ian bent over spluttering water.
“Yes, I’m all right, just terribly cold,” Ian said. “It’s odd, I’m sort of damp but not as wet as I should be.”
“It’s always like that,” Jane said. “What we have to do now is get the book of spells to the Parsifals. We can’t even stop to tell Mum we’re back. We have to go now!”

 

Chapter 19


In which Jane introduces Ian to the Parsifals



The children immediately set out for the cottage hidden in the woods. As they passed Myrtle Hall they noticed that the storm had collapsed more of the walls. Now it was little more than a heap of blackened rubble. But the fountain with the four lions looked pretty under the snow.
“How cold the lions must be,” Jane said. “Do you think there were ever lions in England?”
“It said there were tigers even, long ago, before one of the ice ages,” Ian said. “No lions or tigers now.”
Because the snow was quite deep, it was hard walking through it. As they approached the cottage, pushing their way under laden branches, bits of snow kept falling on Jane’s hair and down the neck of her sweater. She was sorry she had lost her jacket.
“Nearly there,” Jane said. “I’m so glad Michael Graves never went here.”
“You mean this is it?” Ian said. “Doesn’t look as if anyone lives here at all.”
Jane knocked at the door, but nothing happened at first. Then they heard a slow shuffling of feet, and Mrs. Parsifal opened the door. Her eyes were red with tears.
“Jane, dear,” she said. “We fear you’re too late. May has fallen into a deep sleep and we can’t wake her.”
“But Mrs. Parsifal, we’ve brought the book. Give it to Mr. Parsifal now. Surely now May can be saved? Mr. Parsifal,” Jane called. “Quick here’s the book. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Mr. Parsifal took the book from Jane with the briefest and wannest of smiles. If it was possible for someone to look more than a hundred years old, then that was how Mr. Parsifal looked — just like a skeleton with a wrapping of skin. He hobbled to the cobwebby window that let in a little light.
Jane looked round the room and felt awful. She should have got here quicker. She should have been cleverer.
Mrs. Parsifal went and sat beside the still form of her daughter and Jane stood beside her. “This is my brother Ian who helped me escape from Queen Ida’s palace.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Ian,” Mrs. Parsifal said. “I’m afraid the children are still asleep, so I can’t introduce you. It’s better they don’t see what’s happened to their mother.”
Jane looked at May’s face that was as white as the thin sheet she lay on.
Suddenly Mr. Parsifal turned and said, “I think I’ve found something! It might take a moment. It’s been so long since I had access to this particular book.”
As Mr. Parsifal busied himself taking down small vials of liquids and mixing colored powders in a mortar, Jane and Ian sat in the cold room and watched him work. They were glad their house was not sad like this one.
“If we went out and got some sticks for you, could you make a little fire?” Jane asked Mrs. Parsifal. “I know the sticks would be wet at first, but I suppose they’d dry off in the end.”
It was horrible sitting round doing nothing, just waiting and waiting.
“How kind you are, Jane. Our poor children have had so little energy lately. They only brought home a very few yesterday. Yes, I’d be very grateful if you would collect us some.”
When Jane and Ian came back with the sticks, they saw that Mr. Parsifal had lit a very small burner, heated with charcoal. He held a clear glass vial above it. As the fluid inside bubbled, a thin wisp of blue smoke flew up into the room filling it with the scent of mimosa and orange blossom. The lovely smells of spring filled the damp little room.
He looked a little more cheerful. “I think, finally, this might be it!” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
When the healing fragrance reached her, May stirred a little. As Mr. Parsifal approached her, she opened her eyes and smiled faintly up at him.
“Can you hear me, May?” Mr. Parsifal asked.
“Yes, Father,” she whispered.
Mr. Parsifal turned back the covers to reveal May’s poor swollen leg where the marks of the serpent’s fangs were clearly visible. “This might hurt a little bit, darling,” he said gently. “Be very brave and you’ll soon feel much better.”
He took out a sharp little knife and, when he pierced the skin, a great gush of nasty smelling liquid dropped into the bowl Mrs. Parsifal had placed beneath it. Then Mr. Parsifal poured the rest of the vial’s contents straight onto the wound. Like peroxide on a cut, the liquid bubbled and boiled.
As it did so, the color returned to May’s cheeks and she sat up and smiled. “How hungry I feel, Father,” she said. “Have I been asleep for a long while?”
“For a whole day and a whole night. It was while you were asleep that Jane faced Queen Ida. It was she and her brother who brought me the recipe for the antidote.”
The voices in the room woke Aminta and Melchior.
“Mother,” Aminta cried, wrapping her arms round May’s neck. “You look better. Aren’t you sick any more?”
May smiled. “I don’t remember when I’ve ever been more happy. I do believe everything is going to be all right.”
“You have Jane to thank for that,” said Mr. Parsifal, “Jane and her brother. Without them everything would have been lost.”
Jane thought it was a most wonderful sight. May stood up for the first time in many days, looking strong and beautiful. The color that had been drained out of her under the lake, returned and suffused her cheeks.
“Mother,” May said, “I know how you and Papa have suffered in my absence. Now I am well and here with you, things will be quite different.” She put her arms round Aminta and Melchior’s shoulders. “You children should thank Jane and Ian for everything they have done for you. For fire and earth, for helping me get home.”
“Perhaps one day,” Aminta said to Jane, “we will be able to help you.”
“That would be wonderful,” Jane said. “But now you’re better, we really have to go home. Our mother will be quite frantic with worry. We really must go, Ian. We can come back another time.”
“But I’ve only just met Melchior,” Ian said.
“Well,” said Mrs. Parsifal. “You know you are always welcome here. Just so long as we live in this house. I must thank you with all my heart for all you have done for us.” She kissed Jane on the cheek and shook Ian’s hand.
It is always nice to be thanked for something and Jane and Ian went home feeling rather pleased with themselves and very happy that the Parsifals’ suffering was now over.
“Thank heaven’s that’s all right,” Jane said as they tramped through the woods. “Do you think Mum will be furious with us?”
“She might be about you losing your jacket, but if we told her the whole story, she would be proud of you.”
“We can’t tell her you know,” Jane said. “It’s really important she doesn’t know. She would be far too upset.” She looked at her brother. She might be proud of you too,” she said with a little grin.
When Ian and Jane had tidied themselves up as well as they could they went into their house.
“I’ve found Jane,” Ian said. “She was only lost because she had to finish your present, Mum.”
“But where were you? Why are you so horribly wet?” Mrs. Mabry asked, taking off Jane’s sweater.
“And where’s your jacket, Jane? Did you leave it outside? I suppose we’ll have to go and find it tomorrow, it’s too horrid out now. We were so dreadfully worried about you. We looked everywhere.”
“I was just finishing your present, Mum.”
“You must promise never, ever, to give us such a fright again. I’m not going to be terribly angry now because it’s almost Christmas. I’ll make you some hot chocolate and you can sit by the fire and warm up. But first I’ll have to tell Ivy we’ve found you. Then you can have lunch.”
“I’m actually quite hungry,” Jane said. “Is it still only lunch time?”
“A very late lunch,” Mrs. Mabry said, looking at her watch and not sounding very pleased. “Ivy was worried about you, too.”
Jane was mightily glad to be home. It had been the longest most tiring day of her life.
After tea, instead of going next door to watch television, Jane and Ian decorated their Christmas tree, which was almost as tall as the one Jane’s father had bought for the church. All the ornaments were old. Some of them had bits of paint peeling off the glass and there were two plastic bells, one blue and one red, which made a sort of rattling, ringing sound if you shook them hard enough. When all the ornaments were on, Jane and Ian flung tinsel onto the tree. The tinsel looked like frosty icicles.


When Mr. Mabry got home from the office he threw his briefcase onto the chair in the hall and said. “Feels like more snow to me.”
“Then Ill be able to go on the toboggan,” Jane said. “I had other things to do today.”
After supper, Mr. Mabry said, “So what’s it to be, Jane? More Christmas Carol or Snakes and Ladders?”
“Story, I think,” said Jane. “Nothing to do with snakes.”
Outside the house the wind whipped snow against the windowpanes and the leafless trees shuddered in the gale.
“Time for bed,” Mrs. Mabry said. “I do hope there won’t be too much more snow because I’ve got to go into Brentwood in the morning to get the last of the food for Christmas. If it snows much more the roads will be impassable. Perhaps we won’t be able to get out at all.”
After their parents had tucked them into bed and gone back downstairs, Ian crept into Jane’s room. “ We did have an adventure, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” said Jane, “and I hope it’s over. I just want to enjoy Christmas now without being worried all the time.”
“We should go and see the Parsifals again,” Ian said. “We could get Mum to give us some food and I could give Melchior one of my plane kits. The one I’ve got two of.”
“I bet I could find something for Aminta,” Jane said. “I know I’m going to get at least four presents. Do you think Queen Ida will come looking for us? She knows where we live. That would be horrible.”
“I think we are probably safe from her for now,” Ian said. “We’d better go to sleep, so we can go to the Parsifals first thing in the morning.”
Jane was so tired she went to sleep straight away,
During the night, the storm had blown through and a bright sun shone on the snow-covered woods. It was a good thing it was the holidays and there was no school. After eating their bacon and eggs, Jane and Ian told their mother that they were taking the little toboggan to the hill by the lake and would be home by lunchtime.
“I think we might need to take food with us, Mum,” Jane said. “Some cookies and tangerines. We might get hungry. I think we should take a Thermos of hot chocolate too.”
Since the trains were delayed because of all the snow, Mrs. Mabry didn’t go to the office and instead agreed to go shopping with Mrs. Mabry.
“I still don’t know what to give Aminta,” Jane whispered to Ian.
“You could give Aminta one of your dolls because you don’t like them much anyway.”
Jackets, boots, wooly hats, mittens and scarves! How much easier it was in the summer when you could just run outside without shoes on even. Luckily, Mrs. Mabry seemed to have forgotten about Jane’s other jacket for the time being. She was so busy with her shopping list.
As they walked through the woods in a much happier mood than the day before, more snow fell from the laden tree branches onto Jane’s hat and her collar.
When Jane knocked on the door, Mrs. Parsifal opened it straight away with a bright smile on her face.
“Here you are! Do come in! The children are here, Mr. Parsifal.”
Aminta and Melchior came to the door too and greeted Jane and Ian with shy smiles.
“Look,” said Jane, “I’ve brought you biscuits and tangerines and a Thermos of hot chocolate. If I was allowed to tell Mummy how hungry you were I’m sure she’d bring you lots of things to eat. She thinks eating is very important.”
“So it is,” Mrs. Parsifal said, “So it is, Jane, but the time is not yet right to let everyone know we are here.” Mrs. Parsifal said. “But what a wonderful treat for the children. Thank you, dear.”
“Melchior,” Ian said. “I must say that’s a very odd name. One of the Wise Men, wasn’t it? Anyway, I’ve brought you a plane kit. Jane’s brought Aminta a doll.”
“You are the most generous children,” Mrs. Parsifal said.
“No, we’re not,” Ian said. “You’re only generous if you give away something you really want to keep yourself. I’ve got another kit like this, and Jane really doesn’t like dolls.”
But Aminta seemed thrilled to have Christmas present.
Melchior beckoned Jane to the side of the room and showed her something: the beginning of a miniature garden for his mother.
“Was it awfully difficult to get the things in the snow?” Jane asked. “I bet your mother likes it. Just don’t go diving in the lake or anything.
Jane realized that they had to go soon so she could slide down the hill a few times on the toboggan before lunch. “We really must go, Ian. We can come back another time.”
“I’m only just getting to know Melchior,” Ian said.
“Well,” said Mrs. Parsifal. “You know you are always welcome here. Just so long as we live in this house. I must thank you with all my heart for all you have done for us.” She kissed Jane on the cheek and shook Ian’s hand.

 

Chapter 20


In which Christmas Arrives

On the way home, Jane and Ian went to visit Ivy and Tim Bullen and sat in their snug little kitchen while Ivy crocheted a sweater.
“I must say you were very brave, both of you,” Ivy said. Tim nodded in agreement, and Buster thumped his heavy tail on the floor. Even ancient Mr. Bullen smiled vaguely at them though his fog of years. “Right fine young lass that May Parsifal was. Pity she got mixed up in all of that. I remember Lord Myrtle too, elegant chap. Sort of struck on himself though. Aye, those were the days.” Then he lapsed into silence, his hands folded on his stomach.
“ Ivy,” Jane asked, “what will become of Queen Ida all alone with only her strange servants?”
“I wouldn’t bother about her,” Ivy said. “I suppose they’ll look after her.”
“They never seemed to speak. Is she very lonely?”
“Of course she is. Serves her right nobody wants to speak to her,” Tim Bullen said. “Meddling in other’s affairs all the time. In league with who knows who.”
“But it’s awful when nobody wants to speak to you,” Jane said.
“Then she should mend her ways,” Ivy said.
“She seemed almost happy when I offered her the necklet. I felt bad for tricking her.”
“But think what good came of it, Jane. Now May Parsifal is well, her children have their mother back and the old Parsifals can die in peace. You can’t worry about everyone all the time.”
“Do you think old Parsifals are really going to die?” Jane asked. “Just when we’ve got to know them. Ian knows them hardly at all.”
“There’s a time and a season for everything,” Ivy said.
“I know that. It just doesn’t seem fair,” Jane said.
“Dad says anyone who expects life to be fair is in for a lot of disappointment,” Ian said.
“I’m sure your father’s right,” Tim said. “Now, are you quite set for Christmas, both of you? Everything wrapped and ready to go?”
“Everything except I can’t wrap my garden,” Jane said. “I hope Mum likes it. In a sort of way I’m glad to give it away –especially the lake bit. You will come to church with us on Christmas Eve, won’t you, Ivy and Tim? We’ve got to put our presents for the poor children under the tree.”
As Ian and Jane walked home through the now slushy snow past the BoysNextDoor’s house, Mrs. Elliott called out to them. “Do come to visit us after lunch. The boys have really missed you these last few days, Jane.”

Mr. and Mrs. Mabry had got home from Brentwood with lots more food. The whole family had lunch together. It was toasted cheese with baked potatoes. They had Coxes Orange Pippin apples for pudding.

Jane and Ian spent the afternoon playing card games with Peter and Roger, Nigel and Nicky. For once Ian didn’t say what a bother it was having a girl playing with them.
Because it was broad daylight, Jane didn’t even think of anything hiding behind the great pile of logs by the gap in the fence when she ran home for tea.
The next day was Christmas Eve, always the most exciting day of the year as far as Jane was concerned. In the morning Jane put the finishing touches on her miniature garden. She wondered whether Queen Ida was suffering still. She also wondered whether Aminta and Melchior Parsifal would get any other Christmas presents. There was so much she still didn’t know about them. She really wished she could tell her mother about them, but Ivy had said not to. Not yet anyway.
When it began to get dark, Jane had to get a bit dressed up for church. She wore her party dress under a tweed coat with a velvet collar. Because it was so snowy she wore boots, not her party shoes. Everyone she knew was in the church even people who didn’t go there much during the year.
Poppy was there and Waveney Heanley from school, and Michael Graves, looking grumpy with his hair all plastered down on his head. And Ivy and Tim, of course.
The tree was very tall and thin and showed off the glass balls very prettily. On top was a bright star like the one that led the shepherds and the Wise Men to Bethlehem so long before. Jane though how interesting it would be to be born with cows and a donkey looking at you — not at all how she understood people got born nowadays.
For some reason the carol she liked best was:
In the deep midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
The words always made everything sound so mysterious and sent a shiver down her spine. It sounded a bit sad, not like Hark the Herald Angels Sing which was what people were singing as the children went to put their presents under the tree.
After the service all the mothers chatted in the entryway of the church, which was boring because Jane wanted to go home and put her stocking at the end of her bed. There were so many people there all milling about and chatting
Poppy was just showing Jane a little charm bracelet she had been given early when a tall figure brushed rudely past Jane and rushed into the church. The figure was dressed in a long black cloak and looked horribly familiar. When Jane looked down she saw shoes, turned up at the toes, made from the skins of snakes and her heart pounded with fear.
She followed Queen Ida up the nave, to where she stood gazing at the tree.
“Why is there a tree here, Jane?” Queen Ida whispered.
“Because there always is. Don’t you remember I told you about it? It’s a symbol of things not dying in winter. It’s because long, long ago, before Jesus even, in pagan times, people didn’t want the light to die.”
Queen Ida gazed at the tree in wonder, touched the branches lightly and caressed a little glass bird.
“So you worship the tree?”
“Not exactly,” Jane said. “You just look at it. Anyway, why are you here?”
“Because I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve,” Queen Ida said.
“But now Myrtle Hall isn’t there anymore and May Parsifal is better perhaps you could get better too?”
Just then Jane heard her mother’s voice.
“Jane? What are you doing? It’s nearly time for supper. I thought you’d like sausages,”
“Coming, Mum,” Jane said.
When Jane turned to take one last look at Queen Ida, she saw her black cloak vanishing into the night — not in the direction of the dismal lake but towards the woods, where the lovely trees, bathed in moonlight, lay beneath their light covering of snow.

Advertisements