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THE BOOK PEOPLE
EVEN in the midst of war there are intervals for refreshments. Our own soldiers, no matter how fierce, must eat to live, and the same is the case with the submarine regiments. The Crustacean Brigade took advantage of the lull in hostilities which followed the defeat of the Sea-horses to march back to the Palace and have a meal. A very plain meal it was, too, and very different from the "Banquet of Ovations," as Cathay pointed out afterwards. There were no prettily-spread tables decorated with bunches of seaweed, no plates or knives or forks. The food was passed round by hand, and there was one drinking-horn (a sea-cow's horn) to every six soldiers. They all sat on the ground as you do at a picnic, and the Queen came and spoke a few hurried words to them when on her way to strengthen the defences of the golden gate. And, as I said, the food was plain. However, everyone had enough to eat, which was the main thing. Baskets of provisions were sent down to the Lobsters' Guardroom.
"It is important," said Princess Freia, "that our men should be on the spot in case they are needed, and the same with the dinner. I shall go down with the provisions and keep their hearts up."
"Yes, dear, do," said the Princess Maia; "but don't do anything rash. No sorties now. You Lobsters are so terribly brave. But you know Mother said you weren't to. Ah me! - war is a terrible thing! What a state the rivers will get into with all this water going on, and the winds all loose and doing as they like. It's horrible to think about. It will take ages to get things straight again."
(Her fears were only too well founded. All this happened last year - and you know what a wet summer that was.
"I know, dear," said Freia; "but I know now who broke the sky, and it is very, very sorry - so we won't rub it in, will we?"
"I didn't mean to," said Maia, smiling kindly at the children, and went off to encourage her Lobsters.
"And now,' said Francis, when the meal was over, "what are we going to do next?"
"We can't do anything but wait for news," said the Princess. "Our Scouts will let us know soon enough. I only hope the Book People won't attack us at the same time as the Under Folk. That's always the danger."
"How could they get in?" Mavis asked.
"Through the golden door," said the Princess. "Of course they couldn't do anything if we hadn't read the books they're in. That's the worst of Education. We've all read such an awful lot, and that unlocks the books and they can come out if anyone calls them. Even our fish are intolerably well read - except the Porpoises, dear things, who never could read anything. That's why the golden door is guarded by them, of course."
"If not having read things is useful," said Mavis, "we've read almost nothing. Couldn't we help guard the door?"
"The very thing," said the Princess joyously; "for you possess the only weapon that can be used against these people or against the authors who created them. If you can truthfully say to them, 'I never heard of you,' your words become a deadly sword that strikes at their most sensitive spot."
"What spot?" asked Bernard. And the Princess answered, "Their vanity."
So the little party went towards the golden door and found it behind a thick wall of Porpoises. Incessant cries came from beyond the gates, and to every cry they answered like one Porpoise, "We never heard of you. You can't come in. You can't come in. We never heard of you."
"We shan't be any good here," said Bernard, among the thick, rich voices of the Porpoises. "They can keep anyone back."
"Yes," said the Pripcess; "but if the Book Folk look through the gate and see that they're only Porpoises their wounded vanity will heal, and they'll come on as strongly as ever. Whereas if they did find human beings who have never heard of them the wounds ought to be mortal. As long as you are able truthfully to say that you don't know them they can't get in."
"Reuben would be the person for this," said Francis. "I don't believe he's read anything."
" Well, we haven't read much," said Cathay comfortably; "at least, not about nasty people."
"I wish I hadn't," sighed the Princess through the noise of the voices outside the gate. "I know them all. You hear that cold squeak? That's Mrs Fairchild. And that short, sharp, barking sound - that's Aunt Fortune. The sort of growl that goes on all the time is Mr Murdstone, and that icy voice is Rosamund's mother - the one who was so hateful about the purple jar."
"I'm afraid we know some of those," said Mavis.
"Then be careful not to say you don't. There are heaps you don't know - John Knox and Machiavelli and Don Diego and Tippoo Sahib and Sally Brass and - I must go back. If anything should happen, fling your arms round the nearest Porpoise and trust to luck. These Book People can't kill - they can only stupefy."
"But how do you know them all?" Mavis asked. "Do they often attack you?"
"No, only when the sky falls. But they always howl outside the gate at the full moon."
So saying she turned away and disappeared in the crowd of faithful Porpoises.
And outside the noise grew louder and the words more definite.
"I am Mrs Randolph. Let me in!"
"I am good Mrs Brown. Let me in!"
"I am Eric, or Little by Little. I will come in!"
"I am Elsie, or Like a Little Candle. Let me in - let me in!"
"I am Mrs Markham."
"I am Mrs Squeers."
"I am Uriah Heep."
"I am Montdidier."
"I am King John."
"I am Caliban."
"I am the Giant Blunderbore."
"I am the Dragon of Wantley."
And they all cried, again and again: "Let us in! Let me in! Let me in!"
The strain of listening for the names and calling out "I don't know you!" when they didn't, and saying nothing when they did, became almost unbearable. It was like that horrid game with the corners of the handkerchief, "Hold fast" and "Let loose," and you have to remember to do the opposite. Sooner or later an accident is bound to happen, and the children felt a growing conviction that it would be sooner.
"What will happen if they do get in?" Cathay asked a neighbouring Porpoise.
"Can't say, miss, I'm sure," it answered.
"But what will you do?"
"Obstruct them in the execution of our duty," it answered. "You see, miss, they can't kill; they can only stupefy, and they can't stupefy us, 'cause why? We're that stupid already we can't hold no more. That's why they trust us to defend the golden gate," it added proudly.
The babel of voices outside grew louder and thicker, and the task of knowing when to say "I don't know you," and so wound the vanity of the invaders, grew more and more difficult. At last the disaster, foreseen for some time, with a growing plainness, came upon them.
"I am the Great Seal," said a thick, furry voice.
"I don't know you," cried Cathay.
"You do - he's in history. James the Second dropped him in the Thames," said Francis. "Yes, you've done it again."
"Shut up," said Bernard.
The last two remarks were made in a deep silence, broken only by the heavy breathing of the Porpoises. The voices behind the golden gate had died down and ceased. The Porpoises massed their heavy bulk close to the door.
"Remember the Porpoises," said Francis. "Don't forget to hold on to a Porpoise."
Four of these amiable if unintellectual creatures drew away from their companions, and one came to the side of each child.
Every eye was fixed on the golden door, and then slowly - very slowly, the door began to open. As it opened it revealed the crowd that stood without - cruel faces, stupid faces, crafty faces, sullen faces, angry faces, not a single face that you ever could wish to see again.
Then slowly, terribly, without words, the close ranks of the Book People advanced. Mrs Fairchild, Mrs Markham, and Mrs Barbauld led the van. Closely following came the Dragon of Wantley, the Minotaur, and the Little Man that Sintram knew. Then came Mr Murdstone, neat in a folded white neckcloth, and clothes as black as his whiskers. Miss Murdstone was with him, every bead of her alight with gratified malice. The children found that they knew, without being told, the name of each foe now advancing on them. Paralysed with terror, they watched the slow and terrible advance. It was not till Eric, or Little by Little, broke the silence with a whoop of joy and rushed upon them that they remembered their own danger, and clutched the waiting Porpoises. Alas! it was too late. Mrs Markham had turned a frozen glare upon them, Mrs Fairchild had wagged an admonitory forefinger, wave on wave of sheer stupidity swept over them, and next moment they lost consciousness and sank, each with his faithful Porpoise, into the dreamless sleep of the entirely unintelligent. In vain the main body of the Porpoises hurled themselves against the intruders; their heroism was fruitless. Overwhelmed by the heavy truisms wielded by the enemy, they turned and fled in disorder; and the conquering army entered Merland.
Francis was the first to recover consciousness. The Porpoise to which he had clung was fanning him with its fin, and imploring him, for its sake, to look up, to speak.
"All right, old chap," said Francis. "I must have fallen asleep. Where are the others?"
They were all there, and the devoted Porpoises quickly restored them to consciousness.
The four children stood up and looked at each other.
"I wish Reuben was here," said Cathay. "He'd know what to do."
"He wouldn't know any more than we do," said Francis haughtily.
"We must do something," said Mavis. "It's our fault again."
"It's mine," said Cathay, "but I couldn't help it."
"If you hadn't, one of us would have," said Bernard, seeking to console. "I say, why do only the nasty people come out of the books?"
"I know that," said his Porpoise, turning his black face eagerly towards them. "The stupidest people can't help knowing something. The Under Folk get in and open the books - at least, they send the Bookworms in to open them. And, of course, they only open the pages where the enemies are quartered."
"Then-" said Bernard, looking at the golden gate, which swung open, its lock hanging broken and useless.
"Yes," said Mavis, "we could, couldn't we? Open the other books, we mean!" She appealed to her Porpoise.
"Yes," it said, "perhaps you could. Human children can open books, I believe. Porpoises can't. And Mer-people can't open the books in the Cave of Learning, though they can unlock them. If they want to open them they have to get them from the Public Mer Libraries. I can't help knowing that," it added. The Porpoises seemed really ashamed of not being thoroughly stupid.
"Come on," said Francis, "we'll raise an army to fight these Book People. Here's something we can do that isn't mischief."
"You shut up," said Bernard, and tbumping Cathay on the back told her to never mind.
They went towards the golden gate.
"I suppose all the nasty people are out of the books by now? " Mavis asked her Porpoise, who followed her with the close fidelity of an affectionate little dog.
"I don't know," it said, with some pride. "I'm stupid, I am. But I can't help knowing that no one can come out of books unless they're called. You've just got to tap on the back of the book and call the name and then you open it, and the person comes out. At least, that's what the Bookworms do, and I don't see why you should be different."
What was different, it soon appeared, was the water in the stream in the Cave of Learning, which was quite plainly still water in some other sense than that in which what they were in was water. That is, they could not walk in it; they had to swim. The cave seemed dark, but enough light came from the golden gate to enable them to read the titles of the books when they had pulled away the seaweed which covered many of them. They had to hold on to the rocks - which were books - with one hand, and clear away the seaweed with the other.
You can guess the sort of books at which they knocked - Kingsley and Shakespeare and Marryat and Dickens, Miss Alcott and Mrs Ewing, Hans Andersen and Stevenson, and Mayne Reid - and when they had knocked they called the name of the bero whose heip they desired, and "Will you help us," they asked, "to conquer the horrid Book People, and drive them back to cover?"
And not a hero but said, "Yes, indeed we will, with all our hearts."
And they climbed down out of the books, and swam up to the golden gate and waited, talking with courage and dignity among themselves, while the children went on knocking at the backs of books - which are books' front doors and calling out more and more heroes to help in the fight.
Quentin Durward and Laurie were the first to come out, then Hereward and Amyas and Will Cary, David Copperfield, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Caesar and Anthony, Coriolanus and Othello; but you can make the list for yourselves. They came forth, all alive and splendid, with valour and the longing to strike once more blow for the good cause, as they had been used to do in their old lives.
"These are enough," said Francis, at last. "We ought to leave some, in case we want more help later."
You see for yourselves what a splendid company it was that swam to the golden gate - there was no other way than swimming, except for Perseus - and awaited the children. And when the children joined them - rather nervous at the thought of the speeches they would have to make to their newly-recruited regiment - they found that there was no need of speeches. The faithful Porpoises had not been too stupid to explain the simple facts of danger and rescue.
It was a proud moment for the children when they marched towards the Palace at the head of the band of heroes whom they had pressed into the service of the Merland. Between the clipped seaweed hedges they went, and along the paths paved with pearl and marble, and so, at last, drew near the Palace. They gave the watchword- "Glory."
"Or Death," said the sentry. And they passed on to the Queen.
"We've brought a reinforcement," said Francis, who had learned the word from Quentin Durward as they came along. And the Queen gave one look at her reinforcement's faces and said simply:
"We are saved."
The horrible Book People had not attacked the Palace; they had gone furtively through the country killing stray fish and destroying any beautiful thing they happened to find. For these people hate beauty and happiness. They were now holding a meeting in the Palace gardens, near the fountain where the Princesses had been wont to do their source-service, and they were making speeches like mad. You could hear the dull, flat murmur of them even from the Palace. They were the sort of people who love the sound of their own silly voices.
The new-comers were ranged in orderly ranks before the Queen, awaiting her orders. It looked like a pageant or a fancy-dress parade. There was St George in his armour, and Joan of Arc in hers - heroes in plumed hats and laced shirts, heroes in ruffs and doubletsbrave gentlemen of England, gallant gentlemen of France. For all the differences in their dress, there was nothing motley about the band which stood before the Queen. Varied as they were in dress and feature, they had one quality in common, which marked them as one company. The same light of bravery shone on them all, and became them like a fine uniform.
"Will you," the Queen asked of their leader - a pale, thin-faced man in the dress of a Roman - "will you do just as you think best? I would not presume," she added, with a kind of proud humility, "to teach the game of war to Cæsar."
"Oh, Queen," he answered, "these brave men and I will drive back the intruders, but, having driven them back, we must ourselves return through those dark doors which we passed when your young defenders called our names. We will drive back the men - and by the look of them 'twill be an easy task. But Cæsar wars not with women, and the women on our side are few, though eaech, I doubt not, has the heart of a lioness."
He turned towards Joan of Arc with a smile and she gave him back a smile as bright as the sword she carried.
"How many women are there among you?" the Queen asked, and Joan answered:
"Queen Boadicea and Torfrida and I are but three."
"But we three," cried Torfrida, "are a match for three hundred of such women as those. Give us but whips instead of swords, and we will drive them like dogs to their red and blue cloth-bound kennels."
"I'm afraid," said the Queen, "they'd overcome you by sheer weight. You've no idea how heavy they are." And then Kathleen covered herself with glory by saying, "Well, but what about Amazons?"
"The very thing," said Coesar kindly. "Would you mind running back? You'll find them in the third book from the corner where the large purple starfish is; you can't mistake it."
The children tore off to the golden gate, rushed through it, and swam to the spot where, unmistakably, the purplish starfish spread its violet rays. They knocked on the book, and Cathay, by previous arrangement, called out-
"Come out, please, Queen of the Amazons, and bring all your fighting ladies."
Then out came a very splendid lady in glorious golden armour. "You'd better get some boats for us," she said, standing straight and splendid on a ledge of rock, "enough to reach from here to the gate, or a bridge. There are all these things in Caesar's books. I'm sure he wouldn't mind your calling them out. We must not swim, I know, because of getting our bow-strings wet."
So Francis called out a bridge, and when it was not long enough to reach the golden gate he called another. And then the Queen called her ladies, and out came a procession, which seemed as though it would never end, of tall and beautiful women armed and equipped for war. They carried bows, and the children noticed that one side of their chests was flatter than the other. And the procession went on and on, passing along the bridge and through the golden gate, till Cathay grew quite dizzy; and at last Mavis said, "Oh, your Majesty, do stop them. I'm sure there are heaps, and we shall be too late if we wait for any more."
So the Queen stopped the procession and they went back to the Palace, where the Queen of the Amazons greeted Joan of Arc and the other ladies as though they were old acquaintances.
In a few moments their plans were laid. I wish I could describe to you the great fight between the Nice Book People and the others. But I have not time, and, besides, the children did not see all of it, so I don't see why you should. It was fought out in the Palace gardens. The armies were fairly evenly matched as to numbers, because the Bookworms had let out a great many Barbarians, and these, though not so unpleasant as Mr Murdstone and Mrs Fairchild, were quite bad enough. The children were not allowed to join in the battle, which they would dearly have liked to do. Only from a safe distance they heard the sound of steel on steel, the whir of arrows, and the war-cries of the combatants. And presently a stream of fugitives darkened the pearly pathways, and one could see the heroes with drawn swords following in pursuit.
And then, among those who were left, the shouts of war turned suddenly to shouts of laughter, and the Merlish Queen herself moved towards the battlefield. And as she drew near she, too, laughed. For, it would seem, the Amazons had only shot their arrows at the men among their foes - they had disdained to shoot the women, and so good was their aim that not a single woman was wounded. Only, when the Book Hatefuls had been driven back by the Book Heroes the Book Heroines advanced and, without more ado, fell on the remaining foes. They did not fight them with swords or spears or arrows or the short, sharp knives they wore - they simply picked up the screaming Bookwomen and carried them back to the books where they belonged. Each Amazon caught up one of the foe and, disregarding her screaming and scratching, carried her back to the book where she belonged, pushed her in, and shut the door.
Boadicea carried Mrs Markham and her brown silk under one bare, braceleted arm as though she had been a naughty child. Joan of Arc made herself responsible for Aunt Fortune, and the Queen of the Amazons made nothing of picking up Miss Murdstone, beads and all, and carrying her in her arms like a baby. Torfrida's was the hardest task. She had, from the beginning, singled out Alftruda, her old and bitter enemy, and the fight between them was a fierce one, though it was but a battle of looks. Yet before long the fire in Torfrida's great dark eyes seemed to scorch her adversary; she shrank before it, and shrank and shrank till at last she turned and crept back to her book and went in of her own accord, and Torfrida shut the door.
"But," said Mavis, who had followed her, "don't you live in the same book?"
"Not quite," she said. "That would be impossible. I live in a different edition, where only the Nice People are alive. In hers it is the nasty ones."
"And where is Hereward?" Cathay asked, before Mavis could stop her, "I do love him, don't you?"
"Yes," said Torfrida, "I love him. But he is not alive in the book where I live. But he will be-he will be."
And smiling and sighing, she opened her book and went into it, and the children went slowly back to the Palace. The fight was over, the Book People had gone back into their books, and it was almost as though they had never left them - not quite, for the children had seen the faces of the heroes, and the books where these lived could never again now be the same to them. All books, indeed, would now have an interest far above any they had ever held before - for any of these people might be found in any book. You never know.
The Princess Freia met them in the Palace courtyard, and clasped their bands and called them the preservers of the country, which was extremely pleasant. She also told them that a slight skirmish had been fought on the Mussel-beds south of the city, and the foe had retreated.
"But Reuben tells me," she added- "that boy is really worth his weight in pearls-that the main body are to attack at midnight. We must sleep now, to be ready for the call of duty when it comes. Sure you understand your duties? And the power of your buttons and your antidotes? I might not have time to remind you later. You can sleep in the armoury - you must be awfully tired. You'll be asleep before you can say Jack Sprat."
So they lay down on the seaweed, heaped along one end of the Oysters' armoury, and were instantly asleep.
It may have been their natures, or it may have been the influence of the magic coats. But, whatever the cause, it is certain that they lay down without fear, slept without dreams, and awoke without alarm when an Oyster corporal touched their arms and whispered, "Now!"
They were wideawake on the instant, and started up, picking their oyster shields from the ground beside them.
"I feel just like a Roman soldier," Cathay said. "Don't you?"
And the others owned that so far as they knew the feelings of a Roman soldier, those feelings were their own.
The shadows of the guardroom were changed and shifted and flung here and there by the torches carried by the busy Oysters. Phosphorescent fish these torches were, and gave out a moony light like that of the pillars in the Cave of Learning. Outside the Lobster-guarded arch the water showed darkly clear. Large phosphorescent fish were twined round pillars of stone, rather like the fish you see on the lampposts on the Thames Embankment, only in this case the fish were the lamps. So strong was the illumination that you could see as clearly as you can on a moonlit night on the downs, where there are no trees to steal the light from the landscape and bury it in their thick branches.
All was hurry and bustle. The Salmoners had sent a detachment to harass the flank of the enemy, and the Sea-urchins, under the command of Reuben, were ready in their seaweed disguises.
There was a waiting time, and the children used it to practise with their shells, using the thick stems of seaweed - thick as a man's arm - to represent the ankles of the invading force, and they were soon fairly expert at the trick which was their duty. Francis had just nipped an extra fat stalk and released it again by touching the secret spring when the word went round, "Every man to his post!"
The children proudly took up their post next to the Princess, and hardly had they done so when a faint yet growing sound knocked gently at their ears. It grew and grew and grew till it seemed to shake the ground on which they stood, and the Princess murmured, "It is the tramp of the army of the Under Folk. Now, be ready. We shall lurk among these rocks. Hold your good oyster-shell in readiness, and when you see a foot near you clip it, and at the same time set down the base of the shell on the rock. The trusty shell will do the reat."
"Yes, we know, thank you, dear Princess," said Mavis. "Didn't you see us practising?"
But the Princess was not listening; she had enough to do to find cover for her troops among the limpet-studded rocks.
And now the tramp, tramp, tramp of the great army sounded nearer and more near, and through the dimly-lighted water the children could see the great Deep Sea People advancing.
Very terrible they were, big beyond man-size, more stalwart and more finely-knit than the Forlorn Hopers who had led the attack so happily and gloriously frustrated by the Crabs, the Narwhals and the Sea-urchins. As the advance guard drew near all the children stared, from their places of concealment, at the faces of these terrible foes of the happy Merland. Very strong the faces were, and, surprisingly, very, very sad. They looked - Francis at least was able to see it - like strong folk suffering proudly an almost intolerable injury-bearing, bravely, an almost intolerable pain.
"But I'm on the other side," he told himself, to check a sudden rising in his heart of - well, if it was not sympathy, what was it?
And now the head of the advancing column was level with the Princess. True to the old tradition which bids a commander to lead and not to follow his troops, she was the first to dart out and fix a shell to the heel of the left-rank man. The children were next. Their practice bore its fruit. There was no blunder, no mistake. Each oyster-shell clipped sharp and clean the attached ankle of an enemy; each oyster-shell at the same moment attached itself firmly to the rock, thus clinging to his base in the most thorough and military way. A spring of joy and triumph welled up in the children's hearts. How easy it was to get the better of these foolish Deep Sea Folk. A faint, kindly contempt floated into the children's minds for the Mer-people, who so dreaded and hated these stupid giants. Why, there were fifty or sixty of them tied by the leg already! It was as easy as-
The pleasant nature of these reflections had kept our four rooted to the spot. In the triumphant performance of one duty they failed to remember the duty that should have followed. They stood there rejoicing in their victory, when by all the rules of the Service they should have rushed back to the armoury for fresh weapons.
The omission was fatal. Even as they stood there rejoicing in their cleverness and boldness and in the helpless anger of the enemy, something thin and string-like spread itself round them - their feet caught in string, their fingers caught in string, string tweaked their ears and flattened their noses - string confined their elbows and confused their legs. The Lobster-guarded doorway seemed farther off - and farther, and farther.... They turned their heads; they were following backwards, and against their will, a retreating enemy.
"Oh, why didn't we do what she said?" breathed Cathay. "Something's happened!"
"I should think it had," said Bernard. We're caught - in a net."
They were. And a tall Infantry-man of the Under Folk was towing them away from Merland as swiftly and as easily as a running child tows a captive air-balloon.
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