CHERRY HONEY, with her father and mother, and a half-score of brothers and sisters, lived in a little hut at Trereen, in the parish of Zennor. They were very poor people, terribly poor, for all they had to live on was what they could get out of a few acres of ground that they owned, — ground as barren as any you could find thereabouts, and that is saying a good deal. For food they lived mostly on fish and potatoes, except on Sundays, when they had pork, and the broth it was boiled in; and twice a year, at Christmas and Feast-Day, they had, as a great luxury, white bread.
Whether fish and potatoes make people strong, or whether the air at Trereen was specially good, I can’t tell, but sure enough it is that all Tom Honey’s children grew up into fine, handsome men and women, and not one weakly one amongst them.
They were a lively crew too, as merry as grigs in spite of the cold and the hunger that they felt pretty often, and the liveliest and merriest of the lot was Cherry. She was full of pranks and mischief, and led the others a pretty life. When the miller’s boy came to know if they wanted to send any corn to be ground, Cherry would slip out, mount his horse, which he left fastened up close by, and off she would go, racing as hard as she could go all along the very edge of the cliff, and away to the Downs, the miller’s boy racing and yelling after her, but he might as well have tried to catch a will-o’-the-wisp.
So Cherry went on very happily, working very hard and playing too, until she reached the age of sixteen or so, when she began to feel a wish to see more life than that lonely moor provided, and have a change from the tiny hut which could not hold a half of them comfortably. She wanted a new gown too, her mother had promised it to her ever since she was thirteen, and she had looked forward to it even more than she did to Feasten-Sunday, for she had never had a new frock in her life. She could not enjoy Feasten-Sunday either, unless she was dressed as nicely as other girls.
Year after year, though, she was disappointed, there was no money and no new dress, and poor Cherry had to content herself with a clean apron over her shabby old frock, which had been patched and mended until there was only one piece of the original left, and no one but Cherry herself could have told which that was.
She was not fit to go to church or to fair, and she felt it very hard that she could never enjoy herself. And then, to make matters worse, her great friend Tamsin Bray, who was a year younger than Cherry, had a beautiful frock all trimmed with ribbons, and she wore it to Nancledry to the preaching there, and had a fine time there, full of adventures and new experiences, as she took care to tell poor Cherry when she came back, making Cherry feel more dissatisfied than ever. She knew she was a prettier girl than Tamsin, and would get more admiration if she only had the chance.
After that cherry could no longer go on bearing things as they were. If her mother couldn’t buy her a new frock, she would go to work, and earn one for herself, she determined. So she told her parents she was going to look for a situation, and nothing they could say could make her change her mind, so they gave up trying to.
“Why don’t ’ee try and get a place down to Towednack?” asked her mother, who wanted her not to go far from home.
“Iss, fay, mother,” answered Cherry sharply, “a likely tale I’m going to live in a place where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they’ve nothing but fish and taties all the year round, except Sundays, when they have conger-pie! Dear no, I’m going where I can get butcher’s meat sometimes, and a bit of saffern cake when I wants it!”
So Cherry packed up her few garments, which made but a very small bundle, and started off, after promising her father not to go too far, and to come home soon. She had been so restless and uneasy, that the poor man thought she was bewitched, or something. He feared, too, that she might get carried off by pirates, for there were many of them about Cornwall in those days, and Cherry was an attractive-looking girl, and rather flighty, as her mother often said.
When Cherry had said “good-bye” and kissed them all, and got outside, she had not the slightest notion which way to go, so she took the road to Ludgvan and Gulval, and walked on briskly enough for a time; but when she turned round for a last look at the old home, and found that it was no longer in sight, she felt so miserable that she had a very good mind to turn round and go back. It was the first time she had ever been away, and she felt very home-sick and lonesome. Indeed, the outlook was enough to damp her spirits and even frighten her, for she had no friends to go to, nor a situation. She did not even know where she should find shelter for that night, and she had only one penny in her pocket. However, she started on again, and trudged along the lonely road until she came to the four cross-roads on the Lady Downs.
Here she paused again, and rested while she tried to make up her mind which of the four roads she should take. All around her the Downs stretched, looking bleak and wild; and all the stories she had ever heard of highwaymen and pirates, witches and fairies, came rushing helter-skelter through her poor brain until she felt too terrified to walk on or to turn back; and at last she sat down on a big stone by the side of the road and burst out crying.
She did cry too, most bitterly, and never stopped until she had made up her mind to retrace her steps, and go home as fast as she could go. Having settled that, she felt much happier, and drying her eyes she started up, only too anxious to get out of that great wilderness. She wondered if her brothers and sisters would laugh at her. Yes, she felt sure they would, but she did not care, she told herself. She would soon play them some trick that would make themlaugh the other side of their faces. Her father and mother would welcome her back gladly, she knew.
So she turned her face towards home, and was trying not to fell ashamed of her want of pluck, — when she saw a gentleman on the road just ahead of her, and walking towards her. She was astonished, and just a little alarmed, for a moment before there was not a soul to be seen. She was so astonished that she quite forgot her manners, and stood staring and staring at the gentleman until he had come quite close to her. Then he stared hard at Cherry, but it was not a rude stare, and he took off his hat so politely, and smiled so pleasantly, that Cherry was quite impressed.
“Can you tell me the way to Towednack?” he asked in a voice as pleasant as his smile.
“Yes, sir,” answered Cherry, curtseying. “If you’ll please to walk a little way with me, sir, I’ll put you on the right road.”
The gentleman thanked her, and as he walked along beside her, he asked which way she was going, and where she lived, and he was so kind and had such a pleasant way with him, that Cherry had soon told him her history, and how she had left home to go to look for a “place,” and how she had felt so lonesome on the Downs, and so home-sick, that she had changed her mind and was going straight back again.
“Well, this is strange!” exclaimed the gentleman. “Of all the good luck this is the greatest! I have come out to-day to see if I can find a good active girl in one of the villages, for I want a servant; and here I find just what I am looking for, a handsome, sharp young woman, cleanly and honest.”
He could judge for himself what sort of a girl Cherry was, by her appearance, and her clean, well-mended frock.
He went on to tell her that he was a widower with one little boy, for whom he wanted a nurse, and would Cherry come and take the post?
He talked for a long time earnestly and winningly. Cherry did not understand a half that he said, but she understood enough to make her feel that this would be a better situation for her than she had ever dreamed of getting, and before very long she consented to go.
The gentleman seemed very pleased, and away they started together at once, the stranger talking very fast all the time, and making himself so entertaining that Cherry never noticed how far they were going, nor in what direction. They walked through such beautiful lanes that it was quite a pleasure to be in them, hung as they were with honeysuckles and roses, and many other beautiful flowers, such as Cherry rarely saw anywhere near her bleak home.
By and by the light began to fail, which rather surprised Cherry, who had no idea the day was so far gone. She had no watch or means of telling the time, so she supposed it was all right, and that she had sat crying longer than she thought. Presently they came to a river, and Cherry wondered how she should cross it, for it had grown so dark by that timeshe could not see stepping-stones, or bridge, or anything.
However, while she was wondering, the gentleman just picked her up in his arms and carried her across, and then on they walked again. They went down, down and down a very steep lane now, a lane which got narrower and narrower, and was so steep and long, Cherry thought it would never end. Not that she minded much, for she did not feel tired, and the gentleman had given her his arm, that she might not stumble, and she felt so excited and happy she could have walked on through the sweet-scented darkness for ever.
She had not much further to go, though, for presently they came to a gate which the gentleman opened. “This is your new home, Cherry,” he said kindly, and Cherry found herself suddenly in the most beautiful garden you can imagine. It was full of lovely flowers and luscious fruits, while flitting about everywhere, or perching on the trees, were birds of all sizes and colours, tiny blue birds, large scarlet birds, some that flashed like silver, and gold, and beaten copper, in the sunlight. For oddly enough the sun was shining brightly in the garden, though it had long been dark outside.
Cherry stood and stared about her in open-eyed amazement. “Dear, dear,” she thought to herself, “ ’tis just like the fairy-tales Gammer tells us winter evenings!” and she began to wonder if she could have got into an enchanted place, and if she should presently see fairies, or enchanted people there. But no, it could not be any fairy-tale, for there was her new master standing by her as big as Farmer Chenoweth, and down the path came running a little boy, calling “Papa! papa!” just as any ordinary mortal child would.
Though, as Cherry said afterwards, there was something uncanny about the child, for he had such an odd, old face and expression, and eyes as cunning as might be, and so bright and piercing they seemed to look you through and through; yet he appeared to be no more than four years old.
Before the child could reach them, an old woman came running out after him, and seizing him by the arm dragged him roughly back to the house. She was a bony, ill-tempered looking old woman, and before she retired, grumbling at the child and shaking him, she favoured Cherry with such an evil glance that the poor girl felt more than half inclined to turn and run right away.
“That’s my late wife’s grandmother,” explained the widower; “she is a cross-grained old catamaran, and the reason she eyed you so unpleasantly is that she knows I have brought you here to take her place. Make haste and learn your work, Cherry, for I want to send the cross old dame about her business,” which was hardly a respectful way in which to speak of his grandmother-in-law.
He took Cherry into the house, which was even more beautiful than the garden; brilliant light, like sunshine, lighted up every room, flowers grew everywhere, mirrors and pictures line the walls, and as forthe ornaments, the carpets, curtains and other beautiful things, you could never believe what their beauty was unless you could see them.
“It is all so grand,” said Cherry to herself, “ ’tis too much to take in all at once. It makes my head swim, and I’d like something to eat for a change.” She was really very, very hungry, for she had had nothing to eat all day but a slice of bread and treacle.
Hardly had the thought come into her head, when Aunt Prudence, — as the old grandmother was called, — began to lay a table with all kinds of delicious food, to which she bade Cherry sit down and eat.
Cherry did not require a second bidding, you may be quite sure, nor did she stop until she had made a very good meal indeed. After that she was told her duties. She was to sleep in the room with the child, and in the morning to take him and bathe him in a spring in the garden. After she had bathed him she was to anoint his eyes with some ointment she would find in a little box in a cleft in the rock. She was to be very careful indeed to put the little box back where she took it from, and on no account to touch her own eyes with it. After that was all done she was to milk the cow, and give the child a basin of the last milk she drew.
You can imagine how all this raised Cherry’s curiosity, and how she longed to get the little boy to tell her about everything, but, as he always threatened to tell Aunt Prudence, directly she asked him a question, she thought it better to hold her tongue, and try to find out things for herself.
When she had been told all her duties, she was conducted to her room by the old lady, who bade her keep her eyes shut, whether she was asleep or not, or she might wish too late that she had. She forbade her, too, to talk to the child about anything. So Cherry was rather frightened by the time she got to bed, and until she fell asleep she kept her eyes and her mouth fast closed, but fortunately, thanks to her tiring day and her good supper, she did not stay awake long.
The next morning as soon as she was awake she got up and began her work, but when she had bathed the boy in the stream to which he led her, and had put the ointment on his eyes, she did not know how to set about her next task, for there was not a cow to be seen anywhere.
“Call her,” said the boy, when she told him her trouble. So Cherry called, “Coo-o, coo-o, cooo-o-o,” just as she did at home, and at once a pretty sleek cow came from somewhere, — it might have been out of the ground, as far as Cherry could tell. Anyhow, there she was, and Cherry sat down and milked her, and gave the boy his breakfast, and when she had done the cow walked away again and disappeared.
After that Cherry went indoors, where the Grandmother provided her with a big breakfast all to herself, after which she told her some more of her duties. Cherry was to keep in the kitchen, and clean the pots and pans with water and sand, scaldthe milk, make the butter, and do anything else she was told. Above all she was to avoid curiosity, to keep to the kitchen, and never try to enter or look into a room that was locked.
Cherry felt this was very hard, for, as I said before, she was full of curiosity, and wanted to find out all she could about these strange people she had got amongst. She could scarcely endure old Aunt Prudence with her scoldings and growlings, for the old woman never ceased grumbling at both the girl and her grandson-in-law for bringing her there.
“I knew Robin would bring some stupid thing from Zennor,” she would say, and she would scowl at Cherry until the girl grew quite nervous. She tried to get as far away from the old woman as she could, but, as Cherry said, the old soul seemed to have eyes all over her head, for she always had one on Cherry, no matter where she was or what she was doing.
The happiest time of Cherry’s life here was when her housework was done, and her master called her to come and help him in the garden; for he was always kind and gentle to her, and always rewarded her with a word of praise.
Aunt Prudence, though, was not always a cross old tyrant; she had her kinder moods, and in one of them she told Cherry that if she was a good girl, and did her work quickly, she would take her into those parts of the house where she had been forbidden to go, and show her some of the wonderful sights of the place!
Oh, how delighted Cherry was, and how she did hurry through her work! She felt that now she was going to be made happy for the rest of her life, and would have nothing left to wish for. She got through her work so quickly, that it was still quite early when they started off together on their sight-seeing.
First of all they came to a door opening out of a passage, and here Aunt Prudence told Cherry to take off her shoes. This done, they opened the door and entered, letting it fall silently behind them. The passage was very low and very dark, and Cherry, who had to feel her way by the wall, felt rather nervous, for she could not see where her next step would take her. Before very long, though, they came to a room where the light was bright, it was a beautiful room, with a floor like glass, but, oh, how frightened Cherry was when she stepped into it! for ranged all round the walls, on shelves or on the floor, were a lot of people turned to stone. Some had no arms, others no legs, while of others there were only the heads and shoulders. Some heads had no ears, others had no noses, and some few were without either.
Oh, it was a horrid sight, and Cherry was terribly frightened lest they should all come to life suddenly, and set on her and tear off her limbs too. She told Aunt Prudence, “she was mortal fear’t of ’em, for she’d heard tell on ’em up to Zennor, and everybody said there was never no knowing what they wouldn’t be up to. She’d thought all along that she’d got in with the Little People, only her master was such a fine upstanding man, she’d never have took him for a fairy.”
Aunt Prudence only laughed at her, and seeing that she really was afraid, took a greater pleasure in making her go further. There was a curious-looking thing standing in the room, like a coffin on six legs, and this Aunt Prudence insisted on Cherry’s giving a good polishing to. So Cherry had to set to and rub it with all her might and main, for she dared not disobey the old lady; but the more she rubbed the more the old lady scolded her to rub harder, and Cherry rubbed harder and harder and harder, until at last she nearly upset the thing. She threw out her arms and seized, but as it tottered it gave out the most soul-piercing, unearthly yell it was possible for anyone ever to hear.
“They’m coming to life! They’m coming to life!” shrieked out Cherry, and from sheer fright she fell on the floor in a fit.
All this noise and uproar reached the master’s ears, and up he came, to know what it was all about. And oh, he was angry when he found out. First of all he ordered Aunt Prudence out of the house then and there, and then he picked up Cherry and carried her to the kitchen, where he soon brought her to her senses again, but, strangely enough, she could not remember what had happened, or why she was there. Her memory of what she had seen had quite gone, and though she was always afraid, after that, to go into that part of the house again, she could not remember in the least why it was, or anything that had happened there.
Cherry felt much happier now, and did not worry herself about it, for Aunt Prudence and her terrifying eye were gone, and she was left sole mistress. So time passed on, and Cherry’s master was so kind to her that the days flew by like hours, and very soon a whole year was gone.
During all this time she had never once thought of her home, or her parents, or her old life. She had everything she could wish, and you would have thought she was bound to be happy; but no, nothing of the sort! She soon grew accustomed to her happiness, and then she began to want the things she had not got. Her curiosity increased every day. She longed to know more about the mysterious part of the house, and a hundred other things that she should never have troubled her head about.
She was particularly anxious to find out all about her master, for his movements were certainly very strange, and puzzled Cherry. He went off every morning soon after his early breakfast, and when he came back he shut himself into the room where the stone figures were, and Cherry was certain, for she had crept up and listened at the door, that she could hear him talking to them!
What could she do to get to know more, she wondered. She thought and thought, and then one day her thoughts flew to the ointment. She had often noticed how very bright and peculiar the little boy’s eyes became after she had anointed them, and that he often seemed able to see things that were hidden from her.
Cherry grew very excited, she felt sure she had discovered the secret. So the next morning, after she had bathed him and given him his breakfast, she sent him away to play for a few minutes, and whisking out the ointment pot again, she brushed the least bit of it over one of her eyes with the tip of her finger.
Oh, how it burned and smarted! and oh, how she did rub her eye and try to get the nasty stuff out! But it would not come. She ran to the stream and knelt down to bathe it, — and as she knelt and looked in the water she saw, at the very bottom, dozens and dozens of little people, playing and dancing, and enjoying themselves as though they were on dry land. And there, too, as gay as any, and as small as any, was her master himself. Bewildered and frightened, Cherry sprang to her feet, but as she turned to run she saw everything was changed. There were Little People everywhere, hanging on the trees overhead, swarming over the ground at her feet, swinging on the flowers, some astride the stalks, others curled up in the cups, all exquisitely dressed, and flashing with gold and jewels; and all as merry as crickets.
Cherry thought she was bewitched sure enough, she was so frightened she did not know what to do.
At night back rode her master, as big and handsome as ever, and very unlike the little piskyman she had seen at the bottom of the water. He went straight up to the locked-up room where the stone figures were, and very soon Cherry heard sounds of most lovely music issuing thence. So things went on day after day, the widower rode off every morning dressed as any ordinary gentleman would be to follow the hounds, and never came back again until night, when he retired at once to his own rooms.
All this was almost too much for poor Cherry’s brain. She felt that if she did not find out more, she should die of curiosity. Knowing so much only made her long to know more.
At last, one night after her master had gone to the enchanted room, Cherry crept up to the door, and instead of only listening at it as usual, she knelt down and peeped through the keyhole, which, for once, was not covered.
Inside the room she saw her master in the midst of a number of ladies, some of whom were singing, and their voices sounded like silver bells; others were walking about, but one, the most beautiful of all, was sitting at the coffin on six legs, performing on it as though it were a piano. She had long dark hair streaming right down to the floor, and a blue gown all trimmed with sparkling silver, her shoes were blue with diamond stars on the toes, and round her neck she had a string of turquoises set in diamonds.
Poor Cherry was very much hurt and mortified when she saw her beloved master with all those lovely ladies, but oh, how miserable she felt when she saw him kiss the lovely lady in blue and silver! She did not say anything, though,— indeed, she had no one to speak to, — and she went about her work as usual, but the next morning when her master came into the garden and began to talk to her as usual she answered him quite shortly and rudely, and when he asked her what was the matter with her, she told him to leave her to herself. If he wanted to talk he could go and talk to the Little People he was so fond of.
Her master was very much surprised and annoyed when he heard this, for he knew that she had been disobedient, and had used the Fairy Ointment. He did not scold her, though, but he told her simply and mournfully, and in a tone which gave her no hope, that they must part.
“You will have to go home, Cherry; you have disobeyed my orders. I can have no one spying and watching me. I must send you away, my child.” he spoke so sadly that cherry’s heart felt as though it must break. “And I must have Aunt Prudence back,” he added, with a sigh.
Very, very unhappy was poor Cherry when she went to bed that night, and she had only just cried herself to sleep when her master came and woke her, telling her to get up and dress. Without a word, but choked with sobs, she obeyed him, and when she was ready she found him waiting for her, with a lantern and a large bundle of beautiful clothes that he had tied up for her.
As soon as they had had some food they started, and miles and miles and miles they walked, for the way seemed ten times as long as when they came. For one thing it was all uphill now, and for another, Cherry’s heart was heavy, and a heavy heart makes heavy feet.
It was nearly daybreak when at last they reached the Lady Downs, and came to a standstill. The sun was just rising over the great lonely moor.
“We must part now, my poor child,” said her master. “You are severely punished for your curiosity, but it cannot be otherwise. Good-bye, Cherry; do your duty, and try to get the better of your failing, and if you are a good girl I will come to these Downs sometimes to see you.”
Then kissing her, he turned away and disappeared as suddenly as he had first appeared.
Dazed and stupefied, scarcely able to realize all the trouble that had befallen her, Cherry sat for a long time where he had left her. In her thoughts she went over and over her happy life for the past year, all that she had had, and lost. By and by the sun came out in its full strength and warmed her, and roused her sufficiently to look about her, and wonder what she should do next, for, of course, she could not stay where she was.
Presently she noticed that she was sitting on the very same stone at the cross-roads where, on the day she left home, she had sat and cried, and the strange gentleman had first appeared to her. The recollection brought back to her more painfully than ever her own foolishness and wickedness, and all that she had lost, and oh, how miserable she did feel, and how she cried and cried, and how she longed and longed for her dear, good master to come again and forgive her.
He did not come, though, and by and by, as the day had worn far on, Cherry felt that she had better seek her home before nightfall. Listlessly enough she rose and trudged along the old familiar roads to her father’s house, with miserable eyes she recognized the old landmarks, but without any pleasure, until at last she came to the poor little hut she called “home.” It looked poorer, and meaner, and more comfortless than ever, after the luxuries she had grown accustomed to. Her mother and all the rest of them were sitting at dinner when Cherry opened the door. At the sound of the latch Mrs. Honey looked up, and gave one big screech.
“Why, ’tis Cherry!” she cried, “or her ghost! Cross, her father. Cross her!” And when Cherry, taking no notice of her screams, advanced into the kitchen, they all backed away from her, one on top of another, each trying to get behind someone else, for they had long since made up their minds that Cherry was dead, and never for a moment dreamed that this apparition was Cherry herself, living flesh and blood.
Not until she flopped into a chair, saying wearily, “Give me a dish of tay, mother, for goodness sake, I’m so wisht I don’t know how to bear with myself.”
“ ’Tisn’t no ghost, mother,” cried Tom Honey, his courage reviving; “no ghost would want such poor trade as tay.”
Then the others plucked up their spirits, too, and crowded around her, asking a dozen questions, and all at the same time; and for the sake of peace and quiet Cherry told them her wonderful adventures from the day she left them, and, as was to be expected, not one believed a word of it.
“The maid’s mazed,” said her father, and the others agreed. But as time went on Cherry repeated the tale so often, and always the same; and she cried so bitterly for her master and his little boy, that they were obliged to believe her, in spite of themselves. “There must be some truth in it,” they said, “it couldn’t all be fancy.”
Poor Cherry! She was never happy again after her experience. Many people said she was bewitched, others declared she was wrong in her mind, but that was only because whenever there was a moonlight night, she wandered on the Lady Downs hour after hour, longing and hoping to see her master. For hours together, too, she would sit on the stone at the four cross-roads, in sunshine or snow, wind or rain, with the tears coursing down her cheeks, and such a pain at her heart, that she hardly knew how to endure it.
He never came, though. To all appearances he had entirely forgotten poor, faulty Cherry, and by and by she died, unable to bear the loneliness any longer.