CORA was only a little girl, then, but she still remembers the day Uncle made it run for the first time. She was there when it happened, and she saw the whole thing. It rolled out of the barn, and right on down the cart road, neat as could be. Nobody believed he could do it. They were all struck dumb with surprise. Except Cora — but of course she knew it was magic.
First there was the day Cora tried to tell Mama about the birds’ tea party. She tried to find someone in the house who would listen to her. But they were all busy, all of them, with their own affairs, and none of them seemed to see the way she felt about it. Cora says it was often like that with the family.
Cora was swinging in the old rope swing, sailing high through the air. On the upswing she held her head back so that the whirling world tipped and slid away from her. On the downswing the ground rushed up at Cora. She kept thinking how some day something strange might happen, and the ground would reach her before the swing touched the starting place again. It hadn’t yet, but you couldn’t tell when it might.
She was ‘letting the old cat die,’ slowly dropping down through the branches of the buckeye tree, with their big, starshaped leaves, when the idea came into her head, just like that! All the birds Cora had seen were so very hungry all the time. All they did was eat; and the baby birds in the nests she saw as she swung through the treetops were the hungriest of all. Cora thought she would have a party, and just let them eat until they were full.
So Cora scrambled off the swing and went to ask Mrs. Garetty, in the kitchen, what birds liked to eat. She knew they liked worms for every day. But for a treat what did they like?
On her way to the house, Cora passed the barn. Leaving the path, the little girl tiptoed across the grass and edged around to the rear. Would it still be there, looming up in the dim shed — that strange and magical occupant? Cora’s blood hung motionless in her veins as she knelt and applied her eye to the peephole she had dug for herself at ground level. Yes! There it was, secret and safe! She could just make out its dark bulk, a shining chain, and something that looked like wheels.
Cora stole over so often to look at it that she began to carry a telltale patch of dirt around her right eye. But she never told a soul. She imagined that only she and Uncle in all the world knew what was hidden in the barn.
Mrs. Garetty was standing ironing in the kitchen. Cora had forgotten it was ironing day. She knew without looking at Mrs. Garetty that her face would be all pink and funny. And sure enough, that was the way Mrs. Garetty looked.
As Cora came into the big cool room, Mrs. Garetty fished out a petticoat from the basket under the table and slipped it over the board. Cora heard her mutter, ‘There’s not enough grief in the world, but I must work for folk with three daughters, and each one with her five slips in the wash every week. And a loony in the family into the bargain. Him and his overalls and his grease and oil!’ Mrs. Garetty threw a dark glance at the basement door. ‘A pity he’s nothing better to do than fiddle with his nonsense, and make work for others to clean up. Him and his clutter!’
Cora knew Mrs. Garetty meant Uncle, who spent all day in the basement working on something he called The Engine. But Cora didn’t see why Mrs. Garetty cared. Uncle was quiet down there most of the time, and when those coughing, spluttering noises did come once in a while it made Cora think of lions and snowstorms, and a funny prickling went up her arms and all over her. Maybe, though, Mrs. Garetty didn’t like to prickle.
‘What’s a loony?’ Cora asked.
‘A loony’s a never-you-mind,’ said Airs. Garetty crossly.
Cora leaned on the table and watched the iron swim in and out of the ruffles on Ellen’s petticoat. It was Ellen’s best petticoat, the one she wore to Elocution Class. Sometimes Cora went into her sister’s room and watched her practise her gestures. Ellen was fifteen and a grown lady. Sometimes Ellen took off her dress and stood in her petticoats to practise, when her sleeves and collar and waistband kept her from gesturing properly. Cora loved Ellen very much, and she wanted everything to be right for her, even to the ruffles on her petticoat.
‘Mrs. Garetty, what do birds like to eat? For a special treat?’
‘What do birds . . . ! Away with you and your nonsense, girl,’ said Mrs. Garetty, not unkindly. ‘Here — here’s a cookie, child. Now off with you, out of my kitchen.’
Mrs. Garetty was apt to be that way on Tuesdays, so Cora slipped out of the room. She didn’t like to bother Mama, but that was what she’d have to do.
Cora hippety-hopped up the stairs, in a special way she had. She was a thin little girl, light on her feet, and when she hopped on the carpet it gave a little bounce to her steps.
She heard voices coming from the sewing room at the end of the hall. Miss Emler, the seamstress, and Mama and Belle were in there, and Cora could hear all the way down the hall that her elder sister was in one of her spells. So that was how Cora managed to loiter so long in the doorway before they saw her.
Sure enough, Miss Emler, kneeling on the floor at Belle’s feet, was having a time of it, fitting her. Miss Emler was a little woman in brown, with a face like a baby bird’s — all beak and soft round eyes. Her mouth was full of pins, now, and she patiently crawled around after Belle as the red-haired girl switched from side to side. Of course, Miss Emler had sewn for the family for years, or Belle wouldn’t have been so outspoken in front of her.
‘I declare, Mama, I think it’s a shame. I never was so mortified in my life.’ Belle’s words came with a rush. ‘Uncle came right in the parlor as bold as brass, in front of everybody, the Gillespies and Alice Tait and all, and he deliberately began telling them about that — that—contraption of his! I felt like sinking through the floor.’
Belle looked very sorry for herself.
‘Now, Belle,’ said Mama, briskly, ‘don’t go making mountains out of molehills. Uncle has a right to his hobby, I guess! You sing — Uncle invents!’
‘But Mama! Singing’s — well, everyone sings! But mama! No one invents!’
‘Your uncle does,’ sighed Mama.
Then she caught sight of Cora, leaning against the doorjamb, swinging her foot.
‘Ahem,’ she coughed. ‘Little pitchers!’ And then, ‘Mercy, child, you’re all crumbs and dirt again. Come here till I give you a good going over. Wherever do you pick up such a dirty face!’ Cora went over and stood in front of Mama, looking up into her face while Mama wiped her off with a handkerchief.
‘Mama,’Cora asked, ‘what do birds like to eat? Beside worms?’
‘Hmm?’ said Mama absently.
‘What do birds—’ But Mama was busy tying Cora’s hair ribbon, and tidying her long brown hair. It was often that way. You could talk to Ellen some, and to Uncle, and to Grandmother, of course. But though Mama’s shoulder was so soft and warm to lean against, and her eyes so blue and bright, she hardly ever seemed to hear you when you tried to tell her anything. Instead Mama always had something she wanted to say herself. Cora didn’t care; she liked to listen to Mama’s voice. It had a little purring burr in it, even when Mama was calm, but when she was excited or angry the burr matched the sparks that flew out of her eyes. When that happened, Mrs. Garetty said, ‘Your ma’s got her Scotch up.'
Uncle’s eyes were like that, too, but, though they could spark as well as hers, they had a look that Mama’s never did — a sort of dark burning. . . .
‘What’s a loony, Mama?’
‘Where did you hear that word?’
‘Mrs. Garetty. She said, “A loony’s a never-you-mind.” Then what’s a neveryou-mind? Is it a make-believe?’ Cora asked carefully.
Belle burst out, ‘There! You see! Even the help . . . The choir’s coming here to rehearse to-morrow afternoon, and if Uncle mortifies me again, I’ll — I’ll—'
Belle shut her eyes and clenched her hands. Cora knew that next Belle would begin one of her stamping fits, when she shook her head until all the hairpins flew out, and drummed her feet on the floor. Mama knew it, too, because she said hastily, ‘Now, now, Belle! Take a grip on yourself. I’ll speak to your father when he comes home, and we’ll see what can be done about it.’
Cora ran out of the sewing room and down the hall. The door of Ellen’s room was open and Cora saw her sister sitting on the floor, in a pool of sunlight, drying her hair. It fell over her shoulders in a cloud, and Ellen’s white arms lifted it up and shook it, lifted it up and shook it, over and over. Cora went in and lay on the floor. Ellen’s cheeks were pink as roses, and in her rosy dressing gown Cora thought she looked just like a big bright peony-rose.
When her arms tired, Ellen crossed them over her breast and rocked herself back and forth, smiling to herself. Then she rose and walked to the mirror. Suddenly she laughed and flung her hair wide in a great fan. She whirled round and round the room. Pirouetting, she stooped and kissed Cora on the cheek. She whispered, ‘Joel’s calling for me. He wants me to go driving with him.’
Ellen floated to the window and knelt down with her arms crossed on the sill, and her head on her arms. Cora slowly followed, and the sisters looked out together at the sun-drenched springtime world. Through the buzzing noon rose the clatter of a lawn mower, and the smell of new-cut grass. A horse clipclopped down the cobbles. From time to time a strangled coughing and snoring rose from below.
‘I don’t care,’ said Ellen. ‘I think Uncle’s a sweet! I don’t care — ‘
‘What’s a loony, Ellen?’
‘Oh, a loony’s someone who’s daft, chicken.’
So that was it. Cora understood better now. Because if Uncle was daft, then she was daft, too. Often Mama or Papa shouted at her, ‘Are ye daft, girl?’ when she was doing something perfectly sensible, like putting out a pan of water for Santa’s reindeer. ‘ Bee-bonneted,’ Mama called it.
It was because Uncle was making that Engine in the basement. Uncle showed it to her once, the same day he told her about the thing in the barn. No one could go into the room where Uncle kept The Engine, but one day Cora’s ball had rolled down the cellar steps right to the entrance of Uncle’s workshop. The door was open a crack, and Cora looked in. There was Uncle, bent over something on the table, and singing to himself. When he saw Cora he beckoned for her to come in.
Uncle wasn’t tall like Mama. Uncle was quite short. He had sandy hair standing every which way on his head. His face was rather white. Sometimes his eyes, blue like Mama’s, had that dark burning in them. At these times Uncle spoke softly or not at all.
But at other times his eyes glittered like blue ice, and he laughed and shouted and tossed Cora up in the air. Then he had a lot to say in his burring voice, jerking his words out and waving his arms. But although he sounded very solemn, almost like the minister on Sunday, Cora felt he was really having a sort of joke, all to himself.
To-day was one of the quiet, burning days. Uncle put his hand on The Engine, where it lay before him on the table.
He said gravely, ‘Lass, when you’re a grown woman, the world will be full of these. You’ll see!’
Uncle seemed to forget Cora, and his eyes looked as if he saw something far off.
‘It will change the world,’ he said softly.
The little girl looked at the big black thing made of iron. She tugged at her uncle’s arm.
‘How?’ she asked. ‘How?’
Uncle saw Cora again, and his face broke all up into little wrinkles, he laughed so hard.
‘What would you say to a carriage that ran without any horses to pull it?’
Cora squealed happily.
‘Like a fairy coach!’
‘Very like a fairy coach!’
Cora thought that would be fine. It would be as much fun as riding on the branch of the apple tree when she sat astraddle. The branch was a great bird, a horse, a ship, a swan, sinking and rising. . . . But the fairy chariot would be still more wonderful.
‘When shall we ride in it?’ she asked, faint with longing.
‘Any day now. Any day,’ Uncle had answered.
‘Uncle,’ she whispered, ‘will it be like — the one in the barn?’
‘Eh, what’s that? How did you find out what’s in the barn?’ Uncle looked at her sharply.
‘I peeked,’ said Cora in a tiny voice.
But Uncle hadn’t been angry after all. He just leaned over and patted Cora’s cheek. And then he whispered, ‘I’ll tell you a secret. That is the fairy coach! ‘
And that was how Cora knew that the thing in the barn was enchanted.
Now, at her side by the open window, dozing in the sun, Ellen stirred and said, ‘Suppose — just suppose it really works. It’s just a dream, of course. But dreams come true — sometimes.’ The girl’s eyes rested on Joel’s house up on the hill, brave in its red and white awnings, with the splendid iron deer on the lawn, and the fountain throwing up its sparkling jets into the summer air.
Below them they heard the door slam. Papa was home. Then the gong chimed, and they all trooped in to dinner — all but Uncle.
Papa said grace and they started on the soup. ‘No use waiting for him and letting our dinner spoil,’ said Papa, and Mama agreed with him. When the volley of explosions began, snorting and popping, and then dying away, Papa glared, and Mama sat with her mouth all screwed up. Any minute now the sparks would fly.
Papa drummed on the table and muttered, ‘Can’t a man have a little peace and quiet in his own home, without that eternal racket?’ Belle whispered to Ellen, ‘I know something you don’t know! Something about Joel.’
‘Well . . . Joel-says-Uncle’s-a-crackpot! I-heard-him-tell-the-minister. So there! ‘
Mama said, ‘Stop whispering, girls!’
‘Mama,’ said Belle, ‘you know what you promised!’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Mama. ‘Pa, I’d like to sec you after dinner in the study.’
The wheezing and groaning from below rose to a shattering paroxysm of hiccoughs.
‘Is it important?’ shouted Papa through the din.
‘Very!’ Mama shouted back, as the vibration from The Engine set all her Coalport teacups dancing in their saucers on the whatnot.
Suddenly the racket subsided to a steady throbbing, like the pulsing of a heart, and the room steadied round its beat.
That morning Miss Emler had just finished making Belle a bloomer suit, and from time to time Belle glanced down approvingly at her blue serge legs.
‘Well, young lady,’ said her father, ‘and where do you think you’re going in that rig?’
‘Oh, Pa! Everyone’s wearing them! They’re all the go!’
‘Well, my daughter don’t go in them! They don’t go with me!’
And just then Uncle stood in the doorway. Now his eyes were glittering like blue ice, and his smile dazzled them all.
‘Don’t, distress yourself, Arthur. After this afternoon,’ said Uncle, ‘no one will bicycle any more.’
‘What in the world do you mean?’ cried Mama, while the others just stared.
‘Don’t you hear it? Don’t you hear it?’ Uncle gave a flourish toward the basement, where The Engine pulsed.
‘Listen! It’s the death rattle of the one-horse shay! It’s the death knell of the bicycle! It’s the birth cry of a new age! Huzzah!’
Uncle laughed and threw his mechanic’s cap over the chandelier.
‘The man’s daft!’ said Mama shortly.
‘Sit down to your meal, man!’ said Papa.
‘No food till the baby’s delivered!’ cried Uncle.
‘Ssh!’ said Mama. ‘Think of the children! ‘
‘I am.’ And, pointing a finger at the girls, Uncle said, ‘Mark you well, chicks, you’ll see a sight you’ll long remember!’
‘Pooh!’ said Belle.
‘Oh, keep quiet, Belle,’ said Ellen.
‘Belle, you’d best give away those bicycle pants to the handy man, I’m telling you.’
‘Balderdash!’ muttered Papa, as he sipped his coffee.
‘Sit down and stop your blethering,’ said Mama.
Turning to Ellen, Uncle said, ‘Anywhere you want to drive in my contraption? Give me the word and we’re off.’
‘What in?’ demanded Papa. ‘You can’t ride through the air on an engine, like a witch on a broomstick!’
Cora said clearly, ‘Tell them about the fairy coach, Uncle.’
Uncle threw back his head and laughed.
‘Just you wait! Be on deck at three o’clock to-morrow, and I’ll promise you a feat of magic! The Magic Carpet? The Flying Dutchman? Why, they’re not in it with your uncle! ‘ He winked at Cora. ‘Three sharp, mind, for the demonstration of wizardry.’
‘When?’ cried Belle. ‘When did you say?’
‘Around three, niece.’
‘Oh!’ wailed Belle. ‘The very worst time! Oh, oh!’
‘I declare,’ cried Mama. ‘Have you no consideration for others at all? Tinker with your games if you must, but don’t go making a spectacle of yourself to shame other folk!’ You could almost see Mama’s sparks dancing around Uncle’s head.
‘What’s all this?’ demanded Papa.
‘ Belle’s choir’s coming to-morrow afternoon and —’
‘And I might offend the unco genteel,’ finished Uncle. ‘Belle and Meg, you can tell them we’ll make our fortune with the contraption. That ought to pacify them.’
‘Make our fortune! Mmhmm! I’ve heard that before!’ sniffed Mama.
‘Papa!’ wailed Belle. ‘Can’t you— ‘
‘Now Belle,’ said Papa, rising briskly from the table and wiping his moustache, ‘we’ll have no more of that. Go to your room.’
Belle rushed out of the room and up the stairs. They could hear her drumming her feet on the floor above their heads.
Uncle disappeared again into the cellar. Looking rather pink, Mama followed Papa into the hall. ‘What else could I do, Arthur? Belle’s so flighty.’
‘Stuff and nonsense, Meg!’ said Papa as he pulled on his gloves. ‘You pamper the girl. I’ll have no daughter of mine indulging her whims like that. I hope he stages his demonstration right under the nose of her precious choir. I shan’t interfere. Be good for her. Teach her self-control.’
Papa put on his hat and picked up his silver-headed cane. ‘Discipline,’ he said. ‘That’s what’s needed. Discipline’s the thing.’ And, kissing Mama firmly on the forehead, Papa left the house.
Next day dinner was serenity itself. There was no muttering, no shouting and scolding, no scowls or tears. The Engine had been removed to the barn, and the family heard only its distant chuf-chufchuf as they dined.
After dinner Cora made straight for her grandmother’s room, up in the tower. Grandmother never came downstairs any more. Instead she lived remote and withdrawn from the life of the house. She was a straight, spare old lady, with sharp black eyes that saw right down to your marrow in one flicker of an eyelid. When she was young, Grandma had been one of the first women nurses in England. She’d come all the way from Scotland to London to nurse in a plague, and she’d been considered a forward, bold hussy, forgetting her station and her sex in that unbecoming way. Now she was old; she sat all day in a chair and had plenty of time to answer all Cora’s questions.
To-day Cora had something to tell Grandmother — something wonderful, a magic something that sped her steps up the stair.
As she entered her grandmother’s room, a familiar sense came over her of inhabiting a world that she and her grandmother shared between them, close, warm, secret. There in their niches sat the shells, with the ocean’s voice held fast inside. There was the crimson bird, and the tinsel tree. There was the stereoscope, the plaster egg, and the little kettle that sang when it boiled. And there was Grandmother’s self, in her stiff black dress that rustled, knitting in her chair. To-day Grandmother had a listening and waiting look.
When she saw Cora, Grandmother asked, ‘Wha’s a’ the clishmaclaver gangin’ on i’ the hoose?’ When Cora heard her grandmother speaking in broad Scotch she knew the old lady must be greatly moved by something.
‘It’s Uncle,’ said Cora.
‘I hae nae doot! They’ll aye haud fast to the auld and spurn the new.’
Cora leaned against the old lady’s knees, tracing the pattern in the Paisley shawl that covered them.
‘Grandmother,’ she whispered. And then she told about the magic coach. Grandmother smiled and nodded.
’Did you know, Grandmother?’
‘I had an inkling.’
Grandmother knitted in silence for a while, and when she spoke again she seemed to have forgotten Cora.
‘He was never like the rest, from the time he crept out of the cradle and put foot to the floor. Never one of thae larruping, roistering bairns. Na — he with his wee whey-face! He’d sit for half the day tinkering with his bits of toys, or whatever else he could lay his hand to.’
‘What did he play with, Grandma? A top?’
‘A bonny wee top that outspun the other lads. He built it himself. And a kite he flew from the beach. I can see it yet, spinning away and away into the sky, and him running and howking beneath it on the sand.’ Grandmother seemed suddenly strange and remote.
Wondering, Cora turned to the shells. Lifting one from its niche, she held it to her ear. There in the shell she heard a call — a message coming faintly from a distant shore, where a boy ran in the wind. Cora sank to the floor at her grandmother’s feet, the shell at her ear, and her head pulsing to the roar of those ancient waves. Now Cora and her grandmother truly lived in an enchanted world, as they sat, content, dozing, rapt in their dream.
Then, suddenly, a great clattering sounded from below — a jangling, tinpannish sound. Cora ran to the window; the sound was coming from inside the barn! The barn doors flew open as Cora watched, and there on the sill stood the strangest carriage Cora had ever seen. It looked quite a lot like a pony cart, square and open, except that it had four wheels instead of just two. You got in at the back, like a pony cart too — but the seats! There were two of them, and they sat back to back. So one person looked forward, riding in a cart like that, and one looked backward.
The carriage was painted black, — shining, gleaming black, — and it had bright red wheels. There was a sort of wand that stood up in front. Now Uncle appeared from the barn. He climbed to the front seat and took the wand in his hand. The shining black and scarlet coach took wings and flew down the little slope, making a sighing noise as it went. It came to rest in the driveway and there it sat, waiting. Downstairs Cora could hear the choir practising. A subdued chanting rose and fell in waves of sound through the house.
Uncle climbed down from the coach. He went around to the front and began winding the coach up, just like a top or a clock. He wound and he wound, setting his feet and grunting. He got very red in the face, and began to talk quietly to the coach. From time to time it answered him, giving a little wheezing cough and sigh before it settled again into silence.
Cora remembers it all perfectly, as she remembers everything about that sunny, windy day, even to the way the boisterous rising wind from the lake flapped the awnings, and raked last year’s scraps and leaves from the gutters, shouting as it tossed them high. Bicyclers put their heads down as they bore into the wind, and women clutched at their hats that day.
Above the wind’s voice rose the shrill cries of children. There came a final shout from the choir below. And then through these other sounds rose a great triumphant roar. It soared and sobbed, and drowned out all the rest. It filled that little universe with its voice.
Cora saw that the carriage was shaking and trembling as if it were alive. That tremendous sound was coming from inside it. And look! There was Uncle, sitting right up there in the front seat! Now came another roar, and then the engine settled to a steady throbbing.
Belle’s choir rushed out on the porch, and all the people on the street stopped where they were.
‘Anyone game for a spin?’called Uncle.
No one answered. Uncle doffed his cap, with a sweeping bow, amid silence.
‘Free passage to glory!’ he said. ‘Any takers?’
Cora heard a few smothered laughs from the crowd below. On the sidewalk people nudged each other. Then she heard Ellen’s voice calling, ‘Uncle! Uncle! Wait for me!’ And there was Ellen, running lightly across the grass. ‘I’ll go with you.’
‘What about your beau? Don’t you want to wait for him?’
‘He isn’t my beau,’ said Ellen clearly, and she stepped up into the carriage.
The car shuddered and pulsed there in the driveway, while everyone waited and watched. Uncle grew a little white, and Ellen was red as a rose. Then, before all the staring eyes, the thing gathered itself together. It moved! Yes, it rolled right down the path and out into the cart road, as neat as you please.
‘Grandmother! Grandmother!’ cried Cora. ‘It’s going! The coach is going!’ And the little girl spun on her heel and ran down the hall, pell-mell. Down the three flights of stairs she ran and into the street. The choir had left the porch. They joined the crowd in the street and all of them ran along beside the car as it went. Cora ran with them.
The wind, urging them on from behind, hurried them down the street, bunched all together like so many fallen leaves. A hubbub rose from the crowd. There was laughter, and cheering, and cries of ‘Where’s the horse!’ There were catcalls and booing and shouting. Dogs barked, horses shied, babies cried, and ladies fainted.
Running along in the crowd, Cora caught sight of Ellen as the carriage passed. She saw her sister’s tight lips and the hands clenched in her lap. She saw, too, her head held high. And then she saw Uncle, with his burning eyes staring ahead of him. On his pale face sat joy and pride and a sort of wonder.
Now the car left the crowd behind, and as they stood there, silent and staring after it, the first automobile passed away from them down the sunlit street. And, as Cora watched, a formless and wordless something stirred and drew its initial breath in her heart.