" Of course we 'll do just what you like," I said hospitably; but already I was beginning to feel my liberty of action somewhat curtailed by this exigent visitor I had so rashly admitted into my sanctum.
"I don't think we'd boat at all," she finally decided. " It's always so wobbly. Where do you come to next?"
" You go up the steps," I continued, " and in at the door, and the very first place you come to is the Chocolate-room !"
She brightened up at.this, and I heard her murmur with gusto, " Chocolate-room ! "
" It's got every sort of chocolate you can think of," I went on: " soft chocolate, with sticky stuff inside, white and pink, what girls like; and hard shiny chocolate, that cracks when you bite it, and takes such a nice long time to suck! "
" I like the soft stuff best," she said: "'cos you can eat such a lot more of it!"
This was to me a new aspect of the chocolate question, and I regarded her with interest and some respect. With us, chocolate was none too common a thing, and, whenever we happened to come by any, we resorted to the quaintest devices in order to make it last out. Still, legends had reached us of children who actually had, from time to time, as much chocolate as they could possibly eat; and here, apparently, was one of them.
" You can have all the creams," I said magnanimously, " and I 'll eat the hard sticks, 'cos I like 'em best."
" Oh, but you must n't! " she cried impetuously. " You must eat the same as I do ! It is n't nice to want to eat different. I'll tell you what - you must give me all the chocolate, and then I'll give you - I'll give you what you ought to have ! "
" Oh, all right," I said, in a subdued sort of way. It seemed a little hard to be put under a sentimental restriction like this in one's own Chocolate-room.
"In the next room you come to," I proceeded, " there's fizzy drinks ! There's a marble-slab business all round the room, and little silver taps; and you just turn the right tap, and have any kind of fizzy drink you want."
" What fizzy drinks are there ?" she inquired.
" Oh, all sorts," I answered hastily, hurrying on. (She might restrict my eatables, but I 'd be hanged if I was going to have her meddle with my drinks.) " Then you go down the corridor, and at the back of the palace there's a great big park - the finest park you ever saw. And there's ponies to ride on, and carriages and carts; and a little railway, all complete, engine and guard's van and all; and you work it yourself, and you can go first-class, or in the van, or on the engine, just whichever you choose."
" I'd go on the engine," she murmured dreamily. " No, I would n't, I'd -"
" Then there's all the soldiers," I struck in. Really the line had to be drawn somewhere, and I could not have my railway system disorganised and turned upside down by a mere girl. " There's any quantity of 'em, fine big soldiers, and they all belong to me. And a row of brass cannons all along the terrace ! And every now and then I give the order, and they fire off all the guns ! "
" No, they don't," she interrupted hastily. " I won't have 'em fire off any guns! You must tell 'em not to. I hate guns, and as soon as they begin firing I shall run right away! "
"But -but that's what they're there for," I protested, aghast.
" I don't care," she insisted. " They must n't do it. They can walk about behind me if they like, and talk to me, and carry things. But they mustn't fire off any guns."
I was sadly conscious by this time that in this brave palace of mine, wherein I was wont to swagger daily, irresponsible and unquestioned, I was rapidly becoming- so to speak-a mere lodger. The idea of my fine big soldiers being told ofY to " carry things " ! I was not inclined to tell her any more, though there still remained plenty more to tell.
" Any other boys there ?" she asked presently, in a casual sort of way.
"Oh yes," I unguardedly replied. " Nice chaps, too. We'll have great -" Then I recollected myself. " We 'll play with them, of course," I went on. "But you are going to be my friend, are n't you ? And you 'll come in my boat, and we 'll travel in the guard's van together, and I'll stop the soldiers firing off their guns ! "
But she looked mischievously away, and - do what I would - I could not get her to promise.
Just then the striking of the village clock awoke within me another clamorous timepiece, reminding me of mid-day mutton a good half-mile away, and of penalties and curtailments attaching to a late appearance. We took a hurried farewell of each other, and before we parted I got from her an admission that she might be gardening again that afternoon, if only the worms would be less aggressive and give her a chance.
" Remember," I said as I turned to go, " you must n't tell anybody about what I've been telling you ! "
She appeared to hesitate, swinging one leg to and fro while she regarded me sideways with half-shut eyes.
" It's a dead secret," I said artfully. " A secret between us two, and nobody knows it except ourselves! "
Then she promised, nodding violently, big-eyed, her mouth pursed up small. The delight of revelation, and the bliss of possessing a secret, run each other very close. But the latter generally wins - for a time.
I had passed the mutton stage and was weltering in warm rice pudding, before I found leisure to pause and take in things generally; and then a glance in the direction of the window told me, to my dismay, that it was raining hard. This was annoying in every way, for, even if it cleared up later, the worms - I knew well from experience - would be offensively numerous and frisky. Sulkily I said grace and accompanied the others upstairs to the schoolroom; where I got out my paint-box and resolved to devote myself seriously to Art, which of late I had much neglected. Harold got hold of a sheet of paper and a pencil, retired to a table in the corner, squared his elbows, and protruded his tongue. Literature had always been his form of artistic expression.