Read CHAPTER IV. of The Cuckoo Clock, free online book, by Mrs. Molesworth, on ReadCentral.com.

THE COUNTRY OF THE NODDING MANDARINS.

“We’re all nodding, nid-nid-nodding.”

How she managed it she never knew; but, somehow or other, it was managed. She seemed to slide up the chain just as easily as in a general way she would have slidden down, only without any disagreeable anticipation of a bump at the end of the journey. And when she got to the top how wonderfully different it looked from anything she could have expected! The doors stood open, and Griselda found them quite big enough, or herself quite small enough-which it was she couldn’t tell, and as it was all a matter of fancy she decided not to trouble to inquire-to pass through quite comfortably.

And inside there was the most charming little snuggery imaginable. It was something like a saloon railway carriage-it seemed to be all lined and carpeted and everything, with rich mossy red velvet; there was a little round table in the middle and two arm-chairs, on one of which sat the cuckoo-“quite like other people,” thought Griselda to herself-while the other, as he pointed out to Griselda by a little nod, was evidently intended for her.

“Thank you,” said she, sitting down on the chair as she spoke.

“Are you comfortable?” inquired the cuckoo.

“Quite,” replied Griselda, looking about her with great satisfaction. “Are all cuckoo clocks like this when you get up inside them?” she inquired. “I can’t think how there’s room for this dear little place between the clock and the wall. Is it a hole cut out of the wall on purpose, cuckoo?”

“Hush!” said the cuckoo, “we’ve got other things to talk about. First, shall I lend you one of my mantles? You may feel cold.”

“I don’t just now,” replied Griselda; “but perhaps I might.”

She looked at her little bare feet as she spoke, and wondered why they weren’t cold, for it was very chilblainy weather.

The cuckoo stood up, and with one of his claws reached from a corner where it was hanging a cloak which Griselda had not before noticed. For it was hanging wrong side out, and the lining was red velvet, very like what the sides of the little room were covered with, so it was no wonder she had not noticed it.

Had it been hanging the right side out she must have done so; this side was so very wonderful!

It was all feathers-feathers of every shade and colour, but beautifully worked in, somehow, so as to lie quite smoothly and evenly, one colour melting away into another like those in a prism, so that you could hardly tell where one began and another ended.

“What a lovely cloak!” said Griselda, wrapping it round her and feeling even more comfortable than before, as she watched the rays of the little lamp in the roof-I think I was forgetting to tell you that the cuckoo’s boudoir was lighted by a dear little lamp set into the red velvet roof like a pearl in a ring-playing softly on the brilliant colours of the feather mantle.

“It’s better than lovely,” said the cuckoo, “as you shall see. Now, Griselda,” he continued, in the tone of one coming to business-“now, Griselda, let us talk.”

“We have been talking,” said Griselda, “ever so long. I am very comfortable. When you say ‘let us talk’ like that, it makes me forget all I wanted to say. Just let me sit still and say whatever comes into my head.”

“That won’t do,” said the cuckoo; “we must have a plan of action.”

“A what?” said Griselda.

“You see you have a great deal to learn,” said the cuckoo triumphantly. “You don’t understand what I say.”

“But I didn’t come up here to learn,” said Griselda; “I can do that down there;” and she nodded her head in the direction of the ante-room table. “I want to play.”

“Just so,” said the cuckoo; “that’s what I want to talk about. What do you call ’play’-blindman’s-buff and that sort of thing?”

“No,” said Griselda, considering. “I’m getting rather too big for that kind of play. Besides, cuckoo, you and I alone couldn’t have much fun at blindman’s-buff; there’d be only me to catch you or you to catch me.”

“Oh, we could easily get more,” said the cuckoo. “The mandarins would be pleased to join.”

“The mandarins!” repeated Griselda. “Why, cuckoo, they’re not alive! How could they play?”

The cuckoo looked at her gravely for a minute, then shook his head.

“You have a great deal to learn,” he said solemnly. “Don’t you know that everything’s alive?”

“No,” said Griselda, “I don’t; and I don’t know what you mean, and I don’t think I want to know what you mean. I want to talk about playing.”

“Well,” said the cuckoo, “talk.”

“What I call playing,” pursued Griselda, “is-I have thought about it now, you see-is being amused. If you will amuse me, cuckoo, I will count that you are playing with me.”

“How shall I amuse you?” inquired he.

“Oh, that’s for you to find out!” exclaimed Griselda. “You might tell me fairy stories, you know: if you’re a fairy you should know lots; or-oh yes, of course that would be far nicer-if you are a fairy you might take me with you to fairyland.”

Again the cuckoo shook his head.

“That,” said he, “I cannot do.”

“Why not?” said Griselda. “Lots of children have been there.”

“I doubt it,” said the cuckoo. “Some may have been, but not lots. And some may have thought they had been there who hadn’t really been there at all. And as to those who have been there, you may be sure of one thing-they were not taken, they found their own way. No one ever was taken to fairyland-to the real fairyland. They may have been taken to the neighbouring countries, but not to fairyland itself.”

“And how is one ever to find one’s own way there?” asked Griselda.

“That I cannot tell you either,” replied the cuckoo. “There are many roads there; you may find yours some day. And if ever you do find it, be sure you keep what you see of it well swept and clean, and then you may see further after a while. Ah, yes, there are many roads and many doors into fairyland!”

“Doors!” cried Griselda. “Are there any doors into fairyland in this house?”

“Several,” said the cuckoo; “but don’t waste your time looking for them at present. It would be no use.”

“Then how will you amuse me?” inquired Griselda, in a rather disappointed tone.

“Don’t you care to go anywhere except to fairyland?” said the cuckoo.

“Oh yes, there are lots of places I wouldn’t mind seeing. Not geography sort of places-it would be just like lessons to go to India and Africa and all those places-but queer places, like the mines where the goblins make diamonds and precious stones, and the caves down under the sea where the mermaids live. And-oh, I’ve just thought-now I’m so nice and little, I would like to go all over the mandarins’ palace in the great saloon.”

“That can be easily managed,” said the cuckoo; “but-excuse me for an instant,” he exclaimed suddenly. He gave a spring forward and disappeared. Then Griselda heard his voice outside the doors, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.” It was three o’clock.

The doors opened again to let him through, and he re-settled himself on his chair. “As I was saying,” he went on, “nothing could be easier. But that palace, as you call it, has an entrance on the other side, as well as the one you know.”

“Another door, do you mean?” said Griselda. “How funny! Does it go through the wall? And where does it lead to?”

“It leads,” replied the cuckoo, “it leads to the country of the Nodding Mandarins.”

What fun!” exclaimed Griselda, clapping her hands. “Cuckoo, do let us go there. How can we get down? You can fly, but must I slide down the chain again?”

“Oh dear, no,” said the cuckoo, “by no means. You have only to stretch out your feather mantle, flap it as if it was wings-so”-he flapped his own wings encouragingly-“wish, and there you’ll be.”

“Where?” said Griselda bewilderedly.

“Wherever you wish to be, of course,” said the cuckoo. “Are you ready? Here goes.”

“Wait-wait a moment,” cried Griselda. “Where am I to wish to be?”

“Bless the child!” exclaimed the cuckoo. “Where do you wish to be? You said you wanted to visit the country of the Nodding Mandarins.”

“Yes; but am I to wish first to be in the palace in the great saloon?”

“Certainly,” replied the cuckoo. “That is the entrance to Mandarin Land, and you said you would like to see through it. So-you’re surely ready now?”

“A thought has just struck me,” said Griselda. “How will you know what o’clock it is, so as to come back in time to tell the next hour? My aunts will get into such a fright if you go wrong again! Are you sure we shall have time to go to the mandarins’ country to-night?”

“Time!” repeated the cuckoo; “what is time? Ah, Griselda, you have a very great deal to learn! What do you mean by time?”

“I don’t know,” replied Griselda, feeling rather snubbed. “Being slow or quick-I suppose that’s what I mean.”

“And what is slow, and what is quick?” said the cuckoo. “All a matter of fancy! If everything that’s been done since the world was made till now, was done over again in five minutes, you’d never know the difference.”

“Oh, cuckoo, I wish you wouldn’t!” cried poor Griselda; “you’re worse than sums, you do so puzzle me. It’s like what you said about nothing being big or little, only it’s worse. Where would all the days and hours be if there was nothing but minutes? Oh, cuckoo, you said you’d amuse me, and you do nothing but puzzle me.”

“It was your own fault. You wouldn’t get ready,” said the cuckoo. “Now, here goes! Flap and wish.”

Griselda flapped and wished. She felt a sort of rustle in the air, that was all-then she found herself standing with the cuckoo in front of the Chinese cabinet, the door of which stood open, while the mandarins on each side, nodding politely, seemed to invite them to enter. Griselda hesitated.

“Go on,” said the cuckoo, patronizingly; “ladies first.”

Griselda went on. To her surprise, inside the cabinet it was quite light, though where the light came from that illuminated all the queer corners and recesses and streamed out to the front, where stood the mandarins, she could not discover.

The “palace” was not quite as interesting as she had expected. There were lots of little rooms in it opening on to balconies commanding, no doubt, a splendid view of the great saloon; there were ever so many little staircases leading to more little rooms and balconies; but it all seemed empty and deserted.

“I don’t care for it,” said Griselda, stopping short at last; “it’s all the same, and there’s nothing to see. I thought my aunts kept ever so many beautiful things in here, and there’s nothing.”

“Come along, then,” said the cuckoo. “I didn’t expect you’d care for the palace, as you called it, much. Let us go out the other way.”

He hopped down a sort of little staircase near which they were standing, and Griselda followed him willingly enough. At the foot they found themselves in a vestibule, much handsomer than the entrance at the other side, and the cuckoo, crossing it, lifted one of his claws and touched a spring in the wall. Instantly a pair of large doors flew open in the middle, revealing to Griselda the prettiest and most curious sight she had ever seen.

A flight of wide shallow steps led down from this doorway into a long, long avenue bordered by stiffly growing trees, from the branches of which hung innumerable lamps of every colour, making a perfect network of brilliance as far as the eye could reach.

“Oh, how lovely!” cried Griselda, clapping her hands. “It’ll be like walking along a rainbow. Cuckoo, come quick.”

“Stop,” said the cuckoo; “we’ve a good way to go. There’s no need to walk. Palanquin!”

He flapped his wings, and instantly a palanquin appeared at the foot of the steps. It was made of carved ivory, and borne by four Chinese-looking figures with pigtails and bright-coloured jackets. A feeling came over Griselda that she was dreaming, or else that she had seen this palanquin before. She hesitated. Suddenly she gave a little jump of satisfaction.

“I know,” she exclaimed. “It’s exactly like the one that stands under a glass shade on Lady Lavander’s drawing-room mantelpiece. I wonder if it is the very one? Fancy me being able to get into it!”

She looked at the four bearers. Instantly they all nodded.

“What do they mean?” asked Griselda, turning to the cuckoo.

“Get in,” he replied.

“Yes, I’m just going to get in,” she said; “but what do they mean when they nod at me like that?”

“They mean, of course, what I tell you-’Get in,’” said the cuckoo.

“Why don’t they say so, then?” persisted Griselda, getting in, however, as she spoke.

“Griselda, you have a very great -” began the cuckoo, but Griselda interrupted him.

“Cuckoo,” she exclaimed, “if you say that again, I’ll jump out of the palanquin and run away home to bed. Of course I’ve a great deal to learn-that’s why I like to ask questions about everything I see. Now, tell me where we are going.”

“In the first place,” said the cuckoo, “are you comfortable?”

“Very,” said Griselda, settling herself down among the cushions.

It was a change from the cuckoo’s boudoir. There were no chairs or seats, only a number of very, very soft cushions covered with green silk. There were green silk curtains all round, too, which you could draw or not as you pleased, just by touching a spring. Griselda stroked the silk gently. It was not “fruzzley” silk, if you know what that means; it did not make you feel as if your nails wanted cutting, or as if all the rough places on your skin were being rubbed up the wrong way; its softness was like that of a rose or pansy petal.

“What nice silk!” said Griselda. “I’d like a dress of it. I never noticed that the palanquin was lined so nicely,” she continued, “for I suppose it is the one from Lady Lavander’s mantelpiece? There couldn’t be two so exactly like each other.”

The cuckoo gave a sort of whistle.

“What a goose you are, my dear!” he exclaimed. “Excuse me,” he continued, seeing that Griselda looked rather offended; “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but you won’t let me say the other thing, you know. The palanquin from Lady Lavander’s! I should think not. You might as well mistake one of those horrible paper roses that Dorcas sticks in her vases for one of your aunt’s Gloires de Dijon! The palanquin from Lady Lavander’s-a clumsy human imitation not worth looking at!”

“I didn’t know,” said Griselda humbly. “Do they make such beautiful things in Mandarin Land?”

“Of course,” said the cuckoo.

Griselda sat silent for a minute or two, but very soon she recovered her spirits.

“Will you please tell me where we are going?” she asked again.

“You’ll see directly,” said the cuckoo; “not that I mind telling you. There’s to be a grand reception at one of the palaces to-night. I thought you’d like to assist at it. It’ll give you some idea of what a palace is like. By-the-by, can you dance?”

“A little,” replied Griselda.

“Ah, well, I dare say you will manage. I’ve ordered a court dress for you. It will be all ready when we get there.”

“Thank you,” said Griselda.

In a minute or two the palanquin stopped. The cuckoo got out, and Griselda followed him.

She found that they were at the entrance to a very much grander palace than the one in her aunt’s saloon. The steps leading up to the door were very wide and shallow, and covered with a gold embroidered carpet, which looked as if it would be prickly to her bare feet, but which, on the contrary, when she trod upon it, felt softer than the softest moss. She could see very little besides the carpet, for at each side of the steps stood rows and rows of mandarins, all something like, but a great deal grander than, the pair outside her aunt’s cabinet; and as the cuckoo hopped and Griselda walked up the staircase, they all, in turn, row by row, began solemnly to nod. It gave them the look of a field of very high grass, through which, any one passing, leaves for the moment a trail, till all the heads bob up again into their places.

“What do they mean?” whispered Griselda.

“It’s a royal salute,” said the cuckoo.

“A salute!” said Griselda. “I thought that meant kissing or guns.”

“Hush!” said the cuckoo, for by this time they had arrived at the top of the staircase; “you must be dressed now.”

Two mandariny-looking young ladies, with porcelain faces and three-cornered head-dresses, stepped forward and led Griselda into a small ante-room, where lay waiting for her the most magnificent dress you ever saw. But how do you think they dressed her? It was all by nodding. They nodded to the blue and silver embroidered jacket, and in a moment it had fitted itself on to her. They nodded to the splendid scarlet satin skirt, made very short in front and very long behind, and before Griselda knew where she was, it was adjusted quite correctly. They nodded to the head-dress, and the sashes, and the necklaces and bracelets, and forthwith they all arranged themselves. Last of all, they nodded to the dearest, sweetest little pair of high-heeled shoes imaginable-all silver, and blue, and gold, and scarlet, and everything mixed up together, only they were rather a stumpy shape about the toes, and Griselda’s bare feet were encased in them, and, to her surprise, quite comfortably so.

“They don’t hurt me a bit,” she said aloud; “yet they didn’t look the least the shape of my foot.”

But her attendants only nodded; and turning round, she saw the cuckoo waiting for her. He did not speak either, rather to her annoyance, but gravely led the way through one grand room after another to the grandest of all, where the entertainment was evidently just about to begin. And everywhere there were mandarins, rows and rows, who all set to work nodding as fast as Griselda appeared. She began to be rather tired of royal salutes, and was glad when, at last, in profound silence, the procession, consisting of the cuckoo and herself, and about half a dozen “mandarins,” came to a halt before a kind of dais, or raised seat, at the end of the hall.

Upon this dais stood a chair-a throne of some kind, Griselda supposed it to be-and upon this was seated the grandest and gravest personage she had yet seen.

“Is he the king of the mandarins?” she whispered. But the cuckoo did not reply; and before she had time to repeat the question, the very grand and grave person got down from his seat, and coming towards her, offered her his hand, at the same time nodding-first once, then two or three times together, then once again. Griselda seemed to know what he meant. He was asking her to dance.

“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t dance very well, but perhaps you won’t mind.”

The king, if that was his title, took not the slightest notice of her reply, but nodded again-once, then two or three times together, then once alone, just as before. Griselda did not know what to do, when suddenly she felt something poking her head. It was the cuckoo-he had lifted his claw, and was tapping her head to make her nod. So she nodded-once, twice together, then once-that appeared to be enough. The king nodded once again; an invisible band suddenly struck up the loveliest music, and off they set to the places of honour reserved for them in the centre of the room, where all the mandarins were assembling.

What a dance that was! It began like a minuet and ended something like the hay-makers. Griselda had not the least idea what the figures or steps were, but it did not matter. If she did not know, her shoes or something about her did; for she got on famously. The music was lovely-“so the mandarins can’t be deaf, though they are dumb,” thought Griselda, “which is one good thing about them.” The king seemed to enjoy it as much as she did, though he never smiled or laughed; any one could have seen he liked it by the way he whirled and twirled himself about. And between the figures, when they stopped to rest for a little, Griselda got on very well too. There was no conversation, or rather, if there was, it was all nodding.

So Griselda nodded too, and though she did not know what her nods meant, the king seemed to understand and be quite pleased; and when they had nodded enough, the music struck up again, and off they set, harder than before.

And every now and then tiny little mandariny boys appeared with trays filled with the most delicious fruits and sweetmeats. Griselda was not a greedy child, but for once in her life she really did feel rather so. I cannot possibly describe these delicious things; just think of whatever in all your life was the most “lovely” thing you ever eat, and you may be sure they tasted like that. Only the cuckoo would not eat any, which rather distressed Griselda. He walked about among the dancers, apparently quite at home; and the mandarins did not seem at all surprised to see him, though he did look rather odd, being nearly, if not quite, as big as any of them. Griselda hoped he was enjoying himself, considering that she had to thank him for all the fun she was having, but she felt a little conscience-stricken when she saw that he wouldn’t eat anything.

“Cuckoo,” she whispered; she dared not talk out loud-it would have seemed so remarkable, you see. “Cuckoo,” she said, very, very softly, “I wish you would eat something. You’ll be so tired and hungry.”

“No, thank you,” said the cuckoo; and you can’t think how pleased Griselda was at having succeeded in making him speak. “It isn’t my way. I hope you are enjoying yourself?”

“Oh, very much,” said Griselda. “I -

“Hush!” said the cuckoo; and looking up, Griselda saw a number of mandarins, in a sort of procession, coming their way.

When they got up to the cuckoo they set to work nodding, two or three at a time, more energetically than usual. When they stopped, the cuckoo nodded in return, and then hopped off towards the middle of the room.

“They’re very fond of good music, you see,” he whispered as he passed Griselda; “and they don’t often get it.”