Chapter 9 - View from the Mountain
When the children had something serious to think about, there was only one place to go: up.
The sky through the Door at the top of the attic stairs was almost always a dazzling blue. The smooth grey stones and lush green grass of the mountain-side were soothing to the eye and the touch, while the only sounds were the cool breeze, the trickle of mountain streams, and the far-off tinkle of cow-bells as the shepherd-boys and girls led their flocks of goat and sheep to pasture. If they needed entertainment, they had the playful scramblings of the black and white marmots who lived among the rocks, and the stories of the hermit who sometimes came and sat with them around their campfire; but most of the time, they came to the mountain to concentrate on something.
Sally could see Tom ahead of her on the path, but she did not hurry; she knew she would catch up with him in time. It was a beautiful morning. The grass sparkled all around her as she crossed the long sloping meadow that led up into the foothills. She passed above a little farm with a handsome whitewashed house and a barn with a cheerful yellow roof. The sound of bells floated on the breeze. The path led between two great boulders that stood like a gateway. Sally walked up the slope with the sun beginning to warm her back.
Sometimes the path ran level for a stretch, then it would curve to the side or bend steeply upward. On one of these curves, she drew up next to Tom, who was gazing across a valley at the rugged cliff on the other side. When they had climbed a particularly steep bit of path, they sat down for a rest in the grass. It always came as a surprise to see how far they had climbed. The white farmhouse was now no bigger than a pebble, and the sun glinting off the yellow roof of the barn was as bright and quick as the flare of a match.
“Well?” Sally asked gently. “How did it go?”
“Oh, it went all right,” Tom said grumpily. “I got rid of him. He went straight into the desert like I knew he would.” After a moment he asked: “You?”
“It was quite spectacular,” Sally said. “We pulled and pulled on the dam until it burst wide open. And then – later that night, when I was lying by the river-bank, a dolphin came – ”
“You saw a river-dolphin?” Tom said eagerly. “Wow!”
Sally shook her head. “No,” she said. “I didn’t see him. I only spoke to him.”
“H’m. Too bad.”
“It was enough.” Sally smiled. But her voice when she spoke again was serious. “And Tom – he said something – it made me think – ”
“I’ve been thinking too,” Tom mumbled.
Tom shrugged. “You know. Things. What’s-his-name. He was so easy to trick…And he seemed so, I don’t know…so happy when he saw the desert.”
“Well, why not? It can be beautiful,” Sally said.
“Sure.” Tom had found a twig and was rubbing the tip on a flat stone. “We did the right thing, you know,” he mumbled. “Mr Leggs broke the rules. You have to leave things as they are. All he did was change things!”
“That’s true,” Sally said. “…But nobody ever explained the rules to him.”
“So what?” Tom said angrily. “He had no business sneaking into our house, and going through the Door.”
“Also true,” Sally said. “But, you know – it’s strange, don’t you think? I mean, no matter how hard we try, we change things too. We taught the dolphins to speak Marcopolon.”
“That was a good change,” Tom said.
“I think so too,” said Sally, “but still – you can’t say we left things the way they were. And even when you used an eye-licker to bait your hook – that was changing something too.”
Tom shrugged. “The forest people use eye-lickers for bait. That’s not a real change.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. “Tom,” Sally said, “it wasn’t the right thing, was it. I mean – no matter what Mr Leggs did.”
“I don’t know,” Tom said miserably.
Somewhere behind them, a little higher up the hill, they heard an owl hoot. “That’s strange,” Tom said, wrinkling his noise. “An owl in broad daylight, on the mountain-side?”
They craned their necks, but the bird was nowhere to be seen. Just then they heard the low coughing hrruh of a panther.
“I don’t like this,” Tom said uncomfortably. “We’re surrounded.”
Then came a faint tinkling, splashing sound that only Sally recognized. “Impossible,” she said. “That’s dolphin laughter. Someone’s playing a trick on us.”
With that she leapt to her feet and strode up the hill to a large gray boulder. “Ah-ha!” she said. “I thought so!”
Now it was human laughter that sounded from behind the boulder. A tall man with long white hair and bright blue eyes stepped out. He was wearing a light-brown robe and sandals. It was the hermit.
“Hello again,” said the children politely.
“Hello, Sally. Hello, Tom,” the hermit greeted them. “As you see, I’ve been practising.” And he ran quickly through the owl, panther, and dolphin calls again. “Forgive me – I could hardly resist. And I thought it might cheer you up a little. You were looking very serious, I must say.”
“We were talking about something,” Sally said.
“Then excuse me for interrupting. I was on my way to the farm, and couldn’t help bumping into you.”
“Hang on a minute,” Tom said. “How did you know – I mean, how did you choose those particular sounds? The owl, and the panther?”
“Ah, well. I can see a long way from the top of my mountain,” the hermit said.
“You saw us?” Sally asked. “In the forest?”
“Ah, well! The forest is full of animals, full of life!”
“Hang on – hang on,” Tom said again. “If you can see all that way – what about – can you see anything else? Like…”
“The desert?” Sally said anxiously. “The river-dolphin said it was never too late, or something…Did you see Mr Leggs? Is he all right?”
The hermit’s face fell. “Alas,” he said, “I lost sight of him when he plunged into the dunes.”
Sally turned to her brother and said quickly: “Tom. You know it too. We have to go after him. We can’t just leave him to die in the desert. It was wrong, Tom.”
“Go after him? Are you crazy?” Tom burst out. “Even we wouldn’t stand a chance in the Empty Quarter!”
“I know,” Sally said. “But Tom…have you ever felt sad, or frightened – like you might not see your friends again, or us, or Four Corner House…?”
“Well.” Tom swallowed hard. “Sure. I guess.” He was remembering that moment in the forest when, in jaguar-form, he had thought of all the things he would lose if he had to stay a jaguar forever. “What about it?”
“That’s how Mr Leggs could be feeling, right now,” Sally said gently. “And we did that to him. We have to go after him, Tom. You know we do.”
“Yes,” Tom muttered, “I know.”
“Then, what are we waiting for?” Sally asked. She took her brother’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “Goodbye,” she said to the hermit. “We’ll come again soon – ” but she froze as she said it, for of course, they wouldn’t come again: if they went into the Empty Quarter, they would never see the mountain, or the forest, or the Hand of Friendship again.
The hermit looked at her with his piercing blue eyes, then at Tom. They met his gaze. “Children,” he began, but Tom shook his head.
“Sally’s right,” he said. “We better get a move on. Thanks for all your stories, and cups of tea.”
“Thanks for letting us sit on your mountain,” Sally said. “And for letting us look after Ramses…”
“Children,” the hermit said again, but this time Tom and Sally both turned away suddenly, and hurried off down the path. After a moment they lifted their arms and waved, without looking back. They were in the grip of a strange emotion. If we take plenty of water, Tom thought, then maybe…If we can borrow a pair of camels, Sally thought, then maybe…
But the warning had been drummed into their heads so many times that they could not ignore it now. The Empty Quarter was desolate, scorching, blasted and lifeless. If the heat, the sandstorms, the thirst didn’t get you, then the terrifying Wild Man of the Desert would.
They found the Door and let themselves in. Four Corner House was quiet. Slowly they made their way from the attic down the stairs to their rooms.
Well, this is it, Tom thought, looking around. Goodbye, bed. Goodbye, desk. He swung open the door to the closet. All his desert gear – his boots, compass, tent, goggles, flares – was neatly stowed in the same corner. What made it impossible to find your way He dug out his goatskin drinking pouch. Goatskin, Tom reminded himself mechanically, was the best way to carry water in the desert; any leaks could be plugged with a thorn, and when it was empty, you simply rolled it up, of course. He filled it from the tap and hung it around his neck. His eye fell on a picture pinned to his noticeboard. It showed Sally standing under a palm tree, laughing happily. It must have been taken one day when they were in the oasis, maybe watching the camel races.
It won’t be like that this time, Tom thought.
Sally was already downstairs, sitting on a chair in the hallway with Jowls on her lap. She was stroking his back while he purred blissfully. Tom felt a twinge in his shoulder-blades.
“At least we’ll be together,” he said. “You and me, I mean.”
Sally looked up. “Of course we will,” she said. “Who else would be so crazy as to walk into the Empty Quarter?” But her attempt at jokiness fell flat. “Ready?” she said.
“Off you go,” Sally said, nudging Jowls to the floor. With a loud mew of protest he stalked off.
“Are you bringing anything?” Tom asked. “I mean…not water and stuff. A souvenir.”
Sally smiled. “How did you know?” she said. “I thought I’d bring this…” She held out her elegant little recorder. “Do you remember when I got it for Christmas? Haven’t practised in a while.”
Tom laughed. “I’ll get my drum.” He raced back upstairs and returned with the toy drum. “All set.”
“You know, even without the Doors, it was a pretty good house,” Sally said. She straightened one of the hats that hung on a hook in the front hallway.
“The best,” Tom agreed. “I always loved…coming back. You know – as much as going away…” He swallowed hard. There was a hot lump in his throat.
“Well…let’s go.” They passed along the hallway to the back door. Tom pulled it open. The desert sun struck them full in the face. The waters of the oasis shimmered in the heat. A camel train moved slowly along the horizon away from them.
“This way,” Tom said. They stepped through the Door and closed it carefully behind them. Turning their backs on the oasis, they set off towards the high dunes that marked the shifting boundary of the Empty Quarter. They had gone no more than twenty paces when they stopped to look back. Already the Door to Four Corner House had vanished from sight behind the golden drifts of sand…
Next week: lost in the desert, the children learn the fate of Mr Leggs…