Sally gulped. “Mr Leggs,” she stammered. “Likewise, I’m sure…We are very – very glad to see you…And looking so well!” she added, for there was something glowing, happy and healthful about the man she had last seen with a half-crazy look in his eye, hurrying away from one stolen fortune in the hope of finding another.
Tom rose to his feet (he had to stay bent over, of course, for the tent was not very high) and put out his hand to the postman. “I owe you an apology,” he said in a husky voice. “I was wrong to trick you like that. I’m sorry.”
Mr Leggs took the hand in both of his own and shook it gently. “Thank you, Tom,” he said. “I understand, you know…It was wrong of me to use the prospectors like that! I went a little crazy, I guess. But – you came after me, didn’t you? I mean, you came to rescue me! That was a brave act!”
“We couldn’t just abandon you,” Sally said.
Mr Leggs sighed. “I always knew you were good children,” he said. “Foolish, impulsive, starry-eyed, but brave, eh? Well, well. You must tell me all about it some day.”
They were quiet for a moment, lost in their own thoughts. Outside the sandstorm was dying down. Tom frowned and glanced at the postman. “But – hold on,” he said. “Look at you. How did you manage all this? You’re wearing desert gear, carrying a camel bell and a tent…we thought you must be the Wild Man at first. Is he real?”
Mr Leggs smiled. “Oh yes, quite real. Without him, I really would have perished! But we managed to find each other, and he took me home and gave me one of his cloaks – ”
“He took you home? He didn’t…chain you up or anything? Make you into his slave?”
“Why on earth would he do that?” Mr Leggs asked, astonished.
“Well – it’s just…” Sally and Tom looked at each other. “You see,” Sally explained, “we always heard that the Wild Man of the Desert hated people so much, that’s why he came to live out here, where nobody else ever goes – ”
“Oh no, no, no!” Mr Leggs cried. “Hate people? On the contrary! It’s precisely because he loves people so much that he lives in the Empty Quarter! He helps people when they have most need of it! Goodness me, what do they teach you these days!”
“So…the Wild Man saved you…”
“That’s right – he needed a new apprentice, and he said if I was interested, I could let him know in a few days. But I knew straight away – ”
“You’d better begin at the beginning,” Sally said wearily. “This is a lot to take in.”
Just then they heard the sound of camel bells and voices calling.
“Mum? Dad?” Sally said wonderingly.
“They followed us?” Tom asked, looking to Mr Leggs as if for confirmation.
“They’d better get in here,” the postman said. “Although the storm is almost over…” Nimbly he lifted the flap of the tent and slipped out. The voices were louder now, and unmistakable.
“Ah – Mr Leggs!” said Mr Atlas. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“I wonder if you’ve come across Sally and Tom lately,” Mrs Atlas asked.
“We’ve just been sheltering from the storm together in out tent,” Mr Leggs said cordially. “Won’t you step in? I’m afraid the camels will have to wait out here…”
But before he had finished his sentence, Tom and Sally burst from the tent and flung their arms around their parents, crying and laughing at the same time.
“There you are!” Mrs Atlas beamed, and Mr Atlas said, “Well met, children! You gave us quite a turn! How do you do!” and other quaint-sounding phrases that did not conceal how pleased he was to see them.
“I believe we could almost sit out here,” Mr Leggs said. For the sandstorm had blown itself out, and the sky was visible once more. “You’ve brought parasols, I take it?” he asked.
Mr Atlas murmured softly to the first camel and, when it had knelt, unloaded a large carpet and two parasols from the pack it carried, as well as a water-skin and a basket of fruit and flatbread. “We borrowed them from some traders at the oasis,” he explained. “This is Bubbles,” fondly patting the first camel on her snout, “and this is Andrea,” he said, bowing to the second camel, who dipped her golden head in polite recognition. “Let me help,” Mrs Atlas offered, and a moment later they had spread a picnic on the dunes, in the shade of the umbrellas.
“But how did you know we had gone to the Empty Quarter?” Sally asked.
“To tell you the truth, it was Jowls who tipped us off,” Mr Atlas said. “He was hovering around Desert Door with a look in his eyes…”
“And, of course, some of your desert things were missing from your closet,” Mrs Atlas cut in quickly, with a look at her husband. “But never mind about that – here we all are, each with a story to tell. Mr Leggs, I believe we interrupted you…?”
“Not at all, not at all,” Mr Leggs said modestly. “The children were asking, that’s all, about the Wild Man…”
“Ah! You’ve seen him? How is he?” Mr Atlas asked.
“Well, he’s not getting any younger,” Mr Leggs said. “He was just beginning to think about finding an apprentice when I happened along.”
“Excellent,” Mr Atlas said.
“Please!” Tom groaned. “Could somebody explain? Does that mean you’re staying here, in the Empty Quarter?”
“I very much hope so,” Mr Leggs said softly. “I mean – is it any wonder?” He was gazing at the sky above the golden dunes, which was just beginning to fill with disconnected streaks of rose and orange and purple as the daylight began to fade. “I believe it could be the most beautiful place on earth. Although I am not as well-traveled as you,” he added, with a smile for the children.
“You see,” he continued, sitting back comfortably on the carpet, “I was always restless, always wanted to move about and see the world, have an adventure or two...But the closest I came to seeing the world was when I would deliver a postcard to someone’s house, with a picture on it of a river, or a mountain, or an oasis – mysterious places that called to me! Letters and packages came to your house – Number 4, Compass Drive – with the most unusual stamps and markings, from all the four corners of the earth – and I became more and more curious – until one day, quite by chance…Do you remember a flat, three-cornered box that arrived one day?”
Sally and Tom looked at each other. “It could have been a folding tripod, for a camping stove,” Sally said.
“Or a boomerang?” Tom guessed.
Mr Leggs sighed. “I always longed to know what was inside those interesting packages…And that was the day that I finally caught a glimpse through the Door that led here, to the oasis and the desert beyond. I was stunned by the beauty of it! I didn’t even ask myself how it could be – the world is full of mysteries, don’t you think? I simply vowed that I would go there…And instead of asking permission, I decided to sneak in one day, which was wrong, of course…I found a window that had been left open, and I climbed in, but before I could get my bearings, I heard someone coming, and hid inside a closet…Which wasn’t a closet, of course, but another Door! It hadn’t occurred to me that there was more than one Door…And I found myself in the rainforest, and met the prospectors, and...well, you more or less know the rest. I’m sorry...I got awfully carried away with all that gold.”
“And then we tricked you into coming here, and you met the Wild Man, who turned out to be a good spirit…” Sally said.
“…and he asked you to stay and help him look after other stranded travelers,” Tom continued, “and in the meantime, we followed you, and then – you saved us.”
“We can’t thank you enough,” Mrs Atlas said.
“It’s all I ever wanted,” Mr Leggs said. “You know, the desert has everything – there are sweeping sand-rivers, and the gigantic dunes of course, as big as mountains, like huge waves in an ocean of sand, and the strange forest that you came across, children, an ancient, petrified forest of some kind – not to mention the flowers and the jerboa and the glorious sky at night…”
“To see the world in a grain of sand,” Mr Atlas said softly.
“He even gave me a new name,” Mr Leggs said, blushing a little. “I’m not Raspadero any more, you know.”
“Well?” Sally asked.
“I’m now called Tranquilino,” Mr Leggs said, with a chuckle, but his eyes shone with pride.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful that we have a friend in the Empty Quarter,” Sally said. “We shall have to find a new name for that, too! It’s not so empty when you know you have a friend.”
Tom leaned across the carpet and murmured something in his sister’s ear.
“Tom!” Sally said, her eyes wide. “What a good idea. Of course! It’s absolutely necessary, I should think.” She turned to their rescuer. “Mr Leggs – I mean, Mr Tranquilino – Tom and I have a present for you. To help you in your new career.”
“Now children, really,” Mr Leggs said.
“We insist,” Sally said. “You are bound to meet all sorts of people out here, and this will help you understand each other.” And from her backpack she drew the much-tattered copy of Marcopolon Words and Phrases and handed it to Mr Leggs.
“Children,” Mrs Atlas said, impressed.
“You’ll master it in no time, I’m sure,” Tom said.
“Why – I don’t know what to say,” Mr Leggs gasped. “This is – priceless! A real treasure! Thank you, Tom! Thank you, Sally!”
“And now, children,” Mr Atlas said gently, “it’s time for us to get home. You’ve had a tiring day.”
“That’s an understatement,” Tom murmured. His face split apart in a huge yawn.
“Cover your mouth,” Mrs Atlas reminded him.
“…At least we don’t have to walk back,” Sally said, stroking Bubbles on her cheek. “Hooray for camels!”
It was the last day of the spring half-term and the children were getting their school bags ready and talking about their adventures of the last week. Sally had not yet had time to tell her brother the whole story of the collapse of the dam and her moonlit encounter with the river-dolphin; and Tom had not told her of his near-escape from falling asleep and being trapped in a jaguar’s body. They had been through all the Doors – Ocean, Forest, Mountain, and Desert – and there was so much to remember, that Sally sighed and said: “We should make a list of everything, and write it all down, don’t you think, Tom?”
Mrs Atlas put her head round the door. “By the way, children, some letters came for you yesterday…Here’s one from Captain Bailfast. I recognise his handwriting.”
“The Captain?” Sally cried. She pounced on the letter and read it eagerly. “Listen to this, Tom! He says he’s taking the Hand of Friendship on a new voyage…They’re going in search of a golden iceberg that has appeared in the sea!”
“A golden waxberg, more like,” Tom said. “And no,” he added firmly, “you can’t go visit him – we have school tomorrow, remember?”
“You’re right,” Sally sighed, lowering herself back onto her chair.
Then something strange happened.
The chair, which had been standing quietly underneath her, shuffled a few inches to the side, then took a small step forward. Sally gave a yelp of surprise, and Tom, looking up, saw the chest of drawers execute a similar move, lurching sideways and forward. From downstairs they heard the tinkle of breaking glass as a vase or a lamp toppled from its shelf.
“What’s happening?” Tom cried.
“It’s the House!” Mrs Atlas called. “Don’t panic! The House is turning! Hold on!”
Now all the furniture in the room seemed to join in the strange manoeuvre, hobbling and trundling round and round; and then the floor itself lifted and twisted and gave a great shrug and settled down again. Everything grew quiet. Tom and Sally were lying on their backs, a little dizzy, and Mrs Atlas was standing in the doorway, bracing herself with one foot against the laundry basket and one hand on the banister. “Phew!” she said. “It seems your father forgot to warn us.”
Tom sat up, rubbing his head, and Sally asked: “Warn us about what?”
“Every now and then, the whole House turns,” Mrs Atlas explained. “I don’t really know why…It was something your grandfather wanted, when he built Four Corner House.”
“But…what does it mean? What about the Doors?”
Mrs Atlas nodded. “That’s right – they change – I mean, they go to different places…”
“Different places?” Sally wailed. “But – what about Ocean Door? Won’t I be able to visit Captain Bailfast again?”
“Of course you will,” her mother said. “Every place is connected to every other, in some way…you may need to go by a different route, that’s all.”
“You mean,” said Tom slowly, as understanding came, “each of the Doors goes somewhere different now? Somewhere new? Where we’ve never been?”
Mrs Atlas sighed. “You’d better go and take a quick look,” she said. “But just a peek! Supper is almost ready!”
The children did not have to be told twice. They raced up the stairs to the attic and pushed open the trapdoor. “It’s cold,” Sally said, “much colder than the mountain was.”
“That’s because it’s covered in snow!” Tom exclaimed. Sure enough, they were gazing out on a frozen landscape lit by strangely glowing, colourful bands of light in the sky.
“Arctic Door,” Mrs Atlas confirmed, squeezing up the steps behind them. “We’ll need to dig out your parkas!”
“The Arctic! Just think, Tom! Polar bears!”
“The Northern Lights!”
“Come on! What else?”
Arctic Door dropped shut and they raced off to the landing. “Careful!” Mrs Atlas called.
“Tom! Look! It’s a ghost-town!”
“Is that tumbleweed?”
“Frontier Door,” Mrs Atlas murmured, nodding. She heard the children charging downstairs to see what lay behind the Door at the back of the house. “If I remember rightly,” she said to herself, “that could be…Oh no! Children! Be careful!” she called anxiously.
“It looks like a swamp,” she heard Tom say, “quite humid, a bit like the rainforest, but not quite…Look at that funny canoe. I wonder if the owner is coming back soon…Wait a minute…is that a tiger print?”
From somewhere deep in the jungle Tom, Sally and Mrs Atlas heard a low rumbling sound that grew to a steady roar.
“Yup, that’s a tiger,” Tom confirmed, quickly closing the Door.
“Mangrove Door,” Mrs Atlas said. “Tigers and cobra-snakes, but so long as you take good care and wear a tiger mask, you should be all right…”
“A tiger mask?” Sally asked.
“We have them somewhere, I’m sure,” Mrs Atlas said.
“This is fantastic!” Sally said. “Arctic Door, Frontier Door, Mangrove Door…Come on, Tom! Quick! The last Door!”
But now Mrs Atlas laid a firm hand on each of them and said: “Hold on a minute, children. I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? We’re about to eat. You can save one surprise till after supper, can’t you?”
Sally and Tom looked at each other, their eyes shining.
They could not wait for the summer holidays to begin.