The children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the sands at Jagborough. Nicholas was not to be of the party; he was in disgrace. Only that morning he had refused to eat his wholesome bread-and-milk, claiming that there was a frog in it. Older and wiser and better people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense. He continued to talk nonsense, describing with much detail the coloring and markings of the alleged frog. The dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas' basin of bread-and-milk; he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it.
"You said there couldn't possibly be a frog in my bread-and-milk. There was a frog in my bread-and-milk," he repeated.
So his boy-cousin and girl-cousin and his quite uninteresting younger brother were to be taken to Jagborough sands that afternoon and he was to stay at home. His aunt had hastily invented the Jagborough trip in order to impress on Nicholas the delights that he had justly given up by his disgraceful conduct at the breakfast-table. It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be excluded.
Nicholas’s aunt looked for tears from Nicholas when the moment for the departure of the expedition arrived. However, all the crying was done by his girl-cousin, who scraped her knee rather painfully against the step of the carriage as she was scrambling in.
"How she did howl," said Nicholas cheerfully, as the party drove off without the expected high spirits.
"She'll soon get over that," said the aunt. "It will be a glorious afternoon for racing about over those beautiful sands. How they will enjoy themselves!"
"Bobby won't enjoy himself much, and he won't race much either," said Nicholas with a grim chuckle. “His boots are hurting him. They're too tight."
"Why didn't he tell me they were hurting?" asked the aunt sharply.
"He told you twice, but you weren't listening. You often don't listen when we tell you important things."
"You are not to go into the gooseberry garden," said the aunt, changing the subject.
"Why not?" demanded Nicholas.
"Because you are in disgrace," said the aunt loftily.
Nicholas he felt perfectly capable of being in disgrace and in a gooseberry garden at the same moment. His face took on a stubborn expression. It was clear to his aunt that he was determined to get into the gooseberry garden. "Only," she remarked to herself, "because I have told him not to."
Now the gooseberry garden had two doors by which it might be entered, and once a small person like Nicholas could slip in there he could disappear from view amid the growing artichokes, raspberry canes, and fruit bushes. The aunt had many other things to do that afternoon, but she spent an hour or two gardening so she could keep a watchful eye on the two doors that led to the forbidden paradise.
Nicholas made one or two trips into the front garden, wriggling his towards one or other of the doors, but never able for a moment to evade the aunt's watchful eye. As a matter of fact, he had no intention of trying to get into the gooseberry garden, but it was extremely convenient for him that his aunt should believe that he had. This belief would keep her on self-imposed duty for the greater part of the afternoon.
Now Nicholas slipped back into the house and rapidly put into execution a plan of action that he had long planned. By standing on a chair in the library, one could reach a shelf which held a fat, important-looking key. The key was the instrument which kept the mysteries of the lumber-room secure from unauthorized intrusion, which opened a way only for aunts and such-like privileged persons. The key turned stiffly in the lock, but it turned. The door opened, and Nicholas was in an unknown land.
Nicholas had often pictured to himself what the lumber-room might be like, that region that was so carefully sealed from youthful eyes and concerning which no questions were ever answered. It came up to his expectations. In the first place it was large and dimly lit, one high window opening on to the forbidden garden being its only source of illumination. In the second place it was a storehouse of unimagined treasures. There were wonderful things for the eye to feast on. First and foremost there was a piece of framed tapestry that was evidently meant to be a fire-screen. To Nicholas it was a living, breathing story. A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow. But did the huntsman see what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood? There might be more than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with the four wolves if they made an attack? Nicholas sat for many golden minutes considering the possibilities of the scene. He was inclined to think that there were more than four wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.
The voice of his aunt calling his name came shrilly from the gooseberry garden. She had grown suspicious at his long disappearance, and had concluded that he had climbed over the wall behind the lilac bushes. She was now engaged in an energetic and rather hopeless search for him among the artichokes and raspberry canes.
"Nicholas, Nicholas!" she screamed, "you are to come out of this at once. It's no use trying to hide there. I can see you all the time."
It was probably the first time for twenty years that anyone had smiled in that lumber-room.
Presently the angry repetitions of Nicholas' name gave way to a shriek, and a cry for somebody to come quickly. Nicholas shut the book, restored it carefully to its place in a corner, and shook some dust from a pile of newspapers over it. Then he crept from the room, locked the door, and replaced the key exactly where he had found it. His aunt was still calling his name when he sauntered into the front garden.
"Who's calling?" he asked.
"Me," came the answer from the other side of the wall. "Didn't you hear me? I've been looking for you in the gooseberry garden, and I've slipped into the rain-water tank. Luckily there's no water in it, but the sides are slippery and I can't get out. Fetch the little ladder from under the cherry tree."
"I was told I wasn't to go into the gooseberry garden," said Nicholas.
"I told you not to, and now I tell you that you may," came the voice from the rain-water tank, rather impatiently.
"Your voice doesn't sound like aunt's," objected Nicholas. "You may be the Evil One tempting me to be disobedient. Aunt often tells me that the Evil One tempts me and that I always yield. This time I'm not going to yield."
"Don't talk nonsense," said the prisoner in the tank. "Go and fetch the ladder."
"Will there be strawberry jam for tea?" asked Nicholas innocently.
"Certainly there will be," said the aunt, privately resolving that Nicholas should have none of it.
"Now I know that you are the Evil One and not aunt," shouted Nicholas gleefully. "When we asked aunt for strawberry jam yesterday, she said there wasn't any. I know there are four jars of it in the store cupboard, because I looked, and of course you know it's there, but she doesn't, because she said there wasn't any. Oh, Devil, you have sold yourself!"
There was an unusual sense of luxury in being able to talk to an aunt as though one was talking to the Evil One. Nicholas walked noisily away, and it was a kitchen maid, in search of parsley, who eventually rescued the aunt from the rain-water tank.
Tea that evening was eaten in a fearsome silence. The tide had been at its highest when the children had arrived at Jagborough Cove, so there had been no sands to play on. The tightness of Bobby's boots had had disastrous effect on his temper the whole of the afternoon, and altogether the children could not have been said to have enjoyed themselves. The aunt maintained the frozen muteness of one who has suffered undignified and unmerited detention in a rain-water tank for thirty-five minutes. As for Nicholas, he, too, was silent, in the absorption of one who has much to think about. It was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.
Source: The Lumber Room
by H. Munro (Saki), Public Domain