The stranger viewed the shore around.
The Lady of the Lake.
Leonore sprang to her feet, and as she did so something fell on the floor; it was her last remaining nut! She gazed at Hildegarde.
‘Look,’ she exclaimed, ‘it dropped out of my pocket of itself; it means a message, I am sure it does. Where is your nut, Hildegarde?’ ‘Here,’ was the reply, as she held it out.
‘The time has come for cracking them,’ said Leonore, and as she uttered the words the tapping in the corner of the room was repeated more loudly and rapidly, as if to say, ‘Quite right, quite right.’
Then it suddenly stopped. ‘Here goes,’ said Hildegarde, cracking her nut as she spoke, and the two pair of eyes peered eagerly into the shell. There lay a neat little roll of tiny blue ribbon.
Hildegarde drew it out. It was only an inch or two in length, but on it were clearly printed six words:—
Tap, tiny hammer, till you find. But where was the tiny hammer? This question did not trouble the children for long. Without speaking, Leonore cracked her nut, disclosing to view, as they expected, a ‘tiny hammer’ indeed—so tiny that even the little girls’ small fingers had difficulty in holding it. ‘How can I tap with it?’, she was on the point of saying to Hildegarde, when, as she gazed, she saw the little hammer stretch itself out till it grew to an inch or two in length, the silver head increasing also in proportion, so that it was now much easier to grasp it.
‘How convenient it would be,’ said Hildegarde, ‘if we could pack up luggage in the way things are packed into our nuts; but let us be quick, Leonore. I wonder
where we should begin tapping.’
‘In the corner where we heard the other tapping, of course,’ said Leonore. But this did not prove to be the right spot. There was no reply to their summons, and some patience and perseverance were required to prevent their yielding to disappointment.
They had no reason, however, for distrusting their fairy friend, and a new idea struck Hildegarde.
‘Leonore,’ she exclaimed, ‘perhaps we are meant to tap on the wall itself, behind the silk hangings. See, if I hold them back carefully, you can creep in and tap right into the corner.’
No sooner said than done, and this time not in vain. With almost the first blow of the little hammer, a small door in the wall opened inwards, and before them the children saw the first steps of a narrow spiral staircase winding upwards.
They fearlessly entered, the little door closing behind them, and began to ascend the steps. It was not dark, for slits in the wall let in from time to time tiny shafts of light; nor was it cold, though where the warmth came from they could not tell.
‘To think,’ said Hildegarde, ‘of there being a secret staircase that nobody knows of, for I am sure no one does know of it. But oh, Leonore, how very high we seem to be going’; for though they had been mounting for some minutes, there was no sign of the staircase coming to an end.
This time it was Leonore who encouraged her friend. ‘Hush!’ she said, ‘I hear something; it is the sound of the spinning-wheel, Hildegarde; I believe we shall see our fairy in a second now.’
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