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2 - Mrs. Who

WHEN Meg woke to the jangling of her alarm clock the wind was still blowing but the sun was shining; the worst of the storm was over. She sat up in bed, shaking her head to clear it.

It must have been a dream. She’d been frightened by the storm and worried about the tramp so she’d just dreamed about going down to the kitchen and seeing Mrs, Whatsit and having her mother get all frightened and upset by that word—what was it? Tess—tess something.

She dressed hurriedly, picked up the kitten still curled up on the bed, and dumped it unceremoniously on the floor. The kitten yawned, stretched, gave a piteous miaow, trotted out of the attic and down the stairs. Meg made her bed and hurried after it. In the kitchen her mother was making French toast and the twins were already at the table. The kitten was lapping milk out of a saucer.

“Where’s Charles?” Meg asked.

“Still asleep. We had rather an interrupted night, if you remember.”

“I hoped it was a dream,” Meg said.

Her mother carefully turned over four slices of French toast, then said in a steady voice, “No, Meg. Don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be. I’m sorry I showed you I was upset. Your father and I used to have a joke about tesseract.” “What is a tesseract?” Meg asked.

“It’s a concept.” Mrs. Murry handed the twins the syrup. “I’ll try to explain it to you later. There isn’t time before school.”

“I don’t see why you didn’t wake us up,” Dennys said. “It’s a gyp we missed out on all the fun.”

“You’ll be a lot more awake in school today than I will.” Meg took her French toast to the table.

“Who cares,” Sandy said. “If you’re going to let old tramps come into the house in the middle of the night, Mother, you ought to have Den and me around to protect you.”

“After all. Father would expect us to,” Dennys added.

“We know you have a great mind and all. Mother,”

 Sandy said, “but you don’t have much sense. And certainly Meg and Charles don’t.”

“I know. We’re morons.” Meg was bitter.

“I wish you wouldn’t be such a dope, Meg. Syrup, please.” Sandy reached across the table. “You don’t have to take everything so personally. Use a happy medium, for heaven’s sake. You just goof around in school and look out the window and don’t pay any attention.”

“You just make things harder for yourself,” Dennys said. “And Charles Wallace is going to have an awful time next year when he starts school. We know he’s bright, but he’s so funny when he’s around other people, and they’re so used to thinking he’s dumb, I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. Sandy and I’ll sock anybody who picks on him, but that’s about all we can do.”

“Let’s not worry about next year till we get through this one,” Mrs. Murry said. “More French toast, boys?”

At school Meg was tired and her eyelids sagged and her mind wandered. In social studies she was asked to name the principal imports and exports of Nicaragua, and though Slie had looked them up dutifully the evening before, now she could remember none of them. The teacher was sarcastic, the rest of the class laughed, and she flung herself down in her seat in a fury. “Who cares about the imports and exports of Nicaragua, anyhow?” she muttered.

“If you’re going to be rude, Margaret, you may leave the room,” the teacher said.

“Okay, I will.” Meg flounced out.

During study hall the principal sent for her. “What seems to be the problem now, Meg?” he asked, pleasantly enough.

Meg looked sulkily down at the floor. “Nothing, Mr. Jenkins.”

“Miss Porter tells me you were inexcusably rude.”

Meg shrugged.

“Don’t you realize that you just make everything harder for yourself by your attitude?” the principal asked. “Now, Meg, I’m convinced that you can do the work and keep up with your grade if you will apply yourself, but some of your teachers are not. You’re going to have to do something about yourself. Nobody can do it tor you.” Meg was silent. “Well? What about it, Meg?”

“I don’t know what to do,” Meg said.

“You could do your homework, for one thing. Wouldn’t your mother help you?”

“If I asked her to.”

“Meg, is something troubling you? Are you unhappy at home?” Mr. Jenkins asked.

At last Meg looked at him, pushing at her glasses in a characteristic gesture. “Everything’s fine at home.”

“I’m glad to hear it. But I know it must be hard on you to have your father away.”

Meg eyed the principal warily, and ran her tongue over the barbed line of her braces.

“Have you had any news from him lately?”

Meg was sure it was not only imagination that made her feel that behind Mr. Jenkins’ surface concern was a gleam of avid curiosity. Wouldn’t he like to know! she thought. And if I knew anything he’s the last person I’d tell. Well, one of the last.

The postmistress must know that it was almost a year now since the last letter, and heaven knows how many people she’d told, or what unkind guesses she’d made about the reason for the long silence.

Mr. Jenkins waited for an answer, but Meg only shrugged.

“Just what was your father’s line of business?” Mr. Jenkins asked. “Some kind of scientist, wasn’t he?”

“He is a physicist.” Meg bared her teeth to reveal the two ferocious lines of braces.

“Meg, don’t you think you’d make a better adjustment to life if you faced facts?”

“I do face facts,” Meg said. “They’re lots easier to face than people, I can tell you.”

‘Then why don’t you face facts about your father?”

“You leave my father out of it!” Meg shouted.

“Stop bellowing.” Mr. Jenkins said sharply. “Do you want the entire school to hear you?”

“So what?” Meg demanded. “I’m not ashamed of anything I’m saying. Are you?”

Mr. Jenkins sighed. “Do you enjoy being the most belligerent, uncooperative child in school?”

Meg ignored this. She leaned over the desk toward the principal. “Mr. Jenkins, you’ve met my mother, haven’t you? You can’t accuse her of not facing facts, can you? She’s a scientist. She has doctors’ degrees in both biology and bacteriology. Her business is facts. When she tells me that my father isn’t coming home, I’ll believe it. As long as she says Father is coming home, then I’ll believe that.”

Mr. Jenkins sighed again. “No doubt your mother wants to believe that your father is coming home, Meg. Very well, I can’t do anything else with you. Go on back to study hall. Try to be a little less antagonistic. Maybe your work would improve if your general attitude were more tractable.”

When Meg got home from school her mother was in the lab, the twins were at Little League, and Charles Wallace, the kitten, and Fortinbras were waiting tor her. Fortinbras jumped up, put his front paws on her shoulders, and gave her a kiss, and the kitten rushed to his empty, saucer and mewed loudly.

“Come on,” Charles Wallace said. “Let’s go.”

“Where?” Meg asked. I’m hungry, Charles. I don’t want to go anywhere till I’ve had something to eat” She was still sore from the interview with Mr. Jenkins, and her voice sounded cross. Charles Wallace looked at her thoughtfully as she went to the refrigerator and gave the kitten some milk, then drank a mugful herself.

He handed her a paper bag. “Here’s a sandwich and some cookies and an apple. I thought we’d better go see Mrs. Whatsit.”

“Oh, golly,” Meg said. “Why, Charles?”

“You’re still uneasy about her, aren’t you?” Charles asked.

“Well, yes.”

“Don’t be. She’s all right. I promise you. She’s on our side.”

“How do you know?”

“Meg,” he said impatiently. “I know.”

“But why should we go see her now?”

“I want to find out more about that tesseract thing. Didn’t you see how it upset Mother? You know when Mother can’t control the way she feels, when she lets us see she’s upset, then it’s something big.”

Meg thought for a moment. “Okay, let’s go. But let’s take Fortinbras with us.”

“Well, of course. He needs the exercise.”

They set off, Fortinbras rushing ahead, then doubling back to the two children, then leaping off again. The Murrys lived about four miles out of the village. Behind the house was a pine woods and it was through this that Charles Wallace took Meg.

“Charles, you know she’s going to get in awful trouble— Mrs. Whatsit, I mean—if they find out she’s broken into the haunted house. And taking Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets and everything. They could send her to jail.”

“One of the reasons I want to go over this afternoon is to warn them.”

“Them?”

“I told you she was there with her two friends. I’m not even sure it was Mrs. Whatsit herself who took die sheets, though I wouldn’t put it past her.” “But what would she want all those sheets for?” “I intend to ask her,” Charles Wallace said, “and to tell them they’d better be more careful. I don’t really think they’ll let anybody find them, but I just thought we ought to mention the possibility. Sometimes during vacations some of the boys go out there looking for thrills, but I don’t think anybody’s apt to right now, what with basketball and everything.”

They walked in silence for a moment through die fragrant woods, the rusty pine needles gentle under their feet. Up above them the wind made music in the branches.

    Charles Wallace slipped his hand confidingly in Meg’s, and {he sweet, little-boy gesture warmed her so that she felt the tense knot inside her begin to loosen. Charles loves me at any rate, she thought.

“School awful again today?” he asked after a while.

“Yes. I got sent to Mr. Jenkins. He made snide remarks about Father.”

Charles Wallace nodded sagely. “I know.”

“How do you know?”

Charles Wallace shook his head. “I can’t quite explain. You tell me, that’s all.”

“But I never say anything. You just seem to know.” ^Everything about you tells me,” Charles said. “How about the twins?” Meg asked. “Do you know about them, too?”

“I suppose I could if I wanted to. If they needed me. But it’s sort of tiring, so I just concentrate on you and Mother.”

“You mean you read our minds?”

Charles Wallace looked troubled. “I don’t think it’s that. It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inadvertently. That’s a good word, isn’t it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me this morning. I really must learn to read except I’m afraid it will make it awfully hard for me in school next year if I already know things. I think it will be better if people go on thinking I’m not very bright. They won’t hate me quite so much.”

 Ahead of them Fortinbras started barking loudly, the warning bay that usually told them that a car was coming up the road or that someone was at the door.

“Somebody’s here,” Charles Wallace said sharply. “Somebody’s hanging around the house. Come on.” He started to run, his short legs straining. At the edge of the woods Fortinbras stood in front of a boy, barking furiously.

As they came panting up the boy said, “For crying out loud, call off your dog.”

“Who is he?” Charles Wallace asked Meg.

“Calvin O’Keefe. He’s in Regional, but he’s older than I am. He’s a big bug.”

“It’s all right, fella. I’m not going to hurt you,” the boy said to Fortinbras.

“Sit, Fort,” Charles Wallace commanded, and Fortinbras dropped to his haunches in front of the boy, a low growl still pulsing in his dark throat.

“Okay.” Charles Wallace put his hands on his hips. “Now tell us what you’re doing here.”

“I might ask the same of you,” the boy said with some indignation. “Aren’t you two of the Murry kids? This isn’t your property, is it?” He started to move, but Fortinbras’ growl grew louder and he stopped.

“Tell me about him, Meg,” Charles Wallace demanded.

“What would I know about him?” Meg asked. “He’s a couple of grades above me, and he’s on the basketball team.”

“Just because I’m tall.” Calvin sounded a little embarrassed. Tall he certainly was, and skinny. His bony wrists stuck out of the sleeves of his blue sweater; his worn corduroy trousers were three inches too short. He had orange hair that needed cutting and the appropriate freckles to go with it. His eyes were an oddly bright blue.

“Tell us what you’re doing here,” Charles Wallace said.

“What is this? The third degree? Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be the moron?”

Meg flushed with rage, but Charles Wallace answered placidly, “That’s right. If you want me to call my dog off you’d better give.”

“Most peculiar moron I’ve ever met,” Calvin said. “I just came to get away from my family.”

Charles Wallace nodded. “What kind of family?”

“They all have runny noses. I’m third from the top of eleven kids. I’m a sport”

At that Charles Wallace grinned widely, “So’m I.”

“I don’t mean like in baseball,” Calvin said.

“Neither do I.”

“I mean like in biology,” Calvin said suspiciously.

“A change in gene,” Charles Wallace quoted, “resulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring.”

“What gives around here?” Calvin asked. “I was told you couldn’t talk.”

“Thinking I’m a moron gives people something to feel smug about,” Charles Wallace said. “Why should I disillusion them? How old are you, Cal?”

“Fourteen.”

“What grade?”

“Junior. Eleventh. I’m bright Listen, did anybody ask you to come here this afternoon?”

Charles Wallace, holding Fort by the collar, looked at Calvin suspiciously. “What do you mean, asked?”

Calvin shrugged. “You still don’t trust me, do you?”

“I don’t distrust you,” Charles Wallace said.

“Do you want to tell me why you’re here, then?”

“Fort and Meg and I decided to go for a walk. We often do in the afternoon.”

Calvin dug his hands down in his pockets. “You’re holding out on me.”

“So’re you,” Charles Wallace said.

“Okay, old sport,” Calvin said, “I’ll tell you this much. Sometimes I get a feeling about things. You might call it a compulsion. Do you know what compulsion means?”

“Constraint. Obligation. Because one is compelled. Not a very good definition, but it’s the Concise Oxford.”

“Okay, okay,” Calvin sighed. “I must remember I’m preconditioned in my concept of your mentality.”

Meg sat down on die coarse grass at the edge of the woods. Fort gently twisted his collar out of Charles Wallace’s hands and came over to Meg, lying down beside her and putting his head in her lap.

Calvin tried now politely to direct his words toward Meg as well as Charles Wallace, “When I get this feeling, this compulsion, I always do what it tells me. I can’t explain where it comes from or how I get it, and it doesn’t happen very often. But I obey it. And this afternoon I had a feeling that I must come over to the haunted house. That’s all I know, kid. I’m not holding anything back. Maybe it’s because I’m supposed to meet you. You tell me.”

Charles Wallace looked at Calvin probingly for a moment; then an almost glazed look came into his eyes, and he seemed to be thinking at him. Calvin stood very still, and waited.

At last Charles Wallace said. “Okay. I believe you. But I can’t tell you. I think I’d like to trust you. Maybe you’d better come home with us and have dinner.”

“Well, sure, but—what would your mother say to that?” Calvin asked.

“She’d be delighted. Mother’s all right. She’s not one of us. But she’s all right.”

“What about Meg?”

“Meg has it tough,” Charles Wallace said. “She’s not really one thing or the other.”

“What do you mean, one of us?” Meg demanded. “What do you mean I’m not one thing or the other?”

“Not now. Meg,” Charles Wallace said. “Slowly. Ill tell you about it later.” He looked at Calvin, then seemed to make a quick decision. “Okay, let’s take him to meet Mrs. Whatsit. If he’s not okay she’ll know.” He started off on his short legs toward the dilapidated old house.

The haunted house was half in the shadows of the clump of elms in which it stood. The elms were almost bare, now, and die ground around the house was yellow with damp leaves. The late afternoon light had a greenish cast which the blank windows reflected in a sinister way. An unhinged shutter thumped. Something else creaked. Meg did not wonder that the house had a reputation for being haunted.

A board was nailed across the front door, but Charles Wallace led the way around to the back. The door there appeared to be nailed shut, too, but Charles Wallace knocked, and the door swung slowly outward, creaking on rusty hinges. Up in one of the elms an old black crow gave its raucous cry, and a woodpecker went into a wild ratatattat. A large gray rat scuttled around the comer of the house and Meg let out a stifled shriek.

“They get a lot of fun out of using all the typical props,” Charles Wallace said in a reassuring voice. “Come on. Follow me.”

Calvin put a strong hand to Meg’s elbow, and Fort pressed against her leg. Happiness at their concern was so strong in her that her panic fled, and she followed Charles Wallace into the dark recesses of the house without fear.

They entered into a sort of kitchen. There was a huge fireplace with a big black pot hanging over a merry fire. Why had there been no smoke visible from the chimney? Something in the pot was bubbling, and it smelled more like one of Mrs. Murry’s chemical messes than something to eat. In a dilapidated Boston rocker sat a plump little woman. She wasn’t Mrs. Whatsit, so she must, Meg decided, be one of Mrs. Whatsit’s two friends. She wore enormous spectacles, twice as thick and twice as large as Meg’s, and she was sewing busily, with rapid jabbing stitches, on a sheet. Several other sheets lay on the dusty floor.

Charles Wallace went up to her. “I really don’t think you ought to have taken Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets without consulting me,” he said, as cross and bossy as only a very small boy can be. “What on earth do you want them for?”

The plump little woman beamed at him. “Why, Charlsie, my pet! Le coew a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.”

“But that’s not appropriate at all,” Charles said crossly.

“Your mother would find it so.” A smile seemed to gleam through the roundness of spectacles.

“I’m not talking about my mother’s feelings about my father,” Charles Wallace scolded. “I’m talking about Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets.”

The little woman sighed. The enormous glasses caught the light again and shone like an owl’s eyes. “In case we need ghosts, of course,” she said. “I should think you’d have guessed. If we have to frighten anybody away Whatsit thought we ought to do it appropriately. That’s why it’s so much fun to stay in a haunted house. But we really didn’t mean you to know about the sheets. Auf frischer Tatertappt. German. In .flagrante delicto. Latin. Caught in the act. English. As I was saying—”

But Charles Wallace held up his hand in a peremptory gesture. “Mrs. Who, do you know this boy?”

Calvin bowed. “Good afternoon, Ma’am. I didn’t quite catch your name.”

“Mrs. Who will do,” the woman said. “He wasn’t my idea, Charlsie, but I think he’s a good one.”

“Where’s Mrs. Whatsit?” Charles asked.

“She’s busy. It’s getting near time, Charlsie, getting near time. Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret. Seneca. Nothing deters a good man from doing what is honorable. And he’s a very good man, Charlsie, darling, but right now he needs our help.”

“Who?” Meg demanded.

“And little Megsie! Lovely to meet you, sweetheart. Your father, of course. Now go home, loves. The time is not yet ripe. Don’t worry, we won’t go without you. Get plenty of food and rest. Feed Calvin up. Now, off with you! Justitiae soror fides. Latin again, of course. Faith is the sister of justice. Trust in us! Now, shoo!” And she fluttered up from her chair and pushed them out the door with surprising power.

“Charles,” Meg said. “I don’t understand.”

Charles took her by the hand and dragged her away from the house. Fortinbras ran on ahead, and Calvin was close behind them. “No,” he said, “I don’t either, yet. Not quite. I’ll tell you what I know as soon as I can. But you saw Fort, didn’t you? Not a growl. Not a quiver. Just as though there weren’t anything strange about it. So you know its okay. Look, do me a favor, both of you. Let’s not talk about it till we’ve had something to eat. I need fuel so I can sort things out and assimilate them properly.”

“Lead on, moron,” Calvin cried gaily. “I’ve never even seen your house, and I have the funniest feeling that for the first time in my life I’m going home!”

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