“One person begins a story, any nonsense you like, and tells as long as he pleases, only taking care to stop short at some exciting point, when the next takes it up and does the same. It’s very funny when well done, and makes a perfect jumble of tragical comical stuff to laugh over. Please start it, Mr. Brooke,” said Kate, with a commanding air, which surprised Meg, who treated the tutor with as much respect as any other gentleman.
Lying on the grass at the feet of the two young ladies, Mr. Brooke obediently began the story, with the handsome brown eyes steadily fixed upon the sunshiny river.
“Once on a time, a knight went out into the world to seek his fortune, for he had nothing but his sword and his shield. He traveled a long while, nearly eight-and-twenty years, and had a hard time of it, till he came to the palace of a good old king, who had offered a reward to anyone who could tame and train a fine but unbroken colt, of which he was very fond. The knight agreed to try, and got on slowly but surely, for the colt was a gallant fellow, and soon learned to love his new master, though he was freakish and wild. Every day, when he gave his lessons to this pet of the king’s, the knight rode him through the city, and as he rode, he looked everywhere for a certain beautiful face, which he had seen many times in his dreams, but never found. One day, as he went prancing down a quiet street, he saw at the window of a ruinous castle the lovely face. He was delighted, inquired who lived in this old castle, and was told that several captive princesses were kept there by a spell, and spun all day to lay up money to buy their liberty. The knight wished intensely that he could free them, but he was poor and could only go by each day, watching for the sweet face and longing to see it out in the sunshine. At last he resolved to get into the castle and ask how he could help them. He went and knocked. The great door flew open, and he beheld… ”
“A ravishingly lovely lady, who exclaimed, with a cry of rapture, ‘At last! At last!'” continued Kate, who had read French novels, and admired the style. “‘Tis she!’ cried Count Gustave, and fell at her feet in an ecstasy of joy. ‘Oh, rise!’ she said, extending a hand of marble fairness. ‘Never! Till you tell me how I may rescue you,’ swore the knight, still kneeling. ‘Alas, my cruel fate condemns me to remain here till my tyrant is destroyed.’ ‘Where is the villain?’ ‘In the mauve salon. Go, brave heart, and save me from despair.’ ‘I obey, and return victorious or dead!’ With these thrilling words he rushed away, and flinging open the door of the mauve salon, was about to enter, when he received… ”
“A stunning blow from the big Greek lexicon, which an old fellow in a black gown fired at him,” said Ned. “Instantly, Sir What’s-his-name recovered himself, pitched the tyrant out of the window, and turned to join the lady, victorious, but with a bump on his brow, found the door locked, tore up the curtains, made a rope ladder, got halfway down when the ladder broke, and he went headfirst into the moat, sixty feet below. Could swim like a duck, paddled round the castle till he came to a little door guarded by two stout fellows, knocked their heads together till they cracked like a couple of nuts, then, by a trifling exertion of his prodigious strength, he smashed in the door, went up a pair of stone steps covered with dust a foot thick, toads as big as your fist, and spiders that would frighten you into hysterics, Miss March. At the top of these steps he came plump upon a sight that took his breath away and chilled his blood… ”
“A tall figure, all in white with a veil over its face and a lamp in its wasted hand,” went on Meg. “It beckoned, gliding noiselessly before him down a corridor as dark and cold as any tomb. Shadowy effigies in armor stood on either side, a dead silence reigned, the lamp burned blue, and the ghostly figure ever and anon turned its face toward him, showing the glitter of awful eyes through its white veil. They reached a curtained door, behind which sounded lovely music. He sprang forward to enter, but the specter plucked him back, and waved threateningly before him a… ”
“Snuffbox,” said Jo, in a sepulchral tone, which convulsed the audience. “‘Thankee,’ said the knight politely, as he took a pinch and sneezed seven times so violently that his head fell off. ‘Ha! Ha!’ laughed the ghost, and having peeped through the keyhole at the princesses spinning away for dear life, the evil spirit picked up her victim and put him in a large tin box, where there were eleven other knights packed together without their heads, like sardines, who all rose and began to… ”
“Dance a hornpipe,” cut in Fred, as Jo paused for breath, “and, as they danced, the rubbishy old castle turned to a man-of-war in full sail. ‘Up with the jib, reef the tops’l halliards, helm hard alee, and man the guns!’ roared the captain, as a Portuguese pirate hove in sight, with a flag black as ink flying from her foremast. ‘Go in and win, my hearties!’ says the captain, and a tremendous fight began. Of course the British beat—they always do.”
“No, they don’t!” cried Jo, aside.
“Having taken the pirate captain prisoner, sailed slap over the schooner, whose decks were piled high with dead and whose lee scuppers ran blood, for the order had been ‘Cutlasses, and die hard!’ ‘Bosun’s mate, take a bight of the flying-jib sheet, and start this villain if he doesn’t confess his sins double quick,’ said the British captain. The Portuguese held his tongue like a brick, and walked the plank, while the jolly tars cheered like mad. But the sly dog dived, came up under the man-of-war, scuttled her, and down she went, with all sail set, ‘To the bottom of the sea, sea, sea’ where… ”
“Oh, gracious! What shall I say?” cried Sallie, as Fred ended his rigmarole, in which he had jumbled together pell-mell nautical phrases and facts out of one of his favorite books. “Well, they went to the bottom, and a nice mermaid welcomed them, but was much grieved on finding the box of headless knights, and kindly pickled them in brine, hoping to discover the mystery about them, for being a woman, she was curious. By-and-by a diver came down, and the mermaid said, ‘I’ll give you a box of pearls if you can take it up,’ for she wanted to restore the poor things to life, and couldn’t raise the heavy load herself. So the diver hoisted it up, and was much disappointed on opening it to find no pearls. He left it in a great lonely field, where it was found by a… ”