Zoltan obediently turned and started for the house, then paused uncertainly to look back. He was reassured when the
fanner, already hoeing away industriously, waved him on with a motion of his hand and went on working. There was apparently no time to waste.
Back on the cow path, Zoltan realized that the house was farther off than it had appeared at first-indeed, the whole place now looked even larger than it had at first glance.
As he moved on toward the house Zoltan kept looking for other laborers. He looked to right and left, in one field after another of beautiful crops, but he could see no one. Probably, he thought, most of the hands were still taking their noontime rest under one of these rows of trees. Certainly there had to be a large force of people at work to keep the place in the magnificent condition that it was.
Tall, multicolored flowers of a kind that Zoltan had never seen before surrounded the perfectly kept patch of short lawn right at the front door of the house. Bees were busy here; and the perfume of the flowers was as different as could be from that of the pale blooms along the river. The front of the house was flanked by two shade trees, their foliage starting to turn orange and yellow with the onset of fall. The door was wood, solidly built and painted white, and it stood ajar just slightly, in a hospitable way. Somewhere out of sight, toward the rear of the house, dogs were starting to bark to signal Zoltan’s arrival-it sounded more a mindless welcome than a challenge.
There was no bell or knocker on the farmhouse door. Zoltan rapped firmly on the white frame, and immediately the white door, perhaps jarred slightly by his knocking, swung open farther as if in welcome. A sunlit parlor was revealed, furnished with enough chairs and tables for a large family, though at the moment it was unoccupied. Then footsteps, soft but brisk, were coming down a hall.
The woman who emerged from the interior of the house was silver-haired and generously built, garbed in a flower patterned dress of many bright colors, which was half-hidden by an apron. She looked at Zoltan with an expectant smile, as if she might have been anticipating some messenger who bore good news. Zoltan could not guess whether she was the mistress of this house or only a servant, and for the moment at least it hardly seemed to matter.
He said to her: “The man out there in the field-Still, he said his name was-sent me here. I need-”
He never did get the chance to spell out what he needed. Perhaps his needs were all too obvious. The woman, talking much faster than Zoltan in his present state could follow, swept him in with great gestures of the straw broom in her hand. He followed her to the kitchen, where in a moment the broom had vanished, to be replaced by a plate of small cakes, and then another of sliced melon. Next thing he knew, he was seated in a sturdy wooden chair at a broad wooden table, with plates in front of him. The kitchen was a huge room- the house, he realized, must be a little larger than it had looked from outside. A small fire crackled in the huge cooking hearth, and the air was full of magical vapors, of a kind that the visitor had sometimes experienced in the kitchen at High Manor. Here-he had never been so hungry-the aromas were of doubly concentrated magic.
Mother Still was a large woman, much bulkier than her good man out in the field. But like him she was hard to place in terms of age. Now she was bustling everywhere. For a moment Zoltan thought that she was in two places at once. “Call me Goodwife Still, or Mother Still-it’s all one to me, my laddie. Have some cheese; it goes well with that melon.” Zoltan, his mouth full, discovered that it did indeed. Experienced people had told him that if you were really starved it was a mistake to stuff your belly to its limit as soon as you had the chance. But, by all the gods, this was a special case. Maybe starvation that occurred under enchantment wasn’t the
same as the more dreary, ordinary kinds of the affliction, and required special treatment.
Meanwhile he observed that his hostess was starting-what else?-to cook dinner. The carcass of some small four-legged animal, pale and plump, was being adroitly skewered on a
That Zoltan-he got the impression that it would be the same for anyone else in her presence, or in her house-might have the bad luck to be attacked by hunger appeared to strike the goodwife as a personal affront. The boy, with arrays of dishes growing on the table before him, was bombarded with offers of cold milk to drink-drawn up in a stone crock from some deep well-and a clean fork appeared on the table in front of him, and yet another plate, this one holding a slab of fruit pie that Zoltan, after the first bite, was prepared to swear was the most delicious thing that he had ever tasted.
“A little something to keep you going until dinner’s ready.” For all the incomprehensible amount of work that she was somehow getting done, Mother Still never seemed to hurry. Now she had joined Zoltan sitting at the table, a mug of tea in her large, roughened hand; and now finally she allowed the talk to shift away from things that he might like to eat or drink. “Is someone chasing you, child? How do you come to be here in this condition?” She was still indignant that the world had treated him so poorly.
Zoltan, who had not realized that his condition was quite so obviously bad, told her the story as best he could, beginning with the strange experience he had shared with the younger children in the cave. Mother Still made appropriate sounds of sympathy as she heard about that and about the magical events that had afflicted Zoltan later on, but he wasn’t sure that she really believed him-given the nature of the story he had to tell, he was prepared to understand anyone’s not doing so.
But Mother Still asked questions as if she might believe him. When he mentioned the name of Burslem, she frowned and shook her head. The two of them sat there in the kitchen talking for some time, and they were still sitting there when from outside there came the lowing of cattle, a sound that in Zoltan’s experience usually accompanied the animals’ being driven back to the barn.
He got to his feet, loosened his belt a notch, did his best to suppress a belch, and offered to help bring the cattle in.
Mother Still smiled at him approvingly. “The old man’ll be glad of help. Just trot out, then.”
He went out the back door and pitched in to help. Still, unsurprised, welcomed the assistance and sent Zoltan out to another field where there were more milk cows that needed prodding. All the animals were fat and healthy; by now Zoltan would have been surprised to find otherwise.
There was a well just outside the kitchen-& cool, stone-lined shaft complete with windlass and bucket-and when the cattle had been brought into the barn Zoltan hauled up two pails of water and carried them into the kitchen and set them beside the big stone sink. It was the kind of thing he hated doing when at home, but he’d plenty of experience of it for all that. There weren’t always a lot of servants ready to wait on you at High Manor.
Presently dinner was announced, and Zoltan, after a thorough wash-up, reached the table right on the heels of Still. He was hungry again-it was as if all the food that he’d eaten since his arrival had already packed itself away into his bones and blood and muscles, leaving his stomach ready for more.
Dinner was roast meat, with delicious accompaniments- bread, vegetables, pickles, more pie-and conversation.
“Just the two of us here now. Children all grown and gone.”
Zoltan had seen enough farms to recognize that this place
was a gem, and he said so several times. It was obvious to him that there had to be more workers around somewhere, a bunch of them, but somehow he didn’t want to come right out and ask where they all were. He just wanted to get through the rest of this day without any further complications.
An oil-lamp was lighted, making the parlor almost as cheery as it had been during the day, and Mother Still- somehow, incredibly, she had managed to clean all those dirty dishes already-sat down with her knitting.
Meanwhile Still had reached up to a high shelf above the mantel and brought down some kind of a board game with pegs; he challenged Zoltan to a game and started to explain the rules even as he set up the board for play. Zoltan, trying to make sense of it, could hardly manage to stifle his yawns.