Authors: Madeleine L’Engle
“Who’s Mrs Whatsit?” Meg asked.
“I think I want to be exclusive about her for a while,” Charles Wallace said. “Onion salt?”
“What’s Mrs Whatsit stand for?” Mrs. Murry asked.
“That’s her name,” Charles Wallace answered. “You know the old shingled house back in the woods that the kids won’t
go near because they say it’s haunted? That’s where they live.”
“Mrs Whatsit and her two friends. I was out with Fortinbras a couple of days ago—you and the twins were at school, Meg. We like to walk in the woods, and suddenly he took off after a squirrel and I took off after him and we ended up by the haunted house, so I met them by accident, as you might say.”
“But nobody lives there,”
“Mrs Whatsit and her friends do. They’re very enjoyable.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about it before?” Mrs. Murry asked. “And you know you’re not supposed to go off our property without permission, Charles.”
“I know,” Charles said. “That’s one reason I didn’t tell
you. I just rushed off after Fortinbras without thinking. And then I decided, well, I’d better save them for an emergency,
A fresh gust of wind took the house and shook it, and suddenly the rain began to lash against the windows.
“I don’t think I like this wind,” Meg said nervously.
“We’ll lose some shingles off the roof, that’s certain,” Mrs. Murry said. “But this house has stood for almost two hundred years and I think it will last a little longer, Meg. There’s been many a high wind up on this hill.”
“But this is a hurricane!” Meg wailed. “The radio kept saying it was a hurricane!”
“It’s October,” Mrs. Murry told her. “There’ve been storms in October before.”
As Charles Wallace gave Meg her sandwich Fortinbras came out from under the table. He gave a long, low growl, and they could see the dark fur slowly rising on his back. Meg felt her own skin prickle.
“What’s wrong?” she asked anxiously.
Fortinbras stared at the door that opened into Mrs. Murry’s laboratory which was in the old stone dairy right off the kitchen. Beyond the lab a pantry led outdoors, though Mrs. Murry had done her best to train the family to come into the house through the garage door or the front door and not through her lab. But it was the lab door and not the garage door toward which Fortinbras was growling.
“You didn’t leave any nasty-smelling chemicals cooking over a Bunsen burner, did you, Mother?” Charles Wallace asked.
Mrs. Murray stood up. “No. But I think I’d better go see what’s upsetting Fort, anyhow.”
“It’s the tramp, I’m sure it’s the tramp,” Meg said nervously.
“What tramp?” Charles Wallace asked.
“They were saying at the post office this afternoon that a tramp stole all Mrs. Buncombe’s
“We’d better sit on the pillow cases, then,” Mrs. Murry said lightly. “I don’t think even a tramp would be out on a night like this, Meg.”
“But that’s probably why he
out,” Meg wailed, “trying to find a place
to be out.”
“In which case I’ll offer him the barn till morning.” Mrs. Murry went briskly to the door.
“I’ll go with you.” Meg’s voice was shrill.
“No, Meg, you stay
with Charles and eat your sandwich.”
“Eat!” Meg exclaimed as Mrs. Murry went out through the lab. “How does she expect me to eat?”
“Mother can take care of herself,” Charles said. “Physically, that is.” But he sat in his father’s chair at the table and his legs kicked at the rungs; and Charles Wallace, unlike most small children, had the ability to sit still.
After a few moments that seemed
like forever to Meg, Mrs. Murry came back in, holding the door open for—was it the tramp? It seemed small for Meg’s idea of a tramp. The age or sex was impossible to tell, for it was completely bundled up in clothes. Several scarves of assorted colors were tied about the head, and a man’s felt hat perched atop. A shocking pink stole was knotted
about a rough overcoat, and black rubber boots covered
“Mrs Whatsit,” Charles said suspiciously, “what are you doing here? And at this time of night, too?”
“Now don’t you be worried, my honey.” A voice emerged from among turned-up coat collar, stole, scarves, and hat, a voice like an unoiled gate, but somehow not unpleasant.
“Mrs—uh—Whatsit—says she lost her way,” Mrs. Murry said. “Would you care for some hot chocolate, Mrs Whatsit?”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Mrs Whatsit answered, taking off the hat and the stole. “It isn’t so much that I lost my way as that I got blown off course. And when I realized that I was at little Charles Wallace’s house I thought I’d just come in and rest a bit before proceeding on my way.”
“How did you know this was Charles Wallace’s house?” Meg asked.
“By the smell.” Mrs Whatsit untied a blue and green
paisley scarf, a red and yellow flowered print, a gold Liberty print, a red and black bandanna. Under all this a sparse quantity of grayish hair was tied in a small but tidy knot on top of her head. Her eyes were bright, her nose a round, soft blob, her mouth puckered like an autumn apple. “My, but it’s lovely and warm in here,” she said.
“Do sit down.” Mrs. Murry indicated a chair. “Would you
like a sandwich, Mrs Whatsit? I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato.”
“Now, let me see,” Mrs Whatsit pondered. “I’m passionately fond of Russian caviar.”
“You peeked!” Charles cried indignantly. “We’re saving that for Mother’s birthday and you can’t have any!”
Mrs Whatsit gave a deep and pathetic sigh.
Charles said. “Now, you
mustn’t give in to her, Mother, or I shall be very angry. How about tuna-fish salad?”
“All right,” Mrs Whatsit said meekly.
“I’ll fix it,” Meg offered, going to the pantry for a can of tuna fish.
—For crying out loud, she thought,—this old woman comes barging in on us in the middle of the night and Mother takes it as though there weren’t anything peculiar about it at all. I’ll bet she
tramp. I’ll bet she
steal those sheets. And she’s certainly no one Charles Wallace ought to be friends with, especially when he won’t even talk to ordinary people.
“I’ve only been in the neighborhood a short time,” Mrs Whatsit was saying as Meg switched off the pantry light and came back into the kitchen with the tuna fish, “and I didn’t think I was going to like the neighbors at all until
dear little Charles came over with his dog.”
“Mrs Whatsit,” Charles Wallace demanded severely, “why did you take Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets?”
them, Charles dear.”
“You must return them at once.”
“But Charles, dear, I
“It was very wrong of you,” Charles Wallace scolded. “If you needed sheets that badly you should have asked me.”
Mrs Whatsit shook her head
and clucked. “You can’t spare any sheets. Mrs. Buncombe can.”
Meg cut up some celery and mixed it in with the tuna. After a moment’s hesitation she opened the refrigerator door and brought out a jar of little sweet pickles.—Though why I’m doing it for her I don’t know, she thought, as she cut them up.—I don’t trust her one bit.
“Tell your sister I’m all right,” Mrs Whatsit said to Charles. “Tell
her my intentions are good.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Charles intoned.
“My, but isn’t he cunning.” Mrs Whatsit beamed at him fondly. “It’s lucky he has someone to understand him.”
“But I’m afraid he doesn’t,” Mrs. Murry said. “None of us is quite up to Charles.”
“But at least you aren’t trying to squash him down.” Mrs Whatsit nodded her head vigorously. “You’re letting
him be himself.”
“Here’s your sandwich,” Meg said, bringing it to Mrs Whatsit.
“Do you mind if I take off my boots before I eat?” Mrs Whatsit asked, picking up the sandwich nevertheless. “Listen.” She moved her feet up and down in her boots, and they could hear water squelching. “My toes are ever so damp. The trouble is that these boots are a mite too tight for me, and I never can take them
off by myself.”
“I’ll help you,” Charles offered.
“Not you. You’re not strong enough.”
“I’ll help.” Mrs. Murry squatted at Mrs Whatsit’s feet,
yanking on one slick boot. When the boot came off it came suddenly. Mrs. Murry sat down with a thump. Mrs Whatsit went tumbling backward with the chair onto the floor, sandwich held high in one old claw. Water poured out of the boot and ran over the
floor and the big braided rug.
“Oh, dearie me,” Mrs Whatsit said, lying on her back in the overturned chair, her feet in the air, one in a red and white striped sock, the other still booted.
Mrs. Murry got to her feet. “Are you all right, Mrs Whatsit?”
“If you have some liniment I’ll put it on my dignity,” Mrs Whatsit said, still supine. “I think it’s sprained. A little oil of cloves mixed
well with garlic is rather good.” And she took a large bite of sandwich.
“Do please get up,” Charles said. “I don’t like to see you lying there that way. You’re carrying things too far.”
“Have you ever tried to get to your feet with a sprained dignity?” But Mrs Whatsit scrambled up, righted the chair, and then sat back down on the floor, the booted foot stuck out in front of her, and took another
bite. She moved with great agility for such an old woman. At least Meg was reasonably sure that she was an old woman, and a very old woman at that.
Mrs Whatsit, her mouth full, ordered Mrs. Murry, “Now pull while I’m already down.”
Quite calmly, as though this old woman and her boots were nothing out of the ordinary, Mrs. Murry pulled until the second boot relinquished the foot. This foot was
covered with a blue and gray Argyle sock, and Mrs Whatsit sat
there, wriggling her toes, contentedly finishing her sandwich before scrambling to her feet. “Ah,” she said, “that’s ever so much better,” and took both boots and shook them out over the sink. “My stomach is full and I’m warm inside and out and it’s time I went home.”
“Don’t you think you’d better stay till morning?” Mrs. Murry asked.
“Oh, thank you, dearie, but there’s
much to do I just can’t waste time sitting around frivoling.”
“It’s much too wild a night to travel in.”
“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”
“Well, at least till your socks are dry—”
“Wet socks don’t bother me. I just didn’t like the water squishing around in my boots. Now don’t worry
about me, lamb.” (Lamb was not a word one would ordinarily think of calling Mrs. Murry.) “I shall just sit down for a moment and pop on my boots and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, pet, by the way, there
such a thing as a tesseract.”
Mrs. Murry went very white and with one hand reached backward and clutched at a chair for support. Her voice trembled. “What did you say?”
tugged at her second boot. “I said,” she grunted, shoving her foot down in, “that there is”—shove—“such a thing”—shove—“as a tesseract.” Her foot went down into the boot, and grabbing shawls, scarves, and hat, she hustled out the door. Mrs. Murry stayed very still, making no move to help the old woman. As the door
opened, Fortinbras streaked in, panting, wet and shiny as a seal. He looked at Mrs.
Murry and whined.
The door slammed.
“Mother, what’s the matter!” Meg cried. “What did she say? What is it?”
“The tesseract—” Mrs. Murry whispered. “What did she mean? How could she have known?”
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
. I’m sorry I showed you I was upset. Your father and I used to have a joke about tesseract.”
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
. And certainly Meg and Charles don’t.”
“I know. We’re morons.” Meg was bitter.
“I wish you wouldn’t be such a
, Meg. Syrup, please.” Sandy reached across the table. “You don’t have to take everything so
sonally. Use a happy
, for heaven’s sake. You just goof around in school and look out the window and don’t pay any attention.”