Once there were four children whose names were Helen, Tom, Alice, and Walter. This story is about something that happened to them when they spent the summer at their uncle's dairy farm in western Massachusetts. Uncle John and his wife MaryAnne had no children of their own, so they were always happy to host the Peterson children for vacations and holidays. However this vacation was less happy than most, as the reason the children went to spend the summer on the farm was because their mother was quite ill.
So they were unhappy when they arrived at the farm, but soon they fell into the rhythm of the days, which were long and hot, full of chores (which were fun for city children as they were) and games in the acres of fields and dense woods around the pastures. One day passed after another, and the four children grew tanned from the sun and half-wild as they ran about the farm from dawn till dinner. The only cloud on this blissful existence was their worry about their mother, but Helen assured the others (Helen was the oldest, and she always Knew Best) that the best doctors in Boston were looking after her, and she was sure to recover.
One day, after they had been at the farm for some weeks, Walter discovered a cave. It was a perfect cave for an eight-year-old boy, not too dark or dank, but well-hidden behind a fallen oak tree. He wanted to explore it, but it was late and he heard the dinner-bell ringing across the fields, so (oh so reluctantly), he turned away.
But he told his siblings about the cave that night, when they were all sitting on Alice's bed, playing cards. (Uncle John and Aunt MaryAnne did not approve of card-playing, but the Petersons' parents had played, and so they would sneak into the girls' room after lights were out and play by the light of a single candle.) They all agreed that they would investigate the cave together tomorrow.
"Oh, no!" said Tom, suddenly. "Tomorrow is Sunday, we have to go to church." Uncle John and Aunt MaryAnne went to church in town every Sunday, and the children always went with them. Mostly they didn't mind, although the services were long and often boring, because sometimes Uncle John would stop at the store on the way home, and they could buy penny-candy.
"Afterwards, then," Helen said, firmly, and the others nodded.
"I will make sandwiches!" Alice declared. Alice made the best sandwiches: she never forgot that Tom hated pickles and that Walter always got extra butter.
So it was agreed.
Except they never went to church the next day. Just as they were gathering downstairs, and Tom was late (as usual) because he could not make his hair stay flat, the telephone rang. The telephone hardly ever rang: Uncle John didn't like to use it and Aunt MaryAnne found it confusing, with all the party lines and operators. Walter watched as Uncle John picked up the receiver, and put it to his ear.
And then Uncle John looked very sad, and Walter became afraid.
Uncle John turned away, so the children could not see his face. "When?" he said, and then, "Was it--did she--I see. All right."
Walter became even more afraid, and he decided that he did not want to know who Uncle John was talking to, and he didn't want to know what it was that he was learning. So Walter ran to the screen door, and threw it open, and ran out into the yard. He heard Helen shout after him, but he didn't stop, he just ran and ran, in his stiff church shoes and good clothes.
FInally he found himself at the cave he had discovered yesterday, and he threw his body under the oak tree and wriggled inside. The cave didn't look as dark as it was yesterday.
"Walter? Walter, come back!" That was Tom, outside. Walter didn't answer, and after a moment, Tom wriggled under the tree too, and came into the cave, followed by Helen and Alice. Alice was wearing her nice blue dress that Mother had made for Easter, and in the dim light she looked upset about the dirt on the skirt.
"Did you hear--" said Alice, and Walter shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears.
"No! No, no, no!" he yelled, and he turned around and went further into the cave, as far as he could. He opened his eyes, but he couldn't really see anything, and after a dozen steps he was surprised he didn't hit the wall of the cave. He put his hands out, and didn't feel the cave walls, and so he kept walking.
"Walter!" said Tom behind him, but Walter didn't want to hear anything Tom had to say right now, so he kept on, and then he saw a light ahead, which seemed very odd in a cave. Had he been turned around? But no, he hadn't, because this was not a dirt cave with tree roots like the one he had found, but a cave of smooth stone walls, placed together like the stone fences around the pastures. And now he was at the entrance, and a cold breeze was blowing across his face.
It was winter. He had walked into the cave on a hot July Sunday, and come out of a different cave on a sunny winter day--somewhere else entirely. He looked out of the cave mouth and saw a great white field of snow, stretching away to the horizon. In the distance there were mountains taller than the tallest hills in Massachusetts, and off to the left, a great forest.
"Wow," said Alice.
"How did--I don't understand!" said Helen. "Is it--what happened?"
Tom laughed and leaped out into the snow. He went in up to his ankles. "It's magic!" he cried, and scooping up a handful of snow, tossed a snowball at Helen. That sparked a mad snowball fight, which went on until everyone was soaked and shivering.
The sun had dropped noticeably, as well, and the shadows of the trees on the snow were growing long. "We should go back," said Alice. "I'm cold."
"They'll be worried," added Helen, and then stopped, suddenly. Her chin quivered, and Walter was afraid again. He didn't want to hear anything she had to say.
So he stomped sullenly back into the cave--and then stopped. The cave was very shallow, and it ended, clearly, only a few steps in. There was a wall now, where there hadn't been one before. He touched the stones: they were solid, and cold, and couldn't be moved.
They were trapped here, in this chill and snowy land, with no way to go home.
First, there was some shouting. I will not provide the details, but Tom was particularly unkind to Walter, who could hardly be blamed for magic, after all, and Helen had to speak with Tom sharply. Next, they took inventory; however, because they had been preparing to go to church, Tom did not have his pocket-knife, nor Helen the sandwiches she always thought to bring on their longer adventures. And no one even had a coat, and it was getting colder fast.
"We can't stay here," finally announced Helen. "We must look for help, or better shelter than this. If we had coats or blankets, perhaps we could stay here, but we don't."
"But which way shall we go?" asked Alice, looking out at the grey-white landscape. The sun was nearly behind the mountains now (which at least gave them some directions: the mountains were to the west and the hills to the north). No one answered, because no one had any idea.
"Someone shall have to climb a tree," Tom announced at last. "Maybe there is a town we can't see from here."
There were no further preparations to be made, so they left the cave, and walked through the snow towards the trees as the sun set. The snow was quite deep, but it had melted and refrozen many times, Tom announced, and as a result they only had to struggle through the top layer of the freshest snow, which was just a few inches deep. However, it was deep enough to be cold and it soaked through their shoes, and Alice whined a bit before Tom snapped at her.
The trees, when they reached them, were tall pines or firs, much like the ones around Uncle John's farm (which they had climbed many times). Tom, of course, insisted on doing the climbing, and the others were too cold to argue. He scrambled up the lowest branches, dislodging snow onto his siblings, and disappeared into the darkness. Once he was out of sight, his voice grew muffled, and although at one point he shouted, they couldn't tell what he was saying.
Finally he came down, landing hard on the ground in a welter of pine needles, with snow all over his shoulders and hair. He now had pine-pitch on his face. "There's a light!" he said excitedly. "Acastle! All shining, that way!"
A castle; suddenly this adventure seemed much less frightening and more exciting. "Are you sure?" asked Helen, dubiously.
"Of course I'm sure--I saw it, didn't I?" Tom looked affronted. "It's off that way--" he pointed south.
Helen looked around at the rest of them. Alice was very cold: she had her arms wrapped around her, and her lips were going blue. And Walter was shuddering in his short pants and summer shirt. There was no choice, after all.
So Tom led the way, and after some minutes of walking through the trees, they came over a rise and saw a castle before them, just as Tom had said, in the middle of a great field. It was certainly a castle, just like in the books that Mother had read to them. But it was also an odd castle: it glowed in the darkness, as though it were lit from within, like something in a story. Walter didn't care about how odd it was, though: he was so very cold, and a castle was sure to be warm.
And so the children walked across the broad expanse of snow, stumbling and slipping more frequently as they got colder and stiffer and more miserable. Their shoes were soaked and their hands were chapped with cold. And at long last they found themselves at the gates, which were tall and carved with mysterious symbols, and firmly shut. "Surely they'll let us in," Alice said, worried. She had fallen at least twice, and Walter couldn't feel his feet anymore.
"Well, here goes nothing," said Helen, and banged with her fist on the gate.
If you have read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you know that the Peterson children are not the children who broke the rule of the White Witch and brought Aslan back to Narnia. The children who did that were named Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie.
Helen, Tom, Alice, and Walter were not as lucky as the Pevensie children. They were not less brave, less smart, less loyal, or less loving than the Pevensies. Merely less lucky.