'Then lend a hand to get the things away,' he said.
And more and more people came, and all worked hard; but Oswald and Dicky did most. Eliza never even found that bed-key, because when she saw people beginning to come thicker and thicker across the fields, like ants hurrying home, she went out and told everyone over and over again that Honeysett had got the key.
Then a woman came along, and Eliza got her into a corner by the stairs and jawed. I heard part of the jaw.
'An' pore Mrs. Simpkins, her man he's gone to Ashford Market with his beasts and the three other men, and me and my man said we'd have Liz up at my place, her being my sister, so as Honeysett could go off to Romney about the sheep. But she wouldn't come, not though we brought the light cart over for her. So we thought it best Honeysett stayed about his work, and go for the sheep to-morrow.'
'Then the house would ha' been all empty but for her not being wishful to go along of you?' Oswald heard the other say.
'Yes,' said Eliza; 'an' so you see——'
'You keep your mouth shut,' the other woman fiercely said; 'you're Lily's sister, but Tom, he's my brother. If you don't shut your silly mouth you'll be getting of them into trouble. It's insured, ain't it?'
'I don't see,' said Eliza.
'You don't never see nothing,' said the other. 'You just don't say a word 'less you're arst, and then only as you come to look after her and found the fire a-raging something crool.'
The other woman clawed hold of her and dragged her away, whispering secretly.
All this time the fire was raging, but there were lots of men now to work the well and the buckets, and the house and the barn had not caught.
When we had got out all the furniture, some of the men set to work on the barn, and, of course, Oswald and Dicky, though weary, were in this also. They helped to get out all the wool—bundles and bundles and bundles of it; but when it came to sacks of turnip seed and things, they thought they had had enough, and they went to where the things were that had come out of the larder, and they got a jug of milk and some bread and cheese, and took it to the woman who was lying in the dry ditch on the nice bed they had so kindly made for her. She drank some milk, and asked them to have some, and they did, with bread and cheese (Dutch), and jolly glad they were of it.
Just as we had finished we heard a shout, and there was the fire-engine coming across the field.
I do like fire-engines. They are so smart and fierce, and look like dragons ready to fight the devouring element.
It was no use, however, in spite of the beautiful costumes of the firemen, because there was no water, except in the well, and not much left of that.
The man named Honeysett had ridden off on an old boneshaker of his to fetch the engines. He had left the key in the place where it was always kept, only Eliza had not had the sense to look for it. He had left a letter for her, too, written in red pencil on the back of a bill for a mowing-machine. It said: 'Rix on fir'; going to git fir'-injins.'
Oswald treasures this letter still as a memento of happier days.
When Honeysett saw the line of men handing up buckets to throw on the tarry wall, he said:
'That ain't no manner of use. Wind's changed a hour agone.'
And so it had. The flames were now reaching out the other way, and two more ricks were on fire. But the tarry walls were quite cool, and very wet, and the men who were throwing the water were very surprised to find that they were standing in a great puddle.
And now, when everything in the house and the barn was safe, Oswald had time to draw his breath and think, and to remember with despair exactly who it was that had launched a devastating fire-balloon over the peaceful marsh.
It was getting dusk by this time; but even the splendour of all those burning ricks against the darkening sky was merely wormwood and gall to Oswald's upright heart, and he jolly soon saw that it was the same to Dicky's.
'I feel pretty sick,' he said. 'Let's go home.'
'They say the whole eleven ricks are bound to go,' said Dicky, 'with the wind the way it is.'
'We're bound to go,' said Oswald.
'Where?' inquired the less thoughtful Dicky.
'To prison,' said his far-seeing brother, turning away and beginning to walk towards the bicycles.
'We can't be sure it was our balloon,' said Dicky, following.
'Pretty average,' said Oswald bitterly.
'But no one would know it was us if we held our tongues.'
'We can't hold our tongues,' Oswald said; 'if we do someone else will be blamed, as sure as fate. You didn't hear what that woman said about insurance money.'
'We might wait and see if anyone does get into trouble, and then come forward,' said Dicky.
And Oswald owned they might do that, but his heart was full of despair and remorse.
Just as they got to their bikes a man met them.
'All lost, I suppose?' he said, jerking his thumb at the blazing farmyard.
'Not all,' said Dicky; 'we saved the furniture and the wool and things——'
The man looked at us, and said heavily:
'Very kind of you, but it was all insured.'
'Look here,' said Oswald earnestly, 'don't you say that to anyone else.'
'Eh?' said the man.
'If you do, they're safe to think you set fire to it yourself!'
He stared, then he frowned, then he laughed, and said something about old heads on young shoulders, and went on.
We went on, too, in interior gloom, that only grew gloomier as we got nearer and nearer home.
We held a council that night after the little ones had gone to bed. Dora and Alice seemed to have been crying most of the day. They felt a little better when they heard that no one had been burned to death. Alice told me she had been thinking all day of large families burned to little cinders. But about telling of the fire-balloon we could not agree.
Alice and Oswald thought we ought. But Dicky said 'Wait,' and Dora said 'Write to father about it.'
'No; it doesn't make any difference about our not being sure whether our balloon was the cause of destruction. I expect it was, and, anyway, we ought to own up.'
'I feel so too,' said Oswald; 'but I do wish I knew how long in prison you got for it.'
We went to bed without deciding anything.
And very early in the morning Oswald woke, and he got up and looked out of the window, and there was a great cloud of smoke still going up from the doomed rickyard. So then he went and woke Alice, and said:
'Suppose the police have got that poor farmer locked up in a noisome cell, and all the time it's us.'
'That's just what I feel,' said Alice.
Then Oswald said, 'Get dressed.'
And when she had, she came out into the road, where Oswald, pale but resolute, was already pacing with firm steps. And he said:
'Look here, let's go and tell. Let's say you and I made the balloon. The others can stop out of it if they like.'
'They won't if it's really prison,' said Alice. 'But it would be noble of us to try it on. Let's——'
But we found we didn't know who to tell.
'It seems so fatal to tell the police,' said Alice; 'there's no getting out of it afterwards. Besides, he's only Jameson, and he's very stupid.'
The author assures you you do not know what it is like to have a crime like arsenic on your conscience, and to have gone to the trouble and expense of making up your mind to confess it, and then not to know who to.
We passed a wretched day. And all the time the ricks were blazing. All the people in the village went over with carts and bikes to see the fire—like going to a fair or a show. In other circumstances we should have done the same, but now we had no heart for it.
In the evening Oswald went for a walk by himself, and he found his footsteps turning towards the humble dwelling of the Ancient Mariner who had helped us in a smuggling adventure once.
The author wishes to speak the truth, so he owns that perhaps Oswald had some idea that the Ancient Mariner, who knew so much about smugglers and highwaymen, might be able to think of some way for us to save ourselves from prison without getting an innocent person put into it. Oswald found the mariner smoking a black pipe by his cottage door. He winked at Oswald as usual. Then Oswald said:
'I want to ask your advice; but it's a secret. I know you can keep secrets.'
When the aged one had agreed to this, Oswald told him all. It was a great relief.
The mariner listened with deep attention, and when Oswald had quite done, he said:
'It ain't the stone jug this time mate. That there balloon of yours, I see it go up—fine and purty 'twas, too.'
'We all saw it go up,' said Oswald in despairing accents. 'The question is, where did it come down?'
'At Burmarsh, sonny,' was the unexpected and unspeakably relieving reply. 'My sister's husband's niece—it come down and lodged in their pear-tree—showed it me this morning, with the red ink on it what spelled your names out.'
Oswald, only pausing to wring the hand of his preserver, tore home on the wings of the wind to tell the others.
I don't think we were ever so glad of anything in our lives. It is a frightfully blighting thing when you believe yourself to be an Arsenicator (or whatever it is) of the deepest dye.
As soon as we could think of anything but our own cleanness from guilt, we began to fear the worst of Tom Simkins, the farmer at Crown Ovenden. But he came out of it, like us, without a stain on his fair name, because he and his sister and his man Honeysett all swore that he had given a tramp leave to sleep up against the beanstack the night before the fire, and the tramp's pipe and matches were found there. So he got his insurance money; but the tramp escaped.
But when we told father all about it, he said he wished he had been a director of that fire insurance company.
We never made another fire-balloon. Though it was not us that time, it might have been. And we know now but too well the anxieties of a life of crime.
THE ENCHANCERIED HOUSE
A STORY ABOUT THE BASTABLES
The adventure which I am about to relate was a very long time ago, and it was nobody's fault. The part of it that was most like a real crime was caused by H. O. not being at that date old enough to know better—and this was nobody's fault—though we took care that but a brief half-hour elapsed between the discovery of his acts and his being old enough to know better, and knowing it, too (better, I mean), quite thoroughly. We were residing at the residence of an old nurse of father's while Dora was engaged in the unagreeable pastime of having something catching at home. If she had been with us most likely none of this would have happened. For she has an almost unerring nose for right and wrong. Or perhaps what the author means is that she never does the kind of thing that grown-ups don't like your doing. Father's old nurse was very jolly to us, and did not bother too much, except about wet feet and being late for meals, and not airing your shirt before you put it on. But it is part of the nature of the nicest grown-ups to bother about these little things, and we must not be hard on them for it, for no one can help their natures.
The part where old nurse's house was was where London begins to leave off being London, but before it can make up its mind not to be it. There are fields and bits of lanes and hedges, but the rows of ugly little houses go creeping along like yellow caterpillars, eating up the green fields. There are brickfields here and there, and cabbage fields, and places where rhubarb is grown. And it is much more interesting than real town, because there is more room to do things in, and not so many people to say 'Don't!' when you do.
Nurse's house was the kind that is always a house, no matter how much you pretend it is a baron's castle or an enchanted palace. And to play at its being a robber's cave or any part of a pirate ship is simply silly, and no satisfaction to anyone. There were no books except sermons and the Wesleyan Magazine. And there was a green cut-paper fuzziness on the frame of the looking-glass in the parlour. There was a garden—at least, there was enough ground for one, but nothing grew there except nettles and brick-bats and one elder-tree, and a poor old oak-tree that had seen better days. There was a hole in the fence, very convenient for going through in a hurry.
One morning there had been what old nurse called a 'set out' because Noel was writing some of his world-without-end poetry, and he had got as far as
'How beautiful the sun and moon And all the stars appear! They really are a long way off, Although they look very near.'
'I do not think that they are worlds, But apples on a tree; The angels pick them whenever they like, But it is not so with me. I wish I was a little angel-child To gather stars for my tea,'
before Dicky found out that he was writing it on the blank leaf at the end of the Latin prize Dicky got at the Preparatory School.
Noel—for mysterious reasons unknown to Fame—is Alice's favourite brother, and of course she stood up for him, and said he didn't mean it.
And things were said on both sides, and the rest of us agreed with Dicky that Noel was old enough to know better. It ended in Alice and Noel going out for a walk by themselves as soon as Noel had had the crying washed off his hands and face.
The rest of us spent the shining hours in getting a board and nailing it up in the oak-tree for a look-out station, in case of Saracens arriving with an army to attack London. The oak is always hard to climb, and this was a peculiarly hard day, because the next-door people had tied a clothes-line to the oak, and hung their wet washing out on the line.
The sun was setting (in the west as usual) before Alice and Noel returned. They came across the wide fields from the direction of a pinewood that we had never explored yet, though always meaning to.
'There!' said Dicky, 'they've been and gone to the pinewood all by themselves.'
But the hatchet Dicky was still cherishing in his breast was buried at once under the first words spoken by the returning party of explorers.
'Oh, Oswald,' said Alice, 'oh, Dicky, we've found a treasure!'
Dicky hammered the last nail into the Saracen watch-tower.
'Not a real money one?' he said, dropping the hammer—which was a careless thing to do, and the author told him so at the time.
'No, not a money one, but it's real all the same. Let's have a council, and I'll tell you.'
It was then that Dicky showed that if he dropped hammers it was not because he could not bury hatchets. He said, 'Righto! There's room for us all up here. Catch hold, Noel. Oswald, give him a shove up. Alice and he can sit in the Saracens' watch-tower, and I'll keep hold of H. O. if you'll hand him up.'
Alice was full of the politest compliments about the architecture of the Saracens' watch-tower, and Noel said:
'I say, Dicky, I'm awfully sorry about your prize.'
'It's all right,' said Dicky; 'I rubbed it out with bread.'
Noel opened his mouth. He looks like a very young bird when he does this.
'Then my beautiful poem's turned into dirty bread-crumbs,' he said slowly.
'Never mind,' said Alice; 'I remember nearly every word of it: we'll write it out again after tea.'
'I thought you'd be so pleased,' Noel went on, 'because it makes a book more valuable to have an author's writing in it. Albert's uncle told me so.'
'But it has to be the same author that wrote the book,' Alice explained, 'and it was Caesar wrote that book. And you aren't Caesar yet, you know.'
'Nor don't want to be,' said Noel.
Oswald now thought that politeness was satisfied on both sides, so he said:
'What price treasures?'
And then Alice told. But it had to be in whispers, because the next-door people, who always did things at times when not convenient to us, were now taking in their washing off the line. I heard them remark that it was a 'good drying day.'
'Well,' Alice mysteriously observed, 'it was like this. (Do you think the Saracens' watch-tower is really safe for two? It seems to go down awfully much in the middle.)'
'Sit nearer the ends, then,' said Oswald. 'Well?'
'We thought we would go to the pinewoods because of reading in Bret Harte that the resinous balsam of the pine is healing to the wounded spirit.'
'I should have thought if anybody's spirit was wounded...' said Dicky in tones of heatening indignantness.
'Yes, I know. But you'd got the oak, and I expect oaks are just as good, if not better, especially for English people, because of Oakapple Day—and——Where was I?'
We told her.
'So we went, and it is a very nice wood—quite tulgy, you know. We expected to see a Bandersnatch every minute, didn't we, Noel? It's not very big, though, and on the other side there's an enchanted desert—rather bare, with patches of grass and brambles. And in the very middle of it we found the treasure.'
'Let's have a squint at the treasure,' said Dicky. 'Did you fetch it along?'
Noel and Alice sniggered.
'Not exactly,' said Alice; 'the treasure is a house.'
'It's an enchanted house,' said Noel, 'and it's a deserted house, and the garden is like in "The Sensitive Plant" after the lady has given up attending.'
'Did you go in?' we asked.
'No,' said Alice; 'we came back for you. And we asked an old man, and he did say it was in Chancery, so no one can live in it.'
H. O. asked what was enchancery.
'I'm certain the old man meant enchanted,' said Noel, 'only I expect that's the old-fashioned word for it. Enchanceried is a very nice word. And it means it's an enchanted house, just like I said.'
Nurse now came out to remark, 'Tea, my dears,' so we left the Saracens' tower and went in to that meal.
Noel began to make a poem called 'The Enchanceried House,' but we got him to stop till there was more for him to write about. There soon was more, and more than enough, as it turned out.
The setting sun had set, but it had left a redness in the sky (like one of those distant fires that you go after, and they are always miles from where you are) which shone through the pinetrees. The house looked black and mysterious against the strawberry-ice-coloured horizon.
It was a good-sized house. The bottom-floor windows were boarded up. It had a Sensitive-Plantish garden and a paved yard and outhouses. The garden had a high wall with glass on top, but Oswald and Dicky got into the yard. Green grass was growing between the paving-stones. The corners of the stable and coach-house doors were rough, as if from the attacks of rats, but we never saw any of these stealthy rodents. The back-door was locked, but we climbed up on the water-butt and looked through a little window, and saw a plate-rack, and a sink with taps, and a copper, and a broken coal-scuttle. It was very exciting.
The day after we went again, and this time we borrowed the next-door people's clothes-line, and by tying it in loops made a sort of rope-ladder, and then all of us got over. We had a glorious game besieging the pigsty, and all the military orders had to be given in whispers for fear of us being turned out if anyone passed and heard us. We found the pinewood, and the field, and the house had all got boards to say what would be done to trespassers with the utmost rigour of the law. It was such a swat untying the knots in the next-door people's clothes-line, that we only undid one; and then we bought them a new line with our own pocket-money, and kept the rope-ladder in a hidden bed of nettles, always on the spot and ready for us.
We found a way of going round, and getting to the house through a hole in a hedge and across a lane, so as not to go across the big fields where every human eye could mark our proceedings, and come after us and tell us not to.
We went there every day. It would have been a terrible thing if an army of bloodthirsty Saracens had chosen that way to march on London, for there was hardly ever a look-out in the tower now.
It was a jolly place to play in, and Oswald had found out what 'in Chancery' really means, so he had no fear of being turned into a pig-headed lady, or marble from the waist down.
And after a bit we began to want to get into the house, and we wanted it so much that our hearts got quite cold about the chicken-house and the pigsty, which at first had been a fairy dream of delight.
But the doors were all locked. We got all the old keys we could, but they were all the keys of desks and workboxes and tea-caddies, and not the right size or shape for doors.
Then one day Oswald, with his justly celebrated observingness, noticed that one of the bars was loose in the brickwork of a sort of half-underground window. To pull it out was to the lion-hearted youth but the work of a moment. He got down through the gap thus obtained, and found himself in a place like a very small area, only with no steps, and with bars above him, broken glass and matted rags and straw beneath his enterprising boots, and on one side a small cobwebby window. He got out again and told the others, who were trying to get up the cobblestones by the stable so as to make an underground passage into the stable at the ratty corner of its door.
They came at once, and, after a brief discussion, it was decided to break the window a little more than it was already, and to try to get in a hand that could unlatch the window. Of course, as Oswald had found the bar, it was to be his hand.
The dauntless Oswald took off his jacket, and, wrapping it round his fist, shoved at the pane nearest the window fastening. The glass fell inwards with the noise you would expect. In newspapers I suppose they would call it a sickening thud. Really it was a sort of hollow tinkling sound. It made even Oswald jump, and H. O. said:
'Suppose the window opens straight into a bottomless well!'
We did not think this likely, but you cannot be too careful when you are exploring.
Oswald got in his hand and undid the window fastening, which was very rusty. The window opened out like a door. There was only just room in the area under the bars for Oswald and the opening of the window. He leaned forward and looked in. He was not surprised to find that it was not a well, after all, but a cellar.
'Come on,' he said; 'it's all right.'
Dicky came on so rapidly that his boots grazed the shoulder of the advancing Oswald. Alice was coming next, but Noel begged her to wait.
'I don't think H. O. ought to go in till we're sure it's safe,' he said; and Oswald hopes it was not because Noel was in a funk himself, though with a poet you never know.
The cellar into which Oswald now plunged had a damp and mouldering smell, like of mouse-traps, and straw, and beer-barrels. Another cellar opened out of it, and in this there was traces of coal having existed in other ages.
Passing the coal-cellar, we went out to a cellar with shelves on the wall like berths in a ship, or the catacombs where early Christians used to be bricked up. Of course, we knew it was only a wine-cellar, because we have one at home. Matches had to be used here. Then we found a flight of stone steps and went up. And Oswald is not ashamed to own that, the staircase being of a twisty nature, he did think what it would be like if he and Dicky were to meet Something at one of the corners; but all was peace and solitude. Yet it was with joy, and like meeting an old friend, that we got out of the cellars, stairs, and through a door to the back-kitchen, where the sink was, and the copper and the plate-rack. Oswald felt like a brother to the broken coal-scuttle. Our first instant thought was the back door.
It was bolted top and bottom, and the bolts were sort of cemented into their places with rust. But they were unable to resist our patient and determined onslaught. Only when we had undone them the door kept shut, and by stooping down and looking we saw that this was because it was locked.
Dicky at once despaired, and said, 'It's no go.'
But the researchful Oswald looked round, and there was a key on a nail, which shows how wrong it is to despair.
It was not the right key, proving later to be the key of the chicken-house. So we went into the hall. There was a bunch of keys on a nail on the back of the front-door.
'There now, you see I was right,' remarked Oswald. And he was, as is so often the case. All the keys had labels, and one of these said 'Back-kitchen,' so we applied it at once, and the locked door yielded to it.
'You can bring H. O. in quite safely,' Oswald said when the door had creakingly consented to open itself, and to disclose the sunshine, and the paved yard with the paving stones marked out with green grass, and the interested expressions on the faces of Alice and the others. 'It's quite safe. It's just a house like anyone else's, only it hasn't got any furniture in it.'
We went all over the house. There were fourteen rooms altogether, fifteen if you counted the back-kitchen where the plate-warmer was, and the copper, and the sink with the taps, and the brotherly coal-scuttle. The rooms were quite different from the ones in old nurse's house. Noel said he thought all the rooms in this house had been the scene of duels or elopements, or concealing rightful heirs. The present author doesn't know about that, but there was a splendid cupboardiness about the place that spoke volumes to a discerning eye. Even the window seats, of which there were six, lifted up like the lids of boxes, and you could have hidden a flying Cavalier in any of them, if he had been of only medium height and slender build, like heroes with swords so often are.
Then there were three staircases, and these must have been darkly convenient for getting conspirators away when the King's officers were at the door, as so constantly happened in romantic times.
The whole house was full of ideas for ripping games, and when we came away Alice said:
'We must be really better than we know. We must have done something to deserve a find like this.'
'Don't worry,' said Oswald. 'Albert's uncle says you always have to pay for everything. We haven't paid for this yet.'
This reflection, like so many of our young hero's, was correct.
I have not yet told you about the finest find of all the fine finds we found finally (that looks very odd, and I am not sure if it is allity-what's-its-name, or only carelessness. I wonder whether other authors are ever a prey to these devastating doubts?) This find was on the top floor. It was a room with bars to the windows, and it was a very odd shape. You went along a passage to the door, and then there was the room; but the room went back along the same way as the passage had come, so that when you went round there no one could see you from the door. The door was sort of in the middle of the room; but I see I must draw it for you, or you will never understand.
The door that is marked 'Another Door' was full of agitated excitement for us, because it wasn't a door at all—at least, not the kind that you are used to. It was a gate, like you have at the top of nursery stairs in the mansions of the rich and affluent; but instead of being halfway up, it went all the way up, so that you could see into the room through the bars.
'Somebody must have kept tame lunatics here,' said Dicky.
'Or bears,' said H. O.
'Or enchanceried Princes,' said Noel.
'It seems silly, though,' said Alice, 'because the lunatic or the bear or the enchanted Prince could always hide round the corner when he heard the keepers coming, if he didn't happen to want to show off just then.'
This was so, and the deep mystery of the way this room was built was never untwisted.
'Perhaps a Russian prisoner was kept there,' said Alice, 'and they did not want to look too close for fear he would shoot them with his bomb-gun. Poor man! perhaps he caught vodka, or some other of those awful foreign diseases, and died in his hidden confinement.'
It was a most ripping room for games. The key of it was on the bunch labelled 'Mrs. S.'s room.' We often wondered who Mrs. S. was.
'Let's have a regular round of gaieties,' said Oswald. 'Each of us to take it in turns to have the room, and act what they like, and the others look through the bars.'
So next day we did this.
Oswald, of course, dressed up in bath-towels and a sheet as the ghost of Mrs. S., but Noel and H. O. screamed, and would not be calm till he tore off the sheet and showed his knickerbockers and braces as a guarantee of good faith. Alice put her hair up, and got a skirt, and a large handkerchief to cry in, and was a hapless maiden imprisoned in a tower because she would not marry the wicked Baron. Oswald instantly took the part of the wicked Baron, and Dicky was the virtuous lover of low degree, and they had a splendid combat, and Dicky carried off the lady. Of course, that was the proper end to the story, and Oswald had to pretend to be beaten, which was not the case.
Dicky was Louis XVI. watch-making while waiting for the guillotine to happen. So we were the guillotine, and he was executed in the paved yard.
Noel was an imprisoned troubadour dressed in bright antimacassars, and he fired off quite a lot of poetry at us before we could get the door open, which was most unfair.
H. O. was a clown. He had no fancy dress except flour and two Turkish towels pinned on to look like trousers, but he put the flour all over himself, and it took the rest of the day to clean him.
It was when Alice was drying the hair-brushes that she had washed after brushing the flour out of Noel's hair in the back-garden that Oswald said:
'I know what that room was made for.'
And everyone said, 'What?' which is not manners, but your brothers and sisters do not mind because it saves time.
'Why, coiners,' said Oswald. 'Don't you see? They kept a sentinel at the door, that is a door, and if anyone approached he whispered "Cave."'
'But why have iron bars?'
'In extra safety,' said Oswald; 'and if their nefarious fires were not burning he need not say "Cave" at all. It's no use saying anything for nothing.'
It is curious, but the others did not seem to see this clear distinguishedness. All people have not the same fine brains.
But all the same the idea rankled in their hearts, and one day father came and took Dicky up to London about that tooth of his, and when Dicky came back he said:
'Look here, talking of coiners, there was a man in St. Swithin's Lane to-day selling little bottles of yellow stuff, and he rubbed some of it on a penny, and it turned the penny into a half-crown before your eyes—a new half-crown! It was a penny a bottle, so I bought three bottles.'
'I always thought the plant for coining was very expensive,' said Alice.
'Ah! they tell you that to keep you from doing it, because of its being a crime,' said Dicky. 'But now I've got this stuff we can begin to be coiners right away. I believe it isn't really a crime unless you try to buy things with the base coin.'
So that very afternoon, directly after dinner, which had a suet pudding in it that might have weighed down the enterprising spirit of anyone but us, we went over to the Enchanceried House.
We found our good rope ladder among its congealing bed of trusty nettles, and got over into the paved yard, and through the kitchen-door. Oswald always carried the key of this hung round his neck by a bootlace, as if it was a talisman, or the hair of his lost love. Of course, Oswald never had a lost love. He would scorn the action. But some heroes do have. De gustibus something or other, which means, one man's meat is another man's poison.
When we got up into the room with the iron-grated door, it all seemed very bare. Three bottles of yellow stuff and tenpence halfpenny in coppers is not much to start a coining enterprise with.
'We ought to make it look like coining, anyway,' said Oswald.
'Coiners have furnaces,' said Dicky.
Alice said: 'Wouldn't a spirit-lamp do? Old nurse has got an old one on the scullery shelf.'
We thought it would.
Then Noel reminded us that coiners have moulds, and Oswald went and bought a pair of wooden lemon squeezers for sevenpence three farthings. In his far-sightedness he remembered that coiners use water, so he bought two enamelled iron bowls at sixpence halfpenny the two. When he came back he noticed the coal-scuttle we had always felt so friendly to, and he filled it with water and brought it up. It did not leak worth mentioning.
'We ought to have a bench,' said Dicky; 'most trades have that—shoemakers and watchmakers, and tailors and lawyers.'
This was difficult, but we did it. There were some planks in the cellar, and a tub and a beer-barrel. Unluckily, the tub and the beer-barrel were not the same height, but we taught them better by getting old nurse's 'Pilgrim's Progress' and the Wesleyan Magazine, to put on top of the tub; and then it was as high as the barrel, and we laid the boards across, and there was a bench as beautiful as you could wish.
Dicky was allowed to put the stuff on the coins, because he had bought the bottles with his own money. But Alice held them for him to do, because girls are inferior beings, except when you are ill, and you must be kind to them or you need never hope to be a hero. There are drawbacks to every ambition.
She let Noel hold them part of the time.
When she was not helping Dicky, she tried covering pennies with the silver paper off chocolate, but it was not the kind of success that would take anyone in.
H. O. and Noel took it in turns to be sentinel, but they said it was dull, so Oswald took it on. And before he had been there three minutes he cried, 'Hist! someone approaches!' and the coining materials were hastily concealed and everyone hid round the corner, like we had agreed we would do if disturbed in our unlawful pursuits.
Of course, there wasn't anyone really. After this the kids wanted to be sentinels again, but Oswald would not let them.
It was a jolly good game. And there was something about that house that made whatever you played in it seem awfully real. When I was Mrs. S. I felt quite unhappy, and when Dicky was the unfortunate monarch who perished in the French Revolution he told me afterwards he didn't half like it when it came to the guillotine, though, of course, he knew the knife was only the little sliding-door of the chicken-house.
We played coiners for several days, and all learned to give the alarm, but we were beginning to feel it was time for something new. Noel was saving the hairs out of his comb, and pulling them out of the horsehair sofa in the parlour, to make a hair shirt to be a hermit in, and Oswald had bought a file to get through the bars and be an escaped Bastille prisoner, leaving his life-history concealed in the fireplace, when the great event occurred.
We found the silvered money turned to a dirty black when a few hours had elapsed, and we tried silver paint and gold paint. Our pockets were always full of gold and silver money, and we could jingle it and take it out in handfuls and let people see it—not too near.
Then came the great eventful day.
H. O. had fallen into the water-butt that morning. We dried his holland smock, but it went stiff like paper, so that old nurse noticed it, and thus found out that he was wringing wet underneath. So she put him to bed, for fear of his catching his death of cold, and the inveterate gang of coiners had to go to their fell lair without him. We left all our false money at home, because old nurse had given Alice a piece of trimming, for dolls, that was all over little imitation silver coins, called sequences, I believe, to imitate the coinage of Turkish regions. We reached our Enchanceried House, got in as usual, and started our desperate work of changing silver sequences into gold half-sovereigns, with gold paint.
Noel was very grumpy: he was odd altogether that day. He was trying to write a poem about a Bastille prisoner. He asked to be sentry, so that he could think about rhymes.
We had not coined more than about four half-sovereigns when we heard Noel say: 'Hist! Hide the plant!'
We didn't take any notice, because we wanted to get enough of them done to play a game of misers, which was Alice's idea.
'Hist!' Noel said again. And then suddenly he rushed in and said: 'It's a real hist! I tell you there's someone on the stairs.'
And he shut the wooden-grated door, and Oswald, with rare presence of mind, caught up the bunch of keys and locked the wooden-grated door with the key labelled 'Mrs. S.'s room.'
Then, breathless and furtive, we all hid in the part of the room near the fireplace, where no one could see us from the door.
We hardly dared to breathe. Alice said afterwards that she could hear Oswald's heart beating with terror, but the author is almost sure that it was only his watch ticking. It had begun to go that week, after days of unexplained idleness. If we did have to pay for finding the Enchanceried House, this was when we paid.
There were feet on the stairs. We all heard them. And voices. The author distinctly heard the words 'replete with every modern inconvenience,' and 'pleasantly situate ten minutes from tram and rail.'
And Oswald, at least, understood that, somehow or other, our house had got itself disenchanceried, and that the owner was trying to let it.
We held our breaths till they were nearly choked out of us.
The steps came nearer and nearer. They came along the passage, and stopped at the door.
'This is the nursery,' said a manly voice. 'Ah, locked! I quite understood from the agent that the keys were in the hall.'
Of course we had the keys, and this was the moment that Noel chose for dropping them. Why he was fingering them where they lay on the mantelpiece the author does not know, and never will know. There is something about 'previously demented' in some Latin chap—Virgil or Lucretius—that seems to hit the nail on the head. The keys fell on the cracked hearthstone with a clang that Oswald, at any rate, will never forget.
There was an awful silence—quite a long one.
Then another voice said:
'There's someone in there.'
'Look at that bench,' said the other man; 'it's coiners' work, that's what it is, but there's nobody there. The keys must have blown down!'
The two voices talked some time, but we could not hear all their conversation. We were all wondering, as it turned out afterwards, what exactly the utmost rigour of the law was. Because, of course, we knew we were trespassers of the very deepest dye, even if we could prove that we were not real coiners.
'No,' we heard one of them say, 'if we go for the police very likely the gang will return and destroy everything. There's no one here now. Let's secure the evidence. We can easily break the door down.'
It is a sickening feeling when the evidence against you is going to be secured, and you don't know what the punishment for coining is, or whether anyone will believe you if you say you were only playing at it.
We exchanged pallid glances.
We could hear the two men shaking the door, and we had no means of knowing just how weak it was, never having seriously tampered with it ourselves.
It was then that Noel suddenly went quite mad. I think it was due to something old nurse had read to us at breakfast that day about a boy of eight who played on the fiddle, and composed pieces of music. Affected young ass!
He darted from us into the middle of the room, where the two intruders could see him, and said:
'Don't break down the door! The villains may return any moment and destroy you. Fetch the police!'
The surprised outsiders could find no word but 'Er?'
'You are surprised to see me here,' said Noel, not taking any notice of the furious looks of the rest of us. 'I am an infant prodigy. I play the violin at concerts; I play it beautifully. They take me to London to play in a closed carriage, so that I can't tell anyone my woes on the way.'
'My poor child!' said one of the outsiders; 'tell us all about it. We must rescue you.'
'Born of poor but honest parents,' said Noel—and this was what nurse had read out to us—'my musical talent early manifested itself on a toy violin, the gift of a devoted great-aunt. Torn from my home——I say, do fetch the police. If the monsters who live on my violin-playing return and find you here, they will brain you with the tools of their trade, and I shall be lost.'
'Their trade?' said one of them. 'What trade?'
'They are coiners,' said Noel, 'as well as what they do to me to make me play.'
'But if we leave you?'
'Oh, they won't hurt me,' cried Noel, 'because I have to play to-night at Exeter Hall. Fly—fly for the police! They may come up behind you any moment and cleave you to the chine.'
And they actually flew. The present author would have known instantly that it was rot that about cleaving chines, but the man who wanted to let the Disenchanteried House and the man who wanted to have it let to him were of other mettle.
We had remained perfectly still and silent. Of course, if the outsiders had attacked Noel, his brothers would have rushed to his rescue.
As soon as the retreating boots of the outsiders grew fainter on the stairs, Noel turned green, and had to be revived by splashings from the brotherly coal-scuttle full of water. He got better directly, and we all scooted home to old nurse's, leaving our coining plant without a pang. All great generals say that a retreat is best conducted without impediments.
Noel was so ill he had to go to bed and stay there. This was as well, because of the neighbourhood being scoured for the ill-used infant prodigy that had been imprisoned in the Enchanceried House. He got all right again in time to go home when father came up for us. While he was in bed he wrote a long poem in six different coloured chalks, called 'The Enchanceried Coiners, or the Liar's Remorse.' So I know he was sorry for what he had done. He told me he could not think what made him, and of course it was very wrong, but it did save our bacon, and preserve us from the noisome cells and bread and water that I am sure are the real meaning of the 'utmost rigour of the law.'
Really the worst of it all was that while we were trembling in the coiners' den, with the two outside gentlemen snorting and whispering on the other side of the gate-door, H. O. had got up out of his bed at home and answered the door. (Old nurse had gone out to get a lettuce and an aerated loaf for tea.) He answered it to a butcher's bill for fifteen and sevenpence that the butcher's little girl had brought, and he paid it with six of the pennies that we had disguised as half-crowns, and told the little girl to call for the sevenpence in the morning. I believe many people have been hanged for less. It was lucky for H. O. that old nurse was a friend of the butcher's, and able to persuade him that it was only a joke. In sterner times, like the French Revolution ... but Alice does not like to think what would have happened then. As this is the twentieth century, and not the eighteenth, our all going down to the butcher and saying we were sorry made it all right. But suppose it had been in other dates!
The butcher's wife gave us cake and ginger wine, and was very jolly. She asked us where we had got the false half-crowns. Oswald said they had been given us. This was true, but when they were given us they were pennies.
Did Oswald tell a lie to the butcher? He has often wondered. He hopes not. It is easy to know whether a thing is a lie or not when nothing depends on it. But when events are happening, and the utmost rigour of the law may be the result of your making a mistake, you have to tell the truth as carefully as you can.
No English gentleman tells a lie—Oswald knows that, of course. But an Englishman is not obliged to criminalate himself. The rules of honour and the laws of your country are very puzzling and contradictory.
But the butcher got paid afterwards in real money—a half-sovereign and two half-crowns, and seven unsilvered pennies. So nobody was injured, and the author thinks that is the great thing after all.
All the same, if ever he goes to stay with old nurse again, he thinks he will tell the butcher All in confidence. He does not like to have any doubts about such a serious thing as the honour of a Bastable.
THE END OF OSWALD'S PART OF THE BOOK.
MOLLY, THE MEASLES, AND THE MISSING WILL
We all think a great deal too much of ourselves. We all believe—every man, woman, and child of us—in our very insidest inside heart, that no one else in the world is at all like us, and that things happen to us that happen to no one else. Now, this is a great mistake, because however different we may be in the colour of our hair and eyes, the inside part, the part that we feel and suffer with, is pretty much alike in all of us. But no one seems to know this except me. That is why people won't tell you the really wonderful things that happen to them: they think you are so different that you could never believe the wonderful things. But of course you are not different really, and you can believe wonderful things as easily as anybody else. For instance, you will be able to believe this story quite easily, for though it didn't happen to you, that was merely an accident. It might have happened, quite easily, to you or any else. As it happened, it happened to Maria Toodlethwaite Carruthers.
You will already have felt a little sorry for Maria, and you will have thought that I might have chosen a prettier name for her. And so I might. But I did not do the choosing. Her parents did that. And they called her Maria after an aunt who was disagreeable, and would have been more disagreeable than ever if the baby had been called Enid or Elaine or Vivien, or any of the pretty names that will readily occur to you. She was called Toodlethwaite after the eminent uncle of that name who had an office in London and an office in Liverpool, and was said to be rolling in money.
'I should like to see Uncle Toodlethwaite rolling in his money,' said Maria, 'but he never does it when I'm about.'
The third name, Carruthers, was Maria's father's name, and she often felt thankful that it was no worse. It might so easily have been Snooks or Prosser.
Of course no one called Maria Maria except Aunt Maria herself. Her Aunt Eliza, who was very refined, always wrote in the improving books that she gave Maria on her birthday, 'To dearest Marie, from her affectionate Aunt Elise,' and when she spoke to her she called her Mawrie. Her brothers and sisters, whenever they wanted to be aggravating, called her Toodles, but at times of common friendliness they called her Molly, and so did most other people, and so shall I, and so may you.
Molly and her brothers and sisters were taken care of by a young woman who was called a nursery-governess. I don't know why, for she did not nurse them, and she certainly did not govern them. In her last situation she had been called a lady-help—I don't know the why of that, either. Her name was Simpshall, and she was always saying 'Don't,' and 'You mustn't do that,' and 'Put that down directly,' and 'I shall tell your mamma if you don't leave off.' She never seemed to know what you ought to do, but only what you oughtn't.
One day the children had a grand battle with all the toy soldiers, and the little brass cannons that shoot peas, and the other kind that shoot pink caps with 'Fortes Amorces' on the box.
Bertie, who always liked to have everything as real as possible, did not like the soldiers to be standing on the bare polished mahogany of the dining-table.
'It's not a bit like the field of glory,' he said. And indeed it was not.
So he borrowed the large kitchen knife-box and went out, and brought it in full of nice real clean mould out of the garden. Half a dozen knife-box-fulls were needed to cover the table. Then the children made forts and ditches, and brought in sprigs of geranium and calceolaria and box and yew and made trees and ambushes and hedges. It was a lovely battlefield, and would have melted the heart of anyone but a nursery-governess.
But she just said, 'What a disgusting mess! How naughty you are!' and fetched a brush and swept the field of glory away into the dustpan. There was only just time to save the lives of the soldiers.
And then Cecily put the knife-box back without saying what it had been used for, and the knives were put into it, so that at dinner everything tasted of earth, and the grit got between people's teeth, so that they could not eat their mutton or potatoes or cabbage, or even their gravy.
This, of course, was entirely Miss Simpshall's fault. If she had not behaved as she did Bertie or Eva would have remembered to clean out the knife-box. As it was, the story of the field of glory came out over the gritty mutton and things, and father sent all the battlefield-makers to bed.
Molly was out of this. She was staying with Aunt Eliza, who was kind, if refined. She was to come back the next day. But as mother was on her way to the station to meet Aunt Maria for a day's shopping, she met a telegraph boy, who gave her a telegram from Aunt Eliza saying:
'Am going to Palace to-day instead of to-morrow. Fetch Marie.—ELISE.'
So mother fetched her from Aunt Eliza's flat in Kensington and took her shopping with Aunt Maria. There were hours of shopping in hot, stuffy shops full of tired shop-people and angry ladies, and even the new hat and jacket and the strawberry ice at the pastrycook's in Oxford Street did not make up to Molly for that tiresome day.
Still, she was out of the battlefield row. Only as she did not know that it could not comfort her.
When Aunt Maria had been put into her train, mother and Molly went home. As their cab stopped, Miss Simpshall rushed out between the two dusty laburnums by the gate.
'Don't come in!' said Miss Simpshall wildly.
'My dear Miss Simpshall——' said mother.
The hair of the nursery-governess waved wildly in the evening breeze. She shut the ornamental iron gate in mother's face.
'Don't come in!' said Miss Simpshall again. 'You shan't, you mustn't——'
'Don't talk nonsense,' said mother, looking very white. 'Have you gone mad?'
Miss Simpshall said she hadn't.
'But what's the matter?' said mother.
'Measles,' said Miss Simpshall; 'it's all out on them—thick.'
'Good gracious!' said mother.
'And I thought you'd perhaps just as soon Molly didn't have it, Mrs. Carruthers. And this is all the thanks I get, being told I'm insane.'
'I'm sorry,' said mother absently. 'Yes, you were quite right. Keep the children warm. Has the doctor seen them?'
'Not yet; I've only just found it out. Oh, it's terrible! Their hands and faces are all scarlet with purple spots.'
'Oh dear, oh dear! I hope it's nothing worse than measles! I'll call in and send the doctor,' said mother; 'I shall be home by the last train. It's a blessing Molly's clothes are all here in her box.'
So Molly was whisked off in the cab.
'I must take you back to your aunt's,' said mother.
'But Aunt Eliza's gone to stay at the Bishop's Palace,' said Molly.
'So she has; we must go to your Aunt Maria's. Oh dear!'
'Never mind, mother,' said Molly, slipping her hand into mother's; 'perhaps they won't have it very badly. And I'll be very good, and try not to have it at all.'
This was very brave of Molly; she would much rather have had measles than have gone to stay at Aunt Maria's.
Aunt Maria lived in a lovely old house down in Kent. It had beautiful furniture and beautiful gardens; in fact, as Bertie said, it was a place
'Where every prospect pleases, And only aunt is vile.'
Molly and her mother arrived there just at supper-time. Aunt Maria was very surprised and displeased. Molly went to bed at once, and her supper was brought up on a tray by Clements, aunt's own maid. It was cold lamb and mint-sauce, and jelly and custard.
'Your aunt said to bring you biscuits and milk,' said Clements, 'but I thought you'd like this better.'
'You're a darling!' said Molly; 'I was so afraid you'd be gone for your holiday. It's not nearly so beastly when you're here.'
Clements was flattered, and returned the compliment.
'And you aren't so bad when you're good, miss,' she said. 'Eat it up. I'll come back and bring you a night-light by-and-by.'
One thing Molly liked about Aunt Maria's was that there were no children's bedrooms—no bare rooms with painted furniture and Dutch drugget. All the rooms were 'best rooms', with soft carpets and splendid old furniture. The beds were all four-posters with carved pillars and silk damask curtains, and there were sure to be the loveliest things to make believe with in whatever room you happened to be put into. In this room there were cases of stuffed birds, and a stuffed pike that was just like life. There was a wonderful old cabinet, black and red and gold, very mysterious, and oak chests, and two fat white Indian idols sitting cross-legged on the mantelpiece. It was very delightful; but Molly liked it best in the daytime. And she was glad of the night-light.
She thought of Bertie, and Cicely, and Eva, and baby, and Vincent, and wondered whether measles hurt much.
Next day Aunt Maria was quite bearable. The worst thing she said was about people coming when they weren't expected, and upsetting everything.
'I'll try not to upset anything,' said Molly, and went out and got the gardener to put up a swing for her.
Then she upset herself out of it, and got a bump on her forehead the size of a hen's egg, and that, as Aunt Maria very properly said, kept her out of mischief for the rest of the day.
Next morning Molly had two letters. The first was from Bertie. It said:
'It is rough lines on you, but we did not mean to keep it up, and it is your fault for coming home the day before you ought to have. We did it to kid old Simpshall, because she was so beastly about us making a real battlefield. We only painted all the parts of us that show with vermilion, and put spots—mixed crimson lake and Prussian blue—all over, and we pulled down the blinds and said our heads ached, and so they did with crying—I mean the girls cried. She was afraid to come near us; but she was sorry she had been such a beast. And when she had come to the door and said so through the keyhole we owned up, but you had gone by then. It was a rare lark, but we've got three days bedder for it. I shall lower this on the end of a fishingline to the baker's boy, and he will post it. It is like a dungeon. He is going to bring us tarts, like a faithful page.
'Your affectionate bro., 'BERTRAND DE LISLE CARRUTHERS.'
The other letter was from mother.
'MY DARLING MOLLY,
It was all a naughty hoax, intended to annoy poor Miss Simpshall. Your brothers and sisters had painted their faces red and purple—they had not measles at all. But since you are at Aunt Maria's I think you may as well stay ...'
'How awful!' said Molly. 'It is too bad!'
'... stay and make it your annual visit. Be a good girl, dear, and do not forget to wear your pinafores in the morning.
'Your loving MOTHER.'
Molly wrote a nice little letter to her mother. To her brother she said:
I think you are beasts to have let me in for this. You might have thought of me. I shall not forgive you till the sun is just going down, and I would not then, only it is so wrong not to. I wish you had been named Maria, and had to stay here instead of me.
'Your broken-hearted sister,
When Molly stayed at the White House she was accustomed to read aloud in the mornings from 'Ministering Children' or 'Little Pilgrims,' while Aunt Maria sewed severely. But that morning Aunt Maria did not send for her.
'Your aunt's not well,' Clements told her; 'she won't be down before lunch. Run along, do, miss, and walk in the garden like a young lady.'
Molly chose rather to swagger out into the stableyard like a young gentleman. The groom was saddling the sorrel horse.
'I've got to take a telegram to the station,' said he.
'Take me,' said Molly.
'Likely! And what ud your aunt say?'
'She won't know,' said Molly, 'and if she does I'll say I made you.'
He laughed, and Molly had a splendid ride behind the groom, with her arms so tight round his waistcoat that he could hardly breathe.
When they got to the station a porter lifted her down, and the groom let her send off the telegram. It was to Uncle Toodlethwaite, and it said:
'Please come down at once urgent business most important don't fail bring Bates.—MARIA CARRUTHERS.'
So Molly knew something very out of the way had happened, and she was glad that her aunt should have something to think of besides her, because the White House would have been a very nice place to stay at if Aunt Maria had not so often remembered to do her duty by you.
In the afternoon Uncle Toodlethwaite came, and he and Aunt Maria and a person in black with a shining black bag—Molly supposed he was Mr. Bates, who was to be brought by Uncle Toodlethwaite—sat in the dining-room with the door shut.
Molly went to help the kitchenmaid shell peas, in the little grass courtyard in the middle of the house. They sat on the kitchen steps, and Molly could hear the voices of Clements and the housekeeper through the open window of the servants' hall. She heard, but she did not think it was eavesdropping, or anything dishonourable, like listening at doors. They were talking quite out loud.
'And a dreadful blow it will be to us all, if true,' the housekeeper was saying.
'She thinks it's true,' said Clements; 'cried her eyes out, she did, and wired for her brother-in-law once removed.'
'Meaning her brother's brother-in-law—I see. But I don't know as I really understand the ins and outs of it even yet.'
'Well, it's like this,' said Clements: 'missis an' her brother they used to live here along of their uncle, and he had a son, a regular bad egg he was, and the old master said he shouldn't ever have a penny of his money. He said he'd leave it to Mr. Carruthers—that's missis's brother, see?'
'That means father,' thought Molly.
'And he'd leave missis the house and enough money to keep it up in style. He was a warm man, it seems. Well, then the son's drowned at sea—ship went down and all aboard perished. Just as well, because when the old man died they couldn't find no will. So it all comes to missis and her brother, there being no other relations near or far, and they divides it the same as the old man had always said he wished. You see what I mean?'
'Near enough,' said the housekeeper; 'and then?'
'Why, then,' said Clements, 'comes this letter—this very morning—from a lawyer, to say as this bad egg of a son wasn't drowned at all: he was in foreign parts, and only now heard of his father's decease, and tends without delay to claim the property, which all comes to him, the deceased have died insensate—that means without a will.'
'I say, Clements,' Molly sung out, 'you must have read the letter. Did aunt show it to you?'
There was a dead silence; the kitchenmaid giggled. Someone whispered inside the room. Then the housekeeper's voice called softly, 'Come in here a minute, miss,' and the window was sharply shut.
Molly emptied the peascods out of her pinafore and went in.
Directly she was inside the door Clements caught her by the arm and shook her.
'You nasty mean, prying little cat!' she said; 'and me getting you jelly and custard, and I don't know what all.'
'I'm not,' said Molly. 'Don't, Clements; you hurt.'
'You deserve me to,' was the reply. 'Doesn't she, Mrs. Williams?'
'Don't you know it's wrong to listen, miss?' asked Mrs. Williams.
'I didn't listen,' said Molly indignantly. 'You were simply shouting. No one could help hearing. Me and Jane would have had to put our fingers in our ears not to hear.'
'I didn't think it of you,' said Clements, beginning to sniff.
'I don't know what you're making all this fuss about,' said Molly; 'I'm not a sneak.'
'Have a piece of cake, miss,' said Mrs. Williams, 'and give me your word it shan't go any further.'
'I don't want your cake; you'd better give it to Clements. It's she that tells things—not me.'
Molly began to cry.
'There, I declare, miss, I'm sorry I shook you, but I was that put out. There! I ask your pardon; I can't do more. You wouldn't get poor Clements into trouble, I'm sure.'
'Of course I wouldn't; you might have known that.'
Well, peace was restored; but Molly wouldn't have any cake.
That evening Jane wore a new silver brooch, shaped like a horseshoe, with an arrow through it.
It was after tea, when Uncle Toodlethwaite was gone, that Molly, creeping quietly out to see the pigs fed, came upon her aunt at the end of the hollyhock walk. Her aunt was sitting on the rustic seat that the crimson rambler rose makes an arbour over. Her handkerchief was held to her face with both hands, and her thin shoulders were shaking with sobs.
And at once Molly forgot how disagreeable Aunt Maria had always been, and how she hated her. She ran to her aunt and threw her arms round her neck. Aunt Maria jumped in her seat, but she let the arms stay where they were, though they made it quite difficult for her to use her handkerchief.
'Don't cry, dear ducky darling Aunt Maria,' said Molly—'oh, don't! What is the matter?'
'Nothing you would understand,' said Aunt Maria gruffly; 'run away and play, there's a good child.'
'But I don't want to play while you're crying. I'm sure I could understand, dear little auntie.'
Molly embraced the tall, gaunt figure of the aunt.
'Dear little auntie, tell Molly.'
She used just the tone she was used to use to her baby brother.
'It's—it's business,' said Aunt Maria, sniffing.
'I know business is dreadfully bad—father says so,' said Molly. 'Don't send me away, auntie; I'll be as quiet as a mouse. I'll just sit and cuddle you till you feel better.'
She got her arms round the aunt's waist, and snuggled her head against a thin arm. Aunt Maria had always been one for keeping children in their proper places. Yet somehow now Molly's proper place seemed to be just where she was—where she had never been before.
'You're a kind little girl, Maria,' she said presently.
'I wish I could do something,' said Molly. 'Wouldn't you feel better if you told me? They say it does you good not to grieve in solitary concealment. I'm sure I could understand if you didn't use long words.'
And, curiously enough, Aunt Maria did tell her, almost exactly what she had heard from Clements.
'And I know there was a will leaving it all to your father and me,' she said; 'I saw it signed. It was witnessed by the butler we had then—he died the year after—and by Mr. Sheldon: he died, too, out hunting.'
Her voice softened, and Molly snuggled closer and said:
'Poor Mr. Sheldon!'
'He and I were to have been married,' said Aunt Maria suddenly. 'That's his picture in the hall between the carp and your Great-uncle Carruthers.'
'Poor auntie!' said Molly, thinking of the handsome man in scarlet next the stuffed carp—'oh, poor auntie, I do love you so!'
Aunt Maria put an arm round her.
'Oh, my dear,' she said, 'you don't understand. All the happy things that ever happened to me happened here, and all the sad things too; if they turn me out I shall die—I know I shall. It's been bad enough,' she went on, more to herself than to Molly; 'but there's always been the place just as it was when I was a girl, when he used to come here: so bold and laughing he always was. I can see him here quite plainly; I've only to shut my eyes. But I couldn't see him anywhere else.'
'Don't wills get hidden away sometimes?' Molly asked; for she had read stories about such things.
'We looked everywhere,' said Aunt Maria—'everywhere. We had detectives from London, because there were things he'd left to other people, and we wanted to carry out his wishes; but we couldn't find it. Uncle must have destroyed it, and meant to make another, only he never did—he never did. Oh, I hope the dead can't see what we suffer! If my Uncle Carruthers and dear James could see me turned out of the old place, it would break their hearts even up in heaven.'
Molly was silent. Suddenly her aunt seemed to awake from a dream.
'Good gracious, child,' she said, 'what nonsense I've been talking! Go away and play, and forget all about it. Your own troubles will begin soon enough.'
'I do love you, auntie,' said Molly, and went.
Aunt Maria never unbent again as she had done that evening; but Molly felt a difference that made all the difference. She was not afraid of her aunt now, and she loved her. Besides, things were happening. The White House was now the most interesting place in the world.
Be sure that Molly set to work at once to look for the missing will. London detectives were very careless; she was certain they were. She opened drawers and felt in the backs of cupboards; she prodded the padding of chairs, listening for the crackling of paper inside among the stuffing; she tapped the woodwork of the house all over for secret panels; but she did not find the will.
She could not believe that her Great-uncle Carruthers would have been so silly as to burn a will that he knew might be wanted at any moment. She used to stand in front of his portrait, and look at it; he did not look at all silly. And she used to look at the portrait of handsome, laughing Mr. Sheldon, who had been killed out hunting instead of marrying Aunt Maria, and more than once she said:
'You might tell me where it is; you look as if you knew.'
But he never altered his jolly smile.
Molly thought of missing wills from the moment her eyes opened in the morning to the time when they closed at night.
Then came the dreadful day when Uncle Toodlethwaite and Mr. Bates came down, and Uncle Toodlethwaite said:
'I'm afraid there's no help for it, Maria; you can delay the thing a bit, but you'll have to turn out in the end.'
It was on that night that the wonderful thing happened—the thing that Molly has never told to anyone except me, because she thought no one could believe it. She went to bed as usual and to sleep, and she woke suddenly, hearing someone call 'Molly, Molly!'
She sat up in bed; the room was full of moonlight. As usual her first waking thought was of the missing will. Had it been found? Was her aunt calling her to tell the good news? No, the room was quite still. She was alone.
The moonlight fell full on the old black and red and gold cabinet; that, she had often thought, was just the place where a will would be hidden. It might have a secret drawer, that the London detectives had missed. She had often looked over it carefully, but now she got out of bed and lighted her candle, and went over to the cabinet to have one more look. She opened all the drawers, pressed all the knobs in the carved brasswork. There was a little door in the middle; she knew that the little cupboard behind it was empty. It had red lacquered walls, and the back wall was looking-glass. She opened the little cupboard, held up her candle, and looked in. She expected to see her own face in the glass as usual, but she did not see it; instead there was a black space, the opening to something not quite black. She could see lights—candle-lights—and the space grew bigger, or she grew smaller, she never knew which. And next moment she was walking through the opening.
'Now I am going to see something really worth seeing,' said Molly.
She was not frightened—from first to last she was not at all frightened.
She walked straight through the back of the cabinet in the best bedroom upstairs into the library on the ground-floor. That sounds like nonsense, but Molly declares it was so.
There were candles on the table and papers, and there were people in the library; they did not see her.
There was great-uncle Carruthers and Aunt Maria, very pretty, with long curls and a striped gray silk dress, like in the picture in the drawing-room. There was handsome, jolly Mr. Sheldon in a brown coat. An old servant was just going out of the door.
'That's settled, then,' said Great-uncle Carruthers; 'now, my girl, bed.'
Aunt Maria—such a young, pretty Aunt Maria, Molly would never have known her but for the portrait—kissed her uncle, and then she took a Christmas rose out of her dress and put it in Mr. Sheldon's buttonhole, and put up her face to him and said, 'Good-night, James.' He kissed her; Molly heard the loud, jolly sound of the kiss, and Aunt Maria went away.
Then the old man said: 'You'll leave this at Bates' for me, Sheldon; you're safer than the post.'
Handsome Mr. Sheldon said he would. Then the lights went out, and Molly was in bed again.
Quite suddenly it was daylight. Jolly Mr. Sheldon, in his red coat, was standing by the cabinet. The little cupboard door was open.
'By George!' he said, 'it's ten days since I promised to take that will up to Bates, and I never gave it another thought. All your fault, Maria, my dear. You shouldn't take up all my thoughts; 'I'll take it to-morrow.'
Molly heard something click, and he went out of the room whistling.
Molly lay still. She felt there was more to come. And the next thing was that she was looking out of the window, and saw something carried across the lawn on a hurdle with two scarlet coats laid over it, and she knew it was handsome Mr. Sheldon, and that he would not carry the will to Bates to-morrow, or do anything else in this world ever any more.
When Molly woke in the morning she sprang out of bed and ran to the cabinet. There was nothing in the looking-glass cupboard.
All the same, she ran straight to her aunt's room. It was long before the hour when Clements soberly tapped, bringing hot water.
'Wake up, auntie!' she cried.
And auntie woke up, very cross indeed.
'Look here, auntie,' she said, 'I'm certain there's a secret place in that cabinet in my room, and the will's in it; I know it is.'
'You've been dreaming,' said Aunt Maria severely; 'go back to bed. You'll catch your death of cold paddling about barefoot like that.'
Molly had to go, but after breakfast she began again.
'But why do you think so?' asked Aunt Maria.
And Molly, who thought she knew that nobody would believe her story, could only say:
'I don't know, but I am quite sure.'
'Nonsense!' said Aunt Maria.
'Aunty,' Molly said, 'don't you think uncle might have given the will to Mr. Sheldon to take to Mr. Bates, and he may have put it in the secret place and forgotten?'
'What a head the child's got—full of fancies!' said Aunt Maria.
'If he slept in that room—did he ever sleep in that room?'
'Always, whenever he stayed here.'
'Was it long after the will-signing that poor Mr. Sheldon died?'
'Ten days,' said Aunt Maria shortly; 'run away and play. I've letters to write.'
But because it seemed good to leave no stone unturned, one of those letters was to a cabinet-maker in Rochester, and the groom took it in the dog-cart, and the cabinet-maker came back with him.
And there was a secret hiding-place behind the looking-glass in the little red lacquered cupboard in the old black and red and gold cabinet, and in that secret hiding-place was the missing will, and on it lay a brown flower that dropped to dust when it was moved.
'It's a Christmas rose,' said Molly.
* * * * *
'So, you see, really it was a very good thing the others pretended to have measles, because if they hadn't I shouldn't have come to you, and if I hadn't come I shouldn't have known there was a will missing, and if I hadn't known that I shouldn't have found it, should I, aunty, should I, uncle?' said Molly, wild with delight.
'No, dear,' said Aunt Maria, patting her hand.
'Little girls,' said Uncle Toodlethwaite, 'should be seen and not heard. But I admit that simulated measles may sometimes be a blessing in disguise.'
All the young Carruthers thought so when they got the five pounds that Aunt Maria sent them. Miss Simpshall got five pounds too because it was owing to her that Molly was taken to the White House that day. Molly got a little pearl necklace as well as five pounds.
'Mr. Sheldon gave it to me,' said Aunt Maria. 'I wouldn't give it to anyone but you.'
Molly hugged her in silent rapture.
That just shows how different our Aunt Marias would prove to be if they would only let us know them as they really are. It really is not wise to conceal everything from children.
You see, if Aunt Maria had not told Molly about Mr. Sheldon, she would never have thought about him enough to see his ghost. Now Molly is grown up she tells me it was only a dream. But even if it was it is just as wonderful, and served the purpose just as well.
Perhaps you would like to know what Aunt Maria said when the cabinet-maker opened the secret hiding-place and she saw the paper with the brown Christmas rose on it? Clements was there, as well as the cabinet-maker and Molly. She said right out before them all, 'Oh, James, my dear!' and she picked up the flower before she opened the will. And it fell into brown dust in her hand.
BILLY AND WILLIAM
A HISTORICAL TALE FOR THE YOUNG
'Have you found your prize essay?' 'No; but I have found the bicycle of the butcher's boy.'
It is rather trying to have to walk three miles to the station, to say nothing of the three miles back, to meet a cousin you have never seen and never wish to see, especially if you have to leave a kite half made, and there is no proper lock to the shed you are making your kite in.
The road was flat and dusty, the sun felt much too warm on his back, the hill to the station was long and steep, and the train was nearly an hour late, because it was a train on the South-Eastern Railway. So William was exceedingly cross, and he would have been crosser still if he could have known that I should ever call him William, for though that happened to be his name, the one he 'answered to' (as the stolen-dog advertisements say) was 'Billy.' So perhaps it would be kind of me to speak of him as Billy, because it is rather horrid to do things you know people won't like, even if you think they'll never know you've done them.
Well, the train came in, and it was annoying to Billy, very, that four or five boys should bundle out of the train, and he should have to go up to them one after the other and say:
'I say, is your name Harold St. Leger?'
He did not particularly like the look of any of the boys, and of course it happened that the very last one he spoke to was Harold, and that he was also the one whom Billy liked least particularly of the whole lot.
'Oh, you are, are you?' was all he could find to say when Harold had blushingly owned to his name. Then in manly tones Billy gave the order about Harold's luggage and the carrier, said 'Come along!' and Harold came.
Harold was a fattish boy with whitey-brown hair, and he was as soft and white as a silkworm. Billy did not admire him. He himself was hard and brown, with thin arms and legs and joints like the lumps of clay on branches that the gardener has grafted. And Harold did not admire him.
There was little conversation on the way home; when you don't want to have a visitor and he doesn't want to be one, talking is not much fun. When they got home there was tea. Billy's mother talked politely to Harold, but that did not make anyone any happier. Then Billy took his cousin round and showed him the farm and the stock, and Harold was less interested than you would think a boy could be. At last, weary of trying to behave nicely, Billy said:
'I suppose there must be something you like, however much of a muff you are. Well, you can jolly well find it out for yourself. I'm going to finish my kite.'
The silkworm-soft face of Harold lighted up.
'Oh, I can make kites,' he said; 'I've invented a new kind. I'll help you if you'll let me.'
Harold, eager, quick fingered, skilful, in the shed among the string, and the glue, and the paper, and the bendable, breakable laths, was quite a different person from Harold, nervous and dull, among the farmyard beasts. Billy allowed him to help with the kite, and he began to respect his cousin a little more.
'Though it's rather like a girl, being so neat with your fingers,' he said disparagingly.
'I wish I'd got the proper sort of paper,' Harold said, 'then I'd make my new patent kite that I've invented; but it's a very extra sort of kind of paper. I got some once at a butter-shop in Bermondsey, but that was in a dream.'
'You must be off your chump,' he said; and he felt more sorry than ever that his jolly country holiday was to be spoiled by a strange cousin, who ought, perhaps, to be in a lunatic asylum rather than at a respectable farm.
That night Billy was awakened from the dreamless sleep which blesses the sort of boy he was to find Harold excitedly thumping him on the back with a roll of stiff paper.
'Wake up,' he said—'wake up! I will tell somebody that's awake. I dreamed that a jackdaw came in and flew off with that thin paper thing that was on the chest of drawers with the gilt button at the corner, and then I dreamed I got up and found this roll of paper up the chimney. And when I woke up I found it had and I had, and it's the real right kite-paper for my patent kite—just like I dreamed I bought in the butter-shop in Bermondsey. And it's five o'clock by the church clock, and it's quite light. I'm going to get up directly minute and make my patent kite.'
'Patent fiddlestick!' replied Billy, sleepy and indignant. 'You get along and leave me be; you've been dreaming, that's all. Just like a girl!'
'Yes,' repeated Harold gently, 'I have been dreaming; but when I woke up I found it had and I had; and here's the paper, and the flimsy thing with the gold stud's gone. You get up and see——'
Billy did. He got up with a bound, and he saw with an eye. And William turned on Harold and shook him till his teeth nearly rattled in his head and his pale eyes nearly dropped out. (I have called him William here because I really think he deserves it. It is a cowardly thing to shake a cousin, even if you do not happen to be pleased with him.)
'Wha—wha—what's the matter?' choked the wretched Harold.
'Why, you miserable little idiot, you've not been dreaming at all! You've been lying like a silly log, and letting that beastly bird carry off my prize essay! That's all! And it took me ten days to do, and I had to get almost all of it out of books, and the worse swat I ever did in my life. And now it's all no good. And there aren't any books down here to do it again out of. Oh, bother, bother, BOTHER!'
'I'm very sorry for you,' said Harold, 'but I didn't lie like logs—I did dream—and I've got the kite-paper, and I'll help you write the essay again if you like.'
'I shouldn't be surprised if it was all a make-up,' said William. (I must go on calling him William at present.) 'You've hidden the essay so as to be able to send it in yourself.'
'Oh, how can you?' said Harold; and he turned pale just like a girl, and just like a girl he began to cry.
'Now, look here,' the enraged William went on, 'I've got to be civil to you before people; but don't you dare to speak to me when we're alone. You're either a silly idiot or a sneaking hound, and either way I'm not going to have anything to do with you.'
I don't know how he could have done it, but William kept his word, and for three days he only spoke to Harold when other people were about. This was horrible for Harold; he had been used to being his father's pride and his mother's joy, and now he was Nobody's Anything, which is the saddest thing in the world to be. He tried to console himself by making kites all day long, but even kites cannot comfort you when nobody loves you, and when you feel that it really is not your fault at all.
William went about his own affairs; he was not at all happy. He finished his kite and flew it, and he lost it because the string caught on the church weather-cock, which cut it in two. And he tried to rewrite his prize essay, but he couldn't, because he had taken all the stuffing for it out of books and not out of his head, where it ought to have been.
Harold found some moments of forgetfulness when he was making the patent kite. It was very big, and the roll of paper he had found in his dream in the chimney was exactly the right thing for patent kite-making. But when it was done, what was the good? There was no one to see him fly it. He did fly it, and it was perfect. It was shaped like a bird, and it rose up, and up, and up, and hung poised above the church-tower, light and steady as a hawk poised above its prey. William wouldn't even come out to look at it, though Harold begged him to.
The next morning Harold dreamed that he had not been able to bear things any longer, and had run away, and when William woke up Harold was gone. Then William remembered how Harold had offered to help him with his kite, and would have helped him to rewrite the essay, and how through those three cruel days Harold had again and again tried to make friends, and how, after all, he was with his own people, and Harold was a stranger.
He said, 'Oh, bother, I wish I hadn't!' and he felt that he had been a beast. This is called Remorse. Then he said, 'I'll find him, and I'll be as decent to him as I can, poor chap! though he is silly.' This is called Repentance.
Then he found a letter on Harold's bed. It said (and it was blotted with tears, and it had a blob of glue on it):
'It wasn't my fault about your essay, and I'm sorry, and am going to run away to India to find my people. I shall go disguised as a stowaway.
'Your affectionate cousin,
'HAROLD EGBERT DARWIN ST. LEGER.'
Billy did not have to show this letter to his mother, because she had gone away for the day, so he did not have to explain to her what a beast he had been. If he had had to do this, it would have been part of what is called Expiation.
Then he got the farm men to go out in every direction, furnished with a full description of Harold's silkworm-like appearance, and Billy borrowed a bicycle from a noble-hearted butcher's boy in the village and set out for Plymouth, because that seemed the likeliest place to look in for a cousin who was running away disguised as a stowaway. The wind blew straight towards the sea, and it occurred to Billy—he deserves to be called Billy now, I think—that the great patent kite, which was ten feet high, would drag him along like winking if he could only set it flying, and then tie it to the handle-bar of the bicycle. It was rather a ticklish business to get the kite up, but the butcher's boy helped—he had a noble heart—and at last it was done. Billy saw the great bird-kite flying off towards Plymouth. He hastily knotted the string to the bicycle handle, held the slack of it in his hand, mounted, started, paid out the slack of the string, and the next moment the string was tight, and the kite was pulling Billy and the bicycle along the Plymouth road at the rate of goodness-only-knows-how-improbably many miles an hour.
At last he came to the outskirts of Plymouth. I shall not tell you what Plymouth was like, because Billy did not notice or know at all what it was like, and there is no reason why you should. Plymouth seemed to Billy very much like other places. The only odd thing was that he could not stop his bicycle, though he pulled in the kite string as hard as he could. He flew through the town. All the traffic stopped to let him steer his mad-paced machine through the streets, and tradespeople, and people walking on business, and people walking for pleasure, all stopped with their respectable mouths wide open to stare at Billy on his bicycle. And the kite pulled the machine on and on without pause, and at a furious rate, and Billy, in despair, was just feeling in his pocket for his knife to cut the string, when some mighty sky-wind seemed to catch the kite, and it gave a leap and went twenty times as fast as it had gone before, and the bicycle had to go twenty times as fast too, and before Billy could say 'Jack Robinson,' or even 'J. R.,' for short, the kite rushed wildly out to sea, dragging the bicycle after it, right slap off the edge of England. So Billy and the butcher's boy's bicycle were dragged into the sea? Not at all. They were dragged on to the sea, which is not at all the same sort of thing. For the kite was such a very extra patent one, and so perfectly designed and made, that it was just strong enough to bear the weight of Billy and the bicycle, and to keep them out of the water. So that Billy found himself riding splendidly over the waves, and there was no more splashing than there would have been on the road on a very muddy day. Luckily, the sea was smooth, or I don't know what would have happened. It was smooth and greeny-blue, and the sun made diamond sparkles on it, and Billy felt as grand as grand to be riding over such a glorious floor. It was a fine time, but rather an anxious one too. Because, suppose the string had not held? No one could possibly ride a bicycle on the sea unless they had the really only truly right sort of kite to hold the machine up.
Away and away went the kite, through the blue air up above, and away and away went the bicycle over the greeny, foamy sea down below, and away and away went Billy, and the kite went faster and faster and faster, and faster went the bicycle—much, much faster than you would believe unless you had seen it as Billy did. And just at the front-door of the Bay of Biscay the bicycle caught up with a P. and O. steamer, and the kite followed the course of the ship, and went alongside of it, so you can guess how fast the bicycle was going.
And the Captain of the ship hailed Billy through a speaking-trumpet, and said:
But the Captain couldn't hear him. So the Captain said something that Billy couldn't hear either. But the people who were meant to hear heard, and the great ship stopped, and Billy rode close up to it, and they hauled him up by the string of the kite, and they put the bicycle in a safe place, and tied the string to the mast, and then the Captain said:
'I suppose I'm dreaming you, boy, because what you're doing is impossible.'
'I know it is,' said Billy; 'only I'm doing it—at least, I was till you stopped me.'
They were both wrong, because, of course, if it had been impossible, Billy could not have done it; but neither of them had a scientific mind, as you and I have, dear reader.
So the Captain asked Billy to dinner, which was very nice, only there was an uncertain feeling about it. And when Billy had had dinner, he said to the Captain:
'I must be going.'
'Is there nothing I can do for you?' said the Captain.
'I don't know,' said Billy, 'unless you happen to have a boy named Harold Egbert Darwin St. Leger on board. He said he was going away in a ship to India, disguised as a stowaway.'