'It's not a church,' said Noel, 'because there's no churchyard. Perhaps it's a tower of mystery that covers the entrance to a subterranean vault with treasure in it.'
Dicky said, 'Subterranean fiddlestick!' and 'A waterworks, more likely.'
Alice thought perhaps it was a ruined castle, and the rest of its crumbling walls were concealed by ivy, the growth of years.
Oswald could not make his mind up what it was, so he said, 'Let's go and see! We may as well go there as anywhere.'
So we got down out of the church tower and dusted ourselves, and set out.
The Tower of Mystery showed quite plainly from the road, now that we knew where to look for it, because it was on the top of a hill. We began to walk. But the tower did not seem to get any nearer. And it was very hot.
So we sat down in a meadow where there was a stream in the ditch and ate the 'snack'. We drank the pure water from the brook out of our hands, because there was no farm to get milk at just there, and it was too much fag to look for one—and, besides, we thought we might as well save the sixpence.
Then we started again, and still the tower looked as far off as ever. Denny began to drag his feet, though he had brought a walking-stick which none of the rest of us had, and said—
'I wish a cart would come along. We might get a lift.'
He knew all about getting lifts, of course, from having been in the country before. He is not quite the white mouse we took him for at first. Of course when you live in Lewisham or Blackheath you learn other things. If you asked for a lift in Lewisham, High Street, your only reply would be jeers. We sat down on a heap of stones, and decided that we would ask for a lift from the next cart, whichever way it was going. It was while we were waiting that Oswald found out about plantain seeds being good to eat.
When the sound of wheels came we remarked with joy that the cart was going towards the Tower of Mystery. It was a cart a man was going to fetch a pig home in. Denny said—
'I say, you might give us a lift. Will you?'
The man who was going for the pig said—
'What, all that little lot?' but he winked at Alice, and we saw that he meant to aid us on our way. So we climbed up, and he whipped up the horse and asked us where we were going. He was a kindly old man, with a face like a walnut shell, and white hair and beard like a jack-in-the-box.
'We want to get to the tower,' Alice said. 'Is it a ruin, or not?'
'It ain't no ruin,' the man said; 'no fear of that! The man wot built it he left so much a year to be spent on repairing of it! Money that might have put bread in honest folks' mouths.'
We asked was it a church then, or not.
'Church?' he said. 'Not it. It's more of a tombstone, from all I can make out. They do say there was a curse on him that built it, and he wasn't to rest in earth or sea. So he's buried half-way up the tower—if you can call it buried.'
'Can you go up it?' Oswald asked.
'Lord love you! yes; a fine view from the top they say. I've never been up myself, though I've lived in sight of it, boy and man, these sixty-three years come harvest.'
Alice asked whether you had to go past the dead and buried person to get to the top of the tower, and could you see the coffin.
'No, no,' the man said; 'that's all hid away behind a slab of stone, that is, with reading on it. You've no call to be afraid, missy. It's daylight all the way up. But I wouldn't go there after dark, so I wouldn't. It's always open, day and night, and they say tramps sleep there now and again. Anyone who likes can sleep there, but it wouldn't be me.'
We thought that it would not be us either, but we wanted to go more than ever, especially when the man said—
'My own great-uncle of the mother's side, he was one of the masons that set up the stone slab. Before then it was thick glass, and you could see the dead man lying inside, as he'd left it in his will. He was lying there in a glass coffin with his best clothes—blue satin and silver, my uncle said, such as was all the go in his day, with his wig on, and his sword beside him, what he used to wear. My uncle said his hair had grown out from under his wig, and his beard was down to the toes of him. My uncle he always upheld that that dead man was no deader than you and me, but was in a sort of fit, a transit, I think they call it, and looked for him to waken into life again some day. But the doctor said not. It was only something done to him like Pharaoh in the Bible afore he was buried.'
Alice whispered to Oswald that we should be late for tea, and wouldn't it be better to go back now directly. But he said—
'If you're afraid, say so; and you needn't come in anyway—but I'm going on.'
The man who was going for the pig put us down at a gate quite near the tower—at least it looked so until we began to walk again. We thanked him, and he said—
'Quite welcome,' and drove off.
We were rather quiet going through the wood. What we had heard made us very anxious to see the tower—all except Alice, who would keep talking about tea, though not a greedy girl by nature. None of the others encouraged her, but Oswald thought himself that we had better be home before dark.
As we went up the path through the wood we saw a poor wayfarer with dusty bare feet sitting on the bank.
He stopped us and said he was a sailor, and asked for a trifle to help him to get back to his ship.
I did not like the look of him much myself, but Alice said, 'Oh, the poor man, do let's help him, Oswald.' So we held a hurried council, and decided to give him the milk sixpence. Oswald had it in his purse, and he had to empty the purse into his hand to find the sixpence, for that was not all the money he had, by any means. Noel said afterwards that he saw the wayfarer's eyes fastened greedily upon the shining pieces as Oswald returned them to his purse. Oswald has to own that he purposely let the man see that he had more money, so that the man might not feel shy about accepting so large a sum as sixpence.
The man blessed our kind hearts and we went on.
The sun was shining very brightly, and the Tower of Mystery did not look at all like a tomb when we got to it. The bottom Storey was on arches, all open, and ferns and things grew underneath. There was a round stone stair going up in the middle. Alice began to gather ferns while we went up, but when we had called out to her that it was as the pig-man had said, and daylight all the way up, she said—
'All right. I'm not afraid. I'm only afraid of being late home,' and came up after us. And perhaps, though not downright manly truthfulness, this was as much as you could expect from a girl.
There were holes in the little tower of the staircase to let light in. At the top of it was a thick door with iron bolts. We shot these back, and it was not fear but caution that made Oswald push open the door so very slowly and carefully.
Because, of course, a stray dog or cat might have got shut up there by accident, and it would have startled Alice very much if it had jumped out on us.
When the door was opened we saw that there was no such thing. It was a room with eight sides. Denny says it is the shape called octogenarian; because a man named Octagius invented it. There were eight large arched windows with no glass, only stone-work, like in churches. The room was full of sunshine, and you could see the blue sky through the windows, but nothing else, because they were so high up. It was so bright we began to think the pig-man had been kidding us. Under one of the windows was a door. We went through, and there was a little passage and then a turret-twisting stair, like in the church, but quite light with windows. When we had gone some way up this, we came to a sort of landing, and there was a block of stone let into the wall—polished—Denny said it was Aberdeen graphite, with gold letters cut in it. It said—
'Here lies the body of Mr Richard Ravenal Born 1720. Died 1779.'
and a verse of poetry:
'Here lie I, between earth and sky, Think upon me, dear passers-by, And you who do my tombstone see Be kind to say a prayer for me.'
'How horrid!' Alice said. 'Do let's get home.'
'We may as well go to the top,' Dicky said, 'just to say we've been.'
And Alice is no funk—so she agreed; though I could see she did not like it.
Up at the top it was like the top of the church tower, only octogenarian in shape, instead of square.
Alice got all right there; because you cannot think much about ghosts and nonsense when the sun is shining bang down on you at four o'clock in the afternoon, and you can see red farm-roofs between the trees, and the safe white roads, with people in carts like black ants crawling.
It was very jolly, but we felt we ought to be getting back, because tea is at five, and we could not hope to find lifts both ways.
So we started to go down. Dicky went first, then Oswald, then Alice—and H. O. had just stumbled over the top step and saved himself by Alice's back, which nearly upset Oswald and Dicky, when the hearts of all stood still, and then went on by leaps and bounds, like the good work in missionary magazines.
For, down below us, in the tower where the man whose beard grew down to his toes after he was dead was buried, there was a noise—a loud noise. And it was like a door being banged and bolts fastened. We tumbled over each other to get back into the open sunshine on the top of the tower, and Alice's hand got jammed between the edge of the doorway and H. O.'s boot; it was bruised black and blue, and another part bled, but she did not notice it till long after.
We looked at each other, and Oswald said in a firm voice (at least, I hope it was)—
'What was that?'
'He HAS waked up,' Alice said. 'Oh, I know he has. Of course there is a door for him to get out by when he wakes. He'll come up here. I know he will.'
Dicky said, and his voice was not at all firm (I noticed that at the time), 'It doesn't matter, if he's ALIVE.'
'Unless he's come to life a raving lunatic,' Noel said, and we all stood with our eyes on the doorway of the turret—and held our breath to hear.
But there was no more noise.
Then Oswald said—and nobody ever put it in the Golden Deed book, though they own that it was brave and noble of him—he said—
'Perhaps it was only the wind blowing one of the doors to. I'll go down and see, if you will, Dick.'
Dicky only said—
'The wind doesn't shoot bolts.'
'A bolt from the blue,' said Denny to himself, looking up at the sky. His father is a sub-editor. He had gone very red, and he was holding on to Alice's hand. Suddenly he stood up quite straight and said—
'I'm not afraid. I'll go and see.'
THIS was afterwards put in the Golden Deed book. It ended in Oswald and Dicky and Denny going. Denny went first because he said he would rather—and Oswald understood this and let him. If Oswald had pushed first it would have been like Sir Lancelot refusing to let a young knight win his spurs. Oswald took good care to go second himself, though. The others never understood this. You don't expect it from girls; but I did think father would have understood without Oswald telling him, which of course he never could.
We all went slowly.
At the bottom of the turret stairs we stopped short. Because the door there was bolted fast and would not yield to shoves, however desperate and united.
Only now somehow we felt that Mr Richard Ravenal was all right and quiet, but that some one had done it for a lark, or perhaps not known about anyone being up there. So we rushed up, and Oswald told the others in a few hasty but well-chosen words, and we all leaned over between the battlements, and shouted, 'Hi! you there!'
Then from under the arches of the quite-downstairs part of the tower a figure came forth—and it was the sailor who had had our milk sixpence. He looked up and he spoke to us. He did not speak loud, but he spoke loud enough for us to hear every word quite plainly. He said—
Oswald said, 'Drop what?'
He said, 'That row.'
Oswald said, 'Why?'
He said, 'Because if you don't I'll come up and make you, and pretty quick too, so I tell you.'
Dicky said, 'Did you bolt the door?'
The man said, 'I did so, my young cock.'
Alice said—and Oswald wished to goodness she had held her tongue, because he saw right enough the man was not friendly—'Oh, do come and let us out—do, please.'
While she was saying it Oswald suddenly saw that he did not want the man to come up. So he scurried down the stairs because he thought he had seen something on the door on the top side, and sure enough there were two bolts, and he shot them into their sockets. This bold act was not put in the Golden Deed book, because when Alice wanted to, the others said it was not GOOD of Oswald to think of this, but only CLEVER. I think sometimes, in moments of danger and disaster, it is as good to be clever as it is to be good. But Oswald would never demean himself to argue about this.
When he got back the man was still standing staring up. Alice said—
'Oh, Oswald, he says he won't let us out unless we give him all our money. And we might be here for days and days and all night as well. No one knows where we are to come and look for us. Oh, do let's give it him ALL.'
She thought the lion of the English nation, which does not know when it is beaten, would be ramping in her brother's breast. But Oswald kept calm. He said—
'All right,' and he made the others turn out their pockets. Denny had a bad shilling, with a head on both sides, and three halfpence. H. O. had a halfpenny. Noel had a French penny, which is only good for chocolate machines at railway stations. Dicky had tenpence-halfpenny, and Oswald had a two-shilling piece of his own that he was saving up to buy a gun with. Oswald tied the whole lot up in his handkerchief, and looking over the battlements, he said—
'You are an ungrateful beast. We gave you sixpence freely of our own will.'
The man did look a little bit ashamed, but he mumbled something about having his living to get. Then Oswald said—
'Here you are. Catch!' and he flung down the handkerchief with the money in it.
The man muffed the catch—butter-fingered idiot!—but he picked up the handkerchief and undid it, and when he saw what was in it he swore dreadfully. The cad!
'Look here,' he called out, 'this won't do, young shaver. I want those there shiners I see in your pus! Chuck 'em along!'
Then Oswald laughed. He said—
'I shall know you again anywhere, and you'll be put in prison for this. Here are the SHINERS.' And he was so angry he chucked down purse and all. The shiners were not real ones, but only card-counters that looked like sovereigns on one side. Oswald used to carry them in his purse so as to look affluent. He does not do this now.
When the man had seen what was in the purse he disappeared under the tower, and Oswald was glad of what he had done about the bolts—and he hoped they were as strong as the ones on the other side of the door.
We heard the man kicking and pounding at the door, and I am not ashamed to say that we were all holding on to each other very tight. I am proud, however, to relate that nobody screamed or cried.
After what appeared to be long years, the banging stopped, and presently we saw the brute going away among the trees. Then Alice did cry, and I do not blame her. Then Oswald said—
'It's no use. Even if he's undone the door, he may be in ambush. We must hold on here till somebody comes.'
Then Alice said, speaking chokily because she had not quite done crying—
'Let's wave a flag.'
By the most fortunate accident she had on one of her Sunday petticoats, though it was Monday. This petticoat is white. She tore it out at the gathers, and we tied it to Denny's stick, and took turns to wave it. We had laughed at his carrying a stick before, but we were very sorry now that we had done so.
And the tin dish the Lent pie was baked in we polished with our handkerchiefs, and moved it about in the sun so that the sun might strike on it and signal our distress to some of the outlying farms.
This was perhaps the most dreadful adventure that had then ever happened to us. Even Alice had now stopped thinking of Mr Richard Ravenal, and thought only of the lurker in ambush.
We all felt our desperate situation keenly. I must say Denny behaved like anything but a white mouse. When it was the others' turn to wave, he sat on the leads of the tower and held Alice's and Noel's hands, and said poetry to them—yards and yards of it. By some strange fatality it seemed to comfort them. It wouldn't have me.
He said 'The Battle of the Baltic', and 'Gray's Elegy', right through, though I think he got wrong in places, and the 'Revenge', and Macaulay's thing about Lars Porsena and the Nine Gods. And when it was his turn he waved like a man.
I will try not to call him a white mouse any more. He was a brick that day, and no mouse.
The sun was low in the heavens, and we were sick of waving and very hungry, when we saw a cart in the road below. We waved like mad, and shouted, and Denny screamed exactly like a railway whistle, a thing none of us had known before that he could do.
And the cart stopped. And presently we saw a figure with a white beard among the trees. It was our Pig-man.
We bellowed the awful truth to him, and when he had taken it in—he thought at first we were kidding—he came up and let us out.
He had got the pig; luckily it was a very small one—and we were not particular. Denny and Alice sat on the front of the cart with the Pig-man, and the rest of us got in with the pig, and the man drove us right home. You may think we talked it over on the way. Not us. We went to sleep, among the pig, and before long the Pig-man stopped and got us to make room for Alice and Denny. There was a net over the cart. I never was so sleepy in my life, though it was not more than bedtime.
Generally, after anything exciting, you are punished—but this could not be, because we had only gone for a walk, exactly as we were told.
There was a new rule made, though. No walks except on the high-roads, and we were always to take Pincher and either Lady, the deer-hound, or Martha, the bulldog. We generally hate rules, but we did not mind this one.
Father gave Denny a gold pencil-case because he was first to go down into the tower. Oswald does not grudge Denny this, though some might think he deserved at least a silver one. But Oswald is above such paltry jealousies.
CHAPTER 5. THE WATERWORKS
This is the story of one of the most far-reaching and influentially naughty things we ever did in our lives. We did not mean to do such a deed. And yet we did do it. These things will happen with the best-regulated consciences.
The story of this rash and fatal act is intimately involved—which means all mixed up anyhow—with a private affair of Oswald's, and the one cannot be revealed without the other. Oswald does not particularly want his story to be remembered, but he wishes to tell the truth, and perhaps it is what father calls a wholesome discipline to lay bare the awful facts.
It was like this.
On Alice's and Noel's birthday we went on the river for a picnic. Before that we had not known that there was a river so near us. Afterwards father said he wished we had been allowed to remain on our pristine ignorance, whatever that is. And perhaps the dark hour did dawn when we wished so too. But a truce to vain regrets.
It was rather a fine thing in birthdays. The uncle sent a box of toys and sweets, things that were like a vision from another and a brighter world. Besides that Alice had a knife, a pair of shut-up scissors, a silk handkerchief, a book—it was The Golden Age and is Ai except where it gets mixed with grown-up nonsense. Also a work-case lined with pink plush, a boot-bag, which no one in their senses would use because it had flowers in wool all over it. And she had a box of chocolates and a musical box that played 'The Man who broke' and two other tunes, and two pairs of kid gloves for church, and a box of writing-paper—pink—with 'Alice' on it in gold writing, and an egg coloured red that said 'A. Bastable' in ink on one side. These gifts were the offerings of Oswald, Dora, Dicky, Albert's uncle, Daisy, Mr Foulkes (our own robber), Noel, H. O., father and Denny. Mrs Pettigrew gave the egg. It was a kindly housekeeper's friendly token.
I shall not tell you about the picnic on the river because the happiest times form but dull reading when they are written down. I will merely state that it was prime. Though happy, the day was uneventful. The only thing exciting enough to write about was in one of the locks, where there was a snake—a viper. It was asleep in a warm sunny corner of the lock gate, and when the gate was shut it fell off into the water.
Alice and Dora screamed hideously. So did Daisy, but her screams were thinner.
The snake swam round and round all the time our boat was in the lock. It swam with four inches of itself—the head end—reared up out of the water, exactly like Kaa in the Jungle Book—so we know Kipling is a true author and no rotter. We were careful to keep our hands well inside the boat. A snake's eyes strike terror into the boldest breast.
When the lock was full father killed the viper with a boat-hook. I was sorry for it myself. It was indeed a venomous serpent. But it was the first we had ever seen, except at the Zoo. And it did swim most awfully well.
Directly the snake had been killed H. O. reached out for its corpse, and the next moment the body of our little brother was seen wriggling conclusively on the boat's edge. This exciting spectacle was not of a lasting nature. He went right in. Father clawed him out. He is very unlucky with water.
Being a birthday, but little was said. H. O. was wrapped in everybody's coats, and did not take any cold at all.
This glorious birthday ended with an iced cake and ginger wine, and drinking healths. Then we played whatever we liked. There had been rounders during the afternoon. It was a day to be for ever marked by memory's brightest what's-its-name.
I should not have said anything about the picnic but for one thing. It was the thin edge of the wedge. It was the all-powerful lever that moved but too many events. You see, WE WERE NO LONGER STRANGERS TO THE RIVER.
And we went there whenever we could. Only we had to take the dogs, and to promise no bathing without grown-ups. But paddling in back waters was allowed. I say no more.
I have not numerated Noel's birthday presents because I wish to leave something to the imagination of my young readers. (The best authors always do this.) If you will take the large, red catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, and just make a list of about fifteen of the things you would like best—prices from 2s. to 25s.—you will get a very good idea of Noel's presents, and it will help you to make up your mind in case you are asked just before your next birthday what you really NEED.
One of Noel's birthday presents was a cricket ball. He cannot bowl for nuts, and it was a first-rate ball. So some days after the birthday Oswald offered him to exchange it for a coconut he had won at the fair, and two pencils (new), and a brand-new note-book. Oswald thought, and he still thinks, that this was a fair exchange, and so did Noel at the time, and he agreed to it, and was quite pleased till the girls said it wasn't fair, and Oswald had the best of it. And then that young beggar Noel wanted the ball back, but Oswald, though not angry, was firm.
'You said it was a bargain, and you shook hands on it,' he said, and he said it quite kindly and calmly.
Noel said he didn't care. He wanted his cricket ball back. And the girls said it was a horrid shame.
If they had not said that, Oswald might yet have consented to let Noel have the beastly ball, but now, of course, he was not going to. He said—
'Oh, yes, I daresay. And then you would be wanting the coconut and things again the next minute.'
'No, I shouldn't,' Noel said. It turned out afterwards he and H. O. had eaten the coconut, which only made it worse. And it made them worse too—which is what the book calls poetic justice.
Dora said, 'I don't think it was fair,' and even Alice said—
'Do let him have it back, Oswald.'
I wish to be just to Alice. She did not know then about the coconut having been secretly wolfed up.
We were in the garden. Oswald felt all the feelings of the hero when the opposing forces gathered about him are opposing as hard as ever they can. He knew he was not unfair, and he did not like to be jawed at just because Noel had eaten the coconut and wanted the ball back. Though Oswald did not know then about the eating of the coconut, but he felt the injustice in his soul all the same.
Noel said afterwards he meant to offer Oswald something else to make up for the coconut, but he said nothing about this at the time.
'Give it me, I say,' Noel said.
And Oswald said, 'Shan't!'
Then Noel called Oswald names, and Oswald did not answer back but just kept smiling pleasantly, and carelessly throwing up the ball and catching it again with an air of studied indifference.
It was Martha's fault that what happened happened. She is the bull-dog, and very stout and heavy. She had just been let loose and she came bounding along in her clumsy way, and jumped up on Oswald, who is beloved by all dumb animals. (You know how sagacious they are.) Well, Martha knocked the ball out of Oswald's hands, and it fell on the grass, and Noel pounced on it like a hooded falcon on its prey. Oswald would scorn to deny that he was not going to stand this, and the next moment the two were rolling over on the grass, and very soon Noel was made to bite the dust. And serve him right. He is old enough to know his own mind.
Then Oswald walked slowly away with the ball, and the others picked Noel up, and consoled the beaten, but Dicky would not take either side.
And Oswald went up into his own room and lay on his bed, and reflected gloomy reflections about unfairness.
Presently he thought he would like to see what the others were doing without their knowing he cared. So he went into the linen-room and looked out of its window, and he saw they were playing Kings and Queens—and Noel had the biggest paper crown and the longest stick sceptre.
Oswald turned away without a word, for it really was sickening.
Then suddenly his weary eyes fell upon something they had not before beheld. It was a square trap-door in the ceiling of the linen-room.
Oswald never hesitated. He crammed the cricket ball into his pocket and climbed up the shelves and unbolted the trap-door, and shoved it up, and pulled himself up through it. Though above all was dark and smelt of spiders, Oswald fearlessly shut the trap-door down again before he struck a match. He always carries matches. He is a boy fertile in every subtle expedient. Then he saw he was in the wonderful, mysterious place between the ceiling and the roof of the house. The roof is beams and tiles. Slits of light show through the tiles here and there. The ceiling, on its other and top side, is made of rough plaster and beams. If you walk on the beams it is all right—if you walk on the plaster you go through with your feet. Oswald found this out later, but some fine instinct now taught the young explorer where he ought to tread and where not. It was splendid. He was still very angry with the others and he was glad he had found out a secret they jolly well didn't know.
He walked along a dark, narrow passage. Every now and then cross-beams barred his way, and he had to creep under them. At last a small door loomed before him with cracks of light under and over. He drew back the rusty bolts and opened it. It opened straight on to the leads, a flat place between two steep red roofs, with a parapet two feet high back and front, so that no one could see you. It was a place no one could have invented better than, if they had tried, for hiding in.
Oswald spent the whole afternoon there. He happened to have a volume of Percy's Anecdotes in his pocket, the one about lawyers, as well as a few apples. While he read he fingered the cricket ball, and presently it rolled away, and he thought he would get it by-and-by.
When the tea-bell rang he forgot the ball and went hurriedly down, for apples do not keep the inside from the pangs of hunger.
Noel met him on the landing, got red in the face, and said—
'It wasn't QUITE fair about the ball, because H. O. and I had eaten the coconut. YOU can have it.'
'I don't want your beastly ball,' Oswald said, 'only I hate unfairness. However, I don't know where it is just now. When I find it you shall have it to bowl with as often as you want.'
'Then you're not waxy?'
And Oswald said 'No' and they went in to tea together. So that was all right. There were raisin cakes for tea.
Next day we happened to want to go down to the river quite early. I don't know why; this is called Fate, or Destiny. We dropped in at the 'Rose and Crown' for some ginger-beer on our way. The landlady is a friend of ours and lets us drink it in her back parlour, instead of in the bar, which would be improper for girls.
We found her awfully busy, making pies and jellies, and her two sisters were hurrying about with great hams, and pairs of chickens, and rounds of cold beef and lettuces, and pickled salmon and trays of crockery and glasses.
'It's for the angling competition,' she said.
We said, 'What's that?'
'Why,' she said, slicing cucumber like beautiful machinery while she said it, 'a lot of anglers come down some particular day and fish one particular bit of the river. And the one that catches most fish gets the prize. They're fishing the pen above Stoneham Lock. And they all come here to dinner. So I've got my hands full and a trifle over.'
We said, 'Couldn't we help?'
But she said, 'Oh, no, thank you. Indeed not, please. I really am so I don't know which way to turn. Do run along, like dears.'
So we ran along like these timid but graceful animals.
Need I tell the intellectual reader that we went straight off to the pen above Stoneham Lock to see the anglers competing? Angling is the same thing as fishing.
I am not going to try and explain locks to you. If you've never seen a lock you could never understand even if I wrote it in words of one syllable and pages and pages long. And if you have, you'll understand without my telling you. It is harder than Euclid if you don't know beforehand. But you might get a grown-up person to explain it to you with books or wooden bricks.
I will tell you what a pen is because that is easy. It is the bit of river between one lock and the next. In some rivers 'pens' are called 'reaches', but pen is the proper word.
We went along the towing-path; it is shady with willows, aspens, alders, elders, oaks and other trees. On the banks are flowers—yarrow, meadow-sweet, willow herb, loosestrife, and lady's bed-straw. Oswald learned the names of all these trees and plants on the day of the picnic. The others didn't remember them, but Oswald did. He is a boy of what they call relenting memory.
The anglers were sitting here and there on the shady bank among the grass and the different flowers I have named. Some had dogs with them, and some umbrellas, and some had only their wives and families.
We should have liked to talk to them and ask how they liked their lot, and what kinds of fish there were, and whether they were nice to eat, but we did not like to.
Denny had seen anglers before and he knew they liked to be talked to, but though he spoke to them quite like to equals he did not ask the things we wanted to know. He just asked whether they'd had any luck, and what bait they used.
And they answered him back politely. I am glad I am not an angler.
It is an immovable amusement, and, as often as not, no fish to speak of after all.
Daisy and Dora had stayed at home: Dora's foot was nearly well but they seem really to like sitting still. I think Dora likes to have a little girl to order about. Alice never would stand it. When we got to Stoneham Lock Denny said he should go home and fetch his fishing-rod. H. O. went with him. This left four of us—Oswald, Alice, Dicky, and Noel. We went on down the towing-path. The lock shuts up (that sounds as if it was like the lock on a door, but it is very otherwise) between one pen of the river and the next; the pen where the anglers were was full right up over the roots of the grass and flowers. But the pen below was nearly empty.
'You can see the poor river's bones,' Noel said.
And so you could.
Stones and mud and dried branches, and here and there an old kettle or a tin pail with no bottom to it, that some bargee had chucked in.
From walking so much along the river we knew many of the bargees. Bargees are the captains and crews of the big barges that are pulled up and down the river by slow horses. The horses do not swim. They walk on the towing-path, with a rope tied to them, and the other end to the barge. So it gets pulled along. The bargees we knew were a good friendly sort, and used to let us go all over the barges when they were in a good temper. They were not at all the sort of bullying, cowardly fiends in human form that the young hero at Oxford fights a crowd of, single-handed, in books.
The river does not smell nice when its bones are showing. But we went along down, because Oswald wanted to get some cobbler's wax in Falding village for a bird-net he was making.
But just above Falding Lock, where the river is narrow and straight, we saw a sad and gloomy sight—a big barge sitting flat on the mud because there was not water enough to float her.
There was no one on board, but we knew by a red flannel waistcoat that was spread out to dry on top that the barge belonged to friends of ours.
Then Alice said, 'They have gone to find the man who turns on the water to fill the pen. I daresay they won't find him. He's gone to his dinner, I shouldn't wonder. What a lovely surprise it would be if they came back to find their barge floating high and dry on a lot of water! DO let's do it. It's a long time since any of us did a kind action deserving of being put in the Book of Golden Deeds.'
We had given that name to the minute-book of that beastly 'Society of the Wouldbegoods'. Then you could think of the book if you wanted to without remembering the Society. I always tried to forget both of them.
Oswald said, 'But how? YOU don't know how. And if you did we haven't got a crowbar.'
I cannot help telling you that locks are opened with crowbars. You push and push till a thing goes up and the water runs through. It is rather like the little sliding door in the big door of a hen-house.
'I know where the crowbar is,' Alice said. 'Dicky and I were down here yesterday when you were su—' She was going to say sulking, I know, but she remembered manners ere too late so Oswald bears her no malice. She went on: 'Yesterday, when you were upstairs. And we saw the water-tender open the lock and the weir sluices. It's quite easy, isn't it, Dicky?'
'As easy as kiss your hand,' said Dicky; 'and what's more, I know where he keeps the other thing he opens the sluices with. I votes we do.'
'Do let's, if we can,' Noel said, 'and the bargees will bless the names of their unknown benefactors. They might make a song about us, and sing it on winter nights as they pass round the wassail bowl in front of the cabin fire.'
Noel wanted to very much; but I don't think it was altogether for generousness, but because he wanted to see how the sluices opened. Yet perhaps I do but wrong the boy.
We sat and looked at the barge a bit longer, and then Oswald said, well, he didn't mind going back to the lock and having a look at the crowbars. You see Oswald did not propose this; he did not even care very much about it when Alice suggested it.
But when we got to Stoneham Lock, and Dicky dragged the two heavy crowbars from among the elder bushes behind a fallen tree, and began to pound away at the sluice of the lock, Oswald felt it would not be manly to stand idly apart. So he took his turn.
It was very hard work but we opened the lock sluices, and we did not drop the crowbar into the lock either, as I have heard of being done by older and sillier people.
The water poured through the sluices all green and solid, as if it had been cut with a knife, and where it fell on the water underneath the white foam spread like a moving counterpane. When we had finished the lock we did the weir—which is wheels and chains—and the water pours through over the stones in a magnificent waterfall and sweeps out all round the weir-pool.
The sight of the foaming waterfalls was quite enough reward for our heavy labours, even without the thought of the unspeakable gratitude that the bargees would feel to us when they got back to their barge and found her no longer a stick-in-the-mud, but bounding on the free bosom of the river.
When we had opened all the sluices we gazed awhile on the beauties of Nature, and then went home, because we thought it would be more truly noble and good not to wait to be thanked for our kind and devoted action—and besides, it was nearly dinner-time and Oswald thought it was going to rain.
On the way home we agreed not to tell the others, because it would be like boasting of our good acts.
'They will know all about it,' Noel said, 'when they hear us being blessed by the grateful bargees, and the tale of the Unknown Helpers is being told by every village fireside. And then they can write it in the Golden Deed book.'
So we went home. Denny and H. O. had thought better of it, and they were fishing in the moat. They did not catch anything.
Oswald is very weather-wise—at least, so I have heard it said, and he had thought there would be rain. There was. It came on while we were at dinner—a great, strong, thundering rain, coming down in sheets—the first rain we had had since we came to the Moat House.
We went to bed as usual. No presentiment of the coming awfulness clouded our young mirth. I remember Dicky and Oswald had a wrestling match, and Oswald won.
In the middle of the night Oswald was awakened by a hand on his face. It was a wet hand and very cold. Oswald hit out, of course, but a voice said, in a hoarse, hollow whisper—
'Don't be a young ass! Have you got any matches? My bed's full of water; it's pouring down from the ceiling.'
Oswald's first thoughts was that perhaps by opening those sluices we had flooded some secret passage which communicated with the top of Moat House, but when he was properly awake he saw that this could not be, on account of the river being so low.
He had matches. He is, as I said before, a boy full of resources. He struck one and lit a candle, and Dicky, for it was indeed he, gazed with Oswald at the amazing spectacle.
Our bedroom floor was all wet in patches. Dicky's bed stood in a pond, and from the ceiling water was dripping in rich profusion at a dozen different places. There was a great wet patch in the ceiling, and that was blue, instead of white like the dry part, and the water dripped from different parts of it.
In a moment Oswald was quite unmanned.
'Krikey!' he said, in a heart-broken tone, and remained an instant plunged in thought.
'What on earth are we to do?' Dicky said.
And really for a short time even Oswald did not know. It was a blood-curdling event, a regular facer. Albert's uncle had gone to London that day to stay till the next. Yet something must be done.
The first thing was to rouse the unconscious others from their deep sleep, because the water was beginning to drip on to their beds, and though as yet they knew it not, there was quite a pool on Noel's bed, just in the hollow behind where his knees were doubled up, and one of H. O.'s boots was full of water, that surged wildly out when Oswald happened to kick it over.
We woke them—a difficult task, but we did not shrink from it.
Then we said, 'Get up, there is a flood! Wake up, or you will be drowned in your beds! And it's half past two by Oswald's watch.'
They awoke slowly and very stupidly. H. O. was the slowest and stupidest.
The water poured faster and faster from the ceiling.
We looked at each other and turned pale, and Noel said—
'Hadn't we better call Mrs Pettigrew?'
But Oswald simply couldn't consent to this. He could not get rid of the feeling that this was our fault somehow for meddling with the river, though of course the clear star of reason told him it could not possibly be the case.
We all devoted ourselves, heart and soul, to the work before us. We put the bath under the worst and wettest place, and the jugs and basins under lesser streams, and we moved the beds away to the dry end of the room. Ours is a long attic that runs right across the house.
But the water kept coming in worse and worse. Our nightshirts were wet through, so we got into our other shirts and knickerbockers, but preserved bareness in our feet. And the floor kept on being half an inch deep in water, however much we mopped it up.
We emptied the basins out of the window as fast as they filled, and we baled the bath with a jug without pausing to complain how hard the work was. All the same, it was more exciting than you can think. But in Oswald's dauntless breast he began to see that they would HAVE to call Mrs Pettigrew.
A new waterfall broke out between the fire-grate and the mantelpiece, and spread in devastating floods. Oswald is full of ingenious devices. I think I have said this before, but it is quite true; and perhaps even truer this time than it was last time I said it.
He got a board out of the box-room next door, and rested one end in the chink between the fireplace and the mantelpiece, and laid the other end on the back of a chair, then we stuffed the rest of the chink with our nightgowns, and laid a towel along the plank, and behold, a noble stream poured over the end of the board right into the bath we put there ready. It was like Niagara, only not so round in shape. The first lot of water that came down the chimney was very dirty. The wind whistled outside. Noel said, 'If it's pipes burst, and not the rain, it will be nice for the water-rates.' Perhaps it was only natural after this for Denny to begin with his everlasting poetry. He stopped mopping up the water to say:
'By this the storm grew loud apace, The water-rats were shrieking, And in the howl of Heaven each face Grew black as they were speaking.'
Our faces were black, and our hands too, but we did not take any notice; we only told him not to gas but to go on mopping. And he did. And we all did.
But more and more water came pouring down. You would not believe so much could come off one roof.
When at last it was agreed that Mrs Pettigrew must be awakened at all hazards, we went and woke Alice to do the fatal errand.
When she came back, with Mrs Pettigrew in a nightcap and red flannel petticoat, we held our breath.
But Mrs Pettigrew did not even say, 'What on earth have you children been up to NOW?' as Oswald had feared.
She simply sat down on my bed and said—
'Oh, dear! oh, dear! oh, dear!' ever so many times.
Then Denny said, 'I once saw holes in a cottage roof. The man told me it was done when the water came through the thatch. He said if the water lies all about on the top of the ceiling, it breaks it down, but if you make holes the water will only come through the holes and you can put pails under the holes to catch it.'
So we made nine holes in the ceiling with the poker, and put pails, baths and tubs under, and now there was not so much water on the floor. But we had to keep on working like niggers, and Mrs Pettigrew and Alice worked the same.
About five in the morning the rain stopped; about seven the water did not come in so fast, and presently it only dripped slowly. Our task was done.
This is the only time I was ever up all night. I wish it happened oftener. We did not go back to bed then, but dressed and went down. We all went to sleep in the afternoon, though. Quite without meaning to.
Oswald went up on the roof, before breakfast, to see if he could find the hole where the rain had come in. He did not find any hole, but he found the cricket ball jammed in the top of a gutter pipe which he afterwards knew ran down inside the wall of the house and ran into the moat below. It seems a silly dodge, but so it was.
When the men went up after breakfast to see what had caused the flood they said there must have been a good half-foot of water on the leads the night before for it to have risen high enough to go above the edge of the lead, and of course when it got above the lead there was nothing to stop it running down under it, and soaking through the ceiling. The parapet and the roofs kept it from tumbling off down the sides of the house in the natural way. They said there must have been some obstruction in the pipe which ran down into the house, but whatever it was the water had washed it away, for they put wires down, and the pipe was quite clear.
While we were being told this Oswald's trembling fingers felt at the wet cricket ball in his pocket. And he KNEW, but he COULD not tell. He heard them wondering what the obstruction could have been, and all the time he had the obstruction in his pocket, and never said a single word.
I do not seek to defend him. But it really was an awful thing to have been the cause of; and Mrs Pettigrew is but harsh and hasty. But this, as Oswald knows too well, is no excuse for his silent conduct.
That night at tea Albert's uncle was rather silent too. At last he looked upon us with a glance full of intelligence, and said—
'There was a queer thing happened yesterday. You know there was an angling competition. The pen was kept full on purpose. Some mischievous busybody went and opened the sluices and let all the water out. The anglers' holiday was spoiled. No, the rain wouldn't have spoiled it anyhow, Alice; anglers LIKEe rain. The 'Rose and Crown' dinner was half of it wasted because the anglers were so furious that a lot of them took the next train to town. And this is the worst of all—a barge, that was on the mud in the pen below, was lifted and jammed across the river and the water tilted her over, and her cargo is on the river bottom. It was coals.'
During this speech there were four of us who knew not where to turn our agitated glances. Some of us tried bread-and-butter, but it seemed dry and difficult, and those who tried tea choked and spluttered and were sorry they had not let it alone. When the speech stopped Alice said, 'It was us.'
And with deepest feelings she and the rest of us told all about it.
Oswald did not say much. He was turning the obstruction round and round in his pocket, and wishing with all his sentiments that he had owned up like a man when Albert's uncle asked him before tea to tell him all about what had happened during the night.
When they had told all, Albert's uncle told us four still more plainly, and exactly, what we had done, and how much pleasure we had spoiled, and how much of my father's money we had wasted—because he would have to pay for the coals being got up from the bottom of the river, if they could be, and if not, for the price of the coals. And we saw it ALL.
And when he had done Alice burst out crying over her plate and said—
'It's no use! We HAVE tried to be good since we've been down here.
You don't know how we've tried! And it's all no use. I believe we are the wickedest children in the whole world, and I wish we were all dead!'
This was a dreadful thing to say, and of course the rest of us were all very shocked. But Oswald could not help looking at Albert's uncle to see how he would take it.
He said very gravely, 'My dear kiddie, you ought to be sorry, and I wish you to be sorry for what you've done. And you will be punished for it.' (We were; our pocket-money was stopped and we were forbidden to go near the river, besides impositions miles long.) 'But,' he went on, 'you mustn't give up trying to be good. You are extremely naughty and tiresome, as you know very well.'
Alice, Dicky, and Noel began to cry at about this time.
'But you are not the wickedest children in the world by any means.'
Then he stood up and straightened his collar, and put his hands in his pockets.
'You're very unhappy now,' he said, 'and you deserve to be. But I will say one thing to you.'
Then he said a thing which Oswald at least will never forget (though but little he deserved it, with the obstruction in his pocket, unowned up to all the time).
He said, 'I have known you all for four years—and you know as well as I do how many scrapes I've seen you in and out of—but I've never known one of you tell a lie, and I've never known one of you do a mean or dishonourable action. And when you have done wrong you are always sorry. Now this is something to stand firm on. You'll learn to be good in the other ways some day.'
He took his hands out of his pockets, and his face looked different, so that three of the four guilty creatures knew he was no longer adamant, and they threw themselves into his arms. Dora, Denny, Daisy, and H. O., of course, were not in it, and I think they thanked their stars.
Oswald did not embrace Albert's uncle. He stood there and made up his mind he would go for a soldier. He gave the wet ball one last squeeze, and took his hand out of his pocket, and said a few words before going to enlist. He said—
'The others may deserve what you say. I hope they do, I'm sure. But I don't, because it was my rotten cricket ball that stopped up the pipe and caused the midnight flood in our bedroom. And I knew it quite early this morning. And I didn't own up.'
Oswald stood there covered with shame, and he could feel the hateful cricket ball heavy and cold against the top of his leg, through the pocket.
Albert's uncle said—and his voice made Oswald hot all over, but not with shame—he said—
I shall not tell you what he said. It is no one's business but Oswald's; only I will own it made Oswald not quite so anxious to run away for a soldier as he had been before.
That owning up was the hardest thing I ever did. They did put that in the Book of Golden Deeds, though it was not a kind or generous act, and did no good to anyone or anything except Oswald's own inside feelings. I must say I think they might have let it alone. Oswald would rather forget it. Especially as Dicky wrote it in and put this:
'Oswald acted a lie, which, he knows, is as bad as telling one. But he owned up when he needn't have, and this condones his sin. We think he was a thorough brick to do it.'
Alice scratched this out afterwards and wrote the record of the incident in more flattering terms. But Dicky had used Father's ink, and she used Mrs Pettigrew's, so anyone can read his underneath the scratching outs.
The others were awfully friendly to Oswald, to show they agreed with Albert's uncle in thinking I deserved as much share as anyone in any praise there might be going.
It was Dora who said it all came from my quarrelling with Noel about that rotten cricket ball; but Alice, gently yet firmly, made her shut up.
I let Noel have the ball. It had been thoroughly soaked, but it dried all right. But it could never be the same to me after what it had done and what I had done.
I hope you will try to agree with Albert's uncle and not think foul scorn of Oswald because of this story. Perhaps you have done things nearly as bad yourself sometimes. If you have, you will know how 'owning up' soothes the savage breast and alleviates the gnawings of remorse.
If you have never done naughty acts I expect it is only because you never had the sense to think of anything.
CHAPTER 6. THE CIRCUS
The ones of us who had started the Society of the Wouldbegoods began, at about this time, to bother.
They said we had not done anything really noble—not worth speaking of, that is—for over a week, and that it was high time to begin again—'with earnest endeavour', Daisy said. So then Oswald said—
'All right; but there ought to be an end to everything. Let's each of us think of one really noble and unselfish act, and the others shall help to work it out, like we did when we were Treasure Seekers. Then when everybody's had their go-in we'll write every single thing down in the Golden Deed book, and we'll draw two lines in red ink at the bottom, like Father does at the end of an account. And after that, if anyone wants to be good they can jolly well be good on our own, if at all.'
The ones who had made the Society did not welcome this wise idea, but Dicky and Oswald were firm.
So they had to agree. When Oswald is really firm, opposingness and obstinacy have to give way.
Dora said, 'It would be a noble action to have all the school-children from the village and give them tea and games in the paddock. They would think it so nice and good of us.'
But Dicky showed her that this would not be OUR good act, but Father's, because he would have to pay for the tea, and he had already stood us the keepsakes for the soldiers, as well as having to stump up heavily over the coal barge. And it is in vain being noble and generous when someone else is paying for it all the time, even if it happens to be your father. Then three others had ideas at the same time and began to explain what they were.
We were all in the dining-room, and perhaps we were making a bit of a row. Anyhow, Oswald for one, does not blame Albert's uncle for opening his door and saying—
'I suppose I must not ask for complete silence. That were too much. But if you could whistle, or stamp with your feet, or shriek or howl—anything to vary the monotony of your well-sustained conversation.'
Oswald said kindly, 'We're awfully sorry. Are you busy?'
'Busy?' said Albert's uncle. 'My heroine is now hesitating on the verge of an act which, for good or ill, must influence her whole subsequent career. You wouldn't like her to decide in the middle of such a row that she can't hear herself think?'
We said, 'No, we wouldn't.'
Then he said, 'If any outdoor amusement should commend itself to you this bright mid-summer day.' So we all went out.
Then Daisy whispered to Dora—they always hang together. Daisy is not nearly so white-micey as she was at first, but she still seems to fear the deadly ordeal of public speaking. Dora said—
'Daisy's idea is a game that'll take us all day. She thinks keeping out of the way when he's making his heroine decide right would be a noble act, and fit to write in the Golden Book; and we might as well be playing something at the same time.'
We all said 'Yes, but what?'
There was a silent interval.
'Speak up, Daisy, my child.' Oswald said; 'fear not to lay bare the utmost thoughts of that faithful heart.'
Daisy giggled. Our own girls never giggle—they laugh right out or hold their tongues. Their kind brothers have taught them this. Then Daisy said—
'If we could have a sort of play to keep us out of the way. I once read a story about an animal race. Everybody had an animal, and they had to go how they liked, and the one that got in first got the prize. There was a tortoise in it, and a rabbit, and a peacock, and sheep, and dogs, and a kitten.'
This proposal left us cold, as Albert's uncle says, because we knew there could not be any prize worth bothering about. And though you may be ever ready and willing to do anything for nothing, yet if there's going to be a prize there must BE a prize and there's an end of it.
Thus the idea was not followed up. Dicky yawned and said, 'Let's go into the barn and make a fort.'
So we did, with straw. It does not hurt straw to be messed about with like it does hay.
The downstairs—I mean down-ladder—part of the barn was fun too, especially for Pincher. There was as good ratting there as you could wish to see. Martha tried it, but she could not help running kindly beside the rat, as if she was in double harness with it. This is the noble bull-dog's gentle and affectionate nature coming out. We all enjoyed the ratting that day, but it ended, as usual, in the girls crying because of the poor rats. Girls cannot help this; we must not be waxy with them on account of it, they have their nature, the same as bull-dogs have, and it is this that makes them so useful in smoothing the pillows of the sick-bed and tending wounded heroes.
However, the forts, and Pincher, and the girls crying, and having to be thumped on the back, passed the time very agreeably till dinner. There was roast mutton with onion sauce, and a roly-poly pudding.
Albert's uncle said we had certainly effaced ourselves effectually, which means we hadn't bothered.
So we determined to do the same during the afternoon, for he told us his heroine was by no means out of the wood yet.
And at first it was easy. Jam roly gives you a peaceful feeling and you do not at first care if you never play any runabout game ever any more. But after a while the torpor begins to pass away. Oswald was the first to recover from his.
He had been lying on his front part in the orchard, but now he turned over on his back and kicked his legs up, and said—
'I say, look here; let's do something.'
Daisy looked thoughtful. She was chewing the soft yellow parts of grass, but I could see she was still thinking about that animal race. So I explained to her that it would be very poor fun without a tortoise and a peacock, and she saw this, though not willingly.
It was H. O. who said—
'Doing anything with animals is prime, if they only will. Let's have a circus!'
At the word the last thought of the pudding faded from Oswald's memory, and he stretched himself, sat up, and said—
'Bully for H. O. Let's!'
The others also threw off the heavy weight of memory, and sat up and said 'Let's!' too.
Never, never in all our lives had we had such a gay galaxy of animals at our command. The rabbits and the guinea-pigs, and even all the bright, glass-eyed, stuffed denizens of our late-lamented jungle paled into insignificance before the number of live things on the farm.
(I hope you do not think that the words I use are getting too long. I know they are the right words. And Albert's uncle says your style is always altered a bit by what you read. And I have been reading the Vicomte de Bragelonne. Nearly all my new words come out of those.)
'The worst of a circus is,' Dora said, 'that you've got to teach the animals things. A circus where the performing creatures hadn't learned performing would be a bit silly. Let's give up a week to teaching them and then have the circus.'
Some people have no idea of the value of time. And Dora is one of those who do not understand that when you want to do a thing you do want to, and not to do something else, and perhaps your own thing, a week later.
Oswald said the first thing was to collect the performing animals.
'Then perhaps,' he said, 'we may find that they have hidden talents hitherto unsuspected by their harsh masters.'
So Denny took a pencil and wrote a list of the animals required. This is it:
LIST OF ANIMALS REQUISITE FOR THE CIRCUS WE ARE GOING TO HAVE
1 Bull for bull-fight. 1 Horse for ditto (if possible). 1 Goat to do Alpine feats of daring. 1 Donkey to play see-saw. 2 White pigs—one to be Learned, and the other to play with the clown. Turkeys, as many as possible, because they can make a noise that The dogs, for any odd parts. 1 Large black pig—to be the Elephant in the procession. Calves (several) to be camels, and to stand on tubs.
Daisy ought to have been captain because it was partly her idea, but she let Oswald be, because she is of a retiring character. Oswald said—
'The first thing is to get all the creatures together; the paddock at the side of the orchard is the very place, because the hedge is good all round. When we've got the performers all there we'll make a programme, and then dress for our parts. It's a pity there won't be any audience but the turkeys.'
We took the animals in their right order, according to Denny's list. The bull was the first. He is black. He does not live in the cowhouse with the other horned people; he has a house all to himself two fields away. Oswald and Alice went to fetch him. They took a halter to lead the bull by, and a whip, not to hurt the bull with, but just to make him mind.
The others were to try to get one of the horses while we were gone.
Oswald as usual was full of bright ideas.
'I daresay,' he said, 'the bull will be shy at first, and he'll have to be goaded into the arena.'
'But goads hurt,' Alice said.
'They don't hurt the bull,' Oswald said; 'his powerful hide is too thick.'
'Then why does he attend to it,' Alice asked, 'if it doesn't hurt?'
'Properly-brought-up bulls attend because they know they ought,' Oswald said. 'I think I shall ride the bull,' the brave boy went on. 'A bull-fight, where an intrepid rider appears on the bull, sharing its joys and sorrows. It would be something quite new.'
'You can't ride bulls,' Alice said; 'at least, not if their backs are sharp like cows.'
But Oswald thought he could. The bull lives in a house made of wood and prickly furze bushes, and he has a yard to his house. You cannot climb on the roof of his house at all comfortably.
When we got there he was half in his house and half out in his yard, and he was swinging his tail because of the flies which bothered. It was a very hot day.
'You'll see,' Alice said, 'he won't want a goad. He'll be so glad to get out for a walk he'll drop his head in my hand like a tame fawn, and follow me lovingly all the way.'
Oswald called to him. He said, 'Bull! Bull! Bull! Bull!' because we did not know the animal's real name. The bull took no notice; then Oswald picked up a stone and threw it at the bull, not angrily, but just to make it pay attention. But the bull did not pay a farthing's worth of it. So then Oswald leaned over the iron gate of the bull's yard and just flicked the bull with the whiplash. And then the bull DID pay attention. He started when the lash struck him, then suddenly he faced round, uttering a roar like that of the wounded King of Beasts, and putting his head down close to his feet he ran straight at the iron gate where we were standing.
Alice and Oswald mechanically turned away; they did not wish to annoy the bull any more, and they ran as fast as they could across the field so as not to keep the others waiting.
As they ran across the field Oswald had a dream-like fancy that perhaps the bull had rooted up the gate with one paralysing blow, and was now tearing across the field after him and Alice, with the broken gate balanced on its horns. We climbed the stile quickly and looked back; the bull was still on the right side of the gate.
Oswald said, 'I think we'll do without the bull. He did not seem to want to come. We must be kind to dumb animals.'
Alice said, between laughing and crying—
'Oh, Oswald, how can you!' But we did do without the bull, and we did not tell the others how we had hurried to get back. We just said, 'The bull didn't seem to care about coming.'
The others had not been idle. They had got old Clover, the cart-horse, but she would do nothing but graze, so we decided not to use her in the bull-fight, but to let her be the Elephant. The Elephant's is a nice quiet part, and she was quite big enough for a young one. Then the black pig could be Learned, and the other two could be something else. They had also got the goat; he was tethered to a young tree.
The donkey was there. Denny was leading him in the halter. The dogs were there, of course—they always are.
So now we only had to get the turkeys for the applause and the calves and pigs.
The calves were easy to get, because they were in their own house. There were five. And the pigs were in their houses too. We got them out after long and patient toil, and persuaded them that they wanted to go into the paddock, where the circus was to be. This is done by pretending to drive them the other way. A pig only knows two ways—the way you want him to go, and the other. But the turkeys knew thousands of different ways, and tried them all. They made such an awful row, we had to drop all ideas of ever hearing applause from their lips, so we came away and left them.
'Never mind,' H. O. said, 'they'll be sorry enough afterwards, nasty, unobliging things, because now they won't see the circus. I hope the other animals will tell them about it.'
While the turkeys were engaged in baffling the rest of us, Dicky had found three sheep who seemed to wish to join the glad throng, so we let them.
Then we shut the gate of the paddock, and left the dumb circus performers to make friends with each other while we dressed.
Oswald and H. O. were to be clowns. It is quite easy with Albert's uncle's pyjamas, and flour on your hair and face, and the red they do the brick-floors with.
Alice had very short pink and white skirts, and roses in her hair and round her dress. Her dress was the pink calico and white muslin stuff off the dressing-table in the girls' room fastened with pins and tied round the waist with a small bath towel. She was to be the Dauntless Equestrienne, and to give her enhancing act a barebacked daring, riding either a pig or a sheep, whichever we found was freshest and most skittish. Dora was dressed for the Haute ecole, which means a riding-habit and a high hat. She took Dick's topper that he wears with his Etons, and a skirt of Mrs Pettigrew's. Daisy, dressed the same as Alice, taking the muslin from Mrs Pettigrew's dressing-table with-out saying anything beforehand. None of us would have advised this, and indeed we were thinking of trying to put it back, when Denny and Noel, who were wishing to look like highwaymen, with brown-paper top-boots and slouch hats and Turkish towel cloaks, suddenly stopped dressing and gazed out of the window.
'Krikey!' said Dick, 'come on, Oswald!' and he bounded like an antelope from the room.
Oswald and the rest followed, casting a hasty glance through the window. Noel had got brown-paper boots too, and a Turkish towel cloak. H. O. had been waiting for Dora to dress him up for the other clown. He had only his shirt and knickerbockers and his braces on. He came down as he was—as indeed we all did. And no wonder, for in the paddock, where the circus was to be, a blood-thrilling thing had transpired. The dogs were chasing the sheep. And we had now lived long enough in the country to know the fell nature of our dogs' improper conduct.
We all rushed into the paddock, calling to Pincher, and Martha, and Lady. Pincher came almost at once. He is a well-brought-up dog—Oswald trained him. Martha did not seem to hear. She is awfully deaf, but she did not matter so much, because the sheep could walk away from her easily. She has no pace and no wind. But Lady is a deer-hound. She is used to pursuing that fleet and antlered pride of the forest—the stag—and she can go like billyo. She was now far away in a distant region of the paddock, with a fat sheep just before her in full flight. I am sure if ever anybody's eyes did start out of their heads with horror, like in narratives of adventure, ours did then.
There was a moment's pause of speechless horror. We expected to see Lady pull down her quarry, and we know what a lot of money a sheep costs, to say nothing of its own personal feelings.
Then we started to run for all we were worth. It is hard to run swiftly as the arrow from the bow when you happen to be wearing pyjamas belonging to a grown-up person—as I was—but even so I beat Dicky. He said afterwards it was because his brown-paper boots came undone and tripped him up. Alice came in third. She held on the dressing-table muslin and ran jolly well. But ere we reached the fatal spot all was very nearly up with the sheep. We heard a plop; Lady stopped and looked round. She must have heard us bellowing to her as we ran. Then she came towards us, prancing with happiness, but we said 'Down!' and 'Bad dog!' and ran sternly on.
When we came to the brook which forms the northern boundary of the paddock we saw the sheep struggling in the water. It is not very deep, and I believe the sheep could have stood up, and been well in its depth, if it had liked, but it would not try.
It was a steepish bank. Alice and I got down and stuck our legs into the water, and then Dicky came down, and the three of us hauled that sheep up by its shoulders till it could rest on Alice and me as we sat on the bank. It kicked all the time we were hauling. It gave one extra kick at last, that raised it up, and I tell you that sopping wet, heavy, panting, silly donkey of a sheep sat there on our laps like a pet dog; and Dicky got his shoulder under it at the back and heaved constantly to keep it from flumping off into the water again, while the others fetched the shepherd.
When the shepherd came he called us every name you can think of, and then he said—
'Good thing master didn't come along. He would ha' called you some tidy names.'
He got the sheep out, and took it and the others away. And the calves too. He did not seem to care about the other performing animals.
Alice, Oswald and Dick had had almost enough circus for just then, so we sat in the sun and dried ourselves and wrote the programme of the circus. This was it:
1. Startling leap from the lofty precipice by the performing sheep. Real water, and real precipice. The gallant rescue. O. A. and D. Bastable. (We thought we might as well put that in though it was over and had happened accidentally.)
2. Graceful bare-backed equestrienne act on the trained pig, Eliza. A. Bastable. 3. Amusing clown interlude, introducing trained dog, Pincher, and the other white pig. H. O. and O. Bastable.
4. The See-Saw. Trained donkeys. (H. O. said we had only one donkey, so Dicky said H. O. could be the other. When peace was restored we went on to 5.)
5. Elegant equestrian act by D. Bastable. Haute ecole, on Clover, the incomparative trained elephant from the plains of Venezuela.
6. Alpine feat of daring. The climbing of the Andes, by Billy, the well-known acrobatic goat. (We thought we could make the Andes out of hurdles and things, and so we could have but for what always happens. (This is the unexpected. (This is a saying Father told me—but I see I am three deep in brackets so I will close them before I get into any more).).).
7. The Black but Learned Pig. ('I daresay he knows something,' Alice said, 'if we can only find out what.' We DID find out all too soon.)
We could not think of anything else, and our things were nearly dry—all except Dick's brown-paper top-boots, which were mingled with the gurgling waters of the brook.
We went back to the seat of action—which was the iron trough where the sheep have their salt put—and began to dress up the creatures.
We had just tied the Union Jack we made out of Daisy's flannel petticoat and cetera, when we gave the soldiers the baccy, round the waist of the Black and Learned Pig, when we heard screams from the back part of the house, and suddenly we saw that Billy, the acrobatic goat, had got loose from the tree we had tied him to. (He had eaten all the parts of its bark that he could get at, but we did not notice it until next day, when led to the spot by a grown-up.)
The gate of the paddock was open. The gate leading to the bridge that goes over the moat to the back door was open too. We hastily proceeded in the direction of the screams, and, guided by the sound, threaded our way into the kitchen. As we went, Noel, ever fertile in melancholy ideas, said he wondered whether Mrs Pettigrew was being robbed, or only murdered.
In the kitchen we saw that Noel was wrong as usual. It was neither. Mrs Pettigrew, screaming like a steam-siren and waving a broom, occupied the foreground. In the distance the maid was shrieking in a hoarse and monotonous way, and trying to shut herself up inside a clothes-horse on which washing was being aired.
On the dresser—which he had ascended by a chair—was Billy, the acrobatic goat, doing his Alpine daring act. He had found out his Andes for himself, and even as we gazed he turned and tossed his head in a way that showed us some mysterious purpose was hidden beneath his calm exterior. The next moment he put his off-horn neatly behind the end plate of the next to the bottom row, and ran it along against the wall. The plates fell crashing on to the soup tureen and vegetable dishes which adorned the lower range of the Andes.
Mrs Pettigrew's screams were almost drowned in the discarding crash and crackle of the falling avalanche of crockery.
Oswald, though stricken with horror and polite regret, preserved the most dauntless coolness.
Disregarding the mop which Mrs Pettigrew kept on poking at the goat in a timid yet cross way, he sprang forward, crying out to his trusty followers, 'Stand by to catch him!'
But Dick had thought of the same thing, and ere Oswald could carry out his long-cherished and general-like design, Dicky had caught the goat's legs and tripped it up. The goat fell against another row of plates, righted itself hastily in the gloomy ruins of the soup tureen and the sauce-boats, and then fell again, this time towards Dicky. The two fell heavily on the ground together. The trusty followers had been so struck by the daring of Dicky and his lion-hearted brother, that they had not stood by to catch anything.
The goat was not hurt, but Dicky had a sprained thumb and a lump on his head like a black marble door-knob. He had to go to bed.
I will draw a veil and asterisks over what Mrs Pettigrew said. Also Albert's uncle, who was brought to the scene of ruin by her screams. Few words escaped our lips. There are times when it is not wise to argue; however, little what has occurred is really our fault.
When they had said what they deemed enough and we were let go, we all went out. Then Alice said distractedly, in a voice which she vainly strove to render firm—
'Let's give up the circus. Let's put the toys back in the boxes—no, I don't mean that—the creatures in their places—and drop the whole thing. I want to go and read to Dicky.'
Oswald has a spirit that no reverses can depreciate. He hates to be beaten. But he gave in to Alice, as the others said so too, and we went out to collect the performing troop and sort it out into its proper places.
Alas! we came too late. In the interest we had felt about whether Mrs Pettigrew was the abject victim of burglars or not, we had left both gates open again. The old horse—I mean the trained elephant from Venezuela—was there all right enough. The dogs we had beaten and tied up after the first act, when the intrepid sheep bounded, as it says in the programme. The two white pigs were there, but the donkey was gone. We heard his hoofs down the road, growing fainter and fainter, in the direction of the 'Rose and Crown'. And just round the gatepost we saw a flash of red and white and blue and black that told us, with dumb signification, that the pig was off in exactly the opposite direction. Why couldn't they have gone the same way? But no, one was a pig and the other was a donkey, as Denny said afterwards.
Daisy and H. O. started after the donkey; the rest of us, with one accord, pursued the pig—I don't know why. It trotted quietly down the road; it looked very black against the white road, and the ends on the top, where the Union Jack was tied, bobbed brightly as it trotted. At first we thought it would be easy to catch up to it. This was an error.
When we ran faster it ran faster; when we stopped it stopped and looked round at us, and nodded. (I daresay you won't swallow this, but you may safely. It's as true as true, and so's all that about the goat. I give you my sacred word of honour.) I tell you the pig nodded as much as to say—
'Oh, yes. You think you will, but you won't!' and then as soon as we moved again off it went. That pig led us on and on, o'er miles and miles of strange country. One thing, it did keep to the roads. When we met people, which wasn't often, we called out to them to help us, but they only waved their arms and roared with laughter. One chap on a bicycle almost tumbled off his machine, and then he got off it and propped it against a gate and sat down in the hedge to laugh properly. You remember Alice was still dressed up as the gay equestrienne in the dressing-table pink and white, with rosy garlands, now very droopy, and she had no stockings on, only white sand-shoes, because she thought they would be easier than boots for balancing on the pig in the graceful bare-backed act.
Oswald was attired in red paint and flour and pyjamas, for a clown. It is really IMPOSSIBLE to run speedfully in another man's pyjamas, so Oswald had taken them off, and wore his own brown knickerbockers belonging to his Norfolks. He had tied the pyjamas round his neck, to carry them easily. He was afraid to leave them in a ditch, as Alice suggested, because he did not know the roads, and for aught he recked they might have been infested with footpads. If it had been his own pyjamas it would have been different. (I'm going to ask for pyjamas next winter, they are so useful in many ways.)
Noel was a highwayman in brown-paper gaiters and bath towels and a cocked hat of newspaper. I don't know how he kept it on. And the pig was encircled by the dauntless banner of our country. All the same, I think if I had seen a band of youthful travellers in bitter distress about a pig I should have tried to lend a helping hand and not sat roaring in the hedge, no matter how the travellers and the pig might have been dressed.
It was hotter than anyone would believe who has never had occasion to hunt the pig when dressed for quite another part. The flour got out of Oswald's hair into his eyes and his mouth. His brow was wet with what the village blacksmith's was wet with, and not his fair brow alone. It ran down his face and washed the red off in streaks, and when he rubbed his eyes he only made it worse. Alice had to run holding the equestrienne skirts on with both hands, and I think the brown-paper boots bothered Noel from the first. Dora had her skirt over her arm and carried the topper in her hand. It was no use to tell ourselves it was a wild boar hunt—we were long past that.
At last we met a man who took pity on us. He was a kind-hearted man. I think, perhaps, he had a pig of his own—or, perhaps, children. Honour to his name!
He stood in the middle of the road and waved his arms. The pig right-wheeled through a gate into a private garden and cantered up the drive. We followed. What else were we to do, I should like to know?
The Learned Black Pig seemed to know its way. It turned first to the right and then to the left, and emerged on a lawn.
'Now, all together!' cried Oswald, mustering his failing voice to give the word of command. 'Surround him!—cut off his retreat!'
We almost surrounded him. He edged off towards the house.
'Now we've got him!' cried the crafty Oswald, as the pig got on to a bed of yellow pansies close against the red house wall.
All would even then have been well, but Denny, at the last, shrank from meeting the pig face to face in a manly way. He let the pig pass him, and the next moment, with a squeak that said 'There now!' as plain as words, the pig bolted into a French window. The pursuers halted not. This was no time for trivial ceremony. In another moment the pig was a captive. Alice and Oswald had their arms round him under the ruins of a table that had had teacups on it, and around the hunters and their prey stood the startled members of a parish society for making clothes for the poor heathen, that that pig had led us into the very midst of. They were reading a missionary report or something when we ran our quarry to earth under their table. Even as he crossed the threshold I heard something about 'black brothers being already white to the harvest'. All the ladies had been sewing flannel things for the poor blacks while the curate read aloud to them. You think they screamed when they saw the Pig and Us? You are right.
On the whole, I cannot say that the missionary people behaved badly. Oswald explained that it was entirely the pig's doing, and asked pardon quite properly for any alarm the ladies had felt; and Alice said how sorry we were but really it was NOT our fault this time. The curate looked a bit nasty, but the presence of ladies made him keep his hot blood to himself.
When we had explained, we said, 'Might we go?' The curate said, 'The sooner the better.' But the Lady of the House asked for our names and addresses, and said she should write to our Father. (She did, and we heard of it too.) They did not do anything to us, as Oswald at one time believed to be the curate's idea. They let us go.
And we went, after we had asked for a piece of rope to lead the pig by.
'In case it should come back into your nice room,' Alice said. 'And that would be such a pity, wouldn't it?'
A little girl in a starched pinafore was sent for the rope. And as soon as the pig had agreed to let us tie it round his neck we came away. The scene in the drawing-room had not been long. The pig went slowly,
'Like the meandering brook,'
Denny said. Just by the gate the shrubs rustled and opened, and the little girl came out. Her pinafore was full of cake.
'Here,' she said. 'You must be hungry if you've come all that way.
I think they might have given you some tea after all the trouble you've had.' We took the cake with correct thanks.
'I wish I could play at circuses,' she said. 'Tell me about it.'
We told her while we ate the cake; and when we had done she said perhaps it was better to hear about than do, especially the goat's part and Dicky's.
'But I do wish auntie had given you tea,' she said.
We told her not to be too hard on her aunt, because you have to make allowances for grown-up people. When we parted she said she would never forget us, and Oswald gave her his pocket button-hook and corkscrew combined for a keepsake.
Dicky's act with the goat (which is true, and no kid) was the only thing out of that day that was put in the Golden Deed book, and he put that in himself while we were hunting the pig.
Alice and me capturing the pig was never put in. We would scorn to write our own good actions, but I suppose Dicky was dull with us all away; and you must pity the dull, and not blame them.
I will not seek to unfold to you how we got the pig home, or how the donkey was caught (that was poor sport compared to the pig). Nor will I tell you a word of all that was said and done to the intrepid hunters of the Black and Learned. I have told you all the interesting part. Seek not to know the rest. It is better buried in obliquity.
CHAPTER 7. BEING BEAVERS; OR, THE YOUNG EXPLORERS (ARCTIC OR OTHERWISE)
You read in books about the pleasures of London, and about how people who live in the country long for the gay whirl of fashion in town because the country is so dull. I do not agree with this at all. In London, or at any rate Lewisham, nothing happens unless you make it happen; or if it happens it doesn't happen to you, and you don't know the people it does happen to. But in the country the most interesting events occur quite freely, and they seem to happen to you as much as to anyone else. Very often quite without your doing anything to help.
The natural and right ways of earning your living in the country are much jollier than town ones, too; sowing and reaping, and doing things with animals, are much better sport than fishmongering or bakering or oil-shopping, and those sort of things, except, of course, a plumber's and gasfitter's, and he is the same in town or country—most interesting and like an engineer.
I remember what a nice man it was that came to cut the gas off once at our old house in Lewisham, when my father's business was feeling so poorly. He was a true gentleman, and gave Oswald and Dicky over two yards and a quarter of good lead piping, and a brass tap that only wanted a washer, and a whole handful of screws to do what we liked with. We screwed the back door up with the screws, I remember, one night when Eliza was out without leave. There was an awful row. We did not mean to get her into trouble. We only thought it would be amusing for her to find the door screwed up when she came down to take in the milk in the morning. But I must not say any more about the Lewisham house. It is only the pleasures of memory, and nothing to do with being beavers, or any sort of exploring.
I think Dora and Daisy are the kind of girls who will grow up very good, and perhaps marry missionaries. I am glad Oswald's destiny looks at present as if it might be different.
We made two expeditions to discover the source of the Nile (or the North Pole), and owing to their habit of sticking together and doing dull and praiseable things, like sewing, and helping with the cooking, and taking invalid delicacies to the poor and indignant, Daisy and Dora were wholly out of it both times, though Dora's foot was now quite well enough to have gone to the North Pole or the Equator either. They said they did not mind the first time, because they like to keep themselves clean; it is another of their queer ways. And they said they had had a better time than us. (It was only a clergyman and his wife who called, and hot cakes for tea.) The second time they said they were lucky not to have been in it. And perhaps they were right. But let me to my narrating. I hope you will like it. I am going to try to write it a different way, like the books they give you for a prize at a girls' school—I mean a 'young ladies' school', of course—not a high school. High schools are not nearly so silly as some other kinds. Here goes: