'"Ah, me!" sighed a slender maiden of twelve summers, removing her elegant hat and passing her tapery fingers lightly through her fair tresses, "how sad it is—is it not?—to see able-bodied youths and young ladies wasting the precious summer hours in idleness and luxury."
'The maiden frowned reproachingly, but yet with earnest gentleness, at the group of youths and maidens who sat beneath an umbragipeaous beech tree and ate black currants.
'"Dear brothers and sisters," the blushing girl went on, "could we not, even now, at the eleventh hour, turn to account these wasted lives of ours, and seek some occupation at once improving and agreeable?"
'"I do not quite follow your meaning, dear sister," replied the cleverest of her brothers, on whose brow—'
It's no use. I can't write like these books. I wonder how the books' authors can keep it up.
What really happened was that we were all eating black currants in the orchard, out of a cabbage leaf, and Alice said—
'I say, look here, let's do something. It's simply silly to waste a day like this. It's just on eleven. Come on!'
And Oswald said, 'Where to?'
This was the beginning of it.
The moat that is all round our house is fed by streams. One of them is a sort of open overflow pipe from a good-sized stream that flows at the other side of the orchard.
It was this stream that Alice meant when she said—
'Why not go and discover the source of the Nile?'
Of course Oswald knows quite well that the source of the real live Egyptian Nile is no longer buried in that mysteriousness where it lurked undisturbed for such a long time. But he was not going to say so. It is a great thing to know when not to say things.
'Why not have it an Arctic expedition?' said Dicky; 'then we could take an ice-axe, and live on blubber and things. Besides, it sounds cooler.'
'Vote! vote!' cried Oswald. So we did. Oswald, Alice, Noel, and Denny voted for the river of the ibis and the crocodile. Dicky, H. O., and the other girls for the region of perennial winter and rich blubber.
So Alice said, 'We can decide as we go. Let's start anyway.'
The question of supplies had now to be gone into. Everybody wanted to take something different, and nobody thought the other people's things would be the slightest use. It is sometimes thus even with grown-up expeditions. So then Oswald, who is equal to the hardest emergency that ever emerged yet, said—
'Let's each get what we like. The secret storehouse can be the shed in the corner of the stableyard where we got the door for the raft. Then the captain can decide who's to take what.'
This was done. You may think it but the work of a moment to fit out an expedition, but this is not so, especially when you know not whether your exploring party is speeding to Central Africa or merely to the world of icebergs and the Polar bear.
Dicky wished to take the wood-axe, the coal hammer, a blanket, and a mackintosh.
H. O. brought a large faggot in case we had to light fires, and a pair of old skates he had happened to notice in the box-room, in case the expedition turned out icy.
Noel had nicked a dozen boxes of matches, a spade, and a trowel, and had also obtained—I know not by what means—a jar of pickled onions.
Denny had a walking-stick—we can't break him of walking with it—a book to read in case he got tired of being a discoverer, a butterfly net and a box with a cork in it, a tennis ball, if we happened to want to play rounders in the pauses of exploring, two towels and an umbrella in the event of camping or if the river got big enough to bathe in or to be fallen into.
Alice had a comforter for Noel in case we got late, a pair of scissors and needle and cotton, two whole candles in case of caves.
And she had thoughtfully brought the tablecloth off the small table in the dining-room, so that we could make all the things up into one bundle and take it in turns to carry it.
Oswald had fastened his master mind entirely on grub. Nor had the others neglected this.
All the stores for the expedition were put down on the tablecloth and the corners tied up. Then it was more than even Oswald's muscley arms could raise from the ground, so we decided not to take it, but only the best-selected grub. The rest we hid in the straw loft, for there are many ups and downs in life, and grub is grub at any time, and so are stores of all kinds. The pickled onions we had to leave, but not for ever.
Then Dora and Daisy came along with their arms round each other's necks as usual, like a picture on a grocer's almanac, and said they weren't coming.
It was, as I have said, a blazing hot day, and there were differences of opinion among the explorers about what eatables we ought to have taken, and H. O. had lost one of his garters and wouldn't let Alice tie it up with her handkerchief, which the gentle sister was quite willing to do. So it was a rather gloomy expedition that set off that bright sunny day to seek the source of the river where Cleopatra sailed in Shakespeare (or the frozen plains Mr Nansen wrote that big book about).
But the balmy calm of peaceful Nature soon made the others less cross—Oswald had not been cross exactly but only disinclined to do anything the others wanted—and by the time we had followed the stream a little way, and had seen a water-rat and shied a stone or two at him, harmony was restored. We did not hit the rat.
You will understand that we were not the sort of people to have lived so long near a stream without plumbing its depths. Indeed it was the same stream the sheep took its daring jump into the day we had the circus. And of course we had often paddled in it—in the shallower parts. But now our hearts were set on exploring. At least they ought to have been, but when we got to the place where the stream goes under a wooden sheep-bridge, Dicky cried, 'A camp! a camp!' and we were all glad to sit down at once. Not at all like real explorers, who know no rest, day or night, till they have got there (whether it's the North Pole, or the central point of the part marked 'Desert of Sahara' on old-fashioned maps).
The food supplies obtained by various members were good and plenty of it. Cake, hard eggs, sausage-rolls, currants, lemon cheese-cakes, raisins, and cold apple dumplings. It was all very decent, but Oswald could not help feeling that the source of the Nile (or North Pole) was a long way off, and perhaps nothing much when you got there.
So he was not wholly displeased when Denny said, as he lay kicking into the bank when the things to eat were all gone—
'I believe this is clay: did you ever make huge platters and bowls out of clay and dry them in the sun? Some people did in a book called Foul Play, and I believe they baked turtles, or oysters, or something, at the same time.'
He took up a bit of clay and began to mess it about, like you do putty when you get hold of a bit. And at once the heavy gloom that had hung over the explorers became expelled, and we all got under the shadow of the bridge and messed about with clay.
'It will be jolly!' Alice said, 'and we can give the huge platters to poor cottagers who are short of the usual sorts of crockery. That would really be a very golden deed.'
It is harder than you would think when you read about it, to make huge platters with clay. It flops about as soon as you get it any size, unless you keep it much too thick, and then when you turn up the edges they crack. Yet we did not mind the trouble. And we had all got our shoes and stockings off. It is impossible to go on being cross when your feet are in cold water; and there is something in the smooth messiness of clay, and not minding how dirty you get, that would soothe the savagest breast that ever beat.
After a bit, though, we gave up the idea of the huge platter and tried little things. We made some platters—they were like flower-pot saucers; and Alice made a bowl by doubling up her fists and getting Noel to slab the clay on outside. Then they smoothed the thing inside and out with wet fingers, and it was a bowl—at least they said it was. When we'd made a lot of things we set them in the sun to dry, and then it seemed a pity not to do the thing thoroughly. So we made a bonfire, and when it had burnt down we put our pots on the soft, white, hot ashes among the little red sparks, and kicked the ashes over them and heaped more fuel over the top. It was a fine fire.
Then tea-time seemed as if it ought to be near, and we decided to come back next day and get our pots.
As we went home across the fields Dicky looked back and said—
'The bonfire's going pretty strong.'
We looked. It was. Great flames were rising to heaven against the evening sky. And we had left it,a smouldering flat heap.
'The clay must have caught alight,' H. O. said. 'Perhaps it's the kind that burns. I know I've heard of fireclay. And there's another sort you can eat.'
'Oh, shut up!' Dicky said with anxious scorn.
With one accord we turned back. We all felt THE feeling—the one that means something fatal being up and it being your fault.
'Perhaps, Alice said, 'a beautiful young lady in a muslin dress was passing by, and a spark flew on to her, and now she is rolling in agony enveloped in flames.'
We could not see the fire now, because of the corner of the wood, but we hoped Alice was mistaken.
But when we got in sight of the scene of our pottering industry we saw it was as bad nearly as Alice's wild dream. For the wooden fence leading up to the bridge had caught fire, and it was burning like billy oh.
Oswald started to run; so did the others. As he ran he said to himself, 'This is no time to think about your clothes. Oswald, be bold!'
And he was.
Arrived at the site of the conflagration, he saw that caps or straw hats full of water, however quickly and perseveringly given, would never put the bridge out, and his eventful past life made him know exactly the sort of wigging you get for an accident like this.
So he said, 'Dicky, soak your jacket and mine in the stream and chuck them along. Alice, stand clear, or your silly girl's clothes'll catch as sure as fate.'
Dicky and Oswald tore off their jackets, so did Denny, but we would not let him and H. O. wet theirs. Then the brave Oswald advanced warily to the end of the burning rails and put his wet jacket over the end bit, like a linseed poultice on the throat of a suffering invalid who has got bronchitis. The burning wood hissed and smouldered, and Oswald fell back, almost choked with the smoke. But at once he caught up the other wet jacket and put it on another place, and of course it did the trick as he had known it would do. But it was a long job, and the smoke in his eyes made the young hero obliged to let Dicky and Denny take a turn as they had bothered to do from the first. At last all was safe; the devouring element was conquered. We covered up the beastly bonfire with clay to keep it from getting into mischief again, and then Alice said—
'Now we must go and tell.'
'Of course,' Oswald said shortly. He had meant to tell all the time.
So we went to the farmer who has the Moat House Farm, and we went at once, because if you have any news like that to tell it only makes it worse if you wait about. When we had told him he said—
'You little —-.' I shall not say what he said besides that, because I am sure he must have been sorry for it next Sunday when he went to church, if not before.
We did not take any notice of what he said, but just kept on saying how sorry we were; and he did not take our apology like a man, but only said he daresayed, just like a woman does. Then he went to look at his bridge, and we went in to our tea. The jackets were never quite the same again.
Really great explorers would never be discouraged by the daresaying of a farmer, still less by his calling them names he ought not to. Albert's uncle was away so we got no double slating; and next day we started again to discover the source of the river of cataracts (or the region of mountain-like icebergs).
We set out, heavily provisioned with a large cake Daisy and Dora had made themselves, and six bottles of ginger-beer. I think real explorers most likely have their ginger-beer in something lighter to carry than stone bottles. Perhaps they have it by the cask, which would come cheaper; and you could make the girls carry it on their back, like in pictures of the daughters of regiments.
We passed the scene of the devouring conflagration, and the thought of the fire made us so thirsty we decided to drink the ginger-beer and leave the bottles in a place of concealment. Then we went on, determined to reach our destination, Tropic or Polar, that day.
Denny and H. O. wanted to stop and try to make a fashionable watering-place at that part where the stream spreads out like a small-sized sea, but Noel said, 'No.' We did not like fashionableness.
'YOU ought to, at any rate,' Denny said. 'A Mr Collins wrote an Ode to the Fashions, and he was a great poet.'
'The poet Milton wrote a long book about Satan,' Noel said, 'but I'm not bound to like HIM.' I think it was smart of Noel.
'People aren't obliged to like everything they write about even, let alone read,' Alice said. 'Look at "Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!" and all the pieces of poetry about war, and tyrants, and slaughtered saints—and the one you made yourself about the black beetle, Noel.'
By this time we had got by the pondy place and the danger of delay was past; but the others went on talking about poetry for quite a field and a half, as we walked along by the banks of the stream. The stream was broad and shallow at this part, and you could see the stones and gravel at the bottom, and millions of baby fishes, and a sort of skating-spiders walking about on the top of the water. Denny said the water must be ice for them to be able to walk on it, and this showed we were getting near the North Pole. But Oswald had seen a kingfisher by the wood, and he said it was an ibis, so this was even.
When Oswald had had as much poetry as he could bear he said, 'Let's be beavers and make a dam.' And everybody was so hot they agreed joyously, and soon our clothes were tucked up as far as they could go and our legs looked green through the water, though they were pink out of it.
Making a dam is jolly good fun, though laborious, as books about beavers take care to let you know.
Dicky said it must be Canada if we were beavers, and so it was on the way to the Polar system, but Oswald pointed to his heated brow, and Dicky owned it was warm for Polar regions. He had brought the ice-axe (it is called the wood chopper sometimes), and Oswald, ever ready and able to command, set him and Denny to cut turfs from the bank while we heaped stones across the stream. It was clayey here, or of course dam making would have been vain, even for the best-trained beaver.
When we had made a ridge of stones we laid turfs against them—nearly across the stream, leaving about two feet for the water to go through—then more stones, and then lumps of clay stamped down as hard as we could. The industrious beavers spent hours over it, with only one easy to eat cake in. And at last the dam rose to the level of the bank. Then the beavers collected a great heap of clay, and four of them lifted it and dumped it down in the opening where the water was running. It did splash a little, but a true-hearted beaver knows better than to mind a bit of a wetting, as Oswald told Alice at the time. Then with more clay the work was completed. We must have used tons of clay; there was quite a big long hole in the bank above the dam where we had taken it out.
When our beaver task was performed we went on, and Dicky was so hot he had to take his jacket off and shut up about icebergs.
I cannot tell you about all the windings of the stream; it went through fields and woods and meadows, and at last the banks got steeper and higher, and the trees overhead darkly arched their mysterious branches, and we felt like the princes in a fairy tale who go out to seek their fortunes.
And then we saw a thing that was well worth coming all that way for; the stream suddenly disappeared under a dark stone archway, and however much you stood in the water and stuck your head down between your knees you could not see any light at the other end.
The stream was much smaller than where we had been beavers.
Gentle reader, you will guess in a moment who it was that said—
'Alice, you've got a candle. Let's explore.' This gallant proposal met but a cold response. The others said they didn't care much about it, and what about tea?
I often think the way people try to hide their cowardliness behind their teas is simply beastly.
Oswald took no notice. He just said, with that dignified manner, not at all like sulking, which he knows so well how to put on—
'All right. I'M going. If you funk it you'd better cut along home and ask your nurses to put you to bed.' So then, of course, they agreed to go. Oswald went first with the candle. It was not comfortable; the architect of that dark subterranean passage had not imagined anyone would ever be brave enough to lead a band of beavers into its inky recesses, or he would have built it high enough to stand upright in. As it was, we were bent almost at a right angle, and this is very awkward if for long.
But the leader pressed dauntlessly on, and paid no attention to the groans of his faithful followers, nor to what they said about their backs.
It really was a very long tunnel, though, and even Oswald was not sorry to say, 'I see daylight.' The followers cheered as well as they could as they splashed after him. The floor was stone as well as the roof, so it was easy to walk on. I think the followers would have turned back if it had been sharp stones or gravel.
And now the spot of daylight at the end of the tunnel grew larger and larger, and presently the intrepid leader found himself blinking in the full sun, and the candle he carried looked simply silly. He emerged, and the others too, and they stretched their backs and the word 'krikey' fell from more than one lip. It had indeed been a cramping adventure. Bushes grew close to the mouth of the tunnel, so we could not see much landscape, and when we had stretched our backs we went on upstream and nobody said they'd had jolly well enough of it, though in more than one young heart this was thought.
It was jolly to be in the sunshine again. I never knew before how cold it was underground. The stream was getting smaller and smaller.
Dicky said, 'This can't be the way. I expect there was a turning to the North Pole inside the tunnel, only we missed it. It was cold enough there.'
But here a twist in the stream brought us out from the bushes, and Oswald said—
'Here is strange, wild, tropical vegetation in the richest profusion. Such blossoms as these never opened in a frigid what's-its-name.'
It was indeed true. We had come out into a sort of marshy, swampy place like I think, a jungle is, that the stream ran through, and it was simply crammed with queer plants, and flowers we never saw before or since. And the stream was quite thin. It was torridly hot, and softish to walk on. There were rushes and reeds and small willows, and it was all tangled over with different sorts of grasses—and pools here and there. We saw no wild beasts, but there were more different kinds of wild flies and beetles than you could believe anybody could bear, and dragon-flies and gnats. The girls picked a lot of flowers. I know the names of some of them, but I will not tell you them because this is not meant to be instructing. So I will only name meadow-sweet, yarrow, loose-strife, lady's bed-straw and willow herb—both the larger and the lesser.
Everyone now wished to go home. It was much hotter there than in natural fields. It made you want to tear all your clothes off and play at savages, instead of keeping respectable in your boots.
But we had to bear the boots because it was so brambly.
It was Oswald who showed the others how flat it would be to go home the same way we came; and he pointed out the telegraph wires in the distance and said—
'There must be a road there, let's make for it,' which was quite a simple and ordinary thing to say, and he does not ask for any credit for it. So we sloshed along, scratching our legs with the brambles, and the water squelched in our boots, and Alice's blue muslin frock was torn all over in those crisscross tears which are considered so hard to darn.
We did not follow the stream any more. It was only a trickle now, so we knew we had tracked it to its source. And we got hotter and hotter and hotter, and the dews of agony stood in beads on our brows and rolled down our noses and off our chins. And the flies buzzed, and the gnats stung, and Oswald bravely sought to keep up Dicky's courage, when he tripped on a snag and came down on a bramble bush, by saying—
'You see it IS the source of the Nile we've discovered. What price North Poles now?'
Alice said, 'Ah, but think of ices! I expect Oswald wishes it HAD been the Pole, anyway.'
Oswald is naturally the leader, especially when following up what is his own idea, but he knows that leaders have other duties besides just leading. One is to assist weak or wounded members of the expedition, whether Polar or Equatorish.
So the others had got a bit ahead through Oswald lending the tottering Denny a hand over the rough places. Denny's feet hurt him, because when he was a beaver his stockings had dropped out of his pocket, and boots without stockings are not a bed of luxuriousness. And he is often unlucky with his feet.
Presently we came to a pond, and Denny said—
Oswald likes Denny to have ideas; he knows it is healthy for the boy, and generally he backs him up, but just now it was getting late and the others were ahead, so he said—
'Oh, rot! come on.'
Generally the Dentist would have; but even worms will turn if they are hot enough, and if their feet are hurting them. 'I don't care, I shall!' he said.
Oswald overlooked the mutiny and did not say who was leader. He just said—
'Well don't be all day about it,' for he is a kind-hearted boy and can make allowances. So Denny took off his boots and went into the pool. 'Oh, it's ripping!' he said. 'You ought to come in.'
'It looks beastly muddy,' said his tolerating leader.
'It is a bit,' Denny said, 'but the mud's just as cool as the water, and so soft, it squeezes between your toes quite different to boots.'
And so he splashed about, and kept asking Oswald to come along in.
But some unseen influence prevented Oswald doing this; or it may have been because both his bootlaces were in hard knots.
Oswald had cause to bless the unseen influence, or the bootlaces, or whatever it was.
Denny had got to the middle of the pool, and he was splashing about, and getting his clothes very wet indeed, and altogether you would have thought his was a most envious and happy state. But alas! the brightest cloud had a waterproof lining. He was just saying—
'You are a silly, Oswald. You'd much better—' when he gave a blood-piercing scream, and began to kick about.
'What's up?' cried the ready Oswald; he feared the worst from the way Denny screamed, but he knew it could not be an old meat tin in this quiet and jungular spot, like it was in the moat when the shark bit Dora.
'I don't know, it's biting me. Oh, it's biting me all over my legs! Oh, what shall I do? Oh, it does hurt! Oh! oh! oh!' remarked Denny, among his screams, and he splashed towards the bank. Oswald went into the water and caught hold of him and helped him out. It is true that Oswald had his boots on, but I trust he would not have funked the unknown terrors of the deep, even without his boots, I am almost sure he would not have.
When Denny had scrambled and been hauled ashore, we saw with horror and amaze that his legs were stuck all over with large black, slug-looking things. Denny turned green in the face—and even Oswald felt a bit queer, for he knew in a moment what the black dreadfulnesses were. He had read about them in a book called Magnet Stories, where there was a girl called Theodosia, and she could play brilliant trebles on the piano in duets, but the other girl knew all about leeches which is much more useful and golden deedy. Oswald tried to pull the leeches off, but they wouldn't, and Denny howled so he had to stop trying. He remembered from the Magnet Stories how to make the leeches begin biting—the girl did it with cream—but he could not remember how to stop them, and they had not wanted any showing how to begin.
'Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do? Oh, it does hurt! Oh, oh!' Denny observed, and Oswald said—
'Be a man! Buck up! If you won't let me take them off you'll just have to walk home in them.'
At this thought the unfortunate youth's tears fell fast. But Oswald gave him an arm, and carried his boots for him, and he consented to buck up, and the two struggled on towards the others, who were coming back, attracted by Denny's yells. He did not stop howling for a moment, except to breathe. No one ought to blame him till they have had eleven leeches on their right leg and six on their left, making seventeen in all, as Dicky said, at once.
It was lucky he did yell, as it turned out, because a man on the road—where the telegraph wires were—was interested by his howls, and came across the marsh to us as hard as he could. When he saw Denny's legs he said—
'Blest if I didn't think so,' and he picked Denny up and carried him under one arm, where Denny went on saying 'Oh!' and 'It does hurt' as hard as ever.
Our rescuer, who proved to be a fine big young man in the bloom of youth, and a farm-labourer by trade, in corduroys, carried the wretched sufferer to the cottage where he lived with his aged mother; and then Oswald found that what he had forgotten about the leeches was SALT. The young man in the bloom of youth's mother put salt on the leeches, and they squirmed off, and fell with sickening, slug-like flops on the brick floor.
Then the young man in corduroys and the bloom, etc., carried Denny home on his back, after his legs had been bandaged up, so that he looked like 'wounded warriors returning'.
It was not far by the road, though such a long distance by the way the young explorers had come.
He was a good young man, and though, of course, acts of goodness are their own reward, still I was glad he had the two half-crowns Albert's uncle gave him, as well as his own good act. But I am not sure Alice ought to have put him in the Golden Deed book which was supposed to be reserved for Us.
Perhaps you will think this was the end of the source of the Nile (or North Pole). If you do, it only shows how mistaken the gentlest reader may be.
The wounded explorer was lying with his wounds and bandages on the sofa, and we were all having our tea, with raspberries and white currants, which we richly needed after our torrid adventures, when Mrs Pettigrew, the housekeeper, put her head in at the door and said—
'Please could I speak to you half a moment, sir?' to Albert's uncle. And her voice was the kind that makes you look at each other when the grown-up has gone out, and you are silent, with your bread-and-butter halfway to the next bite, or your teacup in mid flight to your lips.
It was as we suppose. Albert's uncle did not come back for a long while. We did not keep the bread-and-butter on the wing all that time, of course, and we thought we might as well finish the raspberries and white currants. We kept some for Albert's uncle, of course, and they were the best ones too but when he came back he did not notice our thoughtful unselfishness.
He came in, and his face wore the look that means bed, and very likely no supper.
He spoke, and it was the calmness of white-hot iron, which is something like the calmness of despair. He said—
'You have done it again. What on earth possessed you to make a dam?'
'We were being beavers,' said H. O., in proud tones. He did not see as we did where Albert's uncle's tone pointed to.
'No doubt,' said Albert's uncle, rubbing his hands through his hair. 'No doubt! no doubt! Well, my beavers, you may go and build dams with your bolsters. Your dam stopped the stream; the clay you took for it left a channel through which it has run down and ruined about seven pounds' worth of freshly-reaped barley. Luckily the farmer found it out in time or you might have spoiled seventy pounds' worth. And you burned a bridge yesterday.'
We said we were sorry. There was nothing else to say, only Alice added, 'We didn't MEAN to be naughty.'
'Of course not,' said Albert's uncle, 'you never do. Oh, yes, I'll kiss you—but it's bed and it's two hundred lines to-morrow, and the line is—"Beware of Being Beavers and Burning Bridges. Dread Dams." It will be a capital exercise in capital B's and D's.'
We knew by that that, though annoyed, he was not furious; we went to bed.
I got jolly sick of capital B's and D's before sunset on the morrow. That night, just as the others were falling asleep, Oswald said—
'Well,' retorted his brother.
'There is one thing about it,' Oswald went on, 'it does show it was a rattling good dam anyhow.'
And filled with this agreeable thought, the weary beavers (or explorers, Polar or otherwise) fell asleep.
CHAPTER 8. THE HIGH-BORN BABE
It really was not such a bad baby—for a baby. Its face was round and quite clean, which babies' faces are not always, as I daresay you know by your own youthful relatives; and Dora said its cape was trimmed with real lace, whatever that may be—I don't see myself how one kind of lace can be realler than another. It was in a very swagger sort of perambulator when we saw it; and the perambulator was standing quite by itself in the lane that leads to the mill.
'I wonder whose baby it is,' Dora said. 'Isn't it a darling, Alice?'
Alice agreed to its being one, and said she thought it was most likely the child of noble parents stolen by gipsies.
'These two, as likely as not,' Noel said. 'Can't you see something crime-like in the very way they're lying?'
They were two tramps, and they were lying on the grass at the edge of the lane on the shady side fast asleep, only a very little further on than where the Baby was. They were very ragged, and their snores did have a sinister sound.
'I expect they stole the titled heir at dead of night, and they've been travelling hot-foot ever since, so now they're sleeping the sleep of exhaustedness,' Alice said. 'What a heart-rending scene when the patrician mother wakes in the morning and finds the infant aristocrat isn't in bed with his mamma.'
The Baby was fast asleep or else the girls would have kissed it. They are strangely fond of kissing. The author never could see anything in it himself.
'If the gipsies DID steal it,' Dora said 'perhaps they'd sell it to us. I wonder what they'd take for it.'
'What could you do with it if you'd got it?' H. O. asked.
'Why, adopt it, of course,' Dora said. 'I've often thought I should enjoy adopting a baby. It would be a golden deed, too. We've hardly got any in the book yet.'
'I should have thought there were enough of us,' Dicky said.
'Ah, but you're none of you babies,' said Dora.
'Unless you count H. O. as a baby: he behaves jolly like one sometimes.'
This was because of what had happened that morning when Dicky found H. O. going fishing with a box of worms, and the box was the one Dicky keeps his silver studs in, and the medal he got at school, and what is left of his watch and chain. The box is lined with red velvet and it was not nice afterwards. And then H. O. said Dicky had hurt him, and he was a beastly bully, and he cried. We thought all this had been made up, and were sorry to see it threaten to break out again. So Oswald said—
'Oh, bother the Baby! Come along, do!'
And the others came.
We were going to the miller's with a message about some flour that hadn't come, and about a sack of sharps for the pigs.
After you go down the lane you come to a clover-field, and then a cornfield, and then another lane, and then it is the mill. It is a jolly fine mill: in fact it is two—water and wind ones—one of each kind—with a house and farm buildings as well. I never saw a mill like it, and I don't believe you have either.
If we had been in a story-book the miller's wife would have taken us into the neat sanded kitchen where the old oak settle was black with time and rubbing, and dusted chairs for us—old brown Windsor chairs—and given us each a glass of sweet-scented cowslip wine and a thick slice of rich home-made cake. And there would have been fresh roses in an old china bowl on the table. As it was, she asked us all into the parlour and gave us Eiffel Tower lemonade and Marie biscuits. The chairs in her parlour were 'bent wood', and no flowers, except some wax ones under a glass shade, but she was very kind, and we were very much obliged to her. We got out to the miller, though, as soon as we could; only Dora and Daisy stayed with her, and she talked to them about her lodgers and about her relations in London.
The miller is a MAN. He showed us all over the mills—both kinds—and let us go right up into the very top of the wind-mill, and showed us how the top moved round so that the sails could catch the wind, and the great heaps of corn, some red and some yellow (the red is English wheat), and the heaps slice down a little bit at a time into a square hole and go down to the mill-stones. The corn makes a rustling soft noise that is very jolly—something like the noise of the sea—and you can hear it through all the other mill noises.
Then the miller let us go all over the water-mill. It is fairy palaces inside a mill. Everything is powdered over white, like sugar on pancakes when you are allowed to help yourself. And he opened a door and showed us the great water-wheel working on slow and sure, like some great, round, dripping giant, Noel said, and then he asked us if we fished.
'Yes,' was our immediate reply.
'Then why not try the mill-pool?' he said, and we replied politely; and when he was gone to tell his man something we owned to each other that he was a trump.
He did the thing thoroughly. He took us out and cut us ash saplings for rods; he found us in lines and hooks, and several different sorts of bait, including a handsome handful of meal-worms, which Oswald put loose in his pocket.
When it came to bait, Alice said she was going home with Dora and Daisy. Girls are strange, mysterious, silly things. Alice always enjoys a rat hunt until the rat is caught, but she hates fishing from beginning to end. We boys have got to like it. We don't feel now as we did when we turned off the water and stopped the competition of the competing anglers. We had a grand day's fishing that day. I can't think what made the miller so kind to us. Perhaps he felt a thrill of fellow-feeling in his manly breast for his fellow-sportsmen, for he was a noble fisherman himself.
We had glorious sport—eight roach, six dace, three eels, seven perch, and a young pike, but he was so very young the miller asked us to put him back, and of course we did. 'He'll live to bite another day,' said the miller.
The miller's wife gave us bread and cheese and more Eiffel Tower lemonade, and we went home at last, a little damp, but full of successful ambition, with our fish on a string.
It had been a strikingly good time—one of those times that happen in the country quite by themselves. Country people are much more friendly than town people. I suppose they don't have to spread their friendly feelings out over so many persons, so it's thicker, like a pound of butter on one loaf is thicker than on a dozen. Friendliness in the country is not scrape, like it is in London. Even Dicky and H. O. forgot the affair of honour that had taken place in the morning. H. O. changed rods with Dicky because H. O.'s was the best rod, and Dicky baited H. O.'s hook for him, just like loving, unselfish brothers in Sunday School magazines.
We were talking fishlikely as we went along down the lane and through the cornfield and the cloverfield, and then we came to the other lane where we had seen the Baby. The tramps were gone, and the perambulator was gone, and, of course, the Baby was gone too.
'I wonder if those gipsies HAD stolen the Baby?' Noel said dreamily. He had not fished much, but he had made a piece of poetry. It was this:
'How I wish I was a fish. I would not look At your hook, But lie still and be cool At the bottom of the pool And when you went to look At your cruel hook, You would not find me there, So there!'
'If they did steal the Baby,' Noel went on, 'they will be tracked by the lordly perambulator. You can disguise a baby in rags and walnut juice, but there isn't any disguise dark enough to conceal a perambulator's person.'
'You might disguise it as a wheel-barrow,' said Dicky.
'Or cover it with leaves,' said H. O., 'like the robins.'
We told him to shut up and not gibber, but afterwards we had to own that even a young brother may sometimes talk sense by accident.
For we took the short cut home from the lane—it begins with a large gap in the hedge and the grass and weeds trodden down by the hasty feet of persons who were late for church and in too great a hurry to go round by the road. Our house is next to the church, as I think I have said before, some time.
The short cut leads to a stile at the edge of a bit of wood (the Parson's Shave, they call it, because it belongs to him). The wood has not been shaved for some time, and it has grown out beyond the stile and here, among the hazels and chestnuts and young dogwood bushes, we saw something white. We felt it was our duty to investigate, even if the white was only the under side of the tail of a dead rabbit caught in a trap.
It was not—it was part of the perambulator. I forget whether I said that the perambulator was enamelled white—not the kind of enamelling you do at home with Aspinall's and the hairs of the brush come out and it is gritty-looking, but smooth, like the handles of ladies very best lace parasols. And whoever had abandoned the helpless perambulator in that lonely spot had done exactly as H. O. said, and covered it with leaves, only they were green and some of them had dropped off.
The others were wild with excitement. Now or never, they thought, was a chance to be real detectives. Oswald alone retained a calm exterior. It was he who would not go straight to the police station.
He said: 'Let's try and ferret out something for ourselves before we tell the police. They always have a clue directly they hear about the finding of the body. And besides, we might as well let Alice be in anything there is going. And besides, we haven't had our dinners yet.'
This argument of Oswald's was so strong and powerful—his arguments are often that, as I daresay you have noticed—that the others agreed. It was Oswald, too, who showed his artless brothers why they had much better not take the deserted perambulator home with them.
'The dead body, or whatever the clue is, is always left exactly as it is found,' he said, 'till the police have seen it, and the coroner, and the inquest, and the doctor, and the sorrowing relations. Besides, suppose someone saw us with the beastly thing, and thought we had stolen it; then they would say, "What have you done with the Baby?" and then where should we be?' Oswald's brothers could not answer this question, but once more Oswald's native eloquence and far-seeing discerningness conquered.
'Anyway,' Dicky said, 'let's shove the derelict a little further under cover.'
So we did.
Then we went on home. Dinner was ready and so were Alice and Daisy, but Dora was not there.
'She's got a—well, she's not coming to dinner anyway,' Alice said when we asked. 'She can tell you herself afterwards what it is she's got.'
Oswald thought it was headache, or pain in the temper, or in the pinafore, so he said no more, but as soon as Mrs Pettigrew had helped us and left the room he began the thrilling tale of the forsaken perambulator. He told it with the greatest thrillingness anyone could have, but Daisy and Alice seemed almost unmoved. Alice said—
'Yes, very strange,' and things like that, but both the girls seemed to be thinking of something else. They kept looking at each other and trying not to laugh, so Oswald saw they had got some silly secret and he said—
'Oh, all right! I don't care about telling you. I only thought you'd like to be in it. It's going to be a really big thing, with policemen in it, and perhaps a judge.'
'In what?' H. O. said; 'the perambulator?'
Daisy choked and then tried to drink, and spluttered and got purple, and had to be thumped on the back. But Oswald was not appeased. When Alice said, 'Do go on, Oswald. I'm sure we all like it very much,' he said—
'Oh, no, thank you,' very politely. 'As it happens,' he went on, 'I'd just as soon go through with this thing without having any girls in it.'
'In the perambulator?' said H. O. again.
'It's a man's job,' Oswald went on, without taking any notice of H. O.
'Do you really think so,' said Alice, 'when there's a baby in it?'
'But there isn't,' said H. O., 'if you mean in the perambulator.'
'Blow you and your perambulator,' said Oswald, with gloomy forbearance.
Alice kicked Oswald under the table and said—
'Don't be waxy, Oswald. Really and truly Daisy and I HAVE got a secret, only it's Dora's secret, and she wants to tell you herself. If it was mine or Daisy's we'd tell you this minute, wouldn't we, Mouse?'
'This very second,' said the White Mouse.
And Oswald consented to take their apologies.
Then the pudding came in, and no more was said except asking for things to be passed—sugar and water, and bread and things.
Then when the pudding was all gone, Alice said—
And we came on. We did not want to be disagreeable, though really we were keen on being detectives and sifting that perambulator to the very dregs. But boys have to try to take an interest in their sisters' secrets, however silly. This is part of being a good brother.
Alice led us across the field where the sheep once fell into the brook, and across the brook by the plank. At the other end of the next field there was a sort of wooden house on wheels, that the shepherd sleeps in at the time of year when lambs are being born, so that he can see that they are not stolen by gipsies before the owners have counted them.
To this hut Alice now led her kind brothers and Daisy's kind brother. 'Dora is inside,' she said, 'with the Secret. We were afraid to have it in the house in case it made a noise.'
The next moment the Secret was a secret no longer, for we all beheld Dora, sitting on a sack on the floor of the hut, with the Secret in her lap.
It was the High-born Babe!
Oswald was so overcome that he sat down suddenly, just like Betsy Trotwood did in David Copperfield, which just shows what a true author Dickens is.
'You've done it this time,' he said. 'I suppose you know you're a baby-stealer?'
'I'm not,' Dora said. 'I've adopted him.'
'Then it was you,' Dicky said, 'who scuttled the perambulator in the wood?'
'Yes,' Alice said; 'we couldn't get it over the stile unless Dora put down the Baby, and we were afraid of the nettles for his legs. His name is to be Lord Edward.'
'But, Dora—really, don't you think—'
'If you'd been there you'd have done the same,' said Dora firmly. 'The gipsies had gone. Of course something had frightened them and they fled from justice. And the little darling was awake and held out his arms to me. No, he hasn't cried a bit, and I know all about babies; I've often nursed Mrs Simpkins's daughter's baby when she brings it up on Sundays. They have bread and milk to eat. You take him, Alice, and I'll go and get some bread and milk for him.'
Alice took the noble brat. It was horribly lively, and squirmed about in her arms, and wanted to crawl on the floor. She could only keep it quiet by saying things to it a boy would be ashamed even to think of saying, such as 'Goo goo', and 'Did ums was', and 'Ickle ducksums, then'.
When Alice used these expressions the Baby laughed and chuckled and replied—
'Daddadda', 'Bababa', or 'Glueglue'.
But if Alice stopped her remarks for an instant the thing screwed its face up as if it was going to cry, but she never gave it time to begin.
It was a rummy little animal.
Then Dora came back with the bread and milk, and they fed the noble infant. It was greedy and slobbery, but all three girls seemed unable to keep their eyes and hands off it. They looked at it exactly as if it was pretty.
We boys stayed watching them. There was no amusement left for us now, for Oswald saw that Dora's Secret knocked the bottom out of the perambulator.
When the infant aristocrat had eaten a hearty meal it sat on Alice's lap and played with the amber heart she wears that Albert's uncle brought her from Hastings after the business of the bad sixpence and the nobleness of Oswald.
'Now,' said Dora, 'this is a council, so I want to be business-like. The Duckums Darling has been stolen away; its wicked stealers have deserted the Precious. We've got it. Perhaps its ancestral halls are miles and miles away. I vote we keep the little Lovey Duck till it's advertised for.'
'If Albert's uncle lets you,' said Dicky darkly.
'Oh, don't say "you" like that,' Dora said; 'I want it to be all of our baby. It will have five fathers and three mothers, and a grandfather and a great Albert's uncle, and a great grand-uncle. I'm sure Albert's uncle will let us keep it—at any rate till it's advertised for.'
'And suppose it never is,' Noel said.
'Then so much the better,' said Dora, 'the little Duckyux.'
She began kissing the baby again. Oswald, ever thoughtful, said—'Well, what about your dinner?'
'Bother dinner!' Dora said—so like a girl. 'Will you all agree to be his fathers and mothers?'
'Anything for a quiet life,' said Dicky, and Oswald said—
'Oh, yes, if you like. But you'll see we shan't be allowed to keep it.'
'You talk as if he was rabbits or white rats,' said Dora, 'and he's not—he's a little man, he is.'
'All right, he's no rabbit, but a man. Come on and get some grub, Dora,' rejoined the kind-hearted Oswald, and Dora did, with Oswald and the other boys. Only Noel stayed with Alice. He really seemed to like the baby. When I looked back he was standing on his head to amuse it, but the baby did not seem to like him any better whichever end of him was up.
Dora went back to the shepherd's house on wheels directly she had had her dinner. Mrs Pettigrew was very cross about her not being in to it, but she had kept her some mutton hot all the same. She is a decent sort. And there were stewed prunes. We had some to keep Dora company. Then we boys went fishing again in the moat, but we caught nothing.
Just before tea-time we all went back to the hut, and before we got half across the last field we could hear the howling of the Secret.
'Poor little beggar,' said Oswald, with manly tenderness. 'They must be sticking pins in it.'
We found the girls and Noel looking quite pale and breathless. Daisy was walking up and down with the Secret in her arms. It looked like Alice in Wonderland nursing the baby that turned into a pig. Oswald said so, and added that its screams were like it too.
'What on earth is the matter with it?' he said.
'I don't know,' said Alice. 'Daisy's tired, and Dora and I are quite worn out. He's been crying for hours and hours. YOU take him a bit.'
'Not me,' replied Oswald, firmly, withdrawing a pace from the Secret.
Dora was fumbling with her waistband in the furthest corner of the hut.
'I think he's cold,' she said. 'I thought I'd take off my flannelette petticoat, only the horrid strings got into a hard knot. Here, Oswald, let's have your knife.'
With the word she plunged her hand into Oswald's jacket pocket, and next moment she was rubbing her hand like mad on her dress, and screaming almost as loud as the Baby. Then she began to laugh and to cry at the same time. This is called hysterics.
Oswald was sorry, but he was annoyed too. He had forgotten that his pocket was half full of the meal-worms the miller had kindly given him. And, anyway, Dora ought to have known that a man always carries his knife in his trousers pocket and not in his jacket one.
Alice and Daisy rushed to Dora. She had thrown herself down on the pile of sacks in the corner. The titled infant delayed its screams for a moment to listen to Dora's, but almost at once it went on again.
'Oh, get some water!' said Alice. 'Daisy, run!'
The White Mouse, ever docile and obedient, shoved the baby into the arms of the nearest person, who had to take it or it would have fallen a wreck to the ground. This nearest person was Oswald. He tried to pass it on to the others, but they wouldn't. Noel would have, but he was busy kissing Dora and begging her not to. So our hero, for such I may perhaps term him, found himself the degraded nursemaid of a small but furious kid.
He was afraid to lay it down, for fear in its rage it should beat its brains out against the hard earth, and he did not wish, however innocently, to be the cause of its hurting itself at all. So he walked earnestly up and down with it, thumping it unceasingly on the back, while the others attended to Dora, who presently ceased to yell.
Suddenly it struck Oswald that the High-born also had ceased to yell. He looked at it, and could hardly believe the glad tidings of his faithful eyes. With bated breath he hastened back to the sheep-house.
The others turned on him, full of reproaches about the meal-worms and Dora, but he answered without anger.
'Shut up,' he said in a whisper of imperial command. 'Can't you see it's GONE TO SLEEP?'
As exhausted as if they had all taken part in all the events of a very long Athletic Sports, the youthful Bastables and their friends dragged their weary limbs back across the fields. Oswald was compelled to go on holding the titled infant, for fear it should wake up if it changed hands, and begin to yell again. Dora's flannelette petticoat had been got off somehow—how I do not seek to inquire—and the Secret was covered with it. The others surrounded Oswald as much as possible, with a view to concealment if we met Mrs Pettigrew. But the coast was clear. Oswald took the Secret up into his bedroom. Mrs Pettigrew doesn't come there much, it's too many stairs.
With breathless precaution Oswald laid it down on his bed. It sighed, but did not wake. Then we took it in turns to sit by it and see that it did not get up and fling itself out of bed, which, in one of its furious fits, it would just as soon have done as not.
We expected Albert's uncle every minute.
At last we heard the gate, but he did not come in, so we looked out and saw that there he was talking to a distracted-looking man on a piebald horse—one of the miller's horses.
A shiver of doubt coursed through our veins. We could not remember having done anything wrong at the miller's. But you never know. And it seemed strange his sending a man up on his own horse. But when we had looked a bit longer our fears went down and our curiosity got up. For we saw that the distracted one was a gentleman.
Presently he rode off, and Albert's uncle came in. A deputation met him at the door—all the boys and Dora, because the baby was her idea.
'We've found something,' Dora said, 'and we want to know whether we may keep it.'
The rest of us said nothing. We were not so very extra anxious to keep it after we had heard how much and how long it could howl. Even Noel had said he had no idea a baby could yell like it. Dora said it only cried because it was sleepy, but we reflected that it would certainly be sleepy once a day, if not oftener.
'What is it?' said Albert's uncle. 'Let's see this treasure-trove. Is it a wild beast?'
'Come and see,' said Dora, and we led him to our room.
Alice turned down the pink flannelette petticoat with silly pride, and showed the youthful heir fatly and pinkly sleeping.
'A baby!' said Albert's uncle. 'THE Baby! Oh, my cat's alive!'
That is an expression which he uses to express despair unmixed with anger.
'Where did you?—but that doesn't matter. We'll talk of this later.'
He rushed from the room, and in a moment or two we saw him mount his bicycle and ride off.
Quite shortly he returned with the distracted horse-man.
It was HIS baby, and not titled at all. The horseman and his wife were the lodgers at the mill. The nursemaid was a girl from the village.
She SAID she only left the Baby five minutes while she went to speak to her sweetheart who was gardener at the Red House. But we knew she left it over an hour, and nearly two.
I never saw anyone so pleased as the distracted horseman.
When we were asked we explained about having thought the Baby was the prey of gipsies, and the distracted horseman stood hugging the Baby, and actually thanked us.
But when he had gone we had a brief lecture on minding our own business. But Dora still thinks she was right. As for Oswald and most of the others, they agreed that they would rather mind their own business all their lives than mind a baby for a single hour.
If you have never had to do with a baby in the frenzied throes of sleepiness you can have no idea what its screams are like.
If you have been through such a scene you will understand how we managed to bear up under having no baby to adopt. Oswald insisted on having the whole thing written in the Golden Deed book. Of course his share could not be put in without telling about Dora's generous adopting of the forlorn infant outcast, and Oswald could not and cannot forget that he was the one who did get that baby to sleep.
What a time Mr and Mrs Distracted Horseman must have of it, though—especially now they've sacked the nursemaid.
If Oswald is ever married—I suppose he must be some day—he will have ten nurses to each baby. Eight is not enough. We know that because we tried, and the whole eight of us were not enough for the needs of that deserted infant who was not so extra high-born after all.
CHAPTER 9. HUNTING THE FOX
It is idle to expect everyone to know everything in the world without being told. If we had been brought up in the country we should have known that it is not done—to hunt the fox in August. But in the Lewisham Road the most observing boy does not notice the dates when it is proper to hunt foxes.
And there are some things you cannot bear to think that anybody would think you would do; that is why I wish to say plainly at the very beginning that none of us would have shot a fox on purpose even to save our skins. Of course, if a man were at bay in a cave, and had to defend girls from the simultaneous attack of a herd of savage foxes it would be different. A man is bound to protect girls and take care of them—they can jolly well take care of themselves really it seems to me—still, this is what Albert's uncle calls one of the 'rules of the game', so we are bound to defend them and fight for them to the death, if needful. Denny knows a quotation which says—
'What dire offence from harmless causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trefoil things.'
He says this means that all great events come from three things—threefold, like the clover or trefoil, and the causes are always harmless. Trefoil is short for threefold.
There were certainly three things that led up to the adventure which is now going to be told you. The first was our Indian uncle coming down to the country to see us. The second was Denny's tooth. The third was only our wanting to go hunting; but if you count it in it makes the thing about the trefoil come right. And all these causes were harmless.
It is a flattering thing to say, and it was not Oswald who said it, but Dora. She said she was certain our uncle missed us, and that he felt he could no longer live without seeing his dear ones (that was us).
Anyway, he came down, without warning, which is one of the few bad habits that excellent Indian man has, and this habit has ended in unpleasantness more than once, as when we played jungles.
However, this time it was all right. He came on rather a dull kind of day, when no one had thought of anything particularly amusing to do. So that, as it happened to be dinner-time and we had just washed our hands and faces, we were all spotlessly clean (com-pared with what we are sometimes, I mean, of course).
We were just sitting down to dinner, and Albert's uncle was just plunging the knife into the hot heart of the steak pudding, when there was the rumble of wheels, and the station fly stopped at the garden gate. And in the fly, sitting very upright, with his hands on his knees, was our Indian relative so much beloved. He looked very smart, with a rose in his buttonhole. How different from what he looked in other days when he helped us to pretend that our currant pudding was a wild boar we were killing with our forks. Yet, though tidier, his heart still beat kind and true. You should not judge people harshly because their clothes are tidy. He had dinner with us, and then we showed him round the place, and told him everything we thought he would like to hear, and about the Tower of Mystery, and he said—
'It makes my blood boil to think of it.'
Noel said he was sorry for that, because everyone else we had told it to had owned, when we asked them, that it froze their blood.
'Ah,' said the Uncle, 'but in India we learn how to freeze our blood and boil it at the same time.'
In those hot longitudes, perhaps, the blood is always near boiling-point, which accounts for Indian tempers, though not for the curry and pepper they eat. But I must not wander; there is no curry at all in this story. About temper I will not say.
Then Uncle let us all go with him to the station when the fly came back for him; and when we said good-bye he tipped us all half a quid, without any insidious distinctions about age or considering whether you were a boy or a girl. Our Indian uncle is a true-born Briton, with no nonsense about him.
We cheered him like one man as the train went off, and then we offered the fly-driver a shilling to take us back to the four cross-roads, and the grateful creature did it for nothing because, he said, the gent had tipped him something like. How scarce is true gratitude! So we cheered the driver too for this rare virtue, and then went home to talk about what we should do with our money. I cannot tell you all that we did with it, because money melts away 'like snow-wreaths in thaw-jean', as Denny says, and somehow the more you have the more quickly it melts. We all went into Maidstone, and came back with the most beautiful lot of brown-paper parcels, with things inside that supplied long-felt wants. But none of them belongs to this narration, except what Oswald and Denny clubbed to buy.
This was a pistol, and it took all the money they both had, but when Oswald felt the uncomfortable inside sensation that reminds you who it is and his money that are soon parted he said to himself—
'I don't care. We ought to have a pistol in the house, and one that will go off, too—not those rotten flintlocks. Suppose there should be burglars and us totally unarmed?'
We took it in turns to have the pistol, and we decided always to practise with it far from the house, so as not to frighten the grown-ups, who are always much nervouser about firearms than we are.
It was Denny's idea getting it; and Oswald owns it surprised him, but the boy was much changed in his character. We got it while the others were grubbing at the pastry-cook's in the High Street, and we said nothing till after tea, though it was hard not to fire at the birds on the telegraph wires as we came home in the train.
After tea we called a council in the straw-loft, and Oswald said—
'Denny and I have got a secret.'
'I know what it is,' Dicky said contemptibly. 'You've found out that shop in Maidstone where peppermint rock is four ounces a penny. H. O. and I found it out before you did.'
Oswald said, 'You shut-up. If you don't want to hear the secret you'd better bunk. I'm going to administer the secret oath.'
This is a very solemn oath, and only used about real things, and never for pretending ones, so Dicky said—
'Oh, all right; go ahead! I thought you were only rotting.'
So they all took the secret oath. Noel made it up long before, when he had found the first thrush's nest we ever saw in the Blackheath garden:
'I will not tell, I will not reveal, I will not touch, or try to steal; And may I be called a beastly sneak, If this great secret I ever repeat.'
It is a little wrong about the poetry, but it is a very binding promise. They all repeated it, down to H. O.
'Now then,' Dicky said, 'what's up?'
Oswald, in proud silence, drew the pistol from his breast and held it out, and there was a murmur of awful amazement and respect from every one of the council. The pistol was not loaded, so we let even the girls have it to look at. And then Dicky said, 'Let's go hunting.'
And we decided that we would. H. O. wanted to go down to the village and get penny horns at the shop for the huntsmen to wind, like in the song, but we thought it would be more modest not to wind horns or anything noisy, at any rate not until we had run down our prey. But his talking of the song made us decide that it was the fox we wanted to hunt. We had not been particular which animal we hunted before that.
Oswald let Denny have first go with the pistol, and when we went to bed he slept with it under his pillow, but not loaded, for fear he should have a nightmare and draw his fell weapon before he was properly awake.
Oswald let Denny have it, because Denny had toothache, and a pistol is consoling though it does not actually stop the pain of the tooth. The toothache got worse, and Albert's uncle looked at it, and said it was very loose, and Denny owned he had tried to crack a peach-stone with it. Which accounts. He had creosote and camphor, and went to bed early, with his tooth tied up in red flannel.
Oswald knows it is right to be very kind when people are ill, and he forbore to wake the sufferer next morning by buzzing a pillow at him, as he generally does. He got up and went over to shake the invalid, but the bird had flown and the nest was cold. The pistol was not in the nest either, but Oswald found it afterwards under the looking-glass on the dressing-table. He had just awakened the others (with a hair-brush because they had not got anything the matter with their teeth), when he heard wheels, and, looking out, beheld Denny and Albert's uncle being driven from the door in the farmer's high cart with the red wheels.
We dressed extra quick, so as to get downstairs to the bottom of the mystery. And we found a note from Albert's uncle. It was addressed to Dora, and said—
'Denny's toothache got him up in the small hours. He's off to the dentist to have it out with him, man to man. Home to dinner.'
Dora said, 'Denny's gone to the dentist.'
'I expect it's a relation,' H. O. said. 'Denny must be short for Dentist.'
I suppose he was trying to be funny—he really does try very hard. He wants to be a clown when he grows up. The others laughed.
'I wonder,' said Dicky, 'whether he'll get a shilling or half-a-crown for it.'
Oswald had been meditating in gloomy silence, now he cheered up and said—
'Of course! I'd forgotten that. He'll get his tooth money, and the drive too. So it's quite fair for us to have the fox-hunt while he's gone. I was thinking we should have to put it off.'
The others agreed that it would not be unfair.
'We can have another one another time if he wants to,' Oswald said.
We know foxes are hunted in red coats and on horseback—but we could not do this—but H. O. had the old red football jersey that was Albert's uncle's when he was at Loretto. He was pleased.
'But I do wish we'd had horns,' he said grievingly. 'I should have liked to wind the horn.'
'We can pretend horns,' Dora said; but he answered, 'I didn't want to pretend. I wanted to wind something.'
'Wind your watch,' Dicky said. And that was unkind, because we all know H. O.'s watch is broken, and when you wind it, it only rattles inside without going in the least.
We did not bother to dress up much for the hunting expedition—just cocked hats and lath swords; and we tied a card on to H. O.'s chest with 'Moat House Fox-Hunters' on it; and we tied red flannel round all the dogs' necks to show they were fox-hounds. Yet it did not seem to show it plainly; somehow it made them look as if they were not fox-hounds, but their own natural breeds—only with sore throats.
Oswald slipped the pistol and a few cartridges into his pocket. He knew, of course, that foxes are not shot; but as he said—
'Who knows whether we may not meet a bear or a crocodile.'
We set off gaily. Across the orchard and through two cornfields, and along the hedge of another field, and so we got into the wood, through a gap we had happened to make a day or two before, playing 'follow my leader'.
The wood was very quiet and green; the dogs were happy and most busy. Once Pincher started a rabbit. We said, 'View Halloo!' and immediately started in pursuit; but the rabbit went and hid, so that even Pincher could not find him, and we went on. But we saw no foxes. So at last we made Dicky be a fox, and chased him down the green rides. A wide walk in a wood is called a ride, even if people never do anything but walk in it.
We had only three hounds—Lady, Pincher and Martha—so we joined the glad throng and were being hounds as hard as we could, when we suddenly came barking round a corner in full chase and stopped short, for we saw that our fox had stayed his hasty flight. The fox was stooping over something reddish that lay beside the path, and he cried—
'I say, look here!' in tones that thrilled us throughout.
Our fox—whom we must now call Dicky, so as not to muddle the narration—pointed to the reddy thing that the dogs were sniffing at.
'It's a real live fox,' he said. And so it was. At least it was real—only it was quite dead—and when Oswald lifted it up its head was bleeding. It had evidently been shot through the brain and expired instantly. Oswald explained this to the girls when they began to cry at the sight of the poor beast; I do not say he did not feel a bit sorry himself.
The fox was cold, but its fur was so pretty, and its tail and its little feet. Dicky strung the dogs on the leash; they were so much interested we thought it was better.
'It does seem horrid to think it'll never see again out of its poor little eyes,' Dora said, blowing her nose.
'And never run about through the wood again, lend me your hanky, Dora' said Alice.
'And never be hunted or get into a hen-roost or a trap or anything exciting, poor little thing,' said Dicky.
The girls began to pick green chestnut leaves to cover up the poor fox's fatal wound, and Noel began to walk up and down making faces, the way he always does when he's making poetry. He cannot make one without the other. It works both ways, which is a comfort.
'What are we going to do now?' H. O. said; 'the huntsman ought to cut off its tail, I'm quite certain. Only, I've broken the big blade of my knife, and the other never was any good.'
The girls gave H. O. a shove, and even Oswald said, 'Shut up', for somehow we all felt we did not want to play fox-hunting any more that day. When his deadly wound was covered the fox hardly looked dead at all.
'Oh, I wish it wasn't true!' Alice said.
Daisy had been crying all the time, and now she said, 'I should like to pray God to make it not true.'
But Dora kissed her, and told her that was no good—only she might pray God to take care of the fox's poor little babies, if it had had any, which I believe she has done ever since.
'If only we could wake up and find it was a horrid dream,' Alice said.
It seems silly that we should have cared so much when we had really set out to hunt foxes with dogs, but it is true. The fox's feet looked so helpless. And there was a dusty mark on its side that I know would not have been there if it had been alive and able to wash itself.
Noel now said, 'This is the piece of poetry':
'Here lies poor Reynard who is slain, He will not come to life again. I never will the huntsman's horn Wind since the day that I was born Until the day I die— For I don't like hunting, and this is why.'
'Let's have a funeral,' said H. O. This pleased everybody, and we got Dora to take off her petticoat to wrap the fox in, so that we could carry it to our garden and bury it without bloodying our jackets. Girls' clothes are silly in one way, but I think they are useful too. A boy cannot take off more than his jacket and waistcoat in any emergency, or he is at once entirely undressed. But I have known Dora take off two petticoats for useful purposes and look just the same outside afterwards.
We boys took it in turns to carry the fox. It was very heavy. When we got near the edge of the wood Noel said—
'It would be better to bury it here, where the leaves can talk funeral songs over its grave for ever, and the other foxes can come and cry if they want to.' He dumped the fox down on the moss under a young oak tree as he spoke.
'If Dicky fetched the spade and fork we could bury it here, and then he could tie up the dogs at the same time.'
'You're sick of carrying it,' Dicky remarked, 'that's what it is.' But he went on condition the rest of us boys went too.
While we were gone the girls dragged the fox to the edge of the wood; it was a different edge to the one we went in by—close to a lane—and while they waited for the digging or fatigue party to come back, they collected a lot of moss and green things to make the fox's long home soft for it to lie in. There are no flowers in the woods in August, which is a pity.
When we got back with the spade and fork we dug a hole to bury the fox in. We did not bring the dogs back, because they were too interested in the funeral to behave with real, respectable calmness.
The ground was loose and soft and easy to dig when we had scraped away the broken bits of sticks and the dead leaves and the wild honeysuckle; Oswald used the fork and Dicky had the spade. Noel made faces and poetry—he was struck so that morning—and the girls sat stroking the clean parts of the fox's fur till the grave was deep enough. At last it was; then Daisy threw in the leaves and grass, and Alice and Dora took the poor dead fox by his two ends and we helped to put him in the grave. We could not lower him slowly—he was dropped in, really. Then we covered the furry body with leaves, and Noel said the Burial Ode he had made up. He says this was it, but it sounds better now than it did then, so I think he must have done something to it since:
THE FOX'S BURIAL ODE
'Dear Fox, sleep here, and do not wake, We picked these leaves for your sake You must not try to rise or move, We give you this with our love. Close by the wood where once you grew Your mourning friends have buried you. If you had lived you'd not have been (Been proper friends with us, I mean), But now you're laid upon the shelf, Poor fox, you cannot help yourself, So, as I say, we are your loving friends—And here your Burial Ode, dear Foxy, ends. P. S.—When in the moonlight bright The foxes wander of a night, They'll pass your grave and fondly think of you, Exactly like we mean to always do. So now, dear fox, adieu! Your friends are few But true To you. Adieu!'
When this had been said we filled in the grave and covered the top of it with dry leaves and sticks to make it look like the rest of the wood. People might think it was a treasure, and dig it up, if they thought there was anything buried there, and we wished the poor fox to sleep sound and not to be disturbed.
The interring was over. We folded up Dora's bloodstained pink cotton petticoat, and turned to leave the sad spot.
We had not gone a dozen yards down the lane when we heard footsteps and a whistle behind us, and a scrabbling and whining, and a gentleman with two fox-terriers had called a halt just by the place where we had laid low the 'little red rover'.
The gentleman stood in the lane, but the dogs were digging—we could see their tails wagging and see the dust fly. And we SAW WHERE. We ran back.
'Oh, please, do stop your dogs digging there!' Alice said.
The gentleman said 'Why?'
'Because we've just had a funeral, and that's the grave.'
The gentleman whistled, but the fox-terriers were not trained like Pincher, who was brought up by Oswald. The gentleman took a stride through the hedge gap.
'What have you been burying—pet dicky bird, eh?' said the gentleman, kindly. He had riding breeches and white whiskers.
We did not answer, because now, for the first time, it came over all of us, in a rush of blushes and uncomfortableness, that burying a fox is a suspicious act. I don't know why we felt this, but we did.
Noel said dreamily—
'We found his murdered body in the wood, And dug a grave by which the mourners stood.'
But no one heard him except Oswald, because Alice and Dora and Daisy were all jumping about with the jumps of unrestrained anguish, and saying, 'Oh, call them off! Do! do!—oh, don't, don't! Don't let them dig.'
Alas! Oswald was, as usual, right. The ground of the grave had not been trampled down hard enough, and he had said so plainly at the time, but his prudent counsels had been overruled. Now these busy-bodying, meddling, mischief-making fox-terriers (how different from Pincher, who minds his own business unless told otherwise) had scratched away the earth and laid bare the reddish tip of the poor corpse's tail.
We all turned to go without a word, it seemed to be no use staying any longer.
But in a moment the gentleman with the whiskers had got Noel and Dicky each by an ear—they were nearest him. H. O. hid in the hedge. Oswald, to whose noble breast sneakishness is, I am thankful to say, a stranger, would have scorned to escape, but he ordered his sisters to bunk in a tone of command which made refusal impossible.
'And bunk sharp, too' he added sternly. 'Cut along home.'
So they cut. The white-whiskered gentleman now encouraged his angry fox-terriers, by every means at his command, to continue their vile and degrading occupation; holding on all the time to the ears of Dicky and Noel, who scorned to ask for mercy. Dicky got purple and Noel got white. It was Oswald who said—
'Don't hang on to them, sir. We won't cut. I give you my word of honour.'
'YOUR word of honour,' said the gentleman, in tones for which, in happier days, when people drew their bright blades and fought duels, I would have had his heart's dearest blood. But now Oswald remained calm and polite as ever.
'Yes, on my honour,' he said, and the gentleman dropped the ears of Oswald's brothers at the sound of his firm, unswerving tones. He dropped the ears and pulled out the body of the fox and held it up.
The dogs jumped up and yelled.
'Now,' he said, 'you talk very big about words of honour. Can you speak the truth?'
Dickie said, 'If you think we shot it, you're wrong. We know better than that.'
The white-whiskered one turned suddenly to H. O. and pulled him out of the hedge.
'And what does that mean?' he said, and he was pink with fury to the ends of his large ears, as he pointed to the card on H. O.'s breast, which said, 'Moat House Fox-Hunters'.
Then Oswald said, 'We WERE playing at fox-hunting, but we couldn't find anything but a rabbit that hid, so my brother was being the fox; and then we found the fox shot dead, and I don't know who did it; and we were sorry for it and we buried it—and that's all.'
'Not quite,' said the riding-breeches gentleman, with what I think you call a bitter smile, 'not quite. This is my land and I'll have you up for trespass and damage. Come along now, no nonsense! I'm a magistrate and I'm Master of the Hounds. A vixen, too! What did you shoot her with? You're too young to have a gun. Sneaked your Father's revolver, I suppose?'
Oswald thought it was better to be goldenly silent. But it was vain. The Master of the Hounds made him empty his pockets, and there was the pistol and the cartridges.
The magistrate laughed a harsh laugh of successful disagreeableness.
'All right,' said he, 'where's your licence? You come with me. A week or two in prison.'
I don't believe now he could have done it, but we all thought then he could and would, what's more.
So H. O. began to cry, but Noel spoke up. His teeth were chattering yet he spoke up like a man.
He said, 'You don't know us. You've no right not to believe us till you've found us out in a lie. We don't tell lies. You ask Albert's uncle if we do.'
'Hold your tongue,' said the White-Whiskered. But Noel's blood was up.
'If you do put us in prison without being sure,' he said, trembling more and more, 'you are a horrible tyrant like Caligula, and Herod, or Nero, and the Spanish Inquisition, and I will write a poem about it in prison, and people will curse you for ever.'
'Upon my word,' said White Whiskers. 'We'll see about that,' and he turned up the lane with the fox hanging from one hand and Noel's ear once more reposing in the other.
I thought Noel would cry or faint. But he bore up nobly—exactly like an early Christian martyr.
The rest of us came along too. I carried the spade and Dicky had the fork. H. O. had the card, and Noel had the magistrate. At the end of the lane there was Alice. She had bunked home, obeying the orders of her thoughtful brother, but she had bottled back again like a shot, so as not to be out of the scrape. She is almost worthy to be a boy for some things.
She spoke to Mr Magistrate and said—
'Where are you taking him?'
The outraged majesty of the magistrate said, 'To prison, you naughty little girl.'
Alice said, 'Noel will faint. Somebody once tried to take him to prison before—about a dog. Do please come to our house and see our uncle—at least he's not—but it's the same thing. We didn't kill the fox, if that's what you think—indeed we didn't. Oh, dear, I do wish you'd think of your own little boys and girls if you've got any, or else about when you were little. You wouldn't be so horrid if you did.'
I don't know which, if either, of these objects the fox-hound master thought of, but he said—
'Well, lead on,' and he let go Noel's ear and Alice snuggled up to Noel and put her arm round him.
It was a frightened procession, whose cheeks were pale with alarm—except those between white whiskers, and they were red—that wound in at our gate and into the hall among the old oak furniture, and black and white marble floor and things.
Dora and Daisy were at the door. The pink petticoat lay on the table, all stained with the gore of the departed. Dora looked at us all, and she saw that it was serious. She pulled out the big oak chair and said, 'Won't you sit down?' very kindly to the white-whiskered magistrate.
He grunted, but did as she said.
Then he looked about him in a silence that was not comforting, and so did we. At last he said—
'Come, you didn't try to bolt. Speak the truth, and I'll say no more.'
We said we had.
Then he laid the fox on the table, spreading out the petticoat under it, and he took out a knife and the girls hid their faces. Even Oswald did not care to look. Wounds in battle are all very well, but it's different to see a dead fox cut into with a knife.
Next moment the magistrate wiped something on his handkerchief and then laid it on the table, and put one of my cartridges beside it. It was the bullet that had killed the fox.
'Look here!' he said. And it was too true. The bullets were the same.
A thrill of despair ran through Oswald. He knows now how a hero feels when he is innocently accused of a crime and the judge is putting on the black cap, and the evidence is convulsive and all human aid is despaired of.
'I can't help it,' he said, 'we didn't kill it, and that's all there is to it.'
The white-whiskered magistrate may have been master of the fox-hounds, but he was not master of his temper, which is more important, I should think, than a lot of beastly dogs.
He said several words which Oswald would never repeat, much less in his own conversing, and besides that he called us 'obstinate little beggars'.
Then suddenly Albert's uncle entered in the midst of a silence freighted with despairing reflections. The M.F.H. got up and told his tale: it was mainly lies, or, to be more polite, it was hardly any of it true, though I supposed he believed it.
'I am very sorry, sir' said Albert's uncle, looking at the bullets.
'You'll excuse my asking for the children's version?'
'Oh, certainly, sir, certainly,' fuming, the fox-hound magistrate replied.
Then Albert's uncle said, 'Now Oswald, I know I can trust you to speak the exact truth.'
So Oswald did.
Then the white-whiskered fox-master laid the bullets before Albert's uncle, and I felt this would be a trial to his faith far worse than the rack or the thumb-screw in the days of the Armada.
And then Denny came in. He looked at the fox on the table.
'You found it, then?' he said.
The M.F.H. would have spoken but Albert's uncle said, 'One moment, Denny; you've seen this fox before?'
'Rather,' said Denny; 'I—'
But Albert's uncle said, 'Take time. Think before you speak and say the exact truth. No, don't whisper to Oswald. This boy,' he said to the injured fox-master, 'has been with me since seven this morning. His tale, whatever it is, will be independent evidence.'
But Denny would not speak, though again and again Albert's uncle told him to.
'I can't till I've asked Oswald something,' he said at last. White Whiskers said, 'That looks bad—eh?'
But Oswald said, 'Don't whisper, old chap. Ask me whatever you like, but speak up.'
So Denny said, 'I can't without breaking the secret oath.'
So then Oswald began to see, and he said, 'Break away for all you're worth, it's all right.'
And Denny said, drawing relief's deepest breath, 'Well then, Oswald and I have got a pistol—shares—and I had it last night. And when I couldn't sleep last night because of the toothache I got up and went out early this morning. And I took the pistol. And I loaded it just for fun. And down in the wood I heard a whining like a dog, and I went, and there was the poor fox caught in an iron trap with teeth. And I went to let it out and it bit me—look, here's the place—and the pistol went off and the fox died, and I am so sorry.'
'But why didn't you tell the others?'
'They weren't awake when I went to the dentist's.'
'But why didn't you tell your uncle if you've been with him all the morning?'
'It was the oath,' H. O. said—
'May I be called a beastly sneak If this great secret I ever repeat.'
White Whiskers actually grinned.
'Well,' he said, 'I see it was an accident, my boy.' Then he turned to us and said—
'I owe you an apology for doubting your word—all of you. I hope it's accepted.'
We said it was all right and he was to never mind.
But all the same we hated him for it. He tried to make up for his unbelievingness afterwards by asking Albert's uncle to shoot rabbits; but we did not really forgive him till the day when he sent the fox's brush to Alice, mounted in silver with a note about her plucky conduct in standing by her brothers.
We got a lecture about not playing with firearms, but no punishment, because our conduct had not been exactly sinful, Albert's uncle said, but merely silly.
The pistol and the cartridges were confiscated.
I hope the house will never be attacked by burglars. When it is, Albert's uncle will only have himself to thank if we are rapidly overpowered, because it will be his fault that we shall have to meet them totally unarmed, and be their almost unresisting prey.
CHAPTER 10. THE SALE OF ANTIQUITIES
It began one morning at breakfast. It was the fifteenth of August—the birthday of Napoleon the Great, Oswald Bastable, and another very nice writer. Oswald was to keep his birthday on the Saturday, so that his Father could be there. A birthday when there are only many happy returns is a little like Sunday or Christmas Eve. Oswald had a birthday-card or two—that was all; but he did not repine, because he knew they always make it up to you for putting off keeping your birthday, and he looked forward to Saturday.
Albert's uncle had a whole stack of letters as usual, and presently he tossed one over to Dora, and said, 'What do you say, little lady? Shall we let them come?'
But Dora, butter-fingered as ever, missed the catch, and Dick and Noel both had a try for it, so that the letter went into the place where the bacon had been, and where now only a frozen-looking lake of bacon fat was slowly hardening, and then somehow it got into the marmalade, and then H. O. got it, and Dora said—
'I don't want the nasty thing now—all grease and stickiness.' So H. O. read it aloud—
MAIDSTONE SOCIETY OF ANTIQUITIES AND FIELD CLUB Aug. 14, 1900
'DEAR SIR,—At a meeting of the—'
H. O. stuck fast here, and the writing was really very bad, like a spider that has been in the ink-pot crawling in a hurry over the paper without stopping to rub its feet properly on the mat. So Oswald took the letter. He is above minding a little marmalade or bacon. He began to read. It ran thus:
'It's not Antiquities, you little silly,' he said; 'it's Antiquaries.'
'The other's a very good word,' said Albert's uncle, 'and I never call names at breakfast myself—it upsets the digestion, my egregious Oswald.'
'That's a name though,' said Alice, 'and you got it out of "Stalky", too. Go on, Oswald.'
So Oswald went on where he had been interrupted:
'MAIDSTONE SOCIETY OF "ANTIQUARIES" AND FIELD CLUB
'DEAR SIR,—At a meeting of the Committee of this Society it was agreed that a field day should be held on Aug. 20, when the Society proposes to visit the interesting church of Ivybridge and also the Roman remains in the vicinity. Our president, Mr Longchamps, F.R.S., has obtained permission to open a barrow in the Three Trees pasture. We venture to ask whether you would allow the members of the Society to walk through your grounds and to inspect—from without, of course—your beautiful house, which is, as you are doubtless aware, of great historic interest, having been for some years the residence of the celebrated Sir Thomas Wyatt.—I am, dear Sir, yours faithfully,
'EDWARD K. TURNBULL (Hon. Sec.).'
'Just so,' said Albert's uncle; 'well, shall we permit the eye of the Maidstone Antiquities to profane these sacred solitudes, and the foot of the Field Club to kick up a dust on our gravel?'
'Our gravel is all grass,' H. O. said.
And the girls said, 'Oh, do let them come!' It was Alice who said—
'Why not ask them to tea? They'll be very tired coming all the way from Maidstone.'
'Would you really like it?' Albert's uncle asked. 'I'm afraid they'll be but dull dogs, the Antiquities, stuffy old gentlemen with amphorae in their buttonholes instead of orchids, and pedigrees poking out of all their pockets.'
We laughed—because we knew what an amphorae is. If you don't you might look it up in the dicker. It's not a flower, though it sounds like one out of the gardening book, the kind you never hear of anyone growing.
Dora said she thought it would be splendid.
'And we could have out the best china,' she said, 'and decorate the table with flowers. We could have tea in the garden. We've never had a party since we've been here.'
'I warn you that your guests may be boresome; however, have it your own way,' Albert's uncle said; and he went off to write the invitation to tea to the Maidstone Antiquities. I know that is the wrong word but somehow we all used it whenever we spoke of them, which was often.
In a day or two Albert's uncle came in to tea with a lightly-clouded brow.
'You've let me in for a nice thing,' he said. 'I asked the Antiquities to tea, and I asked casually how many we might expect. I thought we might need at least the full dozen of the best teacups. Now the secretary writes accepting my kind invitation—'
'Oh, good!' we cried. 'And how many are coming?' 'Oh, only about sixty,' was the groaning rejoinder. 'Perhaps more, should the weather be exceptionally favourable.'
Though stunned at first, we presently decided that we were pleased.
We had never, never given such a big party.
The girls were allowed to help in the kitchen, where Mrs Pettigrew made cakes all day long without stopping. They did not let us boys be there, though I cannot see any harm in putting your finger in a cake before it is baked, and then licking your finger, if you are careful to put a different finger in the cake next time. Cake before it is baked is delicious—like a sort of cream.
Albert's uncle said he was the prey of despair. He drove in to Maidstone one day. When we asked him where he was going, he said—
'To get my hair cut: if I keep it this length I shall certainly tear it out by double handfuls in the extremity of my anguish every time I think of those innumerable Antiquities.'
But we found out afterwards that he really went to borrow china and things to give the Antiquities their tea out of; though he did have his hair cut too, because he is the soul of truth and honour.
Oswald had a very good sort of birthday, with bows and arrows as well as other presents. I think these were meant to make up for the pistol that was taken away after the adventure of the fox-hunting. These gave us boys something to do between the birthday-keeping, which was on the Saturday, and the Wednesday when the Antiquities were to come.
We did not allow the girls to play with the bows and arrows, because they had the cakes that we were cut off from: there was little or no unpleasantness over this.
On the Tuesday we went down to look at the Roman place where the Antiquities were going to dig. We sat on the Roman wall and ate nuts. And as we sat there, we saw coming through the beet-field two labourers with picks and shovels, and a very young man with thin legs and a bicycle. It turned out afterwards to be a free-wheel, the first we had ever seen.
They stopped at a mound inside the Roman wall, and the men took their coats off and spat on their hands.
We went down at once, of course. The thin-legged bicyclist explained his machine to us very fully and carefully when we asked him, and then we saw the men were cutting turfs and turning them over and rolling them up and putting them in a heap. So we asked the gentleman with the thin legs what they were doing. He said—
'They are beginning the preliminary excavation in readiness for to-morrow.'
'What's up to-morrow?' H. O. asked.
'To-morrow we propose to open this barrow and examine it.'
'Then YOU'RE the Antiquities?' said H. O.
'I'm the secretary,' said the gentleman, smiling, but narrowly.
'Oh, you're all coming to tea with us,' Dora said, and added anxiously, 'how many of you do you think there'll be?'
'Oh, not more than eighty or ninety, I should think,' replied the gentleman.
This took our breath away and we went home. As we went, Oswald, who notices many things that would pass unobserved by the light and careless, saw Denny frowning hard. So he said, 'What's up?'
'I've got an idea,' the Dentist said. 'Let's call a council.' The Dentist had grown quite used to our ways now. We had called him Dentist ever since the fox-hunt day. He called a council as if he had been used to calling such things all his life, and having them come, too; whereas we all know that his former existing was that of a white mouse in a trap, with that cat of a Murdstone aunt watching him through the bars.
(That is what is called a figure of speech. Albert's uncle told me.)
Councils are held in the straw-loft. As soon as we were all there, and the straw had stopped rustling after our sitting down, Dicky said—
'I hope it's nothing to do with the Wouldbegoods?'
'No,' said Denny in a hurry: 'quite the opposite.'
'I hope it's nothing wrong,' said Dora and Daisy together.
'It's—it's "Hail to thee, blithe spirit—bird thou never wert",' said Denny. 'I mean, I think it's what is called a lark.'
'You never know your luck. Go on, Dentist,' said Dicky.
'Well, then, do you know a book called The Daisy Chain?'
'It's by Miss Charlotte M. Yonge,' Daisy interrupted, 'and it's about a family of poor motherless children who tried so hard to be good, and they were confirmed, and had a bazaar, and went to church at the Minster, and one of them got married and wore black watered silk and silver ornaments. So her baby died, and then she was sorry she had not been a good mother to it. And—' Here Dicky got up and said he'd got some snares to attend to, and he'd receive a report of the Council after it was over. But he only got as far as the trap-door, and then Oswald, the fleet of foot, closed with him, and they rolled together on the floor, while all the others called out 'Come back! Come back!' like guinea-hens on a fence.
Through the rustle and bustle and hustle of the struggle with Dicky, Oswald heard the voice of Denny murmuring one of his everlasting quotations—
'"Come back, come back!" he cried in Greek, "Across the stormy water, And I'll forgive your Highland cheek, My daughter, O my daughter!"'
When quiet was restored and Dicky had agreed to go through with the Council, Denny said—
'The Daisy Chain is not a bit like that really. It's a ripping book. One of the boys dresses up like a lady and comes to call, and another tries to hit his little sister with a hoe. It's jolly fine, I tell you.'
Denny is learning to say what he thinks, just like other boys. He would never have learnt such words as 'ripping' and 'jolly fine' while under the auntal tyranny.
Since then I have read The Daisy Chain. It is a first-rate book for girls and little boys.
But we did not want to talk about The Daisy Chain just then, so Oswald said—
'But what's your lark?'Denny got pale pink and said—
'Don't hurry me. I'll tell you directly. Let me think a minute.'
Then he shut his pale pink eyelids a moment in thought, and then opened them and stood up on the straw and said very fast—
'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, or if not ears, pots. You know Albert's uncle said they were going to open the barrow, to look for Roman remains to-morrow. Don't you think it seems a pity they shouldn't find any?'
'Perhaps they will,' Dora said.
But Oswald saw, and he said 'Primus! Go ahead, old man.'
The Dentist went ahead.
'In The Daisy Chain,' he said, 'they dug in a Roman encampment and the children went first and put some pottery there they'd made themselves, and Harry's old medal of the Duke of Wellington. The doctor helped them to some stuff to partly efface the inscription, and all the grown-ups were sold. I thought we might—
'You may break, you may shatter The vase if you will; But the scent of the Romans Will cling round it still.'
Denny sat down amid applause. It really was a great idea, at least for HIM. It seemed to add just what was wanted to the visit of the Maidstone Antiquities. To sell the Antiquities thoroughly would be indeed splendiferous. Of course Dora made haste to point out that we had not got an old medal of the Duke of Wellington, and that we hadn't any doctor who would 'help us to stuff to efface', and etcetera; but we sternly bade her stow it. We weren't going to do EXACTLY like those Daisy Chain kids.
The pottery was easy. We had made a lot of it by the stream—which was the Nile when we discovered its source—and dried it in the sun, and then baked it under a bonfire, like in Foul Play. And most of the things were such queer shapes that they should have done for almost anything—Roman or Greek, or even Egyptian or antediluvian, or household milk-jugs of the cavemen, Albert's uncle said. The pots were, fortunately, quite ready and dirty, because we had already buried them in mixed sand and river mud to improve the colour, and not remembered to wash it off.
So the Council at once collected it all—and some rusty hinges and some brass buttons and a file without a handle; and the girl Councillors carried it all concealed in their pinafores, while the men members carried digging tools. H. O. and Daisy were sent on ahead as scouts to see if the coast was clear. We have learned the true usefulness of scouts from reading about the Transvaal War. But all was still in the hush of evening sunset on the Roman ruin.
We posted sentries, who were to lie on their stomachs on the walls and give a long, low, signifying whistle if aught approached.
Then we dug a tunnel, like the one we once did after treasure, when we happened to bury a boy. It took some time; but never shall it be said that a Bastable grudged time or trouble when a lark was at stake. We put the things in as naturally as we could, and shoved the dirt back, till everything looked just as before. Then we went home, late for tea. But it was in a good cause; and there was no hot toast, only bread-and-butter, which does not get cold with waiting.
That night Alice whispered to Oswald on the stairs, as we went up to bed—
'Meet me outside your door when the others are asleep. Hist! Not a word.'
Oswald said, 'No kid?' And she replied in the affirmation.
So he kept awake by biting his tongue and pulling his hair—for he shrinks from no pain if it is needful and right.
And when the others all slept the sleep of innocent youth, he got up and went out, and there was Alice dressed.
She said, 'I've found some broken things that look ever so much more Roman—they were on top of the cupboard in the library. If you'll come with me, we'll bury them just to see how surprised the others will be.'
It was a wild and daring act, but Oswald did not mind.
'Wait half a shake.' And he put on his knickerbockers and jacket, and slipped a few peppermints into his pocket in case of catching cold. It is these thoughtful expedients which mark the born explorer and adventurer.
It was a little cold; but the white moonlight was very fair to see, and we decided we'd do some other daring moonlight act some other day. We got out of the front door, which is never locked till Albert's uncle goes to bed at twelve or one, and we ran swiftly and silently across the bridge and through the fields to the Roman ruin.
Alice told me afterwards she should have been afraid if it had been dark. But the moonlight made it as bright as day is in your dreams.