Oswald had taken the spade and a sheet of newspaper.
We did not take all the pots Alice had found—but just the two that weren't broken—two crooked jugs, made of stuff like flower-pots are made of. We made two long cuts with the spade and lifted the turf up and scratched the earth under, and took it out very carefully in handfuls on to the newspaper, till the hole was deepish. Then we put in the jugs, and filled it up with earth and flattened the turf over. Turf stretches like elastic. This we did a couple of yards from the place where the mound was dug into by the men, and we had been so careful with the newspaper that there was no loose earth about.
Then we went home in the wet moonlight—at least the grass was very wet—chuckling through the peppermint, and got up to bed without anyone knowing a single thing about it.
The next day the Antiquities came. It was a jolly hot day, and the tables were spread under the trees on the lawn, like a large and very grand Sunday-school treat. There were dozens of different kinds of cake, and bread-and-butter, both white and brown, and gooseberries and plums and jam sandwiches. And the girls decorated the tables with flowers—blue larkspur and white Canterbury bells. And at about three there was a noise of people walking in the road, and presently the Antiquities began to come in at the front gate, and stood about on the lawn by twos and threes and sixes and sevens, looking shy and uncomfy, exactly like a Sunday-school treat. Presently some gentlemen came, who looked like the teachers; they were not shy, and they came right up to the door. So Albert's uncle, who had not been too proud to be up in our room with us watching the people on the lawn through the netting of our short blinds, said—
'I suppose that's the Committee. Come on!'
So we all went down—we were in our Sunday things—and Albert's uncle received the Committee like a feudal system baron, and we were his retainers.
He talked about dates, and king posts and gables, and mullions, and foundations, and records, and Sir Thomas Wyatt, and poetry, and Julius Caesar, and Roman remains, and lych gates and churches, and dog's-tooth moulding till the brain of Oswald reeled. I suppose that Albert's uncle remarked that all our mouths were open, which is a sign of reels in the brain, for he whispered—
'Go hence, and mingle unsuspected with the crowd!'
So we went out on to the lawn, which was now crowded with men and women and one child. This was a girl; she was fat, and we tried to talk to her, though we did not like her. (She was covered in red velvet like an arm-chair.) But she wouldn't. We thought at first she was from a deaf-and-dumb asylum, where her kind teachers had only managed to teach the afflicted to say 'Yes' and 'No'. But afterwards we knew better, for Noel heard her say to her mother, 'I wish you hadn't brought me, mamma. I didn't have a pretty teacup, and I haven't enjoyed my tea one bit.' And she had had five pieces of cake, besides little cakes and nearly a whole plate of plums, and there were only twelve pretty teacups altogether.
Several grown-ups talked to us in a most uninterested way, and then the President read a paper about the Moat House, which we couldn't understand, and other people made speeches we couldn't understand either, except the part about kind hospitality, which made us not know where to look.
Then Dora and Alice and Daisy and Mrs Pettigrew poured out the tea, and we handed cups and plates.
Albert's uncle took me behind a bush to see him tear what was left of his hair when he found there were one hundred and twenty-three Antiquities present, and I heard the President say to the Secretary that 'tea always fetched them'.
Then it was time for the Roman ruin, and our hearts beat high as we took our hats—it was exactly like Sunday—and joined the crowded procession of eager Antiquities. Many of them had umbrellas and overcoats, though the weather was fiery and without a cloud. That is the sort of people they were. The ladies all wore stiff bonnets, and no one took their gloves off, though, of course, it was quite in the country, and it is not wrong to take your gloves off there.
We had planned to be quite close when the digging went on; but Albert's uncle made us a mystic sign and drew us apart.
Then he said: 'The stalls and dress circle are for the guests. The hosts and hostesses retire to the gallery, whence, I am credibly informed, an excellent view may be obtained.'
So we all went up on the Roman walls, and thus missed the cream of the lark; for we could not exactly see what was happening. But we saw that things were being taken from the ground as the men dug, and passed round for the Antiquities to look at. And we knew they must be our Roman remains; but the Antiquities did not seem to care for them much, though we heard sounds of pleased laughter. And at last Alice and I exchanged meaning glances when the spot was reached where we had put in the extras. Then the crowd closed up thick, and we heard excited talk and we knew we really HAD sold the Antiquities this time.
Presently the bonnets and coats began to spread out and trickle towards the house and we were aware that all would soon be over. So we cut home the back way, just in time to hear the President saying to Albert's uncle—
'A genuine find—most interesting. Oh, really, you ought to have ONE. Well, if you insist—'
And so, by slow and dull degrees, the thick sprinkling of Antiquities melted off the lawn; the party was over, and only the dirty teacups and plates, and the trampled grass and the pleasures of memory were left.
We had a very beautiful supper—out of doors, too—with jam sandwiches and cakes and things that were over; and as we watched the setting monarch of the skies—I mean the sun—Alice said—
We let the Dentist tell, because it was he who hatched the lark, but we helped him a little in the narrating of the fell plot, because he has yet to learn how to tell a story straight from the beginning.
When he had done, and we had done, Albert's uncle said, 'Well, it amused you; and you'll be glad to learn that it amused your friends the Antiquities.'
'Didn't they think they were Roman?' Daisy said; 'they did in The Daisy Chain.'
'Not in the least,' said Albert's uncle; 'but the Treasurer and Secretary were charmed by your ingenious preparations for their reception.'
'We didn't want them to be disappointed,' said Dora.
'They weren't,' said Albert's uncle. 'Steady on with those plums, H.O. A little way beyond the treasure you had prepared for them they found two specimens of REAL Roman pottery which sent every man-jack of them home thanking his stars he had been born a happy little Antiquary child.'
'Those were our jugs,' said Alice, 'and we really HAVE sold the Antiquities. She unfolded the tale about our getting the jugs and burying them in the moonlight, and the mound; and the others listened with deeply respectful interest. 'We really have done it this time, haven't we?' she added in tones of well-deserved triumph.
But Oswald had noticed a queer look about Albert's uncle from almost the beginning of Alice's recital; and he now had the sensation of something being up, which has on other occasions frozen his noble blood. The silence of Albert's uncle now froze it yet more Arcticly.
'Haven't we?' repeated Alice, unconscious of what her sensitive brother's delicate feelings had already got hold of. 'We have done it this time, haven't we?'
'Since you ask me thus pointedly,' answered Albert's uncle at last, 'I cannot but confess that I think you have indeed done it. Those pots on the top of the library cupboard ARE Roman pottery. The amphorae which you hid in the mound are probably—I can't say for certain, mind—priceless. They are the property of the owner of this house. You have taken them out and buried them. The President of the Maidstone Antiquarian Society has taken them away in his bag. Now what are you going to do?'
Alice and I did not know what to say, or where to look. The others added to our pained position by some ungenerous murmurs about our not being so jolly clever as we thought ourselves.
There was a very far from pleasing silence. Then Oswald got up. He said—
'Alice, come here a sec; I want to speak to you.'
As Albert's uncle had offered no advice, Oswald disdained to ask him for any.
Alice got up too, and she and Oswald went into the garden, and sat down on the bench under the quince tree, and wished they had never tried to have a private lark of their very own with the Antiquities—'A Private Sale', Albert's uncle called it afterwards. But regrets, as nearly always happens, were vain. Something had to be done.
Oswald and Alice sat in silent desperateness, and the voices of the gay and careless others came to them from the lawn, where, heartless in their youngness, they were playing tag. I don't know how they could. Oswald would not like to play tag when his brother and sister were in a hole, but Oswald is an exception to some boys.
But Dicky told me afterwards he thought it was only a joke of Albert's uncle's.
The dusk grew dusker, till you could hardly tell the quinces from the leaves, and Alice and Oswald still sat exhausted with hard thinking, but they could not think of anything. And it grew so dark that the moonlight began to show.
Then Alice jumped up—just as Oswald was opening his mouth to say the same thing—and said, 'Of course—how silly! I know. Come on in, Oswald.' And they went on in.
Oswald was still far too proud to consult anyone else. But he just asked carelessly if Alice and he might go into Maidstone the next day to buy some wire-netting for a rabbit-hutch, and to see after one or two things.
Albert's uncle said certainly. And they went by train with the bailiff from the farm, who was going in about some sheep-dip and too buy pigs. At any other time Oswald would not have been able to bear to leave the bailiff without seeing the pigs bought. But now it was different. For he and Alice had the weight on their bosoms of being thieves without having meant it—and nothing, not even pigs, had power to charm the young but honourable Oswald till that stain had been wiped away.
So he took Alice to the Secretary of the Maidstone Antiquities' house, and Mr Turnbull was out, but the maid-servant kindly told us where the President lived, and ere long the trembling feet of the unfortunate brother and sister vibrated on the spotless gravel of Camperdown Villa.
When they asked, they were told that Mr Longchamps was at home. Then they waited, paralysed with undescribed emotions, in a large room with books and swords and glass bookcases with rotten-looking odds and ends in them. Mr Longchamps was a collector. That means he stuck to anything, no matter how ugly and silly, if only it was old.
He came in rubbing his hands, and very kind. He remembered us very well, he said, and asked what he could do for us.
Oswald for once was dumb. He could not find words in which to own himself the ass he had been. But Alice was less delicately moulded. She said—
'Oh, if you please, we are most awfully sorry, and we hope you'll forgive us, but we thought it would be such a pity for you and all the other poor dear Antiquities to come all that way and then find nothing Roman—so we put some pots and things in the barrow for you to find.'
'So I perceived,' said the President, stroking his white beard and smiling most agreeably at us; 'a harmless joke, my dear! Youth's the season for jesting. There's no harm done—pray think no more about it. It's very honourable of you to come and apologize, I'm sure.'
His brow began to wear the furrowed, anxious look of one who would fain be rid of his guests and get back to what he was doing before they interrupted him.
Alice said, 'We didn't come for that. It's MUCH worse. Those were two REAL true Roman jugs you took away; we put them there; they aren't ours. We didn't know they were real Roman. We wanted to sell the Antiquities—I mean Antiquaries—and we were sold ourselves.'
'This is serious,' said the gentleman. 'I suppose you'd know the—the "jugs" if you saw them again?'
'Anywhere,' said Oswald, with the confidential rashness of one who does not know what he is talking about.
Mr Longchamps opened the door of a little room leading out of the one we were in, and beckoned us to follow. We found ourselves amid shelves and shelves of pottery of all sorts; and two whole shelves—small ones—were filled with the sort of jug we wanted.
'Well,' said the President, with a veiled menacing sort of smile, like a wicked cardinal, 'which is it?'
Oswald said, 'I don't know.'
Alice said, 'I should know if I had it in my hand.'
The President patiently took the jugs down one after another, and Alice tried to look inside them. And one after another she shook her head and gave them back. At last she said, 'You didn't WASH them?'
Mr Longchamps shuddered and said 'No'.
'Then,' said Alice, 'there is something written with lead-pencil inside both the jugs. I wish I hadn't. I would rather you didn't read it. I didn't know it would be a nice old gentleman like you would find it. I thought it would be the younger gentleman with the thin legs and the narrow smile.'
'Mr Turnbull.' The President seemed to recognize the description unerringly. 'Well, well—boys will be boys—girls, I mean. I won't be angry. Look at all the "jugs" and see if you can find yours.'
Alice did—and the next one she looked at she said, 'This is one'—and two jugs further on she said, 'This is the other.'
'Well,' the President said, 'these are certainly the specimens which I obtained yesterday. If your uncle will call on me I will return them to him. But it's a disappointment. Yes, I think you must let me look inside.'
He did. And at the first one he said nothing. At the second he laughed.
'Well, well,' he said, 'we can't expect old heads on young shoulders. You're not the first who went forth to shear and returned shorn. Nor, it appears, am I. Next time you have a Sale of Antiquities, take care that you yourself are not "sold". Good-day to you, my dear. Don't let the incident prey on your mind,' he said to Alice. 'Bless your heart, I was a boy once myself, unlikely as you may think it. Good-bye.'
We were in time to see the pigs bought after all.
I asked Alice what on earth it was she'd scribbled inside the beastly jugs, and she owned that just to make the lark complete she had written 'Sucks' in one of the jugs, and 'Sold again, silly', in the other.
But we know well enough who it was that was sold. And if ever we have any Antiquities to tea again, they shan't find so much as a Greek waistcoat button if we can help it.
Unless it's the President, for he did not behave at all badly. For a man of his age I think he behaved exceedingly well. Oswald can picture a very different scene having been enacted over those rotten pots if the President had been an otherwise sort of man.
But that picture is not pleasing, so Oswald will not distress you by drawing it for you. You can most likely do it easily for yourself.
CHAPTER 11. THE BENEVOLENT BAR
The tramp was very dusty about the feet and legs, and his clothes were very ragged and dirty, but he had cheerful twinkly grey eyes, and he touched his cap to the girls when he spoke to us, though a little as though he would rather not.
We were on the top of the big wall of the Roman ruin in the Three Tree pasture. We had just concluded a severe siege with bows and arrows—the ones that were given us to make up for the pistol that was confiscated after the sad but not sinful occasion when it shot a fox.
To avoid accidents that you would be sorry for afterwards, Oswald, in his thoughtfulness, had decreed that everyone was to wear wire masks.
Luckily there were plenty of these, because a man who lived in the Moat House once went to Rome, where they throw hundreds and thousands at each other in play, and call it a Comfit Battle or Battaglia di Confetti (that's real Italian). And he wanted to get up that sort of thing among the village people—but they were too beastly slack, so he chucked it.
And in the attic were the wire masks he brought home with him from Rome, which people wear to prevent the nasty comfits getting in their mouths and eyes.
So we were all armed to the teeth with masks and arrows, but in attacking or defending a fort your real strength is not in your equipment, but in your power of Shove. Oswald, Alice, Noel and Denny defended the fort. We were much the strongest side, but that was how Dicky and Oswald picked up.
The others got in, it is true, but that was only because an arrow hit Dicky on the nose, and it bled quarts as usual, though hit only through the wire mask. Then he put into dock for repairs, and while the defending party weren't looking he sneaked up the wall at the back and shoved Oswald off, and fell on top of him, so that the fort, now that it had lost its gallant young leader, the life and soul of the besieged party, was of course soon overpowered, and had to surrender.
Then we sat on the top and ate some peppermints Albert's uncle brought us a bag of from Maidstone when he went to fetch away the Roman pottery we tried to sell the Antiquities with.
The battle was over, and peace raged among us as we sat in the sun on the big wall and looked at the fields, all blue and swimming in the heat.
We saw the tramp coming through the beetfield. He made a dusty blot on the fair scene.
When he saw us he came close to the wall, and touched his cap, as I have said, and remarked—
'Excuse me interrupting of your sports, young gentlemen and ladies, but if you could so far oblige as to tell a labouring man the way to the nearest pub. It's a dry day and no error.'
'The "Rose and Crown" is the best pub,' said Dicky, 'and the landlady is a friend of ours. It's about a mile if you go by the field path.'
'Lor' love a duck!' said the tramp, 'a mile's a long way, and walking's a dry job this 'ere weather.' We said we agreed with him.
'Upon my sacred,' said the tramp, 'if there was a pump handy I believe I'd take a turn at it—I would indeed, so help me if I wouldn't! Though water always upsets me and makes my 'and shaky.'
We had not cared much about tramps since the adventure of the villainous sailor-man and the Tower of Mystery, but we had the dogs on the wall with us (Lady was awfully difficult to get up, on account of her long deer-hound legs), and the position was a strong one, and easy to defend. Besides the tramp did not look like that bad sailor, nor talk like it. And we considerably outnumbered the tramp, anyway.
Alice nudged Oswald and said something about Sir Philip Sidney and the tramp's need being greater than his, so Oswald was obliged to go to the hole in the top of the wall where we store provisions during sieges and get out the bottle of ginger-beer which he had gone without when the others had theirs so as to drink it when he got really thirsty. Meanwhile Alice said—
'We've got some ginger-beer; my brother's getting it. I hope you won't mind drinking out of our glass. We can't wash it, you know—unless we rinse it out with a little ginger-beer.'
'Don't ye do it, miss,' he said eagerly; 'never waste good liquor on washing.'
The glass was beside us on the wall. Oswald filled it with ginger-beer and handed down the foaming tankard to the tramp. He had to lie on his young stomach to do this.
The tramp was really quite polite—one of Nature's gentlemen, and a man as well, we found out afterwards. He said—
'Here's to you!' before he drank. Then he drained the glass till the rim rested on his nose.
'Swelp me, but I WAS dry,' he said. 'Don't seem to matter much what it is, this weather, do it?—so long as it's suthink wet. Well, here's thanking you.'
'You're very welcome,' said Dora; 'I'm glad you liked it.'
'Like it?'—said he. 'I don't suppose you know what it's like to have a thirst on you. Talk of free schools and free libraries, and free baths and wash-houses and such! Why don't someone start free DRINKS? He'd be a ero, he would. I'd vote for him any day of the week and one over. Ef yer don't objec I'll set down a bit and put on a pipe.'
He sat down on the grass and began to smoke. We asked him questions about himself, and he told us many of his secret sorrows—especially about there being no work nowadays for an honest man. At last he dropped asleep in the middle of a story about a vestry he worked for that hadn't acted fair and square by him like he had by them, or it (I don't know if vestry is singular or plural), and we went home. But before we went we held a hurried council and collected what money we could from the little we had with us (it was ninepence-halfpenny), and wrapped it in an old envelope Dicky had in his pocket and put it gently on the billowing middle of the poor tramp's sleeping waistcoat, so that he would find it when he woke. None of the dogs said a single syllable while we were doing this, so we knew they believed him to be poor but honest, and we always find it safe to take their word for things like that.
As we went home a brooding silence fell upon us; we found out afterwards that those words of the poor tramp's about free drinks had sunk deep in all our hearts, and rankled there.
After dinner we went out and sat with our feet in the stream. People tell you it makes your grub disagree with you to do this just after meals, but it never hurts us. There is a fallen willow across the stream that just seats the eight of us, only the ones at the end can't get their feet into the water properly because of the bushes, so we keep changing places. We had got some liquorice root to chew. This helps thought. Dora broke a peaceful silence with this speech—
The words awoke a response in every breast.
'I wonder someone doesn't,' H. O. said, leaning back till he nearly toppled in, and was only saved by Oswald and Alice at their own deadly peril.
'Do for goodness sake sit still, H. O.,' observed Alice. 'It would be a glorious act! I wish WE could.'
'What, sit still?' asked H. O.
'No, my child,' replied Oswald, 'most of us can do that when we try. Your angel sister was only wishing to set up free drinks for the poor and thirsty.'
'Not for all of them,' Alice said, 'just a few. Change places now, Dicky. My feet aren't properly wet at all.'
It is very difficult to change places safely on the willow. The changers have to crawl over the laps of the others, while the rest sit tight and hold on for all they're worth. But the hard task was accomplished and then Alice went on—
'And we couldn't do it for always, only a day or two—just while our money held out. Eiffel Tower lemonade's the best, and you get a jolly lot of it for your money too. There must be a great many sincerely thirsty persons go along the Dover Road every day.'
'It wouldn't be bad. We've got a little chink between us,' said Oswald.
'And then think how the poor grateful creatures would linger and tell us about their inmost sorrows. It would be most frightfully interesting. We could write all their agonied life histories down afterwards like All the Year Round Christmas numbers. Oh, do let's!'
Alice was wriggling so with earnestness that Dicky thumped her to make her calm.
'We might do it, just for one day,' Oswald said, 'but it wouldn't be much—only a drop in the ocean compared with the enormous dryness of all the people in the whole world. Still, every little helps, as the mermaid said when she cried into the sea.'
'I know a piece of poetry about that,' Denny said.
'Small things are best. Care and unrest To wealth and rank are given, But little things On little wings—
do something or other, I forget what, but it means the same as Oswald was saying about the mermaid.'
'What are you going to call it?' asked Noel, coming out of a dream.
'The Free Drinks game.'
'It's a horrid shame If the Free Drinks game Doesn't have a name. You would be to blame If anyone came And—'
'Oh, shut up!' remarked Dicky. 'You've been making that rot up all the time we've been talking instead of listening properly.' Dicky hates poetry. I don't mind it so very much myself, especially Macaulay's and Kipling's and Noel's.
'There was a lot more—"lame" and "dame" and "name" and "game" and things—and now I've forgotten it,' Noel said in gloom.
'Never mind,' Alice answered, 'it'll come back to you in the silent watches of the night; you see if it doesn't. But really, Noel's right, it OUGHT to have a name.'
'Free Drinks Company.' 'Thirsty Travellers' Rest.' 'The Travellers' joy.'
These names were suggested, but not cared for extra.
Then someone said—I think it was Oswald—'Why not "The House Beautiful"?'
'It can't be a house, it must be in the road. It'll only be a stall.'
'The "Stall Beautiful" is simply silly,' Oswald said.
'The "Bar Beautiful" then,' said Dicky, who knows what the 'Rose and Crown' bar is like inside, which of course is hidden from girls.
'Oh, wait a minute,' cried the Dentist, snapping his fingers like he always does when he is trying to remember things. 'I thought of something, only Daisy tickled me and it's gone—I know—let's call it the Benevolent Bar!'
It was exactly right, and told the whole truth in two words. 'Benevolent' showed it was free and 'Bar' showed what was free; e.g. things to drink. The 'Benevolent Bar' it was.
We went home at once to prepare for the morrow, for of course we meant to do it the very next day. Procrastination is you know what—and delays are dangerous. If we had waited long we might have happened to spend our money on something else.
The utmost secrecy had to be observed, because Mrs Pettigrew hates tramps. Most people do who keep fowls. Albert's uncle was in London till the next evening, so we could not consult him, but we know he is always chock full of intelligent sympathy with the poor and needy.
Acting with the deepest disguise, we made an awning to cover the Benevolent Bar keepers from the searching rays of the monarch of the skies. We found some old striped sun-blinds in the attic, and the girls sewed them together. They were not very big when they were done, so we added the girls' striped petticoats. I am sorry their petticoats turn up so constantly in my narrative, but they really are very useful, especially when the band is cut off. The girls borrowed Mrs Pettigrew's sewing-machine; they could not ask her leave without explanations, which we did not wish to give just then, and she had lent it to them before. They took it into the cellar to work it, so that she should not hear the noise and ask bothering questions.
They had to balance it on one end of the beer-stand. It was not easy. While they were doing the sewing we boys went out and got willow poles and chopped the twigs off, and got ready as well as we could to put up the awning.
When we returned a detachment of us went down to the shop in the village for Eiffel Tower lemonade. We bought seven-and-sixpence worth; then we made a great label to say what the bar was for. Then there was nothing else to do except to make rosettes out of a blue sash of Daisy's to show we belonged to the Benevolent Bar.
The next day was as hot as ever. We rose early from our innocent slumbers, and went out to the Dover Road to the spot we had marked down the day before. It was at a cross-roads, so as to be able to give drinks to as many people as possible.
We hid the awning and poles behind the hedge and went home to brekker.
After break we got the big zinc bath they wash clothes in, and after filling it with clean water we just had to empty it again because it was too heavy to lift. So we carried it vacant to the trysting-spot and left H. O. and Noel to guard it while we went and fetched separate pails of water; very heavy work, and no one who wasn't really benevolent would have bothered about it for an instant. Oswald alone carried three pails. So did Dicky and the Dentist. Then we rolled down some empty barrels and stood up three of them by the roadside, and put planks on them. This made a very first-class table, and we covered it with the best tablecloth we could find in the linen cupboard. We brought out several glasses and some teacups—not the best ones, Oswald was firm about that—and the kettle and spirit-lamp and the tea-pot, in case any weary tramp-woman fancied a cup of tea instead of Eiffel Tower. H. O. and Noel had to go down to the shop for tea; they need not have grumbled; they had not carried any of the water. And their having to go the second time was only because we forgot to tell them to get some real lemons to put on the bar to show what the drink would be like when you got it. The man at the shop kindly gave us tick for the lemons, and we cashed up out of our next week's pocket-money.
Two or three people passed while we were getting things ready, but no one said anything except the man who said, 'Bloomin' Sunday-school treat', and as it was too early in the day for anyone to be thirsty we did not stop the wayfarers to tell them their thirst could be slaked without cost at our Benevolent Bar.
But when everything was quite ready, and our blue rosettes fastened on our breasts over our benevolent hearts, we stuck up the great placard we had made with 'Benevolent Bar. Free Drinks to all Weary Travellers', in white wadding on red calico, like Christmas decorations in church. We had meant to fasten this to the edge of the awning, but we had to pin it to the front of the tablecloth, because I am sorry to say the awning went wrong from the first. We could not drive the willow poles into the road; it was much too hard. And in the ditch it was too soft, besides being no use. So we had just to cover our benevolent heads with our hats, and take it in turns to go into the shadow of the tree on the other side of the road. For we had pitched our table on the sunny side of the way, of course, relying on our broken-reed-like awning, and wishing to give it a fair chance.
Everything looked very nice, and we longed to see somebody really miserable come along so as to be able to allieve their distress.
A man and woman were the first: they stopped and stared, but when Alice said, 'Free drinks! Free drinks! Aren't you thirsty?' they said, 'No thank you,' and went on. Then came a person from the village—he didn't even say 'Thank you' when we asked him, and Oswald began to fear it might be like the awful time when we wandered about on Christmas Day trying to find poor persons and persuade them to eat our Conscience pudding.
But a man in a blue jersey and a red bundle eased Oswald's fears by being willing to drink a glass of lemonade, and even to say, 'Thank you, I'm sure' quite nicely.
After that it was better. As we had foreseen, there were plenty of thirsty people walking along the Dover Road, and even some from the cross-road.
We had had the pleasure of seeing nineteen tumblers drained to the dregs ere we tasted any ourselves. Nobody asked for tea.
More people went by than we gave lemonade to. Some wouldn't have it because they were too grand. One man told us he could pay for his own liquor when he was dry, which, praise be, he wasn't over and above, at present; and others asked if we hadn't any beer, and when we said 'No', they said it showed what sort we were—as if the sort was not a good one, which it is.
And another man said, 'Slops again! You never get nothing for nothing, not this side of heaven you don't. Look at the bloomin' blue ribbon on 'em! Oh, Lor'!' and went on quite sadly without having a drink.
Our Pig-man who helped us on the Tower of Mystery day went by and we hailed him, and explained it all to him and gave him a drink, and asked him to call as he came back. He liked it all, and said we were a real good sort. How different from the man who wanted the beer. Then he went on.
One thing I didn't like, and that was the way boys began to gather. Of course we could not refuse to give drinks to any traveller who was old enough to ask for it, but when one boy had had three glasses of lemonade and asked for another, Oswald said—
'I think you've had jolly well enough. You can't be really thirsty after all that lot.'
The boy said, 'Oh, can't I? You'll just see if I can't,' and went away. Presently he came back with four other boys, all bigger than Oswald; and they all asked for lemonade. Oswald gave it to the four new ones, but he was determined in his behaviour to the other one, and wouldn't give him a drop. Then the five of them went and sat on a gate a little way off and kept laughing in a nasty way, and whenever a boy went by they called out—
'I say, 'ere's a go,' and as often as not the new boy would hang about with them. It was disquieting, for though they had nearly all had lemonade we could see it had not made them friendly.
A great glorious glow of goodness gladdened (those go all together and are called alliteration) our hearts when we saw our own tramp coming down the road. The dogs did not growl at him as they had at the boys or the beer-man. (I did not say before that we had the dogs with us, but of course we had, because we had promised never to go out without them.) Oswald said, 'Hullo,' and the tramp said, 'Hullo.' Then Alice said, 'You see we've taken your advice; we're giving free drinks. Doesn't it all look nice?'
'It does that,' said the tramp. 'I don't mind if I do.'
So we gave him two glasses of lemonade succeedingly, and thanked him for giving us the idea. He said we were very welcome, and if we'd no objection he'd sit down a bit and put on a pipe. He did, and after talking a little more he fell asleep. Drinking anything seemed to end in sleep with him. I always thought it was only beer and things made people sleepy, but he was not so. When he was asleep he rolled into the ditch, but it did not wake him up.
The boys were getting very noisy, and they began to shout things, and to make silly noises with their mouths, and when Oswald and Dicky went over to them and told them to just chuck it, they were worse than ever. I think perhaps Oswald and Dicky might have fought and settled them—though there were eleven, yet back to back you can always do it against overwhelming numbers in a book—only Alice called out—
'Oswald, here's some more, come back!'
We went. Three big men were coming down the road, very red and hot, and not amiable-looking. They stopped in front of the Benevolent Bar and slowly read the wadding and red-stuff label.
Then one of them said he was blessed, or something like that, and another said he was too. The third one said, 'Blessed or not, a drink's a drink. Blue ribbon, though, by ——' (a word you ought not to say, though it is in the Bible and the catechism as well). 'Let's have a liquor, little missy.'
The dogs were growling, but Oswald thought it best not to take any notice of what the dogs said, but to give these men each a drink. So he did. They drank, but not as if they cared about it very much, and then they set their glasses down on the table, a liberty no one else had entered into, and began to try and chaff Oswald. Oswald said in an undervoice to H. O.—
'Just take charge. I want to speak to the girls a sec. Call if you want anything.' And then he drew the others away, to say he thought there'd been enough of it, and considering the boys and new three men, perhaps we'd better chuck it and go home. We'd been benevolent nearly four hours anyway.
While this conversation and the objections of the others were going on, H. O. perpetuated an act which nearly wrecked the Benevolent Bar.
Of course Oswald was not an eye or ear witness of what happened, but from what H. O. said in the calmer moments of later life, I think this was about what happened. One of the big disagreeable men said to H. O.—
'Ain't got such a thing as a drop o' spirit, 'ave yer?'
H. O. said no, we hadn't, only lemonade and tea.
'Lemonade and tea! blank' (bad word I told you about) 'and blazes,' replied the bad character, for such he afterwards proved to be. 'What's THAT then?'
He pointed to a bottle labelled Dewar's whisky, which stood on the table near the spirit-kettle.
'Oh, is THAT what you want?' said H. O. kindly.
The man is understood to have said he should bloomin' well think so, but H. O. is not sure about the 'bloomin'.
He held out his glass with about half the lemonade in it, and H. O. generously filled up the tumbler out of the bottle, labelled Dewar's whisky. The man took a great drink, and then suddenly he spat out what happened to be left in his mouth just then, and began to swear. It was then that Oswald and Dicky rushed upon the scene.
The man was shaking his fist in H. O.'s face, and H. O. was still holding on to the bottle we had brought out the methylated spirit in for the lamp, in case of anyone wanting tea, which they hadn't. 'If I was Jim,' said the second ruffian, for such indeed they were, when he had snatched the bottle from H. O. and smelt it, 'I'd chuck the whole show over the hedge, so I would, and you young gutter-snipes after it, so I wouldn't.'
Oswald saw in a moment that in point of strength, if not numbers, he and his party were out-matched, and the unfriendly boys were drawing gladly near. It is no shame to signal for help when in distress—the best ships do it every day. Oswald shouted 'Help, help!' Before the words were out of his brave yet trembling lips our own tramp leapt like an antelope from the ditch and said—
'Now then, what's up?'
The biggest of the three men immediately knocked him down. He lay still.
The biggest then said, 'Come on—any more of you? Come on!'
Oswald was so enraged at this cowardly attack that he actually hit out at the big man—and he really got one in just above the belt. Then he shut his eyes, because he felt that now all was indeed up. There was a shout and a scuffle, and Oswald opened his eyes in astonishment at finding himself still whole and unimpaired. Our own tramp had artfully simulated insensibleness, to get the men off their guard, and then had suddenly got his arms round a leg each of two of the men, and pulled them to the ground, helped by Dicky, who saw his game and rushed in at the same time, exactly like Oswald would have done if he had not had his eyes shut ready to meet his doom.
The unpleasant boys shouted, and the third man tried to help his unrespectable friends, now on their backs involved in a desperate struggle with our own tramp, who was on top of them, accompanied by Dicky. It all happened in a minute, and it was all mixed up. The dogs were growling and barking—Martha had one of the men by the trouser leg and Pincher had another; the girls were screaming like mad and the strange boys shouted and laughed (little beasts!), and then suddenly our Pig-man came round the corner, and two friends of his with him. He had gone and fetched them to take care of us if anything unpleasant occurred. It was a very thoughtful, and just like him.
'Fetch the police!' cried the Pig-man in noble tones, and H. O. started running to do it. But the scoundrels struggled from under Dicky and our tramp, shook off the dogs and some bits of trouser, and fled heavily down the road.
Our Pig-man said, 'Get along home!' to the disagreeable boys, and 'Shoo'd' them as if they were hens, and they went. H. O. ran back when they began to go up the road, and there we were, all standing breathless in tears on the scene of the late desperate engagement. Oswald gives you his word of honour that his and Dicky's tears were tears of pure rage. There are such things as tears of pure rage. Anyone who knows will tell you so.
We picked up our own tramp and bathed the lump on his forehead with lemonade. The water in the zinc bath had been upset in the struggle. Then he and the Pig-man and his kind friends helped us carry our things home.
The Pig-man advised us on the way not to try these sort of kind actions without getting a grown-up to help us. We've been advised this before, but now I really think we shall never try to be benevolent to the poor and needy again. At any rate not unless we know them very well first.
We have seen our own tramp often since. The Pig-man gave him a job. He has got work to do at last. The Pig-man says he is not such a very bad chap, only he will fall asleep after the least drop of drink. We know that is his failing. We saw it at once. But it was lucky for us he fell asleep that day near our benevolent bar.
I will not go into what my father said about it all. There was a good deal in it about minding your own business—there generally is in most of the talkings-to we get. But he gave our tramp a sovereign, and the Pig-man says he went to sleep on it for a solid week.
CHAPTER 12. THE CANTERBURY PILGRIMS
The author of these few lines really does hope to goodness that no one will be such an owl as to think from the number of things we did when we were in the country, that we were wretched, neglected little children, whose grown-up relations sparkled in the bright haunts of pleasure, and whirled in the giddy what's-its-name of fashion, while we were left to weep forsaken at home. It was nothing of the kind, and I wish you to know that my father was with us a good deal—and Albert's uncle (who is really no uncle of ours, but only of Albert next door when we lived in Lewisham) gave up a good many of his valuable hours to us. And the father of Denny and Daisy came now and then, and other people, quite as many as we wished to see. And we had some very decent times with them; and enjoyed ourselves very much indeed, thank you. In some ways the good times you have with grown-ups are better than the ones you have by yourselves. At any rate they are safer. It is almost impossible, then, to do anything fatal without being pulled up short by a grown-up ere yet the deed is done. And, if you are careful, anything that goes wrong can be looked on as the grown-up's fault. But these secure pleasures are not so interesting to tell about as the things you do when there is no one to stop you on the edge of the rash act.
It is curious, too, that many of our most interesting games happened when grown-ups were far away. For instance when we were pilgrims.
It was just after the business of the Benevolent Bar, and it was a wet day. It is not easy to amuse yourself indoors on a wet day as older people seem to think, especially when you are far removed from your own home, and haven't got all your own books and things. The girls were playing Halma—which is a beastly game—Noel was writing poetry, H. O. was singing 'I don't know what to do' to the tune of 'Canaan's happy shore'. It goes like this, and is very tiresome to listen to—
'I don't know what to do—oo—oo—oo! I don't know what to do—oo—oo! It IS a beastly rainy day And I don't know what to do.'
The rest of us were trying to make him shut up. We put a carpet bag over his head, but he went on inside it; and then we sat on him, but he sang under us; we held him upside down and made him crawl head first under the sofa, but when, even there, he kept it up, we saw that nothing short of violence would induce him to silence, so we let him go. And then he said we had hurt him, and we said we were only in fun, and he said if we were he wasn't, and ill feeling might have grown up even out of a playful brotherly act like ours had been, only Alice chucked the Halma and said—
'Let dogs delight. Come on—let's play something.'
Then Dora said, 'Yes, but look here. Now we're together I do want to say something. What about the Wouldbegoods Society?'
Many of us groaned, and one said, 'Hear! hear!' I will not say which one, but it was not Oswald.
'No, but really,' Dora said, 'I don't want to be preachy—but you know we DID say we'd try to be good. And it says in a book I was reading only yesterday that NOT being naughty is not enough. You must BE good. And we've hardly done anything. The Golden Deed book's almost empty.'
'Couldn't we have a book of leaden deeds?' said Noel, coming out of his poetry, 'then there'd be plenty for Alice to write about if she wants to, or brass or zinc or aluminium deeds? We shan't ever fill the book with golden ones.'
H. O. had rolled himself in the red tablecloth and said Noel was only advising us to be naughty, and again peace waved in the balance. But Alice said, 'Oh, H. O., DON'T—he didn't mean that; but really and truly, I wish wrong things weren't so interesting. You begin to do a noble act, and then it gets so exciting, and before you know where you are you are doing something wrong as hard as you can lick.'
'And enjoying it too' Dick said.
'It's very curious,' Denny said, 'but you don't seem to be able to be certain inside yourself whether what you're doing is right if you happen to like doing it, but if you don't like doing it you know quite well. I only thought of that just now. I wish Noel would make a poem about it.'
'I am,' Noel said; 'it began about a crocodile but it is finishing itself up quite different from what I meant it to at first. Just wait a minute.'
He wrote very hard while his kind brothers and sisters and his little friends waited the minute he had said, and then he read:
'The crocodile is very wise, He lives in the Nile with little eyes, He eats the hippopotamus too, And if he could he would eat up you.
'The lovely woods and starry skies He looks upon with glad surprise! He sees the riches of the east, And the tiger and lion, kings of beast.
'So let all be good and beware Of saying shan't and won't and don't care; For doing wrong is easier far Than any of the right things I know about are.
And I couldn't make it king of beasts because of it not rhyming with east, so I put the s off beasts on to king. It comes even in the end.'
We all said it was a very nice piece of poetry. Noel gets really ill if you don't like what he writes, and then he said, 'If it's trying that's wanted, I don't care how hard we TRY to be good, but we may as well do it some nice way. Let's be Pilgrim's Progress, like I wanted to at first.'
And we were all beginning to say we didn't want to, when suddenly Dora said, 'Oh, look here! I know. We'll be the Canterbury Pilgrims. People used to go pilgrimages to make themselves good.'
'With peas in their shoes,' the Dentist said. 'It's in a piece of poetry—only the man boiled his peas—which is quite unfair.'
'Oh, yes,' said H. O., 'and cocked hats.'
'Not cocked—cockled'—it was Alice who said this. 'And they had staffs and scrips, and they told each other tales. We might as well.'
Oswald and Dora had been reading about the Canterbury Pilgrims in a book called A Short History of the English People. It is not at all short really—three fat volumes—but it has jolly good pictures. It was written by a gentleman named Green. So Oswald said—
'All right. I'll be the Knight.'
'I'll be the wife of Bath,' Dora said. 'What will you be, Dicky?'
'Oh, I don't care, I'll be Mr Bath if you like.'
'We don't know much about the people,' Alice said. 'How many were there?'
'Thirty,' Oswald replied, 'but we needn't be all of them. There's a Nun-Priest.'
'Is that a man or a woman?'
Oswald said he could not be sure by the picture, but Alice and Noel could be it between them. So that was settled. Then we got the book and looked at the dresses to see if we could make up dresses for the parts. At first we thought we would, because it would be something to do, and it was a very wet day; but they looked difficult, especially the Miller's. Denny wanted to be the Miller, but in the end he was the Doctor, because it was next door to Dentist, which is what we call him for short. Daisy was to be the Prioress—because she is good, and has 'a soft little red mouth', and H. O. WOULD be the Manciple (I don't know what that is), because the picture of him is bigger than most of the others, and he said Manciple was a nice portmanteau word—half mandarin and half disciple.
'Let's get the easiest parts of the dresses ready first.' Alice said—'the pilgrims' staffs and hats and the cockles.'
So Oswald and Dicky braved the fury of the elements and went into the wood beyond the orchard to cut ash-sticks. We got eight jolly good long ones. Then we took them home, and the girls bothered till we changed our clothes, which were indeed sopping with the elements we had faced.
Then we peeled the sticks. They were nice and white at first, but they soon got dirty when we carried them. It is a curious thing: however often you wash your hands they always seem to come off on anything white. And we nailed paper rosettes to the tops of them. That was the nearest we could get to cockle-shells.
'And we may as well have them there as on our hats,' Alice said. 'And let's call each other by our right names to-day, just to get into it. Don't you think so, Knight?'
'Yea, Nun-Priest,' Oswald was replying, but Noel said she was only half the Nun-Priest, and again a threat of unpleasantness darkened the air. But Alice said—
'Don't be a piggy-wiggy, Noel, dear; you can have it all, I don't want it. I'll just be a plain pilgrim, or Henry who killed Becket.'
So she was called the Plain Pilgrim, and she did not mind.
We thought of cocked hats, but they are warm to wear, and the big garden hats that make you look like pictures on the covers of plantation songs did beautifully. We put cockle-shells on them. Sandals we did try, with pieces of oil-cloth cut the shape of soles and fastened with tape, but the dust gets into your toes so, and we decided boots were better for such a long walk. Some of the pilgrims who were very earnest decided to tie their boots with white tape crossed outside to pretend sandals. Denny was one of these earnest palmers. As for dresses, there was no time to make them properly, and at first we thought of nightgowns; but we decided not to, in case people in Canterbury were not used to that sort of pilgrim nowadays. We made up our minds to go as we were—or as we might happen to be next day.
You will be ready to believe we hoped next day would be fine. It was.
Fair was the morn when the pilgrims arose and went down to breakfast. Albert's uncle had had brekker early and was hard at work in his study. We heard his quill pen squeaking when we listened at the door. It is not wrong to listen at doors when there is only one person inside, because nobody would tell itself secrets aloud when it was alone.
We got lunch from the housekeeper, Mrs Pettigrew. She seems almost to LIKE us all to go out and take our lunch with us. Though I should think it must be very dull for her all alone. I remember, though, that Eliza, our late general at Lewisham, was just the same. We took the dear dogs of course. Since the Tower of Mystery happened we are not allowed to go anywhere without the escort of these faithful friends of man. We did not take Martha, because bull-dogs do not like walks. Remember this if you ever have one of those valuable animals.
When we were all ready, with our big hats and cockle-shells, and our staves and our tape sandals, the pilgrims looked very nice.
'Only we haven't any scrips,' Dora said. 'What is a scrip?'
'I think it's something to read. A roll of parchment or something.'
So we had old newspapers rolled up, and carried them in our hands. We took the Globe and the Westminster Gazette because they are pink and green. The Dentist wore his white sandshoes, sandalled with black tape, and bare legs. They really looked almost as good as bare feet.
'We OUGHT to have peas in our shoes,' he said. But we did not think so. We knew what a very little stone in your boot will do, let alone peas.
Of course we knew the way to go to Canterbury, because the old Pilgrims' Road runs just above our house. It is a very pretty road, narrow, and often shady. It is nice for walking, but carts do not like it because it is rough and rutty; so there is grass growing in patches on it.
I have said that it was a fine day, which means that it was not raining, but the sun did not shine all the time.
''Tis well, O Knight,' said Alice, 'that the orb of day shines not in undi—what's-its-name?—splendour.'
'Thou sayest sooth, Plain Pilgrim,' replied Oswald. ''Tis jolly warm even as it is.'
'I wish I wasn't two people,' Noel said, 'it seems to make me hotter. I think I'll be a Reeve or something.'
But we would not let him, and we explained that if he hadn't been so beastly particular Alice would have been half of him, and he had only himself to thank if being all of a Nun-Priest made him hot.
But it WAS warm certainly, and it was some time since we'd gone so far in boots. Yet when H. O. complained we did our duty as pilgrims and made him shut up. He did as soon as Alice said that about whining and grizzling being below the dignity of a Manciple.
It was so warm that the Prioress and the wife of Bath gave up walking with their arms round each other in their usual silly way (Albert's uncle calls it Laura Matildaing), and the Doctor and Mr Bath had to take their jackets off and carry them.
I am sure if an artist or a photographer, or any person who liked pilgrims, had seen us he would have been very pleased. The paper cockle-shells were first-rate, but it was awkward having them on the top of the staffs, because they got in your way when you wanted the staff to use as a walking-stick.
We stepped out like a man all of us, and kept it up as well as we could in book-talk, and at first all was merry as a dinner-bell; but presently Oswald, who was the 'very perfect gentle knight', could not help noticing that one of us was growing very silent and rather pale, like people are when they have eaten something that disagrees with them before they are quite sure of the fell truth.
So he said, 'What's up, Dentist, old man?' quite kindly and like a perfect knight, though, of course, he was annoyed with Denny. It is sickening when people turn pale in the middle of a game and everything is spoiled, and you have to go home, and tell the spoiler how sorry you are that he is knocked up, and pretend not to mind about the game being spoiled.
Denny said, 'Nothing', but Oswald knew better.
Then Alice said, 'Let's rest a bit, Oswald, it IS hot.'
'Sir Oswald, if you please, Plain Pilgrim,' returned her brother dignifiedly. 'Remember I'm a knight.'
So then we sat down and had lunch, and Denny looked better. We played adverbs, and twenty questions, and apprenticing your son, for a bit in the shade, and then Dicky said it was time to set sail if we meant to make the port of Canterbury that night. Of course, pilgrims reck not of ports, but Dicky never does play the game thoughtfully.
We went on. I believe we should have got to Canterbury all right and quite early, only Denny got paler and paler, and presently Oswald saw, beyond any doubt, that he was beginning to walk lame.
'Shoes hurt you, Dentist?' he said, still with kind striving cheerfulness.
'Not much—it's all right,' returned the other.
So on we went—but we were all a bit tired now—and the sun was hotter and hotter; the clouds had gone away. We had to begin to sing to keep up our spirits. We sang 'The British Grenadiers' and 'John Brown's Body', which is grand to march to, and a lot of others. We were just starting on 'Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching', when Denny stopped short. He stood first on one foot and then on the other, and suddenly screwed up his face and put his knuckles in his eyes and sat down on a heap of stones by the roadside. When we pulled his hands down he was actually crying. The author does not wish to say it is babyish to cry.
'Whatever is up?' we all asked, and Daisy and Dora petted him to get him to say, but he only went on howling, and said it was nothing, only would we go on and leave him, and call for him as we came back.
Oswald thought very likely something had given Denny the stomach-ache, and he did not like to say so before all of us, so he sent the others away and told them to walk on a bit.
Then he said, 'Now, Denny, don't be a young ass. What is it? Is it stomach-ache?'
And Denny stopped crying to say 'No!' as loud as he could.
'Well, then,' Oswald said, 'look here, you're spoiling the whole thing. Don't be a jackape, Denny. What is it?'
'You won't tell the others if I tell you?'
'Not if you say not,' Oswald answered in kindly tones.
'Well, it's my shoes.'
'Take them off, man.'
'You won't laugh?'
'NO!' cried Oswald, so impatiently that the others looked back to see why he was shouting. He waved them away, and with humble gentleness began to undo the black-tape sandals.
Denny let him, crying hard all the time.
When Oswald had got off the first shoe the mystery was made plain to him.
'Well! Of all the—' he said in proper indignation.
Denny quailed—though he said he did not—but then he doesn't know what quailing is, and if Denny did not quail then Oswald does not know what quailing is either.
For when Oswald took the shoe off he naturally chucked it down and gave it a kick, and a lot of little pinky yellow things rolled out. And Oswald look closer at the interesting sight. And the little things were SPLIT peas.
'Perhaps you'll tell me,' said the gentle knight, with the politeness of despair, 'why on earth you've played the goat like this?'
'Oh, don't be angry,' Denny said; and now his shoes were off, he curled and uncurled his toes and stopped crying. 'I KNEW pilgrims put peas in their shoes—and—oh, I wish you wouldn't laugh!'
'I'm not,' said Oswald, still with bitter politeness.
'I didn't want to tell you I was going to, because I wanted to be better than all of you, and I thought if you knew I was going to you'd want to too, and you wouldn't when I said it first. So I just put some peas in my pocket and dropped one or two at a time into my shoes when you weren't looking.'
In his secret heart Oswald said, 'Greedy young ass.' For it IS greedy to want to have more of anything than other people, even goodness.
Outwardly Oswald said nothing.
'You see'—Denny went on—'I do want to be good. And if pilgriming is to do you good, you ought to do it properly. I shouldn't mind being hurt in my feet if it would make me good for ever and ever. And besides, I wanted to play the game thoroughly. You always say I don't.'
The breast of the kind Oswald was touched by these last words.
'I think you're quite good enough,' he said. 'I'll fetch back the others—no, they won't laugh.'
And we all went back to Denny, and the girls made a fuss with him. But Oswald and Dicky were grave and stood aloof. They were old enough to see that being good was all very well, but after all you had to get the boy home somehow.
When they said this, as agreeably as they could, Denny said—
'It's all right—someone will give me a lift.'
'You think everything in the world can be put right with a lift,' Dicky said, and he did not speak lovingly.
'So it can,' said Denny, 'when it's your feet. I shall easily get a lift home.'
'Not here you won't,' said Alice. 'No one goes down this road; but the high road's just round the corner, where you see the telegraph wires.'
Dickie and Oswald made a sedan chair and carried Denny to the high road, and we sat down in a ditch to wait. For a long time nothing went by but a brewer's dray. We hailed it, of course, but the man was so sound asleep that our hails were vain, and none of us thought soon enough about springing like a flash to the horses' heads, though we all thought of it directly the dray was out of sight.
So we had to keep on sitting there by the dusty road, and more than one pilgrim was heard to say it wished we had never come. Oswald was not one of those who uttered this useless wish.
At last, just when despair was beginning to eat into the vital parts of even Oswald, there was a quick tap-tapping of horses' feet on the road, and a dogcart came in sight with a lady in it all alone.
We hailed her like the desperate shipwrecked mariners in the long-boat hail the passing sail.
She pulled up. She was not a very old lady—twenty-five we found out afterwards her age was—and she looked jolly.
'Well,' she said, 'what's the matter?'
'It's this poor little boy,' Dora said, pointing to the Dentist, who had gone to sleep in the dry ditch, with his mouth open as usual. 'His feet hurt him so, and will you give him a lift?'
'But why are you all rigged out like this?' asked the lady, looking at our cockle-shells and sandals and things. We told her.
'And how has he hurt his feet?' she asked. And we told her that.
She looked very kind. 'Poor little chap,' she said. 'Where do you want to go?'
We told her that too. We had no concealments from this lady.
'Well,' she said, 'I have to go on to—what is its name?'
'Canterbury,' said H. O.
'Well, yes, Canterbury,' she said; 'it's only about half a mile. I'll take the poor little pilgrim—and, yes, the three girls. You boys must walk. Then we'll have tea and see the sights, and I'll drive you home—at least some of you. How will that do?'
We thanked her very much indeed, and said it would do very nicely.
Then we helped Denny into the cart, and the girls got up, and the red wheels of the cart spun away through the dust.
'I wish it had been an omnibus the lady was driving,' said H. O., 'then we could all have had a ride.'
'Don't you be so discontented,' Dicky said. And Noel said—
'You ought to be jolly thankful you haven't got to carry Denny all the way home on your back. You'd have had to if you'd been out alone with him.'
When we got to Canterbury it was much smaller than we expected, and the cathedral not much bigger than the Church that is next to the Moat House. There seemed to be only one big street, but we supposed the rest of the city was hidden away somewhere. There was a large inn, with a green before it, and the red-wheeled dogcart was standing in the stableyard and the lady, with Denny and the others, sitting on the benches in the porch, looking out for us. The inn was called the 'George and Dragon', and it made me think of the days when there were coaches and highwaymen and foot-pads and jolly landlords, and adventures at country inns, like you read about.
'We've ordered tea,' said the lady. 'Would you like to wash your hands?'
We saw that she wished us to, so we said yes, we would. The girls and Denny were already much cleaner than when we parted from them.
There was a courtyard to the inn and a wooden staircase outside the house. We were taken up this, and washed our hands in a big room with a fourpost wooden bed and dark red hangings—just the sort of hangings that would not show the stains of gore in the dear old adventurous times.
Then we had tea in a great big room with wooden chairs and tables, very polished and old.
It was a very nice tea, with lettuces, and cold meat, and three kinds of jam, as well as cake, and new bread, which we are not allowed at home.
While tea was being had, the lady talked to us. She was very kind.
There are two sorts of people in the world, besides others; one sort understand what you're driving at, and the other don't. This lady was the one sort.
After everyone had had as much to eat as they could possibly want, the lady said, 'What was it you particularly wanted to see at Canterbury?'
'The cathedral,' Alice said, 'and the place where Thomas A Becket was murdered.'
'And the Danejohn,' said Dicky.
Oswald wanted to see the walls, because he likes the Story of St Alphege and the Danes.
'Well, well,' said the lady, and she put on her hat; it was a really sensible one—not a blob of fluffy stuff and feathers put on sideways and stuck on with long pins, and no shade to your face, but almost as big as ours, with a big brim and red flowers, and black strings to tie under your chin to keep it from blowing off.
Then we went out all together to see Canterbury. Dicky and Oswald took it in turns to carry Denny on their backs. The lady called him 'The Wounded Comrade'.
We went first to the church. Oswald, whose quick brain was easily aroused to suspicions, was afraid the lady might begin talking in the church, but she did not. The church door was open. I remember mother telling us once it was right and good for churches to be left open all day, so that tired people could go in and be quiet, and say their prayers, if they wanted to. But it does not seem respectful to talk out loud in church. (See Note A.)
When we got outside the lady said, 'You can imagine how on the chancel steps began the mad struggle in which Becket, after hurling one of his assailants, armour and all, to the ground—'
'It would have been much cleverer,' H. O. interrupted, 'to hurl him without his armour, and leave that standing up.'
'Go on,' said Alice and Oswald, when they had given H. O. a withering glance. And the lady did go on. She told us all about Becket, and then about St Alphege, who had bones thrown at him till he died, because he wouldn't tax his poor people to please the beastly rotten Danes.
And Denny recited a piece of poetry he knows called 'The Ballad of Canterbury'.
It begins about Danish warships snake-shaped, and ends about doing as you'd be done by. It is long, but it has all the beef-bones in it, and all about St Alphege.
Then the lady showed us the Danejohn, and it was like an oast-house. And Canterbury walls that Alphege defied the Danes from looked down on a quite common farmyard. The hospital was like a barn, and other things were like other things, but we went all about and enjoyed it very much. The lady was quite amusing, besides sometimes talking like a real cathedral guide I met afterwards. (See Note B.) When at last we said we thought Canterbury was very small considering, the lady said—
'Well, it seemed a pity to come so far and not at least hear something about Canterbury.'
And then at once we knew the worst, and Alice said—
'What a horrid sell!' But Oswald, with immediate courteousness, said—
'I don't care. You did it awfully well.' And he did not say, though he owns he thought of it—
'I knew it all the time,' though it was a great temptation. Because really it was more than half true. He had felt from the first that this was too small for Canterbury. (See Note C.)
The real name of the place was Hazelbridge, and not Canterbury at all. We went to Canterbury another time. (See Note D.) We were not angry with the lady for selling us about it being Canterbury, because she had really kept it up first-rate. And she asked us if we minded, very handsomely, and we said we liked it. But now we did not care how soon we got home. The lady saw this, and said—
'Come, our chariots are ready, and our horses caparisoned.'
That is a first-rate word out of a book. It cheered Oswald up, and he liked her for using it, though he wondered why she said chariots. When we got back to the inn I saw her dogcart was there, and a grocer's cart too, with B. Munn, grocer, Hazelbridge, on it. She took the girls in her cart, and the boys went with the grocer. His horse was a very good one to go, only you had to hit it with the wrong end of the whip. But the cart was very bumpety.
The evening dews were falling—at least, I suppose so, but you do not feel dew in a grocer's cart—when we reached home. We all thanked the lady very much, and said we hoped we should see her again some day. She said she hoped so.
The grocer drove off, and when we had all shaken hands with the lady and kissed her, according as we were boys or girls, or little boys, she touched up her horse and drove away.
She turned at the corner to wave to us, and just as we had done waving, and were turning into the house, Albert's uncle came into our midst like a whirling wind. He was in flannels, and his shirt had no stud in at the neck, and his hair was all rumpled up and his hands were inky, and we knew he had left off in the middle of a chapter by the wildness of his eye.
'Who was that lady?' he said. 'Where did you meet her?'
Mindful, as ever, of what he was told, Oswald began to tell the story from the beginning.
'The other day, protector of the poor,' he began; 'Dora and I were reading about the Canterbury pilgrims...'
Oswald thought Albert's uncle would be pleased to find his instructions about beginning at the beginning had borne fruit, but instead he interrupted.
'Stow it, you young duffer! Where did you meet her?'
Oswald answered briefly, in wounded accents, 'Hazelbridge.'
Then Albert's uncle rushed upstairs three at a time, and as he went he called out to Oswald—
'Get out my bike, old man, and blow up the back tyre.'
I am sure Oswald was as quick as anyone could have been, but long ere the tyre was thoroughly blowed Albert's uncle appeared, with a collar-stud and tie and blazer, and his hair tidy, and wrenching the unoffending machine from Oswald's surprised fingers.
Albert's uncle finished pumping up the tyre, and then flinging himself into the saddle he set off, scorching down the road at a pace not surpassed by any highwayman, however black and high-mettled his steed. We were left looking at each other. 'He must have recognized her,' Dicky said.
'Perhaps,' Noel said, 'she is the old nurse who alone knows the dark secret of his highborn birth.'
'Not old enough, by chalks,' Oswald said.
'I shouldn't wonder,' said Alice, 'if she holds the secret of the will that will make him rolling in long-lost wealth.'
'I wonder if he'll catch her,' Noel said. 'I'm quite certain all his future depends on it. Perhaps she's his long-lost sister, and the estate was left to them equally, only she couldn't be found, so it couldn't be shared up.'
'Perhaps he's only in love with her,' Dora said, 'parted by cruel Fate at an early age, he has ranged the wide world ever since trying to find her.'
'I hope to goodness he hasn't—anyway, he's not ranged since we knew him—never further than Hastings,' Oswald said. 'We don't want any of that rot.'
'What rot?' Daisy asked. And Oswald said—
'Getting married, and all that sort of rubbish.'
And Daisy and Dora were the only ones that didn't agree with him. Even Alice owned that being bridesmaids must be fairly good fun. It's no good. You may treat girls as well as you like, and give them every comfort and luxury, and play fair just as if they were boys, but there is something unmanly about the best of girls. They go silly, like milk goes sour, without any warning.
When Albert's uncle returned he was very hot, with a beaded brow, but pale as the Dentist when the peas were at their worst.
'Did you catch her?' H. O. asked.
Albert's uncle's brow looked black as the cloud that thunder will presently break from. 'No,'he said.
'Is she your long-lost nurse?' H. O. went on, before we could stop him.
'Long-lost grandmother! I knew the lady long ago in India,' said Albert's uncle, as he left the room, slamming the door in a way we should be forbidden to.
And that was the end of the Canterbury Pilgrimage.
As for the lady, we did not then know whether she was his long-lost grandmother that he had known in India or not, though we thought she seemed youngish for the part. We found out afterwards whether she was or not, but that comes in another part. His manner was not the one that makes you go on asking questions. The Canterbury Pilgriming did not exactly make us good, but then, as Dora said, we had not done anything wrong that day. So we were twenty-four hours to the good.
Note A.—Afterwards we went and saw real Canterbury. It is very large. A disagreeable man showed us round the cathedral, and jawed all the time quite loud as if it wasn't a church. I remember one thing he said. It was this:
'This is the Dean's Chapel; it was the Lady Chapel in the wicked days when people used to worship the Virgin Mary.'
And H. O. said, 'I suppose they worship the Dean now?'
Some strange people who were there laughed out loud. I think this is worse in church than not taking your cap off when you come in, as H. O. forgot to do, because the cathedral was so big he didn't think it was a church.
Note B. (See Note C.)
Note C. (See Note D.)
Note D. (See Note E.)
Note E. (See Note A.)
This ends the Canterbury Pilgrims.
CHAPTER 13. THE DRAGON'S TEETH; OR, ARMY-SEED
Albert's uncle was out on his bicycle as usual. After the day when we became Canterbury Pilgrims and were brought home in the dog-cart with red wheels by the lady he told us was his long-lost grandmother he had known years ago in India, he spent not nearly so much of his time in writing, and he used to shave every morning instead of only when requisite, as in earlier days. And he was always going out on his bicycle in his new Norfolk suit. We are not so unobserving as grown-up people make out. We knew well enough he was looking for the long-lost. And we jolly well wished he might find her. Oswald, always full of sympathy with misfortune, however undeserved, had himself tried several times to find the lady. So had the others. But all this is what they call a digression; it has nothing to do with the dragon's teeth I am now narrating.
It began with the pig dying—it was the one we had for the circus, but it having behaved so badly that day had nothing to do with its illness and death, though the girls said they felt remorse, and perhaps if we hadn't made it run so that day it might have been spared to us. But Oswald cannot pretend that people were right just because they happen to be dead, and as long as that pig was alive we all knew well enough that it was it that made us run—and not us it.
The pig was buried in the kitchen garden. Bill, that we made the tombstone for, dug the grave, and while he was away at his dinner we took a turn at digging, because we like to be useful, and besides, when you dig you never know what you may turn up. I knew a man once that found a gold ring on the point of his fork when he was digging potatoes, and you know how we found two half-crowns ourselves once when we were digging for treasure.
Oswald was taking his turn with the spade, and the others were sitting on the gravel and telling him how to do it.
'Work with a will,' Dicky said, yawning.
Alice said, 'I wish we were in a book. People in books never dig without finding something. I think I'd rather it was a secret passage than anything.'
Oswald stopped to wipe his honest brow ere replying.
'A secret's nothing when you've found it out. Look at the secret staircase. It's no good, not even for hide-and-seek, because of its squeaking. I'd rather have the pot of gold we used to dig for when we were little.' It was really only last year, but you seem to grow old very quickly after you have once passed the prime of your youth, which is at ten, I believe.
'How would you like to find the mouldering bones of Royalist soldiers foully done to death by nasty Ironsides?'Noel asked, with his mouth full of plum.
'If they were really dead it wouldn't matter,' Dora said. 'What I'm afraid of is a skeleton that can walk about and catch at your legs when you're going upstairs to bed.' 'Skeletons can't walk,' Alice said in a hurry; 'you know they can't, Dora.'
And she glared at Dora till she made her sorry she had said what she had. The things you are frightened of, or even those you would rather not meet in the dark, should never be mentioned before the little ones, or else they cry when it comes to bed-time, and say it was because of what you said.
'We shan't find anything. No jolly fear,' said Dicky.
And just then my spade I was digging with struck on something hard, and it felt hollow. I did really think for one joyful space that we had found that pot of gold. But the thing, whatever it was, seemed to be longish; longer, that is, than a pot of gold would naturally be. And as I uncovered it I saw that it was not at all pot-of-gold-colour, but like a bone Pincher has buried. So Oswald said—
'It IS the skeleton.'
The girls all drew back, and Alice said, 'Oswald, I wish you wouldn't.'
A moment later the discovery was unearthed, and Oswald lifted it up, with both hands.
'It's a dragon's head,' Noel said, and it certainly looked like it.
It was long and narrowish and bony, and with great yellow teeth sticking in the jaw.
Bill came back just then and said it was a horse's head, but H. O. and Noel would not believe it, and Oswald owns that no horse he has ever seen had a head at all that shape.
But Oswald did not stop to argue, because he saw a keeper who showed me how to set snares going by, and he wanted to talk to him about ferrets, so he went off and Dicky and Denny and Alice with him. Also Daisy and Dora went off to finish reading Ministering Children. So H. O. and Noel were left with the bony head. They took it away.
The incident had quite faded from the mind of Oswald next day. But just before breakfast Noel and H. O. came in, looking hot and anxious. They had got up early and had not washed at all—not even their hands and faces. Noel made Oswald a secret signal. All the others saw it, and with proper delicate feeling pretended not to have.
When Oswald had gone out with Noel and H. O. in obedience to the secret signal, Noel said—
'You know that dragon's head yesterday?'
'Well?' Oswald said quickly, but not crossly—the two things are quite different.
'Well, you know what happened in Greek history when some chap sowed dragon's teeth?'
'They came up armed men,' said H. O., but Noel sternly bade him shut up, and Oswald said 'Well,' again. If he spoke impatiently it was because he smelt the bacon being taken in to breakfast.
'Well,' Noel went on, 'what do you suppose would have come up if we'd sowed those dragon's teeth we found yesterday?'
'Why, nothing, you young duffer,' said Oswald, who could now smell the coffee. 'All that isn't History it's Humbug. Come on in to brekker.'
'It's NOT humbug,' H. O. cried, 'it is history. We DID sow—'
'Shut up,' said Noel again. 'Look here, Oswald. We did sow those dragon's teeth in Randall's ten-acre meadow, and what do you think has come up?'
'Toadstools I should think,' was Oswald's contemptible rejoinder.
'They have come up a camp of soldiers,' said Noel—ARMED MEN. So you see it WAS history. We have sowed army-seed, just like Cadmus, and it has come up. It was a very wet night. I daresay that helped it along.'
Oswald could not decide which to disbelieve—his brother or his ears. So, disguising his doubtful emotions without a word, he led the way to the bacon and the banqueting hall.
He said nothing about the army-seed then, neither did Noel and H. O. But after the bacon we went into the garden, and then the good elder brother said—
'Why don't you tell the others your cock-and-bull story?'
So they did, and their story was received with warm expressions of doubt. It was Dicky who observed—
'Let's go and have a squint at Randall's ten-acre, anyhow. I saw a hare there the other day.'
We went. It is some little way, and as we went, disbelief reigned superb in every breast except Noel's and H. O.'s, so you will see that even the ready pen of the present author cannot be expected to describe to you his variable sensations when he got to the top of the hill and suddenly saw that his little brothers had spoken the truth. I do not mean that they generally tell lies, but people make mistakes sometimes, and the effect is the same as lies if you believe them.
There WAS a camp there with real tents and soldiers in grey and red tunics. I daresay the girls would have said coats. We stood in ambush, too astonished even to think of lying in it, though of course we know that this is customary. The ambush was the wood on top of the little hill, between Randall's ten-acre meadow and Sugden's Waste Wake pasture.
'There would be cover here for a couple of regiments,' whispered Oswald, who was, I think, gifted by Fate with the far-seeingness of a born general.
Alice merely said 'Hist', and we went down to mingle with the troops as though by accident, and seek for information.
The first man we came to at the edge of the camp was cleaning a sort of cauldron thing like witches brew bats in.
We went up to him and said, 'Who are you? Are you English, or are you the enemy?'
'We're the enemy,' he said, and he did not seem ashamed of being what he was. And he spoke English with quite a good accent for a foreigner.
'The enemy!' Oswald echoed in shocked tones. It is a terrible thing to a loyal and patriotic youth to see an enemy cleaning a pot in an English field, with English sand, and looking as much at home as if he was in his foreign fastnesses.
The enemy seemed to read Oswald's thoughts with deadly unerringness. He said—
'The English are somewhere over on the other side of the hill. They are trying to keep us out of Maidstone.'
After this our plan of mingling with the troops did not seem worth going on with. This soldier, in spite of his unerringness in reading Oswald's innermost heart, seemed not so very sharp in other things, or he would never have given away his secret plans like this, for he must have known from our accents that we were Britons to the backbone. Or perhaps (Oswald thought this, and it made his blood at once boil and freeze, which our uncle had told us was possible, but only in India), perhaps he thought that Maidstone was already as good as taken and it didn't matter what he said. While Oswald was debating within his intellect what to say next, and how to say it so as to discover as many as possible of the enemy's dark secrets, Noel said—
'How did you get here? You weren't here yesterday at tea-time.'
The soldier gave the pot another sandy rub, and said—
'I daresay it does seem quick work—the camp seems as if it had sprung up in the night, doesn't it?—like a mushroom.'
Alice and Oswald looked at each other, and then at the rest of us. The words 'sprung up in the night' seemed to touch a string in every heart.
'You see,' whispered Noel, 'he won't tell us how he came here. NOW, is it humbug or history?'
Oswald, after whisperedly requesting his young brother to dry up and not bother, remarked, 'Then you're an invading army?'
'Well,' said the soldier, 'we're a skeleton battalion, as a matter of fact, but we're invading all right enough.'
And now indeed the blood of the stupidest of us froze, just as the quick-witted Oswald's had done earlier in the interview. Even H. O. opened his mouth and went the colour of mottled soap; he is so fat that this is the nearest he can go to turning pale. Denny said, 'But you don't look like skeletons.'
The soldier stared, then he laughed and said, 'Ah, that's the padding in our tunics. You should see us in the grey dawn taking our morning bath in a bucket.' It was a dreadful picture for the imagination. A skeleton, with its bones all loose most likely, bathing anyhow in a pail. There was a silence while we thought it over.
Now, ever since the cleaning-cauldron soldier had said that about taking Maidstone, Alice had kept on pulling at Oswald's jacket behind, and he had kept on not taking any notice. But now he could not stand it any longer, so he said—
'Well, what is it?'
Alice drew him aside, or rather, she pulled at his jacket so that he nearly fell over backwards, and then she whispered, 'Come along, don't stay parlaying with the foe. He's only talking to you to gain time.'
'What for?' said Oswald.
'Why, so that we shouldn't warn the other army, you silly,' Alice said, and Oswald was so upset by what she said, that he forgot to be properly angry with her for the wrong word she used.
'But we ought to warn them at home,' she said—' suppose the Moat House was burned down, and all the supplies commandeered for the foe?'
Alice turned boldly to the soldier. 'DO you burn down farms?' she asked.
'Well, not as a rule,' he said, and he had the cheek to wink at Oswald, but Oswald would not look at him. 'We've not burned a farm since—oh, not for years.'
'A farm in Greek history it was, I expect,' Denny murmured. 'Civilized warriors do not burn farms nowadays,' Alice said sternly, 'whatever they did in Greek times. You ought to know that.'
The soldier said things had changed a good deal since Greek times.
So we said good morning as quickly as we could: it is proper to be polite even to your enemy, except just at the moments when it has really come to rifles and bayonets or other weapons.
The soldier said 'So long!' in quite a modern voice, and we retraced our footsteps in silence to the ambush—I mean the wood. Oswald did think of lying in the ambush then, but it was rather wet, because of the rain the night before, that H. O. said had brought the army-seed up. And Alice walked very fast, saying nothing but 'Hurry up, can't you!' and dragging H. O. by one hand and Noel by the other. So we got into the road.
Then Alice faced round and said, 'This is all our fault. If we hadn't sowed those dragon's teeth there wouldn't have been any invading army.'
I am sorry to say Daisy said, 'Never mind, Alice, dear. WE didn't sow the nasty things, did we, Dora?'
But Denny told her it was just the same. It was WE had done it, so long as it was any of us, especially if it got any of us into trouble. Oswald was very pleased to see that the Dentist was beginning to understand the meaning of true manliness, and about the honour of the house of Bastable, though of course he is only a Foulkes. Yet it is something to know he does his best to learn.
If you are very grown-up, or very clever, I daresay you will now have thought of a great many things. If you have you need not say anything, especially if you're reading this aloud to anybody. It's no good putting in what you think in this part, because none of us thought anything of the kind at the time.
We simply stood in the road without any of your clever thoughts, filled with shame and distress to think of what might happen owing to the dragon's teeth being sown. It was a lesson to us never to sow seed without being quite sure what sort it is. This is particularly true of the penny packets, which sometimes do not come up at all, quite unlike dragon's teeth.
Of course H. O. and Noel were more unhappy than the rest of us. This was only fair.
'How can we possibly prevent their getting to Maidstone?' Dickie said. 'Did you notice the red cuffs on their uniforms? Taken from the bodies of dead English soldiers, I shouldn't wonder.'
'If they're the old Greek kind of dragon's-teeth soldiers, they ought to fight each other to death,' Noel said; 'at least, if we had a helmet to throw among them.'
But none of us had, and it was decided that it would be of no use for H. O. to go back and throw his straw hat at them, though he wanted to. Denny said suddenly—
'Couldn't we alter the sign-posts, so that they wouldn't know the way to Maidstone?'
Oswald saw that this was the time for true generalship to be shown.
'Fetch all the tools out of your chest—Dicky go too, there's a good chap, and don't let him cut his legs with the saw.' He did once, tumbling over it. 'Meet us at the cross-roads, you know, where we had the Benevolent Bar. Courage and dispatch, and look sharp about it.'
When they had gone we hastened to the crossroads, and there a great idea occurred to Oswald. He used the forces at his command so ably that in a very short time the board in the field which says 'No thoroughfare. Trespassers will be prosecuted' was set up in the middle of the road to Maidstone. We put stones, from a heap by the road, behind it to make it stand up.
Then Dicky and Denny came back, and Dicky shinned up the sign-post and sawed off the two arms, and we nailed them up wrong, so that it said 'To Maidstone' on the Dover Road, and 'To Dover' on the road to Maidstone. We decided to leave the Trespassers board on the real Maidstone road, as an extra guard.
Then we settled to start at once to warn Maidstone.
Some of us did not want the girls to go, but it would have been unkind to say so. However, there was at least one breast that felt a pang of joy when Dora and Daisy gave out that they would rather stay where they were and tell anybody who came by which was the real road.
'Because it would be so dreadful if someone was going to buy pigs or fetch a doctor or anything in a hurry and then found they had got to Dover instead of where they wanted to go to,' Dora said. But when it came to dinner-time they went home, so that they were entirely out of it. This often happens to them by some strange fatalism.
We left Martha to take care of the two girls, and Lady and Pincher went with us. It was getting late in the day, but I am bound to remember no one said anything about their dinners, whatever they may have thought. We cannot always help our thoughts. We happened to know it was roast rabbits and currant jelly that day.
We walked two and two, and sang the 'British Grenadiers' and 'Soldiers of the queen' so as to be as much part of the British Army as possible. The Cauldron-Man had said the English were the other side of the hill. But we could not see any scarlet anywhere, though we looked for it as carefully as if we had been fierce bulls.
But suddenly we went round a turn in the road and came plump into a lot of soldiers. Only they were not red-coats. They were dressed in grey and silver. And it was a sort of furzy-common place, and three roads branching out. The men were lying about, with some of their belts undone, smoking pipes and cigarettes.
'It's not British soldiers,' Alice said. 'Oh dear, oh dear, I'm afraid it's more enemy. You didn't sow the army-seed anywhere else, did you, H. O. dear?'
H. O. was positive he hadn't. 'But perhaps lots more came up where we did sow them,' he said; 'they're all over England by now very likely. I don't know how many men can grow out of one dragon's tooth.'
Then Noel said, 'It was my doing anyhow, and I'm not afraid,' and he walked straight up to the nearest soldier, who was cleaning his pipe with a piece of grass, and said—
'Please, are you the enemy?' The man said—
'No, young Commander-in-Chief, we're the English.'
Then Oswald took command. 'Where is the General?' he said.
'We're out of generals just now, Field-Marshal,' the man said, and his voice was a gentleman's voice. 'Not a single one in stock. We might suit you in majors now—and captains are quite cheap. Competent corporals going for a song. And we have a very nice colonel, too quiet to ride or drive.'
Oswald does not mind chaff at proper times. But this was not one.
'You seem to be taking it very easy,' he said with disdainful expression.
'This IS an easy,' said the grey soldier, sucking at his pipe to see if it would draw.
'I suppose YOU don't care if the enemy gets into Maidstone or not!' exclaimed Oswald bitterly. 'If I were a soldier I'd rather die than be beaten.'