The soldier saluted. 'Good old patriotic sentiment' he said, smiling at the heart-felt boy.
But Oswald could bear no more. 'Which is the Colonel?' he asked.
'Over there—near the grey horse.'
'The one lighting a cigarette?' H. O. asked.
'Yes—but I say, kiddie, he won't stand any jaw. There's not an ounce of vice about him, but he's peppery. He might kick out. You'd better bunk.'
'Better what?' asked H. O.
'Bunk, bottle, scoot, skip, vanish, exit,' said the soldier.
'That's what you'd do when the fighting begins,' said H. O. He is often rude like that—but it was what we all thought, all the same.
The soldier only laughed.
A spirited but hasty altercation among ourselves in whispers ended in our allowing Alice to be the one to speak to the Colonel. It was she who wanted to. 'However peppery he is he won't kick a girl,' she said, and perhaps this was true.
But of course we all went with her. So there were six of us to stand in front of the Colonel. And as we went along we agreed that we would salute him on the word three. So when we got near, Dick said, 'One, two, three', and we all saluted very well—except H. O., who chose that minute to trip over a rifle a soldier had left lying about, and was only saved from falling by a man in a cocked hat who caught him deftly by the back of his jacket and stood him on his legs.
'Let go, can't you,' said H. O. 'Are you the General?'
Before the Cocked Hat had time to frame a reply, Alice spoke to the Colonel. I knew what she meant to say, because she had told me as we threaded our way among the resting soldiery. What she really said was—
'Oh, how CAN you!'
'How can I WHAT?' said the Colonel, rather crossly.
'Why, SMOKE?' said Alice.
'My good children, if you're an infant Band of Hope, let me recommend you to play in some other backyard,' said the Cock-Hatted Man.
H. O. said, 'Band of Hope yourself'—but no one noticed it.
'We're NOT a Band of Hope,' said Noel. 'We're British, and the man over there told us you are. And Maidstone's in danger, and the enemy not a mile off, and you stand SMOKING.' Noel was standing crying, himself, or something very like it.
'It's quite true,' Alice said.
The Colonel said, 'Fiddle-de-dee.'
But the Cocked-Hatted Man said, 'What was the enemy like?' We told him exactly. And even the Colonel then owned there might be something in it.
'Can you show me the place where they are on the map?' he asked.
'Not on the map, we can't,' said Dicky—'at least, I don't think so, but on the ground we could. We could take you there in a quarter of an hour.'
The Cocked-Hatted One looked at the Colonel, who returned his scrutiny, then he shrugged his shoulders.
'Well, we've got to do something,' he said, as if to himself. 'Lead on, Macduff.'
The Colonel roused his soldiery from their stupor of pipes by words of command which the present author is sorry he can't remember.
Then he bade us boys lead the way. I tell you it felt fine, marching at the head of a regiment. Alice got a lift on the Cocked-Hatted One's horse. It was a red-roan steed of might, exactly as if it had been in a ballad. They call a grey-roan a 'blue' in South Africa, the Cocked-Hatted One said.
We led the British Army by unfrequented lanes till we got to the gate of Sugden's Waste Wake pasture. Then the Colonel called a whispered halt, and choosing two of us to guide him, the dauntless and discerning commander went on, on foot, with an orderly. He chose Dicky and Oswald as guides. So we led him to the ambush, and we went through it as quietly as we could. But twigs do crackle and snap so when you are reconnoitring, or anxious to escape detection for whatever reason.
Our Colonel's orderly crackled most. If you're not near enough to tell a colonel by the crown and stars on his shoulder-strap, you can tell him by the orderly behind him, like 'follow my leader'.
'Look out!' said Oswald in a low but commanding whisper, 'the camp's down in that field. You can see if you take a squint through this gap.'
The speaker took a squint himself as he spoke, and drew back, baffled beyond the power of speech. While he was struggling with his baffledness the British Colonel had his squint. He also drew back, and said a word that he must have known was not right—at least when he was a boy.
'I don't care,' said Oswald, 'they were there this morning. White tents like mushrooms, and an enemy cleaning a cauldron.'
'With sand,' said Dicky.
'That's most convincing,' said the Colonel, and I did not like the way he said it.
'I say,' Oswald said, 'let's get to the top corner of the ambush—the wood, I mean. You can see the crossroads from there.'
We did, and quickly, for the crackling of branches no longer dismayed our almost despairing spirits.
We came to the edge of the wood, and Oswald's patriotic heart really did give a jump, and he cried, 'There they are, on the Dover Road.'
Our miscellaneous signboard had done its work.
'By Jove, young un, you're right! And in quarter column, too! We've got em on toast—on toast—egad!' I never heard anyone not in a book say 'egad' before, so I saw something really out of the way was indeed up.
The Colonel was a man of prompt and decisive action. He sent the orderly to tell the Major to advance two companies on the left flank and take cover. Then we led him back through the wood the nearest way, because he said he must rejoin the main body at once. We found the main body very friendly with Noel and H. O. and the others, and Alice was talking to the Cocked-Hatted One as if she had known him all her life.
'I think he's a general in disguise,' Noel said. 'He's been giving us chocolate out of a pocket in his saddle.'
Oswald thought about the roast rabbit then—and he is not ashamed to own it—yet he did not say a word. But Alice is really not a bad sort. She had saved two bars of chocolate for him and Dicky. Even in war girls can sometimes be useful in their humble way.
The Colonel fussed about and said, 'Take cover there!' and everybody hid in the ditch, and the horses and the Cocked Hat, with Alice, retreated down the road out of sight. We were in the ditch too. It was muddy—but nobody thought of their boots in that perilous moment. It seemed a long time we were crouching there. Oswald began to feel the water squelching in his boots, so we held our breath and listened. Oswald laid his ear to the road like a Red Indian. You would not do this in time of peace, but when your country is in danger you care but little about keeping your ears clean. His backwoods' strategy was successful. He rose and dusted himself and said—'They're coming!'
It was true. The footsteps of the approaching foe were now to be heard quite audibly, even by ears in their natural position. The wicked enemy approached. They were marching with a careless swaggeringness that showed how little they suspected the horrible doom which was about to teach them England's might and supremeness.
Just as the enemy turned the corner so that we could see them, the Colonel shouted—'Right section, fire!' and there was a deafening banging.
The enemy's officer said something, and then the enemy got confused and tried to get into the fields through the hedges. But all was vain. There was firing now from our men, on the left as well as the right. And then our Colonel strode nobly up to the enemy's Colonel and demanded surrender. He told me so afterwards. His exact words are only known to himself and the other Colonel. But the enemy's Colonel said, 'I would rather die than surrender,' or words to that effect.
Our Colonel returned to his men and gave the order to fix bayonets, and even Oswald felt his manly cheek turn pale at the thought of the amount of blood to be shed. What would have happened can never now be revealed. For at this moment a man on a piebald horse came clattering over a hedge—as carelessly as if the air was not full of lead and steel at all. Another man rode behind him with a lance and a red pennon on it. I think he must have been the enemy's General coming to tell his men not to throw away their lives on a forlorn hope, for directly he said they were captured the enemy gave in and owned that they were. The enemy's Colonel saluted and ordered his men to form quarter column again. I should have thought he would have had about enough of that myself.
He had now given up all thought of sullen resistance to the bitter end. He rolled a cigarette for himself, and had the foreign cheek to say to our Colonel—
'By Jove, old man, you got me clean that time! Your scouts seem to have marked us down uncommonly neatly.'
It was a proud moment when our Colonel laid his military hand on Oswald's shoulder and said—
'This is my chief scout' which were high words, but not undeserved, and Oswald owns he felt red with gratifying pride when he heard them.
'So you are the traitor, young man,' said the wicked Colonel, going on with his cheek.
Oswald bore it because our Colonel had, and you should be generous to a fallen foe, but it is hard to be called a traitor when you haven't.
He did not treat the wicked Colonel with silent scorn as he might have done, but he said—
'We aren't traitors. We are the Bastables and one of us is a Foulkes. We only mingled unsuspected with the enemy's soldiery and learned the secrets of their acts, which is what Baden-Powell always does when the natives rebel in South Africa; and Denis Foulkes thought of altering the sign-posts to lead the foe astray. And if we did cause all this fighting, and get Maidstone threatened with capture and all that, it was only because we didn't believe Greek things could happen in Great Britain and Ireland, even if you sow dragon's teeth, and besides, some of us were not as e a out sowing them.'
Then the Cocked-Hatted One led his horse and walked with us and made us tell him all about it, and so did the Colonel. The wicked Colonel listened too, which was only another proof of his cheek.
And Oswald told the tale in the modest yet manly way that some people think he has, and gave the others all the credit they deserved. His narration was interrupted no less than four times by shouts of 'Bravo!' in which the enemy's Colonel once more showed his cheek by joining. By the time the story was told we were in sight of another camp. It was the British one this time. The Colonel asked us to have tea in his tent, and it only shows the magnanimosity of English chivalry in the field of battle that he asked the enemy's Colonel too. With his usual cheek he accepted. We were jolly hungry.
When everyone had had as much tea as they possibly could, the Colonel shook hands with us all, and to Oswald he said—
'Well, good-bye, my brave scout. I must mention your name in my dispatches to the War Office.'
H. O. interrupted him to say, 'His name's Oswald Cecil Bastable, and mine is Horace Octavius.' I wish H. O. would learn to hold his tongue. No one ever knows Oswald was christened Cecil as well, if he can possibly help it. YOU didn't know it till now.
'Mr Oswald Bastable,' the Colonel went on—he had the decency not to take any notice of the 'Cecil'—'you would be a credit to any regiment. No doubt the War Office will reward you properly for what you have done for your country. But meantime, perhaps, you'll accept five shillings from a grateful comrade-in-arms.' Oswald felt heart-felt sorry to wound the good Colonel's feelings, but he had to remark that he had only done his duty, and he was sure no British scout would take five bob for doing that. 'And besides,' he said, with that feeling of justice which is part of his young character, 'it was the others just as much as me.'
'Your sentiments, Sir,' said the Colonel who was one of the politest and most discerning colonels I ever saw, 'your sentiments do you honour. But, Bastables all, and—and non-Bastables' (he couldn't remember Foulkes; it's not such an interesting name as Bastable, of course)—'at least you'll accept a soldier's pay?'
'Lucky to touch it, a shilling a day!' Alice and Denny said together. And the Cocked-Hatted Man said something about knowing your own mind and knowing your own Kipling.
'A soldier,' said the Colonel, 'would certainly be lucky to touch it. You see there are deductions for rations. Five shillings is exactly right, deducting twopence each for six teas.'
This seemed cheap for the three cups of tea and the three eggs and all the strawberry jam and bread-and-butter Oswald had had, as well as what the others ate, and Lady's and Pincher's teas, but I suppose soldiers get things cheaper than civilians, which is only right.
Oswald took the five shillings then, there being no longer any scruples why he should not.
Just as we had parted from the brave Colonel and the rest we saw a bicycle coming. It was Albert's uncle. He got off and said—
'What on earth have you been up to? What were you doing with those volunteers?'
We told him the wild adventures of the day, and he listened, and then he said he would withdraw the word volunteers if we liked.
But the seeds of doubt were sown in the breast of Oswald. He was now almost sure that we had made jolly fools of ourselves without a moment's pause throughout the whole of this eventful day. He said nothing at the time, but after supper he had it out with Albert's uncle about the word which had been withdrawn.
Albert's uncle said, of course, no one could be sure that the dragon's teeth hadn't come up in the good old-fashioned way, but that, on the other hand, it was barely possible that both the British and the enemy were only volunteers having a field-day or sham fight, and he rather thought the Cocked-Hatted Man was not a general, but a doctor. And the man with a red pennon carried behind him MIGHT have been the umpire.
Oswald never told the others a word of this. Their young breasts were all panting with joy because they had saved their country; and it would have been but heartless unkindness to show them how silly they had been. Besides, Oswald felt he was much too old to have been so taken in—if he HAD been. Besides, Albert's uncle did say that no one could be sure about the dragon's teeth.
The thing that makes Oswald feel most that, perhaps, the whole thing was a beastly sell, was that we didn't see any wounded. But he tries not to think of this. And if he goes into the army when he grows up, he will not go quite green. He has had experience of the arts of war and the tented field. And a real colonel has called him 'Comrade-in-Arms', which is exactly what Lord Roberts called his own soldiers when he wrote home about them.
CHAPTER 14. ALBERT'S UNCLE's GRANDMOTHER; OR, THE LONG-LOST
The shadow of the termination now descended in sable thunder-clouds upon our devoted nobs. As Albert's uncle said, 'School now gaped for its prey'. In a very short space of time we should be wending our way back to Blackheath, and all the variegated delightfulness of the country would soon be only preserved in memory's faded flowers. (I don't care for that way of writing very much. It would be an awful swot to keep it up—looking out the words and all that.)
To speak in the language of everyday life, our holiday was jolly nearly up. We had had a ripping time, but it was all but over. We really did feel sorry—though, of course, it was rather decent to think of getting back to Father and being able to tell the other chaps about our raft, and the dam, and the Tower of Mystery, and things like that.
When but a brief time was left to us, Oswald and Dicky met by chance in an apple-tree. (That sounds like 'consequences', but it is mere truthfulness.) Dicky said—
'Only four more days.'
Oswald said, 'Yes.'
'There's one thing,' Dickie said, 'that beastly society. We don't want that swarming all over everything when we get home. We ought to dissolve it before we leave here.'
The following dialogue now took place:
Oswald—'Right you are. I always said it was piffling rot.'
Dicky—'So did I.'
Oswald—'Let's call a council. But don't forget we've jolly well got to put our foot down.'
Dicky assented, and the dialogue concluded with apples.
The council, when called, was in but low spirits. This made Oswald's and Dicky's task easier. When people are sunk in gloomy despair about one thing, they will agree to almost anything about something else. (Remarks like this are called philosophic generalizations, Albert's uncle says.) Oswald began by saying—
'We've tried the society for being good in, and perhaps it's done us good. But now the time has come for each of us to be good or bad on his own, without hanging on to the others.'
'The race is run by one and one, But never by two and two,'
the Dentist said.
The others said nothing.
Oswald went on: 'I move that we chuck—I mean dissolve—the Wouldbegoods Society; its appointed task is done. If it's not well done, that's ITS fault and not ours.'
Dicky said, 'Hear! hear! I second this prop.'
The unexpected Dentist said, 'I third it. At first I thought it would help, but afterwards I saw it only made you want to be naughty, just because you were a Wouldbegood.'
Oswald owns he was surprised. We put it to the vote at once, so as not to let Denny cool. H. O. and Noel and Alice voted with us, so Daisy and Dora were what is called a hopeless minority. We tried to cheer their hopelessness by letting them read the things out of the Golden Deed book aloud. Noel hid his face in the straw so that we should not see the faces he made while he made poetry instead of listening, and when the Wouldbegoods was by vote dissolved for ever he sat up, straws in his hair, and said—
'The Wouldbegoods are dead and gone But not the golden deeds they have done These will remain upon Glory's page To be an example to every age, And by this we have got to know How to be good upon our ow—N.
N is for Noel, that makes the rhyme and the sense both right. O, W, N, own; do you see?'
We saw it, and said so, and the gentle poet was satisfied. And the council broke up. Oswald felt that a weight had been lifted from his expanding chest, and it is curious that he never felt so inclined to be good and a model youth as he did then. As he went down the ladder out of the loft he said—
'There's one thing we ought to do, though, before we go home. We ought to find Albert's uncle's long-lost grandmother for him.'
Alice's heart beat true and steadfast. She said, 'That's just exactly what Noel and I were saying this morning. Look out, Oswald, you wretch, you're kicking chaff into my eyes.' She was going down the ladder just under me.
Oswald's younger sister's thoughtful remark ended in another council. But not in the straw loft. We decided to have a quite new place, and disregarded H. O.'s idea of the dairy and Noel's of the cellars. We had the new council on the secret staircase, and there we settled exactly what we ought to do. This is the same thing, if you really wish to be good, as what you are going to do. It was a very interesting council, and when it was over Oswald was so pleased to think that the Wouldbegoods was unrecoverishly dead that he gave Denny and Noel, who were sitting on the step below him, a good-humoured, playful, gentle, loving, brotherly shove, and said, 'Get along down, it's tea-time!'
No reader who understands justice and the real rightness of things, and who is to blame for what, will ever think it could have been Oswald's fault that the two other boys got along down by rolling over and over each other, and bursting the door at the bottom of the stairs open by their revolving bodies. And I should like to know whose fault it was that Mrs Pettigrew was just on the other side of that door at that very minute? The door burst open, and the Impetuous bodies of Noel and Denny rolled out of it into Mrs Pettigrew, and upset her and the tea-tray. Both revolving boys were soaked with tea and milk, and there were one or two cups and things smashed. Mrs Pettigrew was knocked over, but none of her bones were broken. Noel and Denny were going to be sent to bed, but Oswald said it was all his fault. He really did this to give the others a chance of doing a refined golden deed by speaking the truth and saying it was not his fault. But you cannot really count on anyone. They did not say anything, but only rubbed the lumps on their late-revolving heads. So it was bed for Oswald, and he felt the injustice hard.
But he sat up in bed and read The Last of the Mohicans, and then he began to think. When Oswald really thinks he almost always thinks of something. He thought of something now, and it was miles better than the idea we had decided on in the secret staircase, of advertising in the Kentish Mercury and saying if Albert's uncle's long-lost grandmother would call at the Moat House she might hear of something much to her advantage.
What Oswald thought of was that if we went to Hazelbridge and asked Mr B. Munn, Grocer, that drove us home in the cart with the horse that liked the wrong end of the whip best, he would know who the lady was in the red hat and red wheels that paid him to drive us home that Canterbury night. He must have been paid, of course, for even grocers are not generous enough to drive perfect strangers, and five of them too, about the country for nothing. Thus we may learn that even unjustness and sending the wrong people to bed may bear useful fruit, which ought to be a great comfort to everyone when they are unfairly treated. Only it most likely won't be. For if Oswald's brothers and sisters had nobly stood by him as he expected, he would not have had the solitary reflections that led to the great scheme for finding the grandmother.
Of course when the others came up to roost they all came and squatted on Oswald's bed and said how sorry they were. He waived their apologies with noble dignity, because there wasn't much time, and said he had an idea that would knock the council's plan into a cocked hat. But he would not tell them what it was. He made them wait till next morning. This was not sulks, but kind feeling. He wanted them to have something else to think of besides the way they hadn't stood by him in the bursting of the secret staircase door and the tea-tray and the milk.
Next morning Oswald kindly explained, and asked who would volunteer for a forced march to Hazelbridge. The word volunteer cost the young Oswald a pang as soon as he had said it, but I hope he can bear pangs with any man living. 'And mind,' he added, hiding the pang under a general-like severeness, 'I won't have anyone in the expedition who has anything in his shoes except his feet.'
This could not have been put more delicately and decently. But Oswald is often misunderstood. Even Alice said it was unkind to throw the peas up at Denny. When this little unpleasantness had passed away (it took some time because Daisy cried, and Dora said, 'There now, Oswald!') there were seven volunteers, which, with Oswald, made eight, and was, indeed, all of us. There were no cockle-shells, or tape-sandals, or staves, or scrips, or anything romantic and pious about the eight persons who set out for Hazelbridge that morning, more earnestly wishful to be good and deedful—at least Oswald, I know, was—than ever they had been in the days of the beastly Wouldbegood Society. It was a fine day. Either it was fine nearly all last summer, which is how Oswald remembers it, or else nearly all the interesting things we did came on fine days.
With hearts light and gay, and no peas in anyone's shoes, the walk to Hazelbridge was perseveringly conducted. We took our lunch with us, and the dear dogs. Afterwards we wished for a time that we had left one of them at home. But they did so want to come, all of them, and Hazelbridge is not nearly as far as Canterbury, really, so even Martha was allowed to put on her things—I mean her collar—and come with us. She walks slowly, but we had the day before us so there was no extra hurry.
At Hazelbridge we went into B. Munn's grocer's shop and asked for ginger-beer to drink. They gave it us, but they seemed surprised at us wanting to drink it there, and the glass was warm—it had just been washed. We only did it, really, so as to get into conversation with B. Munn, grocer, and extract information without rousing suspicion. You cannot be too careful. However, when we had said it was first-class ginger-beer, and paid for it, we found it not so easy to extract anything more from B. Munn, grocer; and there was an anxious silence while he fiddled about behind the counter among the tinned meats and sauce bottles, with a fringe of hobnailed boots hanging over his head.
H. O. spoke suddenly. He is like the sort of person who rushes in where angels fear to tread, as Denny says (say what sort of person that is). He said—
'I say, you remember driving us home that day. Who paid for the cart?'
Of course B. Munn, grocer, was not such a nincompoop (I like that word, it means so many people I know) as to say right off. He said—
'I was paid all right, young gentleman. Don't you terrify yourself.'
People in Kent say terrify when they mean worry. So Dora shoved in a gentle oar. She said—
'We want to know the kind lady's name and address, so that we can write and thank her for being so jolly that day.'
B. Munn, grocer, muttered something about the lady's address being goods he was often asked for. Alice said, 'But do tell us. We forgot to ask her. She's a relation of a second-hand uncle of ours, and I do so want to thank her properly. And if you've got any extra-strong peppermints at a penny an ounce, we should like a quarter of a pound.'
This was a master-stroke. While he was weighing out the peppermints his heart got soft, and just as he was twisting up the corner of the paper bag, Dora said, 'What lovely fat peppermints! Do tell us.'
And B. Munn's heart was now quite melted, he said—
'It's Miss Ashleigh, and she lives at The Cedars—about a mile down the Maidstone Road.'
We thanked him, and Alice paid for the peppermints. Oswald was a little anxious when she ordered such a lot, but she and Noel had got the money all right, and when we were outside on Hazelbridge Green (a good deal of it is gravel, really), we stood and looked at each other. Then Dora said—
'Let's go home and write a beautiful letter and all sign it.'
Oswald looked at the others. Writing is all very well, but it's such a beastly long time to wait for anything to happen afterwards.
The intelligent Alice divined his thoughts, and the Dentist divined hers—he is not clever enough yet to divine Oswald's—and the two said together—
'Why not go and see her?'
'She did say she would like to see us again some day,' Dora replied. So after we had argued a little about it we went.
And before we had gone a hundred yards down the dusty road Martha began to make us wish with all our hearts we had not let her come. She began to limp, just as a pilgrim, who I will not name, did when he had the split peas in his silly palmering shoes.
So we called a halt and looked at her feet. One of them was quite swollen and red. Bulldogs almost always have something the matter with their feet, and it always comes on when least required. They are not the right breed for emergencies.
There was nothing for it but to take it in turns to carry her. She is very stout, and you have no idea how heavy she is. A half-hearted unadventurous person name no names, but Oswald, Alice, Noel, H. O., (Dicky, Daisy, and Denny will understand me) said, why not go straight home and come another day without Martha? But the rest agreed with Oswald when he said it was only a mile, and perhaps we might get a lift home with the poor invalid. Martha was very grateful to us for our kindness. She put her fat white arms round the person's neck who happened to be carrying her. She is very affectionate, but by holding her very close to you you can keep her from kissing your face all the time. As Alice said, 'Bulldogs do give you such large, wet, pink kisses.'
A mile is a good way when you have to take your turn at carrying Martha.
At last we came to a hedge with a ditch in front of it, and chains swinging from posts to keep people off the grass and out of the ditch, and a gate with 'The Cedars' on it in gold letters. All very neat and tidy, and showing plainly that more than one gardener was kept. There we stopped. Alice put Martha down, grunting with exhaustedness, and said—
'Look here, Dora and Daisy, I don't believe a bit that it's his grandmother. I'm sure Dora was right, and it's only his horrid sweetheart. I feel it in my bones. Now, don't you really think we'd better chuck it; we're sure to catch it for interfering. We always do.'
'The cross of true love never did come smooth,' said the Dentist. 'We ought to help him to bear his cross.'
'But if we find her for him, and she's not his grandmother, he'll MARRY her,' Dicky said in tones of gloominess and despair.
Oswald felt the same, but he said, 'Never mind. We should all hate it, but perhaps Albert's uncle MIGHT like it. You can never tell. If you want to do a really unselfish action and no kid, now's your time, my late Wouldbegoods.'
No one had the face to say right out that they didn't want to be unselfish.
But it was with sad hearts that the unselfish seekers opened the long gate and went up the gravel drive between the rhododendrons and other shrubberies towards the house.
I think I have explained to you before that the eldest son of anybody is called the representative of the family if his father isn't there. This was why Oswald now took the lead. When we got to the last turn of the drive it was settled that the others were to noiselessly ambush in the rhododendrons, and Oswald was to go on alone and ask at the house for the grandmother from India—I mean Miss Ashleigh.
So he did, but when he got to the front of the house and saw how neat the flower-beds were with red geraniums, and the windows all bright and speckless with muslin blinds and brass rods, and a green parrot in a cage in the porch, and the doorstep newly whited, lying clean and untrodden in the sunshine, he stood still and thought of his boots and how dusty the roads were, and wished he had not gone into the farmyard after eggs before starting that morning. As he stood there in anxious uncertainness he heard a low voice among the bushes. It said, 'Hist! Oswald here!' and it was the voice of Alice.
So he went back to the others among the shrubs and they all crowded round their leader full of importable news.
'She's not in the house; she's HERE,' Alice said in a low whisper that seemed nearly all S's. 'Close by—she went by just this minute with a gentleman.'
'And they're sitting on a seat under a tree on a little lawn, and she's got her head on his shoulder, and he's holding her hand. I never saw anyone look so silly in all my born,' Dicky said.
'It's sickening,' Denny said, trying to look very manly with his legs wide apart.
'I don't know,' Oswald whispered. 'I suppose it wasn't Albert's uncle?'
'Not much,' Dicky briefly replied.
'Then don't you see it's all right. If she's going on like that with this fellow she'll want to marry him, and Albert's uncle is safe. And we've really done an unselfish action without having to suffer for it afterwards.'
With a stealthy movement Oswald rubbed his hands as he spoke in real joyfulness. We decided that we had better bunk unnoticed. But we had reckoned without Martha. She had strolled off limping to look about her a bit in the shrubbery. 'Where's Martha?' Dora suddenly said.
'She went that way,' pointingly remarked H. O.
'Then fetch her back, you young duffer! What did you let her go for?' Oswald said. 'And look sharp. Don't make a row.'
He went. A minute later we heard a hoarse squeak from Martha—the one she always gives when suddenly collared from behind—and a little squeal in a lady-like voice, and a man say 'Hallo!' and then we knew that H. O. had once more rushed in where angels might have thought twice about it. We hurried to the fatal spot, but it was too late. We were just in time to hear H. O. say—
'I'm sorry if she frightened you. But we've been looking for you. Are you Albert's uncle's long-lost grandmother?'
'NO,' said our lady unhesitatingly.
It seemed vain to add seven more agitated actors to the scene now going on. We stood still. The man was standing up. He was a clergyman, and I found out afterwards he was the nicest we ever knew except our own Mr Briston at Lewisham, who is now a canon or a dean, or something grand that no one ever sees. At present I did not like him. He said, 'No, this lady is nobody's grandmother. May I ask in return how long it is since you escaped from the lunatic asylum, my poor child, and whence your keeper is?'
H. O. took no notice of this at all, except to say, 'I think you are very rude, and not at all funny, if you think you are.'
The lady said, 'My dear, I remember you now perfectly. How are all the others, and are you pilgrims again to-day?'
H. O. does not always answer questions. He turned to the man and said—
'Are you going to marry the lady?'
'Margaret,' said the clergyman, 'I never thought it would come to this: he asks me my intentions.'
'If you ARE,' said H. O., 'it's all right, because if you do Albert's uncle can't—at least, not till you're dead. And we don't want him to.'
'Flattering, upon my word,' said the clergyman, putting on a deep frown. 'Shall I call him out, Margaret, for his poor opinion of you, or shall I send for the police?'
Alice now saw that H. O., though firm, was getting muddled and rather scared. She broke cover and sprang into the middle of the scene.
'Don't let him rag H. O. any more,' she said, 'it's all our faults. You see, Albert's uncle was so anxious to find you, we thought perhaps you were his long-lost heiress sister or his old nurse who alone knew the secret of his birth, or something, and we asked him, and he said you were his long-lost grandmother he had known in India. And we thought that must be a mistake and that really you were his long-lost sweetheart. And we tried to do a really unselfish act and find you for him. Because we don't want him to be married at all.'
'It isn't because we don't like YOU,' Oswald cut in, now emerging from the bushes, 'and if he must marry, we'd sooner it was you than anyone. Really we would.'
'A generous concession, Margaret,' the strange clergyman uttered, 'most generous, but the plot thickens. It's almost pea-soup-like now. One or two points clamour for explanation. Who are these visitors of yours? Why this Red Indian method of paying morning calls? Why the lurking attitude of the rest of the tribe which I now discern among the undergrowth? Won't you ask the rest of the tribe to come out and join the glad throng?'
Then I liked him better. I always like people who know the same songs we do, and books and tunes and things.
The others came out. The lady looked very uncomfy, and partly as if she was going to cry. But she couldn't help laughing too, as more and more of us came out.
'And who,' the clergyman went on, 'who in fortune's name is Albert? And who is his uncle? And what have they or you to do in this galere—I mean garden?'
We all felt rather silly, and I don't think I ever felt more than then what an awful lot there were of us.
'Three years' absence in Calcutta or elsewhere may explain my ignorance of these details, but still—'
'I think we'd better go,' said Dora. 'I'm sorry if we've done anything rude or wrong. We didn't mean to. Good-bye. I hope you'll be happy with the gentleman, I'm sure.'
'I HOPE so too,' said Noel, and I know he was thinking how much nicer Albert's uncle was. We turned to go. The lady had been very silent compared with what she was when she pretended to show us Canterbury. But now she seemed to shake off some dreamy silliness, and caught hold of Dora by the shoulder.
'No, dear, no,' she said, 'it's all right, and you must have some tea—we'll have it on the lawn. John, don't tease them any more. Albert's uncle is the gentleman I told you about. And, my dear children, this is my brother that I haven't seen for three years.'
'Then he's a long-lost too,' said H. O.
The lady said 'Not now' and smiled at him.
And the rest of us were dumb with confounding emotions. Oswald was particularly dumb. He might have known it was her brother, because in rotten grown-up books if a girl kisses a man in a shrubbery that is not the man you think she's in love with; it always turns out to be a brother, though generally the disgrace of the family and not a respectable chaplain from Calcutta.
The lady now turned to her reverend and surprising brother and said, 'John, go and tell them we'll have tea on the lawn.'
When he was gone she stood quite still a minute. Then she said, 'I'm going to tell you something, but I want to put you on your honour not to talk about it to other people. You see it isn't everyone I would tell about it. He, Albert's uncle, I mean, has told me a lot about you, and I know I can trust you.'
We said 'Yes', Oswald with a brooding sentiment of knowing all too well what was coming next.
The lady then said, 'Though I am not Albert's uncle's grandmother I did know him in India once, and we were going to be married, but we had a—a—misunderstanding.'
'Quarrel?' Row?' said Noel and H. O. at once.
'Well, yes, a quarrel, and he went away. He was in the Navy then. And then... well, we were both sorry, but well, anyway, when his ship came back we'd gone to Constantinople, then to England, and he couldn't find us. And he says he's been looking for me ever since.'
'Not you for him?' said Noel.
'Well, perhaps,' said the lady.
And the girls said 'Ah!' with deep interest. The lady went on more quickly, 'And then I found you, and then he found me, and now I must break it to you. Try to bear up.'
She stopped. The branches cracked, and Albert's uncle was in our midst. He took off his hat. 'Excuse my tearing my hair,' he said to the lady, 'but has the pack really hunted you down?'
'It's all right,' she said, and when she looked at him she got miles prettier quite suddenly. 'I was just breaking to them...'
'Don't take that proud privilege from me,' he said. 'Kiddies, allow me to present you to the future Mrs Albert's uncle, or shall we say Albert's new aunt?'
* * * There was a good deal of explaining done before tea—about how we got there, I mean, and why. But after the first bitterness of disappointment we felt not nearly so sorry as we had expected to. For Albert's uncle's lady was very jolly to us, and her brother was awfully decent, and showed us a lot of first-class native curiosities and things, unpacking them on purpose; skins of beasts, and beads, and brass things, and shells from different savage lands besides India. And the lady told the girls that she hoped they would like her as much as she liked them, and if they wanted a new aunt she would do her best to give satisfaction in the new situation. And Alice thought of the Murdstone aunt belonging to Daisy and Denny, and how awful it would have been if Albert's uncle had married HER. And she decided, she told me afterwards, that we might think ourselves jolly lucky it was no worse.
Then the lady led Oswald aside, pretending to show him the parrot which he had explored thoroughly before, and told him she was not like some people in books. When she was married she would never try to separate her husband from his bachelor friends, she only wanted them to be her friends as well.
Then there was tea, and thus all ended in amicableness, and the reverend and friendly drove us home in a wagonette. But for Martha we shouldn't have had tea, or explanations, or lift or anything. So we honoured her, and did not mind her being so heavy and walking up and down constantly on our laps as we drove home.
And that is all the story of the long-lost grandmother and Albert's uncle. I am afraid it is rather dull, but it was very important (to him), so I felt it ought to be narrated. Stories about lovers and getting married are generally slow. I like a love-story where the hero parts with the girl at the garden-gate in the gloaming and goes off and has adventures, and you don't see her any more till he comes home to marry her at the end of the book. And I suppose people have to marry. Albert's uncle is awfully old—more than thirty, and the lady is advanced in years—twenty-six next Christmas. They are to be married then. The girls are to be bridesmaids in white frocks with fur. This quite consoles them. If Oswald repines sometimes, he hides it. What's the use? We all have to meet our fell destiny, and Albert's uncle is not extirpated from this awful law.
Now the finding of the long-lost was the very last thing we did for the sake of its being a noble act, so that is the end of the Wouldbegoods, and there are no more chapters after this. But Oswald hates books that finish up without telling you the things you might want to know about the people in the book. So here goes.
We went home to the beautiful Blackheath house. It seemed very stately and mansion-like after the Moat House, and everyone was most frightfully pleased to see us.
Mrs Pettigrew CRIED when we went away. I never was so astonished in my life. She made each of the girls a fat red pincushion like a heart, and each of us boys had a knife bought out of the housekeeping (I mean housekeeper's own) money.
Bill Simpkins is happy as sub-under-gardener to Albert's uncle's lady's mother. They do keep three gardeners—I knew they did. And our tramp still earns enough to sleep well on from our dear old Pig-man.
Our last three days were entirely filled up with visits of farewell sympathy to all our many friends who were so sorry to lose us. We promised to come and see them next year. I hope we shall.
Denny and Daisy went back to live with their father at Forest Hill. I don't think they'll ever be again the victims of the Murdstone aunt—who is really a great-aunt and about twice as much in the autumn of her days as our new Albert's-uncle aunt. I think they plucked up spirit enough to tell their father they didn't like her—which they'd never thought of doing before. Our own robber says their holidays in the country did them both a great deal of good. And he says us Bastables have certainly taught Daisy and Denny the rudiments of the art of making home happy. I believe they have thought of several quite new naughty things entirely on their own—and done them too—since they came back from the Moat House.
I wish you didn't grow up so quickly. Oswald can see that ere long he will be too old for the kind of games we can all play, and he feels grown-upness creeping inordiously upon him. But enough of this.
And now, gentle reader, farewell. If anything in these chronicles of the Wouldbegoods should make you try to be good yourself, the author will be very glad, of course. But take my advice and don't make a society for trying in. It is much easier without.
And do try to forget that Oswald has another name besides Bastable. The one beginning with C., I mean. Perhaps you have not noticed what it was. If so, don't look back for it. It is a name no manly boy would like to be called by—if he spoke the truth. Oswald is said to be a very manly boy, and he despises that name, and will never give it to his own son when he has one. Not if a rich relative offered to leave him an immense fortune if he did. Oswald would still be firm. He would, on the honour of the House of Bastable.