Oswald Bastable and Others
MY DEAR NIECE
AN OBJECT OF VALUE AND VIRTUE
This happened a very little time after we left our humble home in Lewisham, and went to live at the Blackheath house of our Indian uncle, which was replete with every modern convenience, and had a big garden and a great many greenhouses. We had had a lot of jolly Christmas presents, and one of them was Dicky's from father, and it was a printing-press. Not one of the eighteenpenny kind that never come off, but a real tip-topper, that you could have printed a whole newspaper out of if you could have been clever enough to make up all the stuff there is in newspapers. I don't know how people can do it. It's all about different things, but it is all just the same too. But the author is sorry to find he is not telling things from the beginning, as he has been taught. The printing-press really doesn't come into the story till quite a long way on. So it is no use your wondering what it was that we did print with the printing-press. It was not a newspaper, anyway, and it wasn't my young brother's poetry, though he and the girls did do an awful lot of that. It was something much more far-reaching, as you will see if you wait.
There wasn't any skating those holidays, because it was what they call nice open weather. That means it was simply muggy, and you could play out of doors without grown-ups fussing about your overcoat, or bringing you to open shame in the streets with knitted comforters, except, of course, the poet Noël, who is young, and equal to having bronchitis if he only looks at a pair of wet boots. But the girls were indoors a good deal, trying to make things for a bazaar which the people our housekeeper's elder sister lives with were having in the country for the benefit of a poor iron church that was in difficulties. And Noël and H. O. were with them, putting sweets in bags for the bazaar's lucky-tub. So Dicky and I were out alone together. But we were not angry with the others for their stuffy way of spending a day. Two is not a good number, though, for any game except fives; and the man who ordered the vineries and pineries, and butlers' pantries and things, never had the sense to tell the builders to make a fives court. Some people never think of the simplest things. So we had been playing catch with a fives ball. It was Dicky's ball, and Oswald said:
'I bet you can't hit it over the house.'
'What do you bet?' said Dicky.
And Oswald replied:
'Anything you like. You couldn't do it, anyhow.'
'Miss Blake says betting is wicked; but I don't believe it is, if you don't bet money.'
Oswald reminded him how in 'Miss Edgeworth' even that wretched little Rosamond, who is never allowed to do anything she wants to, even lose her own needles, makes a bet with her brother, and none of the grown-ups turn a hair.
'But I don't want to bet,' he said. 'I know you can't do it.'
'I'll bet you my fives ball I do,' Dicky rejoindered.
'Done! I'll bet you that threepenny ball of string and the cobbler's wax you were bothering about yesterday.'
So Dicky said 'Done!' and then he went and got a tennis racket – when I meant with his hands – and the ball soared up to the top of the house and faded away. But when we went round to look for it we couldn't find it anywhere. So he said it had gone over and he had won. And Oswald thought it had not gone over, but stayed on the roof, and he hadn't. And they could not agree about it, though they talked of nothing else till tea time.
It was a few days after that that the big greenhouse began to leak, and something was said at brekker about had any of us been throwing stones. But it happened that we had not. Only after brek Oswald said to Dicky:
'What price fives balls for knocking holes in greenhouses?'
'Then you own it went over the house, and I won my bet. Hand over!' Dicky remarked.
But Oswald did not see this, because it wasn't proved it was the fives ball. It was only his idea.
Then it rained for two or three days, and the greenhouse leaked much more than just a fives ball, and the grown-ups said the man who put it up had scamped the job, and they sent for him to put it right. And when he was ready he came, and men came with ladders and putty and glass, and a thing to cut it with a real diamond in it that he let us have to look at. It was fine that day, and Dicky and H. O. and I were out most of the time talking to the men. I think the men who come to do things to houses are so interesting to talk to; they seem to know much more about the things that really matter than gentlemen do. I shall try to be like them when I grow up, and not always talk about politics and the way the army is going to the dogs.
The men were very jolly, and let us go up the ladder and look at the top of the greenhouse. Not H. O., of course, because he is very young indeed, and wears socks. When they had gone to dinner, H. O. went in to see if some pies were done that he had made out of a bit of putty the man gave him. He had put the pies in the oven when the cook wasn't looking. I think something must have been done to him, for he did not return.
So Dicky and I were left. Dicky said:
'If I could get the ladder round to the roof of the stovehouse I believe I should find my fives ball in the gutter. I know it went over the house that day.'
So Oswald, ever ready and obliging, helped his brother to move the ladder round to the tiled roof of the stovehouse, and Dicky looked in the gutter. But even he could not pretend the ball was there, because I am certain it never went over at all.
When he came down, Oswald said:
And Dicky said:
'Sold yourself! You jolly well thought it was there, and you'd have to pay for it.'
This unjustness was Oswald's reward for his kind helpingness about moving the ladder. So he turned away, just saying carelessly over his retiring shoulder:
'I should think you'd have the decency to put the ladder back where you found it.' And he walked off.
But he has a generous heart – a crossing-sweeper told him so once when he gave him a halfpenny – and when Dicky said, 'Come on, Oswald; don't be a sneak,' he proved that he was not one, and went back and helped with the ladder. But he was a little distant to Dicky, till all disagreeableness was suddenly buried in a rat Pincher found in the cucumber frame.
Then the washing-hands-and-faces-for-dinner bell rang, and, of course, we should have gone in directly, only just then the workmen came back from their dinner, and we waited, because one of them had promised Oswald some hinges for a ferrets' hutch he thought of making, and while he was talking to this man the other one went up the ladder. And then the most exciting and awful thing I ever saw happened, all in a minute, before anyone could have said 'Jack Robinson,' even if they had thought of him. The bottom part of the ladder slipped out along the smooth tiles by the greenhouse, and there was a long, dream-like, dreadful time, when Oswald knew what was going to happen; but it could only have been a second really, because before anyone could do anything the top end of the ladder slid softly, like cutting butter, off the top of the greenhouse, and the man on the ladder fell too. I never saw anything that made me feel so wrong way up in my inside. He lay there all in a heap, without moving, and the men crowded round him. Dicky and I could not see properly because of the other men. But the foreman, the one who had given Oswald the hinges, said:
'Better get a doctor.'
It always takes a long time for a workman to understand what you want him to do, and long before these had, Oswald had shouted 'I'll go!' and was off like an arrow from a bow, and Dicky with him.
They found the doctor at home, and he came that minute. Oswald and Dicky were told to go away, but they could not bear to, though they knew their dinner-bell must have been already rung for them many times in vain, and it was now ringing with fury. They just lurked round the corner of the greenhouse till the doctor said it was a broken arm, and nothing else hurt; and when the poor man was sent home in a cab, Oswald and Dicky got the cabman, who is a friend of theirs, to let them come on the box with him. And thus they saw where the man lived, and saw his poor wife greet the sufferer. She only said:
'Gracious, Gus, whatever have you been up to now? You always was an unlucky chap.'
But we could see her loving heart was full to overflowing.
When she had taken him in and shut the door we went away. The wretched sufferer, whose name transpired to be Augustus Victor Plunkett, was lucky enough to live in a mews. Noël made a poem about it afterwards:
'O Muse of Poetry, do not refuse
To tell about a man who loves the Mews.
It is his humble home so poor,
And the cabman who drove him home lives next door
But two: and when his arm was broke
His loving wife with tears spoke.'
And so on. It went on for two hundred and twenty-four lines, and he could not print it, because it took far too much type for the printing-press. It was as we went out of the mews that we first saw the Goat. I gave him a piece of cocoanut ice, and he liked it awfully. He was tied to a ring in the wall, and he was black and white, with horns and a beard; and when the man he belonged to saw us looking at him, he said we could have that Goat a bargain. And when we asked, out of politeness and not because we had any money, except twopence halfpenny of Dicky's, how much he wanted for the Goat, he said:
'Seven and sixpence is the lowest, so I won't deceive you, young gents. And so help me if he ain't worth thribble the money.'
Oswald did the sum in his head, which told him the Goat was worth one pound two shillings and sixpence, and he went away sadly, for he did want that Goat.
We were later for dinner than I ever remember our being, and Miss Blake had not kept us any pudding; but Oswald bore up when he thought of the Goat. But Dicky seemed to have no beautiful inside thoughts to sustain him, and he was so dull Dora said she only hoped he wasn't going to have measles.
It was when we had gone up to bed that he fiddled about with the studs and old buttons and things in a velvety box he had till Oswald was in bed, and then he said:
'Look here, Oswald, I feel as if I was a murderer, or next-door to. It was our moving that ladder: I'm certain it was. And now he's laid up, and his wife and children.'
Oswald sat up in bed, and said kindly:
'You're right, old chap. It was your moving that ladder. Of course, you didn't put it back firm. But the man's not killed.'
'We oughtn't to have touched it,' he said. 'Or we ought to have told them we had, or something. Suppose his arm gets blood-poisoning, or inflammation, or something awful? I couldn't go on living if I was a doer of a deed like that.'
Oswald had never seen Dicky so upset. He takes things jolly easy as a rule. Oswald said:
'Well, it is no use fuming over it. You'd better get out of your clothes and go to bed. We'll cut down in the morning and leave our cards and kind inquiries.'
Oswald only meant to be kind, and by making this amusing remark he wished to draw his erring brother's thoughts from the remorse that was poisoning his young life, and would very likely keep him awake for an hour or more thinking of it, and fidgetting about so that Oswald couldn't sleep.
But Dicky did not take it at all the way Oswald meant. He said:
'Shut up, Oswald, you beast!' and lay down on his bed and began to blub.
Oswald said, 'Beast yourself!' because it is the proper thing to say; but he was not angry, only sorry that Dicky was so duffing as not to see what he meant. And he got out of bed and went softly to the girls' room, which is next ours, and said:
'I say, come in to our room a sec., will you? Dicky is howling fit to bring the house down. I think a council of us elder ones would do him more good than anything.'
'Whatever is up?' Dora asked, getting into her dressing-gown.
'Oh, nothing, except that he's a murderer! Come on, and don't make a row. Mind the mats and our boots by the door.'
They came in, and Oswald said:
'Look here, Dicky, old boy, here are the girls, and we're going to have a council about it.'
They wanted to kiss him, but he wouldn't, and shrugged his shoulders about, and wouldn't speak; but when Alice had got hold of his hand he said in a muffled voice:
'You tell them, Oswald.'
When Oswald and Dicky were alone, you will have noticed the just elder brother blamed the proper person, which was Dicky, because he would go up on the stovehouse roof after his beastly ball, which Oswald did not care a rap about. And, besides, he knew it wasn't there. But now that other people were there Oswald, of course, said:
'You see, we moved the men's ladder when they were at their dinner. And you know the man that fell off the ladder, and we went with him in the cab to the place where that Goat was? Well, Dicky has only just thought of it; but, of course, it was really our fault his tumbling, because we couldn't have put the ladder back safely. And Dicky thinks if his arm blood-poisoned itself we should be as good as murderers.'
Dicky is perfectly straight; he sat up and sniffed, and blew his nose, and said:
'It was my idea moving the ladder: Oswald only helped.'
'Can't we ask uncle to see that the dear sufferer wants for nothing while he's ill, and all that?' said Dora.
'Well,' said Oswald, 'we could, of course. But, then, it would all come out. And about the fives ball too. And we can't be at all sure it was the ball made the greenhouse leak, because I know it never went over the house.'
'Yes, it did,' said Dicky, giving his nose a last stern blow.
Oswald was generous to a sorrowing foe, and took no notice, only went on:
'And about the ladder: we can't be quite sure it wouldn't have slipped on those tiles, even if we'd never moved it. But I think Dicky would feel jollier if we could do something for the man, and I know it would me.'
That looks mixed, but Oswald was rather agitated himself, and that was what he said.
'We must think of something to do to get money,' Alice said, 'like we used to do when we were treasure-seekers.'
Presently the girls went away, and we heard them jawing in their room. Just as Oswald was falling asleep the door opened, and a figure in white came in and bent above his almost sleeping form. It said:
'We've thought of something! We'll have a bazaar, like the people Miss Blake's elder sister lives with did for the poor iron church.'
The form glided away. Miss Blake is our housekeeper. Oswald could hear that Dicky was already sleeping, so he turned over and went to sleep himself. He dreamed of Goats, only they were as big as railway engines, and would keep ringing the church bells, till Oswald awoke, and it was the getting-up bell, and not a great Goat ringing it, but only Sarah as usual.
The idea of the bazaar seemed to please all of us.
'We can ask all the people we know to it,' said Alice.
'And wear our best frocks, and sell the things at the stalls,' said Dora.
Dicky said we could have it in the big greenhouse now the plants were out of it.
'I will write a poem for the man, and say it at the bazaar,' Noël said. 'I know people say poetry at bazaars. The one Aunt Carrie took me to a man said a piece about a cowboy.'
H. O. said there ought to be lots of sweets, and then everyone would buy them.
Oswald said someone would have to ask my father, and he said he would do it if the others liked. He did this because of an inside feeling in his mind that he knew might come on at any moment. So he did. And 'Yes' was the answer. And then the uncle gave Oswald a whole quid to buy things to sell at the bazaar, and my father gave him ten bob for the same useful and generous purpose, and said he was glad to see we were trying to do good to others.
When he said that the inside feeling in Oswald's mind began that he had felt afraid would, some time, and he told my father about him and Dicky moving the ladder, and about the hateful fives ball, and everything. And my father was awfully decent about it, so that Oswald was glad he had told.
The girls wrote the invitations to all our friends that very day. We boys went down to look in the shops and see what we could buy for the bazaar. And we went to ask how Mr. Augustus Victor Plunkett's arm was getting on, and to see the Goat.
The others liked the Goat almost as much as Oswald, and even Dicky agreed that it was our clear duty to buy the Goat for the sake of poor Mr. Plunkett.
Because, as Oswald said, if it was worth one pound two and six, we could easily sell it again for that, and we should have gained fifteen shillings for the sufferer.
So we bought the Goat, and changed the ten shillings to do it. The man untied the other end of the Goat's rope, and Oswald took hold of it, and said he hoped we were not robbing the man by taking his Goat from him for such a low price. And he said:
'Not at all, young gents. Don't you mention it. Pleased to oblige a friend any day of the week.'
So we started to take the Goat home. But after about half a street he would not come any more. He stopped still, and a lot of boys and people came round, just as if they had never seen a Goat before. We were beginning to feel quite uncomfortable, when Oswald remembered the Goat liked cocoanut ice, so Noël went into a shop and got threepenn'orth, and then the cheap animal consented to follow us home. So did the street boys. The cocoanut ice was more for the money than usual, but not so nice.