Oswald is a boy of firm and unswerving character, and he had never wavered from his first idea. He felt quite certain that the books were right, and that the best way to restore fallen fortunes was to rescue an old gentleman in distress. Then he brings you up as his own son: but if you preferred to go on being your own father's son I expect the old gentleman would make it up to you some other way. In the books the least thing does it—you put up the railway carriage window—or you pick up his purse when he drops it—or you say a hymn when he suddenly asks you to, and then your fortune is made.
The others, as I said, were very slack about it, and did not seem to care much about trying the rescue. They said there wasn't any deadly peril, and we should have to make one before we could rescue the old gentleman from it, but Oswald didn't see that that mattered. However, he thought he would try some of the easier ways first, by himself.
So he waited about the station, pulling up railway carriage windows for old gentlemen who looked likely—but nothing happened, and at last the porters said he was a nuisance. So that was no go. No one ever asked him to say a hymn, though he had learned a nice short one, beginning 'New every morning'—and when an old gentleman did drop a two-shilling piece just by Ellis's the hairdresser's, and Oswald picked it up, and was just thinking what he should say when he returned it, the old gentleman caught him by the collar and called him a young thief. It would have been very unpleasant for Oswald if he hadn't happened to be a very brave boy, and knew the policeman on that beat very well indeed. So the policeman backed him up, and the old gentleman said he was sorry, and offered Oswald sixpence. Oswald refused it with polite disdain, and nothing more happened at all.
When Oswald had tried by himself and it had not come off, he said to the others, 'We're wasting our time, not trying to rescue the old gentleman in deadly peril. Come—buck up! Do let's do something!'
It was dinner-time, and Pincher was going round getting the bits off the plates. There were plenty because it was cold-mutton day. And Alice said—
'It's only fair to try Oswald's way—he has tried all the things the others thought of. Why couldn't we rescue Lord Tottenham?'
Lord Tottenham is the old gentleman who walks over the Heath every day in a paper collar at three o'clock—and when he gets halfway, if there is no one about, he changes his collar and throws the dirty one into the furze-bushes.
Dicky said, 'Lord Tottenham's all right—but where's the deadly peril?'
And we couldn't think of any. There are no highwaymen on Blackheath now, I am sorry to say. And though Oswald said half of us could be highwaymen and the other half rescue party, Dora kept on saying it would be wrong to be a highwayman—and so we had to give that up.
Then Alice said, 'What about Pincher?'
And we all saw at once that it could be done.
Pincher is very well bred, and he does know one or two things, though we never could teach him to beg. But if you tell him to hold on—he will do it, even if you only say 'Seize him!' in a whisper.
So we arranged it all. Dora said she wouldn't play; she said she thought it was wrong, and she knew it was silly—so we left her out, and she went and sat in the dining-room with a goody-book, so as to be able to say she didn't have anything to do with it, if we got into a row over it.
Alice and H. O. were to hide in the furze-bushes just by where Lord Tottenham changes his collar, and they were to whisper, 'Seize him!' to Pincher; and then when Pincher had seized Lord Tottenham we were to go and rescue him from his deadly peril. And he would say, 'How can I reward you, my noble young preservers?' and it would be all right.
So we went up to the Heath. We were afraid of being late. Oswald told the others what Procrastination was—so they got to the furze-bushes a little after two o'clock, and it was rather cold. Alice and H. O. and Pincher hid, but Pincher did not like it any more than they did, and as we three walked up and down we heard him whining. And Alice kept saying, 'I am so cold! Isn't he coming yet?' And H. O. wanted to come out and jump about to warm himself. But we told him he must learn to be a Spartan boy, and that he ought to be very thankful he hadn't got a beastly fox eating his inside all the time. H. O. is our little brother, and we are not going to let it be our fault if he grows up a milksop. Besides, it was not really cold. It was his knees—he wears socks. So they stayed where they were. And at last, when even the other three who were walking about were beginning to feel rather chilly, we saw Lord Tottenham's big black cloak coming along, flapping in the wind like a great bird. So we said to Alice—
'Hist! he approaches. You'll know when to set Pincher on by hearing Lord Tottenham talking to himself—he always does while he is taking off his collar.'
Then we three walked slowly away whistling to show we were not thinking of anything. Our lips were rather cold, but we managed to do it.
Lord Tottenham came striding along, talking to himself. People call him the mad Protectionist. I don't know what it means—but I don't think people ought to call a Lord such names.
As he passed us he said, 'Ruin of the country, sir! Fatal error, fatal error!' And then we looked back and saw he was getting quite near where Pincher was, and Alice and H. O. We walked on—so that he shouldn't think we were looking—and in a minute we heard Pincher's bark, and then nothing for a bit; and then we looked round, and sure enough good old Pincher had got Lord Tottenham by the trouser leg and was holding on like billy-ho, so we started to run.
Lord Tottenham had got his collar half off—it was sticking out sideways under his ear—and he was shouting, 'Help, help, murder!' exactly as if some one had explained to him beforehand what he was to do. Pincher was growling and snarling and holding on. When we got to him I stopped and said—
'Dicky, we must rescue this good old man.'
Lord Tottenham roared in his fury, 'Good old man be—' something or othered. 'Call the dog off.'
So Oswald said, 'It is a dangerous task—but who would hesitate to do an act of true bravery?'
And all the while Pincher was worrying and snarling, and Lord Tottenham shouting to us to get the dog away. He was dancing about in the road with Pincher hanging on like grim death; and his collar flapping about, where it was undone.
Then Noel said, 'Haste, ere yet it be too late.' So I said to Lord Tottenham—
'Stand still, aged sir, and I will endeavour to alleviate your distress.'
He stood still, and I stooped down and caught hold of Pincher and whispered, 'Drop it, sir; drop it!'
So then Pincher dropped it, and Lord Tottenham fastened his collar again—he never does change it if there's any one looking—and he said—
'I'm much obliged, I'm sure. Nasty vicious brute! Here's something to drink my health.'
But Dicky explained that we are teetotallers, and do not drink people's healths. So Lord Tottenham said, 'Well, I'm much obliged any way. And now I come to look at you—of course, you're not young ruffians, but gentlemen's sons, eh? Still, you won't be above taking a tip from an old boy—I wasn't when I was your age,' and he pulled out half a sovereign.
It was very silly; but now we'd done it I felt it would be beastly mean to take the old boy's chink after putting him in such a funk. He didn't say anything about bringing us up as his own sons—so I didn't know what to do. I let Pincher go, and was just going to say he was very welcome, and we'd rather not have the money, which seemed the best way out of it, when that beastly dog spoiled the whole show. Directly I let him go he began to jump about at us and bark for joy, and try to lick our faces. He was so proud of what he'd done. Lord Tottenham opened his eyes and he just said, 'The dog seems to know you.'
And then Oswald saw it was all up, and he said, 'Good morning,' and tried to get away. But Lord Tottenham said—
'Not so fast!' And he caught Noel by the collar. Noel gave a howl, and Alice ran out from the bushes. Noel is her favourite. I'm sure I don't know why. Lord Tottenham looked at her, and he said—
'So there are more of you!' And then H. O. came out.
'Do you complete the party?' Lord Tottenham asked him. And H. O. said there were only five of us this time.
Lord Tottenham turned sharp off and began to walk away, holding Noel by the collar. We caught up with him, and asked him where he was going, and he said, 'To the Police Station.' So then I said quite politely, 'Well, don't take Noel; he's not strong, and he easily gets upset. Besides, it wasn't his doing. If you want to take any one take me—it was my very own idea.'
Dicky behaved very well. He said, 'If you take Oswald I'll go too, but don't take Noel; he's such a delicate little chap.'
Lord Tottenham stopped, and he said, 'You should have thought of that before.' Noel was howling all the time, and his face was very white, and Alice said—
'Oh, do let Noel go, dear, good, kind Lord Tottenham; he'll faint if you don't, I know he will, he does sometimes. Oh, I wish we'd never done it! Dora said it was wrong.'
'Dora displayed considerable common sense,' said Lord Tottenham, and he let Noel go. And Alice put her arm round Noel and tried to cheer him up, but he was all trembly, and as white as paper.
Then Lord Tottenham said—
'Will you give me your word of honour not to try to escape?'
So we said we would.
'Then follow me,' he said, and led the way to a bench. We all followed, and Pincher too, with his tail between his legs—he knew something was wrong. Then Lord Tottenham sat down, and he made Oswald and Dicky and H. O. stand in front of him, but he let Alice and Noel sit down. And he said—
'You set your dog on me, and you tried to make me believe you were saving me from it. And you would have taken my half-sovereign. Such conduct is most—No—you shall tell me what it is, sir, and speak the truth.'
So I had to say it was most ungentlemanly, but I said I hadn't been going to take the half-sovereign.
'Then what did you do it for?' he asked. 'The truth, mind.'
So I said, 'I see now it was very silly, and Dora said it was wrong, but it didn't seem so till we did it. We wanted to restore the fallen fortunes of our house, and in the books if you rescue an old gentleman from deadly peril, he brings you up as his own son—or if you prefer to be your father's son, he starts you in business, so that you end in wealthy affluence; and there wasn't any deadly peril, so we made Pincher into one—and so—' I was so ashamed I couldn't go on, for it did seem an awfully mean thing. Lord Tottenham said—
'A very nice way to make your fortune—by deceit and trickery. I have a horror of dogs. If I'd been a weak man the shock might have killed me. What do you think of yourselves, eh?'
We were all crying except Oswald, and the others say he was; and Lord Tottenham went on—'Well, well, I see you're sorry. Let this be a lesson to you; and we'll say no more about it. I'm an old man now, but I was young once.'
Then Alice slid along the bench close to him, and put her hand on his arm: her fingers were pink through the holes in her woolly gloves, and said, 'I think you're very good to forgive us, and we are really very, very sorry. But we wanted to be like the children in the books—only we never have the chances they have. Everything they do turns out all right. But we are sorry, very, very. And I know Oswald wasn't going to take the half-sovereign. Directly you said that about a tip from an old boy I began to feel bad inside, and I whispered to H. O. that I wished we hadn't.'
Then Lord Tottenham stood up, and he looked like the Death of Nelson, for he is clean shaved and it is a good face, and he said—
'Always remember never to do a dishonourable thing, for money or for anything else in the world.'
And we promised we would remember. Then he took off his hat, and we took off ours, and he went away, and we went home. I never felt so cheap in all my life! Dora said, 'I told you so,' but we didn't mind even that so much, though it was indeed hard to bear. It was what Lord Tottenham had said about ungentlemanly. We didn't go on to the Heath for a week after that; but at last we all went, and we waited for him by the bench. When he came along Alice said, 'Please, Lord Tottenham, we have not been on the Heath for a week, to be a punishment because you let us off. And we have brought you a present each if you will take them to show you are willing to make it up.'
He sat down on the bench, and we gave him our presents. Oswald gave him a sixpenny compass—he bought it with my own money on purpose to give him. Oswald always buys useful presents. The needle would not move after I'd had it a day or two, but Lord Tottenham used to be an admiral, so he will be able to make that go all right. Alice had made him a shaving-case, with a rose worked on it. And H. O. gave him his knife—the same one he once cut all the buttons off his best suit with. Dicky gave him his prize, Naval Heroes, because it was the best thing he had, and Noel gave him a piece of poetry he had made himself—
When sin and shame bow down the brow
Then people feel just like we do now.
We are so sorry with grief and pain
We never will be so ungentlemanly again.
Lord Tottenham seemed very pleased. He thanked us, and talked to us for a bit, and when he said good-bye he said—
'All's fair weather now, mates,' and shook hands.
And whenever we meet him he nods to us, and if the girls are with us he takes off his hat, so he can't really be going on thinking us ungentlemanly now.