One day when we suddenly found that we had half a crown we decided that we really ought to try Dicky's way of restoring our fallen fortunes while yet the deed was in our power. Because it might easily have happened to us never to have half a crown again. So we decided to dally no longer with being journalists and bandits and things like them, but to send for sample and instructions how to earn two pounds a week each in our spare time. We had seen the advertisement in the paper, and we had always wanted to do it, but we had never had the money to spare before, somehow. The advertisement says: 'Any lady or gentleman can easily earn two pounds a week in their spare time. Sample and instructions, two shillings. Packed free from observation.' A good deal of the half-crown was Dora's. It came from her godmother; but she said she would not mind letting Dicky have it if he would pay her back before Christmas, and if we were sure it was right to try to make our fortune that way. Of course that was quite easy, because out of two pounds a week in your spare time you can easily pay all your debts, and have almost as much left as you began with; and as to the right we told her to dry up.
Dicky had always thought that this was really the best way to restore our fallen fortunes, and we were glad that now he had a chance of trying because of course we wanted the two pounds a week each, and besides, we were rather tired of Dicky's always saying, when our ways didn't turn out well, 'Why don't you try the sample and instructions about our spare time?'
When we found out about our half-crown we got the paper. Noel was playing admirals in it, but he had made the cocked hat without tearing the paper, and we found the advertisement, and it said just the same as ever. So we got a two-shilling postal order and a stamp, and what was left of the money it was agreed we would spend in ginger-beer to drink success to trade.
We got some nice paper out of Father's study, and Dicky wrote the letter, and we put in the money and put on the stamp, and made H. O. post it. Then we drank the ginger-beer, and then we waited for the sample and instructions. It seemed a long time coming, and the postman got quite tired of us running out and stopping him in the street to ask if it had come.
But on the third morning it came. It was quite a large parcel, and it was packed, as the advertisement said it would be, 'free from observation.' That means it was in a box; and inside the box was some stiff browny cardboard, crinkled like the galvanized iron on the tops of chicken-houses, and inside that was a lot of paper, some of it printed and some scrappy, and in the very middle of it all a bottle, not very large, and black, and sealed on the top of the cork with yellow sealing-wax.
We looked at it as it lay on the nursery table, and while all the others grabbed at the papers to see what the printing said, Oswald went to look for the corkscrew, so as to see what was inside the bottle. He found the corkscrew in the dresser drawer—it always gets there, though it is supposed to be in the sideboard drawer in the dining-room—and when he got back the others had read most of the printed papers.
'I don't think it's much good, and I don't think it's quite nice to sell wine,' Dora said 'and besides, it's not easy to suddenly begin to sell things when you aren't used to it.'
'I don't know,' said Alice; 'I believe I could.' They all looked rather down in the mouth, though, and Oswald asked how you were to make your two pounds a week.
'Why, you've got to get people to taste that stuff in the bottle. It's sherry—Castilian Amoroso its name is—and then you get them to buy it, and then you write to the people and tell them the other people want the wine, and then for every dozen you sell you get two shillings from the wine people, so if you sell twenty dozen a week you get your two pounds. I don't think we shall sell as much as that,' said Dicky.
'We might not the first week,' Alice said, 'but when people found out how nice it was, they would want more and more. And if we only got ten shillings a week it would be something to begin with, wouldn't it?'
Oswald said he should jolly well think it would, and then Dicky took the cork out with the corkscrew. The cork broke a good deal, and some of the bits went into the bottle. Dora got the medicine glass that has the teaspoons and tablespoons marked on it, and we agreed to have a teaspoonful each, to see what it was like.
'No one must have more than that,' Dora said, 'however nice it is.'
Dora behaved rather as if it were her bottle. I suppose it was, because she had lent the money for it.
Then she measured out the teaspoonful, and she had first go, because of being the eldest. We asked at once what it was like, but Dora could not speak just then.
Then she said, 'It's like the tonic Noel had in the spring; but perhaps sherry ought to be like that.'
Then it was Oswald's turn. He thought it was very burny; but he said nothing. He wanted to see first what the others would say.
Dicky said his was simply beastly, and Alice said Noel could taste next if he liked.
Noel said it was the golden wine of the gods, but he had to put his handkerchief up to his mouth all the same, and I saw the face he made.
Then H. O. had his, and he spat it out in the fire, which was very rude and nasty, and we told him so.
Then it was Alice's turn. She said, 'Only half a teaspoonful for me, Dora. We mustn't use it all up.' And she tasted it and said nothing.
Then Dicky said: 'Look here, I chuck this. I'm not going to hawk round such beastly stuff. Any one who likes can have the bottle. Quis?'
And Alice got out 'Ego' before the rest of us. Then she said, 'I know what's the matter with it. It wants sugar.'
And at once we all saw that that was all there was the matter with the stuff. So we got two lumps of sugar and crushed it on the floor with one of the big wooden bricks till it was powdery, and mixed it with some of the wine up to the tablespoon mark, and it was quite different, and not nearly so nasty.
'You see it's all right when you get used to it,' Dicky said. I think he was sorry he had said 'Quis?' in such a hurry.
'Of course,' Alice said, 'it's rather dusty. We must crush the sugar carefully in clean paper before we put it in the bottle.'
Dora said she was afraid it would be cheating to make one bottle nicer than what people would get when they ordered a dozen bottles, but Alice said Dora always made a fuss about everything, and really it would be quite honest.
'You see,' she said, 'I shall just tell them, quite truthfully, what we have done to it, and when their dozens come they can do it for themselves.'
So then we crushed eight more lumps, very cleanly and carefully between newspapers, and shook it up well in the bottle, and corked it up with a screw of paper, brown and not news, for fear of the poisonous printing ink getting wet and dripping down into the wine and killing people. We made Pincher have a taste, and he sneezed for ever so long, and after that he used to go under the sofa whenever we showed him the bottle.
Then we asked Alice who she would try and sell it to. She said: 'I shall ask everybody who comes to the house. And while we are doing that, we can be thinking of outside people to take it to. We must be careful: there's not much more than half of it left, even counting the sugar.'
We did not wish to tell Eliza—I don't know why. And she opened the door very quickly that day, so that the Taxes and a man who came to our house by mistake for next door got away before Alice had a chance to try them with the Castilian Amoroso. But about five Eliza slipped out for half an hour to see a friend who was making her a hat for Sunday, and while she was gone there was a knock. Alice went, and we looked over the banisters. When she opened the door, she said at once, 'Will you walk in, please?' The person at the door said, 'I called to see your Pa, miss. Is he at home?'
Alice said again, 'Will you walk in, please?'
Then the person—it sounded like a man—said, 'He is in, then?'
But Alice only kept on saying, 'Will you walk in, please?' so at last the man did, rubbing his boots very loudly on the mat.
Then Alice shut the front door, and we saw that it was the butcher, with an envelope in his hand. He was not dressed in blue, like when he is cutting up the sheep and things in the shop, and he wore knickerbockers. Alice says he came on a bicycle. She led the way into the dining-room, where the Castilian Amoroso bottle and the medicine glass were standing on the table all ready.
The others stayed on the stairs, but Oswald crept down and looked through the door-crack.
'Please sit down,' said Alice quite calmly, though she told me afterwards I had no idea how silly she felt. And the butcher sat down. Then Alice stood quite still and said nothing, but she fiddled with the medicine glass and put the screw of brown paper straight in the Castilian bottle.
'Will you tell your Pa I'd like a word with him?' the butcher said, when he got tired of saying nothing.
'He'll be in very soon, I think,' Alice said.
And then she stood still again and said nothing. It was beginning to look very idiotic of her, and H. O. laughed. I went back and cuffed him for it quite quietly, and I don't think the butcher heard.
But Alice did, and it roused her from her stupor. She spoke suddenly, very fast indeed—so fast that I knew she had made up what she was going to say before. She had got most of it out of the circular.
She said, 'I want to call your attention to a sample of sherry wine I have here. It is called Castilian something or other, and at the price it is unequalled for flavour and bouquet.'
The butcher said, 'Well—I never!'
And Alice went on, 'Would you like to taste it?'
'Thank you very much, I'm sure, miss,' said the butcher.
Alice poured some out.
The butcher tasted a very little. He licked his lips, and we thought he was going to say how good it was. But he did not. He put down the medicine glass with nearly all the stuff left in it (we put it back in the bottle afterwards to save waste) and said, 'Excuse me, miss, but isn't it a little sweet?—for sherry I mean?'
'The Real isn't,' said Alice. 'If you order a dozen it will come quite different to that—we like it best with sugar. I wish you would order some.' The butcher asked why.
Alice did not speak for a minute, and then she said—
'I don't mind telling you: you are in business yourself, aren't you? We are trying to get people to buy it, because we shall have two shillings for every dozen we can make any one buy. It's called a purr something.'
'A percentage. Yes, I see,' said the butcher, looking at the hole in the carpet.
'You see there are reasons,' Alice went on, 'why we want to make our fortunes as quickly as we can.'
'Quite so,' said the butcher, and he looked at the place where the paper is coming off the wall.
'And this seems a good way,' Alice went on. 'We paid two shillings for the sample and instructions, and it says you can make two pounds a week easily in your leisure time.'
'I'm sure I hope you may, miss,' said the butcher. And Alice said again would he buy some?
'Sherry is my favourite wine,' he said. Alice asked him to have some more to drink.
'No, thank you, miss,' he said; 'it's my favourite wine, but it doesn't agree with me; not the least bit. But I've an uncle drinks it. Suppose I ordered him half a dozen for a Christmas present? Well, miss, here's the shilling commission, anyway,' and he pulled out a handful of money and gave her the shilling.
'But I thought the wine people paid that,' Alice said.
But the butcher said not on half-dozens they didn't. Then he said he didn't think he'd wait any longer for Father—but would Alice ask Father to write him?
Alice offered him the sherry again, but he said something about 'Not for worlds!'—and then she let him out and came back to us with the shilling, and said, 'How's that?'
And we said 'A1.'
And all the evening we talked of our fortune that we had begun to make.
Nobody came next day, but the day after a lady came to ask for money to build an orphanage for the children of dead sailors. And we saw her. I went in with Alice. And when we had explained to her that we had only a shilling and we wanted it for something else, Alice suddenly said, 'Would you like some wine?'
And the lady said, 'Thank you very much,' but she looked surprised.
She was not a young lady, and she had a mantle with beads, and the beads had come off in places—leaving a browny braid showing, and she had printed papers about the dead sailors in a sealskin bag, and the seal had come off in places, leaving the skin bare. We gave her a tablespoonful of the wine in a proper wine-glass out of the sideboard, because she was a lady. And when she had tasted it she got up in a very great hurry, and shook out her dress and snapped her bag shut, and said, 'You naughty, wicked children! What do you mean by playing a trick like this? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! I shall write to your Mamma about it. You dreadful little girl!—you might have poisoned me. But your Mamma...'
Then Alice said, 'I'm very sorry; the butcher liked it, only he said it was sweet. And please don't write to Mother. It makes Father so unhappy when letters come for her!'—and Alice was very near crying.
'What do you mean, you silly child?' said the lady, looking quite bright and interested. 'Why doesn't your Father like your Mother to have letters—eh?'
And Alice said, 'OH, you...!' and began to cry, and bolted out of the room.
Then I said, 'Our Mother is dead, and will you please go away now?'
The lady looked at me a minute, and then she looked quite different, and she said, 'I'm very sorry. I didn't know. Never mind about the wine. I daresay your little sister meant it kindly.' And she looked round the room just like the butcher had done. Then she said again, 'I didn't know—I'm very sorry...'
So I said, 'Don't mention it,' and shook hands with her, and let her out. Of course we couldn't have asked her to buy the wine after what she'd said. But I think she was not a bad sort of person. I do like a person to say they're sorry when they ought to be—especially a grown-up. They do it so seldom. I suppose that's why we think so much of it.
But Alice and I didn't feel jolly for ever so long afterwards. And when I went back into the dining-room I saw how different it was from when Mother was here, and we are different, and Father is different, and nothing is like it was. I am glad I am not made to think about it every day.
I went and found Alice, and told her what the lady had said, and when she had finished crying we put away the bottle and said we would not try to sell any more to people who came. And we did not tell the others—we only said the lady did not buy any—but we went up on the Heath, and some soldiers went by and there was a Punch-and-judy show, and when we came back we were better.
The bottle got quite dusty where we had put it, and perhaps the dust of ages would have laid thick and heavy on it, only a clergyman called when we were all out. He was not our own clergyman—Mr Bristow is our own clergyman, and we all love him, and we would not try to sell sherry to people we like, and make two pounds a week out of them in our spare time. It was another clergyman, just a stray one; and he asked Eliza if the dear children would not like to come to his little Sunday school. We always spend Sunday afternoons with Father. But as he had left the name of his vicarage with Eliza, and asked her to tell us to come, we thought we would go and call on him, just to explain about Sunday afternoons, and we thought we might as well take the sherry with us.
'I won't go unless you all go too,' Alice said, 'and I won't do the talking.'
Dora said she thought we had much better not go; but we said 'Rot!' and it ended in her coming with us, and I am glad she did.
Oswald said he would do the talking if the others liked, and he learned up what to say from the printed papers.
We went to the Vicarage early on Saturday afternoon, and rang at the bell. It is a new red house with no trees in the garden, only very yellow mould and gravel. It was all very neat and dry. Just before we rang the bell we heard some one inside call 'Jane! Jane!' and we thought we would not be Jane for anything. It was the sound of the voice that called that made us sorry for her.
The door was opened by a very neat servant in black, with a white apron; we saw her tying the strings as she came along the hall, through the different-coloured glass in the door. Her face was red, and I think she was Jane.
We asked if we could see Mr Mallow.
The servant said Mr Mallow was very busy with his sermon just then, but she would see.
But Oswald said, 'It's all right. He asked us to come.'
So she let us all in and shut the front door, and showed us into a very tidy room with a bookcase full of a lot of books covered in black cotton with white labels, and some dull pictures, and a harmonium. And Mr Mallow was writing at a desk with drawers, copying something out of a book. He was stout and short, and wore spectacles.
He covered his writing up when we went in—I didn't know why. He looked rather cross, and we heard Jane or somebody being scolded outside by the voice. I hope it wasn't for letting us in, but I have had doubts.
'Well,' said the clergyman, 'what is all this about?'
'You asked us to call,' Dora said, 'about your little Sunday school. We are the Bastables of Lewisham Road.'
'Oh—ah, yes,' he said; 'and shall I expect you all to-morrow?'
He took up his pen and fiddled with it, and he did not ask us to sit down. But some of us did.
'We always spend Sunday afternoon with Father,' said Dora; 'but we wished to thank you for being so kind as to ask us.'
'And we wished to ask you something else!' said Oswald; and he made a sign to Alice to get the sherry ready in the glass. She did—behind Oswald's back while he was speaking.
'My time is limited,' said Mr Mallow, looking at his watch; 'but still—' Then he muttered something about the fold, and went on: 'Tell me what is troubling you, my little man, and I will try to give you any help in my power. What is it you want?'
Then Oswald quickly took the glass from Alice, and held it out to him, and said, 'I want your opinion on that.'
'On that,' he said. 'What is it?'
'It is a shipment,' Oswald said; 'but it's quite enough for you to taste.' Alice had filled the glass half-full; I suppose she was too excited to measure properly.
'A shipment?' said the clergyman, taking the glass in his hand.
'Yes,' Oswald went On; 'an exceptional opportunity. Full-bodied and nutty.'
'It really does taste rather like one kind of Brazil-nut.' Alice put her oar in as usual.
The Vicar looked from Alice to Oswald, and back again, and Oswald went on with what he had learned from the printing. The clergyman held the glass at half-arm's-length, stiffly, as if he had caught cold.
'It is of a quality never before offered at the price. Old Delicate Amoro—what's its name—'
'Amorolio,' said H. O.
'Amoroso,' said Oswald. 'H. O., you just shut up—Castilian Amoroso—it's a true after-dinner wine, stimulating and yet...'
'Wine?' said Mr Mallow, holding the glass further off. 'Do you know,' he went on, making his voice very thick and strong (I expect he does it like that in church), 'have you never been taught that it is the drinking of wine and spirits—yes, and beer, which makes half the homes in England full of wretched little children, and degraded, miserable parents?'
'Not if you put sugar in it,' said Alice firmly; 'eight lumps and shake the bottle. We have each had more than a teaspoonful of it, and we were not ill at all. It was something else that upset H. O. Most likely all those acorns he got out of the Park.'
The clergyman seemed to be speechless with conflicting emotions, and just then the door opened and a lady came in. She had a white cap with lace, and an ugly violet flower in it, and she was tall, and looked very strong, though thin. And I do believe she had been listening at the door.
'But why,' the Vicar was saying, 'why did you bring this dreadful fluid, this curse of our country, to me to taste?'
'Because we thought you might buy some,' said Dora, who never sees when a game is up. 'In books the parson loves his bottle of old port; and new sherry is just as good—with sugar—for people who like sherry. And if you would order a dozen of the wine, then we should get two shillings.'
The lady said (and it was the voice), 'Good gracious! Nasty, sordid little things! Haven't they any one to teach them better?'
And Dora got up and said, 'No, we are not those things you say; but we are sorry we came here to be called names. We want to make our fortune just as much as Mr Mallow does—only no one would listen to us if we preached, so it's no use our copying out sermons like him.'
And I think that was smart of Dora, even if it was rather rude.
Then I said perhaps we had better go, and the lady said, 'I should think so!'
But when we were going to wrap up the bottle and glass the clergyman said, 'No; you can leave that,' and we were so upset we did, though it wasn't his after all.
We walked home very fast and not saying much, and the girls went up to their rooms. When I went to tell them tea was ready, and there was a teacake, Dora was crying like anything and Alice hugging her. I am afraid there is a great deal of crying in this chapter, but I can't help it. Girls will sometimes; I suppose it is their nature, and we ought to be sorry for their affliction.
'It's no good,' Dora was saying, 'you all hate me, and you think I'm a prig and a busybody, but I do try to do right—oh, I do! Oswald, go away; don't come here making fun of me!'
So I said, 'I'm not making fun, Sissy; don't cry, old girl.'
Mother taught me to call her Sissy when we were very little and before the others came, but I don't often somehow, now we are old. I patted her on the back, and she put her head against my sleeve, holding on to Alice all the time, and she went on. She was in that laughy-cryey state when people say things they wouldn't say at other times.
'Oh dear, oh dear—I do try, I do. And when Mother died she said, "Dora, take care of the others, and teach them to be good, and keep them out of trouble and make them happy." She said, "Take care of them for me, Dora dear." And I have tried, and all of you hate me for it; and to-day I let you do this, though I knew all the time it was silly.'
I hope you will not think I was a muff but I kissed Dora for some time. Because girls like it. And I will never say again that she comes the good elder sister too much. And I have put all this in though I do hate telling about it, because I own I have been hard on Dora, but I never will be again. She is a good old sort; of course we never knew before about what Mother told her, or we wouldn't have ragged her as we did. We did not tell the little ones, but I got Alice to speak to Dicky, and we three can sit on the others if requisite.
This made us forget all about the sherry; but about eight o'clock there was a knock, and Eliza went, and we saw it was poor Jane, if her name was Jane, from the Vicarage. She handed in a brown-paper parcel and a letter. And three minutes later Father called us into his study.
On the table was the brown-paper parcel, open, with our bottle and glass on it, and Father had a letter in his hand. He Pointed to the bottle and sighed, and said, 'What have you been doing now?' The letter in his hand was covered with little black writing, all over the four large pages.
So Dicky spoke up, and he told Father the whole thing, as far as he knew it, for Alice and I had not told about the dead sailors' lady.
And when he had done, Alice said, 'Has Mr Mallow written to you to say he will buy a dozen of the sherry after all? It is really not half bad with sugar in it.'
Father said no, he didn't think clergymen could afford such expensive wine; and he said he would like to taste it. So we gave him what there was left, for we had decided coming home that we would give up trying for the two pounds a week in our spare time.
Father tasted it, and then he acted just as H. O. had done when he had his teaspoonful, but of course we did not say anything. Then he laughed till I thought he would never stop.
I think it was the sherry, because I am sure I have read somewhere about 'wine that maketh glad the heart of man'. He had only a very little, which shows that it was a good after-dinner wine, stimulating, and yet ...I forget the rest.
But when he had done laughing he said, 'It's all right, kids. Only don't do it again. The wine trade is overcrowded; and besides, I thought you promised to consult me before going into business?'
'Before buying one I thought you meant,' said Dicky. 'This was only on commission.' And Father laughed again. I am glad we got the Castilian Amoroso, because it did really cheer Father up, and you cannot always do that, however hard you try, even if you make jokes, or give him a comic paper.