The part about his nobleness only comes at the end, but you would not understand it unless you knew how it began. It began, like nearly everything about that time, with treasure-seeking.
Of course as soon as we had promised to consult my Father about business matters we all gave up wanting to go into business. I don't know how it is, but having to consult about a thing with grown-up people, even the bravest and the best, seems to make the thing not worth doing afterwards.
We don't mind Albert's uncle chipping in sometimes when the thing's going on, but we are glad he never asked us to promise to consult him about anything. Yet Oswald saw that my Father was quite right; and I daresay if we had had that hundred pounds we should have spent it on the share in that lucrative business for the sale of useful patent, and then found out afterwards that we should have done better to spend the money in some other way. My Father says so, and he ought to know. We had several ideas about that time, but having so little chink always stood in the way.
This was the case with H. O.'s idea of setting up a coconut-shy on this side of the Heath, where there are none generally. We had no sticks or wooden balls, and the greengrocer said he could not book so many as twelve dozen coconuts without Mr Bastable's written order. And as we did not wish to consult my Father it was decided to drop it. And when Alice dressed up Pincher in some of the dolls' clothes and we made up our minds to take him round with an organ as soon as we had taught him to dance, we were stopped at once by Dicky's remembering how he had once heard that an organ cost seven hundred pounds. Of course this was the big church kind, but even the ones on three legs can't be got for one-and-sevenpence, which was all we had when we first thought of it. So we gave that up too.
It was a wet day, I remember, and mutton hash for dinner—very tough with pale gravy with lumps in it. I think the others would have left a good deal on the sides of their plates, although they know better, only Oswald said it was a savoury stew made of the red deer that Edward shot. So then we were the Children of the New Forest, and the mutton tasted much better. No one in the New Forest minds venison being tough and the gravy pale.
Then after dinner we let the girls have a dolls' tea-party, on condition they didn't expect us boys to wash up; and it was when we were drinking the last of the liquorice water out of the little cups that Dicky said—
'This reminds me.'
So we said, 'What of?'
Dicky answered us at once, though his mouth was full of bread with liquorice stuck in it to look like cake. You should not speak with your mouth full, even to your own relations, and you shouldn't wipe your mouth on the back of your hand, but on your handkerchief, if you have one. Dicky did not do this. He said—
'Why, you remember when we first began about treasure-seeking, I said I had thought of something, only I could not tell you because I hadn't finished thinking about it.'
We said 'Yes.'
'Well, this liquorice water—'
'Tea,' said Alice softly.
'Well, tea then—made me think.' He was going on to say what it made him think, but Noel interrupted and cried out, 'I say; let's finish off this old tea-party and have a council of war.'
So we got out the flags and the wooden sword and the drum, and Oswald beat it while the girls washed up, till Eliza came up to say she had the jumping toothache, and the noise went through her like a knife. So of course Oswald left off at once. When you are polite to Oswald he never refuses to grant your requests.
When we were all dressed up we sat down round the camp fire, and Dicky began again.
'Every one in the world wants money. Some people get it. The people who get it are the ones who see things. I have seen one thing.'
Dicky stopped and smoked the pipe of peace. It is the pipe we did bubbles with in the summer, and somehow it has not got broken yet. We put tea-leaves in it for the pipe of peace, but the girls are not allowed to have any. It is not right to let girls smoke. They get to think too much of themselves if you let them do everything the same as men. Oswald said, 'Out with it.'
'I see that glass bottles only cost a penny. H. O., if you dare to snigger I'll send you round selling old bottles, and you shan't have any sweets except out of the money you get for them. And the same with you, Noel.'
'Noel wasn't sniggering,' said Alice in a hurry; 'it is only his taking so much interest in what you were saying makes him look like that. Be quiet, H. O., and don't you make faces, either. Do go on, Dicky dear.'
So Dicky went on.
'There must be hundreds of millions of bottles of medicines sold every year. Because all the different medicines say, "Thousands of cures daily," and if you only take that as two thousand, which it must be, at least, it mounts up. And the people who sell them must make a great deal of money by them because they are nearly always two-and-ninepence the bottle, and three-and-six for one nearly double the size. Now the bottles, as I was saying, don't cost anything like that.'
'It's the medicine costs the money,' said Dora; 'look how expensive jujubes are at the chemist's, and peppermints too.'
'That's only because they're nice,' Dicky explained; 'nasty things are not so dear. Look what a lot of brimstone you get for a penny, and the same with alum. We would not put the nice kinds of chemist's things in our medicine.'
Then he went on to tell us that when we had invented our medicine we would write and tell the editor about it, and he would put it in the paper, and then people would send their two-and-ninepence and three-and-six for the bottle nearly double the size, and then when the medicine had cured them they would write to the paper and their letters would be printed, saying how they had been suffering for years, and never thought to get about again, but thanks to the blessing of our ointment—'
Dora interrupted and said, 'Not ointment—it's so messy.' And Alice thought so too. And Dicky said he did not mean it, he was quite decided to let it be in bottles. So now it was all settled, and we did not see at the time that this would be a sort of going into business, but afterwards when Albert's uncle showed us we saw it, and we were sorry. We only had to invent the medicine. You might think that was easy, because of the number of them you see every day in the paper, but it is much harder than you think. First we had to decide what sort of illness we should like to cure, and a 'heated discussion ensued', like in Parliament.
Dora wanted it to be something to make the complexion of dazzling fairness, but we remembered how her face came all red and rough when she used the Rosabella soap that was advertised to make the darkest complexion fair as the lily, and she agreed that perhaps it was better not. Noel wanted to make the medicine first and then find out what it would cure, but Dicky thought not, because there are so many more medicines than there are things the matter with us, so it would be easier to choose the disease first. Oswald would have liked wounds. I still think it was a good idea, but Dicky said, 'Who has wounds, especially now there aren't any wars? We shouldn't sell a bottle a day!' So Oswald gave in because he knows what manners are, and it was Dicky's idea. H. O. wanted a cure for the uncomfortable feeling that they give you powders for, but we explained to him that grown-up people do not have this feeling, however much they eat, and he agreed. Dicky said he did not care a straw what the loathsome disease was, as long as we hurried up and settled on something. Then Alice said—
'It ought to be something very common, and only one thing. Not the pains in the back and all the hundreds of things the people have in somebody's syrup. What's the commonest thing of all?'
And at once we said, 'Colds.'
So that was settled.
Then we wrote a label to go on the bottle. When it was written it would not go on the vinegar bottle that we had got, but we knew it would go small when it was printed. It was like this:
CERTAIN CURE FOR COLDS
Coughs, Asthma, Shortness of Breath, and all infections of the Chest
One dose gives immediate relief
It will cure your cold in one bottle
Especially the larger size at 3s. 6d.
Order at once of the Makers
To prevent disappointment
D., O., R., A., N., and H. O. BASTABLE
150, Lewisham Road, S.E.
(A halfpenny for all bottles returned)
Of course the next thing was for one of us to catch a cold and try what cured it; we all wanted to be the one, but it was Dicky's idea, and he said he was not going to be done out of it, so we let him. It was only fair. He left off his undershirt that very day, and next morning he stood in a draught in his nightgown for quite a long time. And we damped his day-shirt with the nail-brush before he put it on. But all was vain. They always tell you that these things will give you cold, but we found it was not so.
So then we all went over to the Park, and Dicky went right into the water with his boots on, and stood there as long as he could bear it, for it was rather cold, and we stood and cheered him on. He walked home in his wet clothes, which they say is a sure thing, but it was no go, though his boots were quite spoiled. And three days after Noel began to cough and sneeze.
So then Dicky said it was not fair.
'I can't help it,' Noel said. 'You should have caught it yourself, then it wouldn't have come to me.'
And Alice said she had known all along Noel oughtn't to have stood about on the bank cheering in the cold.
Noel had to go to bed, and then we began to make the medicines; we were sorry he was out of it, but he had the fun of taking the things.
We made a great many medicines. Alice made herb tea. She got sage and thyme and savory and marjoram and boiled them all up together with salt and water, but she would put parsley in too. Oswald is sure parsley is not a herb. It is only put on the cold meat and you are not supposed to eat it. It kills parrots to eat parsley, I believe. I expect it was the parsley that disagreed so with Noel. The medicine did not seem to do the cough any good.
Oswald got a pennyworth of alum, because it is so cheap, and some turpentine which every one knows is good for colds, and a little sugar and an aniseed ball. These were mixed in a bottle with water, but Eliza threw it away and said it was nasty rubbish, and I hadn't any money to get more things with.
Dora made him some gruel, and he said it did his chest good; but of course that was no use, because you cannot put gruel in bottles and say it is medicine. It would not be honest, and besides nobody would believe you.
Dick mixed up lemon-juice and sugar and a little of the juice of the red flannel that Noel's throat was done up in. It comes out beautifully in hot water. Noel took this and he liked it. Noel's own idea was liquorice-water, and we let him have it, but it is too plain and black to sell in bottles at the proper price.
Noel liked H. O.'s medicine the best, which was silly of him, because it was only peppermints melted in hot water, and a little cobalt to make it look blue. It was all right, because H. O.'s paint-box is the French kind, with Couleurs non Veneneuses on it. This means you may suck your brushes if you want to, or even your paints if you are a very little boy.
It was rather jolly while Noel had that cold. He had a fire in his bedroom which opens out of Dicky's and Oswald's, and the girls used to read aloud to Noel all day; they will not read aloud to you when you are well. Father was away at Liverpool on business, and Albert's uncle was at Hastings. We were rather glad of this, because we wished to give all the medicines a fair trial, and grown-ups are but too fond of interfering. As if we should have given him anything poisonous!
His cold went on—it was bad in his head, but it was not one of the kind when he has to have poultices and can't sit up in bed. But when it had been in his head nearly a week, Oswald happened to tumble over Alice on the stairs. When we got up she was crying.
'Don't cry silly!' said Oswald; 'you know I didn't hurt you.' I was very sorry if I had hurt her, but you ought not to sit on the stairs in the dark and let other people tumble over you. You ought to remember how beastly it is for them if they do hurt you.
'Oh, it's not that, Oswald,' Alice said. 'Don't be a pig! I am so miserable. Do be kind to me.'
So Oswald thumped her on the back and told her to shut up.
'It's about Noel,' she said. 'I'm sure he's very ill; and playing about with medicines is all very well, but I know he's ill, and Eliza won't send for the doctor: she says it's only a cold. And I know the doctor's bills are awful. I heard Father telling Aunt Emily so in the summer. But he is ill, and perhaps he'll die or something.'
Then she began to cry again. Oswald thumped her again, because he knows how a good brother ought to behave, and said, 'Cheer up.' If we had been in a book Oswald would have embraced his little sister tenderly, and mingled his tears with hers.
Then Oswald said, 'Why not write to Father?'
And she cried more and said, 'I've lost the paper with the address. H. O. had it to draw on the back of, and I can't find it now; I've looked everywhere. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. No I won't. But I'm going out. Don't tell the others. And I say, Oswald, do pretend I'm in if Eliza asks. Promise.'
'Tell me what you're going to do,' I said. But she said 'No'; and there was a good reason why not. So I said I wouldn't promise if it came to that. Of course I meant to all right. But it did seem mean of her not to tell me.
So Alice went out by the side door while Eliza was setting tea, and she was a long time gone; she was not in to tea. When Eliza asked Oswald where she was he said he did not know, but perhaps she was tidying her corner drawer. Girls often do this, and it takes a long time. Noel coughed a good bit after tea, and asked for Alice.
Oswald told him she was doing something and it was a secret. Oswald did not tell any lies even to save his sister. When Alice came back she was very quiet, but she whispered to Oswald that it was all right. When it was rather late Eliza said she was going out to post a letter. This always takes her an hour, because she will go to the post-office across the Heath instead of the pillar-box, because once a boy dropped fusees in our pillar-box and burnt the letters. It was not any of us; Eliza told us about it. And when there was a knock at the door a long time after we thought it was Eliza come back, and that she had forgotten the back-door key. We made H. O. go down to open the door, because it is his place to run about: his legs are younger than ours. And we heard boots on the stairs besides H. O.'s, and we listened spellbound till the door opened, and it was Albert's uncle. He looked very tired.
'I am glad you've come,' Oswald said. 'Alice began to think Noel—'
Alice stopped me, and her face was very red, her nose was shiny too, with having cried so much before tea.
She said, 'I only said I thought Noel ought to have the doctor. Don't you think he ought?' She got hold of Albert's uncle and held on to him.
'Let's have a look at you, young man,' said Albert's uncle, and he sat down on the edge of the bed. It is a rather shaky bed, the bar that keeps it steady underneath got broken when we were playing burglars last winter. It was our crowbar. He began to feel Noel's pulse, and went on talking.
'It was revealed to the Arab physician as he made merry in his tents on the wild plains of Hastings that the Presence had a cold in its head. So he immediately seated himself on the magic carpet, and bade it bear him hither, only pausing in the flight to purchase a few sweetmeats in the bazaar.'
He pulled out a jolly lot of chocolate and some butterscotch, and grapes for Noel. When we had all said thank you, he went on.
'The physician's are the words of wisdom: it's high time this kid was asleep. I have spoken. Ye have my leave to depart.'
So we bunked, and Dora and Albert's uncle made Noel comfortable for the night.
Then they came to the nursery which we had gone down to, and he sat down in the Guy Fawkes chair and said, 'Now then.'
Alice said, 'You may tell them what I did. I daresay they'll all be in a wax, but I don't care.'
'I think you were very wise,' said Albert's uncle, pulling her close to him to sit on his knee. 'I am very glad you telegraphed.'
So then Oswald understood what Alice's secret was. She had gone out and sent a telegram to Albert's uncle at Hastings. But Oswald thought she might have told him. Afterwards she told me what she had put in the telegram. It was, 'Come home. We have given Noel a cold, and I think we are killing him.' With the address it came to tenpence-halfpenny.
Then Albert's uncle began to ask questions, and it all came out, how Dicky had tried to catch the cold, but the cold had gone to Noel instead, and about the medicines and all. Albert's uncle looked very serious.
'Look here,' he said, 'You're old enough not to play the fool like this. Health is the best thing you've got; you ought to know better than to risk it. You might have killed your little brother with your precious medicines. You've had a lucky escape, certainly. But poor Noel!'
'Oh, do you think he's going to die?' Alice asked that, and she was crying again.
'No, no,' said Albert's uncle; 'but look here. Do you see how silly you've been? And I thought you promised your Father—' And then he gave us a long talking-to. He can make you feel most awfully small. At last he stopped, and we said we were very sorry, and he said, 'You know I promised to take you all to the pantomime?'
So we said, 'Yes,' and knew but too well that now he wasn't going to. Then he went on—
'Well, I will take you if you like, or I will take Noel to the sea for a week to cure his cold. Which is it to be?'
Of course he knew we should say, 'Take Noel' and we did; but Dicky told me afterwards he thought it was hard on H. O.
Albert's uncle stayed till Eliza came in, and then he said good night in a way that showed us that all was forgiven and forgotten.
And we went to bed. It must have been the middle of the night when Oswald woke up suddenly, and there was Alice with her teeth chattering, shaking him to wake him.
'Oh, Oswald!' she said, 'I am so unhappy. Suppose I should die in the night!'
Oswald told her to go to bed and not gas. But she said, 'I must tell you; I wish I'd told Albert's uncle. I'm a thief, and if I die to-night I know where thieves go to.' So Oswald saw it was no good and he sat up in bed and said—'Go ahead.' So Alice stood shivering and said—'I hadn't enough money for the telegram, so I took the bad sixpence out of the exchequer. And I paid for it with that and the fivepence I had. And I wouldn't tell you, because if you'd stopped me doing it I couldn't have borne it; and if you'd helped me you'd have been a thief too. Oh, what shall I do?'
Oswald thought a minute, and then he said—
'You'd better have told me. But I think it will be all right if we pay it back. Go to bed. Cross with you? No, stupid! Only another time you'd better not keep secrets.'
So she kissed Oswald, and he let her, and she went back to bed.
The next day Albert's uncle took Noel away, before Oswald had time to persuade Alice that we ought to tell him about the sixpence. Alice was very unhappy, but not so much as in the night: you can be very miserable in the night if you have done anything wrong and you happen to be awake. I know this for a fact.
None of us had any money except Eliza, and she wouldn't give us any unless we said what for; and of course we could not do that because of the honour of the family. And Oswald was anxious to get the sixpence to give to the telegraph people because he feared that the badness of that sixpence might have been found out, and that the police might come for Alice at any moment. I don't think I ever had such an unhappy day. Of course we could have written to Albert's uncle, but it would have taken a long time, and every moment of delay added to Alice's danger. We thought and thought, but we couldn't think of any way to get that sixpence. It seems a small sum, but you see Alice's liberty depended on it. It was quite late in the afternoon when I met Mrs Leslie on the Parade. She had a brown fur coat and a lot of yellow flowers in her hands. She stopped to speak to me, and asked me how the Poet was. I told her he had a cold, and I wondered whether she would lend me sixpence if I asked her, but I could not make up my mind how to begin to say it. It is a hard thing to say—much harder than you would think. She talked to me for a bit, and then she suddenly got into a cab, and said—
'I'd no idea it was so late,' and told the man where to go. And just as she started she shoved the yellow flowers through the window and said, 'For the sick poet, with my love,' and was driven off.
Gentle reader, I will not conceal from you what Oswald did. He knew all about not disgracing the family, and he did not like doing what I am going to say: and they were really Noel's flowers, only he could not have sent them to Hastings, and Oswald knew he would say 'Yes' if Oswald asked him. Oswald sacrificed his family pride because of his little sister's danger. I do not say he was a noble boy—I just tell you what he did, and you can decide for yourself about the nobleness.
He put on his oldest clothes—they're much older than any you would think he had if you saw him when he was tidy—and he took those yellow chrysanthemums and he walked with them to Greenwich Station and waited for the trains bringing people from London. He sold those flowers in penny bunches and got tenpence. Then he went to the telegraph office at Lewisham, and said to the lady there:
'A little girl gave you a bad sixpence yesterday. Here are six good pennies.'
The lady said she had not noticed it, and never mind, but Oswald knew that 'Honesty is the best Policy', and he refused to take back the pennies. So at last she said she should put them in the plate on Sunday. She is a very nice lady. I like the way she does her hair.
Then Oswald went home to Alice and told her, and she hugged him, and said he was a dear, good, kind boy, and he said 'Oh, it's all right.'
We bought peppermint bullseyes with the fourpence I had over, and the others wanted to know where we got the money, but we would not tell.
Only afterwards when Noel came home we told him, because they were his flowers, and he said it was quite right. He made some poetry about it. I only remember one bit of it.
The noble youth of high degree Consents to play a menial part, All for his sister Alice's sake, Who was so dear to his faithful heart.
But Oswald himself has never bragged about it. We got no treasure out of this, unless you count the peppermint bullseyes.