A day or two after Noel came back from Hastings there was snow; it was jolly. And we cleared it off the path. A man to do it is sixpence at least, and you should always save when you can. A penny saved is a penny earned. And then we thought it would be nice to clear it off the top of the portico, where it lies so thick, and the edges as if they had been cut with a knife. And just as we had got out of the landing-window on to the portico, the Water Rates came up the path with his book that he tears the thing out of that says how much you have got to pay, and the little ink-bottle hung on to his buttonhole in case you should pay him. Father says the Water Rates is a sensible man, and knows it is always well to be prepared for whatever happens, however unlikely. Alice said afterwards that she rather liked the Water Rates, really, and Noel said he had a face like a good vizier, or the man who rewards the honest boy for restoring the purse, but we did not think about these things at the time, and as the Water Rates came up the steps, we shovelled down a great square slab of snow like an avalanche—and it fell right on his head. Two of us thought of it at the same moment, so it was quite a large avalanche. And when the Water Rates had shaken himself he rang the bell. It was Saturday, and Father was at home. We know now that it is very wrong and ungentlemanly to shovel snow off porticoes on to the Water Rates, or any other person, and we hope he did not catch a cold, and we are very sorry. We apologized to the Water Rates when Father told us to. We were all sent to bed for it.
We all deserved the punishment, because the others would have shovelled down snow just as we did if they'd thought of it—only they are not so quick at thinking of things as we are. And even quite wrong things sometimes lead to adventures; as every one knows who has ever read about pirates or highwaymen.
Eliza hates us to be sent to bed early, because it means her having to bring meals up, and it means lighting the fire in Noel's room ever so much earlier than usual. He had to have a fire because he still had a bit of a cold. But this particular day we got Eliza into a good temper by giving her a horrid brooch with pretending amethysts in it, that an aunt once gave to Alice, so Eliza brought up an extra scuttle of coals, and when the greengrocer came with the potatoes (he is always late on Saturdays) she got some chestnuts from him. So that when we heard Father go out after his dinner, there was a jolly fire in Noel's room, and we were able to go in and be Red Indians in blankets most comfortably. Eliza had gone out; she says she gets things cheaper on Saturday nights. She has a great friend, who sells fish at a shop, and he is very generous, and lets her have herrings for less than half the natural price.
So we were all alone in the house; Pincher was out with Eliza, and we talked about robbers. And Dora thought it would be a dreadful trade, but Dicky said—
'I think it would be very interesting. And you would only rob rich people, and be very generous to the poor and needy, like Claude Duval.' Dora said, 'It is wrong to be a robber.'
'Yes,' said Alice, 'you would never know a happy hour. Think of trying to sleep with the stolen jewels under your bed, and remembering all the quantities of policemen and detectives that there are in the world!'
'There are ways of being robbers that are not wrong,' said Noel; 'if you can rob a robber it is a right act.'
'But you can't,' said Dora; 'he is too clever, and besides, it's wrong anyway.'
'Yes you can, and it isn't; and murdering him with boiling oil is a right act, too, so there!' said Noel. 'What about Ali Baba? Now then!' And we felt it was a score for Noel.
'What would you do if there was a robber?' said Alice.
H. O. said he would kill him with boiling oil; but Alice explained that she meant a real robber—now—this minute—in the house.
Oswald and Dicky did not say; but Noel said he thought it would only be fair to ask the robber quite politely and quietly to go away, and then if he didn't you could deal with him.
Now what I am going to tell you is a very strange and wonderful thing, and I hope you will be able to believe it. I should not, if a boy told me, unless I knew him to be a man of honour, and perhaps not then unless he gave his sacred word. But it is true, all the same, and it only shows that the days of romance and daring deeds are not yet at an end.
Alice was just asking Noel how he would deal with the robber who wouldn't go if he was asked politely and quietly, when we heard a noise downstairs—quite a plain noise, not the kind of noise you fancy you hear. It was like somebody moving a chair. We held our breath and listened and then came another noise, like some one poking a fire. Now, you remember there was no one to poke a fire or move a chair downstairs, because Eliza and Father were both out. They could not have come in without our hearing them, because the front door is as hard to shut as the back one, and whichever you go in by you have to give a slam that you can hear all down the street.
H. O. and Alice and Dora caught hold of each other's blankets and looked at Dicky and Oswald, and every one was quite pale. And Noel whispered—
'It's ghosts, I know it is'—and then we listened again, but there was no more noise. Presently Dora said in a whisper—
'Whatever shall we do? Oh, whatever shall we do—what shall we do?' And she kept on saying it till we had to tell her to shut up.
O reader, have you ever been playing Red Indians in blankets round a bedroom fire in a house where you thought there was no one but you—and then suddenly heard a noise like a chair, and a fire being poked, downstairs? Unless you have you will not be able to imagine at all what it feels like. It was not like in books; our hair did not stand on end at all, and we never said 'Hist!' once, but our feet got very cold, though we were in blankets by the fire, and the insides of Oswald's hands got warm and wet, and his nose was cold like a dog's, and his ears were burning hot.
The girls said afterwards that they shivered with terror, and their teeth chattered, but we did not see or hear this at the time.
'Shall we open the window and call police?' said Dora; and then Oswald suddenly thought of something, and he breathed more freely and he said—
'I know it's not ghosts, and I don't believe it's robbers. I expect it's a stray cat got in when the coals came this morning, and she's been hiding in the cellar, and now she's moving about. Let's go down and see.'
The girls wouldn't, of course; but I could see that they breathed more freely too. But Dicky said, 'All right; I will if you will.'
H. O. said, 'Do you think it's really a cat?' So we said he had better stay with the girls. And of course after that we had to let him and Alice both come. Dora said if we took Noel down with his cold, she would scream 'Fire!' and 'Murder!' and she didn't mind if the whole street heard.
So Noel agreed to be getting his clothes on, and the rest of us said we would go down and look for the cat.
Now Oswald said that about the cat, and it made it easier to go down, but in his inside he did not feel at all sure that it might not be robbers after all. Of course, we had often talked about robbers before, but it is very different when you sit in a room and listen and listen and listen; and Oswald felt somehow that it would be easier to go down and see what it was, than to wait, and listen, and wait, and wait, and listen, and wait, and then perhaps to hear it, whatever it was, come creeping slowly up the stairs as softly as it could with its boots off, and the stairs creaking, towards the room where we were with the door open in case of Eliza coming back suddenly, and all dark on the landings. And then it would have been just as bad, and it would have lasted longer, and you would have known you were a coward besides. Dicky says he felt all these same things. Many people would say we were young heroes to go down as we did; so I have tried to explain, because no young hero wishes to have more credit than he deserves.
The landing gas was turned down low—just a blue bead—and we four went out very softly, wrapped in our blankets, and we stood on the top of the stairs a good long time before we began to go down. And we listened and listened till our ears buzzed.
And Oswald whispered to Dicky, and Dicky went into our room and fetched the large toy pistol that is a foot long, and that has the trigger broken, and I took it because I am the eldest; and I don't think either of us thought it was the cat now. But Alice and H. O. did. Dicky got the poker out of Noel's room, and told Dora it was to settle the cat with when we caught her.
Then Oswald whispered, 'Let's play at burglars; Dicky and I are armed to the teeth, we will go first. You keep a flight behind us, and be a reinforcement if we are attacked. Or you can retreat and defend the women and children in the fortress, if you'd rather.'
But they said they would be a reinforcement.
Oswald's teeth chattered a little when he spoke. It was not with anything else except cold.
So Dicky and Oswald crept down, and when we got to the bottom of the stairs, we saw Father's study door just ajar, and the crack of light. And Oswald was so pleased to see the light, knowing that burglars prefer the dark, or at any rate the dark lantern, that he felt really sure it was the cat after all, and then he thought it would be fun to make the others upstairs think it was really a robber. So he cocked the pistol—you can cock it, but it doesn't go off—and he said, 'Come on, Dick!' and he rushed at the study door and burst into the room, crying, 'Surrender! you are discovered! Surrender, or I fire! Throw up your hands!'
And, as he finished saying it, he saw before him, standing on the study hearthrug, a Real Robber. There was no mistake about it. Oswald was sure it was a robber, because it had a screwdriver in its hands, and was standing near the cupboard door that H. O. broke the lock off; and there were gimlets and screws and things on the floor. There is nothing in that cupboard but old ledgers and magazines and the tool chest, but of course, a robber could not know that beforehand.
When Oswald saw that there really was a robber, and that he was so heavily armed with the screwdriver, he did not feel comfortable. But he kept the pistol pointed at the robber, and—you will hardly believe it, but it is true—the robber threw down the screwdriver clattering on the other tools, and he did throw up his hands, and said—
'I surrender; don't shoot me! How many of you are there?'
So Dicky said, 'You are outnumbered. Are you armed?'
And the robber said, 'No, not in the least.'
And Oswald said, still pointing the pistol, and feeling very strong and brave and as if he was in a book, 'Turn out your pockets.'
The robber did: and while he turned them out, we looked at him. He was of the middle height, and clad in a black frock-coat and grey trousers. His boots were a little gone at the sides, and his shirt-cuffs were a bit frayed, but otherwise he was of gentlemanly demeanour. He had a thin, wrinkled face, with big, light eyes that sparkled, and then looked soft very queerly, and a short beard. In his youth it must have been of a fair golden colour, but now it was tinged with grey. Oswald was sorry for him, especially when he saw that one of his pockets had a large hole in it, and that he had nothing in his pockets but letters and string and three boxes of matches, and a pipe and a handkerchief and a thin tobacco pouch and two pennies. We made him put all the things on the table, and then he said—
'Well, you've caught me; what are you going to do with me? Police?'
Alice and H. O. had come down to be reinforcements, when they heard a shout, and when Alice saw that it was a Real Robber, and that he had surrendered, she clapped her hands and said, 'Bravo, boys!' and so did H. O. And now she said, 'If he gives his word of honour not to escape, I shouldn't call the police: it seems a pity. Wait till Father comes home.'
The robber agreed to this, and gave his word of honour, and asked if he might put on a pipe, and we said 'Yes,' and he sat in Father's armchair and warmed his boots, which steamed, and I sent H. O. and Alice to put on some clothes and tell the others, and bring down Dicky's and my knickerbockers, and the rest of the chestnuts.
And they all came, and we sat round the fire, and it was jolly. The robber was very friendly, and talked to us a great deal.
'I wasn't always in this low way of business,' he said, when Noel said something about the things he had turned out of his pockets. 'It's a great come-down to a man like me. But, if I must be caught, it's something to be caught by brave young heroes like you. My stars! How you did bolt into the room,—"Surrender, and up with your hands!" You might have been born and bred to the thief-catching.'
Oswald is sorry if it was mean, but he could not own up just then that he did not think there was any one in the study when he did that brave if rash act. He has told since.
'And what made you think there was any one in the house?' the robber asked, when he had thrown his head back, and laughed for quite half a minute. So we told him. And he applauded our valour, and Alice and H. O. explained that they would have said 'Surrender,' too, only they were reinforcements. The robber ate some of the chestnuts—and we sat and wondered when Father would come home, and what he would say to us for our intrepid conduct. And the robber told us of all the things he had done before he began to break into houses. Dicky picked up the tools from the floor, and suddenly he said—
'Why, this is Father's screwdriver and his gimlets, and all! Well, I do call it jolly cheek to pick a man's locks with his own tools!'
'True, true,' said the robber. 'It is cheek, of the jolliest! But you see I've come down in the world. I was a highway robber once, but horses are so expensive to hire—five shillings an hour, you know—and I couldn't afford to keep them. The highwayman business isn't what it was.'
'What about a bike?' said H. O.
But the robber thought cycles were low—and besides you couldn't go across country with them when occasion arose, as you could with a trusty steed. And he talked of highwaymen as if he knew just how we liked hearing it.
Then he told us how he had been a pirate captain—and how he had sailed over waves mountains high, and gained rich prizes—and how he did begin to think that here he had found a profession to his mind.
'I don't say there are no ups and downs in it,' he said, 'especially in stormy weather. But what a trade! And a sword at your side, and the Jolly Roger flying at the peak, and a prize in sight. And all the black mouths of your guns pointed at the laden trader—and the wind in your favour, and your trusty crew ready to live and die for you! Oh—but it's a grand life!'
I did feel so sorry for him. He used such nice words, and he had a gentleman's voice.
'I'm sure you weren't brought up to be a pirate,' said Dora. She had dressed even to her collar—and made Noel do it too—but the rest of us were in blankets with just a few odd things put on anyhow underneath.
The robber frowned and sighed.
'No,' he said, 'I was brought up to the law. I was at Balliol, bless your hearts, and that's true anyway.' He sighed again, and looked hard at the fire.
'That was my Father's college,' H. O. was beginning, but Dicky said—'Why did you leave off being a pirate?'
'A pirate?' he said, as if he had not been thinking of such things.
'Oh, yes; why I gave it up because—because I could not get over the dreadful sea-sickness.'
'Nelson was sea-sick,' said Oswald.
'Ah,' said the robber; 'but I hadn't his luck or his pluck, or something. He stuck to it and won Trafalgar, didn't he? "Kiss me, Hardy"—and all that, eh? I couldn't stick to it—I had to resign. And nobody kissed me.'
I saw by his understanding about Nelson that he was really a man who had been to a good school as well as to Balliol.
Then we asked him, 'And what did you do then?'
And Alice asked if he was ever a coiner, and we told him how we had thought we'd caught the desperate gang next door, and he was very much interested and said he was glad he had never taken to coining.
'Besides, the coins are so ugly nowadays,' he said, 'no one could really find any pleasure in making them. And it's a hole-and-corner business at the best, isn't it?—and it must be a very thirsty one—with the hot metal and furnaces and things.'
And again he looked at the fire.
Oswald forgot for a minute that the interesting stranger was a robber, and asked him if he wouldn't have a drink. Oswald has heard Father do this to his friends, so he knows it is the right thing. The robber said he didn't mind if he did. And that is right, too.
And Dora went and got a bottle of Father's ale—the Light Sparkling Family—and a glass, and we gave it to the robber. Dora said she would be responsible.
Then when he had had a drink he told us about bandits, but he said it was so bad in wet weather. Bandits' caves were hardly ever properly weathertight. And bush-ranging was the same.
'As a matter of fact,' he said, 'I was bush-ranging this afternoon, among the furze-bushes on the Heath, but I had no luck. I stopped the Lord Mayor in his gilt coach, with all his footmen in plush and gold lace, smart as cockatoos. But it was no go. The Lord Mayor hadn't a stiver in his pockets. One of the footmen had six new pennies: the Lord Mayor always pays his servants' wages in new pennies. I spent fourpence of that in bread and cheese, that on the table's the tuppence. Ah, it's a poor trade!' And then he filled his pipe again.
We had turned out the gas, so that Father should have a jolly good surprise when he did come home, and we sat and talked as pleasant as could be. I never liked a new man better than I liked that robber. And I felt so sorry for him. He told us he had been a war-correspondent and an editor, in happier days, as well as a horse-stealer and a colonel of dragoons.
And quite suddenly, just as we were telling him about Lord Tottenham and our being highwaymen ourselves, he put up his hand and said 'Shish!' and we were quiet and listened.
There was a scrape, scrape, scraping noise; it came from downstairs.
'They're filing something,' whispered the robber, 'here—shut up, give me that pistol, and the poker. There is a burglar now, and no mistake.'
'It's only a toy one and it won't go off,' I said, 'but you can cock it.'
Then we heard a snap. 'There goes the window bar,' said the robber softly. 'Jove! what an adventure! You kids stay here, I'll tackle it.'
But Dicky and I said we should come. So he let us go as far as the bottom of the kitchen stairs, and we took the tongs and shovel with us. There was a light in the kitchen; a very little light. It is curious we never thought, any of us, that this might be a plant of our robber's to get away. We never thought of doubting his word of honour. And we were right.
That noble robber dashed the kitchen door open, and rushed in with the big toy pistol in one hand and the poker in the other, shouting out just like Oswald had done—
'Surrender! You are discovered! Surrender, or I'll fire! Throw up your hands!' And Dicky and I rattled the tongs and shovel so that he might know there were more of us, all bristling with weapons.
And we heard a husky voice in the kitchen saying—
'All right, governor! Stow that scent sprinkler. I'll give in. Blowed if I ain't pretty well sick of the job, anyway.'
Then we went in. Our robber was standing in the grandest manner with his legs very wide apart, and the pistol pointing at the cowering burglar. The burglar was a large man who did not mean to have a beard, I think, but he had got some of one, and a red comforter, and a fur cap, and his face was red and his voice was thick. How different from our own robber! The burglar had a dark lantern, and he was standing by the plate-basket. When we had lit the gas we all thought he was very like what a burglar ought to be.
He did not look as if he could ever have been a pirate or a highwayman, or anything really dashing or noble, and he scowled and shuffled his feet and said: 'Well, go on: why don't yer fetch the pleece?'
'Upon my word, I don't know,' said our robber, rubbing his chin. 'Oswald, why don't we fetch the police?'
It is not every robber that I would stand Christian names from, I can tell you but just then I didn't think of that. I just said—'Do you mean I'm to fetch one?'
Our robber looked at the burglar and said nothing.
Then the burglar began to speak very fast, and to look different ways with his hard, shiny little eyes.
'Lookee 'ere, governor,' he said, 'I was stony broke, so help me, I was. And blessed if I've nicked a haporth of your little lot. You know yourself there ain't much to tempt a bloke,' he shook the plate-basket as if he was angry with it, and the yellowy spoons and forks rattled. 'I was just a-looking through this 'ere Bank-ollerday show, when you come. Let me off, sir. Come now, I've got kids of my own at home, strike me if I ain't—same as yours—I've got a nipper just about 'is size, and what'll come of them if I'm lagged? I ain't been in it long, sir, and I ain't 'andy at it.'
'No,' said our robber; 'you certainly are not.' Alice and the others had come down by now to see what was happening. Alice told me afterwards they thought it really was the cat this time.
'No, I ain't 'andy, as you say, sir, and if you let me off this once I'll chuck the whole blooming bizz; rake my civvy, I will. Don't be hard on a cove, mister; think of the missis and the kids. I've got one just the cut of little missy there bless 'er pretty 'eart.'
'Your family certainly fits your circumstances very nicely,' said our robber. Then Alice said—
'Oh, do let him go! If he's got a little girl like me, whatever will she do? Suppose it was Father!'
'I don't think he's got a little girl like you, my dear,' said our robber, 'and I think he'll be safer under lock and key.'
'You ask yer Father to let me go, miss,' said the burglar; ''e won't 'ave the 'art to refuse you.'
'If I do,' said Alice, 'will you promise never to come back?'
'Not me, miss,' the burglar said very earnestly, and he looked at the plate-basket again, as if that alone would be enough to keep him away, our robber said afterwards.
'And will you be good and not rob any more?' said Alice.
'I'll turn over a noo leaf, miss, so help me.'
Then Alice said—'Oh, do let him go! I'm sure he'll be good.'
But our robber said no, it wouldn't be right; we must wait till Father came home. Then H. O. said, very suddenly and plainly:
'I don't think it's at all fair, when you're a robber yourself.'
The minute he'd said it the burglar said, 'Kidded, by gum!'—and then our robber made a step towards him to catch hold of him, and before you had time to think 'Hullo!' the burglar knocked the pistol up with one hand and knocked our robber down with the other, and was off out of the window like a shot, though Oswald and Dicky did try to stop him by holding on to his legs.
And that burglar had the cheek to put his head in at the window and say, 'I'll give yer love to the kids and the missis'—and he was off like winking, and there were Alice and Dora trying to pick up our robber, and asking him whether he was hurt, and where. He wasn't hurt at all, except a lump at the back of his head. And he got up, and we dusted the kitchen floor off him. Eliza is a dirty girl.
Then he said, 'Let's put up the shutters. It never rains but it pours. Now you've had two burglars I daresay you'll have twenty.' So we put up the shutters, which Eliza has strict orders to do before she goes out, only she never does, and we went back to Father's study, and the robber said, 'What a night we are having!' and put his boots back in the fender to go on steaming, and then we all talked at once. It was the most wonderful adventure we ever had, though it wasn't treasure-seeking—at least not ours. I suppose it was the burglar's treasure-seeking, but he didn't get much—and our robber said he didn't believe a word about those kids that were so like Alice and me.
And then there was the click of the gate, and we said, 'Here's Father,' and the robber said, 'And now for the police.'
Then we all jumped up. We did like him so much, and it seemed so unfair that he should be sent to prison, and the horrid, lumping big burglar not.
And Alice said, 'Oh, no—run! Dicky will let you out at the back door. Oh, do go, go now.'
And we all said, 'Yes, go,' and pulled him towards the door, and gave him his hat and stick and the things out of his pockets.
But Father's latchkey was in the door, and it was too late.
Father came in quickly, purring with the cold, and began to say, 'It's all right, Foulkes, I've got—' And then he stopped short and stared at us. Then he said, in the voice we all hate, 'Children, what is the meaning of all this?' And for a minute nobody spoke.
Then my Father said, 'Foulkes, I must really apologize for these very naughty—' And then our robber rubbed his hands and laughed, and cried out:
'You're mistaken, my dear sir, I'm not Foulkes; I'm a robber, captured by these young people in the most gallant manner. "Hands up, surrender, or I fire," and all the rest of it. My word, Bastable, but you've got some kids worth having! I wish my Denny had their pluck.'
Then we began to understand, and it was like being knocked down, it was so sudden. And our robber told us he wasn't a robber after all. He was only an old college friend of my Father's, and he had come after dinner, when Father was just trying to mend the lock H. O. had broken, to ask Father to get him a letter to a doctor about his little boy Denny, who was ill. And Father had gone over the Heath to Vanbrugh Park to see some rich people he knows and get the letter. And he had left Mr Foulkes to wait till he came back, because it was important to know at once whether Father could get the letter, and if he couldn't Mr Foulkes would have had to try some one else directly.
We were dumb with amazement.
Our robber told my Father about the other burglar, and said he was sorry he'd let him escape, but my Father said, 'Oh, it's all right: poor beggar; if he really had kids at home: you never can tell—forgive us our debts, don't you know; but tell me about the first business. It must have been moderately entertaining.'
Then our robber told my Father how I had rushed into the room with a pistol, crying out... but you know all about that. And he laid it on so thick and fat about plucky young-uns, and chips of old blocks, and things like that, that I felt I was purple with shame, even under the blanket. So I swallowed that thing that tries to prevent you speaking when you ought to, and I said, 'Look here, Father, I didn't really think there was any one in the study. We thought it was a cat at first, and then I thought there was no one there, and I was just larking. And when I said surrender and all that, it was just the game, don't you know?'
Then our robber said, 'Yes, old chap; but when you found there really was someone there, you dropped the pistol and bunked, didn't you, eh?'
And I said, 'No; I thought, "Hullo! here's a robber! Well, it's all up, I suppose, but I may as well hold on and see what happens."'
And I was glad I'd owned up, for Father slapped me on the back, and said I was a young brick, and our robber said I was no funk anyway, and though I got very hot under the blanket I liked it, and I explained that the others would have done the same if they had thought of it.
Then Father got up some more beer, and laughed about Dora's responsibility, and he got out a box of figs he had bought for us, only he hadn't given it to us because of the Water Rates, and Eliza came in and brought up the bread and cheese, and what there was left of the neck of mutton—cold wreck of mutton, Father called it—and we had a feast—like a picnic—all sitting anywhere, and eating with our fingers. It was prime. We sat up till past twelve o'clock, and I never felt so pleased to think I was not born a girl. It was hard on the others; they would have done just the same if they'd thought of it. But it does make you feel jolly when your pater says you're a young brick!
When Mr Foulkes was going, he said to Alice, 'Good-bye, Hardy.'
And Alice understood, of course, and kissed him as hard as she could.
And she said, 'I wanted to, when you said no one kissed you when you left off being a pirate.' And he said, 'I know you did, my dear.' And Dora kissed him too, and said, 'I suppose none of these tales were true?'
And our robber just said, 'I tried to play the part properly, my dear.'
And he jolly well did play it, and no mistake. We have often seen him since, and his boy Denny, and his girl Daisy, but that comes in another story.
And if any of you kids who read this ever had two such adventures in one night you can just write and tell me. That's all.