Noel was quite tiresome for ever so long after we found the Princess. He would keep on wanting to go to the Park when the rest of us didn't, and though we went several times to please him, we never found that door open again, and all of us except him knew from the first that it would be no go.
So now we thought it was time to do something to rouse him from the stupor of despair, which is always done to heroes when anything baffling has occurred. Besides, we were getting very short of money again—the fortunes of your house cannot be restored (not so that they will last, that is), even by the one pound eight we got when we had the 'good hunting.' We spent a good deal of that on presents for Father's birthday. We got him a paper-weight, like a glass bun, with a picture of Lewisham Church at the bottom; and a blotting-pad, and a box of preserved fruits, and an ivory penholder with a view of Greenwich Park in the little hole where you look through at the top. He was most awfully pleased and surprised, and when he heard how Noel and Oswald had earned the money to buy the things he was more surprised still. Nearly all the rest of our money went to get fireworks for the Fifth of November. We got six Catherine wheels and four rockets; two hand-lights, one red and one green; a sixpenny maroon; two Roman-candles—they cost a shilling; some Italian streamers, a fairy fountain, and a tourbillon that cost eighteen-pence and was very nearly worth it.
But I think crackers and squibs are a mistake. It's true you get a lot of them for the money, and they are not bad fun for the first two or three dozen, but you get jolly sick of them before you've let off your sixpenn'orth. And the only amusing way is not allowed: it is putting them in the fire.
It always seems a long time till the evening when you have got fireworks in the house, and I think as it was a rather foggy day we should have decided to let them off directly after breakfast, only Father had said he would help us to let them off at eight o'clock after he had had his dinner, and you ought never to disappoint your father if you can help it.
You see we had three good reasons for trying H. O.'s idea of restoring the fallen fortunes of our house by becoming bandits on the Fifth of November. We had a fourth reason as well, and that was the best reason of the lot. You remember Dora thought it would be wrong to be bandits. And the Fifth of November came while Dora was away at Stroud staying with her godmother. Stroud is in Gloucestershire. We were determined to do it while she was out of the way, because we did not think it wrong, and besides we meant to do it anyhow.
We held a Council, of course, and laid our plans very carefully. We let H. O. be Captain, because it was his idea. Oswald was Lieutenant. Oswald was quite fair, because he let H. O. call himself Captain; but Oswald is the eldest next to Dora, after all.
Our plan was this. We were all to go up on to the Heath. Our house is in the Lewisham Road, but it's quite close to the Heath if you cut up the short way opposite the confectioner's, past the nursery gardens and the cottage hospital, and turn to the left again and afterwards to the right. You come out then at the top of the hill, where the big guns are with the iron fence round them, and where the bands play on Thursday evenings in the summer.
We were to lurk in ambush there, and waylay an unwary traveller. We were to call upon him to surrender his arms, and then bring him home and put him in the deepest dungeon below the castle moat; then we were to load him with chains and send to his friends for ransom.
You may think we had no chains, but you are wrong, because we used to keep two other dogs once, besides Pincher, before the fall of the fortunes of the ancient House of Bastable. And they were quite big dogs.
It was latish in the afternoon before we started. We thought we could lurk better if it was nearly dark. It was rather foggy, and we waited a good while beside the railings, but all the belated travellers were either grown up or else they were Board School children. We weren't going to get into a row with grown-up people—especially strangers—and no true bandit would ever stoop to ask a ransom from the relations of the poor and needy. So we thought it better to wait.
As I said, it was Guy Fawkes Day, and if it had not been we should never have been able to be bandits at all, for the unwary traveller we did catch had been forbidden to go out because he had a cold in his head. But he would run out to follow a guy, without even putting on a coat or a comforter, and it was a very damp, foggy afternoon and nearly dark, so you see it was his own fault entirely, and served him jolly well right.
We saw him coming over the Heath just as we were deciding to go home to tea. He had followed that guy right across to the village (we call Blackheath the village; I don't know why), and he was coming back dragging his feet and sniffing.
'Hist, an unwary traveller approaches!' whispered Oswald.
'Muffle your horses' heads and see to the priming of your pistols,' muttered Alice. She always will play boys' parts, and she makes Ellis cut her hair short on purpose. Ellis is a very obliging hairdresser.
'Steal softly upon him,' said Noel; 'for lo! 'tis dusk, and no human eyes can mark our deeds.'
So we ran out and surrounded the unwary traveller. It turned out to be Albert-next-door, and he was very frightened indeed until he saw who we were.
'Surrender!' hissed Oswald, in a desperate-sounding voice, as he caught the arm of the Unwary. And Albert-next-door said, 'All right! I'm surrendering as hard as I can. You needn't pull my arm off.'
We explained to him that resistance was useless, and I think he saw that from the first. We held him tight by both arms, and we marched him home down the hill in a hollow square of five.
He wanted to tell us about the guy, but we made him see that it was not proper for prisoners to talk to the guard, especially about guys that the prisoner had been told not to go after because of his cold.
When we got to where we live he said, 'All right, I don't want to tell you. You'll wish I had afterwards. You never saw such a guy.'
'I can see you!' said H. O. It was very rude, and Oswald told him so at once, because it is his duty as an elder brother. But H. O. is very young and does not know better yet, and besides it wasn't bad for H. O.
Albert-next-door said, 'You haven't any manners, and I want to go in to my tea. Let go of me!'
But Alice told him, quite kindly, that he was not going in to his tea, but coming with us.
'I'm not,' said Albert-next-door; 'I'm going home. Leave go! I've got a bad cold. You're making it worse.' Then he tried to cough, which was very silly, because we'd seen him in the morning, and he'd told us where the cold was that he wasn't to go out with. When he had tried to cough, he said, 'Leave go of me! You see my cold's getting worse.'
'You should have thought of that before,' said Dicky; 'you're coming in with us.'
'Don't be a silly,' said Noel; 'you know we told you at the very beginning that resistance was useless. There is no disgrace in yielding. We are five to your one.'
By this time Eliza had opened the door, and we thought it best to take him in without any more parlaying. To parley with a prisoner is not done by bandits.
Directly we got him safe into the nursery, H. O. began to jump about and say, 'Now you're a prisoner really and truly!'
And Albert-next-door began to cry. He always does. I wonder he didn't begin long before—but Alice fetched him one of the dried fruits we gave Father for his birthday. It was a green walnut. I have noticed the walnuts and the plums always get left till the last in the box; the apricots go first, and then the figs and pears; and the cherries, if there are any.
So he ate it and shut up. Then we explained his position to him, so that there should be no mistake, and he couldn't say afterwards that he had not understood.
'There will be no violence,' said Oswald—he was now Captain of the Bandits, because we all know H. O. likes to be Chaplain when we play prisoners—'no violence. But you will be confined in a dark, subterranean dungeon where toads and snakes crawl, and but little of the light of day filters through the heavily mullioned windows. You will be loaded with chains. Now don't begin again, Baby, there's nothing to cry about; straw will be your pallet; beside you the gaoler will set a ewer—a ewer is only a jug, stupid; it won't eat you—a ewer with water; and a mouldering crust will be your food.'
But Albert-next-door never enters into the spirit of a thing. He mumbled something about tea-time.
Now Oswald, though stern, is always just, and besides we were all rather hungry, and tea was ready. So we had it at once, Albert-next-door and all—and we gave him what was left of the four-pound jar of apricot jam we got with the money Noel got for his poetry. And we saved our crusts for the prisoner.
Albert-next-door was very tiresome. Nobody could have had a nicer prison than he had. We fenced him into a corner with the old wire nursery fender and all the chairs, instead of putting him in the coal-cellar as we had first intended. And when he said the dog-chains were cold the girls were kind enough to warm his fetters thoroughly at the fire before we put them on him.
We got the straw cases of some bottles of wine someone sent Father one Christmas—it is some years ago, but the cases are quite good. We unpacked them very carefully and pulled them to pieces and scattered the straw about. It made a lovely straw pallet, and took ever so long to make—but Albert-next-door has yet to learn what gratitude really is. We got the bread trencher for the wooden platter where the prisoner's crusts were put—they were not mouldy, but we could not wait till they got so, and for the ewer we got the toilet jug out of the spare-room where nobody ever sleeps. And even then Albert-next-door couldn't be happy like the rest of us. He howled and cried and tried to get out, and he knocked the ewer over and stamped on the mouldering crusts. Luckily there was no water in the ewer because we had forgotten it, only dust and spiders. So we tied him up with the clothes-line from the back kitchen, and we had to hurry up, which was a pity for him. We might have had him rescued by a devoted page if he hadn't been so tiresome. In fact Noel was actually dressing up for the page when Albert-next-door kicked over the prison ewer.
We got a sheet of paper out of an old exercise-book, and we made H. O. prick his own thumb, because he is our little brother and it is our duty to teach him to be brave. We none of us mind pricking ourselves; we've done it heaps of times. H. O. didn't like it, but he agreed to do it, and I helped him a little because he was so slow, and when he saw the red bead of blood getting fatter and bigger as I squeezed his thumb he was very pleased, just as I had told him he would be.
This is what we wrote with H. O.'s blood, only the blood gave out when we got to 'Restored', and we had to write the rest with crimson lake, which is not the same colour, though I always use it, myself, for painting wounds.
While Oswald was writing it he heard Alice whispering to the prisoner that it would soon be over, and it was only play. The prisoner left off howling, so I pretended not to hear what she said. A Bandit Captain has to overlook things sometimes. This was the letter—
'Albert Morrison is held a prisoner by Bandits.
On payment of three thousand pounds he will be
restored to his sorrowing relatives, and all
will be forgotten and forgiven.'
I was not sure about the last part, but Dicky was certain he had seen it in the paper, so I suppose it must have been all right.
We let H. O. take the letter; it was only fair, as it was his blood it was written with, and told him to leave it next door for Mrs Morrison.
H. O. came back quite quickly, and Albert-next-door's uncle came with him.
'What is all this, Albert?' he cried. 'Alas, alas, my nephew! Do I find you the prisoner of a desperate band of brigands?'
'Bandits,' said H. O; 'you know it says bandits.'
'I beg your pardon, gentlemen,' said Albert-next-door's uncle, 'bandits it is, of course. This, Albert, is the direct result of the pursuit of the guy on an occasion when your doting mother had expressly warned you to forgo the pleasures of the chase.'
Albert said it wasn't his fault, and he hadn't wanted to play.
'So ho!' said his uncle, 'impenitent too! Where's the dungeon?'
We explained the dungeon, and showed him the straw pallet and the ewer and the mouldering crusts and other things.
'Very pretty and complete,' he said. 'Albert, you are more highly privileged than ever I was. No one ever made me a nice dungeon when I was your age. I think I had better leave you where you are.'
Albert began to cry again and said he was sorry, and he would be a good boy.
'And on this old familiar basis you expect me to ransom you, do you? Honestly, my nephew, I doubt whether you are worth it. Besides, the sum mentioned in this document strikes me as excessive: Albert really is not worth three thousand pounds. Also by a strange and unfortunate chance I haven't the money about me. Couldn't you take less?'
We said perhaps we could.
'Say eightpence,' suggested Albert-next-door's uncle, 'which is all the small change I happen to have on my person.'
'Thank you very much,' said Alice as he held it out; 'but are you sure you can spare it? Because really it was only play.'
'Quite sure. Now, Albert, the game is over. You had better run home to your mother and tell her how much you've enjoyed yourself.'
When Albert-next-door had gone his uncle sat in the Guy Fawkes armchair and took Alice on his knee, and we sat round the fire waiting till it would be time to let off our fireworks. We roasted the chestnuts he sent Dicky out for, and he told us stories till it was nearly seven. His stories are first-rate—he does all the parts in different voices. At last he said—
'Look here, young-uns. I like to see you play and enjoy yourselves, and I don't think it hurts Albert to enjoy himself too.'
'I don't think he did much,' said H. O. But I knew what Albert-next-door's uncle meant because I am much older than H. O. He went on—
'But what about Albert's mother? Didn't you think how anxious she would be at his not coming home? As it happens I saw him come in with you, so we knew it was all right. But if I hadn't, eh?'
He only talks like that when he is very serious, or even angry. Other times he talks like people in books—to us, I mean.
We none of us said anything. But I was thinking. Then Alice spoke.
Girls seem not to mind saying things that we don't say. She put her arms round Albert-next-door's uncle's neck and said—
'We're very, very sorry. We didn't think about his mother. You see we try very hard not to think about other people's mothers because—'
Just then we heard Father's key in the door and Albert-next-door's uncle kissed Alice and put her down, and we all went down to meet Father. As we went I thought I heard Albert-next-door's uncle say something that sounded like 'Poor little beggars!'
He couldn't have meant us, when we'd been having such a jolly time, and chestnuts, and fireworks to look forward to after dinner and everything!