Albert's uncle was out on his bicycle as usual. After the day when we became Canterbury Pilgrims and were brought home in the dog-cart with red wheels by the lady he told us was his long-lost grandmother he had known years ago in India, he spent not nearly so much of his time in writing, and he used to shave every morning instead of only when requisite, as in earlier days. And he was always going out on his bicycle in his new Norfolk suit. We are not so unobserving as grown-up people make out. We knew well enough he was looking for the long-lost. And we jolly well wished he might find her. Oswald, always full of sympathy with misfortune, however undeserved, had himself tried several times to find the lady. So had the others. But all this is what they call a digression; it has nothing to do with the dragon's teeth I am now narrating.
It began with the pig dying—it was the one we had for the circus, but it having behaved so badly that day had nothing to do with its illness and death, though the girls said they felt remorse, and perhaps if we hadn't made it run so that day it might have been spared to us. But Oswald cannot pretend that people were right just because they happen to be dead, and as long as that pig was alive we all knew well enough that it was it that made us run—and not us it.
The pig was buried in the kitchen garden. Bill, that we made the tombstone for, dug the grave, and while he was away at his dinner we took a turn at digging, because we like to be useful, and besides, when you dig you never know what you may turn up. I knew a man once that found a gold ring on the point of his fork when he was digging potatoes, and you know how we found two half-crowns ourselves once when we were digging for treasure.
Oswald was taking his turn with the spade, and the others were sitting on the gravel and telling him how to do it.
'Work with a will,' Dicky said, yawning.
Alice said, 'I wish we were in a book. People in books never dig without finding something. I think I'd rather it was a secret passage than anything.'
Oswald stopped to wipe his honest brow ere replying.
'A secret's nothing when you've found it out. Look at the secret staircase. It's no good, not even for hide-and-seek, because of its squeaking. I'd rather have the pot of gold we used to dig for when we were little.' It was really only last year, but you seem to grow old very quickly after you have once passed the prime of your youth, which is at ten, I believe.
'How would you like to find the mouldering bones of Royalist soldiers foully done to death by nasty Ironsides?'Noel asked, with his mouth full of plum.
'If they were really dead it wouldn't matter,' Dora said. 'What I'm afraid of is a skeleton that can walk about and catch at your legs when you're going upstairs to bed.' 'Skeletons can't walk,' Alice said in a hurry; 'you know they can't, Dora.'
And she glared at Dora till she made her sorry she had said what she had. The things you are frightened of, or even those you would rather not meet in the dark, should never be mentioned before the little ones, or else they cry when it comes to bed-time, and say it was because of what you said.
'We shan't find anything. No jolly fear,' said Dicky.
And just then my spade I was digging with struck on something hard, and it felt hollow. I did really think for one joyful space that we had found that pot of gold. But the thing, whatever it was, seemed to be longish; longer, that is, than a pot of gold would naturally be. And as I uncovered it I saw that it was not at all pot-of-gold-colour, but like a bone Pincher has buried. So Oswald said—
'It IS the skeleton.'
The girls all drew back, and Alice said, 'Oswald, I wish you wouldn't.'
A moment later the discovery was unearthed, and Oswald lifted it up, with both hands.
'It's a dragon's head,' Noel said, and it certainly looked like it.
It was long and narrowish and bony, and with great yellow teeth sticking in the jaw.
Bill came back just then and said it was a horse's head, but H. O. and Noel would not believe it, and Oswald owns that no horse he has ever seen had a head at all that shape.
But Oswald did not stop to argue, because he saw a keeper who showed me how to set snares going by, and he wanted to talk to him about ferrets, so he went off and Dicky and Denny and Alice with him. Also Daisy and Dora went off to finish reading Ministering Children. So H. O. and Noel were left with the bony head. They took it away.
The incident had quite faded from the mind of Oswald next day. But just before breakfast Noel and H. O. came in, looking hot and anxious. They had got up early and had not washed at all—not even their hands and faces. Noel made Oswald a secret signal. All the others saw it, and with proper delicate feeling pretended not to have.
When Oswald had gone out with Noel and H. O. in obedience to the secret signal, Noel said—
'You know that dragon's head yesterday?'
'Well?' Oswald said quickly, but not crossly—the two things are quite different.
'Well, you know what happened in Greek history when some chap sowed dragon's teeth?'
'They came up armed men,' said H. O., but Noel sternly bade him shut up, and Oswald said 'Well,' again. If he spoke impatiently it was because he smelt the bacon being taken in to breakfast.
'Well,' Noel went on, 'what do you suppose would have come up if we'd sowed those dragon's teeth we found yesterday?'
'Why, nothing, you young duffer,' said Oswald, who could now smell the coffee. 'All that isn't History it's Humbug. Come on in to brekker.'
'It's NOT humbug,' H. O. cried, 'it is history. We DID sow—'
'Shut up,' said Noel again. 'Look here, Oswald. We did sow those dragon's teeth in Randall's ten-acre meadow, and what do you think has come up?'
'Toadstools I should think,' was Oswald's contemptible rejoinder.
'They have come up a camp of soldiers,' said Noel—ARMED MEN. So you see it WAS history. We have sowed army-seed, just like Cadmus, and it has come up. It was a very wet night. I daresay that helped it along.'
Oswald could not decide which to disbelieve—his brother or his ears. So, disguising his doubtful emotions without a word, he led the way to the bacon and the banqueting hall.
He said nothing about the army-seed then, neither did Noel and H. O. But after the bacon we went into the garden, and then the good elder brother said—
'Why don't you tell the others your cock-and-bull story?'
So they did, and their story was received with warm expressions of doubt. It was Dicky who observed—
'Let's go and have a squint at Randall's ten-acre, anyhow. I saw a hare there the other day.'
We went. It is some little way, and as we went, disbelief reigned superb in every breast except Noel's and H. O.'s, so you will see that even the ready pen of the present author cannot be expected to describe to you his variable sensations when he got to the top of the hill and suddenly saw that his little brothers had spoken the truth. I do not mean that they generally tell lies, but people make mistakes sometimes, and the effect is the same as lies if you believe them.
There WAS a camp there with real tents and soldiers in grey and red tunics. I daresay the girls would have said coats. We stood in ambush, too astonished even to think of lying in it, though of course we know that this is customary. The ambush was the wood on top of the little hill, between Randall's ten-acre meadow and Sugden's Waste Wake pasture.
'There would be cover here for a couple of regiments,' whispered Oswald, who was, I think, gifted by Fate with the far-seeingness of a born general.
Alice merely said 'Hist', and we went down to mingle with the troops as though by accident, and seek for information.
The first man we came to at the edge of the camp was cleaning a sort of cauldron thing like witches brew bats in.
We went up to him and said, 'Who are you? Are you English, or are you the enemy?'
'We're the enemy,' he said, and he did not seem ashamed of being what he was. And he spoke English with quite a good accent for a foreigner.
'The enemy!' Oswald echoed in shocked tones. It is a terrible thing to a loyal and patriotic youth to see an enemy cleaning a pot in an English field, with English sand, and looking as much at home as if he was in his foreign fastnesses.
The enemy seemed to read Oswald's thoughts with deadly unerringness. He said—
'The English are somewhere over on the other side of the hill. They are trying to keep us out of Maidstone.'
After this our plan of mingling with the troops did not seem worth going on with. This soldier, in spite of his unerringness in reading Oswald's innermost heart, seemed not so very sharp in other things, or he would never have given away his secret plans like this, for he must have known from our accents that we were Britons to the backbone. Or perhaps (Oswald thought this, and it made his blood at once boil and freeze, which our uncle had told us was possible, but only in India), perhaps he thought that Maidstone was already as good as taken and it didn't matter what he said. While Oswald was debating within his intellect what to say next, and how to say it so as to discover as many as possible of the enemy's dark secrets, Noel said—
'How did you get here? You weren't here yesterday at tea-time.'
The soldier gave the pot another sandy rub, and said—
'I daresay it does seem quick work—the camp seems as if it had sprung up in the night, doesn't it?—like a mushroom.'
Alice and Oswald looked at each other, and then at the rest of us. The words 'sprung up in the night' seemed to touch a string in every heart.
'You see,' whispered Noel, 'he won't tell us how he came here. NOW, is it humbug or history?'
Oswald, after whisperedly requesting his young brother to dry up and not bother, remarked, 'Then you're an invading army?'
'Well,' said the soldier, 'we're a skeleton battalion, as a matter of fact, but we're invading all right enough.'
And now indeed the blood of the stupidest of us froze, just as the quick-witted Oswald's had done earlier in the interview. Even H. O. opened his mouth and went the colour of mottled soap; he is so fat that this is the nearest he can go to turning pale. Denny said, 'But you don't look like skeletons.'
The soldier stared, then he laughed and said, 'Ah, that's the padding in our tunics. You should see us in the grey dawn taking our morning bath in a bucket.' It was a dreadful picture for the imagination. A skeleton, with its bones all loose most likely, bathing anyhow in a pail. There was a silence while we thought it over.
Now, ever since the cleaning-cauldron soldier had said that about taking Maidstone, Alice had kept on pulling at Oswald's jacket behind, and he had kept on not taking any notice. But now he could not stand it any longer, so he said—
'Well, what is it?'
Alice drew him aside, or rather, she pulled at his jacket so that he nearly fell over backwards, and then she whispered, 'Come along, don't stay parlaying with the foe. He's only talking to you to gain time.'
'What for?' said Oswald.
'Why, so that we shouldn't warn the other army, you silly,' Alice said, and Oswald was so upset by what she said, that he forgot to be properly angry with her for the wrong word she used.
'But we ought to warn them at home,' she said—' suppose the Moat House was burned down, and all the supplies commandeered for the foe?'
Alice turned boldly to the soldier. 'DO you burn down farms?' she asked.
'Well, not as a rule,' he said, and he had the cheek to wink at Oswald, but Oswald would not look at him. 'We've not burned a farm since—oh, not for years.'
'A farm in Greek history it was, I expect,' Denny murmured. 'Civilized warriors do not burn farms nowadays,' Alice said sternly, 'whatever they did in Greek times. You ought to know that.'
The soldier said things had changed a good deal since Greek times.
So we said good morning as quickly as we could: it is proper to be polite even to your enemy, except just at the moments when it has really come to rifles and bayonets or other weapons.
The soldier said 'So long!' in quite a modern voice, and we retraced our footsteps in silence to the ambush—I mean the wood. Oswald did think of lying in the ambush then, but it was rather wet, because of the rain the night before, that H. O. said had brought the army-seed up. And Alice walked very fast, saying nothing but 'Hurry up, can't you!' and dragging H. O. by one hand and Noel by the other. So we got into the road.
Then Alice faced round and said, 'This is all our fault. If we hadn't sowed those dragon's teeth there wouldn't have been any invading army.'
I am sorry to say Daisy said, 'Never mind, Alice, dear. WE didn't sow the nasty things, did we, Dora?'
But Denny told her it was just the same. It was WE had done it, so long as it was any of us, especially if it got any of us into trouble. Oswald was very pleased to see that the Dentist was beginning to understand the meaning of true manliness, and about the honour of the house of Bastable, though of course he is only a Foulkes. Yet it is something to know he does his best to learn.
If you are very grown-up, or very clever, I daresay you will now have thought of a great many things. If you have you need not say anything, especially if you're reading this aloud to anybody. It's no good putting in what you think in this part, because none of us thought anything of the kind at the time.
We simply stood in the road without any of your clever thoughts, filled with shame and distress to think of what might happen owing to the dragon's teeth being sown. It was a lesson to us never to sow seed without being quite sure what sort it is. This is particularly true of the penny packets, which sometimes do not come up at all, quite unlike dragon's teeth.
Of course H. O. and Noel were more unhappy than the rest of us. This was only fair.
'How can we possibly prevent their getting to Maidstone?' Dickie said. 'Did you notice the red cuffs on their uniforms? Taken from the bodies of dead English soldiers, I shouldn't wonder.'
'If they're the old Greek kind of dragon's-teeth soldiers, they ought to fight each other to death,' Noel said; 'at least, if we had a helmet to throw among them.'
But none of us had, and it was decided that it would be of no use for H. O. to go back and throw his straw hat at them, though he wanted to. Denny said suddenly—
'Couldn't we alter the sign-posts, so that they wouldn't know the way to Maidstone?'
Oswald saw that this was the time for true generalship to be shown.
'Fetch all the tools out of your chest—Dicky go too, there's a good chap, and don't let him cut his legs with the saw.' He did once, tumbling over it. 'Meet us at the cross-roads, you know, where we had the Benevolent Bar. Courage and dispatch, and look sharp about it.'
When they had gone we hastened to the crossroads, and there a great idea occurred to Oswald. He used the forces at his command so ably that in a very short time the board in the field which says 'No thoroughfare. Trespassers will be prosecuted' was set up in the middle of the road to Maidstone. We put stones, from a heap by the road, behind it to make it stand up.
Then Dicky and Denny came back, and Dicky shinned up the sign-post and sawed off the two arms, and we nailed them up wrong, so that it said 'To Maidstone' on the Dover Road, and 'To Dover' on the road to Maidstone. We decided to leave the Trespassers board on the real Maidstone road, as an extra guard.
Then we settled to start at once to warn Maidstone.
Some of us did not want the girls to go, but it would have been unkind to say so. However, there was at least one breast that felt a pang of joy when Dora and Daisy gave out that they would rather stay where they were and tell anybody who came by which was the real road.
'Because it would be so dreadful if someone was going to buy pigs or fetch a doctor or anything in a hurry and then found they had got to Dover instead of where they wanted to go to,' Dora said. But when it came to dinner-time they went home, so that they were entirely out of it. This often happens to them by some strange fatalism.
We left Martha to take care of the two girls, and Lady and Pincher went with us. It was getting late in the day, but I am bound to remember no one said anything about their dinners, whatever they may have thought. We cannot always help our thoughts. We happened to know it was roast rabbits and currant jelly that day.
We walked two and two, and sang the 'British Grenadiers' and 'Soldiers of the queen' so as to be as much part of the British Army as possible. The Cauldron-Man had said the English were the other side of the hill. But we could not see any scarlet anywhere, though we looked for it as carefully as if we had been fierce bulls.
But suddenly we went round a turn in the road and came plump into a lot of soldiers. Only they were not red-coats. They were dressed in grey and silver. And it was a sort of furzy-common place, and three roads branching out. The men were lying about, with some of their belts undone, smoking pipes and cigarettes.
'It's not British soldiers,' Alice said. 'Oh dear, oh dear, I'm afraid it's more enemy. You didn't sow the army-seed anywhere else, did you, H. O. dear?'
H. O. was positive he hadn't. 'But perhaps lots more came up where we did sow them,' he said; 'they're all over England by now very likely. I don't know how many men can grow out of one dragon's tooth.'
Then Noel said, 'It was my doing anyhow, and I'm not afraid,' and he walked straight up to the nearest soldier, who was cleaning his pipe with a piece of grass, and said—
'Please, are you the enemy?' The man said—
'No, young Commander-in-Chief, we're the English.'
Then Oswald took command. 'Where is the General?' he said.
'We're out of generals just now, Field-Marshal,' the man said, and his voice was a gentleman's voice. 'Not a single one in stock. We might suit you in majors now—and captains are quite cheap. Competent corporals going for a song. And we have a very nice colonel, too quiet to ride or drive.'
Oswald does not mind chaff at proper times. But this was not one.
'You seem to be taking it very easy,' he said with disdainful expression.
'This IS an easy,' said the grey soldier, sucking at his pipe to see if it would draw.
'I suppose YOU don't care if the enemy gets into Maidstone or not!' exclaimed Oswald bitterly. 'If I were a soldier I'd rather die than be beaten.'
The soldier saluted. 'Good old patriotic sentiment' he said, smiling at the heart-felt boy.
But Oswald could bear no more. 'Which is the Colonel?' he asked.
'Over there—near the grey horse.'
'The one lighting a cigarette?' H. O. asked.
'Yes—but I say, kiddie, he won't stand any jaw. There's not an ounce of vice about him, but he's peppery. He might kick out. You'd better bunk.'
'Better what?' asked H. O.
'Bunk, bottle, scoot, skip, vanish, exit,' said the soldier.
'That's what you'd do when the fighting begins,' said H. O. He is often rude like that—but it was what we all thought, all the same.
The soldier only laughed.
A spirited but hasty altercation among ourselves in whispers ended in our allowing Alice to be the one to speak to the Colonel. It was she who wanted to. 'However peppery he is he won't kick a girl,' she said, and perhaps this was true.
But of course we all went with her. So there were six of us to stand in front of the Colonel. And as we went along we agreed that we would salute him on the word three. So when we got near, Dick said, 'One, two, three', and we all saluted very well—except H. O., who chose that minute to trip over a rifle a soldier had left lying about, and was only saved from falling by a man in a cocked hat who caught him deftly by the back of his jacket and stood him on his legs.
'Let go, can't you,' said H. O. 'Are you the General?'
Before the Cocked Hat had time to frame a reply, Alice spoke to the Colonel. I knew what she meant to say, because she had told me as we threaded our way among the resting soldiery. What she really said was—
'Oh, how CAN you!'
'How can I WHAT?' said the Colonel, rather crossly.
'Why, SMOKE?' said Alice.
'My good children, if you're an infant Band of Hope, let me recommend you to play in some other backyard,' said the Cock-Hatted Man.
H. O. said, 'Band of Hope yourself'—but no one noticed it.
'We're NOT a Band of Hope,' said Noel. 'We're British, and the man over there told us you are. And Maidstone's in danger, and the enemy not a mile off, and you stand SMOKING.' Noel was standing crying, himself, or something very like it.
'It's quite true,' Alice said.
The Colonel said, 'Fiddle-de-dee.'
But the Cocked-Hatted Man said, 'What was the enemy like?' We told him exactly. And even the Colonel then owned there might be something in it.
'Can you show me the place where they are on the map?' he asked.
'Not on the map, we can't,' said Dicky—'at least, I don't think so, but on the ground we could. We could take you there in a quarter of an hour.'
The Cocked-Hatted One looked at the Colonel, who returned his scrutiny, then he shrugged his shoulders.
'Well, we've got to do something,' he said, as if to himself. 'Lead on, Macduff.'
The Colonel roused his soldiery from their stupor of pipes by words of command which the present author is sorry he can't remember.
Then he bade us boys lead the way. I tell you it felt fine, marching at the head of a regiment. Alice got a lift on the Cocked-Hatted One's horse. It was a red-roan steed of might, exactly as if it had been in a ballad. They call a grey-roan a 'blue' in South Africa, the Cocked-Hatted One said.
We led the British Army by unfrequented lanes till we got to the gate of Sugden's Waste Wake pasture. Then the Colonel called a whispered halt, and choosing two of us to guide him, the dauntless and discerning commander went on, on foot, with an orderly. He chose Dicky and Oswald as guides. So we led him to the ambush, and we went through it as quietly as we could. But twigs do crackle and snap so when you are reconnoitring, or anxious to escape detection for whatever reason.
Our Colonel's orderly crackled most. If you're not near enough to tell a colonel by the crown and stars on his shoulder-strap, you can tell him by the orderly behind him, like 'follow my leader'.
'Look out!' said Oswald in a low but commanding whisper, 'the camp's down in that field. You can see if you take a squint through this gap.'
The speaker took a squint himself as he spoke, and drew back, baffled beyond the power of speech. While he was struggling with his baffledness the British Colonel had his squint. He also drew back, and said a word that he must have known was not right—at least when he was a boy.
'I don't care,' said Oswald, 'they were there this morning. White tents like mushrooms, and an enemy cleaning a cauldron.'
'With sand,' said Dicky.
'That's most convincing,' said the Colonel, and I did not like the way he said it.
'I say,' Oswald said, 'let's get to the top corner of the ambush—the wood, I mean. You can see the crossroads from there.'
We did, and quickly, for the crackling of branches no longer dismayed our almost despairing spirits.
We came to the edge of the wood, and Oswald's patriotic heart really did give a jump, and he cried, 'There they are, on the Dover Road.'
Our miscellaneous signboard had done its work.
'By Jove, young un, you're right! And in quarter column, too! We've got em on toast—on toast—egad!' I never heard anyone not in a book say 'egad' before, so I saw something really out of the way was indeed up.
The Colonel was a man of prompt and decisive action. He sent the orderly to tell the Major to advance two companies on the left flank and take cover. Then we led him back through the wood the nearest way, because he said he must rejoin the main body at once. We found the main body very friendly with Noel and H. O. and the others, and Alice was talking to the Cocked-Hatted One as if she had known him all her life.
'I think he's a general in disguise,' Noel said. 'He's been giving us chocolate out of a pocket in his saddle.'
Oswald thought about the roast rabbit then—and he is not ashamed to own it—yet he did not say a word. But Alice is really not a bad sort. She had saved two bars of chocolate for him and Dicky. Even in war girls can sometimes be useful in their humble way.
The Colonel fussed about and said, 'Take cover there!' and everybody hid in the ditch, and the horses and the Cocked Hat, with Alice, retreated down the road out of sight. We were in the ditch too. It was muddy—but nobody thought of their boots in that perilous moment. It seemed a long time we were crouching there. Oswald began to feel the water squelching in his boots, so we held our breath and listened. Oswald laid his ear to the road like a Red Indian. You would not do this in time of peace, but when your country is in danger you care but little about keeping your ears clean. His backwoods' strategy was successful. He rose and dusted himself and said—'They're coming!'
It was true. The footsteps of the approaching foe were now to be heard quite audibly, even by ears in their natural position. The wicked enemy approached. They were marching with a careless swaggeringness that showed how little they suspected the horrible doom which was about to teach them England's might and supremeness.
Just as the enemy turned the corner so that we could see them, the Colonel shouted—'Right section, fire!' and there was a deafening banging.
The enemy's officer said something, and then the enemy got confused and tried to get into the fields through the hedges. But all was vain. There was firing now from our men, on the left as well as the right. And then our Colonel strode nobly up to the enemy's Colonel and demanded surrender. He told me so afterwards. His exact words are only known to himself and the other Colonel. But the enemy's Colonel said, 'I would rather die than surrender,' or words to that effect.
Our Colonel returned to his men and gave the order to fix bayonets, and even Oswald felt his manly cheek turn pale at the thought of the amount of blood to be shed. What would have happened can never now be revealed. For at this moment a man on a piebald horse came clattering over a hedge—as carelessly as if the air was not full of lead and steel at all. Another man rode behind him with a lance and a red pennon on it. I think he must have been the enemy's General coming to tell his men not to throw away their lives on a forlorn hope, for directly he said they were captured the enemy gave in and owned that they were. The enemy's Colonel saluted and ordered his men to form quarter column again. I should have thought he would have had about enough of that myself.
He had now given up all thought of sullen resistance to the bitter end. He rolled a cigarette for himself, and had the foreign cheek to say to our Colonel—
'By Jove, old man, you got me clean that time! Your scouts seem to have marked us down uncommonly neatly.'
It was a proud moment when our Colonel laid his military hand on Oswald's shoulder and said—
'This is my chief scout' which were high words, but not undeserved, and Oswald owns he felt red with gratifying pride when he heard them.
'So you are the traitor, young man,' said the wicked Colonel, going on with his cheek.
Oswald bore it because our Colonel had, and you should be generous to a fallen foe, but it is hard to be called a traitor when you haven't.
He did not treat the wicked Colonel with silent scorn as he might have done, but he said—
'We aren't traitors. We are the Bastables and one of us is a Foulkes. We only mingled unsuspected with the enemy's soldiery and learned the secrets of their acts, which is what Baden-Powell always does when the natives rebel in South Africa; and Denis Foulkes thought of altering the sign-posts to lead the foe astray. And if we did cause all this fighting, and get Maidstone threatened with capture and all that, it was only because we didn't believe Greek things could happen in Great Britain and Ireland, even if you sow dragon's teeth, and besides, some of us were not asked about sowing them.'
Then the Cocked-Hatted One led his horse and walked with us and made us tell him all about it, and so did the Colonel. The wicked Colonel listened too, which was only another proof of his cheek.
And Oswald told the tale in the modest yet manly way that some people think he has, and gave the others all the credit they deserved. His narration was interrupted no less than four times by shouts of 'Bravo!' in which the enemy's Colonel once more showed his cheek by joining. By the time the story was told we were in sight of another camp. It was the British one this time. The Colonel asked us to have tea in his tent, and it only shows the magnanimosity of English chivalry in the field of battle that he asked the enemy's Colonel too. With his usual cheek he accepted. We were jolly hungry.
When everyone had had as much tea as they possibly could, the Colonel shook hands with us all, and to Oswald he said—
'Well, good-bye, my brave scout. I must mention your name in my dispatches to the War Office.'
H. O. interrupted him to say, 'His name's Oswald Cecil Bastable, and mine is Horace Octavius.' I wish H. O. would learn to hold his tongue. No one ever knows Oswald was christened Cecil as well, if he can possibly help it. YOU didn't know it till now.
'Mr Oswald Bastable,' the Colonel went on—he had the decency not to take any notice of the 'Cecil'—'you would be a credit to any regiment. No doubt the War Office will reward you properly for what you have done for your country. But meantime, perhaps, you'll accept five shillings from a grateful comrade-in-arms.' Oswald felt heart-felt sorry to wound the good Colonel's feelings, but he had to remark that he had only done his duty, and he was sure no British scout would take five bob for doing that. 'And besides,' he said, with that feeling of justice which is part of his young character, 'it was the others just as much as me.'
'Your sentiments, Sir,' said the Colonel who was one of the politest and most discerning colonels I ever saw, 'your sentiments do you honour. But, Bastables all, and—and non-Bastables' (he couldn't remember Foulkes; it's not such an interesting name as Bastable, of course)—'at least you'll accept a soldier's pay?'
'Lucky to touch it, a shilling a day!' Alice and Denny said together. And the Cocked-Hatted Man said something about knowing your own mind and knowing your own Kipling.
'A soldier,' said the Colonel, 'would certainly be lucky to touch it. You see there are deductions for rations. Five shillings is exactly right, deducting twopence each for six teas.'
This seemed cheap for the three cups of tea and the three eggs and all the strawberry jam and bread-and-butter Oswald had had, as well as what the others ate, and Lady's and Pincher's teas, but I suppose soldiers get things cheaper than civilians, which is only right.
Oswald took the five shillings then, there being no longer any scruples why he should not.
Just as we had parted from the brave Colonel and the rest we saw a bicycle coming. It was Albert's uncle. He got off and said—
'What on earth have you been up to? What were you doing with those volunteers?'
We told him the wild adventures of the day, and he listened, and then he said he would withdraw the word volunteers if we liked.
But the seeds of doubt were sown in the breast of Oswald. He was now almost sure that we had made jolly fools of ourselves without a moment's pause throughout the whole of this eventful day. He said nothing at the time, but after supper he had it out with Albert's uncle about the word which had been withdrawn.
Albert's uncle said, of course, no one could be sure that the dragon's teeth hadn't come up in the good old-fashioned way, but that, on the other hand, it was barely possible that both the British and the enemy were only volunteers having a field-day or sham fight, and he rather thought the Cocked-Hatted Man was not a general, but a doctor. And the man with a red pennon carried behind him MIGHT have been the umpire.
Oswald never told the others a word of this. Their young breasts were all panting with joy because they had saved their country; and it would have been but heartless unkindness to show them how silly they had been. Besides, Oswald felt he was much too old to have been so taken in—if he HAD been. Besides, Albert's uncle did say that no one could be sure about the dragon's teeth.
The thing that makes Oswald feel most that, perhaps, the whole thing was a beastly sell, was that we didn't see any wounded. But he tries not to think of this. And if he goes into the army when he grows up, he will not go quite green. He has had experience of the arts of war and the tented field. And a real colonel has called him 'Comrade-in-Arms', which is exactly what Lord Roberts called his own soldiers when he wrote home about them.