This is the story of one of the most far-reaching and influentially naughty things we ever did in our lives. We did not mean to do such a deed. And yet we did do it. These things will happen with the best-regulated consciences.
The story of this rash and fatal act is intimately involved—which means all mixed up anyhow—with a private affair of Oswald's, and the one cannot be revealed without the other. Oswald does not particularly want his story to be remembered, but he wishes to tell the truth, and perhaps it is what father calls a wholesome discipline to lay bare the awful facts.
It was like this.
On Alice's and Noel's birthday we went on the river for a picnic. Before that we had not known that there was a river so near us. Afterwards father said he wished we had been allowed to remain on our pristine ignorance, whatever that is. And perhaps the dark hour did dawn when we wished so too. But a truce to vain regrets.
It was rather a fine thing in birthdays. The uncle sent a box of toys and sweets, things that were like a vision from another and a brighter world. Besides that Alice had a knife, a pair of shut-up scissors, a silk handkerchief, a book—it was The Golden Age and is Ai except where it gets mixed with grown-up nonsense. Also a work-case lined with pink plush, a boot-bag, which no one in their senses would use because it had flowers in wool all over it. And she had a box of chocolates and a musical box that played 'The Man who broke' and two other tunes, and two pairs of kid gloves for church, and a box of writing-paper—pink—with 'Alice' on it in gold writing, and an egg coloured red that said 'A. Bastable' in ink on one side. These gifts were the offerings of Oswald, Dora, Dicky, Albert's uncle, Daisy, Mr Foulkes (our own robber), Noel, H. O., father and Denny. Mrs Pettigrew gave the egg. It was a kindly housekeeper's friendly token.
I shall not tell you about the picnic on the river because the happiest times form but dull reading when they are written down. I will merely state that it was prime. Though happy, the day was uneventful. The only thing exciting enough to write about was in one of the locks, where there was a snake—a viper. It was asleep in a warm sunny corner of the lock gate, and when the gate was shut it fell off into the water.
Alice and Dora screamed hideously. So did Daisy, but her screams were thinner.
The snake swam round and round all the time our boat was in the lock. It swam with four inches of itself—the head end—reared up out of the water, exactly like Kaa in the Jungle Book—so we know Kipling is a true author and no rotter. We were careful to keep our hands well inside the boat. A snake's eyes strike terror into the boldest breast.
When the lock was full father killed the viper with a boat-hook. I was sorry for it myself. It was indeed a venomous serpent. But it was the first we had ever seen, except at the Zoo. And it did swim most awfully well.
Directly the snake had been killed H. O. reached out for its corpse, and the next moment the body of our little brother was seen wriggling conclusively on the boat's edge. This exciting spectacle was not of a lasting nature. He went right in. Father clawed him out. He is very unlucky with water.
Being a birthday, but little was said. H. O. was wrapped in everybody's coats, and did not take any cold at all.
This glorious birthday ended with an iced cake and ginger wine, and drinking healths. Then we played whatever we liked. There had been rounders during the afternoon. It was a day to be for ever marked by memory's brightest what's-its-name.
I should not have said anything about the picnic but for one thing. It was the thin edge of the wedge. It was the all-powerful lever that moved but too many events. You see, WE WERE NO LONGER STRANGERS TO THE RIVER.
And we went there whenever we could. Only we had to take the dogs, and to promise no bathing without grown-ups. But paddling in back waters was allowed. I say no more.
I have not numerated Noel's birthday presents because I wish to leave something to the imagination of my young readers. (The best authors always do this.) If you will take the large, red catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, and just make a list of about fifteen of the things you would like best—prices from 2s. to 25s.—you will get a very good idea of Noel's presents, and it will help you to make up your mind in case you are asked just before your next birthday what you really NEED.
One of Noel's birthday presents was a cricket ball. He cannot bowl for nuts, and it was a first-rate ball. So some days after the birthday Oswald offered him to exchange it for a coconut he had won at the fair, and two pencils (new), and a brand-new note-book. Oswald thought, and he still thinks, that this was a fair exchange, and so did Noel at the time, and he agreed to it, and was quite pleased till the girls said it wasn't fair, and Oswald had the best of it. And then that young beggar Noel wanted the ball back, but Oswald, though not angry, was firm.
'You said it was a bargain, and you shook hands on it,' he said, and he said it quite kindly and calmly.
Noel said he didn't care. He wanted his cricket ball back. And the girls said it was a horrid shame.
If they had not said that, Oswald might yet have consented to let Noel have the beastly ball, but now, of course, he was not going to. He said—
'Oh, yes, I daresay. And then you would be wanting the coconut and things again the next minute.'
'No, I shouldn't,' Noel said. It turned out afterwards he and H. O. had eaten the coconut, which only made it worse. And it made them worse too—which is what the book calls poetic justice.
Dora said, 'I don't think it was fair,' and even Alice said—
'Do let him have it back, Oswald.'
I wish to be just to Alice. She did not know then about the coconut having been secretly wolfed up.
We were in the garden. Oswald felt all the feelings of the hero when the opposing forces gathered about him are opposing as hard as ever they can. He knew he was not unfair, and he did not like to be jawed at just because Noel had eaten the coconut and wanted the ball back. Though Oswald did not know then about the eating of the coconut, but he felt the injustice in his soul all the same.
Noel said afterwards he meant to offer Oswald something else to make up for the coconut, but he said nothing about this at the time.
'Give it me, I say,' Noel said.
And Oswald said, 'Shan't!'
Then Noel called Oswald names, and Oswald did not answer back but just kept smiling pleasantly, and carelessly throwing up the ball and catching it again with an air of studied indifference.
It was Martha's fault that what happened happened. She is the bull-dog, and very stout and heavy. She had just been let loose and she came bounding along in her clumsy way, and jumped up on Oswald, who is beloved by all dumb animals. (You know how sagacious they are.) Well, Martha knocked the ball out of Oswald's hands, and it fell on the grass, and Noel pounced on it like a hooded falcon on its prey. Oswald would scorn to deny that he was not going to stand this, and the next moment the two were rolling over on the grass, and very soon Noel was made to bite the dust. And serve him right. He is old enough to know his own mind.
Then Oswald walked slowly away with the ball, and the others picked Noel up, and consoled the beaten, but Dicky would not take either side.
And Oswald went up into his own room and lay on his bed, and reflected gloomy reflections about unfairness.
Presently he thought he would like to see what the others were doing without their knowing he cared. So he went into the linen-room and looked out of its window, and he saw they were playing Kings and Queens—and Noel had the biggest paper crown and the longest stick sceptre.
Oswald turned away without a word, for it really was sickening.
Then suddenly his weary eyes fell upon something they had not before beheld. It was a square trap-door in the ceiling of the linen-room.
Oswald never hesitated. He crammed the cricket ball into his pocket and climbed up the shelves and unbolted the trap-door, and shoved it up, and pulled himself up through it. Though above all was dark and smelt of spiders, Oswald fearlessly shut the trap-door down again before he struck a match. He always carries matches. He is a boy fertile in every subtle expedient. Then he saw he was in the wonderful, mysterious place between the ceiling and the roof of the house. The roof is beams and tiles. Slits of light show through the tiles here and there. The ceiling, on its other and top side, is made of rough plaster and beams. If you walk on the beams it is all right—if you walk on the plaster you go through with your feet. Oswald found this out later, but some fine instinct now taught the young explorer where he ought to tread and where not. It was splendid. He was still very angry with the others and he was glad he had found out a secret they jolly well didn't know.
He walked along a dark, narrow passage. Every now and then cross-beams barred his way, and he had to creep under them. At last a small door loomed before him with cracks of light under and over. He drew back the rusty bolts and opened it. It opened straight on to the leads, a flat place between two steep red roofs, with a parapet two feet high back and front, so that no one could see you. It was a place no one could have invented better than, if they had tried, for hiding in.
Oswald spent the whole afternoon there. He happened to have a volume of Percy's Anecdotes in his pocket, the one about lawyers, as well as a few apples. While he read he fingered the cricket ball, and presently it rolled away, and he thought he would get it by-and-by.
When the tea-bell rang he forgot the ball and went hurriedly down, for apples do not keep the inside from the pangs of hunger.
Noel met him on the landing, got red in the face, and said—
'It wasn't QUITE fair about the ball, because H. O. and I had eaten the coconut. YOU can have it.'
'I don't want your beastly ball,' Oswald said, 'only I hate unfairness. However, I don't know where it is just now. When I find it you shall have it to bowl with as often as you want.'
'Then you're not waxy?'
And Oswald said 'No' and they went in to tea together. So that was all right. There were raisin cakes for tea.
Next day we happened to want to go down to the river quite early. I don't know why; this is called Fate, or Destiny. We dropped in at the 'Rose and Crown' for some ginger-beer on our way. The landlady is a friend of ours and lets us drink it in her back parlour, instead of in the bar, which would be improper for girls.
We found her awfully busy, making pies and jellies, and her two sisters were hurrying about with great hams, and pairs of chickens, and rounds of cold beef and lettuces, and pickled salmon and trays of crockery and glasses.
'It's for the angling competition,' she said.
We said, 'What's that?'
'Why,' she said, slicing cucumber like beautiful machinery while she said it, 'a lot of anglers come down some particular day and fish one particular bit of the river. And the one that catches most fish gets the prize. They're fishing the pen above Stoneham Lock. And they all come here to dinner. So I've got my hands full and a trifle over.'
We said, 'Couldn't we help?'
But she said, 'Oh, no, thank you. Indeed not, please. I really am so I don't know which way to turn. Do run along, like dears.'
So we ran along like these timid but graceful animals.
Need I tell the intellectual reader that we went straight off to the pen above Stoneham Lock to see the anglers competing? Angling is the same thing as fishing.
I am not going to try and explain locks to you. If you've never seen a lock you could never understand even if I wrote it in words of one syllable and pages and pages long. And if you have, you'll understand without my telling you. It is harder than Euclid if you don't know beforehand. But you might get a grown-up person to explain it to you with books or wooden bricks.
I will tell you what a pen is because that is easy. It is the bit of river between one lock and the next. In some rivers 'pens' are called 'reaches', but pen is the proper word.
We went along the towing-path; it is shady with willows, aspens, alders, elders, oaks and other trees. On the banks are flowers—yarrow, meadow-sweet, willow herb, loosestrife, and lady's bed-straw. Oswald learned the names of all these trees and plants on the day of the picnic. The others didn't remember them, but Oswald did. He is a boy of what they call relenting memory.
The anglers were sitting here and there on the shady bank among the grass and the different flowers I have named. Some had dogs with them, and some umbrellas, and some had only their wives and families.
We should have liked to talk to them and ask how they liked their lot, and what kinds of fish there were, and whether they were nice to eat, but we did not like to.
Denny had seen anglers before and he knew they liked to be talked to, but though he spoke to them quite like to equals he did not ask the things we wanted to know. He just asked whether they'd had any luck, and what bait they used.
And they answered him back politely. I am glad I am not an angler.
It is an immovable amusement, and, as often as not, no fish to speak of after all.
Daisy and Dora had stayed at home: Dora's foot was nearly well but they seem really to like sitting still. I think Dora likes to have a little girl to order about. Alice never would stand it. When we got to Stoneham Lock Denny said he should go home and fetch his fishing-rod. H. O. went with him. This left four of us—Oswald, Alice, Dicky, and Noel. We went on down the towing-path. The lock shuts up (that sounds as if it was like the lock on a door, but it is very otherwise) between one pen of the river and the next; the pen where the anglers were was full right up over the roots of the grass and flowers. But the pen below was nearly empty.
'You can see the poor river's bones,' Noel said.
And so you could.
Stones and mud and dried branches, and here and there an old kettle or a tin pail with no bottom to it, that some bargee had chucked in.
From walking so much along the river we knew many of the bargees. Bargees are the captains and crews of the big barges that are pulled up and down the river by slow horses. The horses do not swim. They walk on the towing-path, with a rope tied to them, and the other end to the barge. So it gets pulled along. The bargees we knew were a good friendly sort, and used to let us go all over the barges when they were in a good temper. They were not at all the sort of bullying, cowardly fiends in human form that the young hero at Oxford fights a crowd of, single-handed, in books.
The river does not smell nice when its bones are showing. But we went along down, because Oswald wanted to get some cobbler's wax in Falding village for a bird-net he was making.
But just above Falding Lock, where the river is narrow and straight, we saw a sad and gloomy sight—a big barge sitting flat on the mud because there was not water enough to float her.
There was no one on board, but we knew by a red flannel waistcoat that was spread out to dry on top that the barge belonged to friends of ours.
Then Alice said, 'They have gone to find the man who turns on the water to fill the pen. I daresay they won't find him. He's gone to his dinner, I shouldn't wonder. What a lovely surprise it would be if they came back to find their barge floating high and dry on a lot of water! DO let's do it. It's a long time since any of us did a kind action deserving of being put in the Book of Golden Deeds.'
We had given that name to the minute-book of that beastly 'Society of the Wouldbegoods'. Then you could think of the book if you wanted to without remembering the Society. I always tried to forget both of them.
Oswald said, 'But how? YOU don't know how. And if you did we haven't got a crowbar.'
I cannot help telling you that locks are opened with crowbars. You push and push till a thing goes up and the water runs through. It is rather like the little sliding door in the big door of a hen-house.
'I know where the crowbar is,' Alice said. 'Dicky and I were down here yesterday when you were su—' She was going to say sulking, I know, but she remembered manners ere too late so Oswald bears her no malice. She went on: 'Yesterday, when you were upstairs. And we saw the water-tender open the lock and the weir sluices. It's quite easy, isn't it, Dicky?'
'As easy as kiss your hand,' said Dicky; 'and what's more, I know where he keeps the other thing he opens the sluices with. I votes we do.'
'Do let's, if we can,' Noel said, 'and the bargees will bless the names of their unknown benefactors. They might make a song about us, and sing it on winter nights as they pass round the wassail bowl in front of the cabin fire.'
Noel wanted to very much; but I don't think it was altogether for generousness, but because he wanted to see how the sluices opened. Yet perhaps I do but wrong the boy.
We sat and looked at the barge a bit longer, and then Oswald said, well, he didn't mind going back to the lock and having a look at the crowbars. You see Oswald did not propose this; he did not even care very much about it when Alice suggested it.
But when we got to Stoneham Lock, and Dicky dragged the two heavy crowbars from among the elder bushes behind a fallen tree, and began to pound away at the sluice of the lock, Oswald felt it would not be manly to stand idly apart. So he took his turn.
It was very hard work but we opened the lock sluices, and we did not drop the crowbar into the lock either, as I have heard of being done by older and sillier people.
The water poured through the sluices all green and solid, as if it had been cut with a knife, and where it fell on the water underneath the white foam spread like a moving counterpane. When we had finished the lock we did the weir—which is wheels and chains—and the water pours through over the stones in a magnificent waterfall and sweeps out all round the weir-pool.
The sight of the foaming waterfalls was quite enough reward for our heavy labours, even without the thought of the unspeakable gratitude that the bargees would feel to us when they got back to their barge and found her no longer a stick-in-the-mud, but bounding on the free bosom of the river.
When we had opened all the sluices we gazed awhile on the beauties of Nature, and then went home, because we thought it would be more truly noble and good not to wait to be thanked for our kind and devoted action—and besides, it was nearly dinner-time and Oswald thought it was going to rain.
On the way home we agreed not to tell the others, because it would be like boasting of our good acts.
'They will know all about it,' Noel said, 'when they hear us being blessed by the grateful bargees, and the tale of the Unknown Helpers is being told by every village fireside. And then they can write it in the Golden Deed book.'
So we went home. Denny and H. O. had thought better of it, and they were fishing in the moat. They did not catch anything.
Oswald is very weather-wise—at least, so I have heard it said, and he had thought there would be rain. There was. It came on while we were at dinner—a great, strong, thundering rain, coming down in sheets—the first rain we had had since we came to the Moat House.
We went to bed as usual. No presentiment of the coming awfulness clouded our young mirth. I remember Dicky and Oswald had a wrestling match, and Oswald won.
In the middle of the night Oswald was awakened by a hand on his face. It was a wet hand and very cold. Oswald hit out, of course, but a voice said, in a hoarse, hollow whisper—
'Don't be a young ass! Have you got any matches? My bed's full of water; it's pouring down from the ceiling.'
Oswald's first thoughts was that perhaps by opening those sluices we had flooded some secret passage which communicated with the top of Moat House, but when he was properly awake he saw that this could not be, on account of the river being so low.
He had matches. He is, as I said before, a boy full of resources. He struck one and lit a candle, and Dicky, for it was indeed he, gazed with Oswald at the amazing spectacle.
Our bedroom floor was all wet in patches. Dicky's bed stood in a pond, and from the ceiling water was dripping in rich profusion at a dozen different places. There was a great wet patch in the ceiling, and that was blue, instead of white like the dry part, and the water dripped from different parts of it.
In a moment Oswald was quite unmanned.
'Krikey!' he said, in a heart-broken tone, and remained an instant plunged in thought.
'What on earth are we to do?' Dicky said.
And really for a short time even Oswald did not know. It was a blood-curdling event, a regular facer. Albert's uncle had gone to London that day to stay till the next. Yet something must be done.
The first thing was to rouse the unconscious others from their deep sleep, because the water was beginning to drip on to their beds, and though as yet they knew it not, there was quite a pool on Noel's bed, just in the hollow behind where his knees were doubled up, and one of H. O.'s boots was full of water, that surged wildly out when Oswald happened to kick it over.
We woke them—a difficult task, but we did not shrink from it.
Then we said, 'Get up, there is a flood! Wake up, or you will be drowned in your beds! And it's half past two by Oswald's watch.'
They awoke slowly and very stupidly. H. O. was the slowest and stupidest.
The water poured faster and faster from the ceiling.
We looked at each other and turned pale, and Noel said—
'Hadn't we better call Mrs Pettigrew?'
But Oswald simply couldn't consent to this. He could not get rid of the feeling that this was our fault somehow for meddling with the river, though of course the clear star of reason told him it could not possibly be the case.
We all devoted ourselves, heart and soul, to the work before us. We put the bath under the worst and wettest place, and the jugs and basins under lesser streams, and we moved the beds away to the dry end of the room. Ours is a long attic that runs right across the house.
But the water kept coming in worse and worse. Our nightshirts were wet through, so we got into our other shirts and knickerbockers, but preserved bareness in our feet. And the floor kept on being half an inch deep in water, however much we mopped it up.
We emptied the basins out of the window as fast as they filled, and we baled the bath with a jug without pausing to complain how hard the work was. All the same, it was more exciting than you can think. But in Oswald's dauntless breast he began to see that they would HAVE to call Mrs Pettigrew.
A new waterfall broke out between the fire-grate and the mantelpiece, and spread in devastating floods. Oswald is full of ingenious devices. I think I have said this before, but it is quite true; and perhaps even truer this time than it was last time I said it.
He got a board out of the box-room next door, and rested one end in the chink between the fireplace and the mantelpiece, and laid the other end on the back of a chair, then we stuffed the rest of the chink with our nightgowns, and laid a towel along the plank, and behold, a noble stream poured over the end of the board right into the bath we put there ready. It was like Niagara, only not so round in shape. The first lot of water that came down the chimney was very dirty. The wind whistled outside. Noel said, 'If it's pipes burst, and not the rain, it will be nice for the water-rates.' Perhaps it was only natural after this for Denny to begin with his everlasting poetry. He stopped mopping up the water to say:
'By this the storm grew loud apace, The water-rats were shrieking, And in the howl of Heaven each face Grew black as they were speaking.'
Our faces were black, and our hands too, but we did not take any notice; we only told him not to gas but to go on mopping. And he did. And we all did.
But more and more water came pouring down. You would not believe so much could come off one roof.
When at last it was agreed that Mrs Pettigrew must be awakened at all hazards, we went and woke Alice to do the fatal errand.
When she came back, with Mrs Pettigrew in a nightcap and red flannel petticoat, we held our breath.
But Mrs Pettigrew did not even say, 'What on earth have you children been up to NOW?' as Oswald had feared.
She simply sat down on my bed and said—
'Oh, dear! oh, dear! oh, dear!' ever so many times.
Then Denny said, 'I once saw holes in a cottage roof. The man told me it was done when the water came through the thatch. He said if the water lies all about on the top of the ceiling, it breaks it down, but if you make holes the water will only come through the holes and you can put pails under the holes to catch it.'
So we made nine holes in the ceiling with the poker, and put pails, baths and tubs under, and now there was not so much water on the floor. But we had to keep on working like niggers, and Mrs Pettigrew and Alice worked the same.
About five in the morning the rain stopped; about seven the water did not come in so fast, and presently it only dripped slowly. Our task was done.
This is the only time I was ever up all night. I wish it happened oftener. We did not go back to bed then, but dressed and went down. We all went to sleep in the afternoon, though. Quite without meaning to.
Oswald went up on the roof, before breakfast, to see if he could find the hole where the rain had come in. He did not find any hole, but he found the cricket ball jammed in the top of a gutter pipe which he afterwards knew ran down inside the wall of the house and ran into the moat below. It seems a silly dodge, but so it was.
When the men went up after breakfast to see what had caused the flood they said there must have been a good half-foot of water on the leads the night before for it to have risen high enough to go above the edge of the lead, and of course when it got above the lead there was nothing to stop it running down under it, and soaking through the ceiling. The parapet and the roofs kept it from tumbling off down the sides of the house in the natural way. They said there must have been some obstruction in the pipe which ran down into the house, but whatever it was the water had washed it away, for they put wires down, and the pipe was quite clear.
While we were being told this Oswald's trembling fingers felt at the wet cricket ball in his pocket. And he KNEW, but he COULD not tell. He heard them wondering what the obstruction could have been, and all the time he had the obstruction in his pocket, and never said a single word.
I do not seek to defend him. But it really was an awful thing to have been the cause of; and Mrs Pettigrew is but harsh and hasty. But this, as Oswald knows too well, is no excuse for his silent conduct.
That night at tea Albert's uncle was rather silent too. At last he looked upon us with a glance full of intelligence, and said—
'There was a queer thing happened yesterday. You know there was an angling competition. The pen was kept full on purpose. Some mischievous busybody went and opened the sluices and let all the water out. The anglers' holiday was spoiled. No, the rain wouldn't have spoiled it anyhow, Alice; anglers LIKEe rain. The 'Rose and Crown' dinner was half of it wasted because the anglers were so furious that a lot of them took the next train to town. And this is the worst of all—a barge, that was on the mud in the pen below, was lifted and jammed across the river and the water tilted her over, and her cargo is on the river bottom. It was coals.'
During this speech there were four of us who knew not where to turn our agitated glances. Some of us tried bread-and-butter, but it seemed dry and difficult, and those who tried tea choked and spluttered and were sorry they had not let it alone. When the speech stopped Alice said, 'It was us.'
And with deepest feelings she and the rest of us told all about it.
Oswald did not say much. He was turning the obstruction round and round in his pocket, and wishing with all his sentiments that he had owned up like a man when Albert's uncle asked him before tea to tell him all about what had happened during the night.
When they had told all, Albert's uncle told us four still more plainly, and exactly, what we had done, and how much pleasure we had spoiled, and how much of my father's money we had wasted—because he would have to pay for the coals being got up from the bottom of the river, if they could be, and if not, for the price of the coals. And we saw it ALL.
And when he had done Alice burst out crying over her plate and said—
'It's no use! We HAVE tried to be good since we've been down here.
You don't know how we've tried! And it's all no use. I believe we are the wickedest children in the whole world, and I wish we were all dead!'
This was a dreadful thing to say, and of course the rest of us were all very shocked. But Oswald could not help looking at Albert's uncle to see how he would take it.
He said very gravely, 'My dear kiddie, you ought to be sorry, and I wish you to be sorry for what you've done. And you will be punished for it.' (We were; our pocket-money was stopped and we were forbidden to go near the river, besides impositions miles long.) 'But,' he went on, 'you mustn't give up trying to be good. You are extremely naughty and tiresome, as you know very well.'
Alice, Dicky, and Noel began to cry at about this time.
'But you are not the wickedest children in the world by any means.'
Then he stood up and straightened his collar, and put his hands in his pockets.
'You're very unhappy now,' he said, 'and you deserve to be. But I will say one thing to you.'
Then he said a thing which Oswald at least will never forget (though but little he deserved it, with the obstruction in his pocket, unowned up to all the time).
He said, 'I have known you all for four years—and you know as well as I do how many scrapes I've seen you in and out of—but I've never known one of you tell a lie, and I've never known one of you do a mean or dishonourable action. And when you have done wrong you are always sorry. Now this is something to stand firm on. You'll learn to be good in the other ways some day.'
He took his hands out of his pockets, and his face looked different, so that three of the four guilty creatures knew he was no longer adamant, and they threw themselves into his arms. Dora, Denny, Daisy, and H. O., of course, were not in it, and I think they thanked their stars.
Oswald did not embrace Albert's uncle. He stood there and made up his mind he would go for a soldier. He gave the wet ball one last squeeze, and took his hand out of his pocket, and said a few words before going to enlist. He said—
'The others may deserve what you say. I hope they do, I'm sure. But I don't, because it was my rotten cricket ball that stopped up the pipe and caused the midnight flood in our bedroom. And I knew it quite early this morning. And I didn't own up.'
Oswald stood there covered with shame, and he could feel the hateful cricket ball heavy and cold against the top of his leg, through the pocket.
Albert's uncle said—and his voice made Oswald hot all over, but not with shame—he said—
I shall not tell you what he said. It is no one's business but Oswald's; only I will own it made Oswald not quite so anxious to run away for a soldier as he had been before.
That owning up was the hardest thing I ever did. They did put that in the Book of Golden Deeds, though it was not a kind or generous act, and did no good to anyone or anything except Oswald's own inside feelings. I must say I think they might have let it alone. Oswald would rather forget it. Especially as Dicky wrote it in and put this:
'Oswald acted a lie, which, he knows, is as bad as telling one. But he owned up when he needn't have, and this condones his sin. We think he was a thorough brick to do it.'
Alice scratched this out afterwards and wrote the record of the incident in more flattering terms. But Dicky had used Father's ink, and she used Mrs Pettigrew's, so anyone can read his underneath the scratching outs.
The others were awfully friendly to Oswald, to show they agreed with Albert's uncle in thinking I deserved as much share as anyone in any praise there might be going.
It was Dora who said it all came from my quarrelling with Noel about that rotten cricket ball; but Alice, gently yet firmly, made her shut up.
I let Noel have the ball. It had been thoroughly soaked, but it dried all right. But it could never be the same to me after what it had done and what I had done.
I hope you will try to agree with Albert's uncle and not think foul scorn of Oswald because of this story. Perhaps you have done things nearly as bad yourself sometimes. If you have, you will know how 'owning up' soothes the savage breast and alleviates the gnawings of remorse.
If you have never done naughty acts I expect it is only because you never had the sense to think of anything.