W HEN we were sent down into the country to learn to be good we felt it was rather good business, because we knew our being sent there was really only to get us out of the way for a little while, and we knew right enough that it wasn't a punishment, though Mrs. Blake said it was, because we had been punished thoroughly for taking the stuffed animals out and making a jungle on the lawn with them, and the garden hose. And you cannot be punished twice for the same offence. This is English law; at least I think so. And at any rate no one would punish you three times, and we had had the Malacca cane and the solitary confinement; and the uncle had kindly explained to us that all ill-feeling between him and us was wiped out entirely by the bread and water we had endured. And what with the bread and water and being prisoners, and not being able to tame any mice in our prisons, I quite feel that we had suffered it up thoroughly, and now we could start fair.
I think myself that descriptions of places are generally dull, but I have sometimes thought that was because the authors do not tell you what you truly want to know. However, dull or not, here goes—because you won't understand anything unless I tell you what the place was like.
The Moat House was the one we went to stay at. There has been a house there since Saxon times. It is a manor, and a manor goes on having a house on it whatever happens. The Moat House was burnt down once or twice in ancient centuries—I don't remember which—but they always built a new one, and Cromwell's soldiers smashed it about, but it was patched up again. It is a very odd house: the front door opens straight into the dining-room, and there are red curtains and a black-and-white marble floor like a chess-board, and there is a secret staircase, only it is not secret now—only rather rickety. It is not very big, but there is a watery moat all round it with a brick bridge that leads to the front door. Then, on the other side of the moat there is the farm, with barns and vast houses and stables, or things like that. And the other way the garden lawn goes on till it comes to the churchyard. The churchyard is not divided from the garden at all except by a little grass bank. In the front of the house there is more garden, and the big fruit garden is at the back.
The man the house belongs to likes new houses, so he built a big one with conservatories and a stable with a clock in a turret on the top, and he let the Moat House. And Albert's uncle took it, and my father was to come down sometimes from Saturday to Monday, and Albert's uncle was to live with us all the time, and he would be writing a book, and we were not to bother him, but he would give an eye to us. I hope all this is plain. I have said it as short as I can.
We got down rather late, but there was still light enough to see the big bell hanging at the top of the house. The rope belonging to it went right down the house, through our bedroom to the dining-room. H. O. saw the rope and pulled it while he was washing his hands for supper, and Dicky and I let him, and the bell tolled solemnly. Father shouted to him not to, and we went down to supper. But presently there were many feet trampling on the gravel, and father went out to see. When he came back he said:
"The whole village, or half of it, has come up to see why the bell rang. It's only rung for fire or burglars. Why can't you kids let things alone?"
Albert's uncle said:
"Bed follows supper as the fruit follows the flower. They'll do no more mischief to-night, sir. To-morrow I will point out a few of the things to be avoided in this bucolic retreat."
So it was bed directly after supper, and that was why we did not see much that night.
But in the morning we were all up rather early, and we seemed to have awakened in a new world, rich in surprises beyond the dreams of anybody, as it says in the quotation.
We went everywhere we could in the time, but when it was breakfast-time we felt we had not seen half or a quarter. The room we had breakfast in was exactly like in a story—black oak panels and china in corner cupboards with glass doors. These doors were locked. There were green curtains, and honeycomb for breakfast. After brekker my father went back to town, and Albert's uncle went too, to see publishers. We saw them to the station, and father gave us a long list of what we weren't to do. It began with "Don't pull ropes unless you're quite sure what will happen at the other end," and it finished with "For goodness' sake, try to keep out of mischief till I come down on Saturday." There were lots of other things in between.
We all promised we would. And we saw them off, and waved till the train was quite out of sight. Then we started to walk home. Daisy was tired so Oswald carried her home on his back. When we got home she said:
"I do like you, Oswald."
She is not a bad little kid; and Oswald felt it was his duty to be nice to her because she was a visitor. Then we looked all over everything. It was a glorious place. You did not know where to begin.
We were all a little tired before we found the hay-loft, but we pulled ourselves together to make a fort with the trusses of hay—great square things—and we were having a jolly good time, all of us, when suddenly a trap-door opened and a head bobbed up with a straw in its mouth. We knew nothing about the country then, and the head really did scare us rather, though, of course, we found out directly that the feet belonging to it were standing on the bar of the loose-box underneath. The head said:
"Don't you let the governor catch you a-spoiling of that there hay, that's all." And it spoke thickly because of the straw.
It is strange to think how ignorant you were in the past. We can hardly believe now that once we really did not know that it spoiled hay to mess about with it. Horses don't like to eat it afterwards. Always remember this.
When the head had explained a little more it went away, and we turned the handle of the chaff-cutting machine, and nobody got hurt, though the head had said we should cut our fingers off if we touched it.
And then we sat down on the floor, which is dirty with the nice clean dirt that is more than half chopped hay, and those there was room for hung their legs down out of the top door, and we looked down at the farmyard, which is very slushy when you get down into it, but most interesting.
Then Alice said:
"Now we're all here, and the boys are tired enough to sit still for a minute, I want to have a council."
We said what about? And she said, "I'll tell you. H. O. don't wriggle so; sit on my frock if the straws tickle your legs."
You see he wears socks, and so he can never be quite as comfortable as any one else.
"Promise not to laugh," Alice said, getting very red, and looking at Dora, who got red too.
We did, and then she said: "Dora and I have talked this over, and Daisy too, and we have written it down because it is easier than saying it. Shall I read it? or will you, Dora?"
Dora said it didn't matter; Alice might. So Alice read it, and though she gabbled a bit we all heard it. I copied it afterwards. This is what she read:
"NEW SOCIETY FOR BEING GOOD IN.
"I, Dora Bastable, and Alice Bastable, my sister, being of sound mind and body, when we were shut up with bread and water on that jungle day, we thought a great deal about our naughty sins, and we made our minds up to be good for ever after. And we talked to Daisy about it, and she had an idea. So we want to start a society for being good in. It is Daisy's idea, but we think so too."
"You know," Dora interrupted, "when people want to do good things they always make a society. There are thousands—there's the Missionary Society."
"Yes," Alice said, "and the Society for the Prevention of something or other, and the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Society, and the S.P.G."
"What's S.P.G.?" Oswald asked.
"Society for the Propagation of the Jews, of course," said Noël, who cannot always spell.
"No, it isn't; but do let me go on."
Alice did go on.
"We propose to get up a society, with a chairman and a treasurer and secretary, and keep a journal-book saying what we've done. If that doesn't make us good it won't be my fault.
"The aim of the society is nobleness and goodness, and great and unselfish deeds. We wish not to be such a nuisance to grown-up people and to perform prodigies of real goodness. We wish to spread our wings"—here Alice read very fast. She told me afterwards Daisy had helped her with that part, and she thought when she came to the wings they sounded rather silly—"to spread our wings and rise above the kind of interesting things that you ought not to do, but to do kindnesses to all, however low and mean."
Denny was listening carefully. Now he nodded three or four times.
"Little words of kindness" (he said),
"Little deeds of love,
Make this earth an eagle
Like the one above."
This did not sound right, but we let it pass, because an eagle does have wings, and we wanted to hear the rest of what the girls had written. But there was no rest.
"That's all," said Alice, and Daisy said:
"Don't you think it's a good idea?"
"That depends," Oswald answered, "who is president, and what you mean by being good." Oswald did not care very much for the idea himself, because being good is not the sort of thing he thinks it is proper to talk about, especially before strangers. But the girls and Denny seemed to like it, so Oswald did not say exactly what he thought, especially as it was Daisy's idea. This was true politeness.
"I think it would be nice," Noël said, "if we made it a sort of play. Let's do the Pilgrim's Progress."
We talked about that for some time, but it did not come to anything, because we all wanted to be Mr. Greatheart, except H. O., who wanted to be the lions, and you could not have lions in a Society for Goodness.
Dicky said he did not wish to play if it meant reading books about children who die; he really felt just as Oswald did about it, he told me afterwards. But the girls were looking as if they were in Sunday School, and we did not wish to be unkind.
At last Oswald said, "Well, let's draw up the rules of the society, and choose the president and settle the name."
Dora said Oswald should be president, and he modestly consented. She was secretary, and Denny treasurer if we ever had any money.
Making the rules took us all the afternoon. They were these:
1. Every member is to be as good as possible.
2. There is to be no more jaw than necessary about being good. (Oswald and Dicky put that rule in.)
3. No day must pass without our doing some kind action to a suffering fellow-creature.
4. We are to meet every day, or as often as we like.
5. We are to do good to people we don't like as often as we can.
6. No one is to leave the Society without the consent of all the rest of us.
7. The Society is to be kept a profound secret from all the world except us.
8. The name of our Society is:
And when we got as far as that we all began to talk at once. Dora wanted it called the Society for Humane Improvement; Denny said the Society for Reformed Outcast Children; but Dicky said, No, we really were not so bad as all that. Then H. O. said, "Call it the Good Society."
"Or the Society for Being Good In," said Daisy.
"Or the Society of Goods," said Noël.
"That's priggish," said Oswald, "besides, we don't know whether we shall be so very."
"You see," Alice explained, "we only said if we could we would be good."
"Well, then," Dicky said, getting up and beginning to dust the chopped hay off himself, "call it the Society of the Wouldbegoods and have done with it."
Oswald thinks Dicky was getting sick of it and wanted to make himself a little disagreeable. If so, he was doomed to disappointment. For everyone else clapped hands and called out, "That's the very thing!" Then the girls went off to write out the rules, and took H. O. with them, and Noël went to write some poetry to put in the minute book. That's what you call the book that a society's secretary writes what it does in. Denny went with him to help. He knows a lot of poetry. I think he went to a lady's school where they taught nothing but that. He was rather shy of us, but he took to Noël. I can't think why. Dicky and Oswald walked round the garden and told each other what they thought of the new society.
"I'm not sure we oughtn't to have put our foot down at the beginning," Dicky said. "I don't see much in it, anyhow."
"It pleases the girls," Oswald said, for he is a kind brother.
"But we're not going to stand jaw, and 'words in season,' and 'loving sisterly warnings.' I tell you what it is, Oswald, we'll have to run this thing our way, or it'll be jolly beastly for everybody."
Oswald saw this plainly.
"We must do something," Dicky said; it's very very hard, though. Still, there must be some interesting things that are not wrong."
"I suppose so," Oswald said, "but being good is so much like being a muff, generally. Anyhow I'm not going to smooth the pillows of the sick, or read to the aged poor, or any rot out of Ministering Children."
"No more am I," Dicky said. He was chewing a straw like the head had in its mouth. "But I suppose we must play the game fair. Let's begin by looking out for something useful to do—something like mending things or cleaning them, not just showing off."
"The boys in books chop kindling wood and save their pennies to buy tea and tracts."
"Little beasts!" said Dick. "I say, let's talk about something else." And Oswald was glad to, for he was beginning to feel jolly uncomfortable.
"Little beasts!" said Dick.
We were all rather quiet at tea, and afterwards Oswald played draughts with Daisy and the others yawned. I don't know when we've had such a gloomy evening. And everyone was horribly polite, and said "Please" and "Thank you" far more than requisite.
Albert's uncle came home after tea. He was jolly, and told us stories, but he noticed us being a little dull, and asked what blight had fallen on our young lives. Oswald could have answered and said, "It is the Society of the Wouldbegoods that is the blight," but of course he didn't; and Albert's uncle said no more, but he went up and kissed the girls when they were in bed, and asked them if there was anything wrong. And they told him no, on their honour.
The next morning Oswald awoke early. The refreshing beams of the morning sun shone on his narrow, white bed and on the sleeping forms of his dear little brothers, and Denny, who had got the pillow on top of his head and was snoring like a kettle when it sings. Oswald could not remember at first what was the matter with him, and then he remembered the Wouldbegoods, and wished he hadn't. He felt at first as if there was nothing you could do, and even hesitated to buzz a pillow at Denny's head. But he soon saw that this could not be. So he chucked his boot and caught Denny right in the waistcoat part, and thus the day began more brightly than he had expected.
Oswald had not done anything out of the way good the night before, except that when no one was looking he polished the brass candlestick in the girls' bedroom with one of his socks. And he might just as well have let it alone, for the servants cleaned it again with the other things in the morning, and he could never find the sock afterwards. There were two servants. One of them had to be called Mrs. Pettigrew instead of Jane and Eliza like others. She was cook and managed things.
After breakfast Albert's uncle said:
"I now seek the retirement of my study. At your peril violate my privacy before 1.30 sharp. Nothing short of bloodshed will warrant the intrusion, and nothing short of man—or rather boy—slaughter shall avenge it."
So we knew he wanted to be quiet, and the girls decided that we ought to play out of doors so as not to disturb him; we should have played out of doors anyhow on a jolly fine day like that.
But as we were going out Dicky said to Oswald:
"I say, come along here a minute, will you?"
So Oswald came along, and Dicky took him into the other parlour and shut the door, and Oswald said:
"Well, spit it out; what is it?" He knows that is vulgar, and he would not have said it to any one but his own brother.
"It's a pretty fair nuisance. I told you how it would be."
And Oswald was patient with him, and said:
"What is? Don't be all day about it."
Dicky fidgeted about a bit, and then he said:
"Well, I did as I said. I looked about for something useful to do. And you know that dairy window that wouldn't open—only a little bit like that? Well, I mended the catch with wire and whipcord and it opened wide."
"And I suppose they didn't want it mended," said Oswald. He knows but too well that grown-up people sometimes like to keep things far different from what we would, and you catch it if you try to do otherwise.
"I shouldn't have minded that," Dicky said, "because I could easily have taken it all off again if they'd only said so. But the sillies went and propped up a milk-pan against the window. They never took the trouble to notice I had mended it. So the wretched thing pushed the window open all by itself directly they propped it up, and it's tumbled through into the moat, and they are most awfully waxy. All the men are out in the fields and they haven't any spare milk-pans. If I were a farmer, I must say I wouldn't stick at an extra milk-pan or two. Accidents must happen sometimes. I call it mean."
Dicky spoke in savage tones. But Oswald was not so unhappy, first because it wasn't his fault, and next because he is a far-seeing boy.
"Never mind," he said kindly. "Keep your tail up. We'll get the beastly milk-pan out all right. Come on."
He rushed hastily to the garden and gave a low, signifying whistle, which the others know well enough to mean something extra being up.
And when they were all gathered round him he spoke.
"Fellow-countrymen," he said, "we're going to have a rousing good time."
"It's nothing naughty, is it," Daisy asked, "like the last time you had that was rousingly good?"
Alice said, "Shish," and Oswald pretended not to hear.
"A precious treasure," he said, "has inadvertently been laid low in the moat by one of us."
"The rotten thing tumbled in by itself," Dicky said.
Oswald waved his hand and said, "Anyhow, it's there. It's our duty to restore it to its sorrowing owners. I say, look here—we're going to drag the moat."
Everyone brightened up at this. It was our duty and it was interesting too. This is very uncommon.
So we went out to where the orchard is, at the other side of the moat. There were gooseberries and things on the bushes, but we did not take any till we had asked if we might. Alice went and asked. Mrs. Pettigrew said, "Law! I suppose so; you'd eat 'em anyhow, leave or no leave."
She little knows the honourable nature of the House of Bastable. But she has much to learn.
The orchard slopes gently down to the dark waters of the moat. We sat there in the sun and talked about dragging the moat, till Denny said, "How do you drag moats?"
And we were speechless, because, though we had read many times about a moat being dragged for missing heirs and lost wills, we really had never thought about exactly how it was done.
"Grappling-irons are right, I believe," Denny said, "but I don't suppose they'd have any at the farm."
And we asked, and found they had never even heard of them. I think myself he meant some other word, but he was quite positive.
So then we got a sheet off Oswald's bed, and we all took our shoes and stockings off, and we tried to see if the sheet would drag the bottom of the moat, which is shallow at that end. But it would keep floating on the top of the water, and when we tried sewing stones into one end of it, it stuck on something in the bottom, and when we got it up it was torn. We were very sorry, and the sheet was in an awful mess; but the girls said they were sure they could wash it in the basin in their room, and we thought as we had torn it any way, we might as well go on. That washing never came off.
"No human being," Noël said, "knows half the treasures hidden in this dark tarn."
And we decided we would drag a bit more at that end, and work gradually round to under the dairy window where the milk-pan was. We could not see that part very well, because of the bushes that grow between the cracks of the stones where the house goes down into the moat. And opposite the dairy window the barn goes straight down into the moat too. It is like pictures of Venice; but you cannot get opposite the dairy window anyhow.
We got the sheet down again when we had tied the torn parts together in a bunch with string, and Oswald was just saying:
"Now then, my hearties, pull together, pull with a will! One, two, three," when suddenly Dora dropped her bit of the sheet with a piercing shriek and cried out:
"Oh! it's all wormy at the bottom. I felt them wriggle." And she was out of the water almost before the words were out of her mouth. The other girls all scuttled out too, and they let the sheet go in such a hurry that we had no time to steady ourselves, and one of us went right in, and the rest got wet up to our waistbands. The one who went right in was only H. O., but Dora made an awful fuss and said it was our fault. We told her what we thought, and it ended in the girls going in with H. O. to change his things. We had some more gooseberries while they were gone. Dora was in an awful wax when she went away, but she is not of a sullen disposition though sometimes hasty, and when they all came back we saw it was all right, so we said:
"What shall we do now?"
Alice said, "I don't think we need drag any more. It is wormy. I felt it when Dora did. And besides, the milk-pan is sticking a bit of itself out of the water. I saw it through the dairy window."
"Couldn't we get it up with fish-hooks?" Noël said. But Alice explained that the dairy was now locked up and the key taken out.
So then Oswald said:
"Look here, we'll make a raft. We should have to do it some time, and we might as well do it now. I saw an old door in that corner stable that they don't use. You know. The one where they chop the wood."
We got the door.
We had never made a raft, any of us, but the way to make rafts is better described in books, so we knew what to do.
We found some nice little tubs stuck up on the fence of the farm garden, and nobody seemed to want them for anything just then, so we took them. Denny had a box of tools some one had given him for his last birthday; they were rather rotten little things, but the gimlet worked all right, so we managed to make holes in the edges of the tubs and fasten them with string under the four corners of the old door. This took us a long time. Albert's uncle asked us at dinner what we had been playing at, and we said it was a secret, and it was nothing wrong. You see we wished to atone for Dicky's mistake before anything more was said. The house has no windows in the side that faces the orchard.
The rays of the afternoon sun were beaming along the orchard grass when at last we launched the raft. She floated out beyond reach with the last shove of the launching. But Oswald waded out and towed her back; he is not afraid of worms. Yet if he had known of the other things that were in the bottom of that moat he would have kept his boots on. So would the others, especially Dora, as you will see.
At last the gallant craft rode upon the waves. We manned her, though not up to our full strength, because if more than four got on the water came up too near our knees, and we feared she might founder if over-manned.
Daisy and Denny did not want to go on the raft, white mice that they were, so that was all right. And as H. O. had been wet through once he was not very keen. Alice promised Noël her best paint-brush if he'd give up and not go, because we knew well that the voyage was fraught with deep dangers, though the exact danger that lay in wait for us under the dairy window we never even thought of.
So we four elder ones got on the raft very carefully; and even then, every time we moved the water swished up over the raft and hid our feet. But I must say it was a jolly decent raft.
Dicky was captain, because it was his adventure. We had hop-poles from the hop-garden beyond the orchard to punt with. We made the girls stand together in the middle and hold on to each other to keep steady. Then we christened our gallant vessel. We called it the Richard, after Dicky, and also after the splendid admiral who used to eat wine-glasses and died after the Battle of the Revenge in Tennyson's poetry.
Then those on shore waved a fond adieu as well as they could with the dampness of their handkerchiefs, which we had had to use to dry our legs and feet when we put on our stockings for dinner, and slowly and stately the good ship moved away from shore, riding on the waves as though they were her native element.
We kept her going with the hop-poles, and we kept her steady in the same way, but we could not always keep her steady enough, and we could not always keep her in the wind's eye. That is to say, she went where we did not want, and once she bumped her corner against the barn wall, and all the crew had to sit down suddenly to avoid falling overboard into a watery grave. Of course then the waves swept her decks, and when we got up again we said that we should have to change completely before tea.
But we pressed on undaunted, and at last our saucy craft came into port under the dairy window, and there was the milk-pan, for whose sake we had endured such hardships and privations standing up on its edge quite quietly.
The girls did not wait for orders from the captain, as they ought to have done; but they cried out, "Oh, here it is!" and then both reached out to get it. Any one who has pursued a naval career will see that of course the raft capsized. For a moment it felt like standing on the roof of the house, and the next moment the ship stood up on end and shot the whole crew into the dark waters.
We boys can swim all right. Oswald has swum three times across the Ladywell Swimming Baths at the shallow end, and Dicky is nearly as good; but just then we did not think of this; though, of course, if the water had been deep we should have.
As soon as Oswald could get the muddy water out of his eyes he opened them on a horrid scene.
Dicky was standing up to his shoulders in the inky waters; the raft had righted itself, and was drifting gently away towards the front of the house, where the bridge is, and Dora and Alice were rising from the deep, with their hair all plastered over their faces—like Venus in the Latin verses.
There was a great noise of splashing. And besides that a feminine voice, looking out of the dairy window and screaming:
"Lord love the children!"
It was Mrs. Pettigrew. She disappeared at once, and we were sorry we were in such a situation that she would be able to get at Albert's uncle before we could. Afterwards we were not so sorry.
Before a word could be spoken about our desperate position Dora staggered a little in the water, and suddenly shrieked, "Oh, my foot! oh, it's a shark! I know it is—or a crocodile!"
The others on the bank could hear her shrieking, but they could not see us properly; they did not know what was happening. Noël told me afterwards he never could care for that paint-brush.
Of course we knew it could not be a shark, but I thought of pike, which are large and very angry always, and I caught hold of Dora. She screamed without stopping. I shoved her along to where there was a ledge of brickwork, and shoved her up, till she could sit on it, then she got her foot out of the water, still screaming.
It was indeed terrible. The thing she thought was a shark came up with her foot, and it was a horrid, jagged, old meat-tin, and she had put her foot right into it. Oswald got it off, and directly he did so blood began to pour from the wounds. The tin edges had cut it in several spots. It was very pale blood, because her foot was wet, of course.
She stopped screaming, and turned green, and I thought she was going to faint, like Daisy did on the Jungle day.
Oswald held her up as well as he could, but it really was one of the least agreeable moments in his life. For the raft was gone, and she couldn't have waded back anyway, and we didn't know how deep the moat might be in other places.
But Mrs. Pettigrew had not been idle. She is not a bad sort really.
Just as Oswald was wondering whether he could swim after the raft and get it back, a boat's nose shot out from under a dark archway a little further up under the house. It was the boathouse, and Albert's uncle had got the punt and took us back in it. When we had regained the dark arch where the boat lives we had to go up the cellar stairs. Dora had to be carried.
There was but little said to us that day. We were sent to bed—those who had not been on the raft the same as the others, for they owned up all right, and Albert's uncle is the soul of justice.
Next day but one was Saturday. Father gave us a talking to—with other things.
The worst, though, was when Dora couldn't get her shoe on, so they sent for the doctor, and Dora had to lie down for ever so long. It was indeed poor luck.
When the doctor had gone Alice said to me:
"It is hard lines, but Dora's very jolly about it. Daisy's been telling her about how we should all go to her with our little joys and sorrows and things, and about the sweet influence from a sick bed that can be felt all over the house, like in What Katy Did, and Dora said she hoped she might prove a blessing to us all while she's laid up."
Oswald said he hoped so, but he was not pleased. Because this sort of jaw was exactly the sort of thing he and Dicky didn't want to have happen.
The thing we got it hottest for was those little tubs off the garden railings. They turned out to be butter-tubs that had been put out there "to sweeten."
But as Denny said, "After the mud in that moat not all the perfumes of somewhere or other could make them fit to use for butter again."
I own this was rather a bad business. Yet we did not do it to please ourselves, but because it was our duty. But that made no difference to our punishment when father came down. I have known this mistake occur before.