Oswald Bastable and Others/The enchanceried house
THE ENCHANCERIED HOUSE
A STORY ABOUT THE BASTABLES
The adventure which I am about to relate was a very long time ago, and it was nobody's fault. The part of it that was most like a real crime was caused by H. O. not being at that date old enough to know better—and this was nobody's fault—though we took care that but a brief half-hour elapsed between the discovery of his acts and his being old enough to know better, and knowing it, too (better, I mean), quite thoroughly. We were residing at the residence of an old nurse of father's while Dora was engaged in the unagreeable pastime of having something catching at home. If she had been with us most likely none of this would have happened. For she has an almost unerring nose for right and wrong. Or perhaps what the author means is that she ever does the kind of thing that grown-ups don't like your doing. Father's old nurse was very jolly to us, and did not bother too much, except about wet feet and being late for meals, and not airing your shirt before you put it on. But it is part of the nature of the nicest grown-ups to bother about these little things, and we must not be hard on them for it, for no one can help their natures.
The part where old nurse's house was was where London begins to leave off being London, but before it can make up its mind not to be it. There are fields and bits of lanes and hedges, but the rows of ugly little houses go creeping along like yellow caterpillars, eating up the green fields. There are brickfields here and there, and cabbage fields, and places where rhubarb is grown. And it is much more interesting than real town, because there is more room to (to things in, and not so many people to say 'Don't!' when you do.
Nurse's house was the kind that is always a house, no matter how much you pretend it is a baron's castle or an enchanted palace. And to play at its being a robber's cave or any part of a pirate ship is simply silly, and no satisfaction to anyone. There were no books except sermons and the Wesleyan Magazine. And there was a green cut-paper fuzziness on the frame of the looking-glass in the parlour. There was a garden—at least, there was enough ground for one, but nothing grew there except nettles and brick-bats and one elder-tree, and a poor old oak-tree that had seen better days. There was a hole in the fence, very convenient for going through in a hurry.
One morning there had been what old nurse called a 'set out' because Noël was writing some of his world-without-end poetry, and he had got as far as
'How beautiful the sun and moon
And all the stars appear!
They really are a long way off,
Although they look very near.
'I do not think that they are worlds,
But apples on a tree;
The angels pick them whenever they like,
But it is not so with me.
I wish I was a little angel-child
To gather stars for my tea,'
before Dicky found out that he was writing it on the blank leaf at the end of the Latin prize Dicky got at the Preparatory School.
Noël—for mysterious reasons unknown to Fame—is Alice's favourite brother, and of course she stood up for him, and said he didn't mean it.
And things were said on both sides, and the rest of us agreed with Dicky that Noël was old enough to know better. It ended in Alice and Noël going out for a walk by themselves as soon as Noël had had the crying washed off his hands and face.
The rest of us spent the shining hours in getting a board and nailing it up in the oak-tree for a look-out station, in case of Saracens arriving with an army to attack London. The oak is always hard to climb, and this was a peculiarly hard day, because the next-door people had tied a clothes-line to the oak, and hung their wet washing out on the line.
The sun was setting (in the west as usual) before Alice and Noël returned. They came across the wide fields from the direction of a pinewood that we had never explored yet, though always meaning to.
'There!' said Dicky, 'they've been and gone to the pinewood all by themselves.'
But the hatchet Dicky was still cherishing in his breast was buried at once under the first words spoken by the returning party of explorers.
'Oh, Oswald,' said Alice, 'oh, Dicky, we've found a treasure!'
Dicky hammered the last nail into the Saracen watch-tower.
'Not a real money one?' he said, dropping the hammer—which was a careless thing to do, and the author told him so at the time.
'No, not a money one, but it's real all the same. Let's have a council, and I'll tell you.'
It was then that Dicky showed that if he dropped hammers it was not because he could not bury hatchets. He said, 'Righto! There's room for us all up here. Catch hold, Noël. Oswald, give him a shove up. Alice and he can sit in the Saracens' watch-tower, and I'll keep hold of H. O. if you'll hand him up.'
Alice was full of the politest compliments about the architecture of the Saracens' watch-tower, and Noël said:
'I say, Dicky, I'm awfully sorry about your prize.'
'It's all right,' said Dicky; 'I rubbed it out with bread.'
Noël opened his mouth. He looks like a very young bird when he does this.
'Then my beautiful poem's turned into dirty bread-crumbs,' he said slowly.
'Never mind,' said Alice; 'I remember nearly every word of it: we'll write it out again after tea.'
'I thought you'd be so pleased,' Noël went on, 'because it makes a book more valuable to have an author's writing in it. Albert's uncle told me so.'
'But it has to be the same author that wrote the book,' Alice explained, 'and it was Cæsar wrote that book. And you aren't Cæsar yet, you know.'
'Nor don't want to be,' said Noel.
Oswald now thought that politeness was satisfied on both sides, so he said:
'What price treasures?'
And then Alice told. But it had to be in whispers, because the next-door people, who always did things at times when not convenient to us, were now taking in their washing off the line. I heard them remark that it was a 'good drying day.'
'Well,' Alice mysteriously observed, 'it was like this. (Do you think the Saracens' watchtower is really safe for two? It seems to go down awfully much in the middle.)'
'Sit nearer the ends, then,' said Oswald. 'Well?'
'We thought we would go to the pinewoods because of reading in Bret Harte that the resinous balsam of the pine is healing to the wounded spirit.'
'I should have thought if anybody's spirit was wounded . . .' said Dicky in tones of heatening indignantness.
'Yes, I know. But you'd got the oak, and I expect oaks are just as good, if not better, especially for English people, because of Oak-apple Day—and—— Where was I?'
We told her.
'So we went, and it is a very nice wood—quite tulgy, you know. We expected to see a Bandersnatch every minute, didn't we, Noël? It's not very big, though, and on the other side there's an enchanted desert—rather bare, with patches of grass and brambles. And in the very middle of it we found the treasure.'
'Let's have a squint at the treasure,' said Dicky. 'Did you fetch it along?'
Noël and Alice sniggered.
'Not exactly,' said Alice; 'the treasure is a house.'
'It's an enchanted house,' said Noel, 'and it's a deserted house, and the garden is like in "The Sensitive Plant" after the lady has given up attending.'
'Did you go in?' we asked.
'No,' said Alice; 'we came back for you. And we asked an old man, and he did say it was in Chancery, so no one can live in it.'
H. O. asked what was enchancery.
'I'm certain the old man meant enchanted,' said Noël, 'only I expect that's the old-fashioned word for it. Enchanceried is a very nice word. And it means it's an enchanted house, just like I said.'
Nurse now came out to remark, 'Tea, my dears,' so we left the Saracens' tower and went in to that meal.
Noël began to make a poem called 'The Enchanceried House,' but we got him to stop till there was more for him to write about. There soon was more, and more than enough, as it turned out.
The setting sun had set, but it had left a redness in the sky (like one of those distant fires that you go after, and they are always miles from where you are) which shone through the pine-trees. The house looked black and mysterious against the strawberry-ice-coloured horizon.
It was a good-sized house. The bottom-floor windows were boarded up. It had a Sensitive-Plantish garden and a paved yard and outhouses. The garden had a high wall with glass on top, but Oswald and Dicky got into the yard. Green grass was growing between the paving-stones. The corners of the stable and coach-house doors were rough, as if from the attacks of rats, but we never saw any of these stealthy rodents. The back-door was locked, but we climbed up on the water-butt and looked through a little window, and saw a plate-rack, and a sink with taps, and a copper, and a broken coal-scuttle. It was very exciting.
The day after we went again, and this time we borrowed the next-door people's clothes-line, and by tying it in loops made a sort of rope-ladder, and then all of us got over. We had a glorious game besieging the pigsty, and all the military orders had to be given in whispers for fear of us being turned out if anyone passed and heard us. We found the pinewood, and the field, and the house had all got boards to say what would be done to trespassers with the utmost rigour of the law. It was such a swat untying the knots in the next-door people's clothes-line, that we only undid one; and then we bought them a new line with our own pocket-money, and kept the rope-ladder in a hidden bed of nettles, always on the spot and ready for us.
We found a way of going round, and getting to the house through a hole in a hedge and across a lane, so as not to go across the big fields where every human eye could mark our proceedings, and come after us and tell us not to.
We went there every day. It would have been a terrible thing if an army of bloodthirsty Saracens had chosen that way to march on London, for there was hardly ever a look-out in the tower now.
It was a jolly place to play in, and Oswald had found out what 'in Chancery' really means, so he had no fear of being turned into a pig-headed lady, or marble from the waist down.
And after a bit we began to want to get into the house, and we wanted it so much that our hearts got quite cold about the chicken-house and the pigsty, which at first had been a fairy dream of delight.
But the doors were all locked. We got all the old keys we could, but they were all the keys of desks and workboxes and tea-caddies, and not the right size or shape for doors.
Then one day Oswald, with his justly celebrated observingness, noticed that one of the bars was loose in the brickwork of a sort of half-underground window. To pull it out was to the lion-hearted youth but the work of a moment. He got down through the gap thus obtained, and found himself in a place like a very small area, only with no steps, and with bars above him, broken glass and matted rags and straw beneath his enterprising boots, and on one side a small cobwebby window. He got out again and told the others, who were trying to get up the cobblestones by the stable so as to make an underground passage into the stable at the ratty corner of its door.
They came at once, and, after a brief discussion, it was decided to break the window a little more than it was already, and to try to get in a hand that could unlatch the window Of course, as Oswald had found the bar, it was to be his hand.
The dauntless Oswald took off his jacket, and, wrapping it round his fist, shoved at the pane nearest the window fastening. The glass fell inwards with the noise you would expect. In newspapers I suppose they would call it a sickening thud. Really it was a sort of hollow tinkling sound. It made even Oswald jump, and H. O. said:
'Suppose the window opens straight into a bottomless well!'
We did not think this likely, but you cannot be too careful when you are exploring.
Oswald got in his hand and undid the window fastening, which was very rusty. The window opened out like a door. There was only just room in the area under the bars for Oswald and the opening of the window. He leaned forward and looked in. He was not surprised to find that it was not a well, after all, but a cellar.
'Come on,' he said; 'it's all right.'
Dicky came on so rapidly that his boots grazed the shoulder of the advancing Oswald. Alice was coming next, but Noël begged her to wait.
'I don't think H. O. ought to go in till we're sure it's safe,' he said; and Oswald hopes it was not because Noël was in a funk himself, though with a poet you never know.
The cellar into which Oswald now plunged had a damp and mouldering smell, like of mouse-traps, and straw, and beer-barrels. Another cellar opened out of it, and in this there was traces of coal having existed in other ages.
Passing the coal-cellar, we went out to a cellar with shelves on the wall like berths in a ship, or the catacombs where early Christians used to be bricked up. Of course, we knew it was only a wine-cellar, because we have one at home. Matches had to be used here. Then we found a flight of stone steps and went up. And Oswald is not ashamed to own that, the staircase being of a twisty nature, he did think what it would be like if he and Dicky were to meet Something at one of the corners; but all was peace and solitude. Yet it was with joy, and like meeting an old friend, that we got out of the cellars, stairs, and through a door to the back-kitchen, where the sink was, and the copper and the plate-rack. Oswald felt like a brother to the broken coal-scuttle. Our first instant thought was the back door.
It was bolted top and bottom, and the bolts were sort of cemented into their places with rust. But they were unable to resist our patient and determined onslaught. Only when we had undone them the door kept shut, and by stooping down and looking we saw that this was because it was locked.
Dicky at once despaired, and said, 'It's no go.'
But the researchful Oswald looked round, and there was a key on a nail, which shows how wrong it is to despair.
It was not the right key, proving later to be the key of the chicken-house. So we went into the hall. There was a bunch of keys on a nail on the back of the front-door.
'There now, you see I was right,' remarked Oswald. And he was, as is so often the case. All the keys had labels, and one of these said 'Back-kitchen,' so we applied it at once, and the locked door yielded to it.
'You can bring H. O. in quite safely,' Oswald said when the door had creakingly consented to open itself, and to disclose the sunshine, and the paved yard with the paving stones marked out with green grass, and the interested expressions on the faces of Alice and the others. 'It's quite safe. It's just a house like anyone else's, only it hasn't got any furniture in it.'
We went all over the house. There were fourteen rooms altogether, fifteen if you counted the back-kitchen where the plate-warmer was, and the copper, and the sink with the taps, and the brotherly coal-scuttle. The rooms were quite different from the ones in old nurse's house. Noël said he thought all the rooms in this house had been the scene of duels or elopements, or concealing rightful heirs. The present author doesn't know about that, but there was a splendid cupboardiness about the place that spoke volumes to a discerning eye. Even the window seats, of which there were six, lifted up like the lids of boxes, and you could have hidden a flying Cavalier in any of them, if he had been of only medium height and slender build, like heroes with swords so often are.
Then there were three staircases, and these must have been darkly convenient for getting conspirators away when the King's officers were at the door, as so constantly happened in romantic times.
The whole house was full of ideas for ripping games, and when we came away Alice said:
'We must be really better than we know. We must have done something to deserve a find like this.'
'Don't worry,' said Oswald. 'Albert's uncle says you always have to pay for everything. We haven't paid for this yet.'
This reflection, like so many of our young hero's, was correct.
I have not yet told you about the finest find of all the fine finds we found finally (that looks very odd, and I am not sure if it is allity-what's-its-name, or only carelessness. I wonder whether other authors are ever a prey to these devastating doubts?) This find was on the top floor. It was a room with bars to the windows, and it was a very odd shape. You went along a passage to the door, and then there was the room; but the room went back along the same way as the passage had come, so that when you went round there no one could see you from the door. The door was sort of in the middle of the room; but I see I must draw it for you, or you will never understand.
The door that is marked 'Another Door' was full of agitated excitement for us, because it wasn't a door at all—at least, not the kind that you are used to. It was a gate, like you have at the top of nursery stairs in the mansions of the rich and affluent; but instead of being halfway up, it went all the way up, so that you could see into the room through the bars.
'Somebody must have kept tame lunatics here,' said Dicky.
'Or bears,' said H. O.
'Or enchanceried Princes,' said Noël.
'It seems silly, though,' said Alice, 'because the lunatic or the bear or the enchanted Prince could always hide round the corner when he heard the keepers coming, if he didn't happen to want to show off just then.'
This was so, and the deep mystery of the way this room was built was never untwisted.
'Perhaps a Russian prisoner was kept there,' said Alice, 'and they did not want to look too close for fear he would shoot them with his bomb-gun. Poor man! perhaps he caught vodka, or some other of those awful foreign diseases, and died in his hidden confinement.'
It was a most ripping room for games. The key of it was on the bunch labelled 'Mrs. S.'s room.' We often wondered who Mrs. S. was.
'Let's have a regular round of gaieties,' said Oswald. 'Each of us to take it in turns to have the room, and act what they like, and the others look through the bars.'
So next day we did this.
Oswald, of course, dressed up in bath-towels and a sheet as the ghost of Mrs. S., but Noël and H. O. screamed, and would not be calm till he tore off the sheet and showed his knickerbockers and braces as a guarantee of good faith. Alice put her hair up, and got a skirt, and a large handkerchief to cry in, and was a hapless maiden imprisoned in a tower because she would not marry the wicked Baron. Oswald instantly took the part of the wicked Baron, and Dicky was the virtuous lover of low degree, and they had a splendid combat, and Dicky carried off the lady. Of course, that was the proper end to the story, and Oswald had to pretend to be beaten, which was not the case.
Dicky was Louis XVI. watch-making while waiting for the guillotine to happen. So we were the guillotine, and he was executed in the paved yard.
Noël was an imprisoned troubadour dressed in bright antimacassars, and he fired off quite a lot of poetry at us before we could get the door open, which was most unfair.
H. O. was a clown. He had no fancy dress except flour and two Turkish towels pinned on to look like trousers, but he put the flour all over himself, and it took the rest of the day to clean him.
It was when Alice was drying the hair-brushes that she had washed after brushing the flour out of Noël's hair in the back-garden that Oswald said:
'I know what that room was made for.'
And everyone said, 'What?' which is not manners, but your brothers and sisters do not mind because it saves time.
'Why,,' said Oswald. 'Don't you see? They kept a sentinel at the door, that is a door, and if anyone approached he whispered "Cave!"'
'But why have iron bars?'
'In extra safety,' said Oswald; 'and if their nefarious fires were not burning he need not say "Cave" at all. It's no use saying anything for nothing.'
It is curious, but the others did not seem to see this clear distinguishedness. All people have not the same fine brains.
But all the same the idea rankled in their hearts, and one day father came and took Dicky up to London about that tooth of his, and when Dicky came back he said:
'Look here, talking of coiners, there was a man in St. Swithin's Lane to-day selling little bottles of yellow stuff, and he rubbed some of it on a penny, and it turned the penny into a half-crown before your eyes—a new half-crown! It was a penny a bottle, so I bought three bottles.'
'I always thought the plant for coining was very expensive,' said Alice.
'Ah! they tell you that to keep you from doing it, because of its being a crime,' said Dicky. 'But now I've got this stuff we can begin to be coiners right away. I believe it isn't really a crime unless you try to buy things with the base coin.'
So that very afternoon, directly after dinner, which had a suet pudding in it that might have weighed down the enterprising spirit of anyone but us, we went over to the Enchanceried House.
We found our good rope ladder among its congealing bed of trusty nettles, and got over into the paved yard, and through the kitchen-door. Oswald always carried the key of this hung round his neck by a bootlace, as if it was a talisman, or the hair of his lost love. Of course, Oswald never had a lost love. He would scorn the action. But some heroes do have. something or other, which means, one man's meat is another man's poison.
When we got up into the room with the iron-grated door, it all seemed very bare. Three bottles of yellow stuff and tenpence halfpenny in coppers is not much to start a coining enterprise with.
'We ought to make it look like coining, anyway,' said Oswald.
'Coiners have furnaces,' said Dicky.
Alice said: 'Wouldn't a spirit-lamp do? Old nurse has got an old one on the scullery shelf.'
We thought it would.
Then Noël reminded us that coiners have moulds, and Oswald went and bought a pair of wooden lemon squeezers for sevenpence three farthings. In his far-sightedness he remembered that coiners use water, so he bought two enamelled iron bowls at sixpence halfpenny the two. When he came back he noticed the coal-scuttle we had always felt so friendly to, and he filled it with water and brought it up. It did not leak worth mentioning.
'We ought to have a bench,' said Dicky; 'most trades have that—shoemakers and watchmakers, and tailors and lawyers.'
This was difficult, but we did it. There were some planks in the cellar, and a tub and a beer-barrel. Unluckily, the tub and the beer-barrel were not the same height, but we taught them better by getting old nurse's 'Pilgrim's Progress' and the Wesleyan Magazine, to put on top of the tub; and then it was as high as the barrel, and we laid the boards across, and there was a bench as beautiful as you could wish.
Dicky was allowed to put the stuff on the coins, because he had bought the bottles with his own money. But Alice held them for him to do, because girls are inferior beings, except when you are ill, and you must be kind to them or you need never hope to be a hero. There are drawbacks to every ambition.
She let Noël hold them part of the time.
When she was not helping Dicky, she tried covering pennies with the silver paper off chocolate, but it was not the kind of success that would take anyone in.
H. O. and Noël took it in turns to be sentinel, but they said it was dull, so Oswald took it on. And before he had been there three minutes he cried, 'Hist! someone approaches!' and the coining materials were hastily concealed and everyone hid round the corner, like we had agreed we would do if disturbed in our unlawful pursuits.
Of course, there wasn't anyone really. After this the kids wanted to be sentinels again, but Oswald would not let them.
It was a jolly good game. And there was something about that house that made whatever you played in it seem awfully real. When I was Mrs. S. I felt quite unhappy, and when Dicky was the unfortunate monarch who perished in the French Revolution he told me afterwards he didn't half like it when it came to the guillotine, though, of course, he knew the knife was only the little sliding-door of the chicken-house.
"We played coiners for several days, and all learned to give the alarm, but we were beginning to feel it was time for something new. Noël was saving the hairs out of his comb, and pulling them out of the horsehair sofa in the parlour, to make a hair shirt to be a hermit in, and Oswald had bought a file to get through the bars and be an escaped Bastille prisoner, leaving his life-history concealed in the fireplace, when the great event occurred.
We found the silvered money turned to a dirty black when a few hours had elapsed, and we tried silver paint and gold paint. Our pockets were always full of gold and silver money, and we could jingle it and take it out in handfuls and let people see it—not too near.
Then came the great eventful day.
H. O. had fallen into the water-butt that morning. We dried his holland smock, but it went stiff like paper, so that old nurse noticed it, and thus found out that he was wringing wet underneath. So she put him to bed, for fear of his catching his death of cold, and the inveterate gang of coiners had to go to their fell lair without him. We left all our false money at home, because old nurse had given Alice a piece of trimming, for dolls, that was all over little imitation silver coins, called sequences, I believe, to imitate the coinage of Turkish regions. We reached our Enchanceried House, got in as usual, and started our desperate work of changing silver sequences into gold half-sovereigns, with gold paint.
Noël was very grumpy: he was odd altogether that day. He was trying to write a poem about a Bastille prisoner. He asked to be sentry, so that he could think about rhymes.
We had not coined more than about four half-sovereigns when we heard Noël say: 'Hist! Hide the plant!'
We didn't take any notice, because we wanted to get enough of them done to play a game of misers, which was Alice's idea.
'Hist!' Noël said again. And then suddenly he rushed in and said: 'It's a real hist! I tell you there's someone on the stairs.'
And he shut the wooden-grated door, and Oswald, with rare presence of mind, caught up the bunch of keys and locked the wooden-grated door with the key labelled 'Mrs. S.'s room.'
Then, breathless and furtive, we all hid in the part of the room near the fireplace, where no one could see us from the door.
We hardly dared to breathe. Alice said afterwards that she could hear Oswald's heart beating with terror, but the author is almost sure that it was only his watch ticking. It had begun to go that week, after days of unexplained idleness. If we did have to pay for finding the Enchanceried house, this was when we paid.
There were feet on the stairs. We all heard them. And voices. The author distinctly heard the words 'replete with every modern inconvenience,' and 'pleasantly situate ten minutes from tram and rail.'
And Oswald, at least, understood that, somehow or other, our house had got itself disenchanceried, and that the owner was trying to let it.
We held our breaths till they were nearly choked out of us.
The steps came nearer and nearer. They came along the passage, and stopped at the door.
'This is the nursery,' said a manly voice. 'Ah, locked! I quite understood from the agent that the keys were in the hall.'
Of course we had the keys, and this was the moment that Noël chose for dropping them. Why he was fingering them where they lay on the mantelpiece the author does not know, and never will know. There is something about 'previously demented' in some Latin chap—Virgil or Lucretius—that seems to hit the nail on the head. The keys fell on the cracked hearthstone with a clang that Oswald, at any rate, will never forget.
There was an awful silence—quite a long one.
Then another voice said:
'There's someone in there.'
'Look at that bench,' said the other man; 'it's coiners' work, that's what it is, but there's nobody there. The keys must have blown down!'
The two voices talked some time, but we could not hear all their conversation. We were all wondering, as it turned out afterwards, what exactly the utmost rigour of the law was. Because, of course, we knew we were trespassers of the very deepest dye, even if we could prove that we were not real coiners.
'No,' we heard one of them say, 'if we go for the police very likely the gang will return and destroy everything. There's no one here now. Let's secure the evidence. We can easily break the door down.'
It is a sickening feeling when the evidence against you is going to be secured, and you don't know what the punishment for coining is, or whether anyone will believe you if you say you were only playing at it.
We exchanged pallid glances.
We could hear the two men shaking the door, and we had no means of knowing just how weak it was, never having seriously tampered with it ourselves.
It was then that Noël suddenly went quite mad. I think it was due to something old nurse had read to us at breakfast that day about a boy of eight who played on the fiddle, and composed pieces of music. Affected young ass!
He darted from us into the middle of the room, where the two intruders could see him, and said:
'Don't break down the door! The villains may return any moment and destroy you. Fetch the police!'
The surprised outsiders could find no word but 'Er?'
'You are surprised to see me here,' said Noël, not taking any notice of the furious looks of the rest of us. 'I am an infant prodigy. I play the violin at concerts; I play it beautifully. They take me to London to play in a closed carriage, so that I can't tell anyone my woes on the way.'
'My poor child!' said one of the outsiders; 'tell us all about it. We must rescue you.'
'Born of poor but honest parents,' said Noël—and this was what nurse had read out to us 'my musical talent early manifested itself on a toy violin, the gift of a devoted great-aunt. Torn from my home—— I say, do fetch the police. If the monsters who live on my playing return and find you here, they will brain you with the tools of their trade, and I shall be lost,'
'Their trade?' said one of them. 'What trade?'
'They are coiners,' said Noel, 'as well as what they do to me to make me play.'
'But if we leave you?'
'Oh, they won't hurt me,' cried Noël, 'because I have to play to-night at Exeter Hall. Fly—fly for the police! They may come up behind you any moment and cleave you to the chine.'
And they actually flew. The present author would have known instantly that it was rot that about cleaving chines, but the man who wanted to let the Disenchanteried House and the man who wanted to have it let to him were of other mettle.
We had remained perfectly still and silent. Of course, if the outsiders had attacked Noël, his brothers would have rushed to his rescue.
As soon as the retreating boots of the outsiders grew fainter on the stairs, Noël turned green, and had to be revived by splashings from the brotherly coal-scuttle full of water. He got better directly, and we all scooted home to old nurse's, leaving our coining plant without a pang. All great generals say that a retreat is best conducted without impediments.
Noël was so ill he had to go to bed and stay there. This was as well, because of the neighbourhood being scoured for the ill-used infant prodigy that had been imprisoned in the Enchanceried House. He got all right again in time to go home when father came up for us. While he was in bed he wrote a long poem in six different coloured chalks, called 'The Enchanceried Coiners, or the Liar's Remorse.' So I know he was sorry for what he had done. He told me he could not think what made him, and of course it was very wrong, but it did save our bacon, and preserve us from the noisome cells and bread and water that I am sure are the real meaning of the 'utmost rigour of the law.'
Really the worst of it all was that while we were trembling in the coiners' den, with the two outside gentlemen snorting and whispering on the other side of the gate-door, H. O. had got up out of his bed at home and answered the door. (Old nurse had gone out to get a lettuce and an aerated loaf for tea.) He answered it to a butcher's bill for fifteen and sevenpence that the butcher's little girl had brought, and he paid it with six of the pennies that we had disguised as half-crowns, and told the little girl to call for the sevenpence in the morning. I believe many people have been hanged for less. It was lucky for H. O. that old nurse was a friend of the butcher's, and able to persuade him that it was only a joke. In sterner times, like the French Revolution . . . but Alice does not like to think what would have happened then. As this is the twentieth century, and not the eighteenth, our all going down to the butcher and saying we were sorry made it all right. But suppose it had been in other dates!
The butcher's wife gave us cake and ginger wine, and was very jolly. She asked us where we had got the false half-crowns. Oswald said they had been given us. This was true, but when they were given us they were pennies.
Did Oswald tell a lie to the butcher? He has often wondered. He hopes not. It is easy to know whether a thing is a lie or not when nothing depends on it. But when events are happening, and the utmost rigour of the law may be the result of your making a mistake, you have to tell the truth as carefully as you can. No English gentleman tells a lie—Oswald knows that, of course. But an Englishman is not obliged to criminalate himself. The rules of honour and the laws of your country are very puzzling and contradictory.
But the butcher got paid afterwards in real money—a half-sovereign and two half-crowns, and seven unsilvered pennies. So nobody was injured, and the author thinks that is the great thing after all.
All the same, if ever he goes to stay with old nurse again, he thinks he will tell the butcher All in confidence. He does not like to have any doubts about such a serious thing as the honour of a Bastable.
THE END OF OSWALD'S PART OF THE BOOK.