The Tower of Mystery
It was very rough on Dora having her foot bad, but we took it in turns to stay in with her, and she was very decent about it. Daisy was most with her. I do not dislike Daisy, but I wish she had been taught how to play. Because Dora is rather like that naturally, and sometimes I have thought that Daisy makes her worse.
I talked to Albert's uncle about it one day, when the others had gone to church, and I did not go because of ear-ache, and he said it came from reading the wrong sort of books partly--she has read Ministering Children, and Anna Ross, or The Orphan of Waterloo, and Ready Work for Willing Hands, and Elsie, or Like a Little Candle, and even a horrid little blue book about the something or other of Little Sins. After this conversation Oswald took care she had plenty of the right sort of books to read, and he was surprised and pleased when she got up early one morning to finish Monte Cristo. Oswald felt that he was really being useful to a suffering fellow-creature when he gave Daisy books that were not all about being good.
A few days after Dora was laid up, Alice called a council of the Wouldbegoods, and Oswald and Dicky attended with darkly-clouded brows. Alice had the minute-book, which was an exercise-book that had not much written in it. She had begun at the other end. I hate doing that myself, because there is so little room at the top compared with right way up.
Dora and a sofa had been carried out on to the lawn, and we were on the grass. It was very hot and dry. We had sherbet. Alice read:
'"Society of the Wouldbegoods.
'"We have not done much. Dicky mended a window, and we got the milk-pan out of the moat that dropped through where he mended it. Dora, Oswald, Dicky and me got upset in the moat. This was not goodness. Dora's foot was hurt. We hope to do better next time."'
Then came Noel's poem:
This sounded so much righter than Noel's poetry generally does, that Oswald said so, and Noel explained that Denny had helped him.
'He seems to know the right length for lines of poetry. I suppose it comes of learning so much at school,' Noel said.
Then Oswald proposed that anybody should be allowed to write in the book if they found out anything good that anyone else had done, but not things that were public acts; and nobody was to write about themselves, or anything other people told them, only what they found out.
After a brief jaw the others agreed, and Oswald felt, not for the first time in his young life, that he would have made a good diplomatic hero to carry despatches and outwit the other side. For now he had put it out of the minute-book's power to be the kind of thing readers of Ministering Children would have wished.
'And if anyone tells other people any good thing he's done he is to go to Coventry for the rest of the day.'
And Denny remarked, 'We shall do good by stealth, and blush to find it shame.'
After that nothing was written in the book for some time. I looked about, and so did the others, but I never caught anyone in the act of doing anything extra; though several of the others have told me since of things they did at this time, and really wondered nobody had noticed.
I think I said before that when you tell a story you cannot tell everything. It would be silly to do it. Because ordinary kinds of play are dull to read about; and the only other thing is meals, and to dwell on what you eat is greedy and not like a hero at all. A hero is always contented with a venison pasty and a horn of sack. All the same, the meals were very interesting; with things you do not get at home--Lent pies with custard and currants in them, sausage rolls and fiede cakes, and raisin cakes and apple turnovers, and honeycomb and syllabubs, besides as much new milk as you cared about, and cream now and then, and cheese always on the table for tea. Father told Mrs Pettigrew to get what meals she liked, and she got these strange but attractive foods.
In a story about Wouldbegoods it is not proper to tell of times when only some of us were naughty, so I will pass lightly over the time when Noel got up the kitchen chimney and brought three bricks and an old starling's nest and about a ton of soot down with him when he fell. They never use the big chimney in the summer, but cook in the wash-house. Nor do I wish to dwell on what H. O. did when he went into the dairy. I do not know what his motive was. But Mrs Pettigrew said she knew; and she locked him in, and said if it was cream he wanted he should have enough, and she wouldn't let him out till tea-time. The cat had also got into the dairy for some reason of her own, and when H. O. was tired of whatever he went in for he poured all the milk into the churn and tried to teach the cat to swim in it. He must have been desperate. The cat did not even try to learn, and H. O. had the scars on his hands for weeks. I do not wish to tell tales of H. O., for he is very young, and whatever he does he always catches it for; but I will just allude to our being told not to eat the greengages in the garden. And we did not. And whatever H. O. did was Noel's fault--for Noel told H. O. that greengages would grow again all right if you did not bite as far as the stone, just as wounds are not mortal except when you are pierced through the heart. So the two of them bit bites out of every greengage they could reach. And of course the pieces did not grow again.
Oswald did not do things like these, but then he is older than his brothers. The only thing he did just about then was making a booby-trap for Mrs Pettigrew when she had locked H. O. up in the dairy, and unfortunately it was the day she was going out in her best things, and part of the trap was a can of water. Oswald was not willingly vicious; it was but a light and thoughtless act which he had every reason to be sorry for afterwards. And he is sorry even without those reasons, because he knows it is ungentlemanly to play tricks on women.
I remember Mother telling Dora and me when we were little that you ought to be very kind and polite to servants, because they have to work very hard, and do not have so many good times as we do. I used to think about Mother more at the Moat House than I did at Blackheath, especially in the garden. She was very fond of flowers, and she used to tell us about the big garden where she used to live; and I remember Dora and I helped her to plant seeds. But it is no use wishing. She would have liked that garden, though.
The girls and the white mice did not do anything boldly wicked--though of course they used to borrow Mrs Pettigrew's needles, which made her very nasty. Needles that are borrowed might just as well be stolen. But I say no more.
I have only told you these things to show the kind of events which occurred on the days I don't tell you about. On the whole, we had an excellent time.
It was on the day we had the pillow-fight that we went for the long walk. Not the Pilgrimage--that is another story. We did not mean to have a pillow-fight. It is not usual to have them after breakfast, but Oswald had come up to get his knife out of the pocket of his Etons, to cut some wire we were making rabbit snares of. It is a very good knife, with a file in it, as well as a corkscrew and other things--and he did not come down at once, because he was detained by having to make an apple-pie bed for Dicky. Dicky came up after him to see what he was up to, and when he did see he buzzed a pillow at Oswald, and the fight began. The others, hearing the noise of battle from afar, hastened to the field of action, all except Dora, who couldn't because of being laid up with her foot, and Daisy, because she is a little afraid of us still, when we are all together. She thinks we are rough. This comes of having only one brother.
Well, the fight was a very fine one. Alice backed me up, and Noel and H. O. backed Dicky, and Denny heaved a pillow or two; but he cannot shy straight, so I don't know which side he was on.
And just as the battle raged most fiercely, Mrs Pettigrew came in and snatched the pillows away, and shook those of the warriors who were small enough for it. She was rough if you like. She also used language I should have thought she would be above. She said, 'Drat you!' and 'Drabbit you!' The last is a thing I have never heard said before. She said--
'There's no peace of your life with you children. Drat your antics! And that poor, dear, patient gentleman right underneath, with his headache and his handwriting: and you rampaging about over his head like young bull-calves. I wonder you haven't more sense, a great girl like you.'
She said this to Alice, and Alice answered gently, as we are told to do--
'I really am awfully sorry; we forgot about the headache. Don't be cross, Mrs Pettigrew; we didn't mean to; we didn't think.'
'You never do,' she said, and her voice, though grumpy, was no longer violent. 'Why on earth you can't take yourselves off for the day I don't know.'
We all said, 'But may we?'
She said, 'Of course you may. Now put on your boots and go for a good long walk. And I'll tell you what--I'll put you up a snack, and you can have an egg to your tea to make up for missing your dinner. Now don't go clattering about the stairs and passages, there's good children. See if you can't be quiet this once, and give the good gentleman a chance with his copying.'
She went off. Her bark is worse than her bite. She does not understand anything about writing books, though. She thinks Albert's uncle copies things out of printed books, when he is really writing new ones. I wonder how she thinks printed books get made first of all. Many servants are like this.
She gave us the 'snack' in a basket, and sixpence to buy milk with. She said any of the farms would let us have it, only most likely it would be skim. We thanked her politely, and she hurried us out of the front door as if we'd been chickens on a pansy bed.
(I did not know till after I had left the farm gate open, and the hens had got into the garden, that these feathered bipeds display a great partiality for the young buds of plants of the genus viola, to which they are extremely destructive. I was told that by the gardener. I looked it up in the gardening book afterwards to be sure he was right. You do learn a lot of things in the country.)
We went through the garden as far as the church, and then we rested a bit in the porch, and just looked into the basket to see what the 'snack' was. It proved to be sausage rolls and queen cakes, and a Lent pie in a round tin dish, and some hard-boiled eggs, and some apples. We all ate the apples at once, so as not to have to carry them about with us. The churchyard smells awfully good. It is the wild thyme that grows on the graves. This is another thing we did not know before we came into the country.
Then the door of the church tower was ajar, and we all went up; it had always been locked before when we had tried it.
We saw the ringers' loft where the ends of the bellropes hang down with long, furry handles to them like great caterpillars, some red, and some blue and white, but we did not pull them. And then we went up to where the bells are, very big and dusty among large dirty beams; and four windows with no glass, only shutters like Venetian blinds, but they won't pull up. There were heaps of straws and sticks on the window ledges. We think they were owls' nests, but we did not see any owls.
Then the tower stairs got very narrow and dark, and we went on up, and we came to a door and opened it suddenly, and it was like being hit in the face, the light was so sudden. And there we were on the top of the tower, which is flat, and people have cut their names on it, and a turret at one corner, and a low wall all round, up and down, like castle battlements. And we looked down and saw the roof of the church, and the leads, and the churchyard, and our garden, and the Moat House, and the farm, and Mrs Simpkins's cottage, looking very small, and other farms looking like toy things out of boxes, and we saw corn-fields and meadows and pastures. A pasture is not the same thing as a meadow, whatever you may think. And we saw the tops of trees and hedges, looking like the map of the United States, and villages, and a tower that did not look very far away standing by itself on the top of a hill. Alice pointed to it, and said--
'It's not a church,' said Noel, 'because there's no churchyard. Perhaps it's a tower of mystery that covers the entrance to a subterranean vault with treasure in it.'
Dicky said, 'Subterranean fiddlestick!' and 'A waterworks, more likely.'
Alice thought perhaps it was a ruined castle, and the rest of its crumbling walls were concealed by ivy, the growth of years.
Oswald could not make his mind up what it was, so he said, 'Let's go and see! We may as well go there as anywhere.'
So we got down out of the church tower and dusted ourselves, and set out.
The Tower of Mystery showed quite plainly from the road, now that we knew where to look for it, because it was on the top of a hill. We began to walk. But the tower did not seem to get any nearer. And it was very hot.
So we sat down in a meadow where there was a stream in the ditch and ate the 'snack'. We drank the pure water from the brook out of our hands, because there was no farm to get milk at just there, and it was too much fag to look for one--and, besides, we thought we might as well save the sixpence.
Then we started again, and still the tower looked as far off as ever. Denny began to drag his feet, though he had brought a walking-stick which none of the rest of us had, and said--
'I wish a cart would come along. We might get a lift.'
He knew all about getting lifts, of course, from having been in the country before. He is not quite the white mouse we took him for at first. Of course when you live in Lewisham or Blackheath you learn other things. If you asked for a lift in Lewisham, High Street, your only reply would be jeers. We sat down on a heap of stones, and decided that we would ask for a lift from the next cart, whichever way it was going. It was while we were waiting that Oswald found out about plantain seeds being good to eat.
When the sound of wheels came we remarked with joy that the cart was going towards the Tower of Mystery. It was a cart a man was going to fetch a pig home in. Denny said--
'I say, you might give us a lift. Will you?'
The man who was going for the pig said--
'What, all that little lot?' but he winked at Alice, and we saw that he meant to aid us on our way. So we climbed up, and he whipped up the horse and asked us where we were going. He was a kindly old man, with a face like a walnut shell, and white hair and beard like a jack-in-the-box.
'We want to get to the tower,' Alice said. 'Is it a ruin, or not?'
'It ain't no ruin,' the man said; 'no fear of that! The man wot built it he left so much a year to be spent on repairing of it! Money that might have put bread in honest folks' mouths.'
We asked was it a church then, or not.
'Church?' he said. 'Not it. It's more of a tombstone, from all I can make out. They do say there was a curse on him that built it, and he wasn't to rest in earth or sea. So he's buried half-way up the tower--if you can call it buried.'
'Can you go up it?' Oswald asked.
'Lord love you! yes; a fine view from the top they say. I've never been up myself, though I've lived in sight of it, boy and man, these sixty-three years come harvest.'
Alice asked whether you had to go past the dead and buried person to get to the top of the tower, and could you see the coffin.
'No, no,' the man said; 'that's all hid away behind a slab of stone, that is, with reading on it. You've no call to be afraid, missy. It's daylight all the way up. But I wouldn't go there after dark, so I wouldn't. It's always open, day and night, and they say tramps sleep there now and again. Anyone who likes can sleep there, but it wouldn't be me.'
We thought that it would not be us either, but we wanted to go more than ever, especially when the man said--
'My own great-uncle of the mother's side, he was one of the masons that set up the stone slab. Before then it was thick glass, and you could see the dead man lying inside, as he'd left it in his will. He was lying there in a glass coffin with his best clothes--blue satin and silver, my uncle said, such as was all the go in his day, with his wig on, and his sword beside him, what he used to wear. My uncle said his hair had grown out from under his wig, and his beard was down to the toes of him. My uncle he always upheld that that dead man was no deader than you and me, but was in a sort of fit, a transit, I think they call it, and looked for him to waken into life again some day. But the doctor said not. It was only something done to him like Pharaoh in the Bible afore he was buried.'
Alice whispered to Oswald that we should be late for tea, and wouldn't it be better to go back now directly. But he said--
'If you're afraid, say so; and you needn't come in anyway--but I'm going on.'
The man who was going for the pig put us down at a gate quite near the tower--at least it looked so until we began to walk again. We thanked him, and he said--
'Quite welcome,' and drove off.
We were rather quiet going through the wood. What we had heard made us very anxious to see the tower-- all except Alice, who would keep talking about tea, though not a greedy girl by nature. None of the others encouraged her, but Oswald thought himself that we had better be home before dark.
As we went up the path through the wood we saw a poor wayfarer with dusty bare feet sitting on the bank.
He stopped us and said he was a sailor, and asked for a trifle to help him to get back to his ship.
I did not like the look of him much myself, but Alice said, 'Oh, the poor man, do let's help him, Oswald.' So we held a hurried council, and decided to give him the milk sixpence. Oswald had it in his purse, and he had to empty the purse into his hand to find the sixpence, for that was not all the money he had, by any means. Noel said afterwards that he saw the wayfarer's eyes fastened greedily upon the shining pieces as Oswald returned them to his purse. Oswald has to own that he purposely let the man see that he had more money, so that the man might not feel shy about accepting so large a sum as sixpence.
The man blessed our kind hearts and we went on.
The sun was shining very brightly, and the Tower of Mystery did not look at all like a tomb when we got to it. The bottom Storey was on arches, all open, and ferns and things grew underneath. There was a round stone stair going up in the middle. Alice began to gather ferns while we went up, but when we had called out to her that it was as the pig-man had said, and daylight all the way up, she said--
'All right. I'm not afraid. I'm only afraid of being late home,' and came up after us. And perhaps, though not downright manly truthfulness, this was as much as you could expect from a girl.
There were holes in the little tower of the staircase to let light in. At the top of it was a thick door with iron bolts. We shot these back, and it was not fear but caution that made Oswald push open the door so very slowly and carefully.
Because, of course, a stray dog or cat might have got shut up there by accident, and it would have startled Alice very much if it had jumped out on us.
When the door was opened we saw that there was no such thing. It was a room with eight sides. Denny says it is the shape called octogenarian; because a man named Octagius invented it. There were eight large arched windows with no glass, only stone-work, like in churches. The room was full of sunshine, and you could see the blue sky through the windows, but nothing else, because they were so high up. It was so bright we began to think the pig-man had been kidding us. Under one of the windows was a door. We went through, and there was a little passage and then a turret-twisting stair, like in the church, but quite light with windows. When we had gone some way up this, we came to a sort of landing, and there was a block of stone let into the wall--polished--Denny said it was Aberdeen graphite, with gold letters cut in it. It said--
and a verse of poetry:
'How horrid!' Alice said. 'Do let's get home.'
'We may as well go to the top,' Dicky said, 'just to say we've been.'
And Alice is no funk--so she agreed; though I could see she did not like it.
Up at the top it was like the top of the church tower, only octogenarian in shape, instead of square.
Alice got all right there; because you cannot think much about ghosts and nonsense when the sun is shining bang down on you at four o'clock in the afternoon, and you can see red farm-roofs between the trees, and the safe white roads, with people in carts like black ants crawling.
It was very jolly, but we felt we ought to be getting back, because tea is at five, and we could not hope to find lifts both ways.
So we started to go down. Dicky went first, then Oswald, then Alice--and H. O. had just stumbled over the top step and saved himself by Alice's back, which nearly upset Oswald and Dicky, when the hearts of all stood still, and then went on by leaps and bounds, like the good work in missionary magazines.
For, down below us, in the tower where the man whose beard grew down to his toes after he was dead was buried, there was a noise--a loud noise. And it was like a door being banged and bolts fastened. We tumbled over each other to get back into the open sunshine on the top of the tower, and Alice's hand got jammed between the edge of the doorway and H. O.'s boot; it was bruised black and blue, and another part bled, but she did not notice it till long after.
We looked at each other, and Oswald said in a firm voice (at least, I hope it was)--
'What was that?'
'He has waked up,' Alice said. 'Oh, I know he has. Of course there is a door for him to get out by when he wakes. He'll come up here. I know he will.'
Dicky said, and his voice was not at all firm (I noticed that at the time), 'It doesn't matter, if he's alive.'
'Unless he's come to life a raving lunatic,' Noel said, and we all stood with our eyes on the doorway of the turret--and held our breath to hear.
But there was no more noise.
Then Oswald said--and nobody ever put it in the Golden Deed book, though they own that it was brave and noble of him--he said--
'Perhaps it was only the wind blowing one of the doors to. I'll go down and see, if you will, Dick.'
Dicky only said--
'The wind doesn't shoot bolts.'
'A bolt from the blue,' said Denny to himself, looking up at the sky. His father is a sub-editor. He had gone very red, and he was holding on to Alice's hand. Suddenly he stood up quite straight and said--
'I'm not afraid. I'll go and see.'
This was afterwards put in the Golden Deed book. It ended in Oswald and Dicky and Denny going. Denny went first because he said he would rather-- and Oswald understood this and let him. If Oswald had pushed first it would have been like Sir Lancelot refusing to let a young knight win his spurs. Oswald took good care to go second himself, though. The others never understood this. You don't expect it from girls; but I did think father would have understood without Oswald telling him, which of course he never could.
We all went slowly.
At the bottom of the turret stairs we stopped short. Because the door there was bolted fast and would not yield to shoves, however desperate and united.
Only now somehow we felt that Mr Richard Ravenal was all right and quiet, but that some one had done it for a lark, or perhaps not known about anyone being up there. So we rushed up, and Oswald told the others in a few hasty but well-chosen words, and we all leaned over between the battlements, and shouted, 'Hi! you there!'
Then from under the arches of the quite-downstairs part of the tower a figure came forth--and it was the sailor who had had our milk sixpence. He looked up and he spoke to us. He did not speak loud, but he spoke loud enough for us to hear every word quite plainly. He said--
Oswald said, 'Drop what?'
He said, 'That row.'
Oswald said, 'Why?'
He said, 'Because if you don't I'll come up and make you, and pretty quick too, so I tell you.'
Dicky said, 'Did you bolt the door?'
The man said, 'I did so, my young cock.'
Alice said--and Oswald wished to goodness she had held her tongue, because he saw right enough the man was not friendly--'Oh, do come and let us out--do, please.'
While she was saying it Oswald suddenly saw that he did not want the man to come up. So he scurried down the stairs because he thought he had seen something on the door on the top side, and sure enough there were two bolts, and he shot them into their sockets. This bold act was not put in the Golden Deed book, because when Alice wanted to, the others said it was not good of Oswald to think of this, but only clever. I think sometimes, in moments of danger and disaster, it is as good to be clever as it is to be good. But Oswald would never demean himself to argue about this.
When he got back the man was still standing staring up. Alice said--
'Oh, Oswald, he says he won't let us out unless we give him all our money. And we might be here for days and days and all night as well. No one knows where we are to come and look for us. Oh, do let's give it him all.'
She thought the lion of the English nation, which does not know when it is beaten, would be ramping in her brother's breast. But Oswald kept calm. He said--
'All right,' and he made the others turn out their pockets. Denny had a bad shilling, with a head on both sides, and three halfpence. H. O. had a halfpenny. Noel had a French penny, which is only good for chocolate machines at railway stations. Dicky had tenpence-halfpenny, and Oswald had a two-shilling piece of his own that he was saving up to buy a gun with. Oswald tied the whole lot up in his handkerchief, and looking over the battlements, he said--
'You are an ungrateful beast. We gave you sixpence freely of our own will.'
The man did look a little bit ashamed, but he mumbled something about having his living to get. Then Oswald said--
'Here you are. Catch!' and he flung down the handkerchief with the money in it.
The man muffed the catch--butter-fingered idiot!-- but he picked up the handkerchief and undid it, and when he saw what was in it he swore dreadfully. The cad!
'Look here,' he called out, 'this won't do, young shaver. I want those there shiners I see in your pus! Chuck 'em along!'
Then Oswald laughed. He said--
'I shall know you again anywhere, and you'll be put in prison for this. Here are the shiners.' And he was so angry he chucked down purse and all. The shiners were not real ones, but only card-counters that looked like sovereigns on one side. Oswald used to carry them in his purse so as to look affluent. He does not do this now.
When the man had seen what was in the purse he disappeared under the tower, and Oswald was glad of what he had done about the bolts--and he hoped they were as strong as the ones on the other side of the door.
We heard the man kicking and pounding at the door, and I am not ashamed to say that we were all holding on to each other very tight. I am proud, however, to relate that nobody screamed or cried.
After what appeared to be long years, the banging stopped, and presently we saw the brute going away among the trees. Then Alice did cry, and I do not blame her. Then Oswald said--
'It's no use. Even if he's undone the door, he may be in ambush. We must hold on here till somebody comes.'
Then Alice said, speaking chokily because she had not quite done crying--
'Let's wave a flag.'
By the most fortunate accident she had on one of her Sunday petticoats, though it was Monday. This petticoat is white. She tore it out at the gathers, and we tied it to Denny's stick, and took turns to wave it. We had laughed at his carrying a stick before, but we were very sorry now that we had done so.
And the tin dish the Lent pie was baked in we polished with our handkerchiefs, and moved it about in the sun so that the sun might strike on it and signal our distress to some of the outlying farms.
This was perhaps the most dreadful adventure that had then ever happened to us. Even Alice had now stopped thinking of Mr Richard Ravenal, and thought only of the lurker in ambush.
We all felt our desperate situation keenly. I must say Denny behaved like anything but a white mouse. When it was the others' turn to wave, he sat on the leads of the tower and held Alice's and Noel's hands, and said poetry to them--yards and yards of it. By some strange fatality it seemed to comfort them. It wouldn't have me.
He said 'The Battle of the Baltic', and 'Gray's Elegy', right through, though I think he got wrong in places, and the 'Revenge', and Macaulay's thing about Lars Porsena and the Nine Gods. And when it was his turn he waved like a man.
I will try not to call him a white mouse any more. He was a brick that day, and no mouse.
The sun was low in the heavens, and we were sick of waving and very hungry, when we saw a cart in the road below. We waved like mad, and shouted, and Denny screamed exactly like a railway whistle, a thing none of us had known before that he could do.
And the cart stopped. And presently we saw a figure with a white beard among the trees. It was our Pig-man.
We bellowed the awful truth to him, and when he had taken it in--he thought at first we were kidding-- he came up and let us out.
He had got the pig; luckily it was a very small one-- and we were not particular. Denny and Alice sat on the front of the cart with the Pig-man, and the rest of us got in with the pig, and the man drove us right home. You may think we talked it over on the way. Not us. We went to sleep, among the pig, and before long the Pig-man stopped and got us to make room for Alice and Denny. There was a net over the cart. I never was so sleepy in my life, though it was not more than bedtime.
Generally, after anything exciting, you are punished--but this could not be, because we had only gone for a walk, exactly as we were told.
There was a new rule made, though. No walks except on the high-roads, and we were always to take Pincher and either Lady, the deer-hound, or Martha, the bulldog. We generally hate rules, but we did not mind this one.
Father gave Denny a gold pencil-case because he was first to go down into the tower. Oswald does not grudge Denny this, though some might think he deserved at least a silver one. But Oswald is above such paltry jealousies.