stop at 16:10
A day or two after Noel came back from Hastings there was snow; it was jolly. And we cleared it off the path. A man to do it is sixpence at least, and you should always save when you can. A penny saved is a penny earned. And then we thought it would be nice to clear it off the top of the portico, where it lies so thick, and the edges as if they had been cut with a knife. And just as we had got out of the landing-window on to the portico, the Water Rates came up the path with his book that he tears the thing out of that says how much you have got to pay, and the little ink-bottle hung on to his buttonhole in case you should pay him. Father says the Water Rates is a sensible man, and knows it is always well to be prepared for whatever happens, however unlikely. Alice said afterwards that she rather liked the Water Rates, really, and Noel said he had a face like a good vizier, or the man who rewards the honest boy for restoring the purse, but we did not think about these things at the time, and as the Water Rates came up the steps, we shovelled down a great square slab of snow like an avalanche and it fell right on his head. Two of us thought of it at the same moment, so it was quite a large avalanche. And when the Water Rates had shaken himself he rang the bell. It was Saturday, and Father was at home. We know now that it is very wrong and ungentlemanly to shovel snow off porticoes on to the Water Rates, or any other person, and we hope he did not catch a cold, and we are very sorry. We apologized to the Water Rates when Father told us to. We were all sent to bed for it.
We all deserved the punishment, because the others would have shovelled down snow just as we did if they’d thought of it only they are not so quick at thinking of things as we are. And even quite wrong things sometimes lead to adventures; as every one knows who has ever read about pirates or highwaymen.
Eliza hates us to be sent to bed early, because it means her having to bring meals up, and it means lighting the fire in Noel’s room ever so much earlier than usual. He had to have a fire because he still had a bit of a cold. But this particular day we got Eliza into a good temper by giving her a horrid brooch with pretending amethysts in it, that an aunt once gave to Alice, so Eliza brought up an extra scuttle of coals, and when the greengrocer came with the potatoes (he is always late on Saturdays) she got some chestnuts from him. So that when we heard Father go out after his dinner, there was a jolly fire in Noel’s room, and we were able to go in and be Red Indians in blankets most comfortably. Eliza had gone out; she says she gets things cheaper on Saturday nights. She has a great friend, who sells fish at a shop, and he is very generous, and lets her have herrings for less than half the natural price.
So we were all alone in the house; Pincher was out with Eliza, and we talked about robbers. And Dora thought it would be a dreadful trade, but Dicky said
’I think it would be very interesting. And you would only rob rich people, and be very generous to the poor and needy, like Claude Duval.’ Dora said, ‘It is wrong to be a robber.’
‘Yes,’ said Alice, ’you would never know a happy hour. Think of trying to sleep with the stolen jewels under your bed, and remembering all the quantities of policemen and detectives that there are in the world!’
‘There are ways of being robbers that are not wrong,’ said Noel; ’if you can rob a robber it is a right act.’
‘But you can’t,’ said Dora; ’he is too clever, and besides, it’s wrong anyway.’
’Yes you can, and it isn’t; and murdering him with boiling oil is a right act, too, so there!’ said Noel. ‘What about Ali Baba? Now then!’ And we felt it was a score for Noel.
‘What would you do if there was a robber?’ said Alice.
H. O. said he would kill him with boiling oil; but Alice explained that she meant a real robber now this minute in the house.
Oswald and Dicky did not say; but Noel said he thought it would only be fair to ask the robber quite politely and quietly to go away, and then if he didn’t you could deal with him.
Now what I am going to tell you is a very strange and wonderful thing, and I hope you will be able to believe it. I should not, if a boy told me, unless I knew him to be a man of honour, and perhaps not then unless he gave his sacred word. But it is true, all the same, and it only shows that the days of romance and daring deeds are not yet at an end.
Alice was just asking Noel how he would deal with the robber who wouldn’t go if he was asked politely and quietly, when we heard a noise downstairs quite a plain noise, not the kind of noise you fancy you hear. It was like somebody moving a chair. We held our breath and listened and then came another noise, like some one poking a fire. Now, you remember there was no one to poke a fire or move a chair downstairs, because Eliza and Father were both out. They could not have come in without our hearing them, because the front door is as hard to shut as the back one, and whichever you go in by you have to give a slam that you can hear all down the street.
H. O. and Alice and Dora caught hold of each other’s blankets and looked at Dicky and Oswald, and every one was quite pale. And Noel whispered
’It’s ghosts, I know it is’ and then we listened again, but there was no more noise. Presently Dora said in a whisper
‘Whatever shall we do? Oh, whatever shall we do what shall we do?’ And she kept on saying it till we had to tell her to shut up.
O reader, have you ever been playing Red Indians in blankets round a bedroom fire in a house where you thought there was no one but you and then suddenly heard a noise like a chair, and a fire being poked, downstairs? Unless you have you will not be able to imagine at all what it feels like. It was not like in books; our hair did not stand on end at all, and we never said ‘Hist!’ once, but our feet got very cold, though we were in blankets by the fire, and the insides of Oswald’s hands got warm and wet, and his nose was cold like a dog’s, and his ears were burning hot.
The girls said afterwards that they shivered with terror, and their teeth chattered, but we did not see or hear this at the time.
‘Shall we open the window and call police?’ said Dora; and then Oswald suddenly thought of something, and he breathed more freely and he said
’I know it’s not ghosts, and I don’t believe it’s robbers. I expect it’s a stray cat got in when the coals came this morning, and she’s been hiding in the cellar, and now she’s moving about. Let’s go down and see.’
The girls wouldn’t, of course; but I could see that they breathed more freely too. But Dicky said, ‘All right; I will if you will.’
H. O. said, ‘Do you think it’s really a cat?’ So we said he had better stay with the girls. And of course after that we had to let him and Alice both come. Dora said if we took Noel down with his cold, she would scream ‘Fire!’ and ‘Murder!’ and she didn’t mind if the whole street heard.
So Noel agreed to be getting his clothes on, and the rest of us said we would go down and look for the cat.
Now Oswald said that about the cat, and it made it easier to go down, but in his inside he did not feel at all sure that it might not be robbers after all. Of course, we had often talked about robbers before, but it is very different when you sit in a room and listen and listen and listen; and Oswald felt somehow that it would be easier to go down and see what it was, than to wait, and listen, and wait, and wait, and listen, and wait, and then perhaps to hear it, whatever it was, come creeping slowly up the stairs as softly as it could with its boots off, and the stairs creaking, towards the room where we were with the door open in case of Eliza coming back suddenly, and all dark on the landings. And then it would have been just as bad, and it would have lasted longer, and you would have known you were a coward besides. Dicky says he felt all these same things. Many people would say we were young heroes to go down as we did; so I have tried to explain, because no young hero wishes to have more credit than he deserves.
The landing gas was turned down low just a blue bead and we four went out very softly, wrapped in our blankets, and we stood on the top of the stairs a good long time before we began to go down. And we listened and listened till our ears buzzed.
And Oswald whispered to Dicky, and Dicky went into our room and fetched the large toy pistol that is a foot long, and that has the trigger broken, and I took it because I am the eldest; and I don’t think either of us thought it was the cat now. But Alice and H. O. did. Dicky got the poker out of Noel’s room, and told Dora it was to settle the cat with when we caught her.
Then Oswald whispered, ’Let’s play at burglars; Dicky and I are armed to the teeth, we will go first. You keep a flight behind us, and be a reinforcement if we are attacked. Or you can retreat and defend the women and children in the fortress, if you’d rather.’
But they said they would be a reinforcement.
Oswald’s teeth chattered a little when he spoke. It was not with anything else except cold.
So Dicky and Oswald crept down, and when we got to the bottom of the stairs, we saw Father’s study door just ajar, and the crack of light. And Oswald was so pleased to see the light, knowing that burglars prefer the dark, or at any rate the dark lantern, that he felt really sure it was the cat after all, and then he thought it would be fun to make the others upstairs think it was really a robber. So he cocked the pistol you can cock it, but it doesn’t go off and he said, ’Come on, Dick!’ and he rushed at the study door and burst into the room, crying, ’Surrender! you are discovered! Surrender, or I fire! Throw up your hands!’
And, as he finished saying it, he saw before him, standing on the study hearthrug, a Real Robber. There was no mistake about it. Oswald was sure it was a robber, because it had a screwdriver in its hands, and was standing near the cupboard door that H. O. broke the lock off; and there were gimlets and screws and things on the floor. There is nothing in that cupboard but old ledgers and magazines and the tool chest, but of course, a robber could not know that beforehand.
When Oswald saw that there really was a robber, and that he was so heavily armed with the screwdriver, he did not feel comfortable. But he kept the pistol pointed at the robber, and you will hardly believe it, but it is true the robber threw down the screwdriver clattering on the other tools, and he did throw up his hands, and said
‘I surrender; don’t shoot me! How many of you are there?’
So Dicky said, ‘You are outnumbered. Are you armed?’
And the robber said, ‘No, not in the least.’
And Oswald said, still pointing the pistol, and feeling very strong and brave and as if he was in a book, ‘Turn out your pockets.’
The robber did: and while he turned them out, we looked at him. He was of the middle height, and clad in a black frock-coat and grey trousers. His boots were a little gone at the sides, and his shirt-cuffs were a bit frayed, but otherwise he was of gentlemanly demeanour. He had a thin, wrinkled face, with big, light eyes that sparkled, and then looked soft very queerly, and a short beard. In his youth it must have been of a fair golden colour, but now it was tinged with grey. Oswald was sorry for him, especially when he saw that one of his pockets had a large hole in it, and that he had nothing in his pockets but letters and string and three boxes of matches, and a pipe and a handkerchief and a thin tobacco pouch and two pennies. We made him put all the things on the table, and then he said
‘Well, you’ve caught me; what are you going to do with me? Police?’
Alice and H. O. had come down to be reinforcements, when they heard a shout, and when Alice saw that it was a Real Robber, and that he had surrendered, she clapped her hands and said, ‘Bravo, boys!’ and so did H. O. And now she said, ’If he gives his word of honour not to escape, I shouldn’t call the police: it seems a pity. Wait till Father comes home.’
The robber agreed to this, and gave his word of honour, and asked if he might put on a pipe, and we said ‘Yes,’ and he sat in Father’s armchair and warmed his boots, which steamed, and I sent H. O. and Alice to put on some clothes and tell the others, and bring down Dicky’s and my knickerbockers, and the rest of the chestnuts.
And they all came, and we sat round the fire, and it was jolly. The robber was very friendly, and talked to us a great deal.
‘I wasn’t always in this low way of business,’ he said, when Noel said something about the things he had turned out of his pockets. ’It’s a great come-down to a man like me. But, if I must be caught, it’s something to be caught by brave young heroes like you. My stars! How you did bolt into the room, “Surrender, and up with your hands!” You might have been born and bred to the thief-catching.’
Oswald is sorry if it was mean, but he could not own up just then that he did not think there was any one in the study when he did that brave if rash act. He has told since.
‘And what made you think there was any one in the house?’ the robber asked, when he had thrown his head back, and laughed for quite half a minute. So we told him. And he applauded our valour, and Alice and H. O. explained that they would have said ‘Surrender,’ too, only they were reinforcements. The robber ate some of the chestnuts and we sat and wondered when Father would come home, and what he would say to us for our intrepid conduct. And the robber told us of all the things he had done before he began to break into houses. Dicky picked up the tools from the floor, and suddenly he said
’Why, this is Father’s screwdriver and his gimlets, and all! Well, I do call it jolly cheek to pick a man’s locks with his own tools!’
‘True, true,’ said the robber. ’It is cheek, of the jolliest! But you see I’ve come down in the world. I was a highway robber once, but horses are so expensive to hire five shillings an hour, you know and I couldn’t afford to keep them. The highwayman business isn’t what it was.’
‘What about a bike?’ said H. O.
But the robber thought cycles were low and besides you couldn’t go across country with them when occasion arose, as you could with a trusty steed. And he talked of highwaymen as if he knew just how we liked hearing it.
Then he told us how he had been a pirate captain and how he had sailed over waves mountains high, and gained rich prizes and how he didbegin to think that here he had found a profession to his mind.
‘I don’t say there are no ups and downs in it,’ he said, ’especially in stormy weather. But what a trade! And a sword at your side, and the Jolly Roger flying at the peak, and a prize in sight. And all the black mouths of your guns pointed at the laden trader and the wind in your favour, and your trusty crew ready to live and die for you! Oh but it’s a grand life!’
I did feel so sorry for him. He used such nice words, and he had a gentleman’s voice.
‘I’m sure you weren’t brought up to be a pirate,’ said Dora. She had dressed even to her collar and made Noel do it too but the rest of us were in blankets with just a few odd things put on anyhow underneath.
The robber frowned and sighed.
‘No,’ he said, ’I was brought up to the law. I was at Balliol, bless your hearts, and that’s true anyway.’ He sighed again, and looked hard at the fire.
‘That was my Father’s college,’ H. O. was beginning, but Dicky said ’Why did you leave off being a pirate?’
‘A pirate?’ he said, as if he had not been thinking of such things.
’Oh, yes; why I gave it up because because I could not get over the dreadful sea-sickness.’
‘Nelson was sea-sick,’ said Oswald.
‘Ah,’ said the robber; ’but I hadn’t his luck or his pluck, or something. He stuck to it and won Trafalgar, didn’t he? “Kiss me, Hardy” and all that, eh? I couldn’t stick to it I had to resign. And nobody kissed me.’
I saw by his understanding about Nelson that he was really a man who had been to a good school as well as to Balliol.
Then we asked him, ‘And what did you do then?’
And Alice asked if he was ever a coiner, and we told him how we had thought we’d caught the desperate gang next door, and he was very much interested and said he was glad he had never taken to coining.
‘Besides, the coins are so ugly nowadays,’ he said, ’no one could really find any pleasure in making them. And it’s a hole-and-corner business at the best, isn’t it? and it must be a very thirsty one with the hot metal and furnaces and things.’
And again he looked at the fire.
Oswald forgot for a minute that the interesting stranger was a robber, and asked him if he wouldn’t have a drink. Oswald has heard Father do this to his friends, so he knows it is the right thing. The robber said he didn’t mind if he did. And that is right, too.
And Dora went and got a bottle of Father’s ale the Light Sparkling Family and a glass, and we gave it to the robber. Dora said she would be responsible.
Then when he had had a drink he told us about bandits, but he said it was so bad in wet weather. Bandits’ caves were hardly ever properly weathertight. And bush-ranging was the same.
‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ’I was bush-ranging this afternoon, among the furze-bushes on the Heath, but I had no luck. I stopped the Lord Mayor in his gilt coach, with all his footmen in plush and gold lace, smart as cockatoos. But it was no go. The Lord Mayor hadn’t a stiver in his pockets.