Oswald Bastable and Others/Sir Christopher Cockleshell

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SIR CHRISTOPHER COCKLESHELL


The children called him Sir Christopher Cockleshell.—'Sir,' in token of respect for his gray hairs and noble-looking face; Christopher, because he had once carried Mabel across the road on a very muddy day, when thunder showers and the parish water-carts had both been particularly busy; and Cockleshell, because of the house he lived in.

It was a most wonderful house—like the gateway of an old castle. It had a big arch in the middle and a window over the arch, and there were windows, too, in the towers on each side of the arch. All along the top were in-and-out battlements. It had been covered with white plaster once, but flakes of this had fallen away and showed the pinky bricks underneath. But the oddest thing about the house was the trimming that ran all round the bottom story about the height of a tall man. This trimming was of oyster-shells, and cockle-shells, and mussel-shells, and whelk-shells, and scallop-shells, all stuck on the wall of the house in patterns. It was a very wonderful house indeed, and the children always tried to go past it on their way to everywhere.

The children themselves lived in a large, square, ordinary brown-brick house among other ordinary brown-brick houses. Their house had a long garden with tall old trees in it, and so had the other houses. Looking out of the boxroom window was like looking down on the top of a green forest, Phyllis always thought. Only now, of course, the trees were not green any more, because it was nearly Christmas.

'I wish Sir Christopher had a garden to his house,' Phyllis said one day to the new housemaid.

'There used to be a pleasure-gardens there, I've heard father tell,' said the new housemaid. 'Quite a big gardens, it was. The gent as owned it was as rich as rich, kep' his carriage and butlers and all. But when his son come into the property he sold the gardens for building on, and only kep' the gate-house—the Grotto they calls it. An' there 'e's lived ever since in quite a poor way. Nasty old miser, that's what he is!'

'He may be a miser,' said Phyllis, 'but he's not nasty. He carried Mabel as kind as could be.'

'Have you ever spoke to him since?' demanded the housemaid.

'No,' said Phyllis; 'he always smiles at us, but he's always in a hurry.'

'That's it,' said the housemaid; ' 'e's afraid to let anyone inside of his house, fear they should get to see all the sacks of money he's got there. And he pokes about and picks things outer the gutters, so he won't get to know anyone. My young brother he knocked at the door once to arst for a drink of water—thought he'd get a squint at the inside of the house while the old chap was gone to draw it. But he shuts the door in Elf's face, and only opens it a crack to hand him the mug through.'

'It was kind of him to give your brother the water,' said Phyllis.

'Elf didun want the water,' said Alf's sister; ' 'e'd just 'ad a lemonade at the paper shop.'

Phyllis had often wanted to do something kind for Sir Christopher, but she could not think of anything that wasn't just as likely to annoy him as to please him. If she had known when his birthday was, she would have put a birthday card under his door; but no one can be pleased at having a card with 'Bright be thy natal morn' on it when really the natal morn is quite a different date. She would have taken him flowers at the time when dahlias and sunflowers grew at the end of the garden, but perhaps he would not like the bother of putting them in water; and, if he was really poor, and not a miser, as Jane said, he might not have a vase or jug to put them in.

And now it was Christmas-time. Guy was home for the holidays, and that was splendid. But, on the other hand, mother and father had had to go to granny, who was ill. So there would be no real Christmas in the brown house.

'But I'll tell you what,' said Phyllis; 'there's the Christmas-tree for the poor children at the schools. Suppose we were to make some things for that, and buy some, and go down and help decorate? Mother said we might.'

Guy was rather clever with his fingers, and as we all like doing what we can do really well, he did not make such a fuss over making things as some boys do. He could make doll's furniture out of pins and wool, and armchairs out of the breast-bones of geese; only there are so seldom enough breast-bones of geese to make a complete set of furniture.

There was nearly a week to make things in, and long before its end the schoolroom began to look like a bazaar. There were little boxes of sweets covered with silver paper, and scrap-books made of postcards covered with red calico, and some little dolls that the girls dressed, as well as all the things that Guy made.

'How radishingly beautiful!' said Mabel, when the shiny, shimmery, real Christmas-tree things bought at the shop were spread out with the others.

The day before Christmas Eve the children were very happy indeed, although they had had to be made thoroughly tidy before Jane would allow them to go down to the school; and being thoroughly tidy, as you know, often means a lot of soap in your eyes, and having your nails cleaned by someone who does not know as well as you do where the nail leaves off and the real you begins.

They went to the side-door of the school, and left the baskets and bundles of pretty things in the porch and went in.

The big tree was there, but it was just plain fir-tree so far, nothing Christmassy about it, except that it was planted in a tub.

'How do you do?' said Guy politely to the stout lady in a bonnet with black beads and a violet feather; 'I'm so glad we're in time.'

'What for?' said the stout lady. 'The tree's not till to-morrow. Run away, little boy.'

'Oh, Mrs. Philkins,' said Phyllis, 'he's not a little boy, he's Guy; don't you remember him?'

'I remember him in petticoats,' said Mrs. Philkins: 'he's grown. Good-afternoon.'

'Mother said,' said Guy, keeping his temper beautifully, 'that we might come and help.'

'Very kind of your mother to arrange it like that. But I happen to be in charge of the tree, and I don't want any outside assistance.'

The children turned away without a word. When they got outside Guy said:

'I hate Mrs. Philkins!'

'We oughtn't to hate anybody,' said Mabel.

'She isn't anybody—at least, not anybody in particular,' said Phyllis; 'I heard father say so.'

'She wouldn't have been such a pig to us if she'd known what we'd brought for the tree,' said Phyllis.

'I'm glad she didn't know. I wish we hadn't done the things at all,' said Guy; 'it's always the way if you try to do good to others.'

'It isn't,' said the others indignantly; 'you know it isn't.'

'That's right!' said Guy aggravatingly, 'let's begin to quarrel about it—us—that would just please her. Let's drop the whole lot into the canal, and say no more about it.'

'Oh no!' cried both the girls together, clutching the precious parcels they carried.

'But what's the good?" said Guy; 'we don't know anyone who's got a Christmas-tree to give them to.'

Phyllis stopped short on the pavement, struck motionless by an idea.

'I know,' she said: 'we'll have a tree of our very own.'

'What's the good if there's no one to see it?'

'We'll ask someone to see it.'

'Who?'

'Sir Christopher!'

The daring and romance of this idea charmed even Guy. But he thought it would be better not to ask Sir Christopher to come to their house: 'Servants are so odd,' he said; 'they might be rude to him, or something. No; we'll get it ready, and we'll wheel it round after dark, and ask him to let us light it in his yard. Then he won't think we're trying to pry into his house.'

Half an hour later Guy staggered in, bearing a fir-tree.

'Only ninepence,' he said; 'it's a bit lop-sided, but we can tie ivy on or something to make that right. I'm glad that old cat wouldn't let us help. It's much jollier like this.'

The tree was planted in a pot that a dead azalea had lived in; and Mrs. Philkins was quite forgotten in the joy of trimming their own tree. Besides the things they had made there were the lovely things they had bought—stars and flags, and a sugar bird-cage with a yellow bird in it, and a glass boat with glass sails, and a blue china bird with a tail of spun glass.

Guy went out and borrowed a wheelbarrow from the gardner who cut their grass when it was cut, and when the tree was trimmed he and Phyllis carried it downstairs. The top branch with the star on it got banged against the banisters, and the side branch got into Guy's eye, and Phyllis's thumb got jammed between the pot and the banister rail. But what are trifles like these in an adventure like this?

They got the tree out of the front-door without being seen by the servants—a real triumph. They stood the pot in the barrow, and started to wheel it out of the front-gate. But directly they lifted the handles of the barrow the floor of it naturally ceased to be straight, and the flower-pot toppled over and cracked itself slightly against the side of the barrow, while the boughs of the tree, with their gay decorations, took the opportunity to entangle themselves in the bad-tempered leaves of the holly that stood there, and were disengaged with difficulty.

Then the pot refused to stand up, and at last it had to be laid down in the barrow, with its shiny treasures dangling over the front-wheel.

Then, the barrow was extremely heavy even without the tree in it; and the children did not go the nearest way to the Grotto, because they did not want to meet people, so they were thoroughly tired and extremely hot by the time they approached Sir Christopher Cockleshell's castle.

There was a bit of waste land close to it, where someone had once begun to build a house and had then thought better of it. A bit of this house's wall was standing on each side of the space where its front-door would have been if it had ever come to the point of having one. They wheeled the barrow in, and the light of a street lamp that obligingly shone through the door-space made it possible for them to disentangle the little strings that had got twisted round each other, to disengage the gilt fish from the sugar bird-cage, and to take the glass bird out of the goose-bone armchair in which it was trying to sit. Also they set up all the candles—six dozen of them. This is done with tin-tacks, as no doubt you know.

'Now,' said Guy, 'one of us must go and ask if he'll let us light it in his yard, and one of us must wait here with the tree.'

'What about me?' said Mabel.

'You can do which you like,' said Guy.

'I want to do both,' said Mabel; 'I want to stay with the pretty tree, and I want to go and ask him if he wants us.'

Mabel was still too small to understand thoroughly how hard it is, even for a grown-up person, to be in two places at once.

It ended in Guy's staying with the tree.

'In case of attacks by boys,' he said.

'Then I shall go with Phyllis,' said Mabel.

Both girls felt their hearts go quite pitter-pattery when at last they stood on the doorstep of the castle.

'Why don't you knock?' Mabel asked.

'I don't like to,' said Phyllis.

Mable instantly knocked very loudly with a wooden ninepin-ball that she happened to have in her pocket.

'Oh, I wish you hadn't!' said Phyllis; 'I wanted to think what to say first, and now there's no time.'

There certainly was not. The door opened a cautious inch, and a voice said:

'Who's there?'

'It's us,' said Phyllis, 'please. We don't want to pry into your beautiful house like Jane's brother Alf when he asked you for the drink of water, only we've made up a Christmas-tree, and may we stand it in your yard and light it—the candles, I mean?'

The door opened a little further, and a face looked out—the face, of course, of Sir Christopher. All the house that showed through the crack of the door didn't, as Mabel said afterwards, show at all, because it was pitch-dark.

'I don't quite understand,' said Sir Christopher gently. Phyllis was a little surprised to find that the voice was what she called a gentleman's voice.

'We—you were so kind carrying Mab across the road that water-carty day when it thundered——'

'Oh, it's you, is it?' he said.

'Yes, it's us; and they wouldn't let us help with the school tree, and so we made one of our and then we wanted someone to see it. And we thought of you, because you don't seem to have many friends, and we thought—— But we'll take it home again if you don't care about it.'

She stopped, just on the right side of tears.

'There's a glass bird with a spun-lovely tail,' said Mabel persuasively, 'and sweets and fishes, and a crocodile that goes waggle-waddle when you wind him up.'

'My dears,' said Sir Christopher, and cleared his throat. 'My dears,' he began again, and again he stopped.

'We'll go away if—if you'd rather,' said Phyllis, and sniffed miserably.

'No, no!' he said; 'no, no—I was only thinking. I never thought—would you like to bring the tree into the house? It's just the sort of thing my little girl always liked.'

'Oh yes,' said Phyllis 'we'll go and fetch it now.'

He closed the door gently. The children flew back to Guy and the tree.

'Oh, Guy! we've to take the tree inside the house! And he's got a little girl—at least, he says so. Come on, quick. We'd better carry it. The barrow's so heavy, and it does interfere so!'

They carried the pot between them. It was very heavy, and they had to put it down and rest several times. But at last they dumped it down in the dark on the front-door step of the castle, and breathed deep breaths of fatigue, relief, and excitement.

The door opened, and opened wide, and this time light streamed from within.

'Welcome!' said Sir Christopher. 'Come in. Let me help to lift it. What a beautiful tree!'

'It is rather decent, isn't it?' said Guy dispassionately.

Sir Christopher raised the pot, carried it in, and the door was shut. The children found themselves in a small square hall. A winding staircase of iron corkscrewed upwards in one corner. The hall was lighted only by two candles.

The old gentleman led the way through a door on the right into a round room with white walls.

'We're inside the tower now,' said Guy.

'Yes,' said their host, 'this is part of the tower.'

He hastily lighted a big lamp, and then a deep 'Oh!' broke from the children. For the walls were not white, they were all of mother-of-pearl, and here and there all over the walls round pearls shone with a starry, milky radiance.

'How radishing!' said Mabel in a whisper. 'I always said he wasn't a miser. He's a magician.'

'What a lovely, lovely room!' sighed Phyllis.

'What's it made of?' asked Guy downrightly.

'Oyster-shells,' said Sir Christopher, 'and pearl beads.'

And it was.

'Oh!' said Mabel gaily, 'then that's what you go prowling about in dirty gutters for?'

'Don't be rude, Mab dear!' whispered Phyllis.

But the old gentleman did not seem to mind. He just said, 'Yes, that's it' in an absent sort of way. He seemed to be thinking about something else. Then he said, 'The Christmas-tree.'

The children had forgotten all about the Christmas-tree.

When its seventy-two candles were lighted the pearly room shone and glimmered like a fairy palace in a dream.

'It's many a year since my little girl had such a Christmas-tree,' he said. 'I don't know how to thank you.'

'Seeing your pearly halls is worth all the time and money,' said Mabel heartily.

And Phyllis added in polite haste:

'And you being pleased.'

'Would you like to see the black marble hall?' asked Sir Christopher.

And, of course, they said, 'Yes, awfully.'

So he led them into the room on the other side of the hall, and lighted a lamp. And the room was like a room of black marble, carved into little round knobs.

'How lovely!' said Phyllis.

'It's not lovely like the other,' said Mabel; 'but it's more serious, like when the organ plays in church.'

'Why,' said Guy suddenly, 'it's winkle-shells!'

And it was. Hundreds and thousands of winkle-shells sorted into sizes and stuck on the walls in patterns, and then, it seemed, polished or varnished.

'Come,' said Sir Christopher, 'I'll show you the red-room.'

As they turned to go a tall, white figure by the door seemed to come suddenly into the lamplight. It was covered with a sheet.

'Oh!' said all three, starting back, 'what's that?'

'That's my little girl,' he said.

'Is she trying to frighten us? Is she playing ghosts?' asked Guy.

'No,' he said; 'she never plays at ghosts. It isn't her really. That's only my fun. It's a statue really.'

'Aren't statues very dear?' asked Guy.

'Very,' said Sir Christopher—'very, very dear.'

He led the way up the winding iron stair and showed them the red-room. Its walls were covered with bits of red lobster-shells, overlapping like a fish's scales or the plates of armour.

'How resplendid!' said Mabel; 'I believe you're a mighty magician.'

'No,' he said; 'at least—no, not exactly. There's only one more room.'

The other room was a bedroom, quite dull and plain, with whitewashed walls and painted deal furniture.

'I like the pearly halls best,' said Mabel: 'they're more eloquent;' and they all went down to the room where the seventy-two candles of the Christmas-tree were burning steadily and brightly, though there was no one to see them.

'Won't you call your little girl?' said Phyllis. 'The candles won't last so very long; they're the cheap kind.'

Sir Christopher twisted his fingers together.

'It's no use calling her,' he said. 'Would you mind—do you mind leaving the tree for to-night? You could fetch it to-morrow. And you won't tell anyone about the inside of my house, will you? They'd only laugh at it.'

'I don't see how they could,' said Mabel indignantly; 'it's the beautifullest, gorgerest house that ever was.'

'But we won't tell anyone,' said Guy. 'And we'll come again to-morrow—about the same time.

Sir Christopher said, 'Yes, please.'

And they all shook hands with him and came away, leaving the Christmas-tree, with all its seventy-two candles, still making the pearly room a dream of fairy beauty.

They ran all the way home, because it was rather late, and they did not want the servants to fetch them from the parish schoolroom, where they had not spent the evening. It would have been very difficult to explain exactly where and how they had spent it, and the fact that they had promised not to say anything about it would have added considerably to the difficulty.

When they had been let in, and had taken off their hats and jackets and got their breaths, they looked at each other.

'Well?' said Phyllis.

'Yes,' said Mabel; 'what an inciting adventure! What a dear he is! I do hope we shall see his little girl to-morrow.'

'Yes,' said Guy slowly, 'but I don't think we shall.'

'Why ever not?'

'Because I don't believe he's got any little girl. We went into all the rooms, and the hall and landing. There wasn't any other room for the little girl to be in.'

'Perhaps it was really her under the sheet, trying to be ghosts,' said Phyllis.

'It was too high up,' said Mabel.

'She might have been standing on a stool,' said Phyllis.

'Well,' said Guy, with a satisfied look; 'it's a very thrilling mystery.'

It was. And it gave them something to think of for the next few days. For that evening when they went to fetch the Christmas-tree, they found the door of Sir Christopher's castle tight shut, and their Christmas-tree was standing alone on the doorstep in the dark.

After vainly knocking several times, they put the tree into the wheelbarrow and got it home, only upsetting it three times by the way.

When they got it into the light of their room they saw that there was a piece of paper on it—a note.

'My dears,' it said, 'here is your beautiful tree. Thank you very much. If you knew how much pleasure it had given me you would be glad. Why not give the tree to some poor child? Good-bye. God bless you!'

There were some letters tangled together at the bottom of the page.

'His initials, I suppose,' said Guy. But nobody could read them.

'Anyway, it means he doesn't want to see us any more,' said Phyllis. 'Oh, I do wish we knew something more about him.'

But they took his advice, and the tree went to the gardener's little boy, who was ill. It made him almost forget his illness for days and days.

When father came home they asked him who lived in the Grotto. He told them.

'He has lived there for years,' he said. 'I have heard that when he came into his property he found that his property was almost all debts. So he sold the tea-gardens for building on, and has lived there in the Grotto on next to nothing, and all these years he's been paying off his father's creditors. I should think they're about paid off by now.'

'Has he a little girl?' asked Phyllis.

'Yes—I believe so,' said father absently.

'It's very odd,' Mabel was beginning, but the others silenced her.

After this the children were more interested than ever in Sir Christopher. They used to paint illuminated texts, and make picture-frames of paper rosettes, and buy toys, and leave them on his door-step in the dark, 'For the little girl,' and as the spring came on, bunches of flowers.

It was one evening when Phyllis came to the castle with a big bunch of plumy purple lilac. She was earlier than usual, and it was not quite dark, and—wonder of wonders—the door of the castle was open. Still more wonderful, Sir Christopher stood on the doorstep.

'I was watching for you,' he said. 'I had a sort of feeling you'd come to-night. Will you come in?'

He led her into the black marble room and stood looking wistfully at her.

'Would you like to see my little girl?' he said suddenly.

'Yes,' said Phyllis.

'I didn't think you'd understand,' he said, 'when you came at Christmas. But you've been so kind and faithful all these months. I think you will understand. Look!'

He pulled the sheet from the statue, and Phyllis looked on the white likeness of a little girl of her own age, dressed in a long gown like a nightgown.

'It is very beautiful,' she said.

'Yes,' he said. 'Have you ever heard any tales about me?' he asked.

'Yes,' said Phyllis, and told him.

'It's not true,' he said. 'My father had no debts. But I married someone he didn't like; and then I got ill, and couldn't work. My father was very hard. He wouldn't help us. My wife died, and then my father died, and all his great wealth came to me. Too late! too late! The letter that told me I was rich came to me when I was sitting beside my dead child. The money came then—the money that would have saved her. The first money I spent out of it all was spent on that statue. It was done as she lay dead.'

Phyllis looked at the statue, and felt—she didn't know why—very frightened. Then she looked at him, and she was not frightened any more. She ran to him and put her arms round him.

'Oh, poor, poor, dear Sir Christopher!' she said.

'That's how she looked when she was dead,' he said; 'would you like to see my ladybird as she was when she was alive and well, and I was a strong man able to work for her?'

'Yes—oh yes,' said Phyllis.

He led the way into the pearly room, and drew back a green curtain that hung there. Phyllis caught her breath sharply, and tears pricked her eyes. Not because the picture was a sad one—ah, no! not that!

As the curtain was withdrawn the figure of a child seemed to spring towards them from the canvas—a happy, laughing child, her arms full of roses, her face full of health and beauty and the joy of life; a child whose glad, unclouded eyes met Phyllis's in a free, joyous look.

'Oh no!' cried Phyllis; 'she can't be dead—she cant!'

The old man took her in his arms, for she was crying bitterly.

'Thank you—thank you, dear,' he said, soothing her. 'Now I know that you are the right person to help me.'

'I? Help you?'

Phyllis's tears began to dry at the beautiful thought, but she still sobbed.

'Don't cry,' he said, and gently drew the green curtain over the lovely laughing face. 'Don't cry. I want to tell you of many things. When that money came—I've told you when—as soon as I could see or think again, I saw what I ought to do. Ever since I've not spent a penny of that money on myself on anything but the plainest food, the plainest clothes. If I've made the house beautiful for her picture to live in, it's been with my own work. All the rest of the money has gone to help little girls whose fathers can't work for them—little girls that can be saved, as my little girl could have been saved. That's the work I want you to carry on for me when you grow up. Will you promise?'

'Yes,' paid Phyllis; 'only I'm very stupid.'

'I will have you taught. You shall learn how to do my work. Ask your father to come and see me. And now, good-bye. Perhaps I shan't see you again. Will you always remember that your Christmas-tree came to me like a light in a dark night to show me that there was someone still who cared to be kind. . . . Good-bye.'

Father, when he heard the story, almost thought that Phyllis was dreaming. But he went to the Grotto, and when he came back his face was very sad.

'It is a very great honour for you, Phyllis,' he said gravely. 'Are you sure that you understand how much hard work it will mean?'

'I don't mind hard work,' said Phyllis, 'if only I can do what he wants.'

So Phyllis is learning many things and preparing for the great work that has so wonderfully come to her. I think she will do it well, because she is not at all stupid really, and she has the gift of being sorry for sad people, and happy with happy ones. I think Sir Christopher chose well.

Some distant relations of Sir Christopher's have tried to make out that he was mad, and so couldn't do what he liked with his money. But when they took the matter to the judges to decide, hundreds and hundreds of people he had been good to and helped broke the promise of secrecy that he had always asked of them. And all England rang with the tale of his goodness, and of all the kind and clever things he had done for poor children all those long years, for the sake of his own little child. And the judges decided he was quite right to use his money in that way, and not mad at all. So the tiresome relations got nothing but lawyers' bills for their pains.

Phyllis only saw Sir Christopher once again. He sent for her when he was dying. They had moved his bed into the pearly room, and he lay facing the green curtain.

'If it seems too hard when the time comes,' he said, 'you need not do the work. Your father knows how to arrange that.'

'You needn't be afraid,' said Phyllis; 'it's the most splendid chance anyone ever had.'

'Kiss me, dear,' he said, 'and then draw back the curtain.'

But before Phyllis's hand had touched the green curtain he sat up in the bed and held out his arms towards the picture.

'Why, ladybird!' he cried, his face all alight with love and joy. 'Why, my little girl!'



This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.