The Red House/Chapter 10
“UGH-R-R-R!” I remarked, as we sat down to breakfast.
“I suppose it is,” said Chloe, pretending to shiver. “The Bandbox was warmer, certainly, but not much. Why do people make so much fuss about being too cold and too hot? Isn't it odd that they've never found out the great truth—that one has to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer? And if one has to be cold, how much warmer it is to be cold here than in the Bandbox!”
“You mean that great possessions warm the cockles o your heart,” I said; “that's because you're all soul. As for me, I must warm my hands in the tea-cozy before I can carve the eggs.”
The white parlor, with its dark-panelled walls, its olive-green curtains, its sparkling brass and silver, and nothing white about it save the ceiling and the table-cloth, was a delightful picture of a breakfast-room. Chloe's loose gown of turquoise-colored soft stuff with its brown furry trimmings became her to distraction. I told her so.
“But the tip of your pretty nose is pink,” I said. “It was quite white—with rage, I believe—the day you bit me so about my shaving-brush. Do you remember? And then the letter came enclosing the Red House and all our affluence! You had on some muslin thing that day—”
She shivered, almost in earnest this time, and poured out the coffee.
“Don't talk of muslin!” she said. “Look, isn't it fairyland? Only it's a little hard to believe that our green garden has only gone to sleep, and means to wake up again in the spring.”
A light veil of snow lay on our green garden now, and on the thatched roof of the old summer-house and on the sun-dial's face, whose sentimental expression had decided my wife to decide me to decide to live at the Red House. The snow lay in sheets, like cotton-wool, on the flat tops of the cedars; and the ivy round the windows, the creepers on the old arches, and the leaves of the tall box hedge were all outlined in sparkling white.
“It is a little different,” I said; “that day, when you wore—well, I won't, then—and we had haddock for breakfast, and the letter came. By-the-way, my hands are warm enough to open letters now.” There were only two. One was a bill for repairs to the roof—the roof, now spread with snow, where one warm, wet morning we had fought a flood with brooms and a dust-pan; a bill that did not discompose me, for I was used to that roof. No living plumber could make its repairs permanent. The other letter was type-written, and that by a somewhat inexperienced hand. It read thus:
Junior Blackheath Society of Antiquaries & Field Club.
At a Meeting of the Committe of thes dg Society it wasagreedt that a field day should.) be held on Dec 20 when the Society proposis to visit the interesting church of (x) Elmhurst andalsotheold Palace they call Kin (gons)Johns. Our president MrAlbert Morris F;J.B,S! has ob and so have the rest of us. tained permission to fo out on that day/ We venture to ask whether you would allowthe members of the Cociety to walk £ through your groundsa nd inspect from without of course your beauriful house, which is as you are doubtless aware of ? great ihstoric interest having been ½ for some years. We feel sure it was the 7; residence of the celebrated amn you know who I mean. We hope if the frost ohlds you will not mind us skating on yuor moat.
I; am dear Sir, Yours faithfully, Edward Turnbull Hon. Sec.
P%S¼ Please excuse mistakes% ihave not learned the typewriter properyl yet.
Such was the letter. The more obvious orthographical errors had been carefully corrected with blue pencil, but, even so, the document was a remarkable one. Chloe read it, taking absent bites at her buttered toast.
“Mad?” she queried, calmly.
“I don't know; the letter's very conventionally worded, except in one or two odd places. Is it possible that a genuine society could possibly employ such a ghastly rough-sketch of a typist?”
“The letter's not signed,” she remarked. “The secretary's name is typed as well as the rest.”
“I knew a solemn ass named Turnbull, once,” I reflected, “but I thought he'd got into a bank somewhere in Kent—Tonbridge or Dartford, or something. He used to fool around with brass rubbings and dates and archæological bores—”
“I expect it's the same man,” she said, indifferently. “But we don't want the nasty society bothering here, do we? Write and tell him there's nothing to see, and no one really important ever lived here till we did.”
“I don't know,” I said. “I wish I could be sure. Blackheath seems an unlikely place for it. If we were Woolwich, now, that simply bristles with improving societies; but I've a sort of idea this is a working-men's society. If the poor beggars have got a holiday on purpose, and are really interested—or think they are—it seems a bit piggy not to let them, doesn't it? We can keep a lookout from the loafery window and see that they don't get into any mischief. They only want to look at the house ‘from the outside.’”
“I suppose they give an address?”
“Yes; Morden House, Blackheath. It sounds decent. I'm almost certain it's a workman's club. I'll write and tell them they can come. You don't really mind?”
“I'm not wholly a piggy-wig. But that letter's odd, all the same. Perhaps it's from a gang of thieves who want to come and see how the shutters are fastened.”
“Well, they can't see that from the garden. Madam, I am beginning to realize that I am a proud man the day. Think of our position six months ago. Who would have wished to come and inspect, ‘from the outside, of course,’ our late lamented Bandbox? And now we are lords of the manor, holding the power of life and death over the field-days of antiquarian societies.”
“What I don't like,” she went on, quite unappeased by this feudal picture, “is that about the skating. Why should antiquaries want to skate?”
“Now to me,” I rejoined, “that's the most convincing touch of all. Of course these workmen don't often get a holiday, and they want to make the most of it. ‘If the frost holds’ is a charming touch. It's hardly begun yet.”
It did not hold. I signified to Mr. Edward Turnbull my gracious consent, and from that moment the snow began to melt, and the weather to settle itself down into something quite as warm and sunny as an English April, and far warmer than many an English May. A stray furze-bush or two at the end of our paddock broke into golden flower, and the skylarks sang in the pale blue above the orchard. The 20th was a day of cloudless beauty, and even in the midst of my mental congratulations to the members of the Antiquarian Society on their royal weather, I found room for a pang of sympathy for those among them who might have had their skates ground.
I recurred again that day, I remember, to our old life at the Bandbox. We were sitting in the loafery, now made cosey with curtains and a big wood fire. Chloe sat sewing in her rocking-chair. She had had some verses that morning, and, bad as they were, they had pleased her. There were seven stanzas, I remember. The first two were quite ordinary, and the other five got sillier and sillier, till at the end they were a mere jingle of nonsense—a sort of nursery rhyme, mostly written in the “little language.” The poem—Chloe really did call it a poem—began something like this:
TO CHLOE AT WORK
When Chloe sings
And sews and swings,
Rocked in her guardian angel's wings;
When with dear, delicate finger-tips
She cuts and measures, sews and snips;—
Silent I worship at a shrine
Lighted for me, and warmed for mine,
By Chloe's eyes and lips.
For what she knows,
And what she sews,
And all the hope that grows and blows
About her sewing, twine and twist,
And veil her in a rainbow mist;
Until I rub my eyes and say,
“Oh, can it be there was a day
When Chloe was unkissed?”
She liked it all, even the nonsense of the last five stanzas, and she said that she liked it none the less because it happened to be written on the backs of a green-grocer's bill, the voting-card of a candidate for the school board, and two odd envelopes.
She said: “It is very pretty, Len. I didn't know you ever noticed whether I was sewing or not.”
“You don't know my observant nature,” I said, “and after all these years of married life, too.”
“It's more than one year, anyway,” she said.
“Do you remember the day when you made me decide to leave the dear Bandbox?”
“Shall I ever forget it?”
“And that other dear day when you invented the loafery and we looked at the bars?”
“Let's look at them now,” she cried, jumping up and dropping scissors, thimble, tapemeasure, and a mass of lace and muslin. When I had picked everything up we went to the window. The creeper's leaves were gone now, and we stood between dull red curtains and looked out on the misty garden, where the dead leaves lay, patches of wet gold and brown in the faint sunlight, and where a robin on a leafless apple-tree was singing his very best, and pretending to the rooks in the elms that he was a thrush disguised in a scarlet waistcoat.
“Those Antiquarian brutes,” I said, presently, “they'll be here directly. By Jove! they are here. They look horribly small. Can it be that the Junior Blackheath only admits dwarfs?”
“Those can't be the Antiquaries,” Chloe cried. “Why, Len, they look like children! Lots and lots of them. What can they want? They look like a slice of a strayed, frayed school treat. And they've all got books, and they don't seem to have got any grown-up people with them. Oh, do go and turn them out!”
“I'll go and find out what they want—”
“Oh yes, and they'll say they're botanizing, or geologizing, or something, and you'll let them stay, like you did the boys that wanted conquerors off the chestnut-trees, and overran everything. I've not forgotten it; I'll go myself.”
She ran down the stairs, slipped her feet into the wooden sabots that she keeps for sudden winter garden excursions, and stumped off angrily down the path under the cedars. I took a short-cut between Jim's celery-trenches. Chloe is terrible in her wrath, but if it grows too hot it boils over in tears of rage; and I did not wish Chloe to cry, and I not there.
The invaders were grouped round the sundial. All had their backs to us, and one of them was reading aloud. I caught a few words:
“....told the time when Charles the First was beheaded, and recorded the death-devouring progress of the Great Plague and the Fire of London. There is no doubt the sun often shone even in those devastating occasions, so we may picture—”
Then the reader heard the unmistakable threat in the emphatic stump, stump of Chloe's wooden shoes, and stopped short. Her eyes were angry, her mouth expressed inhospitable intentions. I thought I heard a murmur of, “Oh, Crikey!” from the reader, but the next moment he had stepped towards my wife and taken off his cap with an oddly graceful flourish. He was a boy; there were other boys, who followed his lead in cap-doffing. There were girls, too, rosy-faced little girls in highwayman coats and scarlet Tam-o'-Shanters. The whole invading company were, as Chloe had said, “children.” And all wore spectacles.
“Do you know that this is a private garden?” said Chloe, severely. “You are trespassing, you know.” Her voice is very pretty, even when she is angry, and she was not nearly so angry as she had been before the boys took their caps off.
“It's not your garden, is it?” asked the smallest boy of all, goggling at her through his spectacles, and speaking in an off-hand but perfectly agreeable manner. One of the girls shook him gently, and bade him shut up.
“We're most awfully sorry,” said the boy who had been reading. “We wouldn't have come if we'd thought you'd mind, but we've got a pass, so I thought it was all right. Here, hold my spectacles half a sec., Alice, and I'll find it.”
The prettiest of the red-capped girls took the spectacles, and the boy felt in several pockets, while I drew near to offer Chloe my moral support.
“Here it is!” he said, at last, disentangling a dingy paper from a mass of string, matches, envelopes, putty, and cobbler's wax, and, with really a rather nice bow, he handed to Chloe—my letter to the Antiquarian Society!
“But this was not meant for you,” she said. “This is to Mr. Turnbull—”
“That was my fault,” said a younger boy—a thin, pale, anxious-looking child. “We tossed up who should copy out the letter on Albert's uncle's type-writer, and I was thinking about something else, so I copied it, name and all.”
Chloe put her hands to her head with a gesture of despair. I said: “Just think a minute. Remember, we've no idea what all this is about. Just tell us, right away from the beginning, how you came to be here, and what you want.”
There was a silence. Then the eldest girl said, “Oswald, you tell.”
The boy who had been reading twisted his cap, and stood uneasily on one foot. But almost at once he planted his feet firmly on the ground and began, looking Chloe straight in the eyes with a most disarming frankness.
“First of all, we are very sorry the lady is vexed, and we beg her pardon.”
“That's all right,” said Chloe, unexpectedly. “Go on.”
“Well—when we were staying in the country some Antiquaries wrote to Albert's uncle—this is Albert”—he pushed forward a shy boy in velvet knickerbockers—“and asked him to let them come and see his house. And we thought we should be feeling a bit slack in the holidays, so we thought we'd play at being antiquaries. And Albert's uncle showed us this place once from the train when we were going to Bexley Heath, and he said some great person lived here once, and it was a historic place, and we can't remember who it was. And he said a clever writer lived here now, and he told us the name. So we wrote to ask leave to come, and you gave it right enough.”
The voice was reproachful.
“Yes,” I said, completely melted by this unexpected recognition of my—or the ghost's—talent as a writer. “Are you Mr. Edward Turnbull?”
“Rather not”—his tone was somewhat injured. “I was coming to that. We decided to copy out the letter that the real Antiquity secretary sent to Albert's uncle, and Noël had to do it, because we tossed up about it, and he lost. And he got thinking of a poem he's writing, and copied it, name and all—and only remembered it after we'd licked the stamp for the letter. So we thought it didn't matter. And if you'd rather we'd been Mr. Turnbull, you wouldn't have if you'd seen how thin his legs are, and how he couldn't laugh because his mouth was so tight.”
“I'd much rather have you,” said Chloe, smiling; and as she smiled I could see how deeply all present fell in love with her on the instant. “I'm sorry I didn't understand. We won't interfere any more. You'd like to go on reading your papers. Who wrote them?”
“We've each done one,” said the eldest girl—she was a little prim, and not so pretty as the others—”only mine is all out of a book, because it is so difficult to think of things.”
“Do you always wear spectacles?” I asked.
They all laughed. It was a very pleasant sound, this peal of young laughter in our old garden.
“Oh no!” said the prettiest girl, “only to make us look like learned antiquities—antiquaries, I mean. It was an awful bother collecting them all; some of them have no glass in.”
“One more question,” I said. “If you're not Edward Turnbull, who are you?”
“We're the Bastables,” the biggest boy said, with a sort of shy pride, as if he were confessing, in his modesty's despite, to royal lineage. “I'm Oswald, and these are Alice and Dora; Noël's the one who typed the letter; and this shaver is H.O.; and these are Daisy and Denny Foulkes; and Albert Morrison I told you about before.”
“You'll have lunch with us, won't you?” asked Chloe, abruptly, picking up her blue train and fixing her feet in her wooden shoes. “I don't think there'll be much, but we can make out with bread and jam—”
“I like you,” said the smallest boy, before the others could answer. “I like you very much, indeed, and I'll have lunch with you, whatever it is.”
The others murmured thanks, and we left them to their play.
“Aren't they perfect dears?” said Chloe, when we were out of earshot. “I don't like the Morrison boy, but the others are lovely. Why aren't all children nice?”
“They all are—if they have nice grown-ups belonging to them,” I said, enunciating lightly a tremendous dogma. “But, darling and reckless one, do you know that there's nothing in the house but cold neck of mutton, and even that, if I remember right, is invidiously distinguished as being not the best end?”
“I know,” she said; “but you must go up to Elmhurst and get things: tinned tongue—children always adore tongue—and candied pineapple and tangerine oranges in silver paper, and nuts, and bananas. Oh, I do think children are so nice! I wish these weren't so big. The smallest boy, the one they call H.O., he's simply a duck.”
“Oswald for my money,” said I, “and Alice! Make a list of what I'm to get, and I'll be off. It's half-past twelve now.”
I left Chloe laying the table for eleven in the white parlor. When I came back the cloth was spread, but Chloe had vanished. I found her in the garden submerged to the shoulders in a wave of children, and she carried nine pairs of spectacles in her hand. We all went in to lunch. I was now a mere outsider. Chloe, by some art unknown to me, had become one of the children, and was the most childlike child of all. The others really were not bad children. I don't think I ever met any so full of enthusiastic energy. As a permanency, they might have been a little wearing, for, strong in Chloe's extraordinary assumption of esprit de corps, they now threw away all shyness, and talked to us with simple directness of adventures, of contemporary literature, of the ways of Providence, and their own vital ambitions. They had a very full flow of conversation, and a much larger vocabulary than I remember having at their age. What struck me most was their confident assumption that, now we knew them, we could not help liking them; and the assumption was, I own, justified. This assumption was particularly marked in Oswald. He evidently thought a good deal of himself, but, as I could not but reluctantly acknowledge, with some justice! They were extremely “free in their talk,” as Mary said afterwards, but never vulgar. And they were very much funnier than they meant to be. The lunch, for which Chloe had madly brought out the best green-and-gold table-centre, charmed them. I had not thought that Chloe could be so thoroughly inspired with any menu. When no one could eat any more, the children looked at each other, and Dora, the prim one, said, quite unconscious of the evidence of rehearsal with which her speech bristled,
“Thank you very much for letting us come, and for having us to lunch.”
“And for getting such a jolly lunch,” said the pale boy. “I think it is splendid. If you will give me a piece of paper and a pencil I will write you a piece of poetry about it.”
While I was getting these I heard the prim child say anxiously to Chloe:
“I hope you don't mind. He will do it. We can't stop him.”
“It comes of his having bronchitis so often, I think,” said the stout child they called H.O. “It isn't really his fault.”
There was an awkward pause while the pale child sucked my pencil and rolled his eyes. He made the most shocking grimaces I ever saw, but when Chloe turned anxiously to Oswald, he said,
“It's all right; he's not ill; it's only the poetry working out of him.”
Presently he stopped writing, folded the paper very small, and said suddenly and earnestly,
“Have you got a secret staircase here?”
We owned our indigence in this respect.
“We have at the Moat House,” he said. “Have you explored your house thoroughly?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Chloe, with a glorious inspiration, adding, “but you may explore it if you like. Don't make too much hay, that's all! Off you go!”
Noël pressed the paper into Chloe's hand and they rushed from the room, and as they went I heard the words “jolly good sort.”
I drew a long breath.
“What a whirlwind!” I said.
“Children do make a difference in a house,” said Chloe, wistfully.
“They do,” I said, kissing her ears, “all the difference.”
She gave me a doubtful glance.
“My dear little old wife,” I said, “people might think themselves lucky if their children were half as nice as these.”
“They are dears, great dears,” she said, and then we read Noël's poem:
TO THE BLUE PRINCESS LADY WITH THE LUNCH
How good you are to give us lunch,
With pineapple and tongue to munch.
It is a generous thing to do,
And we are very pleased with you.
It is a wonderful thing to find
How many people in the world are kind.
If you would let us explore your house,
We would not harm even a mouse,
And perhaps we might find a pot of gold
Too heavy for you to hold.
Then we should have made your fortune. So
Please do let us go.
You will if you are at all wise.
We should like to find the gold
More than you can hold,
Because you are so soft and blue and pretty and nice.
“Two poems in one day,” I said. “Oh, Chloe, beware of vanity.”
“The dear!” she said. “And, Len, it's not half bad, is it? What extraordinary children!”
I could hear the wave of children surging wildly about the house. I lighted a cigarette, and strove for calm. I seemed to have been living in the embrace of a friendly tornado.
Chloe looked at me anxiously.
“They are dears,” she said, for the fourth time. “I do hope they haven't worried you!”
“Worry's not the word,” said I. “They have electrified, bewildered, enlightened. I never saw children with such energetic enthusiasms. The Morrison boy is a muff; but the others, they are very trusting. The world must have been kind to them.”
“Anybody would be,” she said, “and I hope the world always will.”
There was a silence in the house. I went to see whether the exploring party had drowned itself in the rain-water cistern, which is just the sort of thing that kind of child would do. No; Mary said they were exploring the cellars. As she spoke I heard a thunderous report reverberating below. Our cellars are large and vaulted; from recollections of my childhood, I could conceive that they might seem well worth exploring. But I had not all Chloe's confidence in these strange children. From the little I had seen of them I felt that they were quite capable of organizing a Guy Fawkes play, and carrying it out with scrupulous, enthusiastic fidelity if one of their number should happen, as seemed only too likely, to have any matches and loose gunpowder in his pocket.
Yolande had just come from town, and by a curious coincidence our tenant had come on the same train. I left them talking to Chloe, and went down the cellar steps. Half-way down I was met by an incredibly cobwebby boy.
“I was just coming after you,” he said, eagerly. “Do you know, we've found a door behind some beer-barrels, and Oswald and Denny got in from behind under the dining-room floor; they're hammering on the other side of the door now. There are barrels in front of the door. We rolled one away. Did it make an awful row? They say there's all sorts of things inside. Did you know it was there? And please can we have a candle and matches? We've used all ours.”
One-half at least of my foreboding was justified. I wondered where they had dropped the hot heads of all the matches they had used.
I got some candles and matches, and the cobwebbed child, whose name appeared to be Dickie, led me to a cellar where barrels were piled. Behind them I could just discern the shadowy outline of a door, from which came an intermittent knocking and voices:
“Have you got him?”
“Can you get the barrels away?”
“Can you get the door open, or shall we come back under the floor for the candles? It's a beastly tight fit, and I've split my waistcoat as it is.”
“The last match we lighted we saw some chairs and a mangle.”
There were three boys still in evidence, and the tenant had followed me to see the sport. The girls were as energetic as the boys, and one by one we rolled the barrels away. Curious that Chloe and I had never looked behind those barrels. The door was not fastened. It opened easily, and a shower of dust and cobwebs fell on the heads of the explorers who first pressed forward.
From my soul I congratulated these children. Even to such an adventurous band as this an adventure so exciting could not happen every day.
They were quite right. There was furniture in the inner cellar, odds and ends stowed away, to make room for new stuff, by busy, thrifty hands now long since folded in lavish idleness—hands that, in their life-day, could never bear to destroy or to waste.
We carried the things up-stairs—all but the vast box-mangle and one other thing which I said I would carry up myself later.
We bore into the kitchen, and displayed to the dazzled eyes of Chloe and Yolande, and the contemptuous ones of Mary, a full-sized oak dresser—in four pieces; five chestnut-wood chairs, more or less dilapidated; an oak settle—the seat was broken, but, oh, how our hearts rejoiced in the severe beauty of its panelled back! three ladder-backed chairs—seats gone; a large gate-table; an elm kneading-trough; and the magnificent wreck of a carved four-post bedstead!
The children were as delighted as we were, which is saying a good deal.
“I said we would,” said the poet, triumphantly. “It's not gold, but it is nice. You have lots of nice things. I like the way you stick up warming-pans and brass candlesticks instead of plush brackets and crinkly ornaments.”
A most discerning child, truly! When the children had been partially cleaned, our tenant invited them all to tea at his cottage. Yolande and Chloe went to help.
When they were gone I went down to the cellar and fetched the thing I said I would carry myself. I bore it up to the loafery and cleaned it, and polished it, and mended it a little, and set it by the hearth, in the glow of the fire; and that evening when Yolande and the tenant were deep in chess, I beckoned Chloe, and took her up to the loafery, and, lighting the candles, bade her look.
“Oh, Len,” she cried, throwing her arms round my neck, “it's miles better than the one we go to look at in the shop in Great Portland Street!”
“I meant to give you that for a Christmas present,” I said, “but this is better.” She fell on her knees beside it.
“Oh, look at the dear little daisy carving on the sides, and the little strong panelled hood, and the rockers! Oh, Len, it is lovely! Where did it come from?”
“It was in the cellar,” I said. “Do you like it? No; it's absurd to thank me; thank those outrageous, dear Bastable children.”
“I will,” she said, coming nearer to me. “Len—I've said it before, I know, but they are dears—and they shall come and see the cradle they found when—when it's better worth looking at.”
Presently my wife took me into our room, and, unlocking the corner drawer, showed me all that was in it. Little, little things.