We meet these raucous, redoubtable, resourceful children for the first time, as they invent and implement one scheme after another to raise the Bastable Family fortune once more . Back in the day this book was considered “Uproarious;” I think it’s pretty funny, personally.
When we had got that four shillings by digging for treasure we ought, by rights, to have tried Dicky’s idea of answering the advertisement about ladies and gentlemen and spare time and two pounds a week, but there were several things we rather wanted.
Dora wanted a new pair of scissors, and she said she was going to get them with her eight-pence. But Alice said—
‘You ought to get her those, Oswald, because you know you broke the points off hers getting the marble out of the brass thimble.’
It was quite true, though I had almost forgotten it, but then it was H. O. who jammed the marble into the thimble first of all. So I said—
‘It’s H. O.’s fault as much as mine, anyhow. Why shouldn’t he pay?’
Oswald didn’t so much mind paying for the beastly scissors, but he hates injustice of every kind.
‘He’s such a little kid,’ said Dicky, and of course H. O. said he wasn’t a little kid, and it very nearly came to being a row between them. But Oswald knows when to be generous; so he said—
‘Look here! I’ll pay sixpence of the scissors, and H. O. shall pay the rest, to teach him to be careful.’
H. O. agreed: he is not at all a mean kid, but I found out afterwards that Alice paid his share out of her own money.
Then we wanted some new paints, and Noel wanted a pencil and a halfpenny account-book to write poetry with, and it does seem hard never to have any apples. So, somehow or other nearly all the money got spent, and we agreed that we must let the advertisement run loose a little longer.
‘I only hope,’ Alice said, ‘that they won’t have got all the ladies and gentlemen they want before we have got the money to write for the sample and instructions.’
And I was a little afraid myself, because it seemed such a splendid chance; but we looked in the paper every day, and the advertisement was always there, so we thought it was all right.
Then we had the detective try-on— and it proved no go; and then, when all the money was gone, except a halfpenny of mine and twopence of Noel’s and three-pence of Dicky’s and a few pennies that the girls had left, we held another council.
Dora was sewing the buttons on H. O.’s Sunday things. He got himself a knife with his money, and he cut every single one of his best buttons off. You’ve no idea how many buttons there are on a suit. Dora counted them. There are twenty-four, counting the little ones on the sleeves that don’t undo.
Alice was trying to teach Pincher to beg; but he has too much sense when he knows you’ve got nothing in your hands, and the rest of us were roasting potatoes under the fire. We had made a fire on purpose, though it was rather warm. They are very good if you cut away the burnt parts— but you ought to wash them first, or you are a dirty boy.
‘Well, what can we do?’ said Dicky. ‘You are so fond of saying “Let’s do something!” and never saying what.’
‘We can’t try the advertisement yet. Shall we try rescuing some one?’ said Oswald. It was his own idea, but he didn’t insist on doing it, though he is next to the eldest, for he knows it is bad manners to make people do what you want, when they would rather not.
‘What was Noel’s plan?’ Alice asked.
‘A Princess or a poetry book,’ said Noel sleepily. He was lying on his back on the sofa, kicking his legs. ‘Only I shall look for the Princess all by myself. But I’ll let you see her when we’re married.’
‘Have you got enough poetry to make a book?’ Dicky asked that, and it was rather sensible of him, because when Noel came to look there were only seven of his poems that any of us could understand. There was the ‘Wreck of the Malabar’, and the poem he wrote when Eliza took us to hear the Reviving Preacher, and everybody cried, and Father said it must have been the Preacher’s Eloquence. So Noel wrote:
O Eloquence and what art thou?
Ay what art thou? because we cried
And everybody cried inside
When they came out their eyes were red—
And it was your doing Father said.
But Noel told Alice he got the first line and a half from a book a boy at school was going to write when he had time. Besides this there were the ‘Lines on a Dead Black Beetle that was poisoned’—
O Beetle how I weep to see
Thee lying on thy poor back!
It is so very sad indeed.
You were so shiny and black.
I wish you were alive again
But Eliza says wishing it is nonsense and a shame.
It was very good beetle poison, and there were hundreds of them lying dead— but Noel only wrote a piece of poetry for one of them. He said he hadn’t time to do them all, and the worst of it was he didn’t know which one he’d written it to— so Alice couldn’t bury the beetle and put the lines on its grave, though she wanted to very much.
Well, it was quite plain that there wasn’t enough poetry for a book.
‘We might wait a year or two,’ said Noel. ‘I shall be sure to make some more some time. I thought of a piece about a fly this morning that knew condensed milk was sticky.’
‘But we want the money now,’ said Dicky, ‘and you can go on writing just the same. It will come in some time or other.’
‘There’s poetry in newspapers,’ said Alice. ‘Down, Pincher! you’ll never be a clever dog, so it’s no good trying.’
‘Do they pay for it?’ Dicky thought of that; he often thinks of things that are really important, even if they are a little dull.
‘I don’t know. But I shouldn’t think any one would let them print their poetry without. I wouldn’t I know.’ That was Dora; but Noel said he wouldn’t mind if he didn’t get paid, so long as he saw his poetry printed and his name at the end.
‘We might try, anyway,’ said Oswald. He is always willing to give other people’s ideas a fair trial.
So we copied out ‘The Wreck of the Malabar’ and the other six poems on drawing-paper— Dora did it, she writes best—and Oswald drew a picture of the Malabar going down with all hands. It was a full-rigged schooner, and all the ropes and sails were correct; because my cousin is in the Navy, and he showed me.
We thought a long time whether we’d write a letter and send it by post with the poetry— and Dora thought it would be best. But Noel said he couldn’t bear not to know at once if the paper would print the poetry, So we decided to take it.
I went with Noel, because I am the eldest, and he is not old enough to go to London by himself. Dicky said poetry was rot— and he was glad he hadn’t got to make a fool of himself. That was because there was not enough money for him to go with us. H. O. couldn’t come either, but he came to the station to see us off, and waved his cap and called out ‘Good hunting!’ as the train started.
There was a lady in spectacles in the corner. She was writing with a pencil on the edges of long strips of paper that had print all down them. When the train started she asked— ‘What was that he said?’
So Oswald answered— ‘It was “Good hunting”— it’s out of the Jungle Book!’
‘That’s very pleasant to hear,’ the lady said; ‘I am very pleased to meet people who know their Jungle Book. And where are you off to— the Zoological Gardens to look for Bagheera?’
We were pleased, too, to meet some one who knew the Jungle Book.
So Oswald said— ‘We are going to restore the fallen fortunes of the House of Bastable— and we have all thought of different ways— and we’re going to try them all. Noel’s way is poetry. I suppose great poets get paid?’
The lady laughed— she was awfully jolly— and said she was a sort of poet, too, and the long strips of paper were the proofs of her new book of stories. Because before a book is made into a real book with pages and a cover, they sometimes print it all on strips of paper, and the writer make marks on it with a pencil to show the printers what idiots they are not to understand what a writer means to have printed.
We told her all about digging for treasure, and what we meant to do. Then she asked to see Noel’s poetry— and he said he didn’t like— so she said, ‘Look here— if you’ll show me yours I’ll show you some of mine.’ So he agreed.
The jolly lady read Noel’s poetry, and she said she liked it very much. And she thought a great deal of the picture of the Malabar. And then she said, ‘I write serious poetry like yours myself; too, but I have a piece here that I think you will like because it’s about a boy.’ She gave it to us—and so I can copy it down, and I will, for it shows that some grown-up ladies are not so silly as others. I like it better than Noel’s poetry, though I told him I did not, because he looked as if he was going to cry. This was very wrong, for you should always speak the truth, however unhappy it makes people. And I generally do. But I did not want him crying in the railway carriage. The lady’s piece of poetry:
Oh when I wake up in my bed And see the sun all fat and red, I'm glad to have another day For all my different kinds of play. There are so many things to do— The things that make a man of you, If grown-ups did not get so vexed And wonder what you will do next I often wonder whether they Ever made up our kinds of play— If they were always good as gold And only did what they were told. They like you best to play with tops And toys in boxes, bought in shops; They do not even know the names Of really interesting games. They will not let you play with fire Or trip your sister up with wire, They grudge the tea-tray for a drum, Or booby-traps when callers come. They don't like fishing, and it's true You sometimes soak a suit or two: They look on fireworks, though they're dry, With quite a disapproving eye. They do not understand the way To get the most out of your day: They do not know how hunger feels Nor what you need between your meals. And when you're sent to bed at night, They're happy, but they're not polite. For through the door you hear them say: 'He's done his mischief for the day!'
She told us a lot of other pieces but I cannot remember them, and she talked to us all the way up, and when we got nearly to Cannon Street she said— ‘I’ve got two new shillings here! Do you think they would help to smooth the path to Fame?’
Noel said, ‘Thank you,’ and was going to take the shilling. But Oswald, who always remembers what he is told, said— ‘Thank you very much, but Father told us we ought never to take anything from strangers.’
‘That’s a nasty one,’ said the lady—she didn’t talk a bit like a real lady, but more like a jolly sort of grown-up boy in a dress and hat— ‘a very nasty one! But don’t you think as Noel and I are both poets I might be considered a sort of relation? You’ve heard of brother poets, haven’t you? Don’t you think Noel and I are aunt and nephew poets, or some relationship of that kind?’
I didn’t know what to say, and she went on—
‘It’s awfully straight of you to stick to what your Father tells you, but look here, you take the shillings, and here’s my card. When you get home tell your Father all about it, and if he says No, you can just bring the shillings back to me.’
So we took the shillings, and she shook hands with us and said, ‘Good-bye, and good hunting!’
We did tell Father about it, and he said it was all right, and when he looked at the card he told us we were highly honoured, for the lady wrote better poetry than any other lady alive now. We had never heard of her, and she seemed much too jolly for a poet. Good old Kipling! We owe him those two shillings, as well as the Jungle books!