To John Bland
My Lamb, you are so very small,
You have not learned to read at all.
Yet never a printed book withstands
The urgence of your dimpled hands.
So, though this book is for yourself,
Let mother keep it on the shelf
Till you can read. O days that Pass,
That day will come too soon, alas!
The house was three miles from the station, but before the dustyhired fly had rattled along for five minutes, the children began toput their heads out of the carriage window and to say, “Aren’t wenearly there?” And every time they passed a house, which was notvery often, they all said, “Oh, is this it?” But it never was,till they reached the very top of the hill, just past thechalk-quarry and before you come to the gravel-pit. And then therewas a white house with a green garden and an orchard beyond, andmother said, “Here we are!”
“How white the house is,” said Robert.
“And look at the roses,” said Anthea.
“And the plums,” said Jane.
“It is rather decent,” Cyril admitted.
The Baby said, “Wanty go walky”; and the fly stopped with a lastrattle and jolt.
Everyone got its legs kicked or its feet trodden on in the scrambleto get out of the carriage that very minute, but no one seemed tomind. Mother, curiously enough, was in no hurry to get out; andeven when she had come down slowly and by the step, and with nojump at all, she seemed to wish to see the boxes carried in, andeven to pay the driver, instead of joining in that first gloriousrush round the garden and the orchard and the thorny, thistly,briery, brambly wilderness beyond the broken gate and the dryfountain at the side of the house. But the children were wiser,for once. It was not really a pretty house at all; it was quiteordinary, and mother thought it was rather inconvenient, and wasquite annoyed at there being no shelves, to speak of, and hardly acupboard in the place. Father used to say that the ironwork on theroof and coping was like an architect’s nightmare. But the housewas deep in the country, with no other house in sight, and thechildren had been in London for two years, without so much as oncegoing to the seaside even for a day by an excursion train, and sothe White House seemed to them a sort of Fairy Palace set down inan Earthly Paradise. For London is like prison for children,especially if their relations are not rich.
Of course there are the shops and the theatres, and Maskelyne andCook’s, and things, but if your people are rather poor you don’tget taken to the theatres, and you can’t buy things out of theshops; and London has none of those nice things that children mayplay with without hurting the things or themselves — such as treesand sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London isthe wrong sort of shape — all straight lines and flat streets,instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in thecountry. Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure sometiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades ofgrass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grassdon’t grow, everything is like everything else. This is why somany children who live in towns are so extremely naughty. They donot know what is the matter with them, and no more do their fathersand mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, tutors, governesses, andnurses; but I know. And so do you now. Children in the countryare naughty sometimes, too, but that is for quite differentreasons.
The children had explored the gardens and the outhouses thoroughlybefore they were caught and cleaned for tea, and they saw quitewell that they were certain to be happy at the White House. Theythought so from the first moment, but when they found the back ofthe house covered with jasmine, and in white flower, and smellinglike a bottle of the most expensive scent that is ever given for abirthday present; and when they had seen the lawn, all green andsmooth, and quite different from the brown grass in the gardens atCamden Town; and when they had found the stable with a loft over itand some old hay still left, they were almost certain; and whenRobert had found the broken swing and tumbled out of it and got alump on his head the size of an egg, and Cyril had nipped hisfinger in the door of a hutch that seemed made to keep rabbits in,if you ever had any, they had no longer any doubts whatever.
The best part of it all was that there were no rules about notgoing to places and not doing things. In London almost everythingis labelled “You mustn’t touch,” and though the label is invisible,it’s just as bad, because you know it’s there, or if you don’t youjolly soon get told.
The White House was on the edge of a hill, with a wood behind it —and the chalk-quarry on one side and the gravel-pit on the other.Down at the bottom of the hill was a level plain, with queer-shapedwhite buildings where people burnt lime, and a big red brewery andother houses; and when the big chimneys were smoking and the sunwas setting, the valley looked as if it was filled with goldenmist, and the limekilns and oast-houses glimmered and glitteredtill they were like an enchanted city out of the Arabian Nights.
Now that I have begun to tell you about the place, I feel that Icould go on and make this into a most interesting story about allthe ordinary things that the children did — just the kind of thingsyou do yourself, you know — and you would believe every word of it;and when I told about the children’s being tiresome, as you aresometimes, your aunts would perhaps write in the margin of thestory with a pencil, “How true!” or “How like life!” and you wouldsee it and very likely be annoyed. So I will only tell you thereally astonishing things that happened, and you may leave the bookabout quite safely, for no aunts and uncles either are likely towrite “How true!” on the edge of the story. Grown-up people findit very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless theyhave what they call proof. But children will believe almostanything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you thatthe earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly wellthat it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goesround the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sungets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun asit is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse. Yet I daresay you believe all that about the earth and the sun, andif so you will find it quite easy to believe that before Anthea andCyril and the others had been a week in the country they had founda fairy. At least they called it that, because that was what itcalled itself; and of course it knew best, but it was not at alllike any fairy you ever saw or heard of or read about.
It was at the gravel-pits. Father had to go away suddenly onbusiness, and mother had gone away to stay with Granny, who was notvery well. They both went in a great hurry, and when they weregone the house seemed dreadfully quiet and empty, and the childrenwandered from one room to another and looked at the bits of paperand string on the floors left over from the packing, and not yetcleared up, and wished they had something to do. It was Cyril whosaid: “I say, let’s take our Margate spades and go and dig in thegravel-pits. We can pretend it’s seaside.”
“Father said it was once,” Anthea said; “he says there are shellsthere thousands of years old.”
So they went. Of course they had been to the edge of thegravel-pit and looked over, but they had not gone down into it forfear father should say they mustn’t play there, and the same withthe chalk-quarry. The gravel-pit is not really dangerous if youdon’t try to climb down the edges, but go the slow safe way roundby the road, as if you were a cart.
Each of the children carried its own spade, and took it in turns tocarry the Lamb. He was the baby, and they called him that because“Baa” was the first thing he ever said. They called Anthea“Panther”, which seems silly when you read it, but when you say itit sounds a little like her name.
The gravel-pit is very large and wide, with grass growing round theedges at the top, and dry stringy wildflowers, purple and yellow.It is like a giant’s wash-hand basin. And there are mounds ofgravel, and holes in the sides of the basin where gravel has beentaken out, and high up in the steep sides there are the littleholes that are the little front doors of the little sand-martins’little houses.