The stair was of stone, arched overhead like churches.
We Bastables have only two uncles, and neither of them, are our own natural-born relatives. One is a great-uncle, and the other is the uncle from his birth of Albert, who used to live next door to us in the Lewisham Road. When we first got to know him (it was over some baked potatoes, and is quite another story) we called him Albert-next-door’s-Uncle, and then Albert’s uncle for short. But Albert’s uncle and my father joined in taking a jolly house in the country, called the Moat House, and we stayed there for our summer holidays; and it was there, through an accident to a pilgrim with peas in his shoes — that’s another story too — that we found Albert’s uncle’s long-lost love; and as she was very old indeed — twenty-six next birthday — and he was ever so much older in the vale of years, he had to get married almost directly, and it was fixed for about Christmas-time. And when our holidays came the whole six of us went down to the Moat House with Father and Albert’s uncle. We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping. And the long-lost love — her name was Miss Ashleigh, but we were allowed to call her Aunt Margaret even before the wedding made it really legal for us to do so — she and her jolly clergyman brother used to come over, and sometimes we went to the Cedars, where they live, and we had games and charades, and hide-and-seek, and Devil in the Dark, which is a game girls pretend to like, and very few do really, and crackers and a Christmas-tree for the village children, and everything you can jolly well think of.
And all the time, whenever we went to the Cedars, there was all sorts of silly fuss going on about the beastly wedding; boxes coming from London with hats and jackets in, and wedding presents — all glassy and silvery, or else brooches and chains — and clothes sent down from London to choose from. I can’t think how a lady can want so many petticoats and boots and things just because she’s going to be married. No man would think of getting twenty-four shirts and twenty-four waistcoats, and so on, just to be married in.
“It’s because they’re going to Rome, I think,” Alice said, when we talked it over before the fire in the kitchen the day Mrs. Pettigrew went to see her aunt, and we were allowed to make toffee. “You see, in Rome you can only buy Roman clothes, and I think they’re all stupid bright colours — at least I know the sashes are. You stir now, Oswald. My face is all burnt black.”
Oswald took the spoon, though it was really not his turn by three; but he is one whose nature is so that he cannot make a fuss about little things — and he knows he can make toffee.
“Lucky hounds,” H.O. said, “to be going to Rome. I wish I was.”
“Hounds isn’t polite, H.O., dear,” Dora said; and H.O. said —
“Well, lucky bargees, then.”
“It’s the dream of my life to go to Rome,” Noël said. Noël is our poet brother. “Just think of what the man says in the ‘Roman Road.’ I wish they’d take me.”
“They won’t,” Dicky said. “It costs a most awful lot. I heard Father saying so only yesterday.”
“It would only be the fare,” Noël answered; “and I’d go third, or even in a cattle-truck, or a luggage van. And when I got there I could easily earn my own living. I’d make ballads and sing them in the streets. The Italians would give me lyres — that’s the Italian kind of shilling, they spell it with an i. It shows how poetical they are out there, their calling it that.”
“But you couldn’t make Italian poetry,” H.O. said, staring at Noël with his mouth open.
“Oh, I don’t know so much about that,” Noël said. “I could jolly soon learn anyway, and just to begin with I’d do it in English. There are sure to be some people who would understand. And if they didn’t, don’t you think their warm Southern hearts would be touched to see a pale, slender, foreign figure singing plaintive ballads in an unknown tongue? I do. Oh! they’d chuck along the lyres fast enough — they’re not hard and cold like North people. Why, every one here is a brewer, or a baker, or a banker, or a butcher, or something dull. Over there they’re all bandits, or vineyardiners, or play the guitar, or something, and they crush the red grapes and dance and laugh in the sun — you know jolly well they do.”
“This toffee’s about done,” said Oswald suddenly. “H.O., shut your silly mouth and get a cupful of cold water.” And then, what with dropping a little of the toffee into the water to see if it was ready, and pouring some on a plate that wasn’t buttered and not being able to get it off again when it was cold without breaking the plate, and the warm row there was about its being one of the best dinner-service ones, the wild romances of Noël’s poetical intellect went out of our heads altogether; and it was not till later, and when deep in the waters of affliction, that they were brought back to us.
Next day H.O. said to Dora, “I want to speak to you all by yourself and me.” So they went into the secret staircase that creaks and hasn’t been secret now for countless years; and after that Dora did some white sewing she wouldn’t let us look at, and H.O. helped her.
DORA DID SOME WHITE SEWING.
“It’s another wedding present, you may depend,” Dicky said — “a beastly surprise, I shouldn’t wonder.” And no more was said. The rest of us were busy skating on the moat, for it was now freezing hard. Dora never did care for skating; she says it hurts her feet.
And now Christmas and Boxing Day passed like a radiating dream, and it was the wedding-day. We all had to go to the bride’s mother’s house before the wedding, so as to go to church with the wedding party. The girls had always wanted to be somebody’s bridesmaids, and now they were — in white cloth coats like coachmen, with lots of little capes, and white beaver bonnets. They didn’t look so bad, though rather as if they were in a Christmas card; and their dresses were white silk like pocket-handkerchiefs under the long coats. And their shoes had real silver buckles our great Indian uncle gave them. H.O. went back just as the waggonette was starting, and came out with a big brown-paper parcel. We thought it was the secret surprise present Dora had been making, and, indeed, when I asked her she nodded. We little recked what it really was, or how our young brother was going to shove himself forward once again. He will do it. Nothing you say is of any lasting use.
There were a great many people at the wedding — quite crowds. There was lots to eat and drink, and though it was all cold, it did not matter, because there were blazing fires in every fireplace in the house, and the place all decorated with holly and mistletoe and things. Every one seemed to enjoy themselves very much, except Albert’s uncle and his blushing bride; and they looked desperate. Every one said how sweet she looked, but Oswald thought she looked as if she didn’t like being married as much as she expected. She was not at all a blushing bride really; only the tip of her nose got pink, because it was rather cold in the church. But she is very jolly.
Her reverend but nice brother read the marriage service. He reads better than any one I know, but he is not a bit of a prig really, when you come to know him.
When the rash act was done Albert’s uncle and his bride went home in a carriage all by themselves, and then we had the lunch and drank the health of the bride in real champagne, though Father said we kids must only have just a taste. I’m sure Oswald, for one, did not want any more; one taste was quite enough. Champagne is like soda-water with medicine in it. The sherry we put sugar in once was much more decent.
Then Miss Ashleigh — I mean Mrs. Albert’s uncle — went away and took off her white dress and came back looking much warmer. Dora heard the housemaid say afterwards that the cook had stopped the bride on thestairs with “a basin of hot soup, that would take no denial, because the bride, poor dear young thing, not a bite or sup had passed her lips that day.” We understood then why she had looked so unhappy. But Albert’s uncle had had a jolly good breakfast — fish and eggs and bacon and three goes of marmalade. So it was not hunger made him sad. Perhaps he was thinking what a lot of money it cost to be married and go to Rome.
A little before the bride went to change, H.O. got up and reached his brown-paper parcel from under the sideboard and sneaked out. We thought he might have let us see it given, whatever it was. And Dora said she had understood he meant to; but it was his secret.
The bride went away looking quite comfy in a furry cloak, and Albert’s uncle cheered up at the last and threw off the burden of his cares and made a joke. I forget what it was; it wasn’t a very good one, but it showed he was trying to make the best of things.
Then the Bridal Sufferers drove away, with the luggage on a cart — heaps and heaps of it, and we all cheered and threw rice and slippers. Mrs. Ashleigh and some other old ladies cried.
And then every one said, “What a pretty wedding!” and began to go. And when our waggonette came round we all began to get in. And suddenly Father said —
“Where’s H.O.?” And we looked round. He was in absence.
“Fetch him along sharp — some of you,” Father said; “I don’t want to keep the horses standing here in the cold all day.”
So Oswald and Dicky went to fetch him along. We thought he might have wandered back to what was left of the lunch — for he is young and he does not always know better. But he was not there, and Oswald did not even take a crystallised fruit in passing. He might easily have done this, and no one would have minded, so it would not have been wrong. But it would have been ungentlemanly. Dicky did not either. H.O. was not there.
We went into the other rooms, even the one the old ladies were crying in, but of course we begged their pardons. And at last into the kitchen, where the servants were smart with white bows and just sitting down to their dinner, and Dicky said —
“I say, cookie love, have you seen H.O.?”
“Don’t come here with your imperence!” the cook said, but she was pleased with Dicky’s unmeaning compliment all the same.
“I see him,” said the housemaid. “He was colloguing with the butcher in the yard a bit since. He’d got a brown-paper parcel. Perhaps he got a lift home.”
So we went and told Father, and about the white present in the parcel.
“I expect he was ashamed to give it after all,” Oswald said, “so he hooked off home with it.”
And we got into the wagonette.
“It wasn’t a present, though,” Dora said; “it was a different kind of surprise — but it really is a secret.”
Our good Father did not command her to betray her young brother.
But when we got home H.O. wasn’t there. Mrs. Pettigrew hadn’t seen him, and he was nowhere about. Father biked back to the Cedars to see if he’d turned up. No. Then all the gentlemen turned out to look for him through the length and breadth of the land.
“He’s too old to be stolen by gipsies,” Alice said.
“And too ugly,” said Dicky.
“Oh don’t!” said both the girls; “and now when he’s lost, too!”
We had looked for a long time before Mrs. Pettigrew came in with a parcel she said the butcher had left. It was not addressed, but we knew it was H.O.’s, because of the label on the paper from the shop where Father gets his shirts. Father opened it at once.
Inside the parcel we found H.O.’s boots and braces, his best hat and his chest-protector. And Oswald felt as if we had found his skeleton.
“Any row with any of you?” Father asked. But there hadn’t been any.
“Was he worried about anything? Done anything wrong, and afraid to own up?”
We turned cold, for we knew what he meant. That parcel was so horribly like the lady’s hat and gloves that she takes off on the seashore and leaves with a letter saying it has come to this.
“No, no, no, NO!” we all said. “He was perfectly jolly all the morning.”
Then suddenly Dicky leaned on the table and one of H.O.’s boots toppled over, and there was something white inside. It was a letter. H.O. must have written it before we left home. It said —
“Dear Father and Every One, — I am going to be a Clown. When I am rich and reveared I will come back rolling.
“Your affectionate son,
“Horace Octavius Bastable.”
“Rolling?” Father said.
“He means rolling in money,” Alice said. Oswald noticed that every one round the table where H.O.’s boots were dignifiedly respected as they lay, was a horrid pale colour, like when the salt is thrown into snapdragons.
“Oh dear!” Dora cried, “that was it. He asked me to make him a clown’s dress and keep it deeply secret. He said he wanted to surprise Aunt Margaret and Albert’s uncle. And I didn’t think it was wrong,” said Dora, screwing up her face; she then added, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh, oh!” and with these concluding remarks she began to howl.