The Wouldbegoods by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 1. The Jungle
Children are like jam: all very well in the proper place, but you can't stand them all over the shop--eh, what?'
These were the dreadful words of our Indian uncle. They made us feel very young and angry; and yet we could not be comforted by calling him names to ourselves, as you do when nasty grown-ups say nasty things, because he is not nasty, but quite the exact opposite when not irritated. And we could not think it ungentlemanly of him to say we were like jam, because, as Alice says, jam is very nice indeed--only not on furniture and improper places like that. My father said, 'Perhaps they had better go to boarding-school.' And that was awful, because we know Father disapproves of boarding-schools. And he looked at us and said, 'I am ashamed of them, sir!'
Your lot is indeed a dark and terrible one when your father is ashamed of you. And we all knew this, so that we felt in our chests just as if we had swallowed a hard-boiled egg whole. At least, this is what Oswald felt, and Father said once that Oswald, as the eldest, was the representative of the family, so, of course, the others felt the same.
And then everybody said nothing for a short time. At last Father said--
'You may go--but remember--'
The words that followed I am not going to tell you. It is no use telling you what you know before--as they do in schools. And you must all have had such words said to you many times. We went away when it was over. The girls cried, and we boys got out books and began to read, so that nobody should think we cared. But we felt it deeply in our interior hearts, especially Oswald, who is the eldest and the representative of the family.
We felt it all the more because we had not really meant to do anything wrong. We only thought perhaps the grown-ups would not be quite pleased if they knew, and that is quite different. Besides, we meant to put all the things back in their proper places when we had done with them before anyone found out about it. But I must not anticipate (that means telling the end of the story before the beginning. I tell you this because it is so sickening to have words you don't know in a story, and to be told to look it up in the dicker).
We are the Bastables--Oswald, Dora, Dicky, Alice, Noel, and H. O. If you want to know why we call our youngest brother H. O. you can jolly well read The Treasure Seekers and find out. We were the Treasure Seekers, and we sought it high and low, and quite regularly, because we particularly wanted to find it. And at last we did not find it, but we were found by a good, kind Indian uncle, who helped Father with his business, so that Father was able to take us all to live in a jolly big red house on Blackheath, instead of in the Lewisham Road, where we lived when we were only poor but honest Treasure Seekers. When we were poor but honest we always used to think that if only Father had plenty of business, and we did not have to go short of pocket money and wear shabby clothes (I don't mind this myself, but the girls do), we should be happy and very, very good.
And when we were taken to the beautiful big Blackheath house we thought now all would be well, because it was a house with vineries and pineries, and gas and water, and shrubberies and stabling, and replete with every modern convenience, like it says in Dyer & Hilton's list of Eligible House Property. I read all about it, and I have copied the words quite right.
It is a beautiful house, all the furniture solid and strong, no casters off the chairs, and the tables not scratched, and the silver not dented; and lots of servants, and the most decent meals every day--and lots of pocket-money.
But it is wonderful how soon you get used to things, even the things you want most. Our watches, for instance. We wanted them frightfully; but when I had mine a week or two, after the mainspring got broken and was repaired at Bennett's in the village, I hardly cared to look at the works at all, and it did not make me feel happy in my heart any more, though, of course, I should have been very unhappy if it had been taken away from me. And the same with new clothes and nice dinners and having enough of everything. You soon get used to it all, and it does not make you extra happy, although, if you had it all taken away, you would be very dejected. (That is a good word, and one I have never used before.) You get used to everything, as I said, and then you want something more. Father says this is what people mean by the deceitfulness of riches; but Albert's uncle says it is the spirit of progress, and Mrs Leslie said some people called it 'divine discontent'. Oswald asked them all what they thought one Sunday at dinner. Uncle said it was rot, and what we wanted was bread and water and a licking; but he meant it for a joke. This was in the Easter holidays.
We went to live at the Red House at Christmas. After the holidays the girls went to the Blackheath High School, and we boys went to the Prop. (that means the Proprietary School). And we had to swot rather during term; but about Easter we knew the deceitfulness of riches in the vac., when there was nothing much on, like pantomimes and things. Then there was the summer term, and we swotted more than ever; and it was boiling hot, and masters' tempers got short and sharp, and the girls used to wish the exams came in cold weather. I can't think why they don't. But I suppose schools don't think of sensible thinks like that. They teach botany at girls' schools.
Then the Midsummer holidays came, and we breathed again--but only for a few days. We began to feel as if we had forgotten something, and did not know what it was. We wanted something to happen--only we didn't exactly know what. So we were very pleased when Father said--
'I've asked Mr Foulkes to send his children here for a week or two. You know--the kids who came at Christmas. You must be jolly to them, and see that they have a good time, don't you know.'
We remembered them right enough--they were little pinky, frightened things, like white mice, with very bright eyes. They had not been to our house since Christmas, because Denis, the boy, had been ill, and they had been with an aunt at Ramsgate.
Alice and Dora would have liked to get the bedrooms ready for the honoured guests, but a really good housemaid is sometimes more ready to say 'Don't' than even a general. So the girls had to chuck it. Jane only let them put flowers in the pots on the visitors' mantelpieces, and then they had to ask the gardener which kind they might pick, because nothing worth gathering happened to be growing in our own gardens just then.
Their train got in at 12.27. We all went to meet them. Afterwards I thought that was a mistake, because their aunt was with them, and she wore black with beady things and a tight bonnet, and she said, when we took our hats off-- 'Who are you?' quite crossly.
We said, 'We are the Bastables; we've come to meet Daisy and Denny.'
The aunt is a very rude lady, and it made us sorry for Daisy and Denny when she said to them--
'Are these the children? Do you remember them?' We weren't very tidy, perhaps, because we'd been playing brigands in the shrubbery; and we knew we should have to wash for dinner as soon as we got back, anyhow. But still--
Denny said he thought he remembered us. But Daisy said, 'Of course they are,' and then looked as if she was going to cry.
So then the aunt called a cab, and told the man where to drive, and put Daisy and Denny in, and then she said--
'You two little girls may go too, if you like, but you little boys must walk.'
So the cab went off, and we were left. The aunt turned to us to say a few last words. We knew it would have been about brushing your hair and wearing gloves, so Oswald said, 'Good-bye', and turned haughtily away, before she could begin, and so did the others. No one but that kind of black beady tight lady would say 'little boys'. She is like Miss Murdstone in David Copperfield. I should like to tell her so; but she would not understand. I don't suppose she has ever read anything but Markham's History and Mangnall's Questions--improving books like that.
When we got home we found all four of those who had ridden in the cab sitting in our sitting-room--we don't call it nursery now--looking very thoroughly washed, and our girls were asking polite questions and the others were saying 'Yes' and 'No', and 'I don't know'. We boys did not say anything. We stood at the window and looked out till the gong went for our dinner. We felt it was going to be awful--and it was. The newcomers would never have done for knight-errants, or to carry the Cardinal's sealed message through the heart of France on a horse; they would never have thought of anything to say to throw the enemy off the scent when they got into a tight place.
They said 'Yes, please', and 'No, thank you'; and they ate very neatly, and always wiped their mouths before they drank, as well as after, and never spoke with them full.
And after dinner it got worse and worse.
We got out all our books and they said 'Thank you', and didn't look at them properly. And we got out all our toys, and they said 'Thank you, it's very nice' to everything. And it got less and less pleasant, and towards teatime it came to nobody saying anything except Noel and H. O.--and they talked to each other about cricket.
After tea Father came in, and he played 'Letters' with them and the girls, and it was a little better; but while late dinner was going on--I shall never forget it. Oswald felt like the hero of a book--'almost at the end of his resources'. I don't think I was ever glad of bedtime before, but that time I was.
When they had gone to bed (Daisy had to have all her strings and buttons undone for her, Dora told me, though she is nearly ten, and Denny said he couldn't sleep without the gas being left a little bit on) we held a council in the girls' room. We all sat on the bed--it is a mahogany fourposter with green curtains very good for tents, only the housekeeper doesn't allow it, and Oswald said--
'This is jolly nice, isn't it?'
'They'll be better to-morrow,' Alice said, 'they're only shy.'
Dicky said shy was all very well, but you needn't behave like a perfect idiot.
'They're frightened. You see we're all strange to them,' Dora said.
'We're not wild beasts or Indians; we shan't eat them. What have they got to be frightened of?' Dicky said this.
Noel told us he thought they were an enchanted prince and princess who'd been turned into white rabbits, and their bodies had got changed back but not their insides.
But Oswald told him to dry up.
'It's no use making things up about them,' he said. 'The thing is: what are we going to do? We can't have our holidays spoiled by these snivelling kids.'
'No,' Alice said, 'but they can't possibly go on snivelling for ever. Perhaps they've got into the habit of it with that Murdstone aunt. She's enough to make anyone snivel.'
'All the same,' said Oswald, 'we jolly well aren't going to have another day like today. We must do something to rouse them from their snivelling leth--what's its name?--something sudden and--what is it?--decisive.'
'A booby trap,' said H. O., 'the first thing when they get up, and an apple-pie bed at night.'
But Dora would not hear of it, and I own she was right.
'Suppose,' she said, 'we could get up a good play-- like we did when we were Treasure Seekers.'
We said, well what? But she did not say.
'It ought to be a good long thing--to last all day,' Dicky said, 'and if they like they can play, and if they don't--'
'If they don't, I'll read to them,' Alice said.
But we all said 'No, you don't--if you begin that way you'll have to go on.'
And Dicky added, 'I wasn't going to say that at all. I was going to say if they didn't like it they could jolly well do the other thing.'
We all agreed that we must think of something, but we none of us could, and at last the council broke up in confusion because Mrs Blake--she is the housekeeper--came up and turned off the gas.
But next morning when we were having breakfast, and the two strangers were sitting there so pink and clean, Oswald suddenly said--
'I know; we'll have a jungle in the garden.'
And the others agreed, and we talked about it till brek was over. The little strangers only said 'I don't know' whenever we said anything to them.
After brekker Oswald beckoned his brothers and sisters mysteriously apart and said--
'Do you agree to let me be captain today, because I thought of it?'
And they said they would.
Then he said, 'We'll play Jungle Book, and I shall be Mowgli. The rest of you can be what you like--Mowgli's father and mother, or any of the beasts.'
'I don't suppose they know the book,' said Noel. 'They don't look as if they read anything, except at lesson times.'
'Then they can go on being beasts all the time,' Oswald said. 'Anyone can be a beast.'
So it was settled.
And now Oswald--Albert's uncle has sometimes said he is clever at arranging things--began to lay his plans for the jungle. The day was indeed well chosen. Our Indian uncle was away; Father was away; Mrs Blake was going away, and the housemaid had an afternoon off. Oswald's first conscious act was to get rid of the white mice--I mean the little good visitors. He explained to them that there would be a play in the afternoon, and they could be what they liked, and gave them the Jungle Book to read the stories he told them to--all the ones about Mowgli. He led the strangers to a secluded spot among the sea-kale pots in the kitchen garden and left them. Then he went back to the others, and we had a jolly morning under the cedar talking about what we would do when Blakie was gone. She went just after our dinner.
When we asked Denny what he would like to be in the play, it turned out he had not read the stories Oswald told him at all, but only the 'White Seal' and 'Rikki Tikki'.
We then agreed to make the jungle first and dress up for our parts afterwards. Oswald was a little uncomfortable about leaving the strangers alone all the morning, so he said Denny should be his aide-de-camp, and he was really quite useful. He is rather handy with his fingers, and things that he does up do not come untied. Daisy might have come too, but she wanted to go on reading, so we let her, which is the truest manners to a visitor. Of course the shrubbery was to be the jungle, and the lawn under the cedar a forest glade, and then we began to collect the things. The cedar lawn is just nicely out of the way of the windows. It was a jolly hot day--the kind of day when the sunshine is white and the shadows are dark grey, not black like they are in the evening.
We all thought of different things. Of course first we dressed up pillows in the skins of beasts and set them about on the grass to look as natural as we could. And then we got Pincher, and rubbed him all over with powdered slate-pencil, to make him the right colour for Grey Brother. But he shook it all off, and it had taken an awful time to do. Then Alice said--
'Oh, I know!' and she ran off to Father's dressing-room, and came back with the tube of creme d'amande pour la barbe et les mains, and we squeezed it on Pincher and rubbed it in, and then the slate-pencil stuff stuck all right, and he rolled in the dust-bin of his own accord, which made him just the right colour. He is a very clever dog, but soon after he went off and we did not find him till quite late in the afternoon. Denny helped with Pincher, and with the wild-beast skins, and when Pincher was finished he said--
'Please, may I make some paper birds to put in the trees? I know how.'
And of course we said 'Yes', and he only had red ink and newspapers, and quickly he made quite a lot of large paper birds with red tails. They didn't look half bad on the edge of the shrubbery.
While he was doing this he suddenly said, or rather screamed, 'Oh?'
And we looked, and it was a creature with great horns and a fur rug--something like a bull and something like a minotaur--and I don't wonder Denny was frightened. It was Alice, and it was first-class.
Up to now all was not yet lost beyond recall. It was the stuffed fox that did the mischief--and I am sorry to own it was Oswald who thought of it. He is not ashamed of having thought of it. That was rather clever of him. But he knows now that it is better not to take other people's foxes and things without asking, even if you live in the same house with them.
It was Oswald who undid the back of the glass case in the hall and got out the fox with the green and grey duck in its mouth, and when the others saw how awfully like life they looked on the lawn, they all rushed off to fetch the other stuffed things. Uncle has a tremendous lot of stuffed things. He shot most of them himself--but not the fox, of course. There was another fox's mask, too, and we hung that in a bush to look as if the fox was peeping out. And the stuffed birds we fastened on to the trees with string. The duck-bill--what's its name?--looked very well sitting on his tail with the otter snarling at him. Then Dicky had an idea; and though not nearly so much was said about it afterwards as there was about the stuffed things, I think myself it was just as bad, though it was a good idea, too. He just got the hose and put the end over a branch of the cedar-tree. Then we got the steps they clean windows with, and let the hose rest on the top of the steps and run. It was to be a waterfall, but it ran between the steps and was only wet and messy; so we got Father's mackintosh and uncle's and covered the steps with them, so that the water ran down all right and was glorious, and it ran away in a stream across the grass where we had dug a little channel for it--and the otter and the duck-bill-thing were as if in their native haunts. I hope all this is not very dull to read about. I know it was jolly good fun to do. Taking one thing with another, I don't know that we ever had a better time while it lasted.
We got all the rabbits out of the hutches and put pink paper tails on to them, and hunted them with horns made out of The Times. They got away somehow, and before they were caught next day they had eaten a good many lettuces and other things. Oswald is very sorry for this. He rather likes the gardener.
Denny wanted to put paper tails on the guinea-pigs, and it was no use our telling him there was nothing to tie the paper on to. He thought we were kidding until we showed him, and then he said, 'Well, never mind', and got the girls to give him bits of the blue stuff left over from their dressing-gowns.
'I'll make them sashes to tie round their little middles,' he said. And he did, and the bows stuck up on the tops of their backs. One of the guinea-pigs was never seen again, and the same with the tortoise when we had done his shell with vermilion paint. He crawled away and returned no more. Perhaps someone collected him and thought he was an expensive kind unknown in these cold latitudes.
The lawn under the cedar was transformed into a dream of beauty, what with the stuffed creatures and the paper-tailed things and the waterfall. And Alice said--
'I wish the tigers did not look so flat.' For of course with pillows you can only pretend it is a sleeping tiger getting ready to make a spring out at you. It is difficult to prop up tiger-skins in a life-like manner when there are no bones inside them, only pillows and sofa cushions.
'What about the beer-stands?' I said. And we got two out of the cellar. With bolsters and string we fastened insides to the tigers--and they were really fine. The legs of the beer-stands did for tigers' legs. It was indeed the finishing touch.
Then we boys put on just our bathing drawers and vests--so as to be able to play with the waterfall without hurting our clothes. I think this was thoughtful. The girls only tucked up their frocks and took their shoes and stockings off. H. O. painted his legs and his hands with Condy's fluid--to make him brown, so that he might be Mowgli, although Oswald was captain and had plainly said he was going to be Mowgli himself. Of course the others weren't going to stand that. So Oswald said--
'Very well. Nobody asked you to brown yourself like that. But now you've done it, you've simply got to go and be a beaver, and live in the dam under the waterfall till it washes off.'
He said he didn't want to be beavers. And Noel said--
'Don't make him. Let him be the bronze statue in the palace gardens that the fountain plays out of.'
So we let him have the hose and hold it up over his head. It made a lovely fountain, only he remained brown. So then Dicky and Oswald and I did ourselves brown too, and dried H. O. as well as we could with our handkerchiefs, because he was just beginning to snivel. The brown did not come off any of us for days.
Oswald was to be Mowgli, and we were just beginning to arrange the different parts. The rest of the hose that was on the ground was Kaa, the Rock Python, and Pincher was Grey Brother, only we couldn't find him. And while most of us were talking, Dicky and Noel got messing about with the beer-stand tigers.
And then a really sad event instantly occurred, which was not really our fault, and we did not mean to.
That Daisy girl had been mooning indoors all the afternoon with the Jungle Books, and now she came suddenly out, just as Dicky and Noel had got under the tigers and were shoving them along to fright each other. Of course, this is not in the Mowgli book at all: but they did look jolly like real tigers, and I am very far from wishing to blame the girl, though she little knew what would be the awful consequence of her rash act. But for her we might have got out of it all much better than we did. What happened was truly horrid.
As soon as Daisy saw the tigers she stopped short, and uttering a shriek like a railway whistle she fell flat on the ground.
'Fear not, gentle Indian maid,' Oswald cried, thinking with surprise that perhaps after all she did know how to play, 'I myself will protect thee.' And he sprang forward with the native bow and arrows out of uncle's study.
The gentle Indian maiden did not move.
'Come hither,' Dora said, 'let us take refuge in yonder covert while this good knight does battle for us.' Dora might have remembered that we were savages, but she did not. And that is Dora all over. And still the Daisy girl did not move.
Then we were truly frightened. Dora and Alice lifted her up, and her mouth was a horrid violet-colour and her eyes half shut. She looked horrid. Not at all like fair fainting damsels, who are always of an interesting pallor. She was green, like a cheap oyster on a stall.
We did what we could, a prey to alarm as we were. We rubbed her hands and let the hose play gently but perseveringly on her unconscious brow. The girls loosened her dress, though it was only the kind that comes down straight without a waist. And we were all doing what we could as hard as we could, when we heard the click of the front gate. There was no mistake about it.
'I hope whoever it is will go straight to the front door,' said Alice. But whoever it was did not. There were feet on the gravel, and there was the uncle's voice, saying in his hearty manner--
'This way. This way. On such a day as this we shall find our young barbarians all at play somewhere about the grounds.'
And then, without further warning, the uncle, three other gentlemen and two ladies burst upon the scene.
We had no clothes on to speak of--I mean us boys. We were all wet through. Daisy was in a faint or a fit, or dead, none of us then knew which. And all the stuffed animals were there staring the uncle in the face. Most of them had got a sprinkling, and the otter and the duck-bill brute were simply soaked. And three of us were dark brown. Concealment, as so often happens, was impossible.
The quick brain of Oswald saw, in a flash, exactly how it would strike the uncle, and his brave young blood ran cold in his veins. His heart stood still.
'What's all this--eh, what?' said the tones of the wronged uncle.
Oswald spoke up and said it was jungles we were playing, and he didn't know what was up with Daisy. He explained as well as anyone could, but words were now in vain.
The uncle had a Malacca cane in his hand, and we were but ill prepared to meet the sudden attack. Oswald and H. O. caught it worst. The other boys were under the tigers--and of course my uncle would not strike a girl. Denny was a visitor and so got off.
But it was bread and water for us for the next three days, and our own rooms. I will not tell you how we sought to vary the monotonousness of imprisonment. Oswald thought of taming a mouse, but he could not find one. The reason of the wretched captives might have given way but for the gutter that you can crawl along from our room to the girls'. But I will not dwell on this because you might try it yourselves, and it really is dangerous. When my father came home we got the talking to, and we said we were sorry--and we really were--especially about Daisy, though she had behaved with muffishness, and then it was settled that we were to go into the country and stay till we had grown into better children.
Albert's uncle was writing a book in the country; we were to go to his house. We were glad of this--Daisy and Denny too. This we bore nobly. We knew we had deserved it. We were all very sorry for everything, and we resolved that for the future we would be good.
I am not sure whether we kept this resolution or not. Oswald thinks now that perhaps we made a mistake in trying so very hard to be good all at once. You should do everything by degrees.
P.S.--It turned out Daisy was not really dead at all. It was only fainting--so like a girl.
N.B.--Pincher was found on the drawing-room sofa.
Appendix.--I have not told you half the things we did for the jungle--for instance, about the elephants' tusks and the horse-hair sofa-cushions, and uncle's fishing-boots.