This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.
There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, “‘Alas!” said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, “we must look our last on this ancestral home”’—and then some one else says something—and you don’t know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it. Our ancestral home is in the Lewisham Road. It is semi-detached and has a garden, not a large one. We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all. Dora is the eldest. Then Oswald—and then Dicky. Oswald won the Latin prize at his preparatory school—and Dicky is good at sums. Alice and Noel are twins: they are ten, and Horace Octavius is my youngest brother. It is one of us that tells this story—but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don’t. It was Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of very interesting things. And directly he thought of it he did not keep it to himself, as some boys would have done, but he told the others, and said—
‘I’ll tell you what, we must go and seek for treasure: it is always what you do to restore the fallen fortunes of your House.’
Dora said it was all very well. She often says that. She was trying to mend a large hole in one of Noel’s stockings. He tore it on a nail when we were playing shipwrecked mariners on top of the chicken-house the day H. O. fell off and cut his chin: he has the scar still. Dora is the only one of us who ever tries to mend anything. Alice tries to make things sometimes. Once she knitted a red scarf for Noel because his chest is delicate, but it was much wider at one end than the other, and he wouldn’t wear it. So we used it as a pennon, and it did very well, because most of our things are black or grey since Mother died; and scarlet was a nice change. Father does not like you to ask for new things. That was one way we had of knowing that the fortunes of the ancient House of Bastable were really fallen. Another way was that there was no more pocket-money—except a penny now and then to the little ones, and people did not come to dinner any more, like they used to, with pretty dresses, driving up in cabs—and the carpets got holes in them—and when the legs came off things they were not sent to be mended, and we gave up having the gardener except for the front garden, and not that very often. And the silver in the big oak plate-chest that is lined with green baize all went away to the shop to have the dents and scratches taken out of it, and it never came back. We think Father hadn’t enough money to pay the silver man for taking out the dents and scratches. The new spoons and forks were yellowy-white, and not so heavy as the old ones, and they never shone after the first day or two.
Father was very ill after Mother died; and while he was ill his business-partner went to Spain—and there was never much money afterwards. I don’t know why. Then the servants left and there was only one, a General. A great deal of your comfort and happiness depends on having a good General. The last but one was nice: she used to make jolly good currant puddings for us, and let us have the dish on the floor and pretend it was a wild boar we were killing with our forks. But the General we have now nearly always makes sago puddings, and they are the watery kind, and you cannot pretend anything with them, not even islands, like you do with porridge.
Then we left off going to school, and Father said we should go to a good school as soon as he could manage it. He said a holiday would do us all good. We thought he was right, but we wished he had told us he couldn’t afford it. For of course we knew.
Then a great many people used to come to the door with envelopes with no stamps on them, and sometimes they got very angry, and said they were calling for the last time before putting it in other hands. I asked Eliza what that meant, and she kindly explained to me, and I was so sorry for Father.
And once a long, blue paper came; a policeman brought it, and we were so frightened. But Father said it was all right, only when he went up to kiss the girls after they were in bed they said he had been crying, though I’m sure that’s not true. Because only cowards and snivellers cry, and my Father is the bravest man in the world.
So you see it was time we looked for treasure and Oswald said so, and Dora said it was all very well. But the others agreed with Oswald. So we held a council. Dora was in the chair—the big dining-room chair, that we let the fireworks off from, the Fifth of November when we had the measles and couldn’t do it in the garden. The hole has never been mended, so now we have that chair in the nursery, and I think it was cheap at the blowing-up we boys got when the hole was burnt.
‘We must do something,’ said Alice, ‘because the exchequer is empty.’ She rattled the money-box as she spoke, and it really did rattle because we always keep the bad sixpence in it for luck.
‘Yes—but what shall we do?’ said Dicky. ‘It’s so jolly easy to say let’s do something.’ Dicky always wants everything settled exactly. Father calls him the Definite Article.
‘Let’s read all the books again. We shall get lots of ideas out of them.’ It was Noel who suggested this, but we made him shut up, because we knew well enough he only wanted to get back to his old books. Noel is a poet. He sold some of his poetry once—and it was printed, but that does not come in this part of the story.
Then Dicky said, ‘Look here. We’ll be quite quiet for ten minutes by the clock—and each think of some way to find treasure. And when we’ve thought we’ll try all the ways one after the other, beginning with the eldest.’
‘I shan’t be able to think in ten minutes, make it half an hour,’ said H. O. His real name is Horace Octavius, but we call him H. O. because of the advertisement, and it’s not so very long ago he was afraid to pass the hoarding where it says ‘Eat H. O.’ in big letters. He says it was when he was a little boy, but I remember last Christmas but one, he woke in the middle of the night crying and howling, and they said it was the pudding. But he told me afterwards he had been dreaming that they really had come to eat H. O., and it couldn’t have been the pudding, when you come to think of it, because it was so very plain.
Well, we made it half an hour—and we all sat quiet, and thought and thought. And I made up my mind before two minutes were over, and I saw the others had, all but Dora, who is always an awful time over everything. I got pins and needles in my leg from sitting still so long, and when it was seven minutes H. O. cried out—‘Oh, it must be more than half an hour!’
H. O. is eight years old, but he cannot tell the clock yet. Oswald could tell the clock when he was six.
We all stretched ourselves and began to speak at once, but Dora put up her hands to her ears and said—
‘One at a time, please. We aren’t playing Babel.’ (It is a very good game. Did you ever play it?)
So Dora made us all sit in a row on the floor, in ages, and then she pointed at us with the finger that had the brass thimble on. Her silver one got lost when the last General but two went away. We think she must have forgotten it was Dora’s and put it in her box by mistake. She was a very forgetful girl. She used to forget what she had spent money on, so that the change was never quite right.
Oswald spoke first. ‘I think we might stop people on Blackheath—with crape masks and horse-pistols—and say “Your money or your life! Resistance is useless, we are armed to the teeth”—like Dick Turpin and Claude Duval. It wouldn’t matter about not having horses, because coaches have gone out too.’
Dora screwed up her nose the way she always does when she is going to talk like the good elder sister in books, and said, ‘That would be very wrong: it’s like pickpocketing or taking pennies out of Father’s great-coat when it’s hanging in the hall.’
I must say I don’t think she need have said that, especially before the little ones—for it was when I was only four.
But Oswald was not going to let her see he cared, so he said—
‘Oh, very well. I can think of lots of other ways. We could rescue an old gentleman from deadly Highwaymen.’
‘There aren’t any,’ said Dora.
‘Oh, well, it’s all the same—from deadly peril, then. There’s plenty of that. Then he would turn out to be the Prince of Wales, and he would say, “My noble, my cherished preserver! Here is a million pounds a year. Rise up, Sir Oswald Bastable.”’
But the others did not seem to think so, and it was Alice’s turn to say.
She said, ‘I think we might try the divining-rod. I’m sure I could do it. I’ve often read about it. You hold a stick in your hands, and when you come to where there is gold underneath the stick kicks about. So you know. And you dig.’
‘Oh,’ said Dora suddenly, ‘I have an idea. But I’ll say last. I hope the divining-rod isn’t wrong. I believe it’s wrong in the Bible.’
‘So is eating pork and ducks,’ said Dicky. ‘You can’t go by that.’
‘Anyhow, we’ll try the other ways first,’ said Dora. ‘Now, H. O.’
‘Let’s be Bandits,’ said H. O. ‘I dare say it’s wrong but it would be fun pretending.’
‘I’m sure it’s wrong,’ said Dora.
And Dicky said she thought everything wrong. She said she didn’t, and Dicky was very disagreeable. So Oswald had to make peace, and he said—
‘Dora needn’t play if she doesn’t want to. Nobody asked her. And, Dicky, don’t be an idiot: do dry up and let’s hear what Noel’s idea is.’
Dora and Dicky did not look pleased, but I kicked Noel under the table to make him hurry up, and then he said he didn’t think he wanted to play any more. That’s the worst of it. The others are so jolly ready to quarrel. I told Noel to be a man and not a snivelling pig, and at last he said he had not made up his mind whether he would print his poetry in a book and sell it, or find a princess and marry her.
‘Whichever it is,’ he added, ‘none of you shall want for anything, though Oswald did kick me, and say I was a snivelling pig.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Oswald, ‘I told you not to be.’ And Alice explained to him that that was quite the opposite of what he thought. So he agreed to drop it.
Then Dicky spoke.
‘You must all of you have noticed the advertisements in the papers, telling you that ladies and gentlemen can easily earn two pounds a week in their spare time, and to send two shillings for sample and instructions, carefully packed free from observation. Now that we don’t go to school all our time is spare time. So I should think we could easily earn twenty pounds a week each. That would do us very well. We’ll try some of the other things first, and directly we have any money we’ll send for the sample and instructions. And I have another idea, but I must think about it before I say.’
We all said, ‘Out with it—what’s the other idea?’
But Dicky said, ‘No.’ That is Dicky all over. He never will show you anything he’s making till it’s quite finished, and the same with his inmost thoughts. But he is pleased if you seem to want to know, so Oswald said—
‘Keep your silly old secret, then. Now, Dora, drive ahead. We’ve all said except you.’
Then Dora jumped up and dropped the stocking and the thimble (it rolled away, and we did not find it for days), and said—
‘Let’s try my way now. Besides, I’m the eldest, so it’s only fair. Let’s dig for treasure. Not any tiresome divining-rod—but just plain digging. People who dig for treasure always find it. And then we shall be rich and we needn’t try your ways at all. Some of them are rather difficult: and I’m certain some of them are wrong—and we must always remember that wrong things—’
But we told her to shut up and come on, and she did.
I couldn’t help wondering as we went down to the garden, why Father had never thought of digging there for treasure instead of going to his beastly office every day.
I am afraid the last chapter was rather dull. It is always dull in books when people talk and talk, and don’t do anything, but I was obliged to put it in, or else you wouldn’t have understood all the rest. The best part of books is when things are happening. That is the best part of real things too. This is why I shall not tell you in this story about all the days when nothing happened. You will not catch me saying, ‘thus the sad days passed slowly by’—or ‘the years rolled on their weary course’—or ‘time went on’—because it is silly; of course time goes on—whether you say so or not. So I shall just tell you the nice, interesting parts—and in between you will understand that we had our meals and got up and went to bed, and dull things like that. It would be sickening to write all that down, though of course it happens. I said so to Albert-next-door’s uncle, who writes books, and he said, ‘Quite right, that’s what we call selection, a necessity of true art.’ And he is very clever indeed. So you see.
I have often thought that if the people who write books for children knew a little more it would be better. I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading the story and you were writing it. Albert’s uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.
Well, when we had agreed to dig for treasure we all went down into the cellar and lighted the gas. Oswald would have liked to dig there, but it is stone flags. We looked among the old boxes and broken chairs and fenders and empty bottles and things, and at last we found the spades we had to dig in the sand with when we went to the seaside three years ago. They are not silly, babyish, wooden spades, that split if you look at them, but good iron, with a blue mark across the top of the iron part, and yellow wooden handles. We wasted a little time getting them dusted, because the girls wouldn’t dig with spades that had cobwebs on them. Girls would never do for African explorers or anything like that, they are too beastly particular.
It was no use doing the thing by halves. We marked out a sort of square in the mouldy part of the garden, about three yards across, and began to dig. But we found nothing except worms and stones—and the ground was very hard.
So we thought we’d try another part of the garden, and we found a place in the big round flower bed, where the ground was much softer. We thought we’d make a smaller hole to begin with, and it was much better. We dug and dug and dug, and it was jolly hard work! We got very hot digging, but we found nothing.
Presently Albert-next-door looked over the wall. We do not like him very much, but we let him play with us sometimes, because his father is dead, and you must not be unkind to orphans, even if their mothers are alive. Albert is always very tidy. He wears frilly collars and velvet knickerbockers. I can’t think how he can bear to.
So we said, ‘Hallo!’
And he said, ‘What are you up to?’
‘We’re digging for treasure,’ said Alice; ‘an ancient parchment revealed to us the place of concealment. Come over and help us. When we have dug deep enough we shall find a great pot of red clay, full of gold and precious jewels.’
Albert-next-door only sniggered and said, ‘What silly nonsense!’ He cannot play properly at all. It is very strange, because he has a very nice uncle. You see, Albert-next-door doesn’t care for reading, and he has not read nearly so many books as we have, so he is very foolish and ignorant, but it cannot be helped, and you just have to put up with it when you want him to do anything. Besides, it is wrong to be angry with people for not being so clever as you are yourself. It is not always their faults.
So Oswald said, ‘Come and dig! Then you shall share the treasure when we’ve found it.’
But he said, ‘I shan’t—I don’t like digging—and I’m just going in to my tea.’
‘Come along and dig, there’s a good boy,’ Alice said. ‘You can use my spade. It’s much the best—’
So he came along and dug, and when once he was over the wall we kept him at it, and we worked as well, of course, and the hole got deep. Pincher worked too—he is our dog and he is very good at digging. He digs for rats in the dustbin sometimes, and gets very dirty. But we love our dog, even when his face wants washing.
‘I expect we shall have to make a tunnel,’ Oswald said, ‘to reach the rich treasure.’ So he jumped into the hole and began to dig at one side. After that we took it in turns to dig at the tunnel, and Pincher was most useful in scraping the earth out of the tunnel—he does it with his back feet when you say ‘Rats!’ and he digs with his front ones, and burrows with his nose as well.
At last the tunnel was nearly a yard long, and big enough to creep along to find the treasure, if only it had been a bit longer. Now it was Albert’s turn to go in and dig, but he funked it.
‘Take your turn like a man,’ said Oswald—nobody can say that Oswald doesn’t take his turn like a man. But Albert wouldn’t. So we had to make him, because it was only fair.
‘It’s quite easy,’ Alice said. ‘You just crawl in and dig with your hands. Then when you come out we can scrape out what you’ve done, with the spades. Come—be a man. You won’t notice it being dark in the tunnel if you shut your eyes tight. We’ve all been in except Dora—and she doesn’t like worms.’
‘I don’t like worms neither.’ Albert-next-door said this; but we remembered how he had picked a fat red and black worm up in his fingers and thrown it at Dora only the day before. So we put him in.
But he would not go in head first, the proper way, and dig with his hands as we had done, and though Oswald was angry at the time, for he hates snivellers, yet afterwards he owned that perhaps it was just as well. You should never be afraid to own that perhaps you were mistaken—but it is cowardly to do it unless you are quite sure you are in the wrong.
‘Let me go in feet first,’ said Albert-next-door. ‘I’ll dig with my boots—I will truly, honour bright.’
So we let him get in feet first—and he did it very slowly and at last he was in, and only his head sticking out into the hole; and all the rest of him in the tunnel.
‘Now dig with your boots,’ said Oswald; ‘and, Alice, do catch hold of Pincher, he’ll be digging again in another minute, and perhaps it would be uncomfortable for Albert if Pincher threw the mould into his eyes.’
You should always try to think of these little things. Thinking of other people’s comfort makes them like you. Alice held Pincher, and we all shouted, ‘Kick! dig with your feet, for all you’re worth!’
So Albert-next-door began to dig with his feet, and we stood on the ground over him, waiting—and all in a minute the ground gave way, and we tumbled together in a heap: and when we got up there was a little shallow hollow where we had been standing, and Albert-next-door was underneath, stuck quite fast, because the roof of the tunnel had tumbled in on him. He is a horribly unlucky boy to have anything to do with.
It was dreadful the way he cried and screamed, though he had to own it didn’t hurt, only it was rather heavy and he couldn’t move his legs. We would have dug him out all right enough, in time, but he screamed so we were afraid the police would come, so Dicky climbed over the wall, to tell the cook there to tell Albert-next-door’s uncle he had been buried by mistake, and to come and help dig him out.
Dicky was a long time gone. We wondered what had become of him, and all the while the screaming went on and on, for we had taken the loose earth off Albert’s face so that he could scream quite easily and comfortably.
Presently Dicky came back and Albert-next-door’s uncle came with him. He has very long legs, and his hair is light and his face is brown. He has been to sea, but now he writes books. I like him.
He told his nephew to stow it, so Albert did, and then he asked him if he was hurt—and Albert had to say he wasn’t, for though he is a coward, and very unlucky, he is not a liar like some boys are.
‘This promises to be a protracted if agreeable task,’ said Albert-next-door’s uncle, rubbing his hands and looking at the hole with Albert’s head in it. ‘I will get another spade,’ so he fetched the big spade out of the next-door garden tool-shed, and began to dig his nephew out.
‘Mind you keep very still,’ he said, ‘or I might chunk a bit out of you with the spade.’ Then after a while he said—
‘I confess that I am not absolutely insensible to the dramatic interest of the situation. My curiosity is excited. I own that I should like to know how my nephew happened to be buried. But don’t tell me if you’d rather not. I suppose no force was used?’
‘Only moral force,’ said Alice. They used to talk a lot about moral force at the High School where she went, and in case you don’t know what it means I’ll tell you that it is making people do what they don’t want to, just by slanging them, or laughing at them, or promising them things if they’re good.
‘Only moral force, eh?’ said Albert-next-door’s uncle. ‘Well?’
‘Well,’ Dora said, ‘I’m very sorry it happened to Albert—I’d rather it had been one of us. It would have been my turn to go into the tunnel, only I don’t like worms, so they let me off. You see we were digging for treasure.’
‘Yes,’ said Alice, ‘and I think we were just coming to the underground passage that leads to the secret hoard, when the tunnel fell in on Albert. He is so unlucky,’ and she sighed.
Then Albert-next-door began to scream again, and his uncle wiped his face—his own face, not Albert’s—with his silk handkerchief, and then he put it in his trousers pocket. It seems a strange place to put a handkerchief, but he had his coat and waistcoat off and I suppose he wanted the handkerchief handy. Digging is warm work.
He told Albert-next-door to drop it, or he wouldn’t proceed further in the matter, so Albert stopped screaming, and presently his uncle finished digging him out. Albert did look so funny, with his hair all dusty and his velvet suit covered with mould and his face muddy with earth and crying.
We all said how sorry we were, but he wouldn’t say a word back to us. He was most awfully sick to think he’d been the one buried, when it might just as well have been one of us. I felt myself that it was hard lines.
‘So you were digging for treasure,’ said Albert-next-door’s uncle, wiping his face again with his handkerchief. ‘Well, I fear that your chances of success are small. I have made a careful study of the whole subject. What I don’t know about buried treasure is not worth knowing. And I never knew more than one coin buried in any one garden—and that is generally—Hullo—what’s that?’
He pointed to something shining in the hole he had just dragged Albert out of. Oswald picked it up. It was a half-crown. We looked at each other, speechless with surprise and delight, like in books.
‘Well, that’s lucky, at all events,’ said Albert-next-door’s uncle.
‘Let’s see, that’s fivepence each for you.’
‘It’s fourpence—something; I can’t do fractions,’ said Dicky; ‘there are seven of us, you see.’
‘Oh, you count Albert as one of yourselves on this occasion, eh?’
‘Of course,’ said Alice; ‘and I say, he was buried after all. Why shouldn’t we let him have the odd somethings, and we’ll have fourpence each.’
We all agreed to do this, and told Albert-next-door we would bring his share as soon as we could get the half-crown changed. He cheered up a little at that, and his uncle wiped his face again—he did look hot—and began to put on his coat and waistcoat.
When he had done it he stooped and picked up something. He held it up, and you will hardly believe it, but it is quite true—it was another half-crown!
‘To think that there should be two!’ he said; ‘in all my experience of buried treasure I never heard of such a thing!’
I wish Albert-next-door’s uncle would come treasure-seeking with us regularly; he must have very sharp eyes: for Dora says she was looking just the minute before at the very place where the second half-crown was picked up from, and she never saw it.