The Sale of Antiquities
It began one morning at breakfast. It was the fifteenth of August--the birthday of Napoleon the Great, Oswald Bastable, and another very nice writer. Oswald was to keep his birthday on the Saturday, so that his Father could be there. A birthday when there are only many happy returns is a little like Sunday or Christmas Eve. Oswald had a birthday-card or two--that was all; but he did not repine, because he knew they always make it up to you for putting off keeping your birthday, and he looked forward to Saturday.
Albert's uncle had a whole stack of letters as usual, and presently he tossed one over to Dora, and said, 'What do you say, little lady? Shall we let them come?'
But Dora, butter-fingered as ever, missed the catch, and Dick and Noel both had a try for it, so that the letter went into the place where the bacon had been, and where now only a frozen-looking lake of bacon fat was slowly hardening, and then somehow it got into the marmalade, and then H. O. got it, and Dora said--
'I don't want the nasty thing now--all grease and stickiness.' So H. O. read it aloud--
'Maidstone Society of Antiquities and Field Club
H. O. stuck fast here, and the writing was really very bad, like a spider that has been in the ink-pot crawling in a hurry over the paper without stopping to rub its feet properly on the mat. So Oswald took the letter. He is above minding a little marmalade or bacon. He began to read. It ran thus:
'It's not Antiquities, you little silly,' he said; 'it's Antiquaries.'
'The other's a very good word,' said Albert's uncle, 'and I never call names at breakfast myself--it upsets the digestion, my egregious Oswald.'
'That's a name though,' said Alice, 'and you got it out of "Stalky", too. Go on, Oswald.'
So Oswald went on where he had been interrupted:
'Maidstone Society of Antiquities and Field Club
'Just so,' said Albert's uncle; 'well, shall we permit the eye of the Maidstone Antiquities to profane these sacred solitudes, and the foot of the Field Club to kick up a dust on our gravel?'
'Our gravel is all grass,' H. O. said.
And the girls said, 'Oh, do let them come!' It was Alice who said--
'Why not ask them to tea? They'll be very tired coming all the way from Maidstone.'
'Would you really like it?' Albert's uncle asked. 'I'm afraid they'll be but dull dogs, the Antiquities, stuffy old gentlemen with amphorae in their buttonholes instead of orchids, and pedigrees poking out of all their pockets.'
We laughed--because we knew what an amphorae is. If you don't you might look it up in the dicker. It's not a flower, though it sounds like one out of the gardening book, the kind you never hear of anyone growing.
Dora said she thought it would be splendid.
'And we could have out the best china,' she said, 'and decorate the table with flowers. We could have tea in the garden. We've never had a party since we've been here.'
'I warn you that your guests may be boresome; however, have it your own way,' Albert's uncle said; and he went off to write the invitation to tea to the Maidstone Antiquities. I know that is the wrong word but somehow we all used it whenever we spoke of them, which was often.
In a day or two Albert's uncle came in to tea with a lightly-clouded brow.
'You've let me in for a nice thing,' he said. 'I asked the Antiquities to tea, and I asked casually how many we might expect. I thought we might need at least the full dozen of the best teacups. Now the secretary writes accepting my kind invitation--'
'Oh, good!' we cried. 'And how many are coming?' 'Oh, only about sixty,' was the groaning rejoinder. 'Perhaps more, should the weather be exceptionally favourable.'
Though stunned at first, we presently decided that we were pleased.
We had never, never given such a big party.
The girls were allowed to help in the kitchen, where Mrs Pettigrew made cakes all day long without stopping. They did not let us boys be there, though I cannot see any harm in putting your finger in a cake before it is baked, and then licking your finger, if you are careful to put a different finger in the cake next time. Cake before it is baked is delicious--like a sort of cream.
Albert's uncle said he was the prey of despair. He drove in to Maidstone one day. When we asked him where he was going, he said--
'To get my hair cut: if I keep it this length I shall certainly tear it out by double handfuls in the extremity of my anguish every time I think of those innumerable Antiquities.'
But we found out afterwards that he really went to borrow china and things to give the Antiquities their tea out of; though he did have his hair cut too, because he is the soul of truth and honour.
Oswald had a very good sort of birthday, with bows and arrows as well as other presents. I think these were meant to make up for the pistol that was taken away after the adventure of the fox-hunting. These gave us boys something to do between the birthday-keeping, which was on the Saturday, and the Wednesday when the Antiquities were to come.
We did not allow the girls to play with the bows and arrows, because they had the cakes that we were cut off from: there was little or no unpleasantness over this.
On the Tuesday we went down to look at the Roman place where the Antiquities were going to dig. We sat on the Roman wall and ate nuts. And as we sat there, we saw coming through the beet-field two labourers with picks and shovels, and a very young man with thin legs and a bicycle. It turned out afterwards to be a free-wheel, the first we had ever seen.
They stopped at a mound inside the Roman wall, and the men took their coats off and spat on their hands.
We went down at once, of course. The thin-legged bicyclist explained his machine to us very fully and carefully when we asked him, and then we saw the men were cutting turfs and turning them over and rolling them up and putting them in a heap. So we asked the gentleman with the thin legs what they were doing. He said--
'They are beginning the preliminary excavation in readiness for to-morrow.'
'What's up to-morrow?' H. O. asked.
'To-morrow we propose to open this barrow and examine it.'
'Then you're the Antiquities?' said H. O.
'I'm the secretary,' said the gentleman, smiling, but narrowly.
'Oh, you're all coming to tea with us,' Dora said, and added anxiously, 'how many of you do you think there'll be?'
'Oh, not more than eighty or ninety, I should think,' replied the gentleman.
This took our breath away and we went home. As we went, Oswald, who notices many things that would pass unobserved by the light and careless, saw Denny frowning hard. So he said, 'What's up?'
'I've got an idea,' the Dentist said. 'Let's call a council.' The Dentist had grown quite used to our ways now. We had called him Dentist ever since the fox-hunt day. He called a council as if he had been used to calling such things all his life, and having them come, too; whereas we all know that his former existing was that of a white mouse in a trap, with that cat of a Murdstone aunt watching him through the bars.
(That is what is called a figure of speech. Albert's uncle told me.)
Councils are held in the straw-loft. As soon as we were all there, and the straw had stopped rustling after our sitting down, Dicky said--
'I hope it's nothing to do with the Wouldbegoods?'
'No,' said Denny in a hurry: 'quite the opposite.'
'I hope it's nothing wrong,' said Dora and Daisy together.
'It's--it's "Hail to thee, blithe spirit--bird thou never wert",' said Denny. 'I mean, I think it's what is called a lark.'
'You never know your luck. Go on, Dentist,' said Dicky.
'Well, then, do you know a book called The Daisy Chain?'
'It's by Miss Charlotte M. Yonge,' Daisy interrupted, 'and it's about a family of poor motherless children who tried so hard to be good, and they were confirmed, and had a bazaar, and went to church at the Minster, and one of them got married and wore black watered silk and silver ornaments. So her baby died, and then she was sorry she had not been a good mother to it. And--' Here Dicky got up and said he'd got some snares to attend to, and he'd receive a report of the Council after it was over. But he only got as far as the trap-door, and then Oswald, the fleet of foot, closed with him, and they rolled together on the floor, while all the others called out 'Come back! Come back!' like guinea-hens on a fence.
Through the rustle and bustle and hustle of the struggle with Dicky, Oswald heard the voice of Denny murmuring one of his everlasting quotations--
'"Come back, come back!" he cried in Greek, "Across the stormy water, And I'll forgive your Highland cheek, My daughter, O my daughter!"'
When quiet was restored and Dicky had agreed to go through with the Council, Denny said--
'The Daisy Chain is not a bit like that really. It's a ripping book. One of the boys dresses up like a lady and comes to call, and another tries to hit his little sister with a hoe. It's jolly fine, I tell you.'
Denny is learning to say what he thinks, just like other boys. He would never have learnt such words as 'ripping' and 'jolly fine' while under the auntal tyranny.
Since then I have read The Daisy Chain. It is a first-rate book for girls and little boys.
But we did not want to talk about The Daisy Chain just then, so Oswald said--
'But what's your lark?'Denny got pale pink and said--
'Don't hurry me. I'll tell you directly. Let me think a minute.'
Then he shut his pale pink eyelids a moment in thought, and then opened them and stood up on the straw and said very fast--
'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, or if not ears, pots. You know Albert's uncle said they were going to open the barrow, to look for Roman remains to-morrow. Don't you think it seems a pity they shouldn't find any?'
'Perhaps they will,' Dora said.
But Oswald saw, and he said 'Primus! Go ahead, old man.'
The Dentist went ahead.
'In The Daisy Chain,' he said, 'they dug in a Roman encampment and the children went first and put some pottery there they'd made themselves, and Harry's old medal of the Duke of Wellington. The doctor helped them to some stuff to partly efface the inscription, and all the grown-ups were sold. I thought we might--
'You may break, you may shatter The vase if you will; But the scent of the Romans Will cling round it still.'
Denny sat down amid applause. It really was a great idea, at least for him. It seemed to add just what was wanted to the visit of the Maidstone Antiquities. To sell the Antiquities thoroughly would be indeed splendiferous. Of course Dora made haste to point out that we had not got an old medal of the Duke of Wellington, and that we hadn't any doctor who would 'help us to stuff to efface', and etcetera; but we sternly bade her stow it. We weren't going to do exactly like those Daisy Chain kids.
The pottery was easy. We had made a lot of it by the stream--which was the Nile when we discovered its source--and dried it in the sun, and then baked it under a bonfire, like in Foul Play. And most of the things were such queer shapes that they should have done for almost anything--Roman or Greek, or even Egyptian or antediluvian, or household milk-jugs of the cavemen, Albert's uncle said. The pots were, fortunately, quite ready and dirty, because we had already buried them in mixed sand and river mud to improve the colour, and not remembered to wash it off.
So the Council at once collected it all--and some rusty hinges and some brass buttons and a file without a handle; and the girl Councillors carried it all concealed in their pinafores, while the men members carried digging tools. H. O. and Daisy were sent on ahead as scouts to see if the coast was clear. We have learned the true usefulness of scouts from reading about the Transvaal War. But all was still in the hush of evening sunset on the Roman ruin.
We posted sentries, who were to lie on their stomachs on the walls and give a long, low, signifying whistle if aught approached.
Then we dug a tunnel, like the one we once did after treasure, when we happened to bury a boy. It took some time; but never shall it be said that a Bastable grudged time or trouble when a lark was at stake. We put the things in as naturally as we could, and shoved the dirt back, till everything looked just as before. Then we went home, late for tea. But it was in a good cause; and there was no hot toast, only bread-and-butter, which does not get cold with waiting.
That night Alice whispered to Oswald on the stairs, as we went up to bed--
'Meet me outside your door when the others are asleep. Hist! Not a word.'
Oswald said, 'No kid?' And she replied in the affirmation.
So he kept awake by biting his tongue and pulling his hair--for he shrinks from no pain if it is needful and right.
And when the others all slept the sleep of innocent youth, he got up and went out, and there was Alice dressed.
She said, 'I've found some broken things that look ever so much more Roman--they were on top of the cupboard in the library. If you'll come with me, we'll bury them just to see how surprised the others will be.'
It was a wild and daring act, but Oswald did not mind.
'Wait half a shake.' And he put on his knickerbockers and jacket, and slipped a few peppermints into his pocket in case of catching cold. It is these thoughtful expedients which mark the born explorer and adventurer.
It was a little cold; but the white moonlight was very fair to see, and we decided we'd do some other daring moonlight act some other day. We got out of the front door, which is never locked till Albert's uncle goes to bed at twelve or one, and we ran swiftly and silently across the bridge and through the fields to the Roman ruin.
Alice told me afterwards she should have been afraid if it had been dark. But the moonlight made it as bright as day is in your dreams.
Oswald had taken the spade and a sheet of newspaper.
We did not take all the pots Alice had found--but just the two that weren't broken--two crooked jugs, made of stuff like flower-pots are made of. We made two long cuts with the spade and lifted the turf up and scratched the earth under, and took it out very carefully in handfuls on to the newspaper, till the hole was deepish. Then we put in the jugs, and filled it up with earth and flattened the turf over. Turf stretches like elastic. This we did a couple of yards from the place where the mound was dug into by the men, and we had been so careful with the newspaper that there was no loose earth about.
Then we went home in the wet moonlight--at least the grass was very wet--chuckling through the peppermint, and got up to bed without anyone knowing a single thing about it.
The next day the Antiquities came. It was a jolly hot day, and the tables were spread under the trees on the lawn, like a large and very grand Sunday-school treat. There were dozens of different kinds of cake, and bread-and-butter, both white and brown, and gooseberries and plums and jam sandwiches. And the girls decorated the tables with flowers--blue larkspur and white Canterbury bells. And at about three there was a noise of people walking in the road, and presently the Antiquities began to come in at the front gate, and stood about on the lawn by twos and threes and sixes and sevens, looking shy and uncomfy, exactly like a Sunday-school treat. Presently some gentlemen came, who looked like the teachers; they were not shy, and they came right up to the door. So Albert's uncle, who had not been too proud to be up in our room with us watching the people on the lawn through the netting of our short blinds, said--
'I suppose that's the Committee. Come on!'
So we all went down--we were in our Sunday things--and Albert's uncle received the Committee like a feudal system baron, and we were his retainers.
He talked about dates, and king posts and gables, and mullions, and foundations, and records, and Sir Thomas Wyatt, and poetry, and Julius Caesar, and Roman remains, and lych gates and churches, and dog's-tooth moulding till the brain of Oswald reeled. I suppose that Albert's uncle remarked that all our mouths were open, which is a sign of reels in the brain, for he whispered--
'Go hence, and mingle unsuspected with the crowd!'
So we went out on to the lawn, which was now crowded with men and women and one child. This was a girl; she was fat, and we tried to talk to her, though we did not like her. (She was covered in red velvet like an arm-chair.) But she wouldn't. We thought at first she was from a deaf-and-dumb asylum, where her kind teachers had only managed to teach the afflicted to say 'Yes' and 'No'. But afterwards we knew better, for Noel heard her say to her mother, 'I wish you hadn't brought me, mamma. I didn't have a pretty teacup, and I haven't enjoyed my tea one bit.' And she had had five pieces of cake, besides little cakes and nearly a whole plate of plums, and there were only twelve pretty teacups altogether.
Several grown-ups talked to us in a most uninterested way, and then the President read a paper about the Moat House, which we couldn't understand, and other people made speeches we couldn't understand either, except the part about kind hospitality, which made us not know where to look.
Then Dora and Alice and Daisy and Mrs Pettigrew poured out the tea, and we handed cups and plates.
Albert's uncle took me behind a bush to see him tear what was left of his hair when he found there were one hundred and twenty-three Antiquities present, and I heard the President say to the Secretary that 'tea always fetched them'.
Then it was time for the Roman ruin, and our hearts beat high as we took our hats--it was exactly like Sunday--and joined the crowded procession of eager Antiquities. Many of them had umbrellas and overcoats, though the weather was fiery and without a cloud. That is the sort of people they were. The ladies all wore stiff bonnets, and no one took their gloves off, though, of course, it was quite in the country, and it is not wrong to take your gloves off there.
We had planned to be quite close when the digging went on; but Albert's uncle made us a mystic sign and drew us apart.
Then he said: 'The stalls and dress circle are for the guests. The hosts and hostesses retire to the gallery, whence, I am credibly informed, an excellent view may be obtained.'
So we all went up on the Roman walls, and thus missed the cream of the lark; for we could not exactly see what was happening. But we saw that things were being taken from the ground as the men dug, and passed round for the Antiquities to look at. And we knew they must be our Roman remains; but the Antiquities did not seem to care for them much, though we heard sounds of pleased laughter. And at last Alice and I exchanged meaning glances when the spot was reached where we had put in the extras. Then the crowd closed up thick, and we heard excited talk and we knew we really had sold the Antiquities this time.
Presently the bonnets and coats began to spread out and trickle towards the house and we were aware that all would soon be over. So we cut home the back way, just in time to hear the President saying to Albert's uncle--
'A genuine find--most interesting. Oh, really, you ought to have one. Well, if you insist--'
And so, by slow and dull degrees, the thick sprinkling of Antiquities melted off the lawn; the party was over, and only the dirty teacups and plates, and the trampled grass and the pleasures of memory were left.
We had a very beautiful supper--out of doors, too-- with jam sandwiches and cakes and things that were over; and as we watched the setting monarch of the skies--I mean the sun--Alice said--
We let the Dentist tell, because it was he who hatched the lark, but we helped him a little in the narrating of the fell plot, because he has yet to learn how to tell a story straight from the beginning.
When he had done, and we had done, Albert's uncle said, 'Well, it amused you; and you'll be glad to learn that it amused your friends the Antiquities.'
'Didn't they think they were Roman?' Daisy said; 'they did in The Daisy Chain.'
'Not in the least,' said Albert's uncle; 'but the Treasurer and Secretary were charmed by your ingenious preparations for their reception.'
'We didn't want them to be disappointed,' said Dora.
'They weren't,' said Albert's uncle. 'Steady on with those plums, H.O. A little way beyond the treasure you had prepared for them they found two specimens of real Roman pottery which sent every man-jack of them home thanking his stars he had been born a happy little Antiquary child.'
'Those were our jugs,' said Alice, 'and we really have sold the Antiquities. She unfolded the tale about our getting the jugs and burying them in the moonlight, and the mound; and the others listened with deeply respectful interest. 'We really have done it this time, haven't we?' she added in tones of well-deserved triumph.
But Oswald had noticed a queer look about Albert's uncle from almost the beginning of Alice's recital; and he now had the sensation of something being up, which has on other occasions frozen his noble blood. The silence of Albert's uncle now froze it yet more Arcticly.
'Haven't we?' repeated Alice, unconscious of what her sensitive brother's delicate feelings had already got hold of. 'We have done it this time, haven't we?'
'Since you ask me thus pointedly,' answered Albert's uncle at last, 'I cannot but confess that I think you have indeed done it. Those pots on the top of the library cupboard are Roman pottery. The amphorae which you hid in the mound are probably--I can't say for certain, mind--priceless. They are the property of the owner of this house. You have taken them out and buried them. The President of the Maidstone Antiquarian Society has taken them away in his bag. Now what are you going to do?'
Alice and I did not know what to say, or where to look. The others added to our pained position by some ungenerous murmurs about our not being so jolly clever as we thought ourselves.
There was a very far from pleasing silence. Then Oswald got up. He said--
'Alice, come here a sec; I want to speak to you.'
As Albert's uncle had offered no advice, Oswald disdained to ask him for any.
Alice got up too, and she and Oswald went into the garden, and sat down on the bench under the quince tree, and wished they had never tried to have a private lark of their very own with the Antiquities --'A Private Sale', Albert's uncle called it afterwards. But regrets, as nearly always happens, were vain. Something had to be done.
Oswald and Alice sat in silent desperateness, and the voices of the gay and careless others came to them from the lawn, where, heartless in their youngness, they were playing tag. I don't know how they could. Oswald would not like to play tag when his brother and sister were in a hole, but Oswald is an exception to some boys.
But Dicky told me afterwards he thought it was only a joke of Albert's uncle's.
The dusk grew dusker, till you could hardly tell the quinces from the leaves, and Alice and Oswald still sat exhausted with hard thinking, but they could not think of anything. And it grew so dark that the moonlight began to show.
Then Alice jumped up--just as Oswald was opening his mouth to say the same thing--and said, 'Of course--how silly! I know. Come on in, Oswald.' And they went on in.
Oswald was still far too proud to consult anyone else. But he just asked carelessly if Alice and he might go into Maidstone the next day to buy some wire-netting for a rabbit-hutch, and to see after one or two things.
Albert's uncle said certainly. And they went by train with the bailiff from the farm, who was going in about some sheep-dip and too buy pigs. At any other time Oswald would not have been able to bear to leave the bailiff without seeing the pigs bought. But now it was different. For he and Alice had the weight on their bosoms of being thieves without having meant it--and nothing, not even pigs, had power to charm the young but honourable Oswald till that stain had been wiped away.
So he took Alice to the Secretary of the Maidstone Antiquities' house, and Mr Turnbull was out, but the maid-servant kindly told us where the President lived, and ere long the trembling feet of the unfortunate brother and sister vibrated on the spotless gravel of Camperdown Villa.
When they asked, they were told that Mr Longchamps was at home. Then they waited, paralysed with undescribed emotions, in a large room with books and swords and glass bookcases with rotten-looking odds and ends in them. Mr Longchamps was a collector. That means he stuck to anything, no matter how ugly and silly, if only it was old.
He came in rubbing his hands, and very kind. He remembered us very well, he said, and asked what he could do for us.
Oswald for once was dumb. He could not find words in which to own himself the ass he had been. But Alice was less delicately moulded. She said--
'Oh, if you please, we are most awfully sorry, and we hope you'll forgive us, but we thought it would be such a pity for you and all the other poor dear Antiquities to come all that way and then find nothing Roman--so we put some pots and things in the barrow for you to find.'
'So I perceived,' said the President, stroking his white beard and smiling most agreeably at us; 'a harmless joke, my dear! Youth's the season for jesting. There's no harm done--pray think no more about it. It's very honourable of you to come and apologize, I'm sure.'
His brow began to wear the furrowed, anxious look of one who would fain be rid of his guests and get back to what he was doing before they interrupted him.
Alice said, 'We didn't come for that. It's much worse. Those were two real true Roman jugs you took away; we put them there; they aren't ours. We didn't know they were real Roman. We wanted to sell the Antiquities--I mean Antiquaries--and we were sold ourselves.'
'This is serious,' said the gentleman. 'I suppose you'd know the--the "jugs" if you saw them again?'
'Anywhere,' said Oswald, with the confidential rashness of one who does not know what he is talking about.
Mr Longchamps opened the door of a little room leading out of the one we were in, and beckoned us to follow. We found ourselves amid shelves and shelves of pottery of all sorts; and two whole shelves --small ones--were filled with the sort of jug we wanted.
'Well,' said the President, with a veiled menacing sort of smile, like a wicked cardinal, 'which is it?'
Oswald said, 'I don't know.'
Alice said, 'I should know if I had it in my hand.'
The President patiently took the jugs down one after another, and Alice tried to look inside them. And one after another she shook her head and gave them back. At last she said, 'You didn't wash them?'
Mr Longchamps shuddered and said 'No'.
'Then,' said Alice, 'there is something written with lead-pencil inside both the jugs. I wish I hadn't. I would rather you didn't read it. I didn't know it would be a nice old gentleman like you would find it. I thought it would be the younger gentleman with the thin legs and the narrow smile.'
'Mr Turnbull.' The President seemed to recognize the description unerringly. 'Well, well--boys will be boys--girls, I mean. I won't be angry. Look at all the "jugs" and see if you can find yours.'
Alice did--and the next one she looked at she said, 'This is one'--and two jugs further on she said, 'This is the other.'
'Well,' the President said, 'these are certainly the specimens which I obtained yesterday. If your uncle will call on me I will return them to him. But it's a disappointment. Yes, I think you must let me look inside.'
He did. And at the first one he said nothing. At the second he laughed.
'Well, well,' he said, 'we can't expect old heads on young shoulders. You're not the first who went forth to shear and returned shorn. Nor, it appears, am I. Next time you have a Sale of Antiquities, take care that you yourself are not "sold". Good-day to you, my dear. Don't let the incident prey on your mind,' he said to Alice. 'Bless your heart, I was a boy once myself, unlikely as you may think it. Good-bye.'
We were in time to see the pigs bought after all.
I asked Alice what on earth it was she'd scribbled inside the beastly jugs, and she owned that just to make the lark complete she had written 'Sucks' in one of the jugs, and 'Sold again, silly', in the other.
But we know well enough who it was that was sold. And if ever we have any Antiquities to tea again, they shan't find so much as a Greek waistcoat button if we can help it.
Unless it's the President, for he did not behave at all badly. For a man of his age I think he behaved exceedingly well. Oswald can picture a very different scene having been enacted over those rotten pots if the President had been an otherwise sort of man.
But that picture is not pleasing, so Oswald will not distress you by drawing it for you. You can most likely do it easily for yourself.