Chapter 15 - 'Lo, The Poor Indian!'
It was all very well for Father to ask us not to make a row because the Indian Uncle was coming to talk business, but my young brother's boots are not the only things that make a noise. We took his boots away and made him wear Dora's bath slippers, which are soft and woolly, and hardly any soles to them; and of course we wanted to see the Uncle, so we looked over the banisters when he came, and we were as quiet as mice - but when Eliza had let him in she went straight down to the kitchen and made the most awful row you ever heard, it sounded like the Day of judgement, or all the saucepans and crockery in the house being kicked about the floor, but she told me afterwards it was only the tea- tray and one or two cups and saucers, that she had knocked over in her flurry. We heard the Uncle say, 'God bless my soul!' and then he went into Father's study and the door was shut - we didn't see him properly at all that time.
I don't believe the dinner was very nice. Something got burned I'm sure - for we smelt it. It was an extra smell, besides the mutton.
I know that got burned. Eliza wouldn't have any of us in the kitchen except Dora - till dinner was over. Then we got what was left of the dessert, and had it on the stairs - just round the corner where they can't see you from the hall, unless the first landing gas is lighted. Suddenly the study door opened and the Uncle came out and went and felt in his greatcoat pocket. It was his cigar-case he wanted. We saw that afterwards. We got a much better view of him then. He didn't look like an Indian but just like a kind of brown, big Englishman, and of course he didn't see us, but we heard him mutter to himself -
'Shocking bad dinner! Eh! - what?'
When he went back to the study he didn't shut the door properly. That door has always been a little tiresome since the day we took the lock off to get out the pencil sharpener H. O. had shoved into the keyhole. We didn't listen - really and truly - but the Indian Uncle has a very big voice, and Father was not going to be beaten by a poor Indian in talking or anything else - so he spoke up too, like a man, and I heard him say it was a very good business, and only wanted a little capital - and he said it as if it was an imposition he had learned, and he hated having to say it. The Uncle said, 'Pooh, pooh!' to that, and then he said he was afraid that what that same business wanted was not capital but management. Then I heard my Father say, 'It is not a pleasant subject: I am sorry I introduced it. Suppose we change it, sir. Let me fill your glass.' Then the poor Indian said something about vintage - and that a poor, broken-down man like he was couldn't be too careful. And then Father said, 'Well, whisky then,' and afterwards they talked about Native Races and Imperial something or other and it got very dull.
So then Oswald remembered that you must not hear what people do not intend you to hear - even if you are not listening and he said, 'We ought not to stay here any longer. Perhaps they would not like us to hear - '
Alice said, 'Oh, do you think it could possibly matter?' and went and shut the study door softly but quite tight. So it was no use staying there any longer, and we went to the nursery.
Then Noel said, 'Now I understand. Of course my Father is making a banquet for the Indian, because he is a poor, broken-down man. We might have known that from "Lo, the poor Indian!" you know.'
We all agreed with him, and we were glad to have the thing explained, because we had not understood before what Father wanted to have people to dinner for - and not let us come in.
'Poor people are very proud,' said Alice, 'and I expect Father thought the Indian would be ashamed, if all of us children knew how poor he was.'
Then Dora said, 'Poverty is no disgrace. We should honour honest Poverty.'
And we all agreed that that was so.
'I wish his dinner had not been so nasty,' Dora said, while Oswald put lumps of coal on the fire with his fingers, so as not to make a noise. He is a very thoughtful boy, and he did not wipe his fingers on his trouser leg as perhaps Noel or H. O. would have done, but he just rubbed them on Dora's handkerchief while she was talking.
'I am afraid the dinner was horrid.' Dora went on. 'The table looked very nice with the flowers we got. I set it myself, and Eliza made me borrow the silver spoons and forks from Albert-next-door's Mother.'
'I hope the poor Indian is honest,' said Dicky gloomily, 'when you are a poor, broken-down man silver spoons must be a great temptation.'
Oswald told him not to talk such tommy-rot because the Indian was a relation, so of course he couldn't do anything dishonourable. And Dora said it was all right any way, because she had washed up the spoons and forks herself and counted them, and they were all there, and she had put them into their wash-leather bag, and taken them back to Albert-next- door's Mother.
'And the brussels sprouts were all wet and swimmy,' she went on, 'and the potatoes looked grey - and there were bits of black in the gravy - and the mutton was bluey-red and soft in the middle. I saw it when it came out. The apple-pie looked very nice - but it wasn't quite done in the apply part. The other thing that was burnt - you must have smelt it, was the soup.'
'It is a pity,' said Oswald; 'I don't suppose he gets a good dinner every day.'
'No more do we,' said H. O., 'but we shall to-morrow.'
I thought of all the things we had bought with our half-sovereign - the rabbit and the sweets and the almonds and raisins and figs and the coconut: and I thought of the nasty mutton and things, and while I was thinking about it all Alice said -
'Let's ask the poor Indian to come to dinner with us to-morrow.' I should have said it myself if she had given me time.
We got the little ones to go to bed by promising to put a note on their dressing-table saying what had happened, so that they might know the first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night if they happened to wake up, and then we elders arranged everything.
I waited by the back door, and when the Uncle was beginning to go Dicky was to drop a marble down between the banisters for a signal, so that I could run round and meet the Uncle as he came out.
This seems like deceit, but if you are a thoughtful and considerate boy you will understand that we could not go down and say to the Uncle in the hall under Father's eye, 'Father has given you a beastly, nasty dinner, but if you will come to dinner with us tomorrow, we will show you our idea of good things to eat.' You will see, if you think it over, that this would not have been at all polite to Father.
So when the Uncle left, Father saw him to the door and let him out, and then went back to the study, looking very sad, Dora says.
As the poor Indian came down our steps he saw me there at the gate.
I did not mind his being poor, and I said, 'Good evening, Uncle,' just as politely as though he had been about to ascend into one of the gilded chariots of the rich and affluent, instead of having to walk to the station a quarter of a mile in the mud, unless he had the money for a tram fare.
'Good evening, Uncle.' I said it again, for he stood staring at me. I don't suppose he was used to politeness from boys - some boys are anything but - especially to the Aged Poor.
So I said, 'Good evening, Uncle,' yet once again. Then he said -
'Time you were in bed, young man. Eh! - what?'
Then I saw I must speak plainly with him, man to man. So I did. I said -
'You've been dining with my Father, and we couldn't help hearing you say the dinner was shocking. So we thought as you're an Indian, perhaps you're very poor' - I didn't like to tell him we had heard the dreadful truth from his own lips, so I went on, 'because of "Lo, the poor Indian" - you know - and you can't get a good dinner every day. And we are very sorry if you're poor; and won't you come and have dinner with us to-morrow - with us children, I mean? It's a very, very good dinner - rabbit, and hardbake, and coconut - and you needn't mind us knowing you're poor, because we know honourable poverty is no disgrace, and - ' I could have gone on much longer, but he interrupted me to say - 'Upon my word! And what's your name, eh?'
'Oswald Bastable,' I said; and I do hope you people who are reading this story have not guessed before that I was Oswald all the time.
'Oswald Bastable, eh? Bless my soul!' said the poor Indian. 'Yes, I'll dine with you, Mr Oswald Bastable, with all the pleasure in life. Very kind and cordial invitation, I'm sure. Good night, sir. At one o'clock, I presume?'
'Yes, at one,' I said. 'Good night, sir.'
Then I went in and told the others, and we wrote a paper and put it on the boy's dressing-table, and it said -
'The poor Indian is coming at one. He seemed very grateful to me for my kindness.'
We did not tell Father that the Uncle was coming to dinner with us, for the polite reason that I have explained before. But we had to tell Eliza; so we said a friend was coming to dinner and we wanted everything very nice. I think she thought it was Albert-next-door, but she was in a good temper that day, and she agreed to cook the rabbit and to make a pudding with currants in it. And when one o'clock came the Indian Uncle came too. I let him in and helped him off with his greatcoat, which was all furry inside, and took him straight to the nursery. We were to have dinner there as usual, for we had decided from the first that he would enjoy himself more if he was not made a stranger of. We agreed to treat him as one of ourselves, because if we were too polite, he might think it was our pride because he was poor.
He shook hands with us all and asked our ages, and what schools we went to, and shook his head when we said we were having a holiday just now. I felt rather uncomfortable - I always do when they talk about schools - and I couldn't think of anything to say to show him we meant to treat him as one of ourselves. I did ask if he played cricket. He said he had not played lately. And then no one said anything till dinner came in. We had all washed our faces and hands and brushed our hair before he came in, and we all looked very nice, especially Oswald, who had had his hair cut that very morning. When Eliza had brought in the rabbit and gone out again, we looked at each other in silent despair, like in books. It seemed as if it were going to be just a dull dinner like the one the poor Indian had had the night before; only, of course, the things to eat would be nicer. Dicky kicked Oswald under the table to make him say something - and he had his new boots on, too! - but Oswald did not kick back; then the Uncle asked -
'Do you carve, sir, or shall I?'
Suddenly Alice said -
'Would you like grown-up dinner, Uncle, or play-dinner?'
He did not hesitate a moment, but said, 'Play-dinner, by all means. Eh! - what?' and then we knew it was all right.
So we at once showed the Uncle how to be a dauntless hunter. The rabbit was the deer we had slain in the green forest with our trusty yew bows, and we toasted the joints of it, when the Uncle had carved it, on bits of firewood sharpened to a point. The Uncle's piece got a little burnt, but he said it was delicious, and he said game was always nicer when you had killed it yourself. When Eliza had taken away the rabbit bones and brought in the pudding, we waited till she had gone out and shut the door, and then we put the dish down on the floor and slew the pudding in the dish in the good old-fashioned way. It was a wild boar at bay, and very hard indeed to kill, even with forks. The Uncle was very fierce indeed with the pudding, and jumped and howled when he speared it, but when it came to his turn to be helped, he said, 'No, thank you; think of my liver. Eh! - what?'
But he had some almonds and raisins - when we had climbed to the top of the chest of drawers to pluck them from the boughs of the great trees; and he had a fig from the cargo that the rich merchants brought in their ship - the long drawer was the ship - and the rest of us had the sweets and the coconut. It was a very glorious and beautiful feast, and when it was over we said we hoped it was better than the dinner last night. And he said:
'I never enjoyed a dinner more.' He was too polite to say what he really thought about Father's dinner. And we saw that though he might be poor, he was a true gentleman.
He smoked a cigar while we finished up what there was left to eat, and told us about tiger shooting and about elephants. We asked him about wigwams, and wampum, and mocassins, and beavers, but he did not seem to know, or else he was shy about talking of the wonders of his native land.
We liked him very much indeed, and when he was going at last, Alice nudged me, and I said - 'There's one and threepence farthing left out of our half-sovereign. Will you take it, please, because we do like you very much indeed, and we don't want it, really; and we would rather you had it.' And I put the money into his hand.
'I'll take the threepenny-bit,' he said, turning the money over and looking at it, 'but I couldn't rob you of the rest. By the way, where did you get the money for this most royal spread - half a sovereign you said - eh, what?'
We told him all about the different ways we had looked for treasure, and when we had been telling some time he sat down, to listen better and at last we told him how Alice had played at divining-rod, and how it really had found a half-sovereign.
Then he said he would like to see her do it again. But we explained that the rod would only show gold and silver, and that we were quite sure there was no more gold in the house, because we happened to have looked very carefully.
'Well, silver, then,' said he; 'let's hide the plate-basket, and little Alice shall make the divining-rod find it. Eh! - what?'
'There isn't any silver in the plate-basket now,' Dora said. 'Eliza asked me to borrow the silver spoons and forks for your dinner last night from Albert-next-door's Mother. Father never notices, but she thought it would be nicer for you. Our own silver went to have the dents taken out; and I don't think Father could afford to pay the man for doing it, for the silver hasn't come back.'
'Bless my soul!' said the Uncle again, looking at the hole in the big chair that we burnt when we had Guy Fawkes' Day indoors. 'And how much pocket-money do you get? Eh! - what?'
'We don't have any now,' said Alice; 'but indeed we don't want the other shilling. We'd much rather you had it, wouldn't we?'
And the rest of us said, 'Yes.' The Uncle wouldn't take it, but he asked a lot of questions, and at last he went away. And when he went he said -
'Well, youngsters, I've enjoyed myself very much. I shan't forget your kind hospitality. Perhaps the poor Indian may be in a position to ask you all to dinner some day.'
Oswald said if he ever could we should like to come very much, but he was not to trouble to get such a nice dinner as ours, because we could do very well with cold mutton and rice pudding. We do not like these things, but Oswald knows how to behave. Then the poor Indian went away.
We had not got any treasure by this party, but we had had a very good time, and I am sure the Uncle enjoyed himself.
We were so sorry he was gone that we could none of us eat much tea; but we did not mind, because we had pleased the poor Indian and enjoyed ourselves too. Besides, as Dora said, 'A contented mind is a continual feast,' so it did not matter about not wanting tea.
Only H. O. did not seem to think a continual feast was a contented mind, and Eliza gave him a powder in what was left of the red-currant jelly Father had for the nasty dinner.
But the rest of us were quite well, and I think it must have been the coconut with H. O. We hoped nothing had disagreed with the Uncle, but we never knew.