The Woodbegoods

E. Nesbit

Chapter 3 - Bill's Tombstone


There were soldiers riding down the road, on horses two and two. That is the horses were two and two, and the men not. Because each man was riding one horse and leading another. To exercise them. They came from Chatham Barracks. We all drew up in a line outside the churchyard wall, and saluted as they went by, though we had not read Toady Lion then. We have since. It is the only decent book I have ever read written by Toady Lion's author. The others are mere piffle. But many people like them. In Sir Toady Lion the officer salutes the child.

There was only a lieutenant with those soldiers, and he did not salute me. He kissed his hand to the girls; and a lot of the soldiers behind kissed theirs too. We waved ours back.

Next day we made a Union Jack out of pocket-handkerchiefs and part of a red flannel petticoat of the White Mouse's, which she did not want just then, and some blue ribbon we got at the village shop.

Then we watched for the soldiers, and after three days they went by again, by twos and twos as before. It was A1.

We waved our flag, and we shouted. We gave them three cheers. Oswald can shout loudest. So as soon as the first man was level with us (not the advance guard, but the first of the battery) - he shouted -

'Three cheers for the Queen and the British Army!' And then we waved the flag, and bellowed. Oswald stood on the wall to bellow better, and Denny waved the flag because he was a visitor, and so politeness made us let him enjoy the fat of whatever there was going.

The soldiers did not cheer that day; they only grinned and kissed their hands.

The next day we all got up as much like soldiers as we could. H. O. and Noel had tin swords, and we asked Albert's uncle to let us wear some of the real arms that are on the wall in the dining-room.

And he said, 'Yes', if we would clean them up afterwards. But we jolly well cleaned them up first with Brooke's soap and brick dust and vinegar, and the knife polish (invented by the great and immortal Duke of Wellington in his spare time when he was not conquering Napoleon. Three cheers for our Iron Duke!), and with emery paper and wash leather and whitening. Oswald wore a cavalry sabre in its sheath. Alice and the Mouse had pistols in their belts, large old flint-locks, with bits of red flannel behind the flints. Denny had a naval cutlass, a very beautiful blade, and old enough to have been at Trafalgar. I hope it was. The others had French sword-bayonets that were used in the Franco-German war. They are very bright when you get them bright, but the sheaths are hard to polish. Each sword-bayonet has the name on the blade of the warrior who once wielded it. I wonder where they are now. Perhaps some of them died in the war. Poor chaps! But it is a very long time ago.

I should like to be a soldier. It is better than going to the best schools, and to Oxford afterwards, even if it is Balliol you go to. Oswald wanted to go to South Africa for a bugler, but father would not let him. And it is true that Oswald does not yet know how to bugle, though he can play the infantry 'advance', and the 'charge' and the 'halt' on a penny whistle. Alice taught them to him with the piano, out of the red book Father's cousin had when he was in the Fighting Fifth. Oswald cannot play the 'retire', and he would scorn to do so. But I suppose a bugler has to play what he is told, no matter how galling to the young boy's proud spirit.

The next day, being thoroughly armed, we put on everything red, white and blue that we could think of - night-shirts are good for white, and you don't know what you can do with red socks and blue jerseys till you try - and we waited by the churchyard wall for the soldiers. When the advance guard (or whatever you call it of artillery - it's that for infantry, I know) came by, we got ready, and when the first man of the first battery was level with us Oswald played on his penny whistle the 'advance' and the 'charge' - and then shouted -

'Three cheers for the Queen and the British Army!' This time they had the guns with them. And every man of the battery cheered too. It was glorious. It made you tremble all over. The girls said it made them want to cry - but no boy would own to this, even if it were true. It is babyish to cry. But it was glorious, and Oswald felt differently to what he ever did before.

Then suddenly the officer in front said, 'Battery! Halt!' and all the soldiers pulled their horses up, and the great guns stopped too. Then the officer said, 'Sit at ease,' and something else, and the sergeant repeated it, and some of the men got off their horses and lit their pipes, and some sat down on the grass edge of the road, holding their horses' bridles.

We could see all the arms and accoutrements as plain as plain.

Then the officer came up to us. We were all standing on the wall that day, except Dora, who had to sit, because her foot was bad, but we let her have the three-edged rapier to wear, and the blunderbuss to hold as well - it has a brass mouth and is like in Mr Caldecott's pictures.

He was a beautiful man the officer. Like a Viking. Very tall and fair, with moustaches very long, and bright blue eyes. He said -

'Good morning.'

So did we.

Then he said -

'You seem to be a military lot.'

We said we wished we were.

'And patriotic,' said he.

Alice said she should jolly well think so.

Then he said he had noticed us there for several days, and he had halted the battery because he thought we might like to look at the guns.

Alas! there are but too few grown-up people so far- seeing and thoughtful as this brave and distinguished officer.

We said, 'Oh, yes', and then we got off the wall, and that good and noble man showed us the string that moves the detonator and the breech-block (when you take it out and carry it away the gun is in vain to the enemy, even if he takes it); and he let us look down the gun to see the rifling, all clean and shiny - and he showed us the ammunition boxes, but there was nothing in them. He also told us how the gun was unlimbered (this means separating the gun from the ammunition carriage), and how quick it could be done - but he did not make the men do this then, because they were resting. There were six guns. Each had painted on the carriage, in white letters, 15 Pr., which the captain told us meant fifteen-pounder.

'I should have thought the gun weighed more than fifteen pounds,' Dora said. 'It would if it was beef, but I suppose wood and gun are lighter.'

And the officer explained to her very kindly and patiently that 15 Pr. meant the gun could throw a SHELL weighing fifteen pounds.

When we had told him how jolly it was to see the soldiers go by so often, he said -

'You won't see us many more times. We're ordered to the front; and we sail on Tuesday week; and the guns will be painted mud-colour, and the men will wear mud-colour too, and so shall I.'

The men looked very nice, though they were not wearing their busbies, but only Tommy caps, put on all sorts of ways.

We were very sorry they were going, but Oswald, as well as others, looked with envy on those who would soon be allowed - being grown up, and no nonsense about your education - to go and fight for their Queen and country.

Then suddenly Alice whispered to Oswald, and he said -

'All right; but tell him yourself.'

So Alice said to the captain -

'Will you stop next time you pass?'

He said, 'I'm afraid I can't promise that.'

Alice said, 'You might; there's a particular reason.'

He said, 'What?' which was a natural remark; not rude, as it is with children. Alice said -

'We want to give the soldiers a keepsake and will write to ask my father. He is very well off just now. Look here - if we're not on the wall when you come by, don't stop; but if we are, please, PLEASE do!'

The officer pulled his moustache and looked as if he did not know; but at last he said 'Yes', and we were very glad, though but Alice and Oswald knew the dark but pleasant scheme at present fermenting in their youthful nuts.

The captain talked a lot to us. At last Noel said -

'I think you are like Diarmid of the Golden Collar. But I should like to see your sword out, and shining in the sun like burnished silver.'

The captain laughed and grasped the hilt of his good blade. But Oswald said hurriedly -

'Don't. Not yet. We shan't ever have a chance like this. If you'd only show us the pursuing practice! Albert's uncle knows it; but he only does it on an armchair, because he hasn't a horse.'

And that brave and swagger captain did really do it. He rode his horse right into our gate when we opened it, and showed us all the cuts, thrusts, and guards. There are four of each kind. It was splendid. The morning sun shone on his flashing blade, and his good steed stood with all its legs far apart and stiff on the lawn.

Then we opened the paddock gate, and he did it again, while the horse galloped as if upon the bloody battlefield among the fierce foes of his native land, and this was far more ripping still.

Then we thanked him very much, and he went away, taking his men with him. And the guns of course.

Then we wrote to my father, and he said 'Yes', as we knew he would, and next time the soldiers came by - but they had no guns this time, only the captive Arabs of the desert - we had the keepsakes ready in a wheelbarrow, and we were on the churchyard wall.

And the bold captain called an immediate halt.

Then the girls had the splendid honour and pleasure of giving a pipe and four whole ounces of tobacco to each soldier.

Then we shook hands with the captain, and the sergeant and the corporals, and the girls kissed the captain - I can't think why girls will kiss everybody - and we all cheered for the Queen. It was grand. And I wish my father had been there to see how much you can do with L12 if you order the things from the Stores.

We have never seen those brave soldiers again.

I have told you all this to show you how we got so keen about soldiers, and why we sought to aid and abet the poor widow at the white cottage in her desolate and oppressedness.

Her name was Simpkins, and her cottage was just beyond the churchyard, on the other side from our house. On the different military occasions which I have remarked upon this widow woman stood at her garden gate and looked on. And after the cheering she rubbed her eyes with her apron. Alice noticed this slight but signifying action.

We feel quite sure Mrs Simpkins liked soldiers, and so we felt friendly to her. But when we tried to talk to her she would not. She told us to go along with us, do, and not bother her. And Oswald, with his usual delicacy and good breeding, made the others do as she said.

But we were not to be thus repulsed with impunity. We made complete but cautious inquiries, and found out that the reason she cried when she saw soldiers was that she had only one son, a boy. He was twenty-two, and he had gone to the War last April. So that she thought of him when she saw the soldiers, and that was why she cried. Because when your son is at the wars you always think he is being killed. I don't know why. A great many of them are not. If I had a son at the wars I should never think he was dead till I heard he was, and perhaps not then, considering everything. After we had found this out we held a council.

Dora said, 'We must do something for the soldier's widowed mother.'

We all agreed, but added 'What?'

Alice said, 'The gift of money might be deemed an insult by that proud, patriotic spirit. Besides, we haven't more than eighteenpence among us.'

We had put what we had to father's L12 to buy the baccy and pipes.

The Mouse then said, 'Couldn't we make her a flannel petticoat and leave it without a word upon her doorstep?'

But everyone said, 'Flannel petticoats in this weather?' so that was no go.

Noel said he would write her a poem, but Oswald had a deep, inward feeling that Mrs Simpkins would not understand poetry. Many people do not.

H. O. said, 'Why not sing "Rule Britannia" under her window after she had gone to bed, like waits,' but no one else thought so.

Denny thought we might get up a subscription for her among the wealthy and affluent, but we said again that we knew money would be no balm to the haughty mother of a brave British soldier.

'What we want,' Alice said, 'is something that will be a good deal of trouble to us and some good to her.'

'A little help is worth a deal of poetry,' said Denny.

I should not have said that myself. Noel did look sick.

' What DOES she do that we can help in?' Dora asked. 'Besides, she won't let us help.'

H. O. said, 'She does nothing but work in the garden. At least if she does anything inside you can't see it, because she keeps the door shut.'

Then at once we saw. And we agreed to get up the very next day, ere yet the rosy dawn had flushed the east, and have a go at Mrs Simpkins's garden.

We got up. We really did. But too often when you mean to, overnight, it seems so silly to do it when you come to waking in the dewy morn. We crept downstairs with our boots in our hands. Denny is rather unlucky, though a most careful boy. It was he who dropped his boot, and it went blundering down the stairs, echoing like thunderbolts, and waking up Albert's uncle. But when we explained to him that we were going to do some gardening he let us, and went back to bed.

Everything is very pretty and different in the early morning, before people are up. I have been told this is because the shadows go a different way from what they do in the awake part of the day. But I don't know. Noel says the fairies have just finished tidying up then. Anyhow it all feels quite otherwise.

We put on our boots in the porch, and we got our gardening tools and we went down to the white cottage. It is a nice cottage, with a thatched roof, like in the drawing copies you get at girls' schools, and you do the thatch - if you can - with a B.B. pencil. If you cannot, you just leave it. It looks just as well, somehow, when it is mounted and framed.

We looked at the garden. It was very neat. Only one patch was coming up thick with weeds. I could see groundsel and chickweed, and others that I did not know. We set to work with a will. We used all our tools - spades, forks, hoes, and rakes - and Dora worked with the trowel, sitting down, because her foot was hurt. We cleared the weedy patch beautifully, scraping off all the nasty weeds and leaving the nice clean brown dirt. We worked as hard as ever we could. And we were happy, because it was unselfish toil, and no one thought then of putting it in the Book of Golden Deeds, where we had agreed to write down our virtuous actions and the good doings of each other, when we happen to notice them.

We had just done, and we were looking at the beautiful production of our honest labour, when the cottage door burst open, and the soldier's widowed mother came out like a wild tornado, and her eyes looked like upas trees - death to the beholder.

'You wicked, meddlesome, nasty children!' she said, ain't you got enough of your own good ground to runch up and spoil, but you must come into MY little lot?'

Some of us were deeply alarmed, but we stood firm.

'We have only been weeding your garden,' Dora said; 'we wanted to do something to help you.'

'Dratted little busybodies,' she said. It was indeed hard, but everyone in Kent says 'dratted' when they are cross. 'It's my turnips,' she went on, 'you've hoed up, and my cabbages. My turnips that my boy sowed afore he went. There, get along with you do, afore I come at you with my broom-handle.'

She did come at us with her broom-handle as she spoke, and even the boldest turned and fled. Oswald was even the boldest. 'They looked like weeds right enough,' he said.

And Dicky said, 'It all comes of trying to do golden deeds.' This was when we were out in the road.

As we went along, in a silence full of gloomy remorse, we met the postman. He said -

'Here's the letters for the Moat,' and passed on hastily. He was a bit late.

When we came to look through the letters, which were nearly all for Albert's uncle, we found there was a postcard that had got stuck in a magazine wrapper. Alice pulled it out. It was addressed to Mrs Simpkins. We honourably only looked at the address, although it is allowed by the rules of honourableness to read postcards that come to your house if you like, even if they are not for you.

After a heated discussion, Alice and Oswald said they were not afraid, whoever was, and they retraced their steps, Alice holding the postcard right way up, so that we should not look at the lettery part of it, but only the address.

With quickly-beating heart, but outwardly unmoved, they walked up to the white cottage door.

It opened with a bang when we knocked.

'Well?' Mrs Simpkins said, and I think she said it what people in books call 'sourly'.

Oswald said, 'We are very, very sorry we spoiled your turnips, and we will ask my father to try and make it up to you some other way.'

She muttered something about not wanting to be beholden to anybody.

'We came back,' Oswald went on, with his always unruffled politeness, 'because the postman gave us a postcard in mistake with our letters, and it is addressed to you.'

'We haven't read it,' Alice said quickly. I think she needn't have said that. Of course we hadn't. But perhaps girls know better than we do what women are likely to think you capable of.

The soldier's mother took the postcard (she snatched it really, but 'took' is a kinder word, considering everything) and she looked at the address a long time. Then she turned it over and read what was on the back. Then she drew her breath in as far as it would go, and caught hold of the door-post. Her face got awful. It was like the wax face of a dead king I saw once at Madame Tussaud's.

Alice understood. She caught hold of the soldier's mother's hand and said -

'Oh, NO - it's NOT your boy Bill!'

And the woman said nothing, but shoved the postcard into Alice's hand, and we both read it - and it WAS her boy Bill.

Alice gave her back the card. She had held on to the woman's hand all the time, and now she squeezed the hand, and held it against her face. But she could not say a word because she was crying so. The soldier's mother took the card again and she pushed Alice away, but it was not an unkind push, and she went in and shut the door; and as Alice and Oswald went down the road Oswald looked back, and one of the windows of the cottage had a white blind. Afterwards the other windows had too. There were no blinds really to the cottage. It was aprons and things she had pinned up.

Alice cried most of the morning, and so did the other girls. We wanted to do something for the soldier's mother, but you can do nothing when people's sons are shot. It is the most dreadful thing to want to do something for people who are unhappy, and not to know what to do.

It was Noel who thought of what we COIULD do at last.

He said, 'I suppose they don't put up tombstones to soldiers when they die in war. But there - I mean Oswald said, 'Of course not.'

Noel said, 'I daresay you'll think it's silly, but I don't care. Don't you think she'd like it, if we put one up to HIM? Not in the churchyard, of course, because we shouldn't be let, but in our garden, just where it joins on to the churchyard?'

And we all thought it was a first-rate idea.

This is what we meant to put on the tombstone:

'Here lies
BILL SIMPKINS
Who died fighting for Queen
and Country.'
'A faithful son,
A son so dear,
A soldier brave
Lies buried here.'

Then we remembered that poor brave Bill was really buried far away in the Southern hemisphere, if at all. So we altered it to -

'A soldier brave
We weep for here.'

Then we looked out a nice flagstone in the stable-yard, and we got a cold chisel out of the Dentist's toolbox, and began.

But stone-cutting is difficult and dangerous work.

Oswald went at it a bit, but he chipped his thumb, and it bled so he had to chuck it. Then Dicky tried, and then Denny, but Dicky hammered his finger, and Denny took all day over every stroke, so that by tea-time we had only done the H, and about half the E - and the E was awfully crooked. Oswald chipped his thumb over the H.

We looked at it the next morning, and even the most sanguinary of us saw that it was a hopeless task.

Then Denny said, 'Why not wood and paint?' and he showed us how. We got a board and two stumps from the carpenter's in the village, and we painted it all white, and when that was dry Denny did the words on it.

It was something like this:

'IN MEMORY OF
BILL SIMPKINS
DEAD FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY.
HONOUR TO HIS NAME AND ALL
OTHER BRAVE SOLDIERS.'

We could not get in what we meant to at first, so we had to give up the poetry.

We fixed it up when it was dry. We had to dig jolly deep to get the posts to stand up, but the gardener helped us.

Then the girls made wreaths of white flowers, roses and Canterbury bells, and lilies and pinks, and sweet-peas and daisies, and put them over the posts. And I think if Bill Simpkins had known how sorry we were, he would have been glad. Oswald only hopes if he falls on the wild battlefield, which is his highest ambition, that somebody will be as sorry about him as he was about Bill, that's all!

When all was done, and what flowers there were over from the wreaths scattered under the tombstone between the posts, we wrote a letter to Mrs Simpkins, and said -

DEAR MRS SIMPKINS -

We are very, very sorry about the turnips and things, and we beg your pardon humbly. We have put up a tombstone to your brave son.

And we signed our names. Alice took the letter.

The soldier's mother read it, and said something about our oughting to know better than to make fun of people's troubles with our tombstones and tomfoolery.

Alice told me she could not help crying.

She said -

'It's not! it's NOT! Dear, DEAR Mrs Simpkins, do come with me and see! You don't know how sorry we are about Bill. Do come and see.

We can go through the churchyard, and the others have all gone in, so as to leave it quiet for you. Do come.'

And Mrs Simpkins did. And when she read what we had put up, and Alice told her the verse we had not had room for, she leant against the wall by the grave - I mean the tombstone - and Alice hugged her, and they both cried bitterly. The poor soldier's mother was very, very pleased, and she forgave us about the turnips, and we were friends after that, but she always liked Alice the best. A great many people do, somehow.

After that we used to put fresh flowers every day on Bill's tombstone, and I do believe his mother was pleased, though she got us to move it away from the churchyard edge and put it in a corner of our garden under a laburnum, where people could not see it from the church. But you could from the road, though I think she thought you couldn't. She came every day to look at the new wreaths. When the white flowers gave out we put coloured, and she liked it just as well.

About a fortnight after the erecting of the tombstone the girls were putting fresh wreaths on it when a soldier in a red coat came down the road, and he stopped and looked at us. He walked with a stick, and he had a bundle in a blue cotton handkerchief, and one arm in a sling.

And he looked again, and he came nearer, and he leaned on the wall, so that he could read the black printing on the white paint.

And he grinned all over his face, and he said -

'Well, I AM blessed!'

And he read it all out in a sort of half whisper, and when he came to the end, where it says, 'and all such brave soldiers', he said -

'Well, I really AM!' I suppose he meant he really was blessed. Oswald thought it was like the soldier's cheek, so he said -

'I daresay you aren't so very blessed as you think. What's it to do with you, anyway, eh, Tommy?'

Of course Oswald knew from Kipling that an infantry soldier is called that. The soldier said -

'Tommy yourself, young man. That's ME!' and he pointed to the tombstone.

We stood rooted to the spot. Alice spoke first.

'Then you're Bill, and you're not dead,' she said. 'Oh, Bill, I am so glad! Do let ME tell your mother.'

She started running, and so did we all. Bill had to go slowly because of his leg, but I tell you he went as fast as ever he could.

We all hammered at the soldier's mother's door, and shouted -

'Come out! come out!' and when she opened the door we were going to speak, but she pushed us away, and went tearing down the garden path like winking. I never saw a grown-up woman run like it, because she saw Bill coming.

She met him at the gate, running right into him, and caught hold of him, and she cried much more than when she thought he was dead.

And we all shook his hand and said how glad we were.

The soldier's mother kept hold of him with both hands, and I couldn't help looking at her face. It was like wax that had been painted on both pink cheeks, and the eyes shining like candles. And when we had all said how glad we were, she said -

'Thank the dear Lord for His mercies,' and she took her boy Bill into the cottage and shut the door.

We went home and chopped up the tombstone with the wood-axe and had a blazing big bonfire, and cheered till we could hardly speak.

The postcard was a mistake; he was only missing. There was a pipe and a whole pound of tobacco left over from our keepsake to the other soldiers. We gave it to Bill. Father is going to have him for under-gardener when his wounds get well. He'll always be a bit lame, so he cannot fight any more.