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A short story by Edith Nesbit

The Arsenicators, A Tale Of Crime

Title:     The Arsenicators, A Tale Of Crime
Author: Edith Nesbit [More Titles by Nesbit]

It was Mrs. Beale who put it into our heads that Miss Sandal lived plain because she was poor. We knew she thought high, because that is what you jolly well have to do if you are a vegetationist and an all-wooler, and those sort of things.

And we tried to get money for her, like we had once tried to do for ourselves. And we succeeded by means that have been told alone in another place in getting two golden pounds.

Then, of course, we began to wonder what we had better do with the two pounds now we had got them.

'Put them in the savings-bank,' Dora said.

Alice said:

'Why, when we could have them to look at?'

Noel thought we ought to buy her something beautiful to adorn Miss Sandal's bare dwelling.

H. O. thought we might spend it on nice tinned and potted things from the stores, to make the plain living and high thinking go down better.

But Oswald knew that, however nice the presents are that other people buy for you, it is really more satisfying to have the chink to spend exactly as you like.

Then Dicky said:

'I don't believe in letting money lie idle. Father always says it's bad business.'

'They give interest at the bank, don't they?' Dora said.

'Yes; tuppence a year, or some rot like that! We ought to go into trade with it, and try to make more of it. That's what we ought to do.'

'If it's Miss Sandal's money, do you think we ought to do anything with it without asking her?'

'It isn't hers till she's got it, and it is hers because it's not ours to spend. I think we're--what is it?--_in loco parentis_ to that two quid, because anyone can see poor Miss Sandal doesn't know how to manage her money. And it will be much better if we give her ten pounds than just two.'

This is how Dicky argued.

We were sitting on the sands when this council took place, and Alice said, 'Suppose we bought a shrimping-net, and sold shrimps from our window in red handkerchiefs and white French caps.' But we asked her how she would like going into the sea nearly up to her neck in all weathers, and she had to own she had not thought of that. Besides, shrimps are so beastly cheap--more than you can eat for twopence.

The conversation was not interesting to anyone but Dicky, because we did not then believe we could do it, though later we thought differently. But I dare say we should have gone on with it just out of politeness to him, only at this moment we saw a coastguard, who is a great friend of ours, waving to us from the sea-wall. So we went up. And he said:

'You take my tip and cut along home. There's something come for you.'

'Perhaps it's heaps of things, like I said, to eat with the plain living,' said H. O.

And bright visions of hampers full of the most superior tuck winged our young legs as we cut along home.

It was not, however, a hamper that we found awaiting us. It was a large box. And besides that there were two cases addressed to Dicky and me, and through the gaps in the boards we could see twisted straw, and our hearts leapt high in our breasts, because we knew that they were bikes.

And such, indeed, they proved to be--free-wheels of the most unspotted character, the noble gift of our Indian uncle, ever amiable, generous, and esteemed.

While we were getting the glorious bikes from their prison bars, the others were undoing the box which had their names on it.

It contained cakes and sweets, a work-basket for Dora, lined with red satin, and dressed up with silver thimbles, and all sorts of bodkins and scissors, and knives with silver handles. There was a lovely box of paints for Alice.

Noel had a paint-box too, and H. O. had a very good Aunt Sally. And there were lots of books--not the sawdusty, dry kind that Miss Sandal had in her house, but jolly good books, the kind you can't put down till you've finished. But just now we hardly looked at them. For who with a spark of manly spirit would think twice about a book with a new free-wheel champing the oil like a charger in a ballad?

Dicky and I had a three-mile spin before dinner, and only fell off five times between us. Three spills were Dicky's, one was Oswald's, and one was when we ran into each other. The bikes were totally uninjured.

As time ran its appointed course we got a bit used to the bikes, and, finding that you cannot ride all day and all night, we began to look at the books. Only one of them comes into this story. It was called 'The Youth's Manual of Scientific and Mechanical Recreation,' and, of course, we none of us read it till we'd read everything else, and then we found it wasn't half bad. It taught you how to make all sorts of things--galvanic batteries, and kites, and mouse-traps, and how to electroplate things, and how to do wood-carving and leather-work. We tried as many of the things as we had money for, and some of them succeeded. Then we made a fire-balloon.

It took a long time to make, and then it caught fire and blazed away before we could get it launched.

So we made another, and Noel dropped it near the water-butt, where there was a puddle, and, being tissue-paper, it was unable to stand the strain.

So we made another. But the paste was bad, and it did not stick.

So we made another.

Then, at last, when all was ready, Oswald climbed on to the pigsty at Mrs. Beales', and held the balloon very steady while Dicky lighted the cotton-wool, soaked in spirits of wine, which hangs from the end (where cars are in larger sizes), and causes it to be called a fire-balloon. A taper is burned inside the balloon, and then, according to the book, 'it readily ascends, and is carried away by the wind, sometimes to a considerable distance.'

Well, this time everything happened just as the book said, which is not always the case.

It was a clear, dark night, bright stars only. And, to our relief and agreeable surprise, our balloon rose up and sailed away, dragging its lighted tail like a home-made comet.

It sailed away over the marshes, getting smaller and smaller, and at last it was, though lost to sight, to memory dear. Some of us thought it wasn't worth doing, but Oswald was glad he had persevered. He does hate to be beaten. However, we none of us cared to make another, so we went to bed.

Dicky always goes to sleep directly on these occasions, but Oswald, more thoughtful for his years, sometimes reviews the events of the day. He must have been nearly asleep, because he was just reviewing an elephant that flew with a lamp inside, so that it looked like a fire-balloon, when Alice suddenly came and woke him up completely.

'Beware!' she said in tones of awe.

And he said, but not crossly:

'Well, what on earth's up now?'

'The fire-balloon!' replied Alice.

'What about it?' he rejoined, still calm and kind, though roused from his reviews.

'Why, it came to me all in a minute! Oh, Oswald--when it comes down--there are lots of farms in the march. Suppose it comes down and sets light to something! It's a crime--arsenic or something--and you can be hanged for it!'

'Don't be an idiot!' said Oswald kindly. 'The book wouldn't have told youths how to make them if they were crimes. Go back to bed, for goodness' sake!'

'I wish we hadn't--oh, I do!' said Alice.

But she did as she was told. Oswald has taught her this.

Next day her fears had stopped, like silent watches in the night, and we began to make a trap for badgers--in case we ever found one.

But Dicky went to the top of the mill with some field-glasses he had borrowed from Mr. Carrington to look at distant ships with, and he burst into the busy circle of badger-trap makers, and said:

'I say, come and look! There's a fire in the marsh!'

'There!' said Alice, dropping the wire pliers on her good elder brother's foot. 'What did I tell you?'

We all tore to the top of the mill, and sure enough, far across the sunny green marshes rose a little cloud of smoke, and blue and yellow flames leaped out every now and then. We all took turns to look through the glasses.

Then Oswald said:

'This is no time for looking through field-glasses with your mouths open. We must go and help. We might fetch the fire-engines or something. The bikes, Dicky!'

Almost instantly we were in the saddle and tearing along the level marsh towards the direction of the fire. At first we got down at every crossroad and used the field-glasses to see which way to go; but as we got nearer, or the fire got bigger, or perhaps both, we could see it quite plainly with the naked eye. It was much further off than we had thought, but we rode on undaunted, regardless of fatigue and of dinner-time, being now long gone by.

We got to the fire at last. It was at Crown Ovender Farm, and we had to lift the bikes over fences and wheel them over ploughed fields to get there, because we did not know the right way by road.

Crown Ovender is a little farmhouse, and a barn opposite, and a great rick-yard, and two of the ricks were alight. They smoked horribly, and the wind blew the hot smoke into your eyes, and every now and then you saw great flames--yards long they seemed--leap out as if they were crying to get to the house.

We had put our bikes in a ditch a field away, and now we went all round about to ask if we could help; but there wasn't a soul to be seen.

We did not know what to do. Even Oswald--always full of resource--almost scratched his head, which seems to help some people to think, though I don't think it ever would me, besides not looking nice.

'I wish we'd told them in the village,' said Dicky.

We had not done this, and the reason, the author is ashamed to say, was because we wanted to get there before anyone else. This was very selfish, and the author has often regretted it.

The flames were growing larger and fiercer, and the tar on the side of the barn next the rick-yard was melting and running down like treacle.

'There's a well!' said Dicky suddenly. 'It isn't a deep well, and there are two buckets.'

Oswald understood. He drew up the water, and Dicky took the buckets as they came up full and dripping and dashed the water on to the tarry face of the barn. It hissed and steamed. We think it did some good. We took it in turns to turn the well-wheel. It was hard work, and it was frightfully hot. Then suddenly we heard a horrid sound, a sort of out-of-breath scream, and there was a woman, very red in the face and perspiring, climbing over the fence.

'Hallo!' said Oswald.

'Oh!' the woman said, panting, 'it's not the house, then? Thank them as be it's not the house! Oh, my heart alive, I thought it was the house!'

'It isn't the house,' said Oswald; 'but it jolly soon will be!'

'Oh, my pore Lily!' said the woman. 'With this 'ere wind the house 'll be alight in a minute. And her a-bed in there! Where's Honeysett?'

'There's no one here but us. The house is locked up,' we said.

'Yes, I know, 'cause of tramps. Honeysett's got the key. I comes in as soon as I've cleared dinner away. She's ill a-bed, sleeping like a lamb, I'll be bound, all unknowing of her burning end.'

'We _must_ get her out,' said Oswald.

But the woman didn't seem to know what to do. She kept on saying, 'Where's Honeysett? Oh, drat him! where's that Honeysett?'

So then Oswald felt it was the time to be a general, like he always meant to if he got the chance. He said, 'Come on!' and he took a stone and broke the kitchen window, and put his hand through the jagged hole and unfastened the catch, and climbed in. The back-door was locked and the key gone, but the front-door was only bolted inside. But it stuck very tight, from having been painted and shut before the paint was dry, and never opened again.

Oswald couldn't open it. He ran back to the kitchen window and shouted to the others.

'Go round to the other door and shove for all you're worth!' he cried in the manly tones that all must obey.

So they went; but Dicky told me afterwards that the woman didn't shove for anything like all she was worth. In fact, she wouldn't shove at all, till he had to make a sort of battering-ram of her, and then she seemed to awake from a dream, and they got the door open.

We followed the woman up the stairs and into a bedroom, and there was another woman sitting up in bed trembling, and her mouth opening and shutting.

'Oh, it's you, Eliza,' she said, falling back against the pillows. 'I thought it were tramps.'

Eliza did not break things to the sufferer gently, like we should have done, however hurried.

'Mercy you aren't burnt alive in your bed, Lily!' she merely remarked. 'The place is all ablaze!'

Then she rolled her sick sufferer in a blanket and took hold of her shoulders, and told us to take her feet.

But Oswald was too calm to do this suddenly. He said:

'Where are you going to put her?'

'Anywheres!' said Eliza wildly--'anywheres is better than this here.'

'There's plenty of time,' said Oswald; and he and Dicky rushed into another room, and got a feather-bed and bedclothes, and hunched them down the stairs, and dragged them half a field away, and made a bed in a nice dry ditch. And then we consented to carry the unfortunate bed-woman to it.

The house was full of smoke by this time, though it hadn't yet caught fire; and I tell you we felt just like heroic firemen as we stumbled down the crookety narrow stairs, back first, bearing the feet of the sick woman. Oswald did so wish he had had a fireman's helmet to put on!

When we got the fading Lily to her dry ditch, she clutched Oswald's arm and whispered:

'Save the sticks!'

'What sticks?' asked Oswald, who thought it was the ragings of delirium.

'She means the furniture,' said Eliza; 'but I'm afraid its doom is written on high.'

'Rubbish!' said Oswald kindly; and we flew back, us boys dragging Eliza with us.

There didn't seem to be much furniture in the house, but when we began to move it, it at once seemed to multiply itself with the rapidity of compound interest. We got all the clothes out first, in drawers and clothes-baskets, and tied up in sheets. Eliza wasn't much use. The only thing she could do was to look for a bed-key to unscrew the iron bedsteads; but Oswald and Dicky toiled on. They carried out chairs and tables and hearthrugs. As Oswald was staggering on under a Windsor armchair, with a tea-tray and an ironing-board under his arms, he ran into a man.

'What's up?' said he.

'Fire!' said Oswald.

'I seed that,' said the man.

Oswald shoved the chair and other things on to the man.

'Then lend a hand to get the things away,' he said.

And more and more people came, and all worked hard; but Oswald and Dicky did most. Eliza never even found that bed-key, because when she saw people beginning to come thicker and thicker across the fields, like ants hurrying home, she went out and told everyone over and over again that Honeysett had got the key.

Then a woman came along, and Eliza got her into a corner by the stairs and jawed. I heard part of the jaw.

'An' pore Mrs. Simpkins, her man he's gone to Ashford Market with his beasts and the three other men, and me and my man said we'd have Liz up at my place, her being my sister, so as Honeysett could go off to Romney about the sheep. But she wouldn't come, not though we brought the light cart over for her. So we thought it best Honeysett stayed about his work, and go for the sheep to-morrow.'

'Then the house would ha' been all empty but for her not being wishful to go along of you?' Oswald heard the other say.

'Yes,' said Eliza; 'an' so you see----'

'You keep your mouth shut,' the other woman fiercely said; 'you're Lily's sister, but Tom, he's my brother. If you don't shut your silly mouth you'll be getting of them into trouble. It's insured, ain't it?'

'I don't see,' said Eliza.

'You don't never see nothing,' said the other. 'You just don't say a word 'less you're arst, and then only as you come to look after her and found the fire a-raging something crool.'

'But why----'

The other woman clawed hold of her and dragged her away, whispering secretly.

All this time the fire was raging, but there were lots of men now to work the well and the buckets, and the house and the barn had not caught.

When we had got out all the furniture, some of the men set to work on the barn, and, of course, Oswald and Dicky, though weary, were in this also. They helped to get out all the wool--bundles and bundles and bundles of it; but when it came to sacks of turnip seed and things, they thought they had had enough, and they went to where the things were that had come out of the larder, and they got a jug of milk and some bread and cheese, and took it to the woman who was lying in the dry ditch on the nice bed they had so kindly made for her. She drank some milk, and asked them to have some, and they did, with bread and cheese (Dutch), and jolly glad they were of it.

Just as we had finished we heard a shout, and there was the fire-engine coming across the field.

I do like fire-engines. They are so smart and fierce, and look like dragons ready to fight the devouring element.

It was no use, however, in spite of the beautiful costumes of the firemen, because there was no water, except in the well, and not much left of that.

The man named Honeysett had ridden off on an old boneshaker of his to fetch the engines. He had left the key in the place where it was always kept, only Eliza had not had the sense to look for it. He had left a letter for her, too, written in red pencil on the back of a bill for a mowing-machine. It said: 'Rix on fir'; going to git fir'-injins.'

Oswald treasures this letter still as a memento of happier days.

When Honeysett saw the line of men handing up buckets to throw on the tarry wall, he said:

'That ain't no manner of use. Wind's changed a hour agone.'

And so it had. The flames were now reaching out the other way, and two more ricks were on fire. But the tarry walls were quite cool, and very wet, and the men who were throwing the water were very surprised to find that they were standing in a great puddle.

And now, when everything in the house and the barn was safe, Oswald had time to draw his breath and think, and to remember with despair exactly who it was that had launched a devastating fire-balloon over the peaceful marsh.

It was getting dusk by this time; but even the splendour of all those burning ricks against the darkening sky was merely wormwood and gall to Oswald's upright heart, and he jolly soon saw that it was the same to Dicky's.

'I feel pretty sick,' he said. 'Let's go home.'

'They say the whole eleven ricks are bound to go,' said Dicky, 'with the wind the way it is.'

'_We're_ bound to go,' said Oswald.

'Where?' inquired the less thoughtful Dicky.

'To prison,' said his far-seeing brother, turning away and beginning to walk towards the bicycles.

'We can't be sure it was our balloon,' said Dicky, following.

'Pretty average,' said Oswald bitterly.

'But no one would know it was us if we held our tongues.'

'We can't hold our tongues,' Oswald said; 'if we do someone else will be blamed, as sure as fate. You didn't hear what that woman said about insurance money.'

'We might wait and see if anyone _does_ get into trouble, and _then_ come forward,' said Dicky.

And Oswald owned they might do that, but his heart was full of despair and remorse.

Just as they got to their bikes a man met them.

'All lost, I suppose?' he said, jerking his thumb at the blazing farmyard.

'Not all,' said Dicky; 'we saved the furniture and the wool and things----'

The man looked at us, and said heavily:

'Very kind of you, but it was all insured.'

'Look here,' said Oswald earnestly, 'don't you say that to anyone else.'

'Eh?' said the man.

'If you do, they're safe to think you set fire to it yourself!'

He stared, then he frowned, then he laughed, and said something about old heads on young shoulders, and went on.

We went on, too, in interior gloom, that only grew gloomier as we got nearer and nearer home.

We held a council that night after the little ones had gone to bed. Dora and Alice seemed to have been crying most of the day. They felt a little better when they heard that no one had been burned to death. Alice told me she had been thinking all day of large families burned to little cinders. But about telling of the fire-balloon we could not agree.

Alice and Oswald thought we ought. But Dicky said 'Wait,' and Dora said 'Write to father about it.'

Alice said:

'No; it doesn't make any difference about our not being sure whether our balloon _was_ the cause of destruction. I _expect_ it was, and, anyway, we ought to own up.'

'I feel so too,' said Oswald; 'but I do wish I knew how long in prison you got for it.'

We went to bed without deciding anything.

And very early in the morning Oswald woke, and he got up and looked out of the window, and there was a great cloud of smoke still going up from the doomed rickyard. So then he went and woke Alice, and said:

'Suppose the police have got that poor farmer locked up in a noisome cell, and all the time it's _us_.'

'That's just what _I_ feel,' said Alice.

Then Oswald said, 'Get dressed.'

And when she had, she came out into the road, where Oswald, pale but resolute, was already pacing with firm steps. And he said:

'Look here, let's go and tell. Let's say you and I made the balloon. The others can stop out of it if they like.'

'They won't if it's really prison,' said Alice. 'But it would be noble of us to try it on. Let's----'

But we found we didn't know who to tell.

'It seems so fatal to tell the police,' said Alice; 'there's no getting out of it afterwards. Besides, he's only Jameson, and he's very stupid.'

The author assures you you do not know what it is like to have a crime like arsenic on your conscience, and to have gone to the trouble and expense of making up your mind to confess it, and then not to know who to.

We passed a wretched day. And all the time the ricks were blazing. All the people in the village went over with carts and bikes to see the fire--like going to a fair or a show. In other circumstances we should have done the same, but now we had no heart for it.

In the evening Oswald went for a walk by himself, and he found his footsteps turning towards the humble dwelling of the Ancient Mariner who had helped us in a smuggling adventure once.

The author wishes to speak the truth, so he owns that perhaps Oswald had some idea that the Ancient Mariner, who knew so much about smugglers and highwaymen, might be able to think of some way for us to save ourselves from prison without getting an innocent person put into it. Oswald found the mariner smoking a black pipe by his cottage door. He winked at Oswald as usual. Then Oswald said:

'I want to ask your advice; but it's a secret. I know you can keep secrets.'

When the aged one had agreed to this, Oswald told him all. It was a great relief.

The mariner listened with deep attention, and when Oswald had quite done, he said:

'It ain't the stone jug this time mate. That there balloon of yours, I see it go up--fine and purty 'twas, too.'

'We all saw it go _up_,' said Oswald in despairing accents. 'The question is, where did it come down?'

'At Burmarsh, sonny,' was the unexpected and unspeakably relieving reply. 'My sister's husband's niece--it come down and lodged in their pear-tree--showed it me this morning, with the red ink on it what spelled your names out.'

Oswald, only pausing to wring the hand of his preserver, tore home on the wings of the wind to tell the others.

I don't think we were ever so glad of anything in our lives. It is a frightfully blighting thing when you believe yourself to be an Arsenicator (or whatever it is) of the deepest dye.

As soon as we could think of anything but our own cleanness from guilt, we began to fear the worst of Tom Simkins, the farmer at Crown Ovenden. But _he_ came out of it, like us, without a stain on his fair name, because he and his sister and his man Honeysett all swore that he had given a tramp leave to sleep up against the beanstack the night before the fire, and the tramp's pipe and matches were found there. So he got his insurance money; but the tramp escaped.

But when we told father all about it, he said he wished he had been a director of that fire insurance company.

We never made another fire-balloon. Though it was not us that time, it might have been. And we know now but too well the anxieties of a life of crime.

[The end]
Edith Nesbit's short story: Arsenicators, A Tale Of Crime