This is the story of one of the most far-reaching and influentially naughty things we ever did in our lives. We did not mean to do such a deed. And yet we did do it. These things will happen with the best-regulated consciences.
The story of this rash and fatal act is intimately involved–which means all mixed up anyhow–with a private affair of Oswald’s, and the one cannot be revealed without the other. Oswald does not particularly want his story to be remembered, but he wishes to tell the truth, and perhaps it is what father calls a wholesome discipline to lay bare the awful facts.
It was like this.
On Alice’s and Noel’s birthday we went on the river for a picnic. Before that we had not known that there was a river so near us. Afterwards father said he wished we had been allowed to remain in our pristine ignorance, whatever that is. And perhaps the dark hour did dawn when we wished so too. But a truce to vain regrets.
It was rather a fine thing in birthdays. The uncle sent a box of toys and sweets, things that were like a vision from another and a brighter world. Besides that Alice had a knife, a pair of shut-up scissors, a silk handkerchief, a book–it was The Golden Age and is A1 except where it gets mixed with grown-up nonsense. Also a work-case lined with pink plush, a boot-bag, which no one in their senses would use because it had flowers in wool all over it. And she had a box of chocolates and a musical box that played “The Man Who Broke” and two other tunes, and two pairs of kid gloves for church, and a box of writing-paper–pink–with “Alice” on it in gold writing, and an egg colored red that said “A. Bastable” in ink on one side. These gifts were the offerings of Oswald, Dora, Dicky, Albert’s uncle, Daisy, Mr. Foulkes (our own robber), Noel, H. O., father, and Denny. Mrs. Pettigrew gave the egg. It was a kindly housekeeper’s friendly token.
I shall not tell you about the picnic on the river, because the happiest times form but dull reading when they are written down. I will merely state that it was prime. Though happy, the day was uneventful. The only thing exciting enough to write about was in one of the locks, where there was a snake–a viper. It was asleep in a warm corner of the lock gate, and when the gate was shut it fell off into the water.
Alice and Dora screamed hideously. So did Daisy, but her screams were thinner.
The snake swam round and round all the time our boat was in the lock. It swam with four inches of itself–the head end–reared up out of the water, exactly like Kaa in the Jungle book–so we know Kipling is a true author and no rotter. We were careful to keep our hands well inside the boat. A snake’s eyes strike terror into the boldest breast.
When the lock was full father killed the viper with a boat-hook. I was sorry for it myself. It was indeed a venomous serpent. But it was the first we had ever seen, except at the Zoo. And it did swim most awfully well.
Directly the snake had been killed H. O. reached out for its corpse, and the next moment the body of our little brother was seen wriggling conclusively on the boat’s edge. This exciting spectacle was not of a lasting nature. He went right in. Father clawed him out. He is very unlucky with water.
Being a birthday, but little was said. H. O. was wrapped in everybody’s coats, and did not take any cold at all.
This glorious birthday ended with an iced cake and ginger wine, and drinking healths. Then we played whatever we liked. There had been rounders during the afternoon. It was a day to be forever marked by memory’s brightest what’s-its-name.