“I suppose most people would call me a failure and all my people failures now; except those who would say we never failed, because we never had to try. Anyhow, we're all poor enough now; I don't know whether you know that I've been teaching music. I dare say we deserved to go. I dare say we were useless. Some of us tried to be harmless.” –Tale of the Long Bow, Chesterton
“We will stay here till dark, and then we'll go on with our journey,” said Henry cheerfully. They had broken into the farmer’s house, Violet having trebled in size after breakfast and no longer able to hide comfortably inside the haystack.
“I still want a drink of water," announced Benny. “My teeth are thirsty.”
“A drink you shall have,” Henry promised, “but you'll have to wait till it's really dark. If we should creep out to the brook now, and any one saw us—”
“No,” Jessie said. “No one can see us. I won’t be seen,” she cried, stamping her feet and breaking through the farmer’s kitchen floor, “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t be seen, not by anyone, not never again. Nor Violet neither.”
Violet groaned softly and nodded in agreement from her place under the table. Trebling in size after breakfast hurt.
Benny was five, and always had to wait. Benny was five, and he couldn’t wait. “If not water,” he said, “then give me a drink from Father’s bottle in Jessie’s bag. We kept it in case one of us needed to become a drunk too. If you won’t take me to the river, let me become drunk instead.”
Henry shook his head. “We don’t need a drunk, Benny,” he tried to explain. “If we wanted one, that might be different, but there’s no need for one right now, excepting your powerful thirst, and for which I am sorry, but your powerful thirst is only one of several necessary preconditions for one of us becoming a drunk. Right now the conditions just don’t meet, Benny. I’m afraid they just don’t meet.”
“Besides, Father might still come back,” Violet said, shrugging her powerful, painful shoulders. “The one thing a drunk can’t stand is another drunk. And it’s his bottle, still, or it’s more his than anyone else’s.”
“The bottle is not still Father’s,” Benny said crossly, “for at least the following reasons: We’re alive and he’s dead (“That’s not at all for certain,” Jessie said), he let us leave the house with it, we’ve crossed over any number of fields he no longer has leave to cross and can therefore be safely have said to left any territory we have to respect his rights in long behind us.”
“If anything,” Jessie said, “it’s my bottle, as it’s been in my bag and has rested under my pillow for the last hundred-hundred years while the world slept and the farmers all died.”
“So Jessie has the first right to become a drunk, if any of us do, you see, Benny,” Henry said. “And she is older than you, moreover.” Jessie nodded, half in apology.
“But Jessie hasn’t got a powerful thirst,” Benny said. “I can tell that she hasn’t got a powerful thirst. And my thirst is so powerful it can shift a birthright, Jessie darling.” Then he wept.
Violet, wincing, crawled out from her place under the table. “I’ll take Benny down to the brook as soon as nightfall,” she offered. “I’m too big for anyone to see.”
For the next several hours Benny wept, and Violet winced. Henry and Jessie took turns smashing all the crockery in the house, which cheered Benny up only a very little. Outside the moths wrapped themselves up against the old telephone-poles in anticipation of the sunset. At last Henry peeped out the window. It was after nine o’clock.
“It’s time to address your powerful thirst,” he told Benny. Benny, still weeping, crawled on top of Violet’s back – which was painfully hot to the touch, on account of all the growing she had been forced into that day – and the two dragged themselves down to the noisy little brook that ran a hundred paces past the farmer’s front door.
“Cup,” Benny begged, eyes fixed on the water.
“No,” Jessie said, “if you’re going to be the drunk, you’ll have to lie down and drink from the river with your mouth, for practice.” So Henry took one of Benny’s legs and Jessie took the other and they held him just above the river, and he drank from it. He drank so much water that he cried out in pain. Violet cried out in pain too, but as it was an old pain no one paid it much mind.
Nothing had ever tasted so good as that cold river-water. Afterwards Benny cried again, this time from relief.
“That was kind of you,” Henry whispered to Jessie, “letting Benny be the drunk.”
“If Father ever comes back you won’t call it kind,” Jessie said. Henry had nothing to say to that. “Anyhow, we’re none of us drunk yet, so don’t go thanking me for things that haven’t happened, and maybe never will.”
“I am so drunk yet,” Benny said crossly. “Jessie promised I could be, and so I am.”
“Oh, do quit whining, Benny,” Violet said. “You need all of our permission to get drunk, and you haven’t mine yet. Anyhow, oughtn’t we be getting back on our way?”
“How right you are, Violet,” Jessie said. Together they jumped the brook, ran quickly over the fields to the wall, and once more found themselves on the road.
“If we meet any one,” said Jess, “we must all crouch behind bushes until we are old enough to murder them.”
They walked along in the darkness with light hearts. They were no longer tired or hungry. Violet pulled a small tree up by the roots as they passed and stripped it clean of branches. It made for a splendid billy-club, and she amused herself by driving it into the kneecaps of her siblings whenever their pace slackened. Their one thought was to get away from their grandfather, if possible.
“If we can find a big town,” said Violet, “won't it be better to stay in than a little town?”
“Why?” asked Henry, struggling to make it first up the hill. His kneecaps crunched a little as he walked.
“Well, you see, there are so many people in a big town, nobody will notice us—”
“And in a little village everyone would be talking about us,” finished Henry admiringly. “You've got brains, Violet!”
“Everyone is already talking about us,” Jessie said from in front of them. “Everyone is talking about us for miles and miles yet. There is no place we can go, and not be talked about.”
She had hardly said this, when they heard a wagon coming up the road behind them. It was coming from the direction of Middlesex. Without a word, the four children sank down behind the bushes.
“When will I be old enough to murder someone?” Benny asked.
“Hush,” Henry whispered. “You’ll know when.” The wagon rolled further up the hill. The children waited, and got older.