Read CHAPTER II of Us and the Bottleman, free online book, by Edith Ballinger Price, on

Just in the middle of the rainiest week came the thing that made Aunt Ailsa so sad. She read it in the newspaper, in the casualty list. It was the last summer of the war, and there were great long casualty lists every day. This said that Somebody-or-other Westland was “wounded and missing.” We didn’t know why it made her so sad, because we’d never heard of such a person, but of course it was up to us to cheer her up as much as possible. Picnics being out of the question, it had to be indoor cheering, which is harder. Greg succeeded better than the rest of us, I think. He is still little enough to sit on people’s laps (though his legs spill over, quantities). He sat on Aunt Ailsa’s lap and told her long stories which she seemed to like much better than the H.G. Wells books. He also dragged her off to join in attic games, and she liked those, too, and laughed sometimes quite like herself.

Attic games aren’t so bad, though summer’s not the proper time for them, really. There is a long cornery sort of closet full of carpets that runs back under the eaves in our attic, and if you strew handfuls of beads and tin washers among the carpets and then dig for them in the dark with a hockey-stick and a pocket flash-light, it’s not poor fun. Unfortunately, my head knocks against the highest part of the roof now, yet I still do think it’s fun. But Aunt Ailsa is twenty-six and she likes it, so I suppose I needn’t give up.

The day Aunt Ailsa really laughed was when Greg rigged himself up as an Excavator. That is, he said he was an excavator, but I never saw anything before that looked at all like him. He had the round Indian basket from Mother’s work-table on his head, and some automobile goggles, and yards and yards of green braid wound over his jumper, and Mother’s carriage-boots, which came just below the tops of his socks. In his hand he had what I think was a rake-handle it was much taller than he and he had the queerest, glassy, goggling expression under the basket.

He never will learn to fix proper clothes. He might have seen what he should have done by looking at Jerry, who had an old felt hat with a bit of candle-end (not lit) stuck in the ribbon, and a bandana tied askew around his neck. But Aunt Ailsa laughed and laughed, which was what we wanted her to do, so neither of us remonstrated with Greg that time.

Father plays the ’cello, that is, he does when he has time, and he found time to play it with Aunt, who does piano. I think she really liked that better than the attic games, and we did, too, in a way. The living-room of our house is quite low-ceilinged, and part of it is under the roof, so that you can hear the rain on it. The boys lay on the floor, and Mother and I sat on the couch, and we listened to the rain on the roof and the sound something like rain of the piano, and Father’s ’cello booming along with it. They played a thing called “Air Religieux” that I think none of us will ever hear again without thinking of the humming on the roof and the candles all around the room and one big one on the piano beside Aunt Ailsa, making her hair all shiny. Her hair is amberish, too, like Greg’s, but her eyes are a very golden kind of brown, while his are dark blue.

We thought she’d forgotten about being sad, but one night when I couldn’t sleep because it was so hot I heard her crying, and Mother talking the way she does to us when something makes us unhappy. I felt rather frightened, somehow, and wretched, and I covered up my ears because I didn’t think Aunt would want me to hear them talking there.

The next day the sun really came out and stayed out. All of us came out, too, and explored the garden. The grass had grown till it stood up like hay, and there were such tall green weeds in the flowerbeds that Mother couldn’t believe they’d grown during the rain and thought they were some phlox she’d overlooked. The phlox itself was staggering with flowers, and all the lupin leaves held round water-drops in the hollows of their five-fingered hands. Greg said that they were fairy wash-basins. He also found a drowned field-mouse and a sparrow. He was frightfully sorry about it, and carried them around wrapped up in a warm flannel till Mother begged him to give them a military funeral. Jerry soaked all the labels off a cigar-box, and then burned a most beautiful inscription on the lid with his pyrography outfit. Part of the inscription was a poem by Greg, which went like this:

“O little sparrow,
Perhaps to-morrow
You will fly in a blue house.
And perhaps you will run
In the sun,
Little field-mouse.”

Jerry didn’t see what Greg meant by a “blue house,” but I did, and I think it was rather nice. I copied the poem secretly, before the cigar-box was buried at the end of the rose-bed. I think Greg really cried, but he had so much black mosquito netting hanging over the brim of his best hat that I couldn’t be sure.

Fourth of July came and went the very patriotic one, when everybody saved their fireworks-money to buy W.S.S. with. We bought W.S.S. and made very grand fireworks out of joss-sticks. Joss-sticks have wonderful possibilities that most people don’t know about. The three of us went down to the foot of the garden after dark and did an exhibition for the others. By whisking the joss-sticks around by their floppy handles you can make all sorts of fiery circles. I made two little ones for eyes, and Greg did a nose in the middle, and Jerry twirled a curvy one underneath for a mouth that could be either smiling or ferocious. A little way off you can’t see the people who do it at all, and it looks just like a great fiery face with a changing, wobbly expression.

Then Greg did a fire dance with two sparklers. He dances rather well, not real one-steps and waltzes, but weird things he makes up himself. This one lasted as long as the sparklers burned, and it was quite gorgeous. After that we had a candle-light procession around the garden, and the grown people said that the candles looked very mysterious bobbing in and out between the trees. We felt more like high priests than patriots, but it was very festive and wonderful, and when we ended by having cakes and lime-juice on the porch at half-past nine, everybody agreed that it had been a real celebration and quite different.

In spite of being up so late the night before, Greg was the first one down to breakfast next morning. Our postman always brings the mail just before the end of breakfast, and we can hear him click the gate as he comes in. This morning Jerry and Greg dashed for the mail together, and Greg squeezed through where Jerry thought he couldn’t and got there first. When they came back, Jerry was saying:

“Let me have it, won’t you; it’ll take you all day!” and dodging his arm over Greg’s shoulder.

“Messrs. Christopher, Gerald, and Gregory Holford; 17 Luke Street,” Greg read slowly. Then he tripped over the threshold and floundered on to me, flourishing the big envelope and shouting:

“It’s funny paper, and it’s funny writing, and I know it’s from The Bottle!”

“My stars!” said Jerry, with a final snatch.

But I had the envelope, and I looked at it very carefully.

“Boys,” I said, “I truly believe that it is.”