One dark, cold, wet morning John was made to put on new clothes. They were the ugliest clothes that had ever been put upon him, which John did not mind at all, but they also caught him under the chin, and were tight under the arms which he minded a great deal, and they made him itch all over . . .
The Steward lived in a big dark house of stone on the side of the road. The father and mother went in to talk to the Steward first, and John was left sitting in the hall on a chair so high that his feet did not reach the floor. There were other chairs in the hall where he could have sat in comfort, but his father had told him that the Steward would be angry if he did not sit absolutely still and be very good: and John was beginning to be afraid, so he sat still in the high chair with his feet dangling, and his clothes itching all over him, and his eyes starting out of his head
After a very long time his parents came back again, looking as if they had been with the doctor, very grave. Then they said that John must go in and see the Steward too. And when John came into the room, there was an old man with a red, round face, who was very kind and full of jokes, so that John quite got over his fears, and they had a good talk about fishing tackle and bicycles.
But just when the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat. He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful. And he said, ‘Now I am going to talk to you about the Landlord. The Landlord owns all the country, and it is very, very kind of him to allow us to live on it at all–very, very kind.’
He went on repeating ‘very kind’ in a queer sing-song voice so long that John would have laughed, but that now he was beginning to be frightened again. The Steward then took down from a peg a big card with a small print all over it, and said, ‘Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do. You’d better look at it.’
So John took the card: but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all.
‘I hope,’ said the Steward, ‘that you have not already broken any of the rules.’ John’s heart began to thump, and his eyes bulged more and more, and he was at his wit’s end when the Steward took the mask off and looked at John with his real face and said, “Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie. Easiest for all concerned,’ and popped the mask on his face all in a flash.
John gulped and said quickly, ‘Oh, no sir.’
‘That is just as well,’ said the Steward through the mask. ’Because, you know, if you did break any of them and the Landlord got to know about it, do you know what he’d do to you?’
‘No sir,’ said John: and the Steward’s eyes seemed to be twinkling dreadfully through the holes of the mask.
‘He’d take you and shut you up for ever in a black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobsters–for ever and ever. And besides that, he is such a kind, good man, so very, very kind, that I am sure you would never want to displease him.’
‘No, sir,’ said John, ‘But, please, sir . . . ‘
‘Well,’ said the Steward.
“Please, sir, supposing I did break one, one little one, just by accident, you know. Could nothing stop the snakes and lobsters?’
“Ah! . . .’ said the Steward; and then he sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable. However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext. ’And you can’t blame him.’ said the Steward. ’For after all, it is his land, and it is so very good of him to let us live here at all–people like us, you know.’
Then the Steward took off the mask and had a nice, sensible chat with John again, and gave him a cake and brought him out to his father and mother. But just as they were going he bent down and whispered in John’s ear, ‘I shouldn’t bother about it all too much if I were you.’ At the same time he slipped the card of rules into John’s hand and told him he could keep it for his own use.