AN AUSTRALIAN LASSIE
AUTHOR OF "THE PERRY GIRLS," ETC.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY A. J. JOHNSON
WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED LONDON AND MELBOURNE
TO MY STEPFATHER CHARLES COPE
I WYGATE SCHOOL 9
II THE PEARL SEEKERS 20
III "THE DAILY ROUND—THE COMMON TASK" 30
IV GHOSTS 41
V JOHN BROWN 59
VI MONDAY MORNING 68
VII "CAREW-BROWN" 79
VIII THE FIGHT 86
IX DOROTHEA'S FRIENDS 101
X RICHES OR RAGS 112
XI THE ARTIST BY THE WAYSIDE 123
XII BETTY IN THE LION'S DEN 134
XIII "IF I WERE ONLY YOU!" 147
XIV JOHN'S PLANS 162
XV ON THE ROAD 177
XVI THE NOTE ON THE PINCUSHION 189
XVII IN THE CITY 201
XVIII ALMA'S SHILLING 214
XIX THE BENT-SHOULDERED OLD GENTLEMAN 224
XX THE DAY AFTER SCHOOL 234
XXI "GOOD-BYE, GOOD-BYE" 245
"Emily Underwood, 19; Stanley Smith, 20; Cyril Bruce, 21; Nellie Underwood, 22; Elizabeth Bruce, 23—bottom of the class!"
Mr. Sharman took off his eyeglasses, rubbed them, and put them on again. Then he looked very hard at the little girl at the end of the furthest form, who was hanging her head and industriously biting a slate pencil.
"Stand up, Elizabeth Bruce. Put down your pencil and fold your hands behind you."
Elizabeth did as she was told instantly. Her rosy face looked anxiously into the master's stern one.
"Yesterday morning," the master said, "you were head of the class. This morning I find your name at the end of the list. How was that?"
Elizabeth hung her head again, and her dimpled chin hid itself behind the needlework of her pinafore.
A small girl, a few seats higher, held up her hand and waved it impatiently.
"Well?" asked the master.
"Please sir, she was promptin' Cyril Bruce."
"Silence!" thundered the master sternly. Then his gaze went back to the bent head of the little culprit.
"Stand upon the form," he said, "and tell me in a clear voice how it is you went down twenty-two places in one afternoon."
The rosiness left the little girl's face. She raised her head, and her brown eyes looked pleadingly into the master's, her white face besought him, for one second. Then she scrambled up to the form by the aid of the desk in front of her.
Down the room near the master's desk stood a new boy, an awkward looking figure of twelve years old or so, waiting to be given a place in the class. Elizabeth knew that her disgrace was meant as a solemn warning to him. So she tossed back the short dark curls that hardly reached her neck, and looking angrily at him, said—
"I was top and I pulled Nelly Martin's hair, and was sent down three. Then I was fourth, and my pencil squeaked my slate and I was sent down six. Then Cyril had to spell 'giraffe,' and I said 'one r and two f's,' and she sent me to the bottom."
All of this speech was directed to the new boy who stood on one leg and grew red. It was an immense relief to him when the master rapped the front desk with his cane and said—
"Look at me, miss. Whom do you mean by 'she'?"
At the end of the room a sharp visaged lady of forty-five was watching the proceedings of the first class from over the heads of a row of small students who comprised the "Babies' Class."
"D-o, do; g-o, go," she said mechanically, and looked anxiously from little Elizabeth to her stern son, the master of Wygate School.
Elizabeth jerked her head, "Mrs. Sharman," she said.
"Sit down and fold your hands behind you," ordered the master. He turned to the new boy. "John Brown," he said, "go and take your seat next to Elizabeth Bruce—but one above her."
The new boy moved across the room, red-faced and clumsy in every movement. When he found himself in front of the class he grew still redder, and hung hesitatingly upon the step that led to the platform upon which the form was placed.
Elizabeth looked at him disdainfully and drew her dress close around her.
"Sit down, you silly," she said in a sharp whisper, and indicated with a little head toss the seat above her.
John Brown slunk past her and dropped heavily into his seat. The master retired to his desk and made an entry or two in his long blue book while silence hung over the schoolroom.
In Elizabeth's heart a flame of anger was spreading. That this boy, this new boy, should be placed above her, was in her eyes the greatest injustice. A small voice within told her that she had been punished sufficiently yesterday afternoon.
Her head moved slightly in the direction of the new boy and her rosy lips opened.
"You cheat!" she whispered.
The boy sat motionless and the anger burned hotter in Elizabeth's heart.
"Cheaty, cheaty; go home and tell your mother!" she said in a sing-song way.
Still Brown did not move.
Elizabeth slid her hand along the seat and gave him a sharp pinch, and he started uneasily.
"Stand up the boy or girl who was speaking," ordered the master, without looking up.
A small fair-haired fair-complexioned boy, two seats above Elizabeth, flushed. His name was Cyril Bruce and he was Elizabeth's twin brother—twelve years old.
"I was only talking to myself—that's not speaking," he murmured.
Elizabeth rose slowly to her feet and stood working a corner of her pinafore into a knot. The master looked around, and his brow grew dark when he saw the small offender.
"Repeat aloud what you said, Elizabeth Bruce," he ordered.
The little girl grew white, then red, then white again, and went on twisting her pinafore.
"Do you hear me?" shouted the master. "Stand upon the form and repeat your words."
Once again Elizabeth clambered into a higher position.
"I said—I said, 'Cheaty, cheaty; go home and tell your mother,'" she said in a clear voice that sounded all over the room.
A shocked expression passed over the face of the class.
"To whom were you addressing yourself?" asked the master.
"The new boy," said the little girl.
"Sit down, and stay in the dinner-hour and write out the sentence fifty times."
Elizabeth sat down, and again her anger against the new boy blazed high.
She put out her foot and kicked the heel of his boot, but this time she eschewed words, for the face of the master was towards her, and an expectant silence hung over the schoolroom.
The clock struck ten, and the boy at the head of the class immediately began passing slates down—one to each pupil, with a piece of pencil upon it.
The sight of the well-cleaned slate and nicely pointed pencil brought a feeling of great uneasiness to Elizabeth.
It had been in her mind how nicely she could climb above the new boy, and the tell-tale girl, and all the other boys and girls, and now the order of the day was—sums.
The master was writing them down on the blackboard, making them up as he went along, with due care working nines and eights and sevens into his multiplicand and dealing but sparsely with fives and twos and threes.
Elizabeth copied it down and rubbed it out. Copied it down and rubbed out half, by judicious breathings directed judiciously; looked up the class to see how Cyril was progressing, and back to the board to see if a pleasant little short division sum was lurking near this obnoxious multiplication; then back to her slate to count the number of nines once more. And by that time the master was giving out his order: "Pencils down. Hands behind you. At—tention."
Brown's face expressed such placidity that the master asked him to stand and give out the answer, and he gave it gladly enough—999.009—which sounded particularly learned to a class not yet introduced to decimals.
The master nodded. "You are right," he said, "but no one is up to decimals yet."
So it happened that Brown made his reputation straightway, and with such ease did he solve every arithmetical puzzle, that dinner-time saw him sitting smiling and covered with laurels at the head of the class, and Elizabeth still at the bottom cleaning her slate to write "Cheaty, cheaty; go home and tell your mother," fifty times.
Wygate School was a preparatory school for boys and girls, although the girls out-numbered the boys. At the present stage of its existence it had eighteen girls and twelve boys. Not half a mile distant was a public school, to the precincts of which flocked fifty pupils daily, each of whom paid a modest threepence a week for educationary advantages.
Wygate School was the only private school in the district, and was regarded respectfully by the neighbourhood. So many "undesirables" were precluded from its benefits, by its charge of one guinea a quarter.
John Brown, the new boy, whose age it appeared was thirteen years, was the eldest pupil in the school, and Floss Jones, who was four, was the baby.
The neighbourhood frequently moaned that there was no private school for those of riper years—fifteen and sixteen or so; but in some cases it called in a governess, in others it forewent its dignity and adopted the public school, and in others again it sent its young folk over the water to Sydney—a matter of three miles or more.
But the North Shore Highlands was at this time uncatered for by the tramway authorities. An old coach ran twice daily from Willoughby to the steamer—a morning trip and an evening-tide one—there and back. It was largely patronized by the Chinese, and parents of the artisan class hesitated and frequently refused to allow their young folk to make the journey.
The three young Bruces went every day across a beaten bush track, from their weather-board cottage home, past the big iron gates of Dene Hall, a house built of grey stone in the early days of the colony, where their irascible grandsire dwelt, up a red dusty road to the little school-house on the hill.
And special terms were arranged for them because they were three—Cyril, and Elizabeth the twins, and six-year-old Nancy.
They had always been three. For even in the days when Cyril and Elizabeth had belonged to the baby class there had been Dorothea, Dorothea who was sixteen and quite old now, who was a weekly boarder in a fashionable Sydney school (for a ridiculously small quarterly fee).
And when Dorothea had left Wygate School little Nancy's hand had been put into Elizabeth's and she too had taken the long red road to school. And after Nancy there was still a wee toddler who, it was said, would make the number up to three again when Cyril went to a "real" boy's school.
THE PEARL SEEKERS
They were round the corner and away from school—Cyril, Elizabeth and Nancy. Behind them were all the trials and vexations of the day, among which may be counted Mrs. Sharman, Mr. Sharman—and John Brown.
Cyril spoke with awe of John Brown's big hands and feet, and looked over his shoulder as he spoke. For that small hope of the Bruces had in the cloak-room inadvertently trodden upon Brown's hat, and had been startled by the way in which Brown had swung him round by his collar.
"I pinched him," said Betty proudly. "He shouldn't have gone above me. I'll pinch him every time."
Her sun-bonnet was tucked away under her arm, her boots and stockings were in the family lunch-basket that she carried, boy-like, swung over her shoulder, and she covered the ground most of the time with a hop, skip, and a jump, aided by a long stout stick.
"I suppose," she said, "we'll have to try the dangerous little coral islands this time. I know that's where the black pearl is hidden."
"Oh dear," sighed Nancy, "I don't like curral islands a bit. Let's go home to-day."
"Silly!" said Cyril loftily. "We've got to find the black pearl somehow."
"It'll be worth hundreds and thousands of pounds," said Elizabeth. "Just think of taking that to mother, just think of all we could do. It wouldn't matter then grandfather not speaking. We could drive past him in our carriage then! Come on my lass." This last was to Nancy.
"I want to go in the water, too, Betty," said the small lassie, following at a trot. "Don't want to be your old wife. I've been your wife for a lot of days now."
"I don't know who you mean when you say Betty," declared Elizabeth, and leapt forward so far that the other two had to sharpen their pace suddenly.
"Peter Lucky," said Nancy imploringly. "Oh, Peter Lucky, let Cywil be your wife a bit—do."
"Cywil's"—it may be stated that Betty was still very backward sometimes in the matter of r's—"Cywil's got to be my chum—don't be such a stupid Nancy—er—Polly. He's got to try to murder me in the middle of the night to get the pearl. Look here, we've only just put you in to amuse you a bit, we can just as well do without you."
Nancy's face fell. Such statements were lavishly used by these two elders of hers towards herself. But the indignity she feared most was to be told to go home and play with the baby, and she looked at her sister with an eager smile now to stop the words if possible.
"Oh, don't do wivout me, Betty dear," she said. "I'll love to be your wife. I was only thinking it would be nice to have your feet in the water."
"You're six," said Betty. "You ought to be able to be my wife well now—cook the dinner, and wash up, and all that. If you do well at this, we'll see how you'll do as a man some day."
For a second they stopped before their grandfather's gates and peered up the long drive. It was an old habit of theirs, varied for instance by challenges of who dared to walk the furthest distance up the drive. Betty had once advanced just beyond that mysterious bend, but she had scudded back again soon, declaring her grandfather had a gun and was coming after them, with it aimed at her head. Oh, how they had run home that day!
Another time she had climbed upon the topmost rail of the gate and, scrambling down quickly, had set off madly for home, followed breathlessly by the others who were afraid even to look over their shoulders. "He's set the emus loose," Betty told them as they ran, "and emus are like bloodhounds for scenting you out. And besides, they can fly."
But that was fully a year ago now, and much of the terror had departed from their grandfather's gates for the two elder ones. It was only Nancy who had cold thrills down her back and shudderings at passing the dread gates.
To-day Betty did no more than peep through the railing, declare there was nobody about, and swing off again with her long pole. "Nobody there to-day," she said, and Nancy breathed easier and ran after her.
They were on the well-trodden bush-track now, the track that led home between great gums and slim saplings. The iron roof of the cottage came into view and the row of tall pines that stood like grim sentinels between the two-rail fence and the sweet-scented garden. A small wicket gate stood invitingly ajar, and a black dog, lying meditatively outside it, pricked up his ears and raised his head as the trio came into sight.
They took a cross-track, however, and disappeared into the bush again, and the dog shook off his thoughtful mood and ran gleefully after them.
For he had not grown up from puppyhood to doghood with these children without knowing what tracks led to school and home, and what to the wonderful realm of play and fancy. Moreover, his anticipations were always aroused when Elizabeth changed her habit, and he had seen in the twinkling of his eye that she was bare-legged and bare-headed and provided with a pole. So he barked joyously and scampered away upon that cross-track too.
Down in the gully where the growth was thicker, and where the wattles and willows made many a fairy grove, a small creek ran. The widest end of it ran into their grandfather's grounds, and had at one time in its career broken down the two-rail dividing fence, which now lay submerged in its waters and formed the "dangerous coral islands" alluded to by Betty.
It pleased Elizabeth's fancy to state that her grandfather was unaware of this creek, but that some one would tell him soon, and then he would send men and have it well examined by divers.
To-day, however, a dire disappointment awaited them. Seated on a partly submerged post, and holding a fishing-line in his hands, was John Brown. The three stared at him for a minute in speechless disgust, but he returned their stare with a nod and a small smile and looked at his line.
"Better come home," whispered Cyril, with a lively recollection in his mind of the big hand that had played with his collar so short a time past.
But Betty was trying to swallow her indignation and to keep her voice quiet.
"This is our place," she said. "This was our place before yours."
"Well," said Brown, "it's mine now."
"It isn't yours," said Betty shrilly; "it belongs to our grandfather—so there!"
Again Brown smiled.
"Well, that's a stuffer," he said, "it belongs to my grandfather."
Betty's eyes widened in horror at the new boy's depravity. "Oh, you story!" she said in a shocked voice, then turning to the uneasy Cyril, "Hit him, Cyril!" she said. "Hit him one in the eye for taking our place and telling such a wicked story."
But Cyril was already widening the distance between himself and John Brown, and a feeling of anger was beginning to stir in his small breast against Betty for trying to mix him up in this quarrel.
"Come on home," he said, "what's the good of having a row with a fellow like that?"
"But it's our water," said Betty, her face red with anger towards the fisher. She stooped down and picked up a stone.
Brown turned and looked at the little group; Cyril a good distance in the rear; and angry-faced Betty, with Nancy cowering in terror behind her.
"Look here," he said, "I'm not going to have any of you people poaching on my grandfather's property. You can come as far as the fence if you like, but I advise you to come no further."
Betty's stone flew through the air—many yards distant from the boy on the post.
"Good, again," he said. "There are plenty more stones and I'm here yet."
Again Betty repeated the process, and with even worse results. She never could aim straight in all her life!
"Good shot!" said Brown, laughing again.
"Oh, Cywil, do smash him," begged Betty in desperation.
"He daren't, he hasn't the pluck," mocked Brown.
"No Bruce is afraid," said Betty, using her favourite taunt. "Come on Cyril!"
But when she looked over her shoulder Cyril was nowhere in sight, and Nancy was scudding away, like a terrified rabbit, through the scrub around her.
Through the air rang a clear shrill voice—it belonged to golden haired Dorothea—"Betty, come home."
"You're called," said Brown, winding up a yard or so of his line.
Betty stooped, grasped another stone, took aim at a distant wattle in sheer desperation, and caught Brown on the hand.
The pain of it drew a sharp exclamation from him, and brought him from his post in a towering rage.
And Betty took to her bare heels and ran—ran as though her grandfather and all his emus were after her.
Near the wicket-gate she ran against Cyril, who was throwing stones in the air for the dog to snap at as they fell.
"Bwoun!" she gasped. "He's coming!"
Cyril looked down the track and beheld no one.
"It's all right," he said; "go inside and shut the gate. I'll give him what for. I'd just like to see him touch you. I'd knock him into next year as soon as look at him."
But no Brown appeared.
Cyril put his hands in his pockets and strutted towards the track through the bush—to the intense admiration of Elizabeth.
"No Bruce is afraid of any one," he said. "You and Nancy go in."
A girl in a short long print dress ran down the verandah steps. A mane of golden hair hung down her back and some of it lay over her shoulders, and when she stood still she tossed it away.
"You're to come home at once, Betty," she said, "and mind baby. And oh, you naughty girl, you've got your boots and stockings off again. What will mother say?"
"THE DAILY ROUND—THE COMMON TASK"
Betty's boots and stockings were on once more, and her school frock exchanged for one whose school days lay far behind it. In spite of "lettings down" and repeated patchings and mendings it was in what its small wearer called the "ragetty tagetty" stage of its existence, and was donned only when she was about the dirty part of "cleaning up."
It was Saturday morning now, and she was very busy. Her mother could never capably wield a broom, or scrub, or dust, or cook—she had done all four, but the results were pathetic. Even Nancy knew the story of her life, which began with "once upon a time, almost twenty years ago," and was told in varying fragments whenever a story was begged for.
There was the story of the jolly sea-captain and his one wee daughter—their own mother—and of how they had sailed the seas and seen many people and many lands. There was the story of the old house within the iron gates—built by convicts more than fifty years ago—and of how the sea-captain had bought it and built a tower and spiral staircase and a roof promenade, which he called his "deck." And of how he and his small daughter settled down in the great house together; and how her wardrobe was always full of beautiful clothes and her purse full of real sovereigns; and two ponies she had to her name, and a great dog that was the terror of the neighbourhood, and a little dog that lived as much as it could in her lap. There was the story of her garden full of rare flowers, and her ferneries of rare ferns, and her aviary of rare birds.
Then there was the story of the little girl "grown up," with hair done on the top of her head, and long sweeping dresses, and a lover chosen by her father himself—by name John Brown; and of the pale young author who lived beyond the iron gates, in a small weather-board cottage with an iron roof who wrote dainty little sonnets and ballads, which he read to her under the old gum trees.
And lastly, there was the story of the captain's pretty daughter slipping away from the great house—to become mistress of the wee cottage behind the pine trees. And of how the captain returned all letters unopened and sailed away to other lands for five years; of how afterwards the poor author lay ill unto death, and the little wife—"mother" now—carried pretty Dorothy to the great house and sent her trotting into the library, saying "grandpa" as she ran; and of how the little girl had been lifted outside the house by a servant, who had civilly stated the orders he had received, never to allow any one from the author's house to "cross the threshold" of that other great one.
And now it was to-day—and besides Dorothea there were the twins (Cyril and Elizabeth), Nancy and the baby; a goodly number for the small weather-board cottage to shelter and for the author, who had only had one book published, to bring up.
So it fell out that there was only a rough state girl to do the work of the cottage, and much sweeping and dusting was Elizabeth's "share"; much "washing-up" and tidying. To Nancy belonged the task of setting the tables and amusing the baby; and Cyril was engaged at a penny a week to stock the barrel in the kitchen with firewood and chips, and bits of bark to coax contrary fires. He was the only one who received payment for his work, and no one demurred, for was he not the only boy of the family and in the eyes of them all a sort of king!
So Betty was dressed in working garb and was bestowing her usual Saturday morning attention upon the "living-room"—drawing-room they had none. The little room that had evidently been destined by its builder to fulfil such a mission, had been seized and occupied by the author in the beginning of his residence at The Gunyah.
The living-room was a low-ceiled room with French windows leading to the verandah. It had a centre table, several cane chairs, a small piano, a rocking-chair and a dilapidated sofa. Its floor was oilclothed and its windows uncurtained—only Dorothea had arrived at the stage that sighed for prettinesses.
Betty was quite happy when she had swept the floor, shaken the cloth, put all the chairs with their backs to the wall, and polished the piano.
She was surveying the room with pride when Dorothea walked in. Dorothea in the frock she had worn for five mornings during the week, and which was still clean and fresh; with her wonderful hair in a shining mass down her back, and a serviette in her hand (an extempore duster). It always took her the better part of Saturday to even find her own niche in the home.
"I was going to dust this room, Betty," she said—"someway, everything I am going to do, I find you've done."
Elizabeth smiled drily. She could not even sweep a room and be just Elizabeth Bruce. Saturdays usually found her in imagination Cinderella; and consequently harsh words from Dorothea, who in her eyes was a cruel step-sister, would have found more favour with her than kind ones.
"There is the kitchen to be swept," said Betty; "the ashes are thick on the hearth and the breakfast things are not washed up."
Dorothea looked startled. Betty's voice sounded tired and resigned.
"Oh dear!" said Dorothea, "I do so hate doing kitchen work. It makes my hands so red and rough, and just spoils my dress."
"The work is there and must be done," remarked Betty.
Mrs. Bruce looked in at the door. Her face was just Dorothea's grown older, and without its roses; her hair was Dorothea's with its gold grown dull; her very voice and dimples were Dorothea's. A large poppy-trimmed hat adorned her head, and a basket with an old pair of scissors in it was swung over her arm.
"Of course you'll not do kitchen work, my chicken," she said gaily; "slip on your hat and come and gather roses with me. It's little enough of you home your get—that little shall not be spoilt by ashes and dust.
"It's Mary's work, and Betty can see that she does it well."
Betty stalked into the kitchen and regarded the fireplace in gleeful gloom, sitting down in front of it and staring into the heart of the small wood fire.
Mary, the maid-of-all-work, took her duties in a very haphazard way. She had no particular time for doing anything, and no particular place for keeping anything. And alas! it is to be regretted her mistress was the last woman in the world to train her in the way she should go.
To-day she had taken it into her head to try the effect of a few bows of blue ribbon upon her cherry-coloured straw hat, before the breakfast things were washed or the sweeping and scrubbing done. But the washing-up belonged to Betty.
Outside in the garden Mrs. Bruce was drawing Dorothea's attention to the scent of the violets and mignonette, and her gay voice caused Betty to sigh heavily.
"If my own mother had lived," she said gloomily, "I too might gather flowers. But what am I?—the family drudge!"
Cyril entered the back door, his arms piled up with firewood.
"I'm getting sick of chopping wood," he said grumblingly, "it's all very well to be you and stay in a nice cool kitchen. How'd you like it if you had to be me and stay chopping in the hot sun? I know what I wish."
"What?" asked Betty, glancing round her "nice cool kitchen" without any appreciation of it lighting her eyes.
"Why, I wish mother had never run away and made grandfather mad. And I wish he'd suddenly think he was going to die, and say he wanted to adopt me."
"How about me? Why shouldn't he adopt me?" demanded Betty.
"'Cause I'm the only son," said Cyril. "He's got his pick of four girls, but if he wants a boy there's only me."
He went outside and loaded himself with wood once more.
"Cecil Duncan's father gives him threepence a week, and he doesn't have to do anything to earn it," he said when he came in again. "He says every Monday morning his father gives him a threepenny bit and his mother's always giving him pennies."
"H'em," said Cinderella, and fell to work sweeping up the hearth vigorously. Her own grievances faded away, as she looked at Cyril's—which was a way they had.
"And he's not the only boy neither," said Cyril. He threw the wood angrily into the barrel. "There's Harry and Jim besides. I suppose they get threepence each as well. What's a penny a week? You can't do anything with it."
Elizabeth lifted down a tin bowl and filled it with water; placed in it a piece of yellow soap, a piece of sand soap and a scrubbing brush, and then began to roll up her sleeves. She was no longer Cinderella. A new and wonderful thought had flashed into her mind even as she listened to Cyril's plaint. It certainly was hard for him, her heart admitted, very hard.
"How would you like to be rich, Cywil?" she asked, turning a shining face to him.
Cyril thought a reply was one of those many things that could be dispensed with—he merely showered a little extra vindictiveness upon the firewood and kicked the cask with a shabby copper-toed boot.
Betty danced across to him and put her sun-tanned face close to his fair freckled one.
"How would you like to be very rich?" she said, "and to have a pony of your own, and jelly and things to eat, and a lovely house to live in, and——"
"Don't be so silly, Betty," said the boy irritably.
Betty wagged her head. "I've got a thought," she said.
"Your silly-old pearl-seeking is no good. There are no pearls, so there," said Cyril crossly. "You needn't go thinking you really take me in. It's only a game—bah!"
Betty was still dancing around him in a convincing, yet aggravating way.
"How'd you like to be adopted, Cywil?" she asked—"really adopted, not pretending? Oh, I've got a very big thought, and it wants a lot of thinking. You go on getting your wood while I think."
And Cyril gave her one of his old respectful looks as he went out of the kitchen door.
Betty's plan was beautifully simple. As Cyril said, he could easily have thought of it himself. It was nothing more than to effect a reconcilement between their grandfather and their mother, and the means to bring it about was to be "ghosts."
"Mother said he was superstitious," said Betty; "she says all sailors are. He doesn't like omens and things, mother says. What we want to do is to give him a severe fright."
She had thought out alone all the details of her plan, helped only by a few incidental words of her mother's. The story of baby Dorothea being taken to melt a father's heart, for instance, had fired Betty with the resolve to try what baby Nancy could do in that direction.
Cyril was more matter-of-fact.
"If he wouldn't forgive mother when she took Dot, he's not very likely to soften to you with Baby," he said.
But Betty had counted that risk too.
"You forget he's ever so many years older," she said. "He's an old man now, and it's quite time he woke up. I've been thinking of everything we've to do and everything we've to say."
"Ghosts don't talk," said Cyril.
"They moan," replied Betty; "and they do talk. In Lady Anne's Causeway there's a ghost, and it speaks in sepulchral tones and says: 'Come hither, come hither to my home; thy time is come.'"
The little girl's eyes were shining; the very thought of that other ghost's "sepulchral" tones gave her a thrill down her back and lifted her out of herself. Of all her plots and plans, and they were many and various, there was not one to compare in magnitude with this. In her thoughts she became a ghost, straightway. She glided about the house, her lips moved but gave no sound, her eyes shone. Underneath the exhilaration, that her ghostly feelings gave, was the smooth sense of being about to do a great deed that would benefit every one—Cyril, her mother, her father, Dot, every one. Tears glistened in her eyes as she thought of the meeting between her grandfather and her mother, and beheld in fancy her pretty mother clasped at last in the sea-captain's arms.
Throughout that Saturday afternoon she made her preparations, only now and then giving Cyril a trifling explanation. He was much relieved to hear he would not be expected to take any active part in the proceedings, only to be at hand, in hiding, to help his ghostly sister carry the baby.
Tea was always an early meal at The Gunyah, that Mr. Bruce might have a long evening at his writing, and the children at their home lessons.
To-night, after the last cup and saucer had been washed and dried by Betty and put away by Dot, and after the baby, had been tucked into her little crib, by Betty again, a long pleasant evening seemed to stretch before every one.
Mr. Bruce brought out My Study Windows, and declared he had "broken up" till Monday. Mrs. Bruce opened a certain exercise book her eldest daughter had given her, imploring secrecy, and Dot sat down to the piano and wandered stumblingly into Mendelssohn's Duetto. The twins, to every one's entire satisfaction, "slipped away"—Betty to her bedroom to make her preparations, and Cyril (who was strictly forbidden even to peep through the key-hole) to the dark passage that ran from the bedrooms to the dining-room and front door. He went on with his plans while he waited. All day he had been thinking of the rainbow coloured future Betty assured him was his. He had quite decided to leave school directly he was adopted, and to have "some one" come to teach him at home. Of course his grandfather would not be able to bear him out of his sight. He had heard of such cases, and supposed he was about to become one. Then he decided to have a pony, a nice quiet little thing with a back not too far from the ground; and he would have a boat and sail her where the coral islands were, and he would have a few new marbles—and get his grandfather to have the emus killed.
He had just arrived at the part of the story where his grandfather was giving orders for the destruction of his emus, when Betty opened the bedroom door a crack, and whispered his name.
She shut the door at once, before he was fairly inside the room, and then he saw her.
Such a strange new Betty she was, that he almost cried out. Her face was white—white as death; two black cork lines stood for eyebrows, and black lines lay under her eyes, making them larger and unnatural-looking. She wore a black gown of her mother's, and a black capacious bonnet, and had a rusty dog chain tied to one arm. She moved her arm and fixed her eyes on her startled brother.
"Do you hear my clanking chain?" she asked in what she fondly believed to be "sepulchral tones." "Ghosts always have them. Come on."
But Cyril hung back somewhat—perhaps the glories of "being adopted" paled beside the unpleasantness of walking a lonely road in such unusual company.
"It's—it's a silly game," he said. "I don't see any good in it at all."
But the little ghost turned upon him spiritedly.
"This isn't a game at all," she said. "This is real. It'll make mother friends with grandfather, and get you adopted. Get baby and come on—it might frighten her if she saw me."
"They'll find out that she's gone," said Cyril, still leaning upon the bed-foot and eyeing his sister distrustfully. "Let's chuck it, Betty, we'll only get in a row."
"We won't get in a row," said Betty staunchly. "She'll be only too glad when we come back and tell them all. I didn't undress Baby to-night, and I put on her blue sash and everything. All you've to do is to wrap that shawl round her and catch me up. I'll be at the gate."
Baby was used, as were all of the others except Dot, to an open-air existence. Most of her daylight hours were spent, either rolling on the rough lawn, or sleeping in a hammock swung beneath an apple tree, and as a result, night-tide found her a very drowsy baby indeed. The children might romp and sing and chatter around her very cot as she slept, but she could not steal out of her slumbers even to blink a golden eyelash at them.
So that when Cyril overtook Elizabeth at the gate, my Lady Baby was asleep in his arms, and so she stayed in spite of the thumping of his heart, and the chatter of the ghost, and the rough road.
The night was dark with the luminous darkness of an Australian summer night. The tender sky was scattered with star-dust, a baby-moon peeped over the hill-top and the leaves and branches of the great bush trees lay like dark fretwork over the heavens.
Betty, holding her dress well up, and Cyril carrying the sleeping baby, hurried through the belt of bush that lay between their home and their grandfather's. Betty strove to instil energy into her listless brother, telling him stories of a golden future in store for him. But at the two-rail fence below "Coral Island Brook," Cyril came to a standstill, and urged Betty, who was under it in a trice and on her feet again, to "come along home."
Betty turned her ghastly face towards him indignantly. "I won't," she said fiercely. "Give me the baby and go home yourself if you like."
Between the outer world of bush and the house was a slip of ground called the banana grove, and known in story to both boy and girl, as the play-place of their mother.
Cyril followed Betty through this grove, trying to make up his mind as he went, whether to go or stay. To stay and take his part in the proceedings; to do and be bold—as an inner voice kept urging him—to blend his moans with Betty's, and carry the heavy baby; or to turn upon his heels, and fly through the darkness from these horrid haunted grounds where his grandsire, and the great emus and dogs lived; where John Brown stated he had his dwelling—away from all these terrors to his small cottage home on the other edge of the bush, where were parents and sisters, music and lights—and another voice urged this.
So he neither followed Betty nor went home; but, in dreadful doubt and great fear, he hung between the two courses in the banana grove, and shivered at the tree-trunks and the rustling leaves and the stray patches of moonlight.
And Betty went forward alone with the baby. Her heart was beating in a sickening way, but her courage was, as usual, equal to the occasion. It was far easier to her to go forward than backward now, and she braced herself up with a few of her stock phrases—"He won't eat me anyway"; "It'll be all the same in a hundred years"; "No Bruce is afraid ever."
A great bay window jutted into the darkness and gave out a blaze of light. This was the lowest room in the tower portion of the house and was, as Betty knew, her grandfather's study.
Betty's mind was swiftly made up. All fear had left her, and she stepped into the soft moonlight—a ghost indeed.
She called Cyril, and her voice was so imperative that he quitted his sheltering tree and ran to where she stood on the edge of the grove.
"Take Baby," she said whisperingly; "I can't do what I want with her in my arms."
"Come home, B—B—Betty," implored the small youth—and his teeth chattered as he spoke—"I—I don't want to be adopted. I——"
"Hush!" urged Betty, and filled his arms with the baby. "I—I don't want to be r—rich," cried Cyril. "It's b—b—better to be poor."
"H—sh!" said Betty again.
"I—I don't want to be like a c—camel!" whimpered the boy. "R—remember about rich men getting to Heaven."
"Stay close here with Baby," ordered the little ghost, and the next second she had glided away over the path to the verandah. She went close to the window—three blinds had been left undrawn and the window panes ran down to the verandah floor. Surely the room had been designed expressly for this night.
Cyril, in horror, beheld his sister creep to the first window and peep in; creep to the second—to the third.
All the other windows were darkened; only this one room in all the great house seemed to be awake.
Then, in the silence which lay everywhere, a blood-curdling thing happened. Betty's "clanking chain" came in contact with something of iron reared up near the window and gave forth a fearsome sound. Cold chills played about Cyril's back, a distant dog barked—and Baby awoke.
Betty at once perceived this to be the one moment. Many people can recognize their moment when it has gone. Betty's talent lay in seeing it just as it arrived.
If truth must be confessed, fear had once or twice during this campaign tugged at her heart; when Cyril had urged home, her greatest desire had been to flee. But Betty never quite knew herself—was never in any crisis of her life absolutely certain what this second terribly insistent self would do.
Instead of scampering away with Cyril through the night, her feet had taken her to the windows, and the proportions of her plan had grown gloriously, albeit her heart-beats could be heard aloud.
Now, when her chain clanked, it seemed to her the war drum had been sounded. She darted from the verandah across the path and snatched the baby from her brother's arms; then, running back to the verandah, her chain clanked again and again, and she rent the air with a dismal wail—
From the depths of an easy chair whose back was to her there rose the tall bent figure of an old man.
Betty had arranged to "rend the air with wail upon wail"—to "press her pinched white face, and her little one's, time after time upon the window pane," but opportunity interfered, the window flew up, and Betty crouched on the floor in terror.
In the banana grove Cyril fled from tree to tree, crying dismally. The darkness, the screams, the chain, the opening of the window, had each and all terrified him almost past endurance. Now he felt convinced his grandfather was chasing him with the emus.
Meanwhile Betty on the verandah was also quaking. A stern voice from the open window demanded "Who is there?" but her fortitude was not equal to a wail.
"I heard some one say 'Father, Father,' I'll swear," said a somewhat familiar boyish voice.
"I saw a face," said the old man.
And then Baby began to whimper piteously, and Betty's heart sank into her shabby small shoes.
Footsteps were coming her way; the inevitable was at hand and she recognized it, and with an effort stood upright cuddling the baby close.
The old man put his hand on her shoulder, and with a "I'll just trouble you—this way please," and not so much as a quaver in his voice, led her into the brightly-lighted study.
And there followed him "big John Brown," of mathematical and pugilistic renown.
He stared at Betty very hard, and Betty stared at him—only for a moment, though, for Baby began to cry and had to be hushed—and the chain clanked and frightened her while it produced no visible effect upon her grandfather.
The old man turned sharply to the wondering boy.
"Is this a trick of yours, John?" he demanded sharply.
"No," said Betty, "it's—it's only me," and she looked straight into her grandfather's face, although her voice was trembling.
"And who are only you?"
The child hesitated. In a vague way she felt she would be doing her mother's and Cyril's great future an injury to tell her name. And yet, quick-witted as she was, it did not occur to her to find a new one.
The young face in the old black bonnet looked beseechingly into the man's.
"Please don't ask my name," she begged.
"Take off your bonnet."
She put Baby on the floor at her feet and pulled off her bonnet. And her dark curly hair fell loosely around her odd white face.
"Now—your name!" shouted the old captain, as if he were calling to a sailor high up a mast.
"Elizabeth Bruce," faltered the girl, for her reason showed her in a second how John Brown would give it if she did not.
A certain gleam that had been in the old man's eyes went away and his brow grew black as thunder. Betty instinctively picked up the baby again and gathered up the train of her dress.
"Ah!" said the old man, breathing hard.
Then suddenly a light dawned on Betty and she saw things as this old man would see them, which was the very way of all others that he must not do.
She repeated swiftly to herself her old charm against fear—"No Bruce is afraid. I can only die once. He won't eat me."
"It's all my fault," she said, and her brown eyes looked into his brown ones. "Cyril and I got tried of being poor, and I—I thought it would be a good plan if you adopted Cyril—and—and I came to frighten you."
"I thought you were old, and—and—might be sorry now, and I thought a bit of a fright—I thought if a ghost——"
Her chain clanked and her hands trembled, and Baby bumped up and down in her arms. The very remembrance of her words left her, for a great frown was spreading over the old man's face. He turned angrily to the boy.
"Put her out of the door," he said. "Put her out of the place!" and some hot words, fearful and unintelligible some of them to the small girl, burst from his lips.
And Betty, Baby and chain and all went out into the darkness. Only the bonnet remained.
Cyril was on the outermost edge of the grove, and with danger behind him, and Betty and Baby before his eyes, safe and unhurt, a wave of very ill-temper swept over him. He refused to have part in any more of Betty's "silly games," left her to carry the baby unaided, and told her she had spoilt his chance of ever being adopted. But he was all the time wishing passionately that he too had "done and dared"—that he had not crouched there among the trees, afraid and trembling. A small inner voice, that spoke to him very sharply after such occasions, told him contemptuously, that he had been more afraid than a girl; that he had been a coward; and as soon as he reached their small lamp-lit home, he ran away from silent Betty and the babbling baby, to his own bedroom, to cry in loneliness over this second self who had done the wrong.
And Betty stole silently into her bedroom. The dining room door was still closed, and those quiet elder ones were having their "pleasant" evening. She undressed the baby, and kissed her over and over, then put her into her little cot and gave her a dimpled thumb to suck. And she herself cuddled up very close to her, and began to cry too. So much for all her show of bravery now.
And a small voice spoke to her also, and showed her the seamy side of this great deed of hers. Told her that no one else in all the world would have dreamed of doing so wrong a thing; pointed out her mother and father and pretty Dot, Mrs. and Mr. Sharman as examples of great goodness. When the baby was placidly sleeping, she sat upright on the end of her mother's bed in her earnestness to "see" if any of those righteous five would be guilty of the wickedness of becoming ghosts to frighten an old man. She would have felt easier at once if she could have convinced herself that they would; but she could only see each of them rounding eyes of horror at her, and her sobs, broke out afresh.
The door opened and Cyril came into the darkness, whispering and whimpering,—
"I didn't play fair, Betty," he said—"I wish I'd played fair—I——"
"Oh," said Betty sobbingly—"Oh, Cyril, you're ever so much nobler than I am. You wouldn't frighten an old man, neither. Oh, I wish I was as good as you!"
Whereat a sweet sense of well-doing stole over Cyril. "Never mind," he said cheerfully, "do as I do another time."
"There won't be another time," said Betty. "I'm going to turn over a new leaf, and be as good as if I was grown up."
John Brown's life had hitherto been a curiously rough and tumble sort of existence. There had been a season, brief and entirely unremembered by him, when his home had been in one of Sydney's most fashionable suburbs; when a tender-eyed mother had watched delightedly over his first gleams of intelligence, and a proud father had perched him on his shoulder for a bed-time romp. When he had been taken tenderly for an "airing" by the trimmest of nursemaids, and in the daintiest of perambulators. When he had worn tiny silk frocks and socks and bonnets. When hopes and fears had arisen over "teething-time." When he had been carried round a drawing-room, to display to admiring friends, his chubby wrists, his dimpled fat legs, his quite remarkable length of limb and growth of bone.
Then Death slipped in unawares, and called the sweet young mother from that happy home, and little John Brown became a perplexity and a care to a grief-maddened father.
For a space it was conjectured that the baby, pending the arrival of a step-mother, would be handed over to the cook, a rotund motherly person who was fond of asserting that she had buried thirteen children and reared one.
But conjectures have a way of falling beside the mark.
One morning an old schoolmate of poor little Mrs. Brown's arrived from "out back," packed up the baby's things with her own quick brown hands and returned "out back" the same evening.
The perambulator, the cradle, the cot, the dainty baby basket and a multitude of other things were sold the next week along with the tables and chairs and other "household effects," and Mr. John Brown, senior, a cabin box and a portmanteau, left by a mail steamer for Japan.
And the small suburban house became "to let." Thenceforward the pattern of little John Brown's existence became altered. He was one of three other children, and not even the baby, although scarcely one year old.
His elegant lace-trimmed silken and muslin garments were "laid by." He wore dark laundry-saving dresses and neither boots nor socks. He was never carried around for admiration, for the very good reason that visitors were few and far between—and there was (except to doting parents, perhaps) very little to admire about him. He lost his chubbiness and his pink prettiness and became thin and wiry, brown faced and brown limbed.
He was always abnormally tall and abnormally strong, so that he became almost a jest on the station. He learned to fight at three, to swim at four, shoot at seven, ride, yard cattle, milk, chop wood, make bush fires and put them out again, ring bark trees all before he was eleven. In short, to do, and to do remarkably well, the hundred and one things that make up a man's and boy's existence on an Australian station.
At thirteen he learned that his name was Brown, and that he had a father other than the bluff squatter he had grown up with. And at thirteen he was taken from the station-life he loved, and, after much travelling, delivered by a station-hand into his father's care in Sydney.
Before he could form any idea as to what was about to happen to him, and to this grey-bearded father of his, he was taken across the blue harbour water, and thence by coach to the little township over the northern hills.
They walked past the small weather-board school together, and few, if any, words passed between them. For the man's thoughts were away down the slope of many years, and the boy's were away in that flat country "out back" where he had been brought up.
They were close to the great iron gates when the man broke the silence; pointing beyond them he remarked—
"This is where your home will be in the future, John."
John considered the prospect thoughtfully and shook his head—
"I'd rather go home," he said. "Let me go home."
"No," said his father, "it can't be done. I ought to have fetched you away sooner, only I shirked a duty. Open the little gate, I see the big ones are padlocked. Push, it's stiff."
They walked up the long red drive, John's mind busy over the questions he wished to ask his father and he began to lag behind considering them.
"This will be your home," repeated Mr. Brown quietly, "and it's a marvellous thing how life has arranged itself. The turn of Fortune's wheel, we may say. Walk quicker, John."
When they stood before the great front door, Mr. Brown became retrospective again.
"We played here together," he said—, "down these very steps, along these very paths. It is strange how life has fallen out—how my boy will be——" He put out his hand and pulled the bell vigorously, then turned his back to the house and surveyed the garden.
"Is it a school?" whispered John. But before his father could reply the door had rolled back and a man-servant stood looking at them.
Mr. Brown walked in, put his hat on a table, motioned to John, and opened a door at one side of the wide hall.
"It's me—Brown," he said as he entered the room. "I've brought the boy."
John followed very quickly, being curious now. His father stood half-way across the room, looking hesitating and apologetic.
A man of sixty or so, with a red, merry-looking face, and an unmistakable sea-captain air, glanced up from a paper he was reading.
"Eh?" he asked.
Then he sent his look—it was a quick darting look that saw everything in the twinkling of an ordinary person's eye—to the thin badly-dressed figure in the rear. "Eh? The boy? Oh—ah! My newly-found grandson."
"He is scarcely what I had hoped to find," said Mr. Brown, apologetic still. "Yet his mother was a good-looking woman and——"
"Be hanged to looks," said Mr. Carew. "He'll get on all the better without 'em. And you were never anything to boast of yourself you know. What's his name?"
"Um! John Brown. John Carew-Brown, we'll say. It's a pity it's not John Brown Carew."
"That's a matter that can easily be altered. It can be merely John Carew, if you like, and let the melodious Brown go hang."
"Eh? What does the boy say? What do you say John to changing your name and letting the Brown go hang?"
To Mr. Brown's surprise and consternation, the boy gave an emphatic "No."
"Ah!" said old Mr. Carew, "and how's that? Speak up, John."
"The boys 'ud forget me," said John anxiously, "and I'd have to begin all over agen."
"What with?—Leave him alone, Brown."
"Thrashing 'em. They know me everywhere about Warrena. I can make 'em all sit up. I don't want to change my name."
A sparkle came into the old man's eyes.
"Well said, my lad," he snapped. "I'd not have given a rap for you if you'd have cast your name away as easily as a pinching pair o' boots. Stick to your own name, John, and you'll look all the better after mine."
He waited a bit, eyeing the boy up and down keenly. The thin brown face, with its square determined mouth, quiet grey eyes and high forehead; the sturdy figure, countrified clothes, copper-toed boots, all passed under his scrutiny.
"So you're of the fighting kind?" he asked at last.
"Yes," said John proudly.
"Ah! You never were, you remember, Brown. Things might have been different if you had been."
He waited again. Then he smiled queerly.
"John," he said, "your father's going away again to-night. You're my grandson. It may not seem a great matter to you now—but it is, all the same. You stay here. You and I have to take life together, boy—though you're at one end of the ladder and I'm at t'other. Your name's your name right enough, but I want you to be good enough to tack mine on to it, and to do a bit of fighting for mine too if necessary. I've fought for it hard in my day too. And now, John Carew-Brown, we'll have a bit of lunch if it's all the same to you."
Mrs. Bruce was down on her knees caressing tiny Czar violets. Quite early in the morning (before the breakfast things were washed or the beds made) she had slipped on one of Dot's picturesque poppy-trimmed hats and declared her intention of planting the bed outside the study windows thick with these the sweetest-scented of all flowers.
"And all the time you are working and thinking and plotting, daddie darling, the sweetest scents will be stealing round you," she said.
For some little time she was quite happy among her violets. But presently a richly hued wall-flower called her attention to a cluster of its blooms, drooping on the pebbly path for a careless foot to crush,—all for the want of a few tacks and little shreds of cloth. A heavily-blossomed rose-tree begged that some of its buds might be clipped, and a favourite carnation put in its claim for a stake.
"So much to do!" said Mrs. Bruce, as she flitted here and there in the old-fashioned garden, which was a veritable paradise to her. "The roses must be clipped, the violets must be thinned, the carnations must be staked. And there are the new seedlings to be planted. Oh, I think I will take the week for my garden—and let the house go!"
A flush of almost girlish excitement was in her cheeks, her garden meant so very much to her. Certainly the house had strong claims—and it was Monday morning—the very morning for forming and carrying out good plans and resolutions! Meals wanted cooking, cupboards and drawers tidying; garments darning and patching! But then—the garden! Did it not also need her. Ah! and did she not also need it!
Even as she hesitated, balancing duty with beauty, Betty's voice floated out through the kitchen window, past the passion-fruit creeper and the white magnolia tree, past the tiny sweet violets and the study windows, right to where she stood among the roses and wall-flowers.
"I am so tired of washing up," it said, "it wasn't fair of Dot. She had four plates for her breakfast—I only had one. She might remember I've to go to school as well as her."
Then Mrs. Bruce advanced one foot towards the house, and in thought wielded the tea-towel and attacked the trayful of cups and saucers that she knew would be awaiting the tea-towel.
It was Cyril's voice that arrested her. It came from the kitchen too.
"What's washing up!" said Cyril contemptuously. "Washing up a few cups and spoons—pooh! How'd you like to be me and have to clean all the knives, I wonder."
Whereat Mrs. Bruce relinquished thoughts of the tea-towel. It would never do, she told herself, to assist Betty and leave poor Cyril unaided. "And I couldn't clean knives," she said.
But she ran indoors to her bedroom, whence came an angry crying voice. Six-year-old Nancy was, in the frequent intervals that occurred in the doing of her hair, frolicking about the small hot bedroom and trying frantically to catch the interest of the thumb-and-cot-disgusted baby.
"Do your hair nicely," said Mrs. Bruce to her second youngest daughter. "I will take baby into the garden. Button your shoes and ask Betty to see that your ears are clean. And your nails. A little lady always has nice nails."
She carried her baby away, kissing her neck and cheeks and hands, and telling her, as she had told them all, from Dorothy downwards, that there never had been such a baby in the world before.
And she slipped her into the much used hammock under the old apple tree, and left her to play with her toes and fingers, whilst she went back to her violets and roses singing—
"Rock-a-bye, Baby on a tree top, There you are put, there you must stop."
and trying to be rid of that uncomfortable feeling, of having done what she wanted and not what she ought.
In the study Mr. Bruce sat before a paper-strewn table. Most of the papers related to his beloved book—which was almost half-completed. It had reached that stage several times before, and what had been written thereafter had been consigned to the kitchen fire.
Now it was necessary that he should put it away, even out of thought, and turn his attention towards something that would bring in a quick return. For Dot's school fees would be due very shortly, and he remembered, with a smile-lit sigh, that this quarter she had taken up two extras, singing and dancing.
His income would not admit of extras—and yet, as Mrs. Bruce frequently put it, Dot was the eldest and was very pretty. She certainly must be able to dance and sing!
He gathered up a few stray leaves of his manuscript, rolled them up with the bulk, and heroically put them away.
But, as he returned to his seat, he caught a glimpse of his wife, kneeling on the path, and making a little trench with a trowel in the bed outside his window.
"Well, little mother!" he called, and felt blithe as he said it, and young and fresh hearted, just because of the bright face in the poppy-trimmed hat.
"I ought to be in the kitchen making a pudding," she said, screwing up her face into a grimace.
"You are far better where you are," he said fondly.
"Yes. But, oh, dear! I wish I had a cook, and laundress, and a housemaid. Oh, and a nursemaid, too! It is dreadful to be poor, isn't it, daddie?"
She went on with her gardening, just as happy as before, but the face that the little author took to his work-table had grown grave in a minute.
"She was born to have servants," he said, "servants and ease. I must work harder."
Cyril's voice broke into his reverie. He had come beneath the study windows to interview his mother.
"Can't I be raised to twopence a week now I'm going on for thirteen," he said. "Bert Davis gets threepence, and he's only nine."
Mr. Brace did not catch the reply. But he told himself that most men would have been more liberal in the matter of L. s. d. to their only son.
He began to pace round and round his study.
"I must work harder—harder—harder!" he said. "I must put my book away, and grind out those articles for Montgomery!"
Nancy, in a big white sun-bonnet, clean for the new week, passed under his window and turned her face to the wicket gate. He could hear that she was crying in a miserable forsaken way, crying and talking to herself away within that capacious bonnet of hers.
He called "Baby!" and leaned over his window sill to her. But she did not hear him. She just went murmuring on to the gate.
Then two other hurrying little figures came along. Cyril, with a battered hat crushed down on his head, and his school-bag over his shoulders, and Betty with her boots unlaced, a white bonnet under her arm, and a newspaper parcel, which she was trying to coax into neatness, in one hand.
"It's all through you and your ghosts," Cyril was saying grumblingly. "I know I'd have done my lessons only for you, Betty Bruce."
"What is the matter with Nancy?" asked their father, leaning over the window sill once more. "Why was she crying?"
"'Cause she thinks she'll be late," said Betty easily. "She always cries if she thinks she's late."
Down the road they went, Nancy hurrying and crying, Cyril grumbling, Betty silent.
To none of them had Monday morning come exactly right—fresh and uncrumpled.
Betty sat down, just outside her grandfather's gate, to lace her boots, and Cyril went grumbling on about a hundred yards behind Nancy.
Then did a fresh crease get into the new week's first day for Betty. Looking under her arm as she bent over her boot, she beheld three figures walking down the road, and at the first glimpse of them her face grew hot.
"Geraldine and Fay!" she exclaimed.
The centre figure was dressed in a lilac print, and wore a spotless apron and a straw hat. Upon either side of her walked a little golden-haired girl, one apparently about Betty's age, and one Nancy's. Their dresses were white and spotless, and reached almost to their knees; their hats were flat shady things trimmed with muslin and lace. Their hair was beautifully dressed and curled, their boots shining—and buttoned, and their faces smiling and happy-looking.
They were Betty's ideals! Little rich girls, who rode ponies, and drove—sometimes in a village cart with a nurse, and sometimes in a carriage with a lady who invariably wore beautiful hats and dresses. Sometimes, again, they were to be seen in a dog-cart with a dark man who seemed a splendid creature indeed to Betty.
The little girl by the roadside grasped her unbuttoned boot in one hand, her bonnet and newspaper parcel in the other, and in a trice had squeezed herself under her grandfather's fence, just at a point where two or three panels were broken down.
Then she peeped out to see if they were looking. But no—they had not seen her. Betty gave a great sigh of relief as she watched them. How beautiful they were. How dainty! Betty looked down at her own old boots, old stockings, old dress. She turned her bonnet over disdainfully and thought of their lace-trimmed hats—their golden hair!
"Oh, I am glad they didn't see me!" she said aloud fervently.
Just then a voice shouted, a rough word to her from the path, and Betty awoke to two alarming facts. The one, that she was in the emu's enclosure and that one great bird was bearing curiously towards her already; the other, that her grandfather was the one who had called to her, and that John Brown, who was careering down the path on his bicycle, had stopped and was evidently giving information about her.
Her grandfather waved an angry hand.
"Out you go!" he shouted. "If you come here again, I'll set the dogs loose!"
Betty squeezed herself under the fence just before the emu reached her, and once more faced a very crumpled Monday morning.
It must be confessed that John Brown—or to be polite and up-to-date—John Carew-Brown surveyed the pupils of Wygate School with a fighting eye, which is to say, he considered them carefully with regarded to their pugilistic abilities, and he decided very soon that he "could make them all sing small."
Even upon that first day when he, a new boy, had been standing in view of the whole school, his mind had chiefly been occupied in running over the boys' obvious fighting qualities—tall, short, fat, thin, all sorts and conditions of them were there.
The girls he had passed by with but slight notice; to him they were absolutely valueless and uninteresting. Betty Bruce had certainly caught his attention by her public punishment, and he had been taken aback by that sharp little pinch of hers. Hitherto he had had nothing to do with girls but he supposed immediately that that was their manner of fighting, and he did not admire it.
Not many days later an opportunity occurred for him to defend his newly adopted name. Truth to tell, he had been longing for such an occasion from the day on which old Captain Carew had asked him to fight for his name too.
He was in the playground, round by the school house, just where the babies' end of the school room joined the cloak room, and school was over for the day. Having a piece of chalk in one hand, and nothing particular to do, he occupied a few minutes by writing upon the weather boards of the cloak-room—"J. C. Brown, J. C. Brown, John C. Brown, John C. Brown," and the hinting C. raised a small dispute in a circle of onlooking boys and girls.
It was Peter Bailey who said, "John Clara Brown," and it was silly little Jack Smith who said "John Codfish Brown."
A burst of laughter followed, and Peter Bailey and Jack Smith chased each other down the playground, and in and out among the sapling clump away at the end of it, where some shabby scrub and three gum trees grew.
When they came back, John Brown was still silently writing apparently deaf to all the surmising going on around him.
Nellie Underwood said it was—"Crabby John Brown," and Arthur Smedley, the school bully, said—"John Brown the clown."
Whereupon Brown sought out a clean weather-board a shade or so above his head and wrote in bold letters.
"John Carew-Brown, Dene Hall, Willoughby," which made Bailey say—
"Hullo, he's got hold of Bruce's grandfather."
Cyril, who was one of the little circle of jesters, grew pink to the tips of his pretty pink ears, but feeling the majority and the bully were against Brown, ventured to say—
"He's only running you!"
Nellie Underwood pushed herself into a prominent position in the group and cried—
"I seen him coming out of Dene Hall gates, and old Mr. Carew was with him. So there!"
John Brown chose another weather-board and the group closed round him to read—
"John Carew-Brown, only grandson of Captain Carew, of Dene Hall, Willoughby, Sydney, N.S. Wales, Australia, Southern Hemisphere," which certainly looked imposing and had the effect of silencing every one for almost half a minute.
Then the bully's eyes glared into Cyril's pretty blue ones, and he said angrily—
"You said you were the only grandson."
Cyril did not speak.
"You said," repeated the bully, "you said the Captain was going to adopt you, and give you his collection of guinea pigs."
Cyril hung his crimson face and kicked the ground with the toe of his boot.
John Brown chose another weather-board and wrote—
"Captain Carew has no guinea pigs," which sent most of the blood away from Cyril's face. The bully was eyeing him angrily, and even went as far as doubling up one fist.
"You said he was going to give you five shillings a week pocket-money, and let you buy my white mice," he muttered, and Cyril found himself face to face with the occasion, and with no clever intervening Betty to throw the right word into the right place, and so save his skin and his honour.
"So he is," he said, moving away from Brown as far as he dared—"and so I am the only grandson." He looked over his shoulder and beheld Brown's back, whereupon he felt if Brown could not see he could not hear. "He's only the gardener's boy," he said; "ask"—his mind made a swift excursion for an authority—"ask my grandfather," he said, "any of you who like, ask my grandfather."
Brown and his chalk advanced to Cyril.
"Who told you I was the gardener's boy?" he asked. Cyril looked from foe to foe, and the wild thought of denying he had said such words entered his mind, only to be followed by a swift remembrance of various daring deeds of the bully's.
So he went over recklessly to Arthur Smedley's side.
"My grandfather!" he said.
"Are you going to be adopted?" asked the bully.
"Yes," said Cyril in desperation.
"Are you going to have five shillings a week?" demanded the bully.
"No—I'm going to have ten," roared Cyril.
A window belonging to Mr. Sharman's private house, which adjoined the school, flew open, and John Brown's name was sharply called. It entered into Arthur Smedley's mind to see what writing remained upon the wall, and he went across to the cloak-room for that purpose.
Whereupon Cyril looked to the right of him, to the left of him, to the back of him, and beheld neither friend nor foe in his vicinity; and he heaved a sigh of great satisfaction, ran to the fence, squeezed himself through a hole in it, and was upon the road towards home in a trice.
But before he had gone more than a hundred yards he heard quick footsteps behind him, and looking over his shoulder he saw John C. Brown. Then did a sickening sense of terror sweep over him, and his heart leapt into his mouth, for had he not said John Carew-Brown was "only the gardener's boy"?
Betty was in the belt of bush that lay between the wicket-gate of her home and the road. Her idea was to be sufficiently near to home to gather from the sound of the voices that might call her if she were really needed and yet to be so far from sight that the continual "Betty, come here," and "Betty, go there," could not be.
She had come home as soon as school was out, come home leaving Cyril and Nancy behind her, flung herself beneath the shade of one of her favourite old gum trees, and begun to write.
When Mr. Bruce was busy over a story, or an article, or a book, every one in the house knew. Then the study door would be closed and the window only opened at the top; then the children would be banished from the side garden into which the study looked, and from the passage outside the study door; then Mrs. Bruce would carry his meals to him upon a tray, and he would have strong black coffee in the early evening. And then at last a neatly folded missive, gummed and tied with thin string, with a mysterious "MS. only" inscribed in one corner, would be carried to the post by either Cyril or Betty.
When Dot wrote a story, as she very frequently did now-a-days, portions of it would be carried into the study for her father to see, and her mother would proudly read page after page of the neat round hand, and wonder where on earth the child got her ideas from.
But when Betty wrote her stories, no one in the house—excepting Cyril, of course—knew anything about it! no one kept the house quiet for Betty, and no one wondered wherever she got her ideas from. And yet she had quite a collection of fairy stories and poems of her own composition. She and an exercise book, or a few scraps of paper and a stumpy bit of pencil were to be seen sometimes in very close companionship.
But for all that no one did see; or seeing, they did not understand.
Still Betty wrote her stories—not necessarily for publication like her father—nor as a guarantee that the scribbling genius was within her, like Dot—but for the love of story writing alone.
Her fairy story to-day had to do with the bold and handsome Waratah which ran mad in the bush behind her home, towards Middle Harbour. Her fertile fancy had suggested many roles for these flowers to take.
It occurred to her as she wrote that she had intended to write a poem which should stir Cyril—not one of her sort of poems, about streams and flowers and dells and birds, but a dashing sort of poem, one that would make Cyril say "By Jup-i-ter, Betty," and learn it off by heart without any asking.
For a space she laid down her story, which began, "Once upon a time," and asked herself what there was that she could make a poem of for Cyril.
"It must be something brave," she said. "A horse, a dog, a fire, a man—a St. Bernard dog saving a boy—a soldier—I think a soldier would suit Cyril!"
She stared through the bush to the red road consideringly, holding her pencil ready to write. As she looked she became aware of a small figure running along the road, and entering the bush track. It was Cyril, and Cyril in woe. She could see that at a glance, and of course the first thing she did was to throw down her paper and pencil and run to meet him.
As she got nearer to him she saw tears were running down his face and she heard, ever and anon as he ran, a great sob, half of anger and half of fear, come bursting from his lips.
"Oh, my poor boy, whatever is the matter?" she cried in her most motherly way.
"The g-g-great big bully!" sobbed Cyril.
"Oh dear!" exclaimed Betty in distress.
"Oh the b-b-big bully. Let's get home."
"Big John Brown?" asked Betty, for only yesterday this same John Brown had sent her small brother home weeping over a sore head.
"Yes, of course. He—he said he'd knock me into next year. Come on, can't you?"
Betty was running by his side at quite a brisk trot to keep up with him.
"I—I hope you knocked him down," she said.
"He said grandfather isn't our grandfather at all."
"Oh!—and you did give him a black eye Cywil dear?" asked Betty eagerly. Her "r's" had a way of rolling themselves into "w's" whenever she was excited.
They were at the wicket-gate now, and Cyril slackened his speed, and looked over his shoulder. No one was in sight.
"Oh, I will do!" he said boldly. "I told him no Bruce was afraid!"
"That's right," said Betty eagerly. "That's right Cywil. No Bruce is afraid. But you did knock him down, didn't you."
Cyril hesitated—then his trouble broke from him in a burst. "We fight to-night down at our coral islands at seven," he said.
"Oh my bwave Cywil!" exclaimed Betty admiringly. "Oh, I am so glad—oh, I am so very glad!"
But Cyril looked doleful, and was lagging behind his small eager sister.
"I'm not so sure that he meant us to fight," he said. "He—he never asked me to."
"What did he say?"
"He only said something about a challenge and things."
"Oh," said Betty, eager again in a minute; "if he said 'challenge' you must fight. There's no get out."
"But I've hurt my leg."
"Oh never mind your leg—think of the honour of the Bruces!" said the fervent Betty, who regarded the family cognomen as something sacred and against which no breath of evil must be allowed to come.
"Honour of the Bruces be hanged, if I'm lame," said Cyril savagely.
A sense of foreboding swept over Betty as she followed Cyril into the house. Her imagination showed her willows and the "coral islands," and only John Brown—big square John Brown—there. She knew the story that would soon be all over the school—all over the neighbourhood—that Cyril had been afraid to fight. Of course she, Betty, his own twin sister, knew there would not be a grain of truth in it. She knew he was shy and delicate, and had hurt his leg. But for all that, she wished eagerly that he were not shy and delicate, and did not always have some bodily ill when fighting time came. And more than one sob shook her, for she beheld the honour of the Bruces being trampled under John Brown's big boots.
She set the table and went about her usual household tasks in a very half-hearted way. Cyril would not look at her, and crept off to bed at six o'clock, complaining of the pain in his leg. Tea was over by then, and Betty, with her woeful look still on her face was helping "wash up" in the kitchen.
Cyril in his bedroom turned down his stocking and examined the little blue bruise near his knee. That there was some outward and visible sign of his hurt he was very thankful. It raised his self-respect and brought tears of self-pity to his eyes, that Betty should have expected him to fight under such circumstances! So much did the sight of his wound upset him that he only went on one leg while undressing, though it must be confessed it was not always the same leg that did the hopping.
Presently, after he had been lying in bed for some little time and commiserating with himself over his sad fate, the door opened and Betty, with the wistfulness quite gone from her face, came in. And such a Betty! Her brown hair was bundled away under one of Cyril's battered straw hats, and thankful indeed had she been that she had so little hair to bundle. She wore one of Cyril's sailor jackets, and a pair of his serge knickers, and few looking at her casually, would have insulted her with the supposition that she was a mere girl.
Her face was alight with eagerness as she besought her brother to "just see if he'd know her!"
"It'll be almost dark when I get there," she said, "and he'll never dweam I'm not you."
"But what'll you do when you get there?" asked Cyril, sitting up in bed; "perhaps a challenge does mean a fight!"
"Fight him!" said Betty stoutly; "I've been wanting to ever since he went above me."
"You can't fight," said Cyril disgustedly. "You're only a girl."
Betty's face positively flamed with eagerness.
"Can't fight!" she said. "Why Fred Jones taught me. He says I've got the knack, but not very much strength. Anyway, I fought that Barry kid the other day, I can promise you!"
"But John Brown is three times as big as Ces Barry."
"I know!" she sighed dismally. "Anyway, it's better to be beaten than not to fight at all. And if you don't fight, they—they might say you were afraid." Her face grew scarlet as she put the horrid thought into words.
When the door was shut, Cyril jumped out of bed to watch her go, and so occupied was he over her danger, that he forget his own hurt and did not limp at all.
Up and down the garden paths his mother and father were walking, his mother's arm through his father's, and a happy peaceful look on her face. The thought ran through the boy's mind, how little grown up ones know of the troubles of childhood. Nancy was rolling with baby on the little lawn, singing—
"John, John, John, the grey goose is gone, The fox is away o'er the hill, Oh!"
and he thought how good it was to be a girl—a goose—a fox—anything but a boy!
Then he crept back to bed, covered up his head and began to cry. For he was afraid that Betty would be hurt—and once again had he hung back when he should have gone forward. And his heart told him that again he had been a coward.
Down by the willows John Brown was waiting. He had very much enjoyed issuing his "challenge" but he felt morally certain that it would not be accepted. He was therefore surprised when he saw his small adversary approaching him in the dusk.
Who shall say what fancies were running riot in his head! He was a squire going to punish a rash youth for trying to thrust himself into their family. He, his grandfather's grandson, was going to thrash a foolish boy for taking his grandfather's name in vain!
Meanwhile his little foe came on, over the rough sun-burnt grass, over a fallen tree through a small stretch of denser scrub, to the very shores of the "coral island sea." And the baby-moon chose the moment of their meeting to slip behind a cloud and leave the world in semi-darkness.
"Well done, Bruce!" said Brown coming forward and speaking in a hearty tone; "I didn't believe you'd come—I didn't think you had a fight in you."
"We Bruces fight till we die!" piped Betty, and bit her lip to still its quivering.
Brown laughed. He detected the nervousness in his opponent's voice, and had fully expected it. If he had found "Bruce" over-bold, he would have been surprised indeed. As it was, the reply in some way pleased him.
"Well," he said, "you're not going to fight me. I'm not in a fighting mood; I'm going to thrash you."
Betty caught her breath. It certainly entered into her mind to cry out and run away, but she did nothing of the sort, she only clenched her hands, and stood her ground—having as usual a sufficiency of courage for the occasion.
The next minute Brown's great hand had grasped her coat collar, and she felt herself swung round, stood down and swung round again. Then a sharp swish lashed her once, twice, thrice.
Whereupon Betty began to fight on her own account, forgetting all the advice Fred Jones had given her about "hitting out from the shoulder," etc. etc. She kicked Brown's legs with all the strength she could put into her own. She pinched his wrists and his cheek, and lastly and to his disgust she set her sharp little teeth into his hand.
He dropped her quickly, her hat rolled off, and down tumbled her short curly hair. And the moon chose that moment to sail from under the cloud and put Betty's face in a soft silver light.
Brown whistled. "By Jove!" he said, the "sister."
Betty crammed her hat down upon her head again.
"I'm not," she said. "It's not! It's me, Cyril. Come on, coward, bully!"
She made a little rush at him, but Brown threw down his switch.
"Thanks," he said. "I'm not taking any this trip."
"Come on," urged Betty.
"I don't fight girls, thanks."
Betty began to cry in a heart-broken desperate way.
"It's not me," she said. "It's Cyril. It's Cyril. Oh, it's Cyril!"
But Brown, smiling darkly, turned from her, jumped over the fence, and took his way through the banana grove to his home.
And what pen could tell of his heaviness of heart, and great shame in that he had thrashed a girl. He could feel her light weight yet as he swung her round, hear her girlish voice crying, "We Bruces fight till we die!" see her thin white face in the moonlight as her hat fell off, and she looked at him and said—
"Come on, coward, bully!"
How he tingled with shame. Coward, bully! Yes, he had hit a girl.
Betty started for home at a brisk run, for during her adventure the night had advanced, and her imagination peopled the surrounding bush with bogeys, and imps and elves.
And as she ran, sobs broke from her, solely on account of her physical woes.
Within the wicket gate she walked slowly. How could fear of outer darkness remain, when the dinning-room window sent such a bar of light beyond.
She crept softly along the verandah to the window and peeped in. Her father was lying on the old cane lounge, his eyes upon her mother who sat at the piano, in a pretty fresh dress, flower-like as ever. For a space, while little boy-Betty looked, she just touched the keys tenderly as if she loved them like her flowers, then she struck a few chords, and began to sing "Home, Sweet Home," in her sweet girlish voice.
And Betty turned away, the tears running down her cheeks, and her small heart aching.
"I've been bad again," she said, "and I meant to be good always. I don't believe you can be good till you are grown up." She ran along the passage into the little bedroom which she and Dot and Nancy shared, and she fell down by Dot's quiet white bed and buried her face in the quilt.
"Bad again," she sobbed. "I've been bad again. Oh, I'm glad I got thrashed, it ought to do me good." But it is to be feared her gladness was not very deep, because a sense of great satisfaction swept over her as she remembered, she had kicked, really kicked, big John Brown.
Alma Montague, a wealthy doctor's daughter; Elsie and Minnie Stevenson, daughters of a Queensland squatter; and Nellie Harden, only child of a Supreme Court Judge, were Dorothea Bruce's "intimate" friends. Mona Parbury was her only "bosom" friend. Thus she defined them herself when speaking of them to members of her family and to the girls themselves, who were one and all eager to stand a "bosom" friend to pretty Thea Bruce as they called her.
The difference between an "intimate" friend and a "bosom" friend is too subtle to be described, but school-girls all the world over, and those who have left school days just behind them, will know and understand.
Mona Parbury was one week older than Dorothea and one inch (they measured upon the verandah wall) taller. Her waist was two sizes larger; her boots and gloves were three. In every way she was cast in a different mould from Dorothea. She was a heavily built girl, who looked at sixteen as though her teens were a year or two behind her. Her features were pronounced—high cheek-bones, square chin, high forehead; her hair was black and straight and plentiful, and she wore it in a heavy plait down her back. Her eyes were brown, clear, faithful, good eyes, and her mouth was distinctly large and ill-shaped.
Such was Mona in the days when Dorothea loved her—in the days when Dorothea told her all her hopes, and dreams, and often very foolish thoughts; when she made her the heroine of her stories; and wrote little poems to her as—"her love"—and little loving letters if the cruel fate which sometimes hovers over such friendships separated them for half a day.
We have seen Dorothea before. She was small and fairy-like; slender-waisted and light in movement. Her hair was golden and curly, and was usually worn quite loose about her shoulders; her eyes were blue and sunshiny and lashed by dark curling lashes; her mouth was small and red, and her complexion delicate pink and white. All of her "intimate" friends gave her the frankest admiration—they all loved her, and they were all eager to stand first with her.
But it was Mona who loved her the most. Mona who kept and treasured every one of the little "private" notes sent to her by Dot. She worked out all her most troublesome sums, brushed and curled her hair; bore many of her punishments; brought her numberless fal-lals (keepsakes she called them); wore a lock of her golden hair in a locket around her neck, and told her all of her secrets—she had as many as ten a week sometimes.
Miss Weir, the "principal" of the school, had, many years ago, given to Dorothea's mother much the same sort of love as Mona Parbury now gave to Dorothea. And it was owing to this old love that Dorothea was now admitted on very low terms to the most fashionable school in Sydney.
No one among all the pupils (there were fifteen) knew anything about poverty—no one but Dorothea. As she once said in a burst of anguish to her mother—
"They are all rich, every one of them. They live in beautiful houses and have parlourmaids and housemaids and nursemaids, and kitchenmaids and cooks and carriages, and as much money to spend as we have to live on, I believe."
It was very rarely, though, that any of her troubles ruffled her calm serenity. Dorothea was usually as placid as the placidest baby. She longed to be rich, and to have pretty things to wear and a handsome house to live in, but she never talked of her poverty. Instead she draped its cloven foot gracefully, and turned her back on it—and imagined she was rich—from Monday till Friday.
She discussed "fashion" and "society" with Alma Montague and Nellie Harden, and grew quite familiar with the names and doings of the great society dames. She even learned—at considerable pains—a "society" tone of voice with a drawl in it and a little lisp.
School life was a great happiness to her—the regular hours, the beautifully ordered house, the neat table, the daily constitutional, the morning and evening prayer-time, and the hour in the drawing-room at night, everything that made life from Monday till Friday.
It was Friday till Monday that was the cross, Friday till Monday, the days when the cloven foot would not be draped, when the elegancies of life were left behind in the city, when the twins and the babies were everywhere, when the meals were often but suddenly thought of snatches of food.