Seven Little Australians
I Chiefly Descriptive II Fowl for Dinner III Virtue Not Always Rewarded IV The General Sees Active Service V "Next Monday Morning" VI The Sweetness of Sweet Sixteen VII "What Say You to Falling in Love?" VIII A Catapult and a Catastrophe IX Consequences X Bunty in the Light of a Hero XI The Truant XII Swish, Swish! XIII Uninvited Guests XIV The Squatter's Invitation XV Three Hundred Miles in the Train XVI Yarrahappini XVII Cattle-Drafting at Yarrahappini XVIII The Picnic at Krangi-Bahtoo XIX A Pale-Blue Hair Ribbon XX Little Judy XXI When the Sun Went Down XXII And Last
To MY MOTHER
Before you fairly start this story I should like to give you just a word of warning.
If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps; a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to 'Sandford and Merton' or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.
In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks may be paragons of virtue, I know little about them.
But in Australia a model child is—I say it not without thankfulness—an unknown quantity.
It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy, of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children's spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history.
There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children.
Often the light grows dull and the bright colouring fades to neutral tints in the dust and heat of the day. But when it survives play-days and school-days, circumstances alone determine whether the electric sparkle shall go to play will-o'-the-wisp with the larrikin type, or warm the breasts of the spirited, single-hearted, loyal ones who alone can "advance Australia."
Enough of such talk. Let me tell you about my seven select spirits. They are having nursery tea at the present moment with a minimum of comfort and a maximum of noise, so if you can bear a deafening babel of voices and an unmusical clitter-clatter of crockery I will take you inside the room and introduce them to you.
Nursery tea is more an English institution than an Australian one; there is a kind of bon camaraderie feeling between parents and young folks here, and an utter absence of veneration on the part of the latter. So even in the most wealthy families it seldom happens that the parents dine in solemn state alone, while the children are having a simple tea in another room: they all assemble around the same board, and the young ones partake of the same dishes, and sustain their parts in the conversation right nobly.
But, given a very particular and rather irritable father, and seven children with excellent lungs and tireless tongues, what could you do but give them separate rooms to take their meals in?
Captain Woolcot, the father, in addition to this division, had had thick felt put over the swing door upstairs, but the noise used to float down to the dining-room in cheerful, unconcerned manner despite it.
It was a nursery without a nurse, too, so that partly accounted for it. Meg, the eldest, was only sixteen, and could not be expected to be much of a disciplinarian, and the slatternly but good-natured girl, who was supposed to combine the duties of nursery-maid and housemaid, had so much to do in her second capacity that the first suffered considerably. She used to lay the nursery meals when none of the little girls could be found to help her, and bundle on the clothes of the two youngest in the morning, but beyond that the seven had to manage for themselves.
The mother? you ask.
Oh, she was only twenty—just a lovely, laughing-faced girl, whom they all adored, and who was very little steadier and very little more of a housekeeper than Meg. Only the youngest of the brood was hers, but she seemed just as fond of the other six as of it, and treated it more as if it were a very entertaining kitten than a real live baby, and her very own.
Indeed at Misrule—that is the name their house always went by, though I believe there was a different one painted above the balcony—that baby seemed a gigantic joke to everyone. The Captain generally laughed when he saw it, tossed it in the air, and then asked someone to take it quickly.
The children dragged it all: over the country with them, dropped it countless times, forgot its pelisse on wet days, muffled it up when it was hot, gave it the most astounding things to eat, and yet it was the if healthiest; prettiest, and most sunshiny baby that ever sucked a wee fat thumb.
It was never called "Baby," either; that was the special name of the next youngest. Captain Woolcot had said, "Hello, is this the General?" when the little, red, staring-eyed morsel had been put into his arms, and the name had come into daily use, though I believe at the christening service the curate did say something about Francis Rupert Burnand Woolcot.
Baby was four, and was a little soft fat thing with pretty cuddlesome ways, great smiling eyes, and lips very kissable when they were free from jam.
She had a weakness, however, for making the General cry, or she would have been really almost a model child. Innumerable times she had been found pressing its poor little chest to make it "squeak;" and even pinching its tiny arms, or pulling its innocent nose, just for the strange pleasure of hearing the yells of despair it instantly set up. Captain Woolcot ascribed the peculiar tendency to the fact that the child had once had a dropsical-looking woolly lamb, from which the utmost pressure would only elicit the faintest possible squeak: he said it was only natural that now she had something so amenable to squeezing she should want to utilize it.
Bunty was six, and was fat and very lazy. He hated scouting at cricket, he loathed the very name of a paper-chase, and as for running an errand, why, before anyone could finish saying something was wanted he would have utterly disappeared. He was rather small for his age;-and I don't think had ever been seen with a clean face. Even at church, though the immediate front turned to the minister might be passable, the people in the next pew had always an uninterrupted view of the black rim where washing operations had left off.
The next on the list—I am going from youngest to oldest, you see—was the "show" Woolcot, as Pip, the eldest boy, used to say. You have seen those exquisite child-angel faces on Raphael Tuck's Christmas cards? I think the artist must just have dreamed of Nell, and then reproduced the vision imperfectly. She was ten, and had a little fairy-like figure, gold hair clustering in wonderful waves and curls around her face, soft hazel eyes, and a little rosebud of a mouth. She was not conceited either, her family took care of that—Pip would have nipped such a weakness very sternly in its earliest bud; but in some way if there was a pretty ribbon to spare, or a breadth of bright material; just enough for one little frock, it fell as a matter of course to her.
Judy was only three years older, but was the greatest contrast imaginable. Nellie used to move rather slowly about, and would have made a picture in any attitude. Judy I think, was never seen to walk, and seldom looked picturesque. If she did not dash madly to the place she wished to get to, she would progress by a series of jumps, bounds, and odd little skips. She was very thin, as people generally are who have quicksilver instead of blood in their veins; she had a small, eager, freckled face, with very, bright dark eyes, a small, determined mouth, and a mane of untidy, curly dark hair that was: the trial of her life.
Without doubt she was the worst of the seven, probably because she was the cleverest. Her brilliant inventive powers plunged them all into ceaseless scrapes, and though she often bore the brunt of the blame with equanimity, they used to turn round, not infrequently, and upbraid her for suggesting the mischief. She had been christened "Helen," which in no way account's for "Judy," but then nicknames are rather unaccountable things sometimes, are they not? Bunty said it was because she was always popping and jerking herself about like the celebrated wife of Punch, and there really is something in that. Her other name, "Fizz," is easier to understand; Pip used to say he never yet had seen the ginger ale that effervesced and bubbled and made the noise that Judy did.
I haven't introduced you to Pip yet, have I? He was a little like Judy, only handsomer and taller, and he was fourteen, and had as good an opinion, of himself and as poor a one of girls as boys of that age generally have.
Meg was the eldest of the family, and had a long, fair plait that Bunty used to delight in pulling; a sweet, rather dreamy face, and a powdering of pretty freckles that occasioned her much tribulation of spirit.
It was generally believed in the family that she wrote poetry and stories, and even kept a diary, but no one had ever seen a vestige of her papers, she kept them so carefully locked up in her, old tin hat-box. Their father, had you asked them they would all have replied with considerable pride, was "a military man," and much from home. He did not understand children at all, and was always grumbling at the noise they made, and the money they cost. Still, I think he was rather proud of Pip, and sometimes, if Nellie were prettily dressed, he would take her out with him in his dogcart.
He had offered to send the six of them to boarding school when he brought home his young girl-wife, but she would not hear of it.
At first they had tried living in the barracks, but after a time every one in the officers' quarters rose in revolt at the pranks of those graceless children, so Captain Woolcot took a house some distance up the Parramatta River, and in considerable bitterness of spirit removed his family there.
They liked the change immensely; for there was a big wilderness of a garden, two or three paddocks, numberless sheds for hide-and-seek, and, best of all, the water. Their father kept three beautiful horses, one at he barracks and a hunter and a good hack at Misrule; so, to make up, the children—not that they cared in the slightest—went about in shabby, out-at-elbow clothes, and much-worn boots. They were taught—all but Pip, who went to the grammar school—by a very third-class daily governess, who lived in mortal fear of her ignorance being found out by her pupils. As a matter of fact, they had found her out long ago, as children will, but it suited them very well not to be pushed on and made to work, so they kept the fact religiously to themselves.
Fowl for Dinner
"Oh, don't the days seem lank and long When all goes right and nothing wrong; And isn't your life extremely flat With nothing whatever to grumble at?"
I hope you are not quite deafened yet, for though I have got through the introductions, tea is not nearly finished, so we must stay in the nursery a little longer: All the time I have been talking Pip has been grumbling at the lack of good things. The table was not very tempting, certainly; the cloth looked as if it had been flung on, the china was much chipped and battered, the tea was very weak, and there was nothing to eat but great thick slices of bread and butter. Still, it was the usual tea, and everyone seemed surprised at Pip's outburst.
"My father and Esther" (they all called their young stepmother by her Christian name) "are having roast fowl, three vegetables, and four kinds of pudding," he said angrily; "it isn't fair!"
"But we had dinner at one o'clock, Pip, and yours is saved as usual," said Meg, pouring out tea with a lavish allowance of hot water and sugar.
"Boiled mutton and carrots and rice pudding!" returned her brother witheringly. "Why shouldn't we have roast fowl and custard and things?"
"Yes, why shouldn't we?" echoed little greedy Bunty; his eyes lighting up.
"What a lot it would take for all of us!" said Meg, cheerfully attacking the bread loaf.
"We're only children—let us be thankful for this nice thick bread and this abundance of melting butter," said Judy, in a good little tone.
Pip pushed his chair back from the table.
"I'm going down to ask for some roast fowl," he said, with a look of determination in his eyes. "I can't forget the smell of it, and they'd got a lot on the table—I peeped in the door."
He took up his plate and proceeded downstairs, returning presently, to the surprise of everyone, with quite a large portion on his plate.
"He couldn't very well refuse," he chuckled. "Colonel Bryant is there; but he looked a bit mad here, Fizz, I'll go you halves."
Judy pushed up her plate eagerly at this unusually magnanimous offer, and received a very small division, a fifth part, perhaps, with great gratitude.
"I just LOVE fowl," said Nell longingly; "I've a great mind to go down and ask for a wing—I believe he'd give it to me."
These disrespectful children, as I am afraid you will have noticed, always alluded to their father as "he."
Nell took up another plate, and departed slowly to the lower regions. She followed into the dining-room at the heels of the housemaid, and stood by the side of her father, her plate well behind her.
"Well, my little maid, won't you shake hands with me? What is your name?" said Colonel Bryant, tapping her cheek playfully.
Nell looked up with shy, lovely eyes.
"Elinor Woolcot, but they call me Nell," she said, holding out her left hand, since her right was occupied with the plate.
"What a little barbarian you are, Nell!" laughed her father; but he gave her a quick, annoyed glance. "Where is your right hand?"
She drew it slowly from behind and held out the cracked old plate. "I thought perhaps you would give me some fowl too," she said—"just a leg or a wing, or bit of breast would do."
The Captain's brow darkened. "What is the meaning of this? Pip has just been to me, too. Have you nothing to eat in the nursery?"
"Only bread and butter, very thick," sighed Nellie.
Esther suppressed a smile with difficulty.
"But you had dinner, all of you, at one o'clock."
"Boiled mutton and carrots and rice pudding," said Nell mournfully.
Captain Woolcot severed a leg almost savagely and put it on her plate.
"Now run away; I don't know what has possessed you two to-night."
Nellie reached the door, then turned back.
"Oh, if you would just give me a wing for poor Meg—Judy had some of Pip's, but Meg hasn't any," she said, with a beautiful look of distress that quite touched Colonel Bryant.
Her father bit his lip, hacked off a wing in ominous silence, and put it upon her plate.
"Now run away,—and don't let me have any more of this nonsense, dear." The last word was a terrible effort.
Nell's appearance with the two portions of fowl was hailed with uproarious applause in the nursery; Meg was delighted with her share; cut apiece off for Baby, and the meal went on merrily.
"Where's Bunty?", said Nell, pausing suddenly with a very clean drumstick in her fingers, "because I HOPE he hasn't gone too; someway I don't think Father was very pleased, especially as that man was there."
But that small youth had done so, and returned presently crestfallen.
"He wouldn't give me any—he told me to go away, and the man laughed, and Esther said we were very naughty—I got some feathered potatoes, though, from the table outside the door."
He opened his dirty little hands and dropped the uninviting feathered delicacy out upon the cloth.
"Bunty, you're a pig," sighed Meg, looking up from her book. She always read at the table, and this particular story was about some very refined, elegant girls.
"Pig yourself all of you've had fowl but me, you greedy things!" retorted Bunty fiercely, and eating, his potato very fast.
"No, the General hasn't," said Judy and the old mischief light sprang up suddenly into her dark eyes.
"Now, Judy!" said Meg warningly; she knew too well what that particular sparkle meant.
"Oh, I'm not going to hurt you, you dear old thing," said Miss Judy, dancing down the room and bestowing a pat on her sister's fair head as she passed. "It's only the General, who's after havin' a bit o' fun."
She lifted him up out of the high chair, where he had been sitting drumming on the table with a spoon and eating sugar in the intervals.
"It's real action you're going for to see, General," she said, dancing to the door with him.
"Oh, Judy, what are you going to do?" said Meg entreatingly.
"Ju-Ju!" crowed the General, leaping almost out of Judy's arms, and scenting fun with the instinct of a veteran.
Down the passage they went, the other five behind to watch proceedings. Judy sat down with him on the last step.
"Boy want chuck-chuck, pretty chuck-chuck?" she said insidiously.
"Chuck-chuck, chuck-a-chuck," he gurgled, looking all around for his favourite friends.
"Dad got lots—all THIS many," said Judy, opening her arms very wide to denote the number in her father's possession. "Boydie, go get them!"
"Chuck-chuck," crowed the General delightedly, and struggling to his feet—"find chuck-chuck."
"In there," whispered Judy, giving him a gentle push into the half-open dining-room door; "ask Dad."
Right across the room the baby tottered on fat, unsteady little legs.
"Are the children ALL possessed to-night, Esther?" said the Captain, as his youngest-son clutched wildly at his leg and tried to climb up it.
He looked down into the little dirty, dimpling face. "Well, General, and to what do we owe the honour of your presence?"
"Chuck-chuck, chuck-a-chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck," said the General, going down promptly upon all fours to seek for the feathered darlings Judy had said were here.
But Esther gathered up the dear, dirty-faced young rascal and bore him struggling out of the room. At the foot of the stairs she nearly stumbled over the rest of the family.
"Oh, you scamps, you bad, wicked imps!" she said, reaching out to box all their ears, and of course failing.
She sat down on the bottom stair to laugh for a second, then she handed the General to Pip. "To-morrow," she said, standing up and hastily smoothing the rich hair that the General's hands had clutched gleefully—"to-morrow I shall beat every one of you with the broomstick."
They watched the train of her yellow' silk dress disappear into the dining-room again, and returned slowly to the nursery and their interrupted tea.
Virtue Not Always Rewarded
It was not to be expected that such an occurrence could be passed entirely over, but then again it is difficult to punish seven children at the same time. At first Captain Woolcot had requested Esther to ask Miss Marsh, the governess, to give them all ten French verbs to learn; but, as Judy pointed out, the General and Baby and Bunty and Nell had not arrived at the dignity of French verbs yet, so such a punishment would be iniquitous. The sentence therefore had not been quite decided upon as yet, and everyone felt in an uncomfortable state of suspense.
"Your father says you're a disgraceful tribe," said the young stepmother slowly, sitting down on the nursery rocking-chair a day later. She had on a trailing morning wrapper of white muslin with cherry ribbons, but there was a pin doing duty for a button in one or two places and the lace was hanging off a bit at the sleeve.
"Meg, dear, you're very untidy, you know, and Judy's absolutely hopeless."
Meg was attired in an unbecoming green cashmere, with the elbows out and the plush torn off in several places, while Judy's exceedingly scant and faded pink zephyr had rents in several places, and the colour was hardly to be seen for fruit-stains.
Meg coloured a little. "I know, Esther, and I'd like to be nicely-dressed as well as anyone, but it really isn't worth mending these old things."
She picked up her book about the elegant girls who were disturbing her serenity and went over to the armchair with it.
"Well, Judy, you go and sew up those rents, and put some buttons on your frock." Esther spoke with unusual determination.
Judy's eyes snapped and sparkled.
"'Is that a dagger that I see before me, the handle to my hand? Come, let me grasp it,'" she said saucily, snatching one of the pins from Esther's dress, fastening her own with it, and dropping a curtsey.
Esther reddened a little now.
"That's the General, Judy: he always pulls the buttons off my wrappers when I play with him. But I'm forgetting. Children, I have bad news for you."
There was a breathless silence. Everyone crowded round her knees.
"Sentence has been proclaimed," said Judy dramatically: "let us shave our heads and don sackcloth."
"Your father says he cannot allow such conduct to go unpunished, especially as you have all been unusually tiresome lately; therefore: you are all—"
"To be taken away and hanged by the neck until we are dead!"
"Be quiet, Judy. I have tried my best to beg you off, but it only makes him more vexed. He says you are the untidiest, most unruly lot of children in Sydney, and he will punish you each time you do anything, and—"
"There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
"Oh, shut up, Judy! Can't you let us hear?" Pip put his hand over her mouth and held her by the hair while Esther told the news.
"None of you are to go to the pantomime. The seats were taken for Thursday night, and now, you very foolish children, you will all have to stay at home."
There was a perfect howl of dismay for a minute or two. They had all been looking forward to this treat for nearly a month, and the disappointment was a really bitter one to them all.
"Oh, I say, Esther, that's too bad, really! All the fellows at school have been." Pip's handsome face flushed angrily. "And for such a little thing, too!"
"Just because you had roast fowl for dinner," said Judy, in a half-choked voice. "Oh, Esther, why couldn't you have had cow, or horse, or hippopotamus—anything but roast fowl?"
"Couldn't you get round him, Esther?" Meg looked anxiously at her.
"Dear Esther, do!"
"Oh, you sweet, beautiful Essie, do try!"
They clung round her eagerly. Baby flung her arms round her neck and nearly choked her; Nell stroked her cheek; Pip patted her back, and besought her to "be a good fellow"; Bunty buried his nose in her back hair and wept a silent tear; Meg clasped her hand in an access of unhappiness; the General gave a series of delighted squeaks; and Judy in her wretchedness smacked him for his pains.
Esther would do her best, beg as she had never done before, coax, beseech, wheedle, threaten; and they let her go at last with that assurance.
"Only I'd advise you all to be preternaturally good and quiet all day," she said, looking back from the doorway. "That would have most effect with him, and he is going to be at home all day."
GOOD! It was absolutely painful to witness the virtue of those children for the rest of the day.
It was holiday-time, and Miss Marsh was away, but not once did the sound of quarrelling, or laughing, or crying fly down to the lower regions.
"'Citizens of Rome, the eyes of the world are upon you!'" Judy had said solemnly, and all had promised so to conduct themselves that their father's heart could not fail to be melted.
Pip put on his school jacket, brushed his hair, took a pile of school books, and proceeded to the study where his father was writing letters, and where he was allowed to do his home-lessons.
"Well, what do you want?" said the Captain, with a frown. "No, it's no good coming to the about that pup, sir—I won't have you keep it."
"I came to study, sir," said Pip mildly. "I feel I'm a bit backward with my mathematics, so I won't waste all the holidays, when I'm costing you so much in school fees."
The Captain gave a little gasp and looked hard at Pip; but the boy's face was so unsmiling and earnest that he was disarmed, and actually congratulated himself that his eldest son was at last seeing the error of his ways.
"There are those sets of problems in that drawer that I did when I was at school," he said graciously. "If they are of any use to you, you can get them out."
"Thanks awfully—they will be a great help," said Pip gratefully.
He examined them with admiration plainly depicted upon his face.
"How very clearly and correctly you worked, Father," he said with a sigh. "I wonder if ever I'll get as good as this! How old were you, Father, when you did them?"
"About your age," said the Captain, picking up the papers.
He examined them with his head on one side. He was rather proud of them, seeing he had utterly forgotten now how to work decimal fractions, and could not have done a quadratic equation to save his life.
"Still, I don't think you need be quite discouraged, Pip. I was rather beyond the other boys in my class in these subjects, I remember. We can't all excel in the same thing, and I'm glad to see you are beginning to realize the importance of work."
Meg had betaken herself to the drawing-room, and was sitting on the floor before the music canterbury with scissors, thimble, and a roll of narrow blue ribbon on her knee, and all her father's songs, that he so often complained were falling to pieces, spread out before her.
He saw her once as he passed the door, and looked surprised and pleased.
"Thank you, Margaret: they wanted it badly. I am glad you can make yourself useful, after all," he said.
Meg stitched on industriously.
He went back to his study, where Pip's head was at a studious, absorbed angle, and pyramids of books and sheaves of paper were on the table. He wrote two more letters, and there came a little knock at the door.
"Come in," he called; and there entered Nell.
She was carrying very carefully a little tray covered with a snow-white doyley, and on it were a glass of milk and a plate of mulberries. She placed it before him.
"I thought perhaps you would like a little lunch, Father," she said gently; and Pip was seized with a sudden coughing fit.
"My DEAR child!" he said.
He looked at it very thoughtfully.
"The last glass of milk I had, Nellie, was when I was Pip's age, and was Barlow's fag at Rugby. It made me ill, and I have never touched it since."
"But this won't hurt you. You will drink this?" She gave him one of her most beautiful looks.
"I would as soon drink the water the maids wash up in, my child." He took a mulberry, ate it, and made a wry face. "They're not fit to eat."
"After you've eaten about six you don't notice they're sour," she said eagerly. But he pushed them away.
"I'll take your word for it." Then he looked at her curiously. "What made you think of bringing me anything, Nellie? I don't ever remember you doing so before."
"I thought you might be hungry writing here so long," she said gently; and Pip choked again badly, and she withdrew.
Outside in the blazing sunshine Judy was mowing the lawn.
They only kept one man, and, as his time was so taken up with the horses and stable work generally, the garden was allowed to fall into neglect. More than once the Captain had spoken vexedly of the untidy lawns, and said he was ashamed for visitors to come to the house.
So Judy, brimming over with zeal, armed herself with an abnormally large scythe, and set to work on the long, long grass.
"Good heavens, Helen! you'll cut your legs off!" called her father, in an agitated tone.
He had stepped out on to the front veranda for a mild cigar after the mulberry just as she brought her scythe round with an admirable sweep and decapitated a whole army of yellow-helmeted dandelions.
She turned and gave him a beautiful smile. "Oh, no, Father!—why, I'm quite a dab at mowing."
She gave it another alarming but truly scientific sweep.
"See that—and th-a-at—and tha-a-a-at!"
"Th-a-at" carried off a fragment of her dress, and "tha-a-a-at" switched off the top of a rose-bush; but there are details to everything, of course.
"Accidents WILL happen, even to the best regulated grass-cutters," she said composedly, and raising the scythe for a fresh circle.
"Stop immediately, Helen! Why ever can't you go and play quietly with your doll, and not do things like this?" said her father irascibly.
"An' I was afther doin' it just to pleasure him," she said, apparently addressing the dandelions.
"Well, it won't 'pleasure him' to have to provide you with cork legs and re-stock the garden," he said dryly: "Put it down."
"Sure, an' it's illigence itsilf this side: you wouldn't be afther leaving half undone, like a man with only one cheek shaved."
Judy affected an Irish brogue at some occult reason of her own.
"Sure an' if ye'd jist stip down and examine it yirself, it's quite aisy ye'd be in yer moind."
The Captain hid a slight smile in his moustache. The little girl looked so comical, standing there in her short old pink frock, a broken-brimmed hat on her tangle of dark curls, her eyes sparkling, her face flushed, the great scythe in her hands, and the saucy words on her lips.
He came down and examined it: it was done excellently well, like most of the things miss Judy attempted—mischief always included: and her little black-stockinged legs were still in a good state of preservation.
"Hum! Well, you can finish it then, as Pat's busy. How did you learn to mow, young lady of wonderful accomplishments?" (he looked at her questioningly); "and what made you set yourself such a task?"
Judy gave her curls a quick push off her hot forehead.
"(A) Faix, it was inborn in me," she answered instantly; "and (B)—sure, and don't I lo-o-ove you and delaight to plaize you?"
He went in again slowly, thoughtfully. Judy always mystified him. He understood her the least of any of his children, and sometimes the thought of her worried him. At present she was only a sharp, clever, and frequently impertinent child; but he felt she was utterly different from the other six, and it gave him an aggrieved kind of feeling when he thought about it, which was not very often.
He remembered her own mother had often said she trembled for Judy's future. That restless fire of hers that shone out of her dancing eyes, and glowed scarlet on her cheeks in excitement, and lent amazing energy and activity to her young, lithe body, would either make a noble, daring, brilliant woman of her, or else she would be shipwrecked on rocks the others would never come to, and it would flame up higher and higher and consume her.
"Be careful of Judy" had been almost the last words of the anxious mother when, in the light that comes when the world's is going out, she had seen with terrible clearness the stones and briars in the way of that particular pair of small, eager feet.
And she had died, and Judy was stumbling right amongst them now, and her father could not "be careful" of her because he absolutely did not know how.
As he went up the veranda steps again and through the hall, he was wishing almost prayerfully she had not been cast in so different a mould from the others, wishing he could stamp out that strange flame in her that made him so uneasy at times. He gave a great puff at his cigar, and sighed profoundly; then he turned on his heel and went off toward the stables to forget it all.
The man was away, exercising one of the horses in the long paddock; but there was something stirring in the harness-room, so he went in.
There was a little, dripping wet figure standing over a great bucket, and dipping something in and out with charming vigour. At the sound of his footsteps, Baby turned round and lifted a perspiring little face to his.
"I'se washing the kitsies for you, and Flibberty-Gibbet," she said beamingly.
He took a horrified step forward.
There were two favourite kittens of his, shivering, miserable, up to their necks in a lather of soapy water; and Flibberty-Gibbet, the beautiful little fox terrier he had just bought for his wife, chained to a post, also wet, miserable, and woebegone, also undergoing the cleansing process, and being scrubbed and swilled till his very reason was tottering.
"They'se SO clean and nicey—no horrid ole fleas 'n them now. AREN't you glad? You can let Flibberty go on your bed now, and Kitsy Blackeye is—"
Poor Baby never finished her speech. She had a confused idea of hearing a little "swear-word" from her father, of being shaken in a most ungentle fashion and put outside the stable, while the unfortunate animals were dried and treated with great consideration.
But the worst was yet to come, and the results were so exceedingly bad that the young Woolcots determined never again to assume virtues that they had not.
Bunty, of course, desired to help the cause as strongly as the others, and to that end his first action was to go into his bedroom and perform startling ablutions with his face, neck, and hands. Then he took his soap-shiny countenance and red, much bescrubbed hands downstairs, and sunned himself under his father's very nose, hoping to attract favourable comment.
But he was bidden irritably "go and play," and saw he would have to find fresh means of appeasement.
He wandered into the study, with vague thoughts of tidying the tidy bookshelves; but Pip was there, surrounded with books and whittling a stick for a catapult, so he went out again. Then he climbed the stairs and explored his father's bedroom and dressing-room. In the latter there was a wide field for his operations. A full-dress uniform was lying across a chair, and it struck Bunty the gold buttons were looking less bright than they should, so he spent a harmless quarter of an hour in polishing them up. Next, he burnished some spurs, which also was harmless. Then he cast about for fresh employment.
There was quite a colony of dusty boots in one corner of the room, and there was a great bottle of black, treacly looking varnish on the mantelpiece. Bunty conceived the brilliant idea of cleaning the whole lot and standing them in a neat row to meet his father's delighted eyes. He found a handkerchief on the floor, of superfine cambric, though dirty, poured upon it a liberal allowance of varnish, and attacked the first pair.
A bright polish rewarded him, for they were patent leather ones; but the next and the next and the next would not shine, however hard he rubbed. There was a step on the stair, the firm, well-known step of his father, and he paused a moment with a look of conscious virtue on his small shiny face.
But it fled all at once, and a look of horror replaced it. He had stuck the bottle on a great armchair for convenience, as he was sitting on the floor, and now he noticed it had fallen on its side and a black, horrid stream was issuing from its neck.
And it was the chair with the uniform on, and one of the sleeves was soaked with the stuff, and the beautiful white shirt that lay there, too, waiting for a button, was sticky, horrible! Bunty gave a wild, terrified look round the room for some place to efface himself, but there were no sheltering corners or curtains, and there was not time to get into the bedroom and under the bed. Near the window was a large-sized medicine chest, and in despair Bunty crushed himself into it, his legs huddled up, his head between his knees, and an ominous rattle of displaced bottles in his ears. The next minute his father was in the room.
"Great Heavens! God bless my soul!" he said, and Bunty shivered from head to foot.
Then he said a lot of things very quickly—"foreign language" as Judy called it; kicked something over, and shouted "Esther!" in a terrifying tone. But Esther was down in one of the paddocks with the General, so there was no reply.
More foreign language, more stomping about.
Bunty's teeth chattered noisily; he put up his hand to hold his mouth together, and the cupboard, overbalanced, fell right over, precipitating its occupant right at his father's feet, and the bottles everywhere.
"I didn't—I haven't—'twasn't me—'twasn't my fault!" he howled, backing towards the door. "Hoo—yah—boo-hoo-ooo! Esther—boo—yah—Judy—oh—oh—h! oh—oh—h—h—h—h!" As might be expected, his father had picked up a strap that lay conveniently near, and was giving his son a very fair taste of it.
"Oh—h—h—h! o—o—h! o—o—h! ah—h—h! 'twasn't me—'twasn't my fault—its Pip and Judy—oh—h—h—h! hoo—the pant'mime! boo-hoo! ah—h—h—h—you're killing me! hoo-boo! I was only d—doin' it—oh—hoo—ah—h—h! d—oin' it to p—please—boo—oo—oo! to p—please you!"
His father paused with uplifted strap. "And that's why all the others are behaving in so strange a fashion? Just for me to take them to the pantomime?"
Bunty wriggled himself free. "Boo—hoo—yes! but not me—I didn't—I never—true's faith—oh-h-h-hoo-yah! it wasn't my fault, it's all the others—boo—hoo—hoo! hit them the rest."
He got three more smart cuts, and then fled howling and yelling to the nursery, where he fell on the floor and kicked and rolled about as if he were half killed.
"You sn—n—n—n—neaks!" he sobbed, addressing the others, who had flown from all parts at his noisy outcry, "you m-m—mean p—p—p—pigs! I h—hadn't n—n—no fo—o—ow-l, and I've h—h—had all the b—b—b—beating! y—you s—s—sn—n-neaks! oh—h—h—h! ah—h—h—h! oh—h—h—h! oh—h—h-h! I'm b—b—bleeding all over, I kno—o—o—ow!"
They couldn't help laughing a bit; Bunty was always so irresistibly comic when he was hurt ever so little; but still they comforted him as well as they could, and tried to find out what had happened.
Esther came in presently, looking very worried. "Well?" they said in a breath.
"You really are the most exasperating children," she said vexedly.
"But the pantomime—quick, Esther—have you asked him?" they cried impatiently.
"The pantomime! He says he would rather make it worth Mr. Rignold's while to take it off the boards than that one of you should catch a glimpse of it—and it serves you very well right! Meg, for goodness' sake give Baby some dry clothes—just look at her; and, Judy, if you have any feeling for me, take off that frock. Bunty, you wicked boy, I'll call your father if you don't stop that noise. Nell, take the scissors from the General, he'll poke his eyes out, bless him."
The young stepmother leaned back in her chair and looked round her tragically. She had never seen her husband so thoroughly angered, and her beautiful lips quivered when she remembered how he had seemed to blame her for it all.
Meg hadn't moved; the water was trickling slowly off Baby's clothes and making a pool on the floor, Bunty was still giving vent to spasmodic boos and hoos, Judy was whistling stormily, and the General, mulcted of the scissors, was licking his own muddy shoe all over with his dear little red tongue.
A sob rose in her throat, two tears welled up in her eyes and fell down her smooth, lovely cheeks. "Seven of you, and I'm only twenty!" she said pitifully. "Oh! it's too bad—oh dear! it is too bad."
The General Sees Active Service
"My brain it teems With endless schemes, Both good and new."
It was a day after "the events narrated in the last chapter," as story-book parlance has it. And Judy, with a wrathful look in her eyes, was sitting on the nursery table, her knees touching her chin and her thin brown hands clasped round them.
"It's a shame," she said, "it's a burning, wicked shame! What's the use of fathers in the world, I'd like to know!"
"Oh, Judy!" said Meg, who was curled up in an armchair, deep in a book. But she said it mechanically, and only as a matter of duty, being three years older than Judy.
"Think of the times we could have if he didn't live with us," Judy continued, calmly disregardful. "Why, we'd have fowl three times a day, and the pantomime seven nights a week."
Nell suggested that it was not quite usual to have pantomimic performances on the seventh day, but Judy was not daunted.
"I'd have a kind of church pantomime," she said thoughtfully—"beautiful pictures and things about the Holy Land, and the loveliest music, and beautiful children in white, singing hymns, and bright colours all about, and no collection plates to take your only threepenny bit—oh! and no sermons or litanies, of course."
"Oh, Judy!" murmured Meg, turning a leaf. Judy unclasped her hands, and then clasped them again more tightly than before. "Six whole tickets wasted—thirty beautiful shillings—just because we have a father!"
"He sent them to the Digby-Smiths," Bunty volunteered, "and wrote on the envelope, 'With compts. J. C. Woolcot.'"
Judy moaned. "Six horrid little Digby-Smiths sitting in the theatre watching our fun with their six horrid little eyes," she said bitterly.
Bunty, who was mathematically inclined, wanted to know why they wouldn't look at it through their twelve horrid little eyes, and Judy laughed and came down from the table, after expressing a wicked wish that the little Digby-Smiths might all tumble over the dress-circle rail before the curtain rose. Meg shut her book with a hurried bang.
"Has Pip gone yet? Father'll be awfully cross. Oh dear, what a head I've got!" she said. "Where's Esther? Has anyone seen Esther?"
"My DEAR Meg!" Judy said; "why, it's at least two hours since Esther went up the drive before your very nose. She's gone to Waverly—why, she came in and told you, and said she trusted you to see about the coat, and you said, 'M—'m! all right.'"
Meg gave a startled look of recollection. "Did I have to clean it?" she asked in a frightened tone, and pushing her fair hair back from her forehead. "Oh, girls! what WAS it I had to do?"
"Clean with benzine, iron while wet, put in a cool place to keep warm, and bake till brown," said Judy promptly. "SURELY you heard, Margaret? Esther was at such pains to explain."
Meg ruffled her hair again despairingly. "What shall I do?" she said, actual tears springing to her eyes. "What will Father say? Oh, Judy, you might have reminded me."
Nell slipped an arm round her neck. "She's only teasing, Megsie; Esther did it and left it ready in the hall—you've only to give it to Pip. Pat has to take the dogcart into town this afternoon to have the back seat mended, and Pip's going in it, too, that's all, and they're putting the horse in now; you're not late."
It was the coat Bunty had done his best to spoil that all the trouble was about. It belonged, as I said, to the Captain's full-dress uniform, and was wanted for a dinner at the Barracks this same evening. And Esther had been sponging and cleaning at it all the morning, and had left directions that it was to be taken to the Barracks in the afternoon.
Presently the dogcart came spinning round to the door in great style, Pip driving and Pat looking sulkily on. They took the coat parcel and put it carefully under the seat, and were preparing to start again, when Judy came out upon the veranda, holding the General in an uncomfortable position in her arms.
"You come, too, Fizz, there's heaps of room—there's no reason you shouldn't," Pip said suddenly. "Oh—h—h!" said Judy, her eyes sparkling. She took a rapid step forward and lifted her foot to get in.
"Oh, I say!" remonstrated Pip, "you'll have to put on something over that dress, old girl—it's all over jam and things."
Judy shot herself into the hall and returned with her ulster; she set the General on the floor for a minute while she donned it, then picked him up and handed him up to Pip.
"He'll have to come, too," she said; "I promised Esther I wouldn't let him out of my sight for a minute; she's getting quite nervous about him lately—thinks he'll get broken."
Pip grumbled a minute or two, but the General gave a gurgling, captivating laugh and held up his arms, so he took him up and held him while Judy clambered in.
"We can come back in the tram to the Quay, and then get a boat back," she said, squeezing the baby on the seat between them. "The General loves going on the water."
Away they sped; down the neglected carriage drive, out of the gates, and away down the road. Pip, Judy of the shining eyes, the General devouring his thumb, and Pat smiling-faced once more because in possession of the reins.
A wind from the river swept through the belt of gum trees on the Crown lands, and sent the young red blood leaping through their veins; it played havoc with Judy's curls, and dyed her brown cheeks a warm red; it made the General kick and laugh and grow restive, and caused Pip to stick his hat on the back of his head and whistle joyously.
Until town was reached, when they were forced to yield somewhat to the claims of conventionality. On the way to Paddington a gentleman on horseback slackened pace a little. Pip took off his hat with a flourish, and Judy gave a frank, pleased smile, for it was a certain old Colonel they had known for years, and had cause to remember his good-humour and liberality.
"Well, my little maid—well, Philip, lad," he said, smiling genially, while his horse danced round the dogcart—"and the General too—where are you all off to?"
"The Barracks—I'm taking something up for the governor," Pip answered, Judy was watching the plunging horse with admiring eyes. "And then we're going back home."
The old gentleman managed, in spite of the horse's tricks, to slip his hand in his pocket. "Here's something to make yourselves ill with on the way," he said, handing them two half-crowns; "but don't send me the doctor's bill."
He flicked the General's cheek with his whip, gave Judy a nod, and cantered off.
The children looked at each other with sparkling eyes.
"Coconuts," Pip said, "and tarts and toffee, and save the rest for a football?" Judy shook her head. "Where do I come in?" she said. "You'd keep the football at school. I vote pink jujubes, and icecreams, and a wax doll."
"A wax grandmother!" Pip retorted; "you wouldn't be such a girl, I hope." Then he added, with almost pious fervour, "Thank goodness you've always hated dolls, Fizz."
Judy gave a sudden leap in her seat, almost upsetting the General, and bringing down upon her head a storm of reproaches from the coachman. "I know!" she said; "and we're almost halfway there now. Oh—h—h! it will be lovely."
Pip urged her to explain herself.
"Bondi Aquarium—skating, boats, merry-go-round, switchback threepence a go!" she returned succinctly.
"Good iron," Pip whispered softly, while he revolved the thing in his mind. "There'd be something over, too, to get some tucker with, and perhaps something for the football, too." Then his brow clouded.
"There's the kid—whatever did you go bringing him for? Just like a girl to spoil everything!" Judy looked nonplussed.
"I quite forgot him," she said, vexedly. "Couldn't we leave him somewhere? Couldn't we ask someone to take care of him while we go? Oh, it would be TOO bad to have to give it up just because of him. It's beginning to rain, too; we couldn't take him with us."
They were at the foot of Barrack Hill now, and Pat told them they must get out and walk the rest of the way up, or he would never get the dogcart finished to take back that evening.
Pip tumbled out and took the General, all in a bunched-up heap, and Judy alighted carefully after him, the precious coat parcel in her arms. And they walked up the asphalt hill to the gate leading to the officers' quarters in utter silence.
"Well?" Pip said querulously, as they reached the top. "Be quick; haven't you thought of anything?"
That levelling of brows, and pursing of lips, always meant deep and intricate calculation on his sister's part, as he knew full well.
"Yes," Judy said quietly. "I've got a plan that will do, I think." Then a sudden fire entered her manner.
"Who is the General's father? Tell me that," she said, in a rapid, eager way; "and isn't it right and proper fathers should look after their sons? And doesn't he deserve we should get even with him for doing us out of the pantomime? And isn't the Aquarium too lovely to miss?"
"Well?" Pip said; his slower brain did not follow such rapid reasoning.
"Only I'm going to leave the General here at the Barracks for a couple of hours till we come back, his father being the proper person to watch over him." Judy grasped the General's small. fat hand in a determined way, and opened the gate.
"Oh, I say," remarked Pip, "we'll get in an awful row, you know, Fizz. I don't think we'd better—I don't really, old girl."
"Not a bit," said Judy, stoutly—"at least, only a bit, and the Aquarium's worth that. Look how it's raining; the child will get croup, or rheumatism, or something if we take him; there's Father standing over on the green near the tennis-court talking to a man. I'll slip quietly along the veranda and into his own room, and put the coat and the General on the bed; then I'll tell a soldier to go and tell Father his parcels have come; and while he's gone I'll fly back to you, and we'll catch the tram and go to the Aquarium."
Pip whistled again softly. He was used to bold proposals from this sister of his, but this was beyond everything. "B—b—but," he said uneasily, "but, Judy, whatever would he do with that kid for two mortal hours?"
"Mind him," Judy returned promptly. "It's a pretty thing if a father can't mind his own child for two hours. Afterwards, you see, when we've been to the Aquarium, we will come back and fetch him, and we can explain to Father how it was raining, and that we thought we'd better not take him with us for fear of rheumatism, and that we were in a hurry to catch the tram, and as he wasn't in his room we just put him on the bed till he came. Why, Pip, it's beautifully simple!"
Pip still looked uncomfortable. "I don't like it, Fizz," he said again; "he'll be in a fearful wax."
Judy gave him one exasperated look. "Go and see if that's the Bondi tram coming," she said; and glad of a moment's respite, he went down the path again to the pavement and looked down the hill. When he turned round again she had gone.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked up and down the path a few times. "Fizz'll get us hanged yet," he muttered, looking darkly at the door in the wall through which she had disappeared. He pushed his hat to the back of hiss head and stared gloomily at his boots, wondering what would be the consequences of this new mischief. There was a light footfall beside him.
"Come on," said Judy, pulling his sleeve; "it's done now, come on, let's go and have our fun; have you got the money safe?"
It was two o'clock as they passed out of the gate and turned their faces up, the hill to the tram stopping-place. And it was half-past four when they jumped out of a town-bound tram and entered the gates again to pick up their charge.
Such an afternoon as they had had! Once inside the Aquarium, even Pip had put his conscience qualms on one side, and bent all his energies to enjoying himself thoroughly. And Judy was like a little mad thing. She spent a shilling of her money on the switchback railway, pronouncing the swift, bewildering motion "heavenly." The first journey made Pip feel sick, so he eschewed a repetition of it, and watched Judy go off from time to time, waving gaily from the perilous little car, almost with his heart in his mouth. Then they hired a pair of roller skates each, and bruised themselves black and blue with heavy falls on the asphalt. After that they had a ride on the merry-go-round, but Judy found it tame after the switchback, and refused to squander a second threepence upon it, contenting herself with watching Pip fly round, and madly running by his side, to keep up as long as she could. They finished the afternoon with a prolonged inspection of the fish-tanks, a light repast of jam tarts of questionable freshness, and twopennyworth of peanuts. And, as I said, it was half-past four as they hastened up the path again to the top gate of the Barracks.
"I hope he's been good," Judy said, as she turned the handle. "Yes, you come, too, Pip"—for that young gentleman hung back one agonized second. "Twenty kicks or blows divided by two only make ten, you see."
They went up the long stone veranda and stopped at one door.
There was a little knot of young officers laughing and talking close by.
"Take my word, 'twas as good as a play to see Wooly grabbing his youngster, and stuffing it into a cab, and getting in himself, all with a look of ponderous injured dignity," one said, and laughed at the recollection.
Another blew away a cloud of cigar smoke. "It was a jolly little beggar," he said. "It doubled its fists and landed His High Mightiness one in the eye; and then its shoe dropped off, and we all rushed to pick it up, and it was muddy and generally dilapidated, and old Wooly went red slowly up to his ear-tips as he tried to put it on."
A little figure stepped into the middle of the group—a little figure with an impossibly short and shabby ulster, thin black-stockinged legs, and a big hat crushed over a tangle of curls.
"It is my father you are speaking of," she said, her head very high, her tone haughty, "and I cannot tell where your amusement is. Is my father here, or did I hear you say he had gone away?"
Two of the men looked foolish, the third took off his cap.
"I am sorry you should have overheard us, Miss Woolcot," he said pleasantly. "Still, there is no irreparable harm done, is there? Yes, your father has gone away in a cab. He couldn't imagine how the little boy came on his bed, and, as he couldn't keep him here very well, I suppose he has taken him home."
Something like a look of shame came into Judy's bright eyes,
"I am afraid I must have put my father to some inconvenience," she said quietly. "It was I who left the Gen—my brother here, because I didn't know what to do with him for an hour or two. But I quite meant to take him home myself. Has he been gone long?"
"About half an hour," the officer said, and tried not to look amused at the little girl's old-fashioned manner.
"Ah, thank you. Perhaps we can catch him up. Come on, Pip," and, nodding in a grave, distant manner, she turned away, and went down the veranda and through the gate with her brother.
"A nice hole we're in," he said.
"It's about the very awfullest thing we've ever done in our lives. Fancy the governor carting that child all the way from here! Oh, lor'!"
Judy nodded again.
"Can't you speak?" he said irritably. "You've got us into this—I didn't want to do it; but I'll stand by you, of course. Only you'll have to think of something quick."
Judy bit three finger-tips off her right-hand glove, and looked melancholy.
"There's absolutely nothing to do, Pip," she said slowly. "I didn't think it would turn out like this. I suppose we'd better just go straight back and hand ourselves over for punishment. He'll be too angry to hear any sort of an excuse, so we'd better just grin and hear whatever he does to us. I'm really sorry, too, that I made a laughing-stock of him up there."
Pip was explosive. He called her a little ass and a gowk and a stupid idiot for doing such a thing, and she did not reproach him or answer back once.
They caught a tram and went into Sydney, and afterwards to the boat. They ensconced themselves in a corner at the far end, and discussed the state of affairs with much seriousness. Then Pip got up and, strolled about a little to relieve his feelings, coming back in a second with a white, scared face.
"He's on the boat," he said, in a horrified whisper.
"Where-where—where? what—what—what?" Judy cried, unintentionally mimicking a long-buried monarch.
"In the cabin, looking as glum as a boiled wallaby, and hanging on to the poor little General as if he thinks he'll fly away."
Judy looked a little frightened for the first time. "Can't we hide? Don't let him see us. It wouldn't be any good offering to take the General now. We're in for it now, Pip—there'll be no quarter."
Pip groaned; then Judy stood up.
"Let's creep down as far as the engine," she said, "and see if he does look very bad."
They made their way cautiously along the deck, and took up a position where they could see without being seen. The dear little General was sitting on the seat next to his stern father, who had a firm hold of the back of his woolly-pelisse. He was sucking his little dirty hand, and casting occasional longing glances at his tan shoe, which he knew was delicious to bite. Once or twice he had pulled it off and conveyed it to his mouth, but his father intercepted it, and angrily buttoned it on again in its rightful place. He wanted, too, to slither off the horrid seat, and crawl all over the deck, and explore the ground under the seats, and see where the puffing noise came from; but there was that iron grasp on his coat that no amount of wriggling would move. No wonder the poor child looked unhappy!
At last the boat stopped at a wharf not far from Misrule, and the Captain alighted, carrying his small dirty son gingerly in his arms. He walked slowly up the red road along which the dogcart had sped so blithesomely some six or seven hours ago, and Judy and Pip followed at a respectful—a very respectful—distance. At the gate he saw them, and gave a large, angry beckon for them to come up. Judy went very white, but obeyed instantly, and Pip, pulling himself together, brought up the rear.
Afterwards Judy only had a very indistinct remembrance of what happened during the next half-hour. She knew there was a stormy scene, in which Esther and the whole family came in for an immense amount of vituperation.
Then Pip received a thrashing, in spite of Judy's persistent avowal that it was all her fault, and Pip hadn't done anything. She remembered wondering whether she would be treated as summarily as Pip, so angry was her father's face as he pushed the boy aside and stood looking at her, riding whip in hand. But he flung it, down and laid a heavy hand on her shrinking shoulder.
"Next Monday," he said slowly—"next Monday morning you will go to boarding school. Esther, kindly see Helen's clothes are ready for boarding school—next Monday morning."
"Next Monday Morning"
There was a trunk standing in the hall, and a large, much-travelled portmanteau, and there were labels on them that said: "Miss Helen Woolcot, The Misses Burton, Mount Victoria."
In the nursery breakfast was proceeding spasmodically. Meg's blue eyes were all red and swollen with crying, and she was still sniffing audibly as she poured out the coffee. Pip had his hands in his pockets and stood on the hearthrug, looking gloomily at a certain plate, and refusing breakfast altogether; the General was crashing his own mug and plate joyously together; and Bunty was eating bread and butter in stolid silence.
Judy, white-faced and dry-eyed, was sitting at the table, and Nell and Baby were clinging to either arm. All the three days between that black Thursday and this doleful morning she had been obstinately uncaring. Her spirits had never seemed higher, her eyes brighter, her tongue sharper, than during that interval of days; and she had pretended to everyone, and her father, that she especially thought boarding school must be great fun, and that she should enjoy it immensely.
But this morning she had collapsed altogether. All the time before, her hot childish heart had been telling her that her father could not really be so cruel, that he did not really mean to send her away among strangers, away from dear, muddled old Misrule and all her sisters and brothers; he was only saying it to frighten her, she kept saying to herself, and she would show him she was not a chickenhearted baby.
But on Sunday night, when she saw a trunk carried downstairs and filled with her things and labelled with her name, a cold hand seemed to close about her heart. Still, she said to herself, he was doing all this to make it seem more real.
But now it was morning, and she could disbelieve it no longer. Esther had come to her bedside and kissed her sorrowfully, her beautiful face troubled and tender. She had begged as she had never done before for a remission of poor Judy's sentence, but the Captain was adamant. It was she and she only who was always ringleader in everything; the others would behave when she was not there to incite them to mischief and go she should. Besides, he said, it would be the making of her. It was an excellent school he had chosen for her; the ladies who kept it were kind, but very firm, and Judy was being ruined for want of a firm hand. Which, indeed, was in a measure true.
Judy sat bolt upright in bed at the sight of Esther's sorrowful face.
"It's no good, dear; there's no way out of it," she said gently. "But you'll go like a brave girl, won't you, Ju-Ju? You always were the sort to die game, as Pip says."
Judy gulped down a great lump in her throat, and her poor little face grew white and drawn.
"It's all right, Essie. There, you go on down to breakfast," she said, in a voice that, only shook a little; "and please leave the General, Esther; I'll bring him down with me."
Esther deposited her little fat son on the pillow, and with one loving backward glance went out of the door.
And Judy pulled the little lad down into her arms, and covered the bedclothes right over both their heads, and held him in a fierce, almost desperate clasp for a minute or two, and buried her face in his soft, dimpled neck, and kissed it till her lips ached.
He fought manfully against these troublesome proceedings, and at last objected, with an angry scream, to being suffocated. So she flung back the clothes and got out of bed, leaving him to burrow about among the pillows, and pull feathers out of a hole in one of them.
She dressed in a quick nervous fashion, did her hair with more care than usual, and then picked up the General and took him along the passage into the nursery. All the others were here, and, with Esther, were evidently discussing her. The three girls looked tearful and protesting; Pip had just been brought to book for speaking disrespectfully of his father, and was looking sullen; and Bunty, not knowing what else to do at such a crisis, had fallen to catching flies, and was viciously taking off their wings.
It was a wretched meal: The bell sounded for the downstairs breakfast, and Esther had to go. Everyone offered Judy everything on the table, and spoke gently and politely to her. She seemed to be apart from them, a person not to be lightly treated in the dignity of this great trouble. Her dress, too, was quite new—a neat blue serge fresh from the dressmaker's hands; her boots were blacked and bright, her stockings guiltless of ventilatory chasms. All this helped to make her a Judy quite different from the harum-scarum one of a few days back, who used to come to breakfast looking as if her clothes had been pitchforked upon her.
Baby addressed herself to her porridge for one minute, but the next her feelings overcame her, and, with a little wail, she rushed round the table to Judy, and hung on her arm sobbing. This destroyed the balance of the whole company. Nell got the other arm and swayed to and fro in an excess of misery. Meg's tears rained down into her teacup; Pip dug his heel in the hearthrug, and wondered what was the matter with his eyes; and even Bunty's appetite for bread and butter diminished.
Judy sat there silent; she had pushed back her unused plate, and sat regarding it with an expression of utter despair on her young face. She looked like a miniature tragedy queen going to immediate execution.
Presently Bunty got off his chair, covered up his coffee with his saucer to keep the flies out, and solemnly left the room. In a minute he returned with a pickle bottle, containing an enormous green frog.
"You can have it to keep for your very own, Judy," he said, in a tone of almost reckless sadness. "It'll, keep you amused, perhaps, at school." Self-sacrifice could go no further, for this frog was the darling of Bunty's heart.
This stimulated the others; everyone fetched some offering to lay at Judy's shrine for a keepsake. Meg brought a bracelet, plaited out of the hair of a defunct pet pony. Pip gave his three-bladed pocketknife. Nell a pot of musk that she had watered and cherished for a year, Baby had a broken-nosed doll, that was the Benjamin of her large family.
"Put them in the trunk, Meg—there's room on top, I think," Judy said in a choking voice, and deeply touched by these gifts. "Oh! and, Bunty, dear! put a cork over the f—f—frog, will you? it might get lost, poor thing! in that b—b—big box."
"All right," said Bunty, "You'll take c—c—care of it, w—won't you, Judy? Oh dear, oh—h—h!—boo-hoo!"
Then Esther came in, still troubled-looking. "The dogcart is round," she said. "Are you ready, Ju, dearest? Dear little Judy! be brave, little old woman."
But Judy was white as death, and utterly limp. She suffered Esther to put her hat on, to help her into her new jacket, to put her gloves into her hand. She submitted to being kissed by the whole family, to be half carried downstairs by Esther, to be kissed again by the girls, then by the two good-natured domestics, who, in spite of her peccadilloes, had a warm place in their hearts for her.
Esther and Pip lifted her into the dogcart; and she sat in a little, huddled-up way, looking down at the group on the veranda with eyes that were absolutely tragic in their utter despair. Her father came out, buttoning his overcoat, and saw the look.
"What foolishness is this?" he said irascibly—"Esther-great heavens! are you making a goose of yourself, too?"—there were great tears glistening in his wife's beautiful eyes. "Upon my soul, one would think I was going to take the child to be hanged, or at least was going to leave her in a penitentiary."
A great dry sob broke from Judy's white lips.
"If you'll let me stay, Father, I'll never do another thing to vex you; and you can thrash me instead, ever so hard."
It was her last effort, her final hope, and she bit her poor quivering lip till it bled while she waited for his answer.
"Let her stay—oh! do letter stay, we'll be good always," came in a chorus from the veranda. And, "Let her stay, John, PLEASE!" Esther called in a tone as entreating as any of the children.
But the Captain sprang into the dogcart and seized the reins from Pat in a burst of anger.
"I think you're all demented!" he cried. "She's going to a thoroughly good home, I've paid a quarter in advance already, and I can assure you good people I'm not going to waste it."
He gave the horse a smart touch with the whip, and in a minute the dogcart had flashed out of the gate, and the small, unhappy face was lost to sight.
The Sweetness of Sweet Sixteen
"She is not yet so old But she may learn: happier than this, She is not bred so dull but she can learn."
Meg's hair had always been pretty, but during the last two months she had cut herself a fringe, and begun to torture it up in curl papers every night. And in her private drawer she kept a jam tin filled with oatmeal, that she used in the water every time she washed, having read it was a great complexion beautifier. And nightly she rubbed vaseline on her hands and slept in old kid gloves. And her spare money went in the purchase of "Freckle Lotion," to remove that slight powdering of warm brown sun-kisses that somehow lent a certain character to her face.
All these things were the outcome of being sixteen, and having found a friend of seventeen.
Aldith MacCarthy learnt French from the same teacher that Meg was going to twice a week, and after an exchange of chocolates, hair-ribbons, and family confidences a friendship sprang up.
Aldith had three grown-up sisters, whom she aped in everything, and was considerably wiser in the world than simple-minded, romantic Meg.
She lent Meg novels, "Family Herald Supplements", "Young Ladies' Journals", and such publications, and the young girl took to them with avidity, surprised at the new world into which they took her; for Charlotte Yonge and Louisa Alcott and Miss Wetherall had hitherto formed her simple and wholesome fare.
Meg began to dream rose-coloured dreams of the time when her fair, shining hair should be gathered up into "a simple knot at the back of her head" or "brushed into a regal coronet," these being the styles in which the heroines in the novels invariably dressed their hair. A pigtail done in three was very unromantic. That was why, as a sort of compromise, she cut herself a fringe and began to frizz out the end of her plait. Her father stared at her, and said she looked like a shop-girl, when first he noticed it, and Esther told her she was a stupid child; but the looking-glass and Aldith reassured her.
The next thing was surreptitiously to lengthen her dresses, which were at the short-long stage. In the privacy of her own bedroom she took the skirts of two or three of her frocks off the band, inserted a piece of lining for lengthening purposes, and then added a frill to the waists of her bodices to hide the join. This dropped the skirts a good two inches, and made her look quite a tall, slim figure, as she was well aware.
And none of these things were very harmful.
But Aldith gradually grew dissatisfied with her waist.
"You're at least twenty-three, Marguerite," she said once, quite in a horrified way. She never called her friend Meg, pronouncing that name to be "too domestic and altogether unlovely."
Meg glanced from her own waist to her friend's slender, beautiful one, and sighed profoundly. "What ought I to be?" she said in a low tone; and Aldith had answered, "Eighteen—or nineteen, Marguerite, at the most; true symmetrical grace can never be obtained with a waist twenty-three inches round."
Aldith had not only made statements and comparisons, she had given her friend practical advice, and shown her how the thing was to be done. And every night and morning Meg pulled away ruthlessly at her corset laces, and crushed her beautiful little body into narrower space. She had already brought it within a girdle of twenty-one inches, which was a clear saving of two, and she had taken in all her dresses at the seams.
But she gave up the evening game of cricket, and she never made one at rounders now, much to the others' disgust. No one, to look at the sweet blossom-like face, and soft, calm eyes, could have guessed what torture was being felt beneath the now pretty, welt-fitting dress body. To walk quickly was positive pain; to stoop, almost agony; but she endured it all with a heroism worthy of a truly noble cause.
"How long shall I have to go on like this, Aldith?" she asked once faintly, after a French lesson that she had scarcely been able to sit through.
And the older girl answered carelessly, "Oh, you mustn't leave it off, of course, but you don't feel it at all after a bit."
With which assurance Meg pursued her painful course.
Esther, the only person in a position to exercise any authority in the matter, had not noticed at all, and, indeed, had she done, so would not have thought very gravely of it, for it was only four years since she, too, had been sixteen, and a "waist" had been the most desirable thing on earth.
Once she had said unwittingly,
"What a nice little figure you are getting, Meg; this new dressmaker certainly fits better than Miss Quinn"; and foolish Meg, with a throb of delight, had redoubled her efforts.
Lynx-eyed Judy would have found her out long ago, and laughed her to utter shame, but unfortunately for Meg's constitution she was still at school, it being now the third month of her absence.
Aldith only lived about twenty minutes' walk from Misrule, so the two girls were always together. Twice a week they went down to town in the river-boat to learn how to inquire, in polite French, "Has the baker's young daughter the yellow hat, brown gloves, and umbrella of the undertaker's niece?" And twice a week, after they had answered irrelevantly, "No, but the surgeon had some beer, some mustard, and the dinner-gong," Aldith conducted her friend slowly up and down that happy hunting-ground of Sydney youth and fashion—the Block. "Just see how many hats I'll get taken off," Miss Aldith would say as they started; and by the end of the time Meg would say longingly, "How lovely it must be to know crowds of gentlemen like you do."
Sometimes one or two of them would stop and exchange a word or two, and then Aldith would formally introduce Meg; often, however, the latter, who was sharp enough for all her foolishness, would fancy she detected a patronizing, amused air in these gentlemen's manners. As, indeed, there often was; they were chiefly men whom Aldith had met at dances and tennis in her own home; and who thought that young lady a precocious child who wanted keeping in the schoolroom a few more years.
One day Aldith came to Misrule brimming over with mysterious importance. "Come down the garden, Marguerite," she said, taking no notice whatever of Baby, who had, with much difficulty, beguiled her eldest sister into telling her the ever delightful legend of the three little pigs.
"Oh, no, by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin, then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in," had only been said twice, and the exciting part was still to come.
Baby looked up with stormy eyes.
"Go away, Aldiff," she said.
"Miss MacCarthy,—Baby, dear," Meg suggested, gently, catching Aldith's half-scornful smile.
"ALDIFF," repeated Baby obstinately. Then she relented, and put one caressing little arm round her sister's neck.
"I will say Miff MacCarfy iss you will say ze uzzer little pig, too."
"Oh, send her away, Marguerite, do," Aldith said impatiently, "I have an enthralling secret to tell you, and I'll have to go soon."
Meg looked interested immediately.
"Run away, Baby, dear," she said, kissing the disappointed little face; "go and play Noah's Ark with Bunty, and I'll finish the piggies to-night or to-morrow."
"But I want them NOW," Baby said insistently.
Meg pushed her gently aside. "No, run away, pet—run away at once like a good girl, and I'll tell you Red Riding Hood, too, to-morrow."
Baby looked up at her sister's guest.
"You are a horrid old pig, Aldiff MacCatfy," she said, with slow emphasis, "an' I hates you hard, an' we all hates you here, 'ceps Meg; and Pip says you're ze jammiest girl out, an' I wis' a drate big ziant would come and huff and puff and blow you into ze middlest part of ze sea."
Aldith laughed, a little aggravating grown-up laugh, that put the finishing touch to Baby's anger. She put out her little hand and gave the guest's arm in its muslin sleeve a sharp, scientific pinch that Pip had taught her. Then she fled madly away down the long paddocks, to the bit of bush beyond.
"Insufferable," Aldith muttered angrily, and it needed all Meg's apologies and coaxings to get her into an amiable frame of mind again, and to induce her to communicate the enthralling secret.
At last, however, it was imparted, with great impressiveness. Aldith's eldest sister was engaged, engaged to be married! Oh! wasn't it heavenly? Wasn't it romantic?—and to the gentleman with the long fair moustache who had been so much at their house lately.
"I knew it would come—I have seen it coming for a long time. Oh! I'm not easily blinded;" Aldith said. "I know true love when I see it. Though certainly for myself I should prefer a dark moustache, should not you, Marguerite?"
"Ye—es," said Meg. Her views were hardly formed yet on the subject.
"Jet black, with waxed ends, very stiff," Aldith continued thoughtfully, "and a soldierly carriage, and very long black lashes."
"So should I," Meg said, fired in a moment. "Like Guy Deloraine in 'Angelina's Ambition'." Aldith put her arm more tightly round her friend.
"Wouldn't it be HEAVENLY, Marguerite, to be engaged—you and I?" she said, in a tone of dreamy rapture. "To have a dark, handsome man with proud black eyes just dying with love for you, going down on his knees, and giving you presents, and taking you out and all—oh, Marguerite, just think of it!"
Melt's eyes looked wistful. "We're not old enough, though, yet," she said with a sigh.
Aldith tossed her head. "That's nonsense; why, Clara Allison is only seventeen, and look at your own stepmother. Plenty of girls are actually married at sixteen, Marguerite, and a man proposed my sister Beatrice when she was only fifteen." Meg looked impressed and thoughtful.
Then Aldith rose to go. "Mind you're in time for the boat to-morrow," she said, as they reached the gate; "and, Marguerite, be sure you make yourself look very nice—wear your cornflower dress, and see if Mrs. Woolcot will lend you a pair of her gloves, your grey ones are just a little shabby, aren't they, dear?"
"H'm," said Meg, colouring.
"And Mr. James Graham always comes back on that boat, and the two Courtney boys—Andrew Courtney told Beatrice he thought you seemed a nice little thing; he often notices you, he says, because you blush so."
"I can't help it," Meg said, unhappily. "Aldith, how ought the ribbon to go on my hat? I'm going to retrim it again."
"Oh, square bows, somewhat stiff, and well at the side," the oracle, said. "I'm glad you're going to, dear, it looked just a wee bit dowdy, didn't it?" Meg coloured again.
"Have you done your French?" she said, as she pulled open the gate.
"In a way," Aldith said carelessly. Then she put up her chin, "Those frowzy-looking Smiths always make a point of having no mistakes; and, Janet Green, whose hats are always four seasons behind the fashions; I prefer to have a few errors, just to show I haven't to work hard and be a teacher after I—"
But just here she stumbled and fell down her full length in a most undignified manner, right across the muddy sidewalk.
It was a piece of string and Baby's vengeance.
"What Say You to Falling in Love?"
Meg was looking ill, there was no doubt about it. Her pretty pink-and-white complexion was losing its fresh look, a slightly irritable expression had settled round a mouth that a few months back had seemed made for smiles only. And terribly unromantic fact, her nose was quite florid-looking at times. Now a heroine may have the largest, deepest, and most heavily lashed eyes imaginable; she may have hair in very truth like the gold "mown from a harvest's middle floor"; she may have lips like cherries and teeth like pearls, and a red nose will be so utterly fatal that all these other charms will pass unnoticed. It cost Meg real anguish of spirit. She carefully read all the Answers to Correspondents in the various papers Aldith lent her in search of a remedy, but nearly everyone seemed to be asking for recipes to promote the growth of the eyelashes or to prevent embonpoint. Not one she chanced on said, "A red nose in a girl is generally caused by indigestion or tight-lacing." She asked Aldith to suggest something, and that young person thought that vaseline and sulphur mixed together, and spread over the afflicted member, would have the desired effect. So every night Meg fastened her bedroom door with a wedge of wood, keys being unknown luxuries at Misrule, and anointed her, poor little nose most carefully with the greasy mixture, lying all night on her back to prevent it rubbing off on the pillow.
Once Pip had forced his way into demand a few stitches for his braces which had split, and she had been compelled to wrap her whole face hastily up in a towel and declare she had violent neuralgia, and he must go to Esther or one of the servants. Had he seen and known the cause there would have been no end to the teasing.
Nowadays Meg spent a great deal of time in her bedroom, that she had all to herself while Judy was away. In its privacy she trimmed and retrimmed her hats, altered her dresses, read her novels, and sat in front of the looking-glass with her hair down, dreaming of being quite grown up and in love. For just now both to Aldith, and herself that state of life seemed the only one altogether lovely and desirable. Meg used to curl herself up in a big easy-chair that had drifted to her room because its springs were broken, and dream long, beautiful, hopeless dreams of a lover with "long black lashes and a soldierly carriage." Of course it was highly reprehensible to have such thoughts at the tender age of sixteen, but then the child had no mother to check that erring imagination, and she was a daughter of the South.
Australian girls nearly always begin to think of "lovers and nonsense," as middlefolks call it, long before their English aged sisters do. While still in the short-frock period of existence, and while their hair is still free-flowing, they take the keenest interest in boys—boys of neighbouring schools, other girls' brothers, young bank clerks, and the like. Not because they would be good playmates, but because they look at them in the light of possible "sweethearts." I do not say English girl children are free from this. By no means; in every school there may be found one or two this way inclined, giggling, forward young things who want whipping and sending to play cricket or dolls again. But in this land of youthfulness it is the rule more frequently than the exception, and herein lies the chief defect of the very young Australian girl. She is like a peach, a beautiful, smooth, rich peach, that has come to ripeness almost in a day, and that hastens to rub off the soft, delicate bloom that is its chief charm, just to show its bright, warm colouring more clearly. Aldith had, to her own infinite satisfaction, brushed away her own "bloom," and was at present busily engaged in trying to remove Meg's, which was very soft and lovely before she touched it. The novels had taken away a little, and the "Block" a little more, but, Meg was naturally freshminded, and it took time to make much difference. Just now, under her friend's tutelage, she was being inducted into the delightful mysteries of sweethearting, and for the time, it quite filled her some what purposeless young life. But it all ended with an adventure that years afterwards used to make her cheeks tingle painfully at the thought.
After the bi-weekly French lesson, as I have said, the two friends used to come back together in the river-boat at five o'clock. And by this boat there always came two boys by the name of Courtney, and a third boy, Aldith's particular property, James Graham. Now the young people had become known to each other at picnics and the like in the neighbourhood, but the acquaintance, instead of ripening on frequent meeting into a frank, pleasant friendship, had taken the turn of secrecy and silly playing at love. James Graham was in a lawyer's office, a young articled cleric of seventeen in undue haste to be that delightful thing, a man. He carried a cane, and was very particular about his hat and necktie and his boots, which generally were tan. And he had the faintest possible moustache, that he caressed with great frequency; and that privately Aldith thought adorable. Aldith's pert, sprightly manner pleased him, and in a very short time they had got to the period of passing notes into each other's hands and sighing sentimentally. Not that the notes contained much harm, they were generally of rather a formal character.
"My dear' Miss MacCarthy," one would run—
"Why were you not on the boat yesterday? I looked for you till it was no use looking longer, and then the journey was blank. How charmingly that big hat suits you, and those jonquils at your neck. Might I beg one of the flowers? just one, please, Aldith.
Your devoted friend, James Graham."
And Aldith's, written on a sheet of her note-book with a pink programme pencil that she always kept in her purse, might be no worse than:
"Dear Mr. Graham,
"What EVER can you want these flowers at my neck for? They have been there all day, and are dead and spoiled. I can't IMAGINE what good they'll be to you. Still, of course, if you REALLY care for them you shall have them. I am so glad you like this hat. I shall always like it NOW. Did you REALLY miss me yesterday? I had gone to have my photo taken. Marguerite thinks it very good indeed, but I am SURE it flatters me TOO much.
Yours truly, L. Aldith Evelyn MacCarthy."
Now Mr. James Graham had a great friend in one of the before-mentioned Courtney boys, Andrew by name. He was a handsome lad of eighteen, still a schoolboy, but possessed of fascinating manners and a pair of really beautiful eyes.
And, since his friend and companion Jim had taken to "having fun" with "the girl MacCarthy," he objected to being left out in the cold. So he began to pay marked attentions to Meg, who blushed right up to her soft, pretty fringe every time he spoke to her, and looked painfully conscious and guilty if he said anything at all complimentary to her.
The other boy, Alan Courtney, was very tall and broad-shouldered, and not at all good-looking. He had a strong, plain face, grey eyes deeply set, and brown hair that looked as if he was in a constant state of rumpling it up the wrong way. He was a University student, and a great footballer, and he never diverted himself on the long homeward journey in the way Andrew and his friend did.
He used generally to give a half-contemptuous nod as he passed the little group, uncovering his head for the shortest possible period consistent with civility, and making his way to the far end of the boat. One time as he passed them Aldith was drooping her lashes and using her eyes with great effect, and Meg was almost positive she heard him mutter under his breath, "Silly young fools!" He used to smoke at his end of the boat—cigars at the beginning of term and a short, black, villainous-looking pipe at the end—and Meg used secretly to think how manly he looked, and to sigh profoundly.
For I may as well tell you now as later what this foolish little thing had done after a few months' course of Aldith and novels. She had fallen in love as nearly as it is possible for sweet sixteen to do; and it was with Alan, who had no good looks nor pleasant manners—not Andrew, who had speaking eyes, and curls that "made his forehead like the rising sun"; not Andrew, who gave her tender glances and conversation peppermints that said "My heart is thine," but Alan, who took no notice whatever of her beyond an occasional half-scornful bow.
Poor little Meg! She was very miserable in these days, and yet it was a kind of exquisite misery that she hugged to her to keep it warm. No one guessed her secret. She would have died rather than allow even Aldith to get a suspicion of it, and accepted Andrew's notes and smiles as if there was nothing more she wanted. But she grew a trifle thin and large-eyed, and used to make copious notes in her diary every night, and to write a truly appalling quantity of verses, in which "heart" and "part," "grieve" and "leave," "weep" and "keep," and "sigh" and "die," were most often the concluding words of the lines. She endured Andrew for several reasons. He was Alan's brother for one thing, and was always saying things about "old Al," and recording his prowess on the football field; and Aldith might discover her secret if she gave him the cold shoulder altogether. Besides this Andrew had the longest eyelashes she had ever seen and she must have somebody to say pretty things to her, even if it was not the person she would have wished it to be.
One day things came to a crisis.
"No more trips on the dear old boat for a month," Aldith remarked, from her corner of the cabin.
"This is appalling! Whatever do you mean, Miss MacCarthy?" James Graham said, with exaggerated despair in his voice.
"Monsieur H—— has given the class a month's holiday. He is going to Melbourne," Aldith returned, with a sigh.
Meg echoed it as in duty bound, and Andrew said fiercely that hanging was too good for Monsieur H——. What did he mean by such inhuman conduct, he should like to know; and however were Jim and himself to maintain life in the meantime?
"It was James who speedily thought of a way out."
"Couldn't we go for a walk somewhere one evening—just we four?" he said insinuatingly.
Aldith and Andrew thought the proposal a brilliant one; and though Meg had at first shaken her head decidedly, in the end she was prevailed upon, and promised faithfully to go.
They were to meet in a bush paddock adjoining the far one belonging to Misrule, to walk for about an hour, returning by half-past seven, before it grew dusk.
"I am going to ask you for something that day, Meg," Andrew whispered just as they were parting. "I wonder if I shall get it."
Meg flushed in her nervous, conscious way, and wondered to herself for a moment whether he intended to ask for a lock of her hair, a thing Graham had already obtained from Aldith.
"What?" she said unwillingly.
"A kiss," he whispered.
The next minute the others had joined them, and there was no chance for the indignant answer that trembled on her lips. She had even to shake hands, to appear as if nothing had happened, and to part apparently good friends.
"Half-past six sharp, Marguerite. I will never forgive you if you don't come," Aldith said, as they parted at her gate.
"I—you—Oh, Aldith, I don't see how I can come," Meg faltered, the crimson in her cheeks again. "I've never done anything like it before. I'm sure it's not right."
But the curl, in Aldith's lip made her ashamed of herself.
"You're just twelve, Marguerite;" the young lady said calmly: "you're not a bit more than twelve. You'd better get a roll again, and a picture-book with morals. I'll ask Andrew to buy you one and a bit of cord, too, to tie you in your high chair in the nursery."
Such sarcasm was too much for Meg. She promised hastily and unconditionally to be on the spot at the time mentioned, and fled away up the path to obey the summons of the wildly clanging tea-bell.
But for the two intervening days her secret hung upon her like a burden of guilt, and she longed inexpressibly for a confidante who would advise her what to do at this distressing issue. Not Judy: that young person was too downright, too sensible, too much of a child and a boy—she would never dare to tell her anything of the sort. She could fancy the scorn in her sister's large clear eyes, the ringing laughter such a tale would evoke, the scathing, clever ridicule that would fall on her shrinking shoulders. Not Esther: her very position as stepmother precluded such an idea, and, besides that, the General's gums were gradually disclosing wee white double pearls, and his health thereby was affected, and causing her too much anxiety to allow her, to notice Meg's oppression of mind.
By the night decided upon, the child had worked herself up into a strong state of excitement. Half-past six was the time settled upon, and, as she knew, it was broad daylight even then. She felt she really dare not, could not go. Suppose her father or Esther, some of her scornful young sisters or brothers, should be about and see the meeting, or any of the neighbours—why, she could never survive the shame of it! Yet go she must, or Aldith would despise her. Besides, she had made up her mind fully to tell Andrew plainly she could not allow him to talk to her as he had been doing. After that last terrible whisper, she felt it necessary that she should let him understand clearly that she did not approve of his conduct, and would be "his friend," but nothing more.
But why had they not thought of deciding on an hour when it would be darker? she kept saying to herself: there would be no danger of being seen then; she could slip out of the house without any difficulty, and run through the paddocks under cover of the kindly dusk; whereas if it was light, and she tried to creep away, at least two or three of the children would fly after her and offer generously to "come too."
At last, too afraid to go in the light, and unwilling for Aldith to reproach her for not going at all, she did in her excitement and desperation a thing so questionable that for long after she could not think of it without horror.
"Dear Mr. Courtney," she wrote, sitting down at her dressing-table, and scribbling away hurriedly in pencil:
"It would be horrid going for the walk so early. Let us go later, when it is quite dark. It will be EVER so much nicer, for no one will be able to see us. And let us meet at the end of the paddocks where the bush grows thickly, it will be more private. I am writing to Aldith to tell her to go at that time, she will tell Mr. Graham.
Yours sincerely, M. Woolcot.
"P.S.—I must ask you, please, not to kiss me. I should be very angry indeed if you did. I don't like kissing at all."
She wrote the last paragraph in a nervous hurry for she had a dread that he might fulfil his promise, if she did not forbid him as soon as they met. Then she slipped it into an envelope and addressed it to A. Courtney, Esq., it never having even occurred to her for a moment that there was anything at all strange or unconventional in a young girl making such a point that the meeting should be in the dark.
Next she wrote a few lines of explanation to Aldith, and told her to be sure to be in the paddock by half-past eight, and she (Meg) would slip out when the children were going to bed and unlikely to notice.
And then she went out into the garden to find messengers for her two notes. Little Flossie Courtney had been spending the afternoon with Nellie, and Meg called her back from the gate just as she was going home, and, unseen by the children, entrusted the note to her.
"'Give it to your brother Andrew the minute he comes from school," she whispered, popping a big chocolate at the same time into the little girl's mouth. Bunty was next bribed, with a promise of the same melting delicacies, to run up to Aldith's with the other letter, and Meg breathed freely ago feeling she had skilfully averted the threatening danger attendant on the evening meeting.
But surely the notes were fated! Bunty delivered his safely enough to the housemaid at the MacCarthys', and in answer to the girl's question "s'posed there was an answer, girls always 'spected one to nothing."
Aldith was confined to her room with a sudden severe cold, and wrote a note to her friend, telling her how she was too ill to be allowed out, and had written to Mr. Graham, and Mr. Courtney, too, postponing the walk for a week.
Now this note, in its pale pink triangular envelope, was transferred to Bunty's pocket among his marbles and peanuts and string. And, as might be expected, he fell in with some other choice spirits on the return journey, and was soon on his knees by the roadside playing marbles.
He lost ten, exclusive of his best agate, fought a boy who had unlawfully possessed himself of his most cherished "conny," and returned home with saddened spirits an hour later, only to find as he went through the gate that he had lost Aldith's dainty little note.
Now Meg had promised him eight chocolate walnuts on his return, and if this same boy had one weakness more pronounced than others, it was his extreme partiality for this kind of confectionery, and he had not tasted one for weeks, so no wonder it almost broke his heart to think they would be forfeited.
"I know she'll be stingy enough to say I haven't earned them, just 'cause I dropped that girl's stupid letter," he said to himself, miserably, "and I don't suppose there was anything in it but 'Dearest Marguerite, let us always tell each other our secrets'; I heard her say that twice, and of course she writes it, too." Then temptation came upon him swiftly, suddenly.