By nature Bunty was the most arrant little storyteller ever born, and it was only Judy's fearless honesty and strongly expressed scorn for equivocation that had kept him moderately truthful. But Judy was miles away, and could not possibly wither him up with her look of utter contempt. He was at the nursery door now, turning the handle with hesitating hands.
"What a time you've been," said Meg from the table, where she was mending a boxful of her gloves. "Well, what did she say?"
Just at her elbow was the gay bonbonniere containing the brown, cream-encrusted walnuts.
"She said, 'All right,'" said Bunty gruffly.
Meg counted the eight chocolates out into his little grimy hand, and resumed her mending with a relieved sigh. And Bunty, with a defiant, shamed look in his eyes, stuffed the whole of the sweets into his mouth at once, as if to preclude the possibility of a sudden repentance.
The other note was equally unfortunate. Little Flossie went home, her thoughts intent upon a certain Grannie bonnet Nell had promised to make for her new doll.
"Gween with pink stwings," she was saying softly to herself as she climbed the steps to her own door.
Alan was lying on the veranda lounge, smoking his black pipe.
"Gween what?" he laughed—"guinea-pigs or kangaroos?"
"Clawice Maud's bonnet," the little girl said, and entered forthwith into a grave discussion with him as to the colour he thought more suitable for that waxen lady's winter cloak.
Then she turned to go in.
"What's that sticking out of your wee pocket, Flossie girl?" he said, as she brushed past him. She stopped a second and felt.
"Oh, nearly I didn't wemember, an' I pwomised I would—it's a letter for you, Alan," she said, and gave Meg's poor little epistle up into the very hands of the Philistine.
A Catapult and a Catastrophe
"Oh, sweet pale Margaret, Oh, rare pale Margaret, What lit your eyes with tearful power?"
The dusk had fallen very softly and tenderly over the garden, and the paddocks, and the river. There was just the faintest wind at the waters edge, but it seemed almost too tired after the hot, long day to breathe and make ripples. Very slowly the grey, still light deepened, and a white star or two came out and blinked up away in the high, far heavens. Down behind the gum trees, across the river, there was a still whiter moon; a stretch of water near was beginning to smile up to it. Meg hoped it would not climb past the tree-tops before eight o'clock, or the long paddocks would be flooded with light and she would be seen. At tea-time, and during the early part of the evening, she was preoccupied and inclined to be irritable in her anxiety, and she snubbed Bunty two or three times quite unkindly.
He had been hovering about her ever since six o'clock in almost a pitiable way.
It was characteristic of this small boy that when he had been tempted into departing from the paths of truth he was absolutely wretched until he had confessed, and rubbed his little unclean hands into his wet eyes until he was "a sight to dream of, not to tell."
Pip said it was because he was a coward, and had not the moral courage to go to sleep with a lie on his soul, for fear he might wake up and see an angel with a fiery sword standing by his bedside. And I must sorrowfully acknowledge this seemed a truer view of the case than believing the boy was really impressed with the heinousness of his offence and anxious to make amends. For the very next day, if occasion sufficiently strong offered, he would fall again, and the very next night would creep up to somebody and whimper, with his knuckles in his eyes, that he had "t—t—told a s—s—story, boo—hoo!"
By seven o'clock this particular evening he was miserably repentant; several tears had trickled down, his cheeks and mingled with the ink of the map he was engaged upon for Miss Marsh. He established himself at Meg's elbow, and kept looking up into her face in a yearning love-and-forgive-me kind of way that she found infinitely embarrassing; for she had begun to suspect, from his strange conduct, that he had in some way learned the contents of her note, and was trying to discourage her from her enterprise. The more he gazed at her the redder and more uncomfortable she became.
"You can have my new c—c—catapult," he whispered once, giving her a tearful, imploring look, that she interpreted as an entreaty to stay safely at home.
At last the clock had travelled up to eight, and the children being engaged in a wordy warfare over the possession of a certain stray dog that had come to Misrule in the afternoon, she slipped out of the room unobserved. No one was in the hall, and she picked up the becoming, fleecy cloud she had hidden there, twisted it round her head, and crept out of the side door and along the first path.
Down in the garden the ground was white with fallen rose leaves, and the air full of their dying breath; a clump of pampas grass stood tall and soft against the sky; some native trees, left growing among the cultivated shrubs, stretched silver-white arms up to the moon and gave the little hurrying figure a ghostly kind of feeling. Out of the gate and into the first paddock, where the rose scent did not come at all, and only a pungent smell of wattle was in the thin, hushed air. More gum trees, and more white, ghostly arms; then a sharp movement near the fence, a thick, sepulchral whisper, and a stifled scream from Meg.
"Here's the c—c—c—catapult, M—Meg; t—take it," Bunty said, his face white and miserable.
"You little stupid! What do you mean coming creeping here like this?" Meg said, angry as soon as her heart began to beat again.
"I only w—wanted to p—p—please you, M—M-Meggie," the little boy said, with a bitter sob in his voice.
He had put both his arms round her waist, and was burying his nose in her white muslin dress. She shook him off hastily.
"All right; there—thanks," she said. "Now go home, Bunty; I want to have a quiet walk in the moonlight by myself."
He screwed his knuckles as far into his eyes as they would go, his mouth opened, and his lower lip dropped down, down.
"I t—t—told y—y—you a b—b—big st—st—story;" he wept, rocking to and fro where he stood.
"Did you? Oh, all right! Now go home," she said impatiently. "You always ARE telling stories, Bunty, you know, so I'm not surprised. There-go along."
"But—but I'm—must tell you all ab—ab—about it," he said, still engaged in driving his eyes into his head.
"No, you needn't; I'll forgive you this time," she said magnanimously, "only don't do it again. Now run away at once, or you won't have your map done, and miss Marsh will punish you."
His eyes returned to their proper position, likewise his hands. His heart was perfectly light again as he turned to go back to the house. When he had gone a few steps he came back.
"D'ye want that catapult very much, Meg?" he said gently. "You're only a girl, so I don't 'spect it would be very much good to you, would it?"
"No, I don't want it. Here, take it, and hurry back: think of your map," Meg returned, in a very fever of impatience at his slowness.
And then Bunty, utterly happy once more, turned and ran away gaily up to the house. And Meg let down the slip-rail, put it back in its place with trembling fingers, and fled in wild haste through the two remaining paddocks.
The wattle-scrub at the end was very quiet; there was not a rustle, not a sound of a voice, not a sound of the affected little laugh that generally told when Aldith was near.
Meg stopped breathless, and peered among the bushes; there was a tall figure leaning against the fence.
"Andrew!" she said in a sharp whisper, and forgetting in her anxiety that she never called him by his Christian name—"where are the others? Hasn't Aldith come?"
There was the smell of a cigar, and, looking closely, she saw to her horror it was Alan.
"Oh!" she said, in an indescribable tone.
Her heart gave one frightened, shamed bound, and then seemed to stop beating altogether.
She looked up, at him as if entreating him not to have too bad an opinion of her; but his face wore the contemptuous look she had grown to dread and his lips were finely curled.
"I—I only came out for a little walk; it is such a beautiful evening," she said, with miserable lameness; and then in a tone of justification she added, "it's my father's paddock, too."
He leaned back against he fence and looked down at her.
"Flossie gave me your note, and as it seemed addressed to me, and I was told it was for me; I opened it," he said.
"You KNEW it was for Andrew," she said not looking at him, however.
"So I presumed when I had read it," he returned slowly; "but Andrew has not come back to-night yet, so I came instead; it's all the same as long as it's a boy, isn't it?"
The girl made no reply, only put her hand up and drew the cloud more closely round her head.
His lips curled a little more.
"And I know how to kiss, too, I assure you. I am quite a good hand at it, though you may not think so. Oh yes, I know you said you did not want to be kissed; but then, girls always say that, don't they?—even when they expect it most."
Still Meg did not speak, and the calm, merciless voice went on.
"I am afraid it is hardly dark enough for you, is it? The moon is very much in the way, do you not think so? Still, perhaps we can find a darker place farther on, and then I can kiss you without danger. What is the matter?—are you always as quiet as this with Andrew?"
"Oh, DON'T!" said Meg, in a choking voice.
The mocking tone died instantly out of his voice, "Miss Meg, you used to seem such a nice little girl," he said quietly; "what have you let that horrid MacCarthy girl spoil you for? For she is horrid, though you may not think so."
Meg did not speak or move, and he went on with a gentle earnestness that she had not thought him capable of..
"I have watched her on the boat, systematically going to work to spoil you, and can't help thinking of the pity of it. I imagined how I should feel if my little sister Flossie ever fell in with such a girl, and began to flirt and make herself conspicuous, and I wondered would you mind if I spoke to you about it. Are you very angry with me, Miss Meg?"
But Meg leaned her head against the rough fence and began to sob—little, dry, heartbroken sobs that went to the boy's warm heart.
"I oughtn't to have spoken as I did at first—I was a perfect brute," he said remorsefully; "forgive me, won't you? Please, little Miss Meg—I would rather cut my hand off than really hurt you."
This last was a little consoling, at any rate, and Meg lifted her face half a second, white and pathetic in the moonlight, and all wet with grievous tears.
"I—I—oh! indeed I have not been quite so horrid as you think," she said brokenly; "I didn't want to come this walk—and oh! indeed, indeed, indeed I wouldn't allow ANYONE to kiss me. Oh, PLEASE do believe me!"
"I do, I do indeed," he said eagerly; "I only said it because—well, because I am a great rough brute, and don't know how to talk to a little, tender girl. Dear Miss Meg, do shake hands and tell me you forgive my boorishness."
Meg extended a small white hand, and he shook it warmly. Then they walked up the paddocks together, and parted at a broken gate leading into the garden.
"I'll never flirt again while I live," she said with great earnestness, as he bade her good-bye; and he answered encouragingly, "No, I am quite sure you won't—leave it to girls like Aldith, won't you? you only wanted to be set straight. Good-bye, little Miss Meg."
"However could you do it? Some day, no doubt, you'll rue it!"
Meg's troubles were not quite over, however, even yet. When she got into the house Nellie met her in the hall and stared at her.
"Where have you been?" she said, a slow wonder in her round eyes. "I've been hunting and hunting for you."
"What for?" said Meg shortly.
"Oh, Dr. Gormeston and Mrs. Gormeston and two Miss Gormestons are in the drawing-room, and I think they'll stay for ever and ever."
"Well?" said Meg.
"And the General is ill again, and Esther says she won't leave him for a second, not if Gog and Magog were down there dying to see her."
"Well?" said Meg again.
"And Father is as mad as he can be, and is having to keep them all amused himself. He's sung 'My sweetheart when a boy' and 'Mona,' and he's told them all about his horses, and now I s'pose he doesn't know what to do."
"Well, I can't help it," Meg said wearily, and as if the subject had no interest for her.
"But you'll just have to!" Nell cried sharply, "I've done my best: he sent out and said we were to go in, and you weren't anywhere, so there was only Baby and me."
"And what did you do?" Meg asked, curious in spite of herself.
"Oh, Baby talked to Miss Gormeston, and they asked me to play," she returned, "so I played the 'Keel Row.' Only I forgot till I had finished that it was in two sharps," she added sadly. "And then Baby told Mrs. Gormeston all about Judy leaving the General at the Barracks, and being sent to boarding school for it, and about the green frog Bunty gave her, and, then Father said we'd better go to bed, and asked why ever you didn't come in."
"I'll go, I'll go," Meg said hastily, "he'll be fearfully cross to-morrow about it. Oh! and, Nell, go and tell Martha to send in the wine and biscuits and things in half an hour."
She flung off her cloud, smoothed her ruffled hair, and peeped in the hall-stand glass to see if the night wind had taken away the traces of her recent tears. Then she went into the drawing-roam, where her father was looking quite heated and unhappy over his efforts to entertain four guests who were of the class popularly known as "heavy in hand:"
"Play something, Meg," he said presently, when greetings were finished, and a silence seemed settling down over them all again; "or sing something that will be better—haven't you anything you can sing?"
Now Meg on ordinary occasions had a pleasant, fresh little voice of her own, that could be listened to with a certain amount of pleasure, but this evening she was tired and excited and unhappy. She sang "Within a mile of Edinboro' town," and was exceedingly flat all through.
She knew her father was sitting on edge all the time, and that her mistakes were grating on him, and at the end of the song, rather than turn round immediately and face them all, she began to play Kowalski's March Hongroise. But the keys seemed to be rising up and hitting her hands, and the piano was growing unsteady, and rocking to and fro in an alarming manner; she made a horrible jangle as she clutched at the music-holder for safety, and the next minute swayed from the stool and fell in a dead, faint right into Dr. Gormeston's arms, providentially extended just in time.
The heavy, heated atmosphere had proved too much for her, in her unhinged state of mind. Captain Woolcot was extraordinarily upset by the occurrence; not one of his children had ever done such a thing before, and as Meg lay on the sofa, with her little fair head drooping against the red frilled cushions, her face white and unconscious, she looked strangely like her mother, whom he had buried out in the churchyard four years ago. He went to the filter for a glass of water, and, as it trickled, wondered in a dull, mechanical kind of way if his little dead wife thought he had been too quick in appointing Esther to her kingdom. And then, as he stood near the sofa and looked at the death-like face, he wondered with a cold chill at his heart whether Meg was going to die, too, and if so would she be able to tell the same little wife that Esther received more tenderness at his hands than she had done.
His reverie was interrupted by the doctor's sharp, surprised voice. He was talking to Esther, who had been hastily summoned to the scene, and who had helped to unfasten the pretty bodice.
"Why, the child is tight-laced!" he said; "surely you must have noticed it, madam. That pressure, if it has been constant, has been enough to half kill her. Chut, chut! faint indeed—I wonder she has not taken fits or gone into a decline before this."
Then a cloud of trouble came over Esther's beautiful face—she had failed again in her duty. Her husband was regarding her almost gloomily from the sofa, where the little figure lay in its crumpled muslin dress, and her heart told her these children were not receiving a mother's care at her hands.
Afterwards, when Meg was safely in bed and the excitement all over, she went up to her husband almost timidly.
"I'm only twenty; Jack; don't be too hard on me!" she said with a little sob in her voice. "I can't be all to them that she was, can I?"
He kissed the bright, beautiful head against his shoulder, and comforted her with a tender word or two. But again and again that night there came to him Meg's white, still face as it lay on the scarlet cushions, and he knew the wind that stirred the curtains at the window had been playing with the long grass in the churchyard a few minutes since.
Bunty in the Light of a Hero
"'I know him to be valiant.' 'I was told that by one that knows him better than you.' 'What's he?' 'Marry, he told the so himself, and he said he cared not who knew it'"
Bunty had been betrayed into telling another story. It was a very, big one, and he was proportionately miserable. Everyone else had gone out but Meg, who was still in bed after her fainting fit, and he had been having a lonely game of cricket down in the paddock by himself. But even with a brand-new cricket ball this game palls after a time when one has to bowl and bat and backstop in solitary state. So presently he put his bat over into the garden, and began to throw the ball about in an aimless fashion, while he cogitated on what he should do next. His father's hack was standing away at the farther end of the paddock, and in an idle, thoughtless way Bunty sauntered down towards it, and then sent his ball spinning over the ground in its direction "to give it a jump." Nothing was further from his thoughts than an idea of hurting the animal, and when the ball struck it full on the leg, and it moved away limping, he hastened down to it, white and anxious.
He could see he had done serious mischief by the way the poor thing held its leg up from the ground and quivered when he touched it. Terror seized him forthwith, and he turned hastily round with his usual idea of hiding in his head. But to his utter dismay, when he got half-way back across the paddock he saw his father and a brother officer come out of the wicket gate leading from the garden and saunter slowly down in the direction of the horse, which was a valuable and beautiful one.
In terror at what he had done, he slipped the cricket ball into the front of his sailor jacket, and, falling hurriedly upon his knees, began playing an absorbing game of marbles. His trembling thumb had hit about a dozen at random when he heard his name called in stentorian tones.
He rose, brushed the dust from his shaking knees, and walked slowly down to his father.
"Go and tell Pat I want him instantly," the Captain said. He had the horse's leg in his hand and was examining it anxiously. "If he's not about, send Pip. I can't think how it's happened—do you know anything of this, Bunty?"
"No, of course not! I n—never did n—n—nothing," Bunty said with chattering teeth, but his father was too occupied to notice his evident guilt, and bade him go at once.
So he went up to the stables and sent Pat posthaste back to his father.
And then he stole into the house, purloined two apples and a bit of cake from the dining-room, and went away to be utterly miserable until he had confessed.
He crept into a disused shed some distance from the house; in days gone by it had been a stable, and had a double loft over it that was only to be reached by a ladder in the last stage of dilapidation. Bunty scrambled up, sat down in an unhappy little heap among some straw, and began thoughtfully to gnaw an apple.
If ever a little lad was in need of a wise loving, motherly mother it was this same dirty-faced, heavyhearted one who sat with his small rough head against a cobwebby beam and muttered dejectedly, "'Twasn't my fault: 'Twas the horse:"
He fancied something moved in the second loft, which was divided from the one he was in by a low partition. "Shoo—shoo, get away!" he called, thinking it was rats. He struck the floor several times with his heavy little boots.
"Shoo!" he said.
The boy turned pale to his lips. That odd, low whisper of his name, that strange rustle so near him—oh, what COULD it mean?
Again the name sounded. Louder this time, but in a tired voice, that struck him some way with a strange thrill. The rustling grew louder, something was getting over the partition, crossing the floor, coming towards him. He gave a sob of terror and flung himself face downwards on the ground, hiding his little blanched face among the straw.
"Bunty," said the voice again, and a light hand touched his arm.
"Help me—HELP me!" he shrieked. "Meg—oh! Father—Esther!"
But one hand was hastily put over his mouth and another pulled him into a sitting position.
He had shut his eyes very tightly, so as not to see the ghostly visitant that he knew had come to punish him for his sin. But something made him open them, and then he felt he could never close them again for amazement.
For, it was Judy's hand that was over his mouth, and Judy's self that was standing beside him.
"My golly!" he said, in a tone of stupefaction. He stared hard at her to make sure she was real flesh and blood. "However did you get here?"
But Judy made no answer. She merely took the remaining apple and cake from his hand, and, sitting down, devoured them in silence.
"Haven't you got any more?" she said anxiously. Then he noticed what a tall, gaunt, strange-looking Judy it was. Her clothes were hanging round her almost in tatters, her boots were burst and white with dust, her brown face was thin and sharp, and her hair matted and rough.
"My golly!" the little boy said again, his eyes threatening to start out of his head—"my golly, Judy, what have you been doin'?"
"I—I've run away, Bunty," Judy said, in a quavering voice. "I've walked all the way from school. I wanted to see you all so badly."
"My jiggery!" Bunty said.
"I've thought it all out," Judy continued, pushing back her hair in a weary moray. "I can't quite remember everything just now, I am so tired, but everything will be all right."
"But what'll he say?" Bunty said with frightened eyes, as a vision of his father crossed his mind.
"He won't know, of course," Judy returned, in a matter-of-fact manner. "I shall just live here in this loft for a time, and you can all come to see me and bring me food and things, and then presently I'll go back to school." She sank down among the straw and shut her eyes in an exhausted way for a minute or two, and Bunty watched her half fascinated.
"How far is it from your school?" he said at last.
"Seventy-seven miles." Judy shuddered a little. "I got a lift in a luggage train from Lawson to Springwood, and a ride in a cart for a little way, but I walked the rest. I've been nearly a week coming," she added after a pause, and shut her eyes again for quite a long time. Then a tear or two of weakness and self-pity trickled from beneath her black lashes, and made a little clean mark down her cheeks. Bunty's throat swelled at the sight of them, he had never seen Judy cry as long as he could remember. He patted her thin hand, he rubbed his head against her shoulder, and said, "Never mind, old girl," in a thick voice.
But that brought, half a dozen great heavy drop hurrying down from beneath the closed lashes, and the girl turned over and lay face downwards to hide them. Then she struggled up to a sitting position and actually began to laugh.
"IF the Miss Burtons could see me!" she said. "Oh, I've managed everything so beautifully; they think I'm spending a fortnight at Katoomba—oh, BUNTY, you ought to see the curls Miss Marian Burton wears plastered at each side of her cheeks!" She broke off, laughing almost hysterically, and then coughing till the tears came back in her eyes.
"Do go and get me something to eat," she said crossly, when she got her breath—"you might remember I've had nothing to eat since yesterday morning; only you always were selfish, Bunty."
He got up and moved away in a great hurry. "What could you eat? what shall I get?" he said, and put one leg down the trap-door.
"Anything so long as it's a lot," she said—"ANYTHING!—I feel I could eat this straw, and crunch up the beams as if they were biscuits. I declare I've had to keep my eyes off you, Bunty; you're so fat I keep longing to pick your bones."
Her eyes shone with a spark of their old fun, but then she began to cough again, and, after the paroxysm had passed, lay back exhausted.
"Do fetch some of the others," she called faintly, as his head was disappearing. "You're not much good alone, you know."
His head bobbed back a moment, and he tried to smile away the pain her words gave him, for just at that minute he would have died for her without a murmur.
"I'm awf'ly sorry, Judy," he said gently, "but the others are all out. Wouldn't I do? I'd do anything, Judy please."
Judy disregarded the little sniffle that accompanied the last words, and turned her face to the wall.
Two big tears trickled down again.
"They MIGHT have stayed in," she said with a sob. "They might have known I should try to come. Where are they?"
"Pip's gone fishing," he said, "and Nell's carrying the basket for him. And Baby's at the Courtneys', and Esther's gone to town with the General. Oh, and Meg's ill in bed, because her stays were too tight last night and she fainted."
"I suppose they haven't missed me a scrap," was her bitter thought, when she heard how everything seemed going on as usual, while she had been living through so much just to see them all.
Then the odd feeling of faintness came back, and she closed her eyes again and lay motionless, forgetful of time, place, or hunger.
Bunty sped across the paddock on winged feet; the sight of his father near the stables gave him a momentary shock, and brought his own trouble to mind, but he shook it off again and hurried on. The pantry door was locked. Martha, the cook, kept it in that condition generally on account of his own sinful propensities for making away with her tarts and cakes; it was only by skilful stratagem he could ever get in, as he remembered dejectedly.
But Judy's hunger! Nothing to eat since yesterday morning!
He remembered, with a feeling of pain even now, the horrible sinking sensation he had experienced last week when for punishment he had been sent to bed without his tea. And Judy had forgone three meals! He shut his lips tightly, and a light of almost heroic resolve came into his eyes. Round at the side of the house was the window to the pantry; he had often gazed longingly up at it, but had never ventured to attempt the ascent, for there was a horrible cactus creeper up the wall.
But now for Judy's sake he would do it or die. He marched round the house and up to the side window; no one was about, the whole place seemed very quiet. Martha, as he had seen, was cooking in the kitchen, and the other girl was whitening the front veranda. He gave one steady look at the great spiky thorns, and the next minute was climbing up among them.
Oh, how they pierced and tore him! There was a great, jagged wound up one arm, his left stocking was ripped away and a deep red scratch showed across his leg, his hands were bleeding and quivering with pain.
But he had reached the sill, and that was everything.
He pushed up the narrow window, and with much difficulty forced his little fat body through. Then he dropped down on to a shelf, and lowered himself gingerly on to the floor. There was no time to stay to look at his many hurts, he merely regarded the biggest scratch with rueful eyes, and then began to look around for provender. The pantry was remarkably empty—not a sign of cakes, not a bit of jelly, not a remnant of fowl anywhere. He cut a great piece off a loaf, and carefully wrapped some butter in a scrap of newspaper. There was some corned beef on a dish, and he cut off a thick lump and rolled it up with the remains of a loquat tart. These parcels he disposed of down the loose front of his sailor coat, filling up his pockets with sultanas, citron-peel, currants, and such dainties as the store bottles held. And then he prepared to make his painful retreat.
He climbed upon the shelf once more, put his head out of the window, and gave a look of despair at the cactus. And even as he knelt there sounded behind him the sharp click of a turning key.
He looked wildly round, and there was Martha in the doorway, and to his utter horror she was talking to his father, who was in the passage just beyond.
"Row's Embrocation, or arnica," the Captain was saying. "It is probably in this pantry, my good girl, because it is the last place I should expect it to be in. I left it on my bedroom mantelpiece, but somebody has seen fit to meddle with it. Why in the name of all that is mysterious can't you let my things alone?"
"And for what should I be after moving it for?" Martha retorted. "I don't mix the pastry with it to make it lightsome, leastway not ordinarily."
She tossed her head, and the action revealed the small, kneeling, terrified figure at the window. Now the door was only half open, and her master was standing just beside it outside, so she only had the benefit of the spectacle.
Twice she opened her mouth to speak, but Bunty made such frantic, imploring faces at her than she closed it again, and even began to examine the bottles on the shelf near the door to give the boy an opportunity of retreat.
One minute and he would, have been safe—one minute and he would have been in the thick of the cactus, that had quite lost its terrors.
But the Fates were too strong for him. And all because Martha Tomlinson's shoe was don at the heel. In turning round it twisted a little under her, and, in trying to recover her balance, she put out one hand. And in putting out one hand she knocked over a jug. And the jug communicated its shock to dish. Which toppled over, and coolly pushed the great basin of milk off the shelf on to the floor. I don't know if ever you have tried to clean a board floor after milk, but I am sure you can imagine it would be a disagreeable task, especially if you had scrubbed it well only that morning. It was hardly to be wondered at, therefore, that Martha, in her profound irritation at the disaster, turned angrily round, and, pointing to the figure now stuck in the window, demanded in an exasperated tone whether the blessed saints could stand that dratted boy any longer, for she couldn't, so there.
The Captain took an angry step into the pantry and gave a roar of command for Bunty to come down.
The boy dropped in an agony of dread and shrinking.
"Always his hands a-pickin' and stealin' and his tongue a-lyin'," said Martha Tomlinson, gazing unkindly at the unhappy child.
Two, three, four, five angry cuts from the riding-whip in the Captain's hands, and Bunty had ducked under his arm and fled howling down the passage and out of the back door.
Away across the paddocks he went, sobbing at every step, but hugely commending himself for bearing all this for someone else's sake.
He could hardly have believed, had anyone told him previously, that he could have done anything so absolutely noble, and the thought comforted him even while the cuts and scratches smarted. He tried to stifle his sobs as he reached the shed, and even stuffed half a handful of currants into his mouth towards that end.
But it was a very tearful, scratched, miserable face that bobbed up the opening near Judy again.
She did not move, though her eyes were half open, and he knelt down and shook her shoulder gently.
"Here's some things, Judy—ain't you goin' to eat them?"
She shook her head very slightly.
"Have some corned beef, or some currants; there's some peel, too, if you'd rather."
She shook her head again. "Do take them away," she said, with a little moan.
A look of blank disappointment stole over his small, heated face.
"An' I've half killed myself to get them! Well, you ARE a mean girl!" he said.
"Oh, DO go away,": Judy moaned, moving her head restlessly from side to side. "Oh, how my feet ache! no—my head, and my side—oh! I don't know what it is!"
"I got hit here and here," Bunty said, indicating the places, and wiping away tears of keen self-pity with his coat sleeve. "I'm scratched all over with that beastly old cactus."
"Do you suppose there are many miles more?" Judy said, in such a quick way that all the words seemed to run into each other. "I've walked hundreds and hundreds, and haven't got home yet. I suppose it's because the world's round, and I'll be walling in at the school gate again presently."
"Don't be an idjut!" Bunty said gruffly.
"You'll be sure and certain, Marian, never to breathe a word of it; I've trusted you, and if you keep faith I can go home and come back and no one will know. And lend me two shillings, can you? I've not got much left. Bunty, you selfish little pig, you might get me some milk! I've been begging and begging of you for hours, and my head is going to Catherine wheels for want of it."
"Have some corned beef, Judy, dear—oh, Judy, don't be so silly and horrid after I nearly got killed for you," Bunty said, trying with trembling fingers to stuff a piece into her mouth.
The little girl rolled over and began muttering again.
"Seventy-seven miles," she said, "and I walked eleven yesterday, that makes eleven hundred and seventy-seven—and six the day before because my foot had a blister—that's eleven hundred and eighty-three. And if I walk ten miles a day I shall get home in eleven hundred and eighty-three times ten, that's a thousand and—and—oh! what is it? whatever is it? Bunty, you horrid little pig, can't you, tell me what it is? My head aches too much to work, and a thousand and something days—that's a year—two years—two years—three years before I get there. Oh, Pip, Meg, three years! oh, Esther! ask him, ask him to let me come home! Three years—years—years!"
The last word was almost shrieked and the child struggled to her feet and tried to walk.
Bunty caught her arms and held her. "Let me go, can't you?" she said hoarsely. "I shall never get there at this rate. Three years, and all those miles!"
She pushed him aside and tried to walk across the loft, but her legs tottered under her and she fell down in a little senseless heap. "Meg—I'll fetch Meg," said the little boy in a trembling, alarmed voice, and he slipped down the opening and hastened up to the house.
He burst into Meg's bedroom like a whirlwind. "She's in the old shed, Meg, and I'm not sure, but I think she's gone mad; and I've had the awfullest beating, and got nearly killed with the cactus for her, and never told anything. She can't eat the corned beef, either, after all. She's run away—and oh, I'm sure she's mad!"
Meg lifted a pale, startled face from the pillows. "Who on earth—what—"
"Judy," he said, and burst into excited sobs. "She's in the shed, and I think she's mad!"
Meg got slowly out of bed, huddled on some clothes, and even then utterly disbelieving the wild story, went downstairs with him.
In the hall they met their father, who was just going out.
"Are you better?" he said to Meg. "You should have stayed in bed all day; however, perhaps the air will do you more good."
"Yes," she said mechanically.
"I'm going out for the rest of the day; indeed, I don't expect either Esther or myself will be back till to-morrow morning."
"Yes," repeated Meg.
"Don't let the children blow the house up, and take care of yourself—oh! and send Bunty to bed without any tea—he's had enough for one day, I'm sure."
"Yes," said the girl again, only taking in the import of what the last pledged her to when Bunty whispered a fierce "Sneak!" at her elbow.
Then the dogcart rattled up; and the Captain went away, to their unspeakable relief.
"Now what is this mad story?" Meg said, turning to her small brother. "I suppose it's one of your untruths, you bad little boy."
"Come and see,"' Bunty returned, and he led the way through the paddocks. Half-way down they met Pip and Nell, returning earlier than expected from the fishing expedition. Nellie looked sad, and was walking at a respectful distance behind her brother.
"You might as well take a phonograph with you as Nellie," he said, casting a look of withering scorn on that delinquent. "She talked the whole time, and didn't give me a chance of a bite."
"Judy's home," said Bunty, almost bursting with the importance of his knowledge. "No one's seen her but me; I've nearly got killed with climbing up cactuses and into windows and things, and I've had thrashings from Father and everything, but I never told a word, did I, Meg? I've got her up in the shed here, and I went and got corned beef and everything just you look at my legs:"
He displayed his scars proudly, but Meg hurried on, and Pip and Nell followed in blank amazement. At the shed they stopped.
"It's a yarn of Bunty's," Pip said contemptuously. "'Tisn't April the first yet, my son."
"Come and see," Bunty returned, swarming up. Pip followed, and gave a low cry; then Meg and Nell, with rather more difficulty, scrambled up, and the scene was complete.
The delirium had passed, and Judy was lying with wide-open eyes gazing in a tired way at the rafters.
She smiled up at them as they gathered round her. "If Mahomet won't come to the mountain," she said, and then coughed for two or three minutes.
"What have you been doing, Ju, old girl?" Pip said, with an odd tremble in his voice. The sight of his favourite sister, thin, hollow-checked, exhausted, was too much for his boyish manliness. A moisture came to his eyes.
"How d'you come, Ju?" he said, blinking it away.
And the girl gave her old bright look up at him. "Sure and they keep no pony but shank's at school," she said; "were you afther thinkin' I should charter a balloon?"
She coughed again.
Meg dropped down on her knees and put her arms round her little thin sister.
"Judy," she cried, "oh, Judy, Judy! my dear, my dear!"
Judy laughed for a little time, and called her an old silly, but she soon broke down and sobbed convulsively. "I'm so hungry," she said, at last pitifully.
They all four, started up as though they would fetch the stores of Sydney to satisfy her. Then Meg sat down again and lifted the rough, curly head on her lap.
"You go, Pip," she said, "and bring wine and a glass, and in the meat-safe there's some roast chicken; I had it for my lunch, and Martha said she would put the rest there till tea; and be quick, Pip."
"My word!" said Pip to himself, and he slipped down and flew across to the house.
"Upon my word!" said Martha, meeting him in the hall five minutes later, a cut-glass decanter under his arm, a wineglass held in his teeth by the stem, a dish of cold chicken in his hand, and bread and butter in a little stack beside the chicken. "Upon my word! And what next, might I ask?"
"Oh, shut up, and hang your grandmother!" said Pip, brushing past her, and going a circuitous voyage to the shed lest she should be watching.
He knelt down beside his little sister and fed her with morsels of chicken and sips of wine, and stroked her wild hair, and called her old girl fifty times, and besought her to eat just a little more and a little more.
And Judy, catching the look in the brown, wet eyes above her, ate all he offered, though the first mouthful nearly choked her; she would have eaten it had it been elephant's hide, seeing she loved this boy better than anything else in the world, and he was in such distress. She was the better for it, too, and sat up and talked quite naturally after a little time.
"You shouldn't have done t you shouldn't really, you know, old girl, and what the governor will say to you beats me."
"He won't know," she answered quickly. "I'd never forgive whoever told him. I can only stay a week. I've arranged it all beautifully, and I shall live here in this loft; Father never dreams of coming here, so it will be quite safe, and you can all bring me food. And then after a week"—she sighed heavily—"I must go back again."
"Did you really walk all those miles just to see us?" Pip said, and again there was the strange note in his voice.
"I got a lift or two on the way," she said, "but I walked nearly all of it, I've been coming for nearly a week:"
"How COULD you do it? Where did you sleep, Judy? What did you eat?" Meg exclaimed, in deep distress.
"I nearly forget," Judy said; closing her eyes again. "I kept asking for food at little cottages, and sometimes they asked me to sleep, and I had three-and-six—that went a long way. I only slept outside two nights, and I had my jacket then."
Meg's face was pale with horror at her sister's adventure. Surely no girl in the wide world but Judy Woolcot would have attempted such a harebrained project as walking all those miles with three-and-six in her pocket.
"How COULD you?" was all she could find to say. "I hadn't meant to walk all the way," Judy said, with a faint mile. "I had seven shillings in a bit of paper in my pocket, as well as the three-and-six, and I knew it would take me a long way in the train. But then I lost it after I had started, and I didn't believe in going back just for that, so, of course, I had to walk."
Meg touched her cheek softly.
"It's no wonder you got so thin," she said.
"Won't the Miss Buttons be raising a hue-and-cry after you?" Pip asked. "It's a wonder they've not written to the pater to say you have skedaddled."
"Oh! Marian and I made that all safe," Judy said, with a smile of recollective pleasure. "Marian's my chum, you see, and does anything I tell her. And she lives at Katoomba."
"Well?" said Meg, mystified, as her sister paused. "Well, you see, a lot of the girls had the measles, and so they sent Marian home, for fear she should get them. And Marian's mother asked for me to go there, too, for a fortnight; and so Miss Burton wrote and asked Father could I? and I wrote and asked couldn't I come home instead for the time?"
"He never told us," Meg said softly.
"No, I s'pose not. Well, he wrote back and said 'no' to me and 'yes' to her. So one day they put us in the train safely, and we were to be met at Katoomba. And the thought jumped into my head as we went along: Why ever shouldn't I come home on the quiet? So I told Marian she could explain to her people I had gone home instead, and that she was to be sure to make it seem all right, so they wouldn't write to Miss Button. And then the train stopped at Blackheath, and I jumped straight out, and she went on to Katoomba, and I came home. That's all. Only, you see, as I'd lost my money there was nothing left for it but to walk."
Meg smoothed the dusty, tangled confusion of her hair.
"But you can't live out here for the week," she said, in a troubled voice. "You've got a horrid cough with sleeping outside, and I'm sure you're ill. We shall have to tell Father about it. I'll beg him not to send you back, though."
Judy started up, her eyes aflame.
"If you do," she said—"if you do, I will run away this very night, and walk to Melbourne, or Jerusalem, and never see any of you again! How can you, Meg! After I've done all this just so he wouldn't know! Oh, how CAN you?"
She was working herself up into a strong state of excitement.
"Why, I should be simply packed back again tomorrow—you know I would, Meg. Shouldn't I now, Pip? And get into a fearful row at school into the bargain. My plan is beautifully simple. After I've had a week's fun here with you I shall just go back—you can all lend me some money for the train. I shall just meet Marian at Katoomba on the 25th; we shall both go back to school together, and no one will be a bit the wiser. My cough's nothing; you know I often do get coughs at home, and they never hurt me. As long as you bring me plenty to eat, and stay with me, I'll be all right."
The rest and food and home faces had done much already for her; her face looked less pinched, and a little more wholesome colour was creeping slowly into her cheeks.
Meg had an uncomfortable sense of responsibility, and the feeling that she ought to tell someone was strong upon her; but she was overruled by the others in the end.
"You couldn't be so mean, Meg," Judy had said warmly, when she had implored to be allowed to tell Esther.
"Such a blab!" Bunty had added. "Such an awful sneak!" Pip had said.
So Meg held her tongue, but was exceedingly unhappy.
On the fourth day of Judy's residence in the loft, Martha Tomlinson remarked to her fellow-servant and sufferer, Bridget, that she believed them blessed children were in a conspiracy to put her "over the river."
Bridget's digestion was impaired that morning, and she merely remarked that she supposed the dear little things only felt a desire to see her in her proper place.
I should explain to you, perhaps, that "over the river" meant Gladesville, which is Sydney's Colney Hatch.
Many things had led the unhappy Martha to a belief in this conspiracy. For instance, when she went to make Pip's bed as usual one morning all the bedclothes had gone. The white counterpane was spread smoothly over the mattress, but there was absolutely no trace of the blankets, sheets, and pillows. She hunted in every possible and impossible place, questioned the children, and even applied to Esther, but the missing things could not be found.
"There's a man in corduroy trousers hanging round here every night," Pip said, gloomily regarding his stripped bed. "I shouldn't wonder if he had something to do with it."
Which suggestion was distinctly unkind, seeing the man in corduroy trousers was Martha's most ardent and favoured admirer.
The next day the washing basin in Meg's room went, and after that a chair from the nursery, and a strip of carpet from the top landing, not to mention such small things as a teapot, a spirit-lamp, cups and plates, half a horn, and a whole baking of gingerbread nuts.
The losses preyed upon Martha, for the things seemed to disappear while the children were in bed; and though she suspected them, and watched them continually, she could get no clear proof of their guilt, nor even find any motive for them abstracting such things.
And after the disappearance of each fresh article, Pip used to ask whether the corduroy-trousered gentleman had been to the house the night before. And as it always happened, that he had, Martha could do nothing but cast a wrathful glance at the boy and flounce from the room.
One night the little chess-table from the nursery was spirited away.
Pip fell upon Martha's neck the next morning early, as she was sweeping the carpet, and affected to be dissolved in tears.
"'We never prize the violet,'" he said, in broken tones. "Ah! Martha, Martha! we never felt what a treasure we had in you till now, when your days with us are numbered."
"Get along with you," she said, hitting out at him with the broom handle. "And I ain't a-goin' to leave, so don't you think it. You'd have it your own way then too much. No; you don't get shut of Martha Tomlinson just yet, young man."
"But won't he be wanting you, Martha?" he said gently. "His furnishing must be nearly finished now. He's not taken a saucepan yet, nor a flat-iron, I know; but there's everything else, Martha; and I don't mind telling you in confidence I'm thinking of giving you a flat-iron myself as a wedding present, so you needn't wait till he comes for that."
"Get out with you!" said Martha again, thrusting the broom-head right into his face, and nearly choking him with dust. "It's a limb of the old gentleman himself you are."
Away in the loft things were getting very comfortable.
A couple of rugs hung on the walls kept out the draught. Judy's bed, soft and warm, was in a corner; she had a chair to sit in, a table to eat at, even a basin in which to perform her ablutions. And she had company all day; and nearly always all night. Once Meg had stolen away, after fastening her bedroom door, and had shared the bed in the loft; once Nellie had gone, and the other night Pip had taken a couple of blankets and made himself a shakedown among the straw. They used to pay her visits at all hours of the day, creeping up the creaking ladder one after the other, whenever they could get away unnoticed.
The governess had, as it happened, a fortnight's holiday, to nurse a sick mother, so the girls and Bunty had no demands on their time. Pip used to go to school late and come back early, cajoling notes of excuse, whenever, possible, out of Esther. He even played the truant once, and took a caning for it afterwards quite good-humouredly.
Judy still looked pale and tired, and her cough was rather troublesome; but she was fast getting her high spirits back, and was enjoying her adventure immensely.
The only drawback was the cribbed, cabined, and confined space of the loft.
"You will HAVE to arrange things so that I can go for a run," she said one morning, in a determined manner. "My legs are growing shorter, I am sure, with not exercising them. I shall have forgotten how to walk by the end of the week."
Pip didn't think it could be done; Meg besought her to run no risks; but Bunty and Nell were eager for it.
"Meg could talk to Father," Bunty said, "and Pip could keep teasing General till Esther would be frightened to leave the room, and then me and Judy would nick down and have a run, and get back before you let them go."
Judy shook her head.
"That would be awfully stale," she said. "If I go, I shall stay down some time. Why shouldn't we have a picnic down at the river?"
"Oh, yes, let's!" Bunty cried, with sparkling eyes.
"I'm sure we could manage it especially as it's Saturday, and Pip hasn't to go to school," Judy continued, thinking it rapidly out. "Two of you could go and get some food. Tell Martha you are all going for a picnic—she'll be glad enough not to have dinner to set—then you go on. Two others can watch if the coast's clear while I get down and across the paddocks, and once we're at the corner of the road we're safe."
It seemed feasible enough, and in a very short time the preparations were all made. Pip was mounting guard at the shed, and had undertaken to get Judy safely away, and Bunty had been stationed on the back veranda to keep cave and whistle three times if there was any danger.
He was to wait for a quarter of an hour by the kitchen clock, and then, if all was well, to bring the big billy and a bread loaf, and catch the others up on the road.
It was slow work waiting there, and he stood on one leg, like a meditative fowl, and reviewed the events of the last few exciting days.
He had a depressed feeling at his heart, but why he could hardly tell. Perhaps it was the lie he had told his father, and which was still unconfessed, because the horse was seriously lame, and his courage oozed away every time he thought of that riding-whip.
Perhaps it was the reaction after the great excitement. Or it may have been a rankling sense of injustice at the small glory his brave deeds on Judy's behalf evoked from the others. They did not seem to attach any importance to them, and, indeed, laughed every time he alluded to them or drew public attention to his scars. Two or three of the scratches on his legs were really bad ones, and while he was standing waiting he turned down his stockings and gazed at these with pitying eyes and something like a sob in his throat.
"Nobody cares!" he muttered, and one of his ever-ready tears fell splashing down on one extended bare leg. "Judy likes Pip best, and he never climbed the cactus; Meg thinks I tell stories; and Nellie says I'm a greedy pig—nobody cares!"
Another great fat tear gathered and fell. "Have you taken root there?" a voice asked.
His father, smoking at the open french window, had been watching him, and marvelling at his rare and exceeding quietness.
Bunty started, guiltily, and pulled up his stockings.
"I'm not doin' nothin'," he said aggrievedly, after a minute's pause. Bunty always lapsed into evil grammar when agitated. "Nothing at all. I'm goin' to a picnic."
"Ah, indeed!" said the Captain. "You looked as if you were meditating on some fresh mischief, or sorrowing over some old—which was it?"
Bunty turned a little pale, but remarked again he "wasn't doin' nothin'."
The Captain felt in a lazy, teasing mood, and his little fat, dirty son, was the only subject near.
"Suppose you come here and confess every bit of mischief you've done this week," he said gravely. "I've the whole morning to spare, and it's time I saw to your morals a little."
Bunty approached the arm of the chair indicated, but went whiter than ever.
"Ah, now we're comfortable. Well, there was stealing from the pantry on Tuesday—that's one," he said, encouragingly. "Now then."
"I n—n—never did n—nothin' else," Bunty gasped. He felt certain it was all over with him, and the cricket ball episode was discovered. He even looked nervously round to see if the riding-whip was near. Yes, there was Esther's silver-topped one flung carelessly on a chair. He found time to wish fervently Esther was a tidy woman.
"Nothing at all, Bunty? On your word?" said his father, in an impressive tone.
"I was p—playin' marbles," he said, in a shaking voice. "How c—c—could I have sh—shot anything at y—y—your old horse?"
"Horse—ah!" said his father. A light broke upon him, and his face grew stern. "What did you throw at Mazeppa to lame him? Answer me at once."
Bunty gave a shuddering glance at the whip.
"N-n-nothin'," he answered—"n—nothin' at all. My c—c—cricket b—ball was up in the st—st—stables. I was only p—p—playin' marbles." The Captain gave him a little shake.
"Did you lame Mazeppa with the cricket ball?" he said sternly.
"N—n—no I n—never," Bunty whispered, white to the lips. Then semi-repentance came to him, and he added: "It just rolled out of my p—p—pocket, and M—Mazeppa was passing and h—h—hit his l-leg on it."
"Speak the truth, or I'll thrash you within an inch of your life," the Captain said, standing up, and seizing Esther's whip: "Now then, sir—was it you lamed Mazeppa?"
"Yes," said Bunty, bursting into a roar of crying, and madly dodging the whip.
Then, as the strokes descended on his unhappy shoulders, he filled the air with his familiar wail of "'Twasn't me, 'twasn't my fault!"
"You contemptible young cur!" said his father, pausing a moment when his arm ached with wielding the whip. "I'll thrash this mean spirit of lying and cowardice out of you, or kill you in the attempt." Swish, swish. "What sort of a man do you think you'll make?" Swish, swish. "Telling lies just to save your miserable skin!" Swish, swish, swish, swish.
"You've killed me—oh, you've killed me! I know you have!" yelled the wretched child, squirming all over the floor. "'Twasn't me, 'twasn't my fault—hit the others some."
Swish, swish, swish. "Do you think the others would lie so contemptibly? Philip never lied to me. Judy would cut her tongue out first." Swish, swish, swish. "Going to a picnic, are you? You can picnic in your room till to-morrow's breakfast." Swish, swish, swish. "Pah—get away with you!"
Human endurance could go no further. The final swish had been actual agony to his smarting, quivering shoulders and back. He thought of the others, happy and heedless, out in the sunshine, trudging merrily off to the river, without a thought of what he was bearing, and his very heart seethed to burst in the hugeness of its bitterness and despair. "Judy's home!" he said, in a choking, passionate voice. "She lives in the old shed in the cow, paddock. Boo, hoo, hoo! They're keepin' it secret from you. Boo, hoo. She's gone to the picnic, and she's run away from school."
The captain was walking slowly across the paddocks with the cabbage-tree hat he kept for the garden pushed back from his brow. He was rather heated after his tussle with his second son, and there was a thoughtful light in his eyes. He did not believe the truth of Bunty's final remark, but still he considered there was sufficient probability in it to make a visit to the shed not altogether superfluous.
Not that he expected, in any case, to find his errant daughter there, for had not Bunty said there was a picnic down at the river? But he thought, there might be some trace or other.
The door of the shed swung back on its crazy hinges, and the sunlight streamed in and made a bar of glorified dust across the place.
There was no sign of habitation here, unless a hair ribbon of Meg's and some orange peel, might be considered as such.
He saw the shaky, home-made ladder, resting against the hole in the ceiling, and though he had generally more respect for his neck than his children had for theirs, he ventured his safety upon it. It creaked ominously as he reached the top step and crawled through into the loft.
There were a ham-bone, a box of dominoes, and a burst pillow this side of the partition, nothing else, so he walked across and looked over.
"Very cosy," he murmured, "I shouldn't mind camping here myself for a little time," and it even came into his head to do so, and be there as a "surprise party" when Judy returned. But he dismissed the idea as hardly compatible with dignity. He remembered hearing rumours of missing furniture in the house, and almost a smile came into his eyes as he saw the little old table with the spirit-lamp and teapot thereon, the bed-clothing and washing-basin. But a stern look succeeded it. Were seventy-seven miles not sufficient obstacle to Judy's mischievous plans? How did she dare thus to defy him, a child of thirteen: and he her father? His lips compressed ominously, and he went down again and strode heavily back to the house.
"Esther!" he called, in a vibrating voice at the foot of the stairs.
And "Coming, dear—half a minute," floated down in response.
Half a minute passed ten times, and then she came, the beautiful young mother with her laughing-faced wee son in her arms. Her eyes looked so tender; and soft, and loving that he turned away impatiently; he knew quite well how it would be; she would beg and entreat him to forgive his little daughter when she heard, and when she looked as bright and beautiful as she did just now he could refuse her nothing.
He stood in profound meditation for a minute or two.
"What is it you want, John?" she said. "Oh! and what do you think? I have just found another tooth, a double one—come and look."
He came, half unwillingly, and stuck his little finger into his infant son's mouth.
Esther guided it till it felt a tiny, hard substance. "The third," she said proudly; "aren't you pleased?"
"Hum!" he said. Then he meditated a little longer, and after a minute or two rubbed his hands as if he was quite pleased with himself.
"Put on your hat, Esther, and the General's," he said, patting that young gentleman's head affectionately. "Let us go down to the river for a stroll; the children are down there picnicking, so we can be sure of some tea."
"Why, yes, that will be very nice," she said, "won't it Bababsie, won't it, sweet son?"
She called to Martha, who was dusting the drawing-room in a cheerfully blind way peculiarly hers.
"The General's hat, please, Martha, the white sun-hat with strings; it's on my bed, I think, or a chair or somewhere—oh! and bring down my large one with the poppies in, as well, please."
Martha departed, and, after a little search, returned with the headgear.
And Esther tied the white sun-hat over her own curly, crinkly hair, and made the General crow with laughing from his seat on the hall table. And then she popped it on the Captain's head, and put the cabbage-tree on her son's, and occupied several minutes thus in pretty play.
Finally they were ready, and moved down the hall.
"Master Bunty is locked in his room; on no account open the door, Martha," was the Captain's last command.
"Oh, Jack!" Esther said reproachfully.
"Oblige me by not interfering," he said; "allow me a little liberty with my own children, Esther. He is an untruthful little vagabond; I am ashamed to own him for my son."
And Esther, reflecting on the many shiftinesses of her stepson, was able to console herself with the hope that it would do him good.
They went a shortcut through the bush to avoid the public road, and the blue, sun-kissed, laughing river stretched before them.
"There they are," Esther cried, "in the old place, as usual, look at the fire, little sweet son; see the smoke, boy bonny—four—five of them. Why, who have they got with them?" she said in surprise, as they drew nearer the group on the grass.
Before they were close enough to recognize faces the circle suddenly seemed to break up and fall apart.
One of its members turned sharply round and fled away across the grass, plunging into the thick bracken and bush, and disappearing from sight in less time than it takes to tell.
"Whoever had you with you?" Esther said when they reached the children.
There was a half-second's silence, then Pip threw some sticks on the fire and said coolly:
"Only a friend of Meg's, a frightened kind of kid who has quite a dread of the pater. I believe she imagines soldiers go round with their swords sharpened, ready for use."
He laughed lightly. Nell joined in in a little hysterical way, and Baby began to cry.
Meg, white as death, picked her up and hurriedly began telling her the story of the three bears for comfort.
Esther looked a little puzzled, but, of course, never dreamt of connecting the flying figure with Judy.
And the Captain seemed delightfully blind and unsuspicious. He lay down on the grass and let the General swarm all over him; he made jokes with Esther; he told several stories of his young days, and never even seemed to remark that his audience seemed inattentive and constrained.
"Haven't you made some tea?" Esther said at last. "We love billy tea, and thought you would be sure to have some?"
"Bunty hasn't come, he was to have brought the billy," Pip said, half sulkily. He had suspicions that there was something behind this great affability of his father, and he objected to being played with.
"Ah," the Captain said gravely, "that is unfortunate. When I came away Bunty did not seem very well, and was thinking of spending the rest of the day in his bedroom."
Pip made up the fire in a dogged way, and Meg flashed a frightened glance at her father, who smiled affectionately back at her.
After an hour of this strained intercourse the Captain proposed a return home.
"It is growing chill," he said. "I should be grieved for the General's new-born tooth to start its life by aching—let's go home and make shift with teapot tea."
So they gathered up the untouched baskets and made themselves into a procession.
The Captain insisted on Pip and Meg walking with him, and he sent Baby and Nell on in front, one on either side of Esther, who was alternately leading and carrying the General.
This arrangement being, as indeed Pip shrewdly suspected; to prevent the possibility of any intercourse or formation of new plans.
And when they got home he invited them all to come into his smoking-room, a little slit of a place off the dining-room.
Esther took the General upstairs, but the others followed him in silence.
"Sit down, Pip, my boy," he said genially. "Come, Meg, make yourself at home, take a seat in that armchair. Nell and Baby can occupy the lounge."
They all sat down helplessly where he told them, and watched his face anxiously.
He selected a pipe from the row over the mantelpiece, fitted a new mouthpiece to it, and carefully filled it.
"As you are all in possession of my room," he said in an urbane voice, "I can hardly smoke with any comfort here, I am afraid. I will come and talk to you again later on. I am going to have a pipe first in the old loft in the cow paddock. Keep out of mischief till I come back."
He struck a match, lighted his tobacco, and, without a glance at the silent children, left the room, locking the door behind him.
Once more he crossed the paddocks, and once more pushed open the creaking door. The orange peel lay just where he had seen it before, only it was a little drier and more dead-looking. The hair ribbon was in exactly the same knot. The ladder creaked in just the same place, and again threatened to break his neck when he reached the top. The dominoes were there still, the ham-bone and the pillow occupied the same places; the only difference being the former had a black covering of ants now, and a wind had been playing with the pillow, and had carried the feathers in all directions.
He crossed the floor, not softly, but just with his usual measured military-step. Nothing moved. He reached the partition and looked over.
Judy lay across the improvised bed, sleeping a sleep of utter exhaustion after her rapid flight from the river. She had a frock of Meg's on, that made her look surprisingly long and thin; he was astonished to think she had grown so much.
"There will be no end to my trouble with her as she grows older," he said, half aloud, feeling extremely sorry for himself for being her father. Then a great anger and irritation rose within him as he watched her sleeping so quietly there. Was she always to be a disturber of his peace? Was she always to thwart him like this?
"Judy," he said in a loud voice.
The closed eyelids sprang open, the mist of sleep and forgetfulness cleared from the dark eyes, and she sprang up, a look of absolute horror on her face.
"What are you doing here, may I ask?" he said, very coldly.
The scarlet colour flooded her cheeks, her very brow, and then dropped down again, leaving her white to the lips, but she made no answer.
"You have run away from school, I suppose?" he continued, in the same unemotional voice. "Have you anything to say?"
Judy did not speak or move, she only watched his face with parted lips.
"Have you anything to say for yourself, Helen?" he repeated.
"No, Father," she said.
Her face had a worn, strained look that might have touched him at another time, but he was too angry to notice.
"No excuse or reason at all?"
He moved toward the opening. "A train goes in an hour and a half, you will come straight back with me this moment," he said, in an even voice. "I shall take precautions to have you watched at school since you cannot be trusted. You will not return home for the Christmas holidays, and probably not for those of the following June."
It was as bad as a sentence of death. The room swam before the girl's eyes, there was a singing and rushing in her ears.
"Come at once," the Captain said. Judy gave a little caught breath; it tickled her throat and she began to cough.
Such terrible coughing, a paroxysm that shook her thin frame and made her gasp for breath. It lasted two or three minutes, though she put her handkerchief to her mouth to try to stop it.
She was very pale when it ceased, and he noticed the hollows in her cheeks for the first time.
"You had better come to the house first," he said, less harshly, "and see if Esther has any cough stuff."
Then in his turn he caught his breath and grew pale under his bronze.
For the handkerchief that the child had taken from her lips had scarlet, horrible spots staining its whiteness.
The Squatter's Invitation
After all there was no dogcart for Judy, no mountain train, no ignominious return to the midst of her schoolfellows, no vista of weary months unmarked by holidays.
But instead, a warm, soft bed, and delicate food, and loving voices and ceaseless attention. For the violent exertion, the scanty food, and the two nights in the open air had brought the girl to indeed a perilous pass. One lung was badly inflamed, the doctor said; it was a mystery to him, he kept telling them, how she had kept up so long; an ordinary girl would have given in and taken to her bed long ago. But then he was not acquainted with the indomitable spirit and pluck that were Judy's characteristics.
"Didn't you have any pain?" he asked, quite taken aback to find such spirits and so serious a condition together.
"H'm, in my side sometimes," she answered carelessly. "How long will it be before I can get up, Doctor?" She used to ask the latter question of him every morning, though, if the truth were known, she felt secretly more than a little diffident at the idea of standing up again.
There was a languor and weariness in her limbs that made her doubtful if she could run about very much, and slower modes of progressing she despised. Besides this, there was a gnawing pain, under her arms, and the cough was agony while it lasted.
Still, she was not ill enough to lose interest in all that was going on, and used to insist upon the others telling her everything that happened outside—who made the biggest score at cricket, what flowers were out in her own straggling patch of garden, how many eggs the fowls laid a day, how the guinea-pigs and canaries were progressing, and what was the very latest thing in clothes or boots the new retriever puppy had devoured.
And Bunty used to bring in the white mice and the blind French guinea-pig, and let them run loose over the counterpane, and Pip did most of his carpentering on a little table near, so she could see each fresh stage and suggest improvements as he went along.
Meg, who had almost severed her connection with Aldith, devoted herself to her sister, and waited on her hand and foot; she made her all kinds of little presents—a boot-bag, with compartments; a brush-and-comb bag, with the monogram "J.W.," worked in pink silk; a little work-basket, with needle-book, pin-cushion, and all complete. Judy feared she should be compelled to betake herself to tidy habits on her recovery.
Her pleasure in the little gifts started a spirit of competition among the others.
For one whole day Pip was invisible, but in the evening he turned up, and walked to the bedside with a proud face. He had constructed a little set of drawers, three of which actually opened under skilful coaxing.
"It's not for doll-clothes," he said, after she had exhausted all the expressions of gratitude in common use, "because I know you hate them, but you can keep all your little things in them, you see—hair strings, and thimbles, and things."
There was a sound of dragging outside the door and presently Bunty came in backward, lugging a great, strange thing.
It seemed to be five or six heavy pieces of board nailed together haphazard.
"It's a chair," he explained, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "Oh! I'm going to put some canvas across it, of course, so you won't fall through; but I thought I'd show it you first."
Judy's eyes smiled, but she thanked him warmly. "I wasn't goin' to make any stupid thing, like Pip did," the small youth continued, looking deprecatingly at the little drawers. "This is really useful, you see; when you get up you can sit on it, Judy, by the fire and read or sew or something. You like it better 'n Pip's, don't you?"
Judy temporized skilfully, and averted offence to either by asking them to put the presents with all the others near the head of the bed.
"What a lot of things you'll have to take back to school, Ju," Nell said, as she added her contribution in the shape of a pair of crochet cuffs and a doll's wool jacket.
But Judy only flashed her a reproachful glance, and turned her face to the wall for the rest of the evening.
That was what had been hanging over her so heavily all this long fortnight in bed—the thought of school in the future.
"What's going to happen to me when I get better, Esther?" she asked next morning, in a depressed way, when her stepmother came to see her. "Is he saving up a lot of beatings for me? And shall I have to go back the first week?"
Esther reassured her.
"You won't go back this quarter at all, very likely not next either, Judy dear. He says you shall go away with some of the others for a change till you get strong; and, between you and me, I think its very unlikely you, will go back ever again."
With this dread removed, Judy mended more rapidly, surprising even the doctor with her powers of recuperation.
In three weeks she was about the house again, thin and great-eyed, but full of nonsense and even mischief once more. The doctor's visits ceased; he said she had made a good recovery so far, but should have change of surroundings, and be taken a long way from sea air.
"Let her run wild for some months, Woolcot," he said at his last visit; "it will take time to quite shake off all this and get her strength and flesh back again."
"Certainly, certainly; she shall go at once," the Captain said.
He could not forget the shock he had received in the old loft five or six weeks ago, and would have agreed if he had been bidden to take her for a sojourn in the Sahara.
The doctor had told him the mischief done to her lungs was serious.
"I won't say she will ultimately die of consumption," he had said, "but there is always a danger of that vile disease in these nasty cases. And little Miss Judy is such a wild, unquiet subject; she seems to be always in a perfect fever of living, and to possess a capacity for joy and unhappiness quite unknown to slower natures. Take care of her, Woolcot, and she'll make a fine woman some day—ay, a grand woman."
The Captain smoked four big cigars in the solitude of his study before he could decide how he could best "take care of her."
At first he thought he would send her with Meg and the governess to the mountains for a time, but then there was the difficulty about lessons for the other three. He might send them to school, or engage a governess certainly, but then again there was expense to be considered.
It was out of the question for the girls to go alone, for Meg had shown herself nothing but a silly little goose, in spite of her sixteen years; and Judy needed attention. Then he remembered Esther, too, was, looking unwell; the nursing and the General together had been too much for her, and she looked quite a shadow of her bright self. He knew he really ought to send her, too, and the child, of course.
And again the expense.
He remembered the Christmas holidays were not very far away; what would become of the house with Pip and Bunty and the two youngest girls running wild, and no one in authority? He sighed heavily, and knocked the ash from his fourth cigar upon the carpet.
Then the postman came along the drive and past the window. He poked up with a broad smile, and touched his helmet in a pleased kind of way. If almost seemed as if he knew that in one of the letters he held the solution of the problem that was making the Captain's brow all criss-crossed with frowning lines.
A fifth cigar was being extracted from the case, a wrinkle was deepening just over the left eyebrow, a twinge of something very like gout was calling forth a word or two of "foreign language," when Esther came in with a smile on her lips and an open letter in her hands.
"From Mother," she said. "Yarrahappini's a wilderness, it seems, and she wants me to go up, and take the General with me, for a few weeks."
"Ah!" he said.
It would certainly solve one of the difficulties. The place was very far away certainly, but then it was Esther's old home, and she had not seen it since her marriage. She would grow strong again there very quickly.
"Oh, and Judy, too."
"Ah-h-h!" he said.
Two of the lines smoothed themselves carefully from his brow.
"And Meg, because I mentioned she was looking pale."
The Captain placed the cigar back in the case. He forgot there was such a thing as gout.
"The invitation could not have been more opportune," he said. "Accept by all means; nothing could have been better; and it is an exceedingly healthy climate. The other children can—"
"Oh, Father expressly stipulates for Pip as well, because he is a scamp."
"Upon my word, Esther, your parents have a large enough fund of philanthropy. Anyone else included in the invitation?"
"Only Nell and Bunty and Baby. Oh, and Mother says if you can run up at any time for a few days shooting you know without her telling you how pleased she will be to see you."
"The hospitality of squatters is world-famed, but this breaks all previous records, Esther." The Captain got up and stretched himself with the air of a man released from a nightmare. "Accept by all means—every one of you. On their own heads be the results; but I'm afraid Yarrahappini will be a sadder and wiser place before the month is over."
But just how much sadder or how much wiser he never dreamed.
Three Hundred Miles in the Train
They filled a whole compartment—at least there was one seat vacant, but people seemed shy of taking it after a rapid survey of them all.
The whole seven of them, and only Esther as bodyguard—Esther—in a pink blouse an sailor hat, with a face as bright and mischievous as Pip's own.
The Captain had come to see them off, with Pat to look after the luggage. He had bought the tickets—two whole ones for Esther and Meg, and four halves for the others. Baby was not provided with even a half, much to her private indignation—it was an insult to her four years and a half, she considered, to go free like the General.
But the cost of those scraps of pasteboard had made the Captain look unhappy: he only received eighteenpence change out of the ten pounds he had tendered; for Yarrahappini was on the borders of the Never-Never Land.
He spent the eighteenpence on illustrated papers—Scraps, Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday, Comic Cuts, Funny Folks, and the like, evidently having no very exalted opinion of the literary tastes of his family; and he provided Esther with a yellow-back—on which was depicted a lady in a green dress fainting in the arms of a gentleman attired in purple, and Meg with Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog", because he had noticed a certain air of melancholy in her eyes lately.
Then bells clanged and a whistle shrieked, porters flew wildly about, and farewells were said, sadly or gaily as the case might be.
There was a woman crying: in a hopeless little way on the platform, and a girl with sorrowful, loving eyes leaning out of a second-class window towards her; there was a brown-faced squatter, in a tweed cap and slippers, to whom the three-hundred-mile journey was little more of an event than dining; and there was the young man going selecting, and thinking England was little farther, seeing his wife and child were waving a year's good-bye from the platform. There were sportsmen going two hundred miles after quail and wallaby; and cars full of ladies returning to the wilds after their yearly or half-yearly tilt with society and fashion in Sydney; and there were the eight we are interested in, clustering around the door and two windows, smiling and waving cheerful good-byes to the Captain.
He did not look at all cast down as the train steamed fussily away—indeed, he walked down the platform with almost a jaunty air as if the prospect of two months bachelordom was not without its redeeming points.
It was half-past six in the afternoon when they started, and they would reach Curlewis, which was the nearest railway station to Yarrahappini, about five the next morning. The expense of sleeping-berths had been out of the question with so many of them; but in the rack with the bags were several rolls of rugs and two or three air-pillows against the weary hours. The idea of so many hours in the train had been delightful to all the young ones; none of them but Judy had been a greater distance than forty or fifty miles before, and it seemed perfectly fascinating to think of rushing on and on through the blackness as well as the daylight.
But long before ten o'clock a change came o'er the spirit of their dreams. Nell and Baby had had a quarrel over the puffing out of the air-cushions, and were too tired and cross to make it up again; Pip had hit Bunty over the head for no ostensible reason, and received two kicks in return; Judy's head ached, and the noise, was not calculated to cure it; Meg had grown weary of staring out into the moving darkness, and wondering whether Alan would notice she was never on the river-boat now; and the poor little General was filling the hot air with expostulations, in the shape of loud roars, at the irregularities of the treatment he was undergoing.
Esther had taken his day clothes off, and made a picture of him in a cream flannel nightgown and a pink wool jacket. And for half an hour, he had submitted good-temperedly to being handed about and tickled and half-smothered with kisses. He had eyen permitted Nell to bite his little pink toes severally, and say a surprising amount of nonsense about little pigs that went to market and did similarly absurd things.
He had hardly remonstrated when there had been a dispute about the possession of his person, and Bunty had clung to his head and body while Nell pulled vigorously at his legs.
But after a time, when Esther made him a little bed on one of the seats and tried to lay him down upon it, a sense of his grievances came over him.
He had a swinging cot at home; with little gold bars at the foot to blink at—he could not see why he should be mulcted of it, and made to put up with a rug three times doubled. He was accustomed, too, to a shaded light, a quiet room, and a warning H'sh! h'sh! whenever people forgot themselves sufficiently to make the slightest noise.