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.