"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.