It was not to be expected that such an occurrence could be passed entirely over, but then again it is difficult to punish seven children at the same time. At first Captain Woolcot had requested Esther to ask Miss Marsh, the governess, to give them all ten French verbs to learn; but, as Judy pointed out, the General and Baby and Bunty and Nell had not arrived at the dignity of French verbs yet, so such a punishment would be iniquitous. The sentence therefore had not been quite decided upon as yet, and everyone felt in an uncomfortable state of suspense.
"Your father says you're a disgraceful tribe," said the young stepmother slowly, sitting down on the nursery rocking-chair a day later. She had on a trailing morning wrapper of white muslin with cherry ribbons, but there was a pin doing duty for a button in one or two places and the lace was hanging off a bit at the sleeve.
"Meg, dear, you're very untidy, you know, and Judy's absolutely hopeless."
Meg was attired in an unbecoming green cashmere, with the elbows out and the plush torn off in several places, while Judy's exceedingly scant and faded pink zephyr had rents in several places, and the colour was hardly to be seen for fruit-stains.
Meg coloured a little. "I know, Esther, and I'd like to be nicely-dressed as well as anyone, but it really isn't worth mending these old things."
She picked up her book about the elegant girls who were disturbing her serenity and went over to the armchair with it.
"Well, Judy, you go and sew up those rents, and put some buttons on your frock." Esther spoke with unusual determination.
Judy's eyes snapped and sparkled.
"'Is that a dagger that I see before me, the handle to my hand? Come, let me grasp it,'" she said saucily, snatching one of the pins from Esther's dress, fastening her own with it, and dropping a curtsey.
Esther reddened a little now.
"That's the General, Judy: he always pulls the buttons off my wrappers when I play with him. But I'm forgetting. Children, I have bad news for you."
There was a breathless silence. Everyone crowded round her knees.
"Sentence has been proclaimed," said Judy dramatically: "let us shave our heads and don sackcloth."
"Your father says he cannot allow such conduct to go unpunished, especially as you have all been unusually tiresome lately; therefore: you are all—"
"To be taken away and hanged by the neck until we are dead!"
"Be quiet, Judy. I have tried my best to beg you off, but it only makes him more vexed. He says you are the untidiest, most unruly lot of children in Sydney, and he will punish you each time you do anything, and—"
"There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
"Oh, shut up, Judy! Can't you let us hear?" Pip put his hand over her mouth and held her by the hair while Esther told the news.
"None of you are to go to the pantomime. The seats were taken for Thursday night, and now, you very foolish children, you will all have to stay at home."
There was a perfect howl of dismay for a minute or two. They had all been looking forward to this treat for nearly a month, and the disappointment was a really bitter one to them all.
"Oh, I say, Esther, that's too bad, really! All the fellows at school have been." Pip's handsome face flushed angrily. "And for such a little thing, too!"
"Just because you had roast fowl for dinner," said Judy, in a half-choked voice. "Oh, Esther, why couldn't you have had cow, or horse, or hippopotamus—anything but roast fowl?"
"Couldn't you get round him, Esther?" Meg looked anxiously at her.
"Dear Esther, do!"
"Oh, you sweet, beautiful Essie, do try!"
They clung round her eagerly. Baby flung her arms round her neck and nearly choked her; Nell stroked her cheek; Pip patted her back, and besought her to "be a good fellow"; Bunty buried his nose in her back hair and wept a silent tear; Meg clasped her hand in an access of unhappiness; the General gave a series of delighted squeaks; and Judy in her wretchedness smacked him for his pains.
Esther would do her best, beg as she had never done before, coax, beseech, wheedle, threaten; and they let her go at last with that assurance.
"Only I'd advise you all to be preternaturally good and quiet all day," she said, looking back from the doorway. "That would have most effect with him, and he is going to be at home all day."
GOOD! It was absolutely painful to witness the virtue of those children for the rest of the day.
It was holiday-time, and Miss Marsh was away, but not once did the sound of quarrelling, or laughing, or crying fly down to the lower regions.
"'Citizens of Rome, the eyes of the world are upon you!'" Judy had said solemnly, and all had promised so to conduct themselves that their father's heart could not fail to be melted.
Pip put on his school jacket, brushed his hair, took a pile of school books, and proceeded to the study where his father was writing letters, and where he was allowed to do his home-lessons.
"Well, what do you want?" said the Captain, with a frown. "No, it's no good coming to the about that pup, sir—I won't have you keep it."
"I came to study, sir," said Pip mildly. "I feel I'm a bit backward with my mathematics, so I won't waste all the holidays, when I'm costing you so much in school fees."
The Captain gave a little gasp and looked hard at Pip; but the boy's face was so unsmiling and earnest that he was disarmed, and actually congratulated himself that his eldest son was at last seeing the error of his ways.
"There are those sets of problems in that drawer that I did when I was at school," he said graciously. "If they are of any use to you, you can get them out."
"Thanks awfully—they will be a great help," said Pip gratefully.
He examined them with admiration plainly depicted upon his face.
"How very clearly and correctly you worked, Father," he said with a sigh. "I wonder if ever I'll get as good as this! How old were you, Father, when you did them?"
"About your age," said the Captain, picking up the papers.
He examined them with his head on one side. He was rather proud of them, seeing he had utterly forgotten now how to work decimal fractions, and could not have done a quadratic equation to save his life.
"Still, I don't think you need be quite discouraged, Pip. I was rather beyond the other boys in my class in these subjects, I remember. We can't all excel in the same thing, and I'm glad to see you are beginning to realize the importance of work."
Meg had betaken herself to the drawing-room, and was sitting on the floor before the music canterbury with scissors, thimble, and a roll of narrow blue ribbon on her knee, and all her father's songs, that he so often complained were falling to pieces, spread out before her.
He saw her once as he passed the door, and looked surprised and pleased.
"Thank you, Margaret: they wanted it badly. I am glad you can make yourself useful, after all," he said.
Meg stitched on industriously.
He went back to his study, where Pip's head was at a studious, absorbed angle, and pyramids of books and sheaves of paper were on the table. He wrote two more letters, and there came a little knock at the door.
"Come in," he called; and there entered Nell.
She was carrying very carefully a little tray covered with a snow-white doyley, and on it were a glass of milk and a plate of mulberries. She placed it before him.
"I thought perhaps you would like a little lunch, Father," she said gently; and Pip was seized with a sudden coughing fit.
"My DEAR child!" he said.
He looked at it very thoughtfully.
"The last glass of milk I had, Nellie, was when I was Pip's age, and was Barlow's fag at Rugby. It made me ill, and I have never touched it since."
"But this won't hurt you. You will drink this?" She gave him one of her most beautiful looks.
"I would as soon drink the water the maids wash up in, my child." He took a mulberry, ate it, and made a wry face. "They're not fit to eat."
"After you've eaten about six you don't notice they're sour," she said eagerly. But he pushed them away.
"I'll take your word for it." Then he looked at her curiously. "What made you think of bringing me anything, Nellie? I don't ever remember you doing so before."
"I thought you might be hungry writing here so long," she said gently; and Pip choked again badly, and she withdrew.
Outside in the blazing sunshine Judy was mowing the lawn.
They only kept one man, and, as his time was so taken up with the horses and stable work generally, the garden was allowed to fall into neglect. More than once the Captain had spoken vexedly of the untidy lawns, and said he was ashamed for visitors to come to the house.
So Judy, brimming over with zeal, armed herself with an abnormally large scythe, and set to work on the long, long grass.
"Good heavens, Helen! you'll cut your legs off!" called her father, in an agitated tone.
He had stepped out on to the front veranda for a mild cigar after the mulberry just as she brought her scythe round with an admirable sweep and decapitated a whole army of yellow-helmeted dandelions.
She turned and gave him a beautiful smile. "Oh, no, Father!—why, I'm quite a dab at mowing."
She gave it another alarming but truly scientific sweep.
"See that—and th-a-at—and tha-a-a-at!"
"Th-a-at" carried off a fragment of her dress, and "tha-a-a-at" switched off the top of a rose-bush; but there are details to everything, of course.
"Accidents WILL happen, even to the best regulated grass-cutters," she said composedly, and raising the scythe for a fresh circle.
"Stop immediately, Helen! Why ever can't you go and play quietly with your doll, and not do things like this?" said her father irascibly.
"An' I was afther doin' it just to pleasure him," she said, apparently addressing the dandelions.
"Well, it won't 'pleasure him' to have to provide you with cork legs and re-stock the garden," he said dryly: "Put it down."
"Sure, an' it's illigence itsilf this side: you wouldn't be afther leaving half undone, like a man with only one cheek shaved."
Judy affected an Irish brogue at some occult reason of her own.
"Sure an' if ye'd jist stip down and examine it yirself, it's quite aisy ye'd be in yer moind."
The Captain hid a slight smile in his moustache. The little girl looked so comical, standing there in her short old pink frock, a broken-brimmed hat on her tangle of dark curls, her eyes sparkling, her face flushed, the great scythe in her hands, and the saucy words on her lips.
He came down and examined it: it was done excellently well, like most of the things miss Judy attempted—mischief always included: and her little black-stockinged legs were still in a good state of preservation.
"Hum! Well, you can finish it then, as Pat's busy. How did you learn to mow, young lady of wonderful accomplishments?" (he looked at her questioningly); "and what made you set yourself such a task?"
Judy gave her curls a quick push off her hot forehead.
"(A) Faix, it was inborn in me," she answered instantly; "and (B)—sure, and don't I lo-o-ove you and delaight to plaize you?"
He went in again slowly, thoughtfully. Judy always mystified him. He understood her the least of any of his children, and sometimes the thought of her worried him. At present she was only a sharp, clever, and frequently impertinent child; but he felt she was utterly different from the other six, and it gave him an aggrieved kind of feeling when he thought about it, which was not very often.
He remembered her own mother had often said she trembled for Judy's future. That restless fire of hers that shone out of her dancing eyes, and glowed scarlet on her cheeks in excitement, and lent amazing energy and activity to her young, lithe body, would either make a noble, daring, brilliant woman of her, or else she would be shipwrecked on rocks the others would never come to, and it would flame up higher and higher and consume her.
"Be careful of Judy" had been almost the last words of the anxious mother when, in the light that comes when the world's is going out, she had seen with terrible clearness the stones and briars in the way of that particular pair of small, eager feet.
And she had died, and Judy was stumbling right amongst them now, and her father could not "be careful" of her because he absolutely did not know how.
As he went up the veranda steps again and through the hall, he was wishing almost prayerfully she had not been cast in so different a mould from the others, wishing he could stamp out that strange flame in her that made him so uneasy at times. He gave a great puff at his cigar, and sighed profoundly; then he turned on his heel and went off toward the stables to forget it all.
The man was away, exercising one of the horses in the long paddock; but there was something stirring in the harness-room, so he went in.
There was a little, dripping wet figure standing over a great bucket, and dipping something in and out with charming vigour. At the sound of his footsteps, Baby turned round and lifted a perspiring little face to his.
"I'se washing the kitsies for you, and Flibberty-Gibbet," she said beamingly.
He took a horrified step forward.
There were two favourite kittens of his, shivering, miserable, up to their necks in a lather of soapy water; and Flibberty-Gibbet, the beautiful little fox terrier he had just bought for his wife, chained to a post, also wet, miserable, and woebegone, also undergoing the cleansing process, and being scrubbed and swilled till his very reason was tottering.
"They'se SO clean and nicey—no horrid ole fleas 'n them now. AREN't you glad? You can let Flibberty go on your bed now, and Kitsy Blackeye is—"
Poor Baby never finished her speech. She had a confused idea of hearing a little "swear-word" from her father, of being shaken in a most ungentle fashion and put outside the stable, while the unfortunate animals were dried and treated with great consideration.
But the worst was yet to come, and the results were so exceedingly bad that the young Woolcots determined never again to assume virtues that they had not.
Bunty, of course, desired to help the cause as strongly as the others, and to that end his first action was to go into his bedroom and perform startling ablutions with his face, neck, and hands. Then he took his soap-shiny countenance and red, much bescrubbed hands downstairs, and sunned himself under his father's very nose, hoping to attract favourable comment.
But he was bidden irritably "go and play," and saw he would have to find fresh means of appeasement.
He wandered into the study, with vague thoughts of tidying the tidy bookshelves; but Pip was there, surrounded with books and whittling a stick for a catapult, so he went out again. Then he climbed the stairs and explored his father's bedroom and dressing-room. In the latter there was a wide field for his operations. A full-dress uniform was lying across a chair, and it struck Bunty the gold buttons were looking less bright than they should, so he spent a harmless quarter of an hour in polishing them up. Next, he burnished some spurs, which also was harmless. Then he cast about for fresh employment.
There was quite a colony of dusty boots in one corner of the room, and there was a great bottle of black, treacly looking varnish on the mantelpiece. Bunty conceived the brilliant idea of cleaning the whole lot and standing them in a neat row to meet his father's delighted eyes. He found a handkerchief on the floor, of superfine cambric, though dirty, poured upon it a liberal allowance of varnish, and attacked the first pair.
A bright polish rewarded him, for they were patent leather ones; but the next and the next and the next would not shine, however hard he rubbed. There was a step on the stair, the firm, well-known step of his father, and he paused a moment with a look of conscious virtue on his small shiny face.
But it fled all at once, and a look of horror replaced it. He had stuck the bottle on a great armchair for convenience, as he was sitting on the floor, and now he noticed it had fallen on its side and a black, horrid stream was issuing from its neck.
And it was the chair with the uniform on, and one of the sleeves was soaked with the stuff, and the beautiful white shirt that lay there, too, waiting for a button, was sticky, horrible! Bunty gave a wild, terrified look round the room for some place to efface himself, but there were no sheltering corners or curtains, and there was not time to get into the bedroom and under the bed. Near the window was a large-sized medicine chest, and in despair Bunty crushed himself into it, his legs huddled up, his head between his knees, and an ominous rattle of displaced bottles in his ears. The next minute his father was in the room.
"Great Heavens! God bless my soul!" he said, and Bunty shivered from head to foot.
Then he said a lot of things very quickly—"foreign language" as Judy called it; kicked something over, and shouted "Esther!" in a terrifying tone. But Esther was down in one of the paddocks with the General, so there was no reply.
More foreign language, more stomping about.
Bunty's teeth chattered noisily; he put up his hand to hold his mouth together, and the cupboard, overbalanced, fell right over, precipitating its occupant right at his father's feet, and the bottles everywhere.
"I didn't—I haven't—'twasn't me—'twasn't my fault!" he howled, backing towards the door. "Hoo—yah—boo-hoo-ooo! Esther—boo—yah—Judy—oh—oh—h! oh—oh—h—h—h—h!" As might be expected, his father had picked up a strap that lay conveniently near, and was giving his son a very fair taste of it.
"Oh—h—h—h! o—o—h! o—o—h! ah—h—h! 'twasn't me—'twasn't my fault—its Pip and Judy—oh—h—h—h! hoo—the pant'mime! boo-hoo! ah—h—h—h—you're killing me! hoo-boo! I was only d—doin' it—oh—hoo—ah—h—h! d—oin' it to p—please—boo—oo—oo! to p—please you!"
His father paused with uplifted strap. "And that's why all the others are behaving in so strange a fashion? Just for me to take them to the pantomime?"
Bunty wriggled himself free. "Boo—hoo—yes! but not me—I didn't—I never—true's faith—oh-h-h-hoo-yah! it wasn't my fault, it's all the others—boo—hoo—hoo! hit them the rest."
He got three more smart cuts, and then fled howling and yelling to the nursery, where he fell on the floor and kicked and rolled about as if he were half killed.
"You sn—n—n—n—neaks!" he sobbed, addressing the others, who had flown from all parts at his noisy outcry, "you m-m—mean p—p—p—pigs! I h—hadn't n—n—no fo—o—ow-l, and I've h—h—had all the b—b—b—beating! y—you s—s—sn—n-neaks! oh—h—h—h! ah—h—h—h! oh—h—h—h! oh—h—h-h! I'm b—b—bleeding all over, I kno—o—o—ow!"
They couldn't help laughing a bit; Bunty was always so irresistibly comic when he was hurt ever so little; but still they comforted him as well as they could, and tried to find out what had happened.
Esther came in presently, looking very worried. "Well?" they said in a breath.
"You really are the most exasperating children," she said vexedly.
"But the pantomime—quick, Esther—have you asked him?" they cried impatiently.
"The pantomime! He says he would rather make it worth Mr. Rignold's while to take it off the boards than that one of you should catch a glimpse of it—and it serves you very well right! Meg, for goodness' sake give Baby some dry clothes—just look at her; and, Judy, if you have any feeling for me, take off that frock. Bunty, you wicked boy, I'll call your father if you don't stop that noise. Nell, take the scissors from the General, he'll poke his eyes out, bless him."
The young stepmother leaned back in her chair and looked round her tragically. She had never seen her husband so thoroughly angered, and her beautiful lips quivered when she remembered how he had seemed to blame her for it all.
Meg hadn't moved; the water was trickling slowly off Baby's clothes and making a pool on the floor, Bunty was still giving vent to spasmodic boos and hoos, Judy was whistling stormily, and the General, mulcted of the scissors, was licking his own muddy shoe all over with his dear little red tongue.
A sob rose in her throat, two tears welled up in her eyes and fell down her smooth, lovely cheeks. "Seven of you, and I'm only twenty!" she said pitifully. "Oh! it's too bad—oh dear! it is too bad."