Seven Little Australians

by Ethel Turner

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CHAPTER IV - The General Sees Active Service

"My brain it teems
With endless schemes,
Both good and new."

It was a day after "the events narrated in the last chapter," as story-book parlance has it. And Judy, with a wrathful look in her eyes, was sitting on the nursery table, her knees touching her chin and her thin brown hands clasped round them.

"It's a shame," she said, "it's a burning, wicked shame! What's the use of fathers in the world, I'd like to know!"

"Oh, Judy!" said Meg, who was curled up in an armchair, deep in a book. But she said it mechanically, and only as a matter of duty, being three years older than Judy.

"Think of the times we could have if he didn't live with us," Judy continued, calmly disregardful. "Why, we'd have fowl three times a day, and the pantomime seven nights a week."

Nell suggested that it was not quite usual to have pantomimic performances on the seventh day, but Judy was not daunted.

"I'd have a kind of church pantomime," she said thoughtfully—"beautiful pictures and things about the Holy Land, and the loveliest music, and beautiful children in white, singing hymns, and bright colours all about, and no collection plates to take your only threepenny bit—oh! and no sermons or litanies, of course."

"Oh, Judy!" murmured Meg, turning a leaf. Judy unclasped her hands, and then clasped them again more tightly than before. "Six whole tickets wasted—thirty beautiful shillings—just because we have a father!"

"He sent them to the Digby-Smiths," Bunty volunteered, "and wrote on the envelope, 'With compts. J. C. Woolcot.'"

Judy moaned. "Six horrid little Digby-Smiths sitting in the theatre watching our fun with their six horrid little eyes," she said bitterly.

Bunty, who was mathematically inclined, wanted to know why they wouldn't look at it through their twelve horrid little eyes, and Judy laughed and came down from the table, after expressing a wicked wish that the little Digby-Smiths might all tumble over the dress-circle rail before the curtain rose. Meg shut her book with a hurried bang.

"Has Pip gone yet? Father'll be awfully cross. Oh dear, what a head I've got!" she said. "Where's Esther? Has anyone seen Esther?"

"My DEAR Meg!" Judy said; "why, it's at least two hours since Esther went up the drive before your very nose. She's gone to Waverly—why, she came in and told you, and said she trusted you to see about the coat, and you said, 'M—'m! all right.'"

Meg gave a startled look of recollection. "Did I have to clean it?" she asked in a frightened tone, and pushing her fair hair back from her forehead. "Oh, girls! what WAS it I had to do?"

"Clean with benzine, iron while wet, put in a cool place to keep warm, and bake till brown," said Judy promptly. "SURELY you heard, Margaret? Esther was at such pains to explain."

Meg ruffled her hair again despairingly. "What shall I do?" she said, actual tears springing to her eyes. "What will Father say? Oh, Judy, you might have reminded me."

Nell slipped an arm round her neck. "She's only teasing, Megsie; Esther did it and left it ready in the hall—you've only to give it to Pip. Pat has to take the dogcart into town this afternoon to have the back seat mended, and Pip's going in it, too, that's all, and they're putting the horse in now; you're not late."

It was the coat Bunty had done his best to spoil that all the trouble was about. It belonged, as I said, to the Captain's full-dress uniform, and was wanted for a dinner at the Barracks this same evening. And Esther had been sponging and cleaning at it all the morning, and had left directions that it was to be taken to the Barracks in the afternoon.

Presently the dogcart came spinning round to the door in great style, Pip driving and Pat looking sulkily on. They took the coat parcel and put it carefully under the seat, and were preparing to start again, when Judy came out upon the veranda, holding the General in an uncomfortable position in her arms.

"You come, too, Fizz, there's heaps of room—there's no reason you shouldn't," Pip said suddenly. "Oh—h—h!" said Judy, her eyes sparkling. She took a rapid step forward and lifted her foot to get in.

"Oh, I say!" remonstrated Pip, "you'll have to put on something over that dress, old girl—it's all over jam and things."

Judy shot herself into the hall and returned with her ulster; she set the General on the floor for a minute while she donned it, then picked him up and handed him up to Pip.

"He'll have to come, too," she said; "I promised Esther I wouldn't let him out of my sight for a minute; she's getting quite nervous about him lately—thinks he'll get broken."

Pip grumbled a minute or two, but the General gave a gurgling, captivating laugh and held up his arms, so he took him up and held him while Judy clambered in.

"We can come back in the tram to the Quay, and then get a boat back," she said, squeezing the baby on the seat between them. "The General loves going on the water."

Away they sped; down the neglected carriage drive, out of the gates, and away down the road. Pip, Judy of the shining eyes, the General devouring his thumb, and Pat smiling-faced once more because in possession of the reins.

A wind from the river swept through the belt of gum trees on the Crown lands, and sent the young red blood leaping through their veins; it played havoc with Judy's curls, and dyed her brown cheeks a warm red; it made the General kick and laugh and grow restive, and caused Pip to stick his hat on the back of his head and whistle joyously.

Until town was reached, when they were forced to yield somewhat to the claims of conventionality. On the way to Paddington a gentleman on horseback slackened pace a little. Pip took off his hat with a flourish, and Judy gave a frank, pleased smile, for it was a certain old Colonel they had known for years, and had cause to remember his good-humour and liberality.

"Well, my little maid—well, Philip, lad," he said, smiling genially, while his horse danced round the dogcart—"and the General too—where are you all off to?"

"The Barracks—I'm taking something up for the governor," Pip answered, Judy was watching the plunging horse with admiring eyes. "And then we're going back home."

The old gentleman managed, in spite of the horse's tricks, to slip his hand in his pocket. "Here's something to make yourselves ill with on the way," he said, handing them two half-crowns; "but don't send me the doctor's bill."

He flicked the General's cheek with his whip, gave Judy a nod, and cantered off.

The children looked at each other with sparkling eyes.

"Coconuts," Pip said, "and tarts and toffee, and save the rest for a football?" Judy shook her head. "Where do I come in?" she said. "You'd keep the football at school. I vote pink jujubes, and icecreams, and a wax doll."

"A wax grandmother!" Pip retorted; "you wouldn't be such a girl, I hope." Then he added, with almost pious fervour, "Thank goodness you've always hated dolls, Fizz."

Judy gave a sudden leap in her seat, almost upsetting the General, and bringing down upon her head a storm of reproaches from the coachman. "I know!" she said; "and we're almost halfway there now. Oh—h—h! it will be lovely."

Pip urged her to explain herself.

"Bondi Aquarium—skating, boats, merry-go-round, switchback threepence a go!" she returned succinctly.

"Good iron," Pip whispered softly, while he revolved the thing in his mind. "There'd be something over, too, to get some tucker with, and perhaps something for the football, too." Then his brow clouded.

"There's the kid—whatever did you go bringing him for? Just like a girl to spoil everything!" Judy looked nonplussed.

"I quite forgot him," she said, vexedly. "Couldn't we leave him somewhere? Couldn't we ask someone to take care of him while we go? Oh, it would be TOO bad to have to give it up just because of him. It's beginning to rain, too; we couldn't take him with us."

They were at the foot of Barrack Hill now, and Pat told them they must get out and walk the rest of the way up, or he would never get the dogcart finished to take back that evening.

Pip tumbled out and took the General, all in a bunched-up heap, and Judy alighted carefully after him, the precious coat parcel in her arms. And they walked up the asphalt hill to the gate leading to the officers' quarters in utter silence.

"Well?" Pip said querulously, as they reached the top. "Be quick; haven't you thought of anything?"

That levelling of brows, and pursing of lips, always meant deep and intricate calculation on his sister's part, as he knew full well.

"Yes," Judy said quietly. "I've got a plan that will do, I think." Then a sudden fire entered her manner.

"Who is the General's father? Tell me that," she said, in a rapid, eager way; "and isn't it right and proper fathers should look after their sons? And doesn't he deserve we should get even with him for doing us out of the pantomime? And isn't the Aquarium too lovely to miss?"

"Well?" Pip said; his slower brain did not follow such rapid reasoning.

"Only I'm going to leave the General here at the Barracks for a couple of hours till we come back, his father being the proper person to watch over him." Judy grasped the General's small. fat hand in a determined way, and opened the gate.

"Oh, I say," remarked Pip, "we'll get in an awful row, you know, Fizz. I don't think we'd better—I don't really, old girl."

"Not a bit," said Judy, stoutly—"at least, only a bit, and the Aquarium's worth that. Look how it's raining; the child will get croup, or rheumatism, or something if we take him; there's Father standing over on the green near the tennis-court talking to a man. I'll slip quietly along the veranda and into his own room, and put the coat and the General on the bed; then I'll tell a soldier to go and tell Father his parcels have come; and while he's gone I'll fly back to you, and we'll catch the tram and go to the Aquarium."

Pip whistled again softly. He was used to bold proposals from this sister of his, but this was beyond everything. "B—b—but," he said uneasily, "but, Judy, whatever would he do with that kid for two mortal hours?"

"Mind him," Judy returned promptly. "It's a pretty thing if a father can't mind his own child for two hours. Afterwards, you see, when we've been to the Aquarium, we will come back and fetch him, and we can explain to Father how it was raining, and that we thought we'd better not take him with us for fear of rheumatism, and that we were in a hurry to catch the tram, and as he wasn't in his room we just put him on the bed till he came. Why, Pip, it's beautifully simple!"

Pip still looked uncomfortable. "I don't like it, Fizz," he said again; "he'll be in a fearful wax."

Judy gave him one exasperated look. "Go and see if that's the Bondi tram coming," she said; and glad of a moment's respite, he went down the path again to the pavement and looked down the hill. When he turned round again she had gone.

He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked up and down the path a few times. "Fizz'll get us hanged yet," he muttered, looking darkly at the door in the wall through which she had disappeared. He pushed his hat to the back of hiss head and stared gloomily at his boots, wondering what would be the consequences of this new mischief. There was a light footfall beside him.

"Come on," said Judy, pulling his sleeve; "it's done now, come on, let's go and have our fun; have you got the money safe?"

It was two o'clock as they passed out of the gate and turned their faces up, the hill to the tram stopping-place. And it was half-past four when they jumped out of a town-bound tram and entered the gates again to pick up their charge.

Such an afternoon as they had had! Once inside the Aquarium, even Pip had put his conscience qualms on one side, and bent all his energies to enjoying himself thoroughly. And Judy was like a little mad thing. She spent a shilling of her money on the switchback railway, pronouncing the swift, bewildering motion "heavenly." The first journey made Pip feel sick, so he eschewed a repetition of it, and watched Judy go off from time to time, waving gaily from the perilous little car, almost with his heart in his mouth. Then they hired a pair of roller skates each, and bruised themselves black and blue with heavy falls on the asphalt. After that they had a ride on the merry-go-round, but Judy found it tame after the switchback, and refused to squander a second threepence upon it, contenting herself with watching Pip fly round, and madly running by his side, to keep up as long as she could. They finished the afternoon with a prolonged inspection of the fish-tanks, a light repast of jam tarts of questionable freshness, and twopennyworth of peanuts. And, as I said, it was half-past four as they hastened up the path again to the top gate of the Barracks.

"I hope he's been good," Judy said, as she turned the handle. "Yes, you come, too, Pip"—for that young gentleman hung back one agonized second. "Twenty kicks or blows divided by two only make ten, you see."

They went up the long stone veranda and stopped at one door.

There was a little knot of young officers laughing and talking close by.

"Take my word, 'twas as good as a play to see Wooly grabbing his youngster, and stuffing it into a cab, and getting in himself, all with a look of ponderous injured dignity," one said, and laughed at the recollection.

Another blew away a cloud of cigar smoke. "It was a jolly little beggar," he said. "It doubled its fists and landed His High Mightiness one in the eye; and then its shoe dropped off, and we all rushed to pick it up, and it was muddy and generally dilapidated, and old Wooly went red slowly up to his ear-tips as he tried to put it on."

A little figure stepped into the middle of the group—a little figure with an impossibly short and shabby ulster, thin black-stockinged legs, and a big hat crushed over a tangle of curls.

"It is my father you are speaking of," she said, her head very high, her tone haughty, "and I cannot tell where your amusement is. Is my father here, or did I hear you say he had gone away?"

Two of the men looked foolish, the third took off his cap.

"I am sorry you should have overheard us, Miss Woolcot," he said pleasantly. "Still, there is no irreparable harm done, is there? Yes, your father has gone away in a cab. He couldn't imagine how the little boy came on his bed, and, as he couldn't keep him here very well, I suppose he has taken him home."

Something like a look of shame came into Judy's bright eyes,

"I am afraid I must have put my father to some inconvenience," she said quietly. "It was I who left the Gen—my brother here, because I didn't know what to do with him for an hour or two. But I quite meant to take him home myself. Has he been gone long?"

"About half an hour," the officer said, and tried not to look amused at the little girl's old-fashioned manner.

"Ah, thank you. Perhaps we can catch him up. Come on, Pip," and, nodding in a grave, distant manner, she turned away, and went down the veranda and through the gate with her brother.

"A nice hole we're in," he said.

Judy nodded.

"It's about the very awfullest thing we've ever done in our lives. Fancy the governor carting that child all the way from here! Oh, lor'!"

Judy nodded again.

"Can't you speak?" he said irritably. "You've got us into this—I didn't want to do it; but I'll stand by you, of course. Only you'll have to think of something quick."

Judy bit three finger-tips off her right-hand glove, and looked melancholy.

"There's absolutely nothing to do, Pip," she said slowly. "I didn't think it would turn out like this. I suppose we'd better just go straight back and hand ourselves over for punishment. He'll be too angry to hear any sort of an excuse, so we'd better just grin and hear whatever he does to us. I'm really sorry, too, that I made a laughing-stock of him up there."

Pip was explosive. He called her a little ass and a gowk and a stupid idiot for doing such a thing, and she did not reproach him or answer back once.

They caught a tram and went into Sydney, and afterwards to the boat. They ensconced themselves in a corner at the far end, and discussed the state of affairs with much seriousness. Then Pip got up and, strolled about a little to relieve his feelings, coming back in a second with a white, scared face.

"He's on the boat," he said, in a horrified whisper.

"Where-where—where? what—what—what?" Judy cried, unintentionally mimicking a long-buried monarch.

"In the cabin, looking as glum as a boiled wallaby, and hanging on to the poor little General as if he thinks he'll fly away."

Judy looked a little frightened for the first time. "Can't we hide? Don't let him see us. It wouldn't be any good offering to take the General now. We're in for it now, Pip—there'll be no quarter."

Pip groaned; then Judy stood up.

"Let's creep down as far as the engine," she said, "and see if he does look very bad."

They made their way cautiously along the deck, and took up a position where they could see without being seen. The dear little General was sitting on the seat next to his stern father, who had a firm hold of the back of his woolly-pelisse. He was sucking his little dirty hand, and casting occasional longing glances at his tan shoe, which he knew was delicious to bite. Once or twice he had pulled it off and conveyed it to his mouth, but his father intercepted it, and angrily buttoned it on again in its rightful place. He wanted, too, to slither off the horrid seat, and crawl all over the deck, and explore the ground under the seats, and see where the puffing noise came from; but there was that iron grasp on his coat that no amount of wriggling would move. No wonder the poor child looked unhappy!

At last the boat stopped at a wharf not far from Misrule, and the Captain alighted, carrying his small dirty son gingerly in his arms. He walked slowly up the red road along which the dogcart had sped so blithesomely some six or seven hours ago, and Judy and Pip followed at a respectful—a very respectful—distance. At the gate he saw them, and gave a large, angry beckon for them to come up. Judy went very white, but obeyed instantly, and Pip, pulling himself together, brought up the rear.

Afterwards Judy only had a very indistinct remembrance of what happened during the next half-hour. She knew there was a stormy scene, in which Esther and the whole family came in for an immense amount of vituperation.

Then Pip received a thrashing, in spite of Judy's persistent avowal that it was all her fault, and Pip hadn't done anything. She remembered wondering whether she would be treated as summarily as Pip, so angry was her father's face as he pushed the boy aside and stood looking at her, riding whip in hand. But he flung it, down and laid a heavy hand on her shrinking shoulder.

"Next Monday," he said slowly—"next Monday morning you will go to boarding school. Esther, kindly see Helen's clothes are ready for boarding school—next Monday morning."

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.