Seven Little Australians

by Ethel Turner

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CHAPTER V - "Next Monday Morning"

There was a trunk standing in the hall, and a large, much-travelled portmanteau, and there were labels on them that said: "Miss Helen Woolcot, The Misses Burton, Mount Victoria."

In the nursery breakfast was proceeding spasmodically. Meg's blue eyes were all red and swollen with crying, and she was still sniffing audibly as she poured out the coffee. Pip had his hands in his pockets and stood on the hearthrug, looking gloomily at a certain plate, and refusing breakfast altogether; the General was crashing his own mug and plate joyously together; and Bunty was eating bread and butter in stolid silence.

Judy, white-faced and dry-eyed, was sitting at the table, and Nell and Baby were clinging to either arm. All the three days between that black Thursday and this doleful morning she had been obstinately uncaring. Her spirits had never seemed higher, her eyes brighter, her tongue sharper, than during that interval of days; and she had pretended to everyone, and her father, that she especially thought boarding school must be great fun, and that she should enjoy it immensely.

But this morning she had collapsed altogether. All the time before, her hot childish heart had been telling her that her father could not really be so cruel, that he did not really mean to send her away among strangers, away from dear, muddled old Misrule and all her sisters and brothers; he was only saying it to frighten her, she kept saying to herself, and she would show him she was not a chickenhearted baby.

But on Sunday night, when she saw a trunk carried downstairs and filled with her things and labelled with her name, a cold hand seemed to close about her heart. Still, she said to herself, he was doing all this to make it seem more real.

But now it was morning, and she could disbelieve it no longer. Esther had come to her bedside and kissed her sorrowfully, her beautiful face troubled and tender. She had begged as she had never done before for a remission of poor Judy's sentence, but the Captain was adamant. It was she and she only who was always ringleader in everything; the others would behave when she was not there to incite them to mischief and go she should. Besides, he said, it would be the making of her. It was an excellent school he had chosen for her; the ladies who kept it were kind, but very firm, and Judy was being ruined for want of a firm hand. Which, indeed, was in a measure true.

Judy sat bolt upright in bed at the sight of Esther's sorrowful face.

"It's no good, dear; there's no way out of it," she said gently. "But you'll go like a brave girl, won't you, Ju-Ju? You always were the sort to die game, as Pip says."

Judy gulped down a great lump in her throat, and her poor little face grew white and drawn.

"It's all right, Essie. There, you go on down to breakfast," she said, in a voice that, only shook a little; "and please leave the General, Esther; I'll bring him down with me."

Esther deposited her little fat son on the pillow, and with one loving backward glance went out of the door.

And Judy pulled the little lad down into her arms, and covered the bedclothes right over both their heads, and held him in a fierce, almost desperate clasp for a minute or two, and buried her face in his soft, dimpled neck, and kissed it till her lips ached.

He fought manfully against these troublesome proceedings, and at last objected, with an angry scream, to being suffocated. So she flung back the clothes and got out of bed, leaving him to burrow about among the pillows, and pull feathers out of a hole in one of them.

She dressed in a quick nervous fashion, did her hair with more care than usual, and then picked up the General and took him along the passage into the nursery. All the others were here, and, with Esther, were evidently discussing her. The three girls looked tearful and protesting; Pip had just been brought to book for speaking disrespectfully of his father, and was looking sullen; and Bunty, not knowing what else to do at such a crisis, had fallen to catching flies, and was viciously taking off their wings.

It was a wretched meal: The bell sounded for the downstairs breakfast, and Esther had to go. Everyone offered Judy everything on the table, and spoke gently and politely to her. She seemed to be apart from them, a person not to be lightly treated in the dignity of this great trouble. Her dress, too, was quite new—a neat blue serge fresh from the dressmaker's hands; her boots were blacked and bright, her stockings guiltless of ventilatory chasms. All this helped to make her a Judy quite different from the harum-scarum one of a few days back, who used to come to breakfast looking as if her clothes had been pitchforked upon her.

Baby addressed herself to her porridge for one minute, but the next her feelings overcame her, and, with a little wail, she rushed round the table to Judy, and hung on her arm sobbing. This destroyed the balance of the whole company. Nell got the other arm and swayed to and fro in an excess of misery. Meg's tears rained down into her teacup; Pip dug his heel in the hearthrug, and wondered what was the matter with his eyes; and even Bunty's appetite for bread and butter diminished.

Judy sat there silent; she had pushed back her unused plate, and sat regarding it with an expression of utter despair on her young face. She looked like a miniature tragedy queen going to immediate execution.

Presently Bunty got off his chair, covered up his coffee with his saucer to keep the flies out, and solemnly left the room. In a minute he returned with a pickle bottle, containing an enormous green frog.

"You can have it to keep for your very own, Judy," he said, in a tone of almost reckless sadness. "It'll, keep you amused, perhaps, at school." Self-sacrifice could go no further, for this frog was the darling of Bunty's heart.

This stimulated the others; everyone fetched some offering to lay at Judy's shrine for a keepsake. Meg brought a bracelet, plaited out of the hair of a defunct pet pony. Pip gave his three-bladed pocketknife. Nell a pot of musk that she had watered and cherished for a year, Baby had a broken-nosed doll, that was the Benjamin of her large family.

"Put them in the trunk, Meg—there's room on top, I think," Judy said in a choking voice, and deeply touched by these gifts. "Oh! and, Bunty, dear! put a cork over the f—f—frog, will you? it might get lost, poor thing! in that b—b—big box."

"All right," said Bunty, "You'll take c—c—care of it, w—won't you, Judy? Oh dear, oh—h—h!—boo-hoo!"

Then Esther came in, still troubled-looking. "The dogcart is round," she said. "Are you ready, Ju, dearest? Dear little Judy! be brave, little old woman."

But Judy was white as death, and utterly limp. She suffered Esther to put her hat on, to help her into her new jacket, to put her gloves into her hand. She submitted to being kissed by the whole family, to be half carried downstairs by Esther, to be kissed again by the girls, then by the two good-natured domestics, who, in spite of her peccadilloes, had a warm place in their hearts for her.

Esther and Pip lifted her into the dogcart; and she sat in a little, huddled-up way, looking down at the group on the veranda with eyes that were absolutely tragic in their utter despair. Her father came out, buttoning his overcoat, and saw the look.

"What foolishness is this?" he said irascibly—"Esther-great heavens! are you making a goose of yourself, too?"—there were great tears glistening in his wife's beautiful eyes. "Upon my soul, one would think I was going to take the child to be hanged, or at least was going to leave her in a penitentiary."

A great dry sob broke from Judy's white lips.

"If you'll let me stay, Father, I'll never do another thing to vex you; and you can thrash me instead, ever so hard."

It was her last effort, her final hope, and she bit her poor quivering lip till it bled while she waited for his answer.

"Let her stay—oh! do letter stay, we'll be good always," came in a chorus from the veranda. And, "Let her stay, John, PLEASE!" Esther called in a tone as entreating as any of the children.

But the Captain sprang into the dogcart and seized the reins from Pat in a burst of anger.

"I think you're all demented!" he cried. "She's going to a thoroughly good home, I've paid a quarter in advance already, and I can assure you good people I'm not going to waste it."

He gave the horse a smart touch with the whip, and in a minute the dogcart had flashed out of the gate, and the small, unhappy face was lost to sight.

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