Seven Little Australians

by Ethel Turner

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CHAPTER XII - Swish, Swish!

On the fourth day of Judy's residence in the loft, Martha Tomlinson remarked to her fellow-servant and sufferer, Bridget, that she believed them blessed children were in a conspiracy to put her "over the river."

Bridget's digestion was impaired that morning, and she merely remarked that she supposed the dear little things only felt a desire to see her in her proper place.

I should explain to you, perhaps, that "over the river" meant Gladesville, which is Sydney's Colney Hatch.

Many things had led the unhappy Martha to a belief in this conspiracy. For instance, when she went to make Pip's bed as usual one morning all the bedclothes had gone. The white counterpane was spread smoothly over the mattress, but there was absolutely no trace of the blankets, sheets, and pillows. She hunted in every possible and impossible place, questioned the children, and even applied to Esther, but the missing things could not be found.

"There's a man in corduroy trousers hanging round here every night," Pip said, gloomily regarding his stripped bed. "I shouldn't wonder if he had something to do with it."

Which suggestion was distinctly unkind, seeing the man in corduroy trousers was Martha's most ardent and favoured admirer.

The next day the washing basin in Meg's room went, and after that a chair from the nursery, and a strip of carpet from the top landing, not to mention such small things as a teapot, a spirit-lamp, cups and plates, half a horn, and a whole baking of gingerbread nuts.

The losses preyed upon Martha, for the things seemed to disappear while the children were in bed; and though she suspected them, and watched them continually, she could get no clear proof of their guilt, nor even find any motive for them abstracting such things.

And after the disappearance of each fresh article, Pip used to ask whether the corduroy-trousered gentleman had been to the house the night before. And as it always happened, that he had, Martha could do nothing but cast a wrathful glance at the boy and flounce from the room.

One night the little chess-table from the nursery was spirited away.

Pip fell upon Martha's neck the next morning early, as she was sweeping the carpet, and affected to be dissolved in tears.

"'We never prize the violet,'" he said, in broken tones. "Ah! Martha, Martha! we never felt what a treasure we had in you till now, when your days with us are numbered."

"Get along with you," she said, hitting out at him with the broom handle. "And I ain't a-goin' to leave, so don't you think it. You'd have it your own way then too much. No; you don't get shut of Martha Tomlinson just yet, young man."

"But won't he be wanting you, Martha?" he said gently. "His furnishing must be nearly finished now. He's not taken a saucepan yet, nor a flat-iron, I know; but there's everything else, Martha; and I don't mind telling you in confidence I'm thinking of giving you a flat-iron myself as a wedding present, so you needn't wait till he comes for that."

"Get out with you!" said Martha again, thrusting the broom-head right into his face, and nearly choking him with dust. "It's a limb of the old gentleman himself you are."

Away in the loft things were getting very comfortable.

A couple of rugs hung on the walls kept out the draught. Judy's bed, soft and warm, was in a corner; she had a chair to sit in, a table to eat at, even a basin in which to perform her ablutions. And she had company all day; and nearly always all night. Once Meg had stolen away, after fastening her bedroom door, and had shared the bed in the loft; once Nellie had gone, and the other night Pip had taken a couple of blankets and made himself a shakedown among the straw. They used to pay her visits at all hours of the day, creeping up the creaking ladder one after the other, whenever they could get away unnoticed.

The governess had, as it happened, a fortnight's holiday, to nurse a sick mother, so the girls and Bunty had no demands on their time. Pip used to go to school late and come back early, cajoling notes of excuse, whenever, possible, out of Esther. He even played the truant once, and took a caning for it afterwards quite good-humouredly.

Judy still looked pale and tired, and her cough was rather troublesome; but she was fast getting her high spirits back, and was enjoying her adventure immensely.

The only drawback was the cribbed, cabined, and confined space of the loft.

"You will HAVE to arrange things so that I can go for a run," she said one morning, in a determined manner. "My legs are growing shorter, I am sure, with not exercising them. I shall have forgotten how to walk by the end of the week."

Pip didn't think it could be done; Meg besought her to run no risks; but Bunty and Nell were eager for it.

"Meg could talk to Father," Bunty said, "and Pip could keep teasing General till Esther would be frightened to leave the room, and then me and Judy would nick down and have a run, and get back before you let them go."

Judy shook her head.

"That would be awfully stale," she said. "If I go, I shall stay down some time. Why shouldn't we have a picnic down at the river?"

"Oh, yes, let's!" Bunty cried, with sparkling eyes.

"I'm sure we could manage it especially as it's Saturday, and Pip hasn't to go to school," Judy continued, thinking it rapidly out. "Two of you could go and get some food. Tell Martha you are all going for a picnic—she'll be glad enough not to have dinner to set—then you go on. Two others can watch if the coast's clear while I get down and across the paddocks, and once we're at the corner of the road we're safe."

It seemed feasible enough, and in a very short time the preparations were all made. Pip was mounting guard at the shed, and had undertaken to get Judy safely away, and Bunty had been stationed on the back veranda to keep cave and whistle three times if there was any danger.

He was to wait for a quarter of an hour by the kitchen clock, and then, if all was well, to bring the big billy and a bread loaf, and catch the others up on the road.

It was slow work waiting there, and he stood on one leg, like a meditative fowl, and reviewed the events of the last few exciting days.

He had a depressed feeling at his heart, but why he could hardly tell. Perhaps it was the lie he had told his father, and which was still unconfessed, because the horse was seriously lame, and his courage oozed away every time he thought of that riding-whip.

Perhaps it was the reaction after the great excitement. Or it may have been a rankling sense of injustice at the small glory his brave deeds on Judy's behalf evoked from the others. They did not seem to attach any importance to them, and, indeed, laughed every time he alluded to them or drew public attention to his scars. Two or three of the scratches on his legs were really bad ones, and while he was standing waiting he turned down his stockings and gazed at these with pitying eyes and something like a sob in his throat.

"Nobody cares!" he muttered, and one of his ever-ready tears fell splashing down on one extended bare leg. "Judy likes Pip best, and he never climbed the cactus; Meg thinks I tell stories; and Nellie says I'm a greedy pig—nobody cares!"

Another great fat tear gathered and fell. "Have you taken root there?" a voice asked.

His father, smoking at the open french window, had been watching him, and marvelling at his rare and exceeding quietness.

Bunty started, guiltily, and pulled up his stockings.

"I'm not doin' nothin'," he said aggrievedly, after a minute's pause. Bunty always lapsed into evil grammar when agitated. "Nothing at all. I'm goin' to a picnic."

"Ah, indeed!" said the Captain. "You looked as if you were meditating on some fresh mischief, or sorrowing over some old—which was it?"

Bunty turned a little pale, but remarked again he "wasn't doin' nothin'."

The Captain felt in a lazy, teasing mood, and his little fat, dirty son, was the only subject near.

"Suppose you come here and confess every bit of mischief you've done this week," he said gravely. "I've the whole morning to spare, and it's time I saw to your morals a little."

Bunty approached the arm of the chair indicated, but went whiter than ever.

"Ah, now we're comfortable. Well, there was stealing from the pantry on Tuesday—that's one," he said, encouragingly. "Now then."

"I n—n—never did n—nothin' else," Bunty gasped. He felt certain it was all over with him, and the cricket ball episode was discovered. He even looked nervously round to see if the riding-whip was near. Yes, there was Esther's silver-topped one flung carelessly on a chair. He found time to wish fervently Esther was a tidy woman.

"Nothing at all, Bunty? On your word?" said his father, in an impressive tone.

"I was p—playin' marbles," he said, in a shaking voice. "How c—c—could I have sh—shot anything at y—y—your old horse?"

"Horse—ah!" said his father. A light broke upon him, and his face grew stern. "What did you throw at Mazeppa to lame him? Answer me at once."

Bunty gave a shuddering glance at the whip.

"N-n-nothin'," he answered—"n—nothin' at all. My c—c—cricket b—ball was up in the st—st—stables. I was only p—p—playin' marbles." The Captain gave him a little shake.

"Did you lame Mazeppa with the cricket ball?" he said sternly.

"N—n—no I n—never," Bunty whispered, white to the lips. Then semi-repentance came to him, and he added: "It just rolled out of my p—p—pocket, and M—Mazeppa was passing and h—h—hit his l-leg on it."

"Speak the truth, or I'll thrash you within an inch of your life," the Captain said, standing up, and seizing Esther's whip: "Now then, sir—was it you lamed Mazeppa?"

"Yes," said Bunty, bursting into a roar of crying, and madly dodging the whip.

Then, as the strokes descended on his unhappy shoulders, he filled the air with his familiar wail of "'Twasn't me, 'twasn't my fault!"

"You contemptible young cur!" said his father, pausing a moment when his arm ached with wielding the whip. "I'll thrash this mean spirit of lying and cowardice out of you, or kill you in the attempt." Swish, swish. "What sort of a man do you think you'll make?" Swish, swish. "Telling lies just to save your miserable skin!" Swish, swish, swish, swish.

"You've killed me—oh, you've killed me! I know you have!" yelled the wretched child, squirming all over the floor. "'Twasn't me, 'twasn't my fault—hit the others some."

Swish, swish, swish. "Do you think the others would lie so contemptibly? Philip never lied to me. Judy would cut her tongue out first." Swish, swish, swish. "Going to a picnic, are you? You can picnic in your room till to-morrow's breakfast." Swish, swish, swish. "Pah—get away with you!"

Human endurance could go no further. The final swish had been actual agony to his smarting, quivering shoulders and back. He thought of the others, happy and heedless, out in the sunshine, trudging merrily off to the river, without a thought of what he was bearing, and his very heart seethed to burst in the hugeness of its bitterness and despair. "Judy's home!" he said, in a choking, passionate voice. "She lives in the old shed in the cow, paddock. Boo, hoo, hoo! They're keepin' it secret from you. Boo, hoo. She's gone to the picnic, and she's run away from school."

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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.