Seven Little Australians

by Ethel Turner

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CHAPTER XIII - Uninvited Guests

The captain was walking slowly across the paddocks with the cabbage-tree hat he kept for the garden pushed back from his brow. He was rather heated after his tussle with his second son, and there was a thoughtful light in his eyes. He did not believe the truth of Bunty's final remark, but still he considered there was sufficient probability in it to make a visit to the shed not altogether superfluous.

Not that he expected, in any case, to find his errant daughter there, for had not Bunty said there was a picnic down at the river? But he thought, there might be some trace or other.

The door of the shed swung back on its crazy hinges, and the sunlight streamed in and made a bar of glorified dust across the place.

There was no sign of habitation here, unless a hair ribbon of Meg's and some orange peel, might be considered as such.

He saw the shaky, home-made ladder, resting against the hole in the ceiling, and though he had generally more respect for his neck than his children had for theirs, he ventured his safety upon it. It creaked ominously as he reached the top step and crawled through into the loft.

There were a ham-bone, a box of dominoes, and a burst pillow this side of the partition, nothing else, so he walked across and looked over.

"Very cosy," he murmured, "I shouldn't mind camping here myself for a little time," and it even came into his head to do so, and be there as a "surprise party" when Judy returned. But he dismissed the idea as hardly compatible with dignity. He remembered hearing rumours of missing furniture in the house, and almost a smile came into his eyes as he saw the little old table with the spirit-lamp and teapot thereon, the bed-clothing and washing-basin. But a stern look succeeded it. Were seventy-seven miles not sufficient obstacle to Judy's mischievous plans? How did she dare thus to defy him, a child of thirteen: and he her father? His lips compressed ominously, and he went down again and strode heavily back to the house.

"Esther!" he called, in a vibrating voice at the foot of the stairs.

And "Coming, dear—half a minute," floated down in response.

Half a minute passed ten times, and then she came, the beautiful young mother with her laughing-faced wee son in her arms. Her eyes looked so tender; and soft, and loving that he turned away impatiently; he knew quite well how it would be; she would beg and entreat him to forgive his little daughter when she heard, and when she looked as bright and beautiful as she did just now he could refuse her nothing.

He stood in profound meditation for a minute or two.

"What is it you want, John?" she said. "Oh! and what do you think? I have just found another tooth, a double one—come and look."

He came, half unwillingly, and stuck his little finger into his infant son's mouth.

Esther guided it till it felt a tiny, hard substance. "The third," she said proudly; "aren't you pleased?"

"Hum!" he said. Then he meditated a little longer, and after a minute or two rubbed his hands as if he was quite pleased with himself.

"Put on your hat, Esther, and the General's," he said, patting that young gentleman's head affectionately. "Let us go down to the river for a stroll; the children are down there picnicking, so we can be sure of some tea."

"Why, yes, that will be very nice," she said, "won't it Bababsie, won't it, sweet son?"

She called to Martha, who was dusting the drawing-room in a cheerfully blind way peculiarly hers.

"The General's hat, please, Martha, the white sun-hat with strings; it's on my bed, I think, or a chair or somewhere—oh! and bring down my large one with the poppies in, as well, please."

Martha departed, and, after a little search, returned with the headgear.

And Esther tied the white sun-hat over her own curly, crinkly hair, and made the General crow with laughing from his seat on the hall table. And then she popped it on the Captain's head, and put the cabbage-tree on her son's, and occupied several minutes thus in pretty play.

Finally they were ready, and moved down the hall.

"Master Bunty is locked in his room; on no account open the door, Martha," was the Captain's last command.

"Oh, Jack!" Esther said reproachfully.

"Oblige me by not interfering," he said; "allow me a little liberty with my own children, Esther. He is an untruthful little vagabond; I am ashamed to own him for my son."

And Esther, reflecting on the many shiftinesses of her stepson, was able to console herself with the hope that it would do him good.

They went a shortcut through the bush to avoid the public road, and the blue, sun-kissed, laughing river stretched before them.

"There they are," Esther cried, "in the old place, as usual, look at the fire, little sweet son; see the smoke, boy bonny—four—five of them. Why, who have they got with them?" she said in surprise, as they drew nearer the group on the grass.

Before they were close enough to recognize faces the circle suddenly seemed to break up and fall apart.

One of its members turned sharply round and fled away across the grass, plunging into the thick bracken and bush, and disappearing from sight in less time than it takes to tell.

"Whoever had you with you?" Esther said when they reached the children.

There was a half-second's silence, then Pip threw some sticks on the fire and said coolly:

"Only a friend of Meg's, a frightened kind of kid who has quite a dread of the pater. I believe she imagines soldiers go round with their swords sharpened, ready for use."

He laughed lightly. Nell joined in in a little hysterical way, and Baby began to cry.

Meg, white as death, picked her up and hurriedly began telling her the story of the three bears for comfort.

Esther looked a little puzzled, but, of course, never dreamt of connecting the flying figure with Judy.

And the Captain seemed delightfully blind and unsuspicious. He lay down on the grass and let the General swarm all over him; he made jokes with Esther; he told several stories of his young days, and never even seemed to remark that his audience seemed inattentive and constrained.

"Haven't you made some tea?" Esther said at last. "We love billy tea, and thought you would be sure to have some?"

"Bunty hasn't come, he was to have brought the billy," Pip said, half sulkily. He had suspicions that there was something behind this great affability of his father, and he objected to being played with.

"Ah," the Captain said gravely, "that is unfortunate. When I came away Bunty did not seem very well, and was thinking of spending the rest of the day in his bedroom."

Pip made up the fire in a dogged way, and Meg flashed a frightened glance at her father, who smiled affectionately back at her.

After an hour of this strained intercourse the Captain proposed a return home.

"It is growing chill," he said. "I should be grieved for the General's new-born tooth to start its life by aching—let's go home and make shift with teapot tea."

So they gathered up the untouched baskets and made themselves into a procession.

The Captain insisted on Pip and Meg walking with him, and he sent Baby and Nell on in front, one on either side of Esther, who was alternately leading and carrying the General.

This arrangement being, as indeed Pip shrewdly suspected; to prevent the possibility of any intercourse or formation of new plans.

And when they got home he invited them all to come into his smoking-room, a little slit of a place off the dining-room.

Esther took the General upstairs, but the others followed him in silence.

"Sit down, Pip, my boy," he said genially. "Come, Meg, make yourself at home, take a seat in that armchair. Nell and Baby can occupy the lounge."

They all sat down helplessly where he told them, and watched his face anxiously.

He selected a pipe from the row over the mantelpiece, fitted a new mouthpiece to it, and carefully filled it.

"As you are all in possession of my room," he said in an urbane voice, "I can hardly smoke with any comfort here, I am afraid. I will come and talk to you again later on. I am going to have a pipe first in the old loft in the cow paddock. Keep out of mischief till I come back."

He struck a match, lighted his tobacco, and, without a glance at the silent children, left the room, locking the door behind him.

Once more he crossed the paddocks, and once more pushed open the creaking door. The orange peel lay just where he had seen it before, only it was a little drier and more dead-looking. The hair ribbon was in exactly the same knot. The ladder creaked in just the same place, and again threatened to break his neck when he reached the top. The dominoes were there still, the ham-bone and the pillow occupied the same places; the only difference being the former had a black covering of ants now, and a wind had been playing with the pillow, and had carried the feathers in all directions.

He crossed the floor, not softly, but just with his usual measured military-step. Nothing moved. He reached the partition and looked over.

Judy lay across the improvised bed, sleeping a sleep of utter exhaustion after her rapid flight from the river. She had a frock of Meg's on, that made her look surprisingly long and thin; he was astonished to think she had grown so much.

"There will be no end to my trouble with her as she grows older," he said, half aloud, feeling extremely sorry for himself for being her father. Then a great anger and irritation rose within him as he watched her sleeping so quietly there. Was she always to be a disturber of his peace? Was she always to thwart him like this?

"Judy," he said in a loud voice.

The closed eyelids sprang open, the mist of sleep and forgetfulness cleared from the dark eyes, and she sprang up, a look of absolute horror on her face.

"What are you doing here, may I ask?" he said, very coldly.

The scarlet colour flooded her cheeks, her very brow, and then dropped down again, leaving her white to the lips, but she made no answer.

"You have run away from school, I suppose?" he continued, in the same unemotional voice. "Have you anything to say?"

Judy did not speak or move, she only watched his face with parted lips.

"Have you anything to say for yourself, Helen?" he repeated.

"No, Father," she said.

Her face had a worn, strained look that might have touched him at another time, but he was too angry to notice.

"No excuse or reason at all?"

"No, Father."

He moved toward the opening. "A train goes in an hour and a half, you will come straight back with me this moment," he said, in an even voice. "I shall take precautions to have you watched at school since you cannot be trusted. You will not return home for the Christmas holidays, and probably not for those of the following June."

It was as bad as a sentence of death. The room swam before the girl's eyes, there was a singing and rushing in her ears.

"Come at once," the Captain said. Judy gave a little caught breath; it tickled her throat and she began to cough.

Such terrible coughing, a paroxysm that shook her thin frame and made her gasp for breath. It lasted two or three minutes, though she put her handkerchief to her mouth to try to stop it.

She was very pale when it ceased, and he noticed the hollows in her cheeks for the first time.

"You had better come to the house first," he said, less harshly, "and see if Esther has any cough stuff."

Then in his turn he caught his breath and grew pale under his bronze.

For the handkerchief that the child had taken from her lips had scarlet, horrible spots staining its whiteness.

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