Seven Little Australians

by Ethel Turner

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CHAPTER XIV - The Squatter's Invitation

After all there was no dogcart for Judy, no mountain train, no ignominious return to the midst of her schoolfellows, no vista of weary months unmarked by holidays.

But instead, a warm, soft bed, and delicate food, and loving voices and ceaseless attention. For the violent exertion, the scanty food, and the two nights in the open air had brought the girl to indeed a perilous pass. One lung was badly inflamed, the doctor said; it was a mystery to him, he kept telling them, how she had kept up so long; an ordinary girl would have given in and taken to her bed long ago. But then he was not acquainted with the indomitable spirit and pluck that were Judy's characteristics.

"Didn't you have any pain?" he asked, quite taken aback to find such spirits and so serious a condition together.

"H'm, in my side sometimes," she answered carelessly. "How long will it be before I can get up, Doctor?" She used to ask the latter question of him every morning, though, if the truth were known, she felt secretly more than a little diffident at the idea of standing up again.

There was a languor and weariness in her limbs that made her doubtful if she could run about very much, and slower modes of progressing she despised. Besides this, there was a gnawing pain, under her arms, and the cough was agony while it lasted.

Still, she was not ill enough to lose interest in all that was going on, and used to insist upon the others telling her everything that happened outside—who made the biggest score at cricket, what flowers were out in her own straggling patch of garden, how many eggs the fowls laid a day, how the guinea-pigs and canaries were progressing, and what was the very latest thing in clothes or boots the new retriever puppy had devoured.

And Bunty used to bring in the white mice and the blind French guinea-pig, and let them run loose over the counterpane, and Pip did most of his carpentering on a little table near, so she could see each fresh stage and suggest improvements as he went along.

Meg, who had almost severed her connection with Aldith, devoted herself to her sister, and waited on her hand and foot; she made her all kinds of little presents—a boot-bag, with compartments; a brush-and-comb bag, with the monogram "J.W.," worked in pink silk; a little work-basket, with needle-book, pin-cushion, and all complete. Judy feared she should be compelled to betake herself to tidy habits on her recovery.

Her pleasure in the little gifts started a spirit of competition among the others.

For one whole day Pip was invisible, but in the evening he turned up, and walked to the bedside with a proud face. He had constructed a little set of drawers, three of which actually opened under skilful coaxing.

"It's not for doll-clothes," he said, after she had exhausted all the expressions of gratitude in common use, "because I know you hate them, but you can keep all your little things in them, you see—hair strings, and thimbles, and things."

There was a sound of dragging outside the door and presently Bunty came in backward, lugging a great, strange thing.

It seemed to be five or six heavy pieces of board nailed together haphazard.

"It's a chair," he explained, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "Oh! I'm going to put some canvas across it, of course, so you won't fall through; but I thought I'd show it you first."

Judy's eyes smiled, but she thanked him warmly. "I wasn't goin' to make any stupid thing, like Pip did," the small youth continued, looking deprecatingly at the little drawers. "This is really useful, you see; when you get up you can sit on it, Judy, by the fire and read or sew or something. You like it better 'n Pip's, don't you?"

Judy temporized skilfully, and averted offence to either by asking them to put the presents with all the others near the head of the bed.

"What a lot of things you'll have to take back to school, Ju," Nell said, as she added her contribution in the shape of a pair of crochet cuffs and a doll's wool jacket.

But Judy only flashed her a reproachful glance, and turned her face to the wall for the rest of the evening.

That was what had been hanging over her so heavily all this long fortnight in bed—the thought of school in the future.

"What's going to happen to me when I get better, Esther?" she asked next morning, in a depressed way, when her stepmother came to see her. "Is he saving up a lot of beatings for me? And shall I have to go back the first week?"

Esther reassured her.

"You won't go back this quarter at all, very likely not next either, Judy dear. He says you shall go away with some of the others for a change till you get strong; and, between you and me, I think its very unlikely you, will go back ever again."

With this dread removed, Judy mended more rapidly, surprising even the doctor with her powers of recuperation.

In three weeks she was about the house again, thin and great-eyed, but full of nonsense and even mischief once more. The doctor's visits ceased; he said she had made a good recovery so far, but should have change of surroundings, and be taken a long way from sea air.

"Let her run wild for some months, Woolcot," he said at his last visit; "it will take time to quite shake off all this and get her strength and flesh back again."

"Certainly, certainly; she shall go at once," the Captain said.

He could not forget the shock he had received in the old loft five or six weeks ago, and would have agreed if he had been bidden to take her for a sojourn in the Sahara.

The doctor had told him the mischief done to her lungs was serious.

"I won't say she will ultimately die of consumption," he had said, "but there is always a danger of that vile disease in these nasty cases. And little Miss Judy is such a wild, unquiet subject; she seems to be always in a perfect fever of living, and to possess a capacity for joy and unhappiness quite unknown to slower natures. Take care of her, Woolcot, and she'll make a fine woman some day—ay, a grand woman."

The Captain smoked four big cigars in the solitude of his study before he could decide how he could best "take care of her."

At first he thought he would send her with Meg and the governess to the mountains for a time, but then there was the difficulty about lessons for the other three. He might send them to school, or engage a governess certainly, but then again there was expense to be considered.

It was out of the question for the girls to go alone, for Meg had shown herself nothing but a silly little goose, in spite of her sixteen years; and Judy needed attention. Then he remembered Esther, too, was, looking unwell; the nursing and the General together had been too much for her, and she looked quite a shadow of her bright self. He knew he really ought to send her, too, and the child, of course.

And again the expense.

He remembered the Christmas holidays were not very far away; what would become of the house with Pip and Bunty and the two youngest girls running wild, and no one in authority? He sighed heavily, and knocked the ash from his fourth cigar upon the carpet.

Then the postman came along the drive and past the window. He poked up with a broad smile, and touched his helmet in a pleased kind of way. If almost seemed as if he knew that in one of the letters he held the solution of the problem that was making the Captain's brow all criss-crossed with frowning lines.

A fifth cigar was being extracted from the case, a wrinkle was deepening just over the left eyebrow, a twinge of something very like gout was calling forth a word or two of "foreign language," when Esther came in with a smile on her lips and an open letter in her hands.

"From Mother," she said. "Yarrahappini's a wilderness, it seems, and she wants me to go up, and take the General with me, for a few weeks."

"Ah!" he said.

It would certainly solve one of the difficulties. The place was very far away certainly, but then it was Esther's old home, and she had not seen it since her marriage. She would grow strong again there very quickly.

"Oh, and Judy, too."

"Ah-h-h!" he said.

Two of the lines smoothed themselves carefully from his brow.

"And Meg, because I mentioned she was looking pale."

The Captain placed the cigar back in the case. He forgot there was such a thing as gout.

"The invitation could not have been more opportune," he said. "Accept by all means; nothing could have been better; and it is an exceedingly healthy climate. The other children can—"

"Oh, Father expressly stipulates for Pip as well, because he is a scamp."

"Upon my word, Esther, your parents have a large enough fund of philanthropy. Anyone else included in the invitation?"

"Only Nell and Bunty and Baby. Oh, and Mother says if you can run up at any time for a few days shooting you know without her telling you how pleased she will be to see you."

"The hospitality of squatters is world-famed, but this breaks all previous records, Esther." The Captain got up and stretched himself with the air of a man released from a nightmare. "Accept by all means—every one of you. On their own heads be the results; but I'm afraid Yarrahappini will be a sadder and wiser place before the month is over."

But just how much sadder or how much wiser he never dreamed.

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