They filled a whole compartment—at least there was one seat vacant, but people seemed shy of taking it after a rapid survey of them all.
The whole seven of them, and only Esther as bodyguard—Esther—in a pink blouse an sailor hat, with a face as bright and mischievous as Pip's own.
The Captain had come to see them off, with Pat to look after the luggage. He had bought the tickets—two whole ones for Esther and Meg, and four halves for the others. Baby was not provided with even a half, much to her private indignation—it was an insult to her four years and a half, she considered, to go free like the General.
But the cost of those scraps of pasteboard had made the Captain look unhappy: he only received eighteenpence change out of the ten pounds he had tendered; for Yarrahappini was on the borders of the Never-Never Land.
He spent the eighteenpence on illustrated papers—Scraps, Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday, Comic Cuts, Funny Folks, and the like, evidently having no very exalted opinion of the literary tastes of his family; and he provided Esther with a yellow-back—on which was depicted a lady in a green dress fainting in the arms of a gentleman attired in purple, and Meg with Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog", because he had noticed a certain air of melancholy in her eyes lately.
Then bells clanged and a whistle shrieked, porters flew wildly about, and farewells were said, sadly or gaily as the case might be.
There was a woman crying: in a hopeless little way on the platform, and a girl with sorrowful, loving eyes leaning out of a second-class window towards her; there was a brown-faced squatter, in a tweed cap and slippers, to whom the three-hundred-mile journey was little more of an event than dining; and there was the young man going selecting, and thinking England was little farther, seeing his wife and child were waving a year's good-bye from the platform. There were sportsmen going two hundred miles after quail and wallaby; and cars full of ladies returning to the wilds after their yearly or half-yearly tilt with society and fashion in Sydney; and there were the eight we are interested in, clustering around the door and two windows, smiling and waving cheerful good-byes to the Captain.
He did not look at all cast down as the train steamed fussily away—indeed, he walked down the platform with almost a jaunty air as if the prospect of two months bachelordom was not without its redeeming points.
It was half-past six in the afternoon when they started, and they would reach Curlewis, which was the nearest railway station to Yarrahappini, about five the next morning. The expense of sleeping-berths had been out of the question with so many of them; but in the rack with the bags were several rolls of rugs and two or three air-pillows against the weary hours. The idea of so many hours in the train had been delightful to all the young ones; none of them but Judy had been a greater distance than forty or fifty miles before, and it seemed perfectly fascinating to think of rushing on and on through the blackness as well as the daylight.
But long before ten o'clock a change came o'er the spirit of their dreams. Nell and Baby had had a quarrel over the puffing out of the air-cushions, and were too tired and cross to make it up again; Pip had hit Bunty over the head for no ostensible reason, and received two kicks in return; Judy's head ached, and the noise, was not calculated to cure it; Meg had grown weary of staring out into the moving darkness, and wondering whether Alan would notice she was never on the river-boat now; and the poor little General was filling the hot air with expostulations, in the shape of loud roars, at the irregularities of the treatment he was undergoing.
Esther had taken his day clothes off, and made a picture of him in a cream flannel nightgown and a pink wool jacket. And for half an hour, he had submitted good-temperedly to being handed about and tickled and half-smothered with kisses. He had eyen permitted Nell to bite his little pink toes severally, and say a surprising amount of nonsense about little pigs that went to market and did similarly absurd things.
He had hardly remonstrated when there had been a dispute about the possession of his person, and Bunty had clung to his head and body while Nell pulled vigorously at his legs.
But after a time, when Esther made him a little bed on one of the seats and tried to lay him down upon it, a sense of his grievances came over him.
He had a swinging cot at home; with little gold bars at the foot to blink at—he could not see why he should be mulcted of it, and made to put up with a rug three times doubled. He was accustomed, too, to a shaded light, a quiet room, and a warning H'sh! h'sh! whenever people forgot themselves sufficiently to make the slightest noise.
Here the great yellow light flared all the time, and every one of the noisy creatures at whose hands he endured so much was within a few feet of him.
So he lifted up his voice and wept. And when he found weeping did not produce his gold-barred cot, and the little dangling tassels on the mosquito nets, he raised his voice two notes, and when even there Esther only went on patting his shoulder in a soothing way he burst into roars absolutely deafening.
Nellie dangled all her long curls in his face to engage his attention, but he clutched them viciously and pulled till the tears came into her eyes. Esther and Meg sang lullabies till their tongues ached, Judy tried walking him up and down the narrow space, but he stiffened himself in her arms, and she was not strong enough to hold him. Finally he dropped off into an exhausted sleep, drawing deep, sobbing breaths and little hiccoughs of sorrow.
Then Bunty was discovered asleep on the floor with his head under a seat, and had to be lifted into an easier position; and Baby, bolt upright in a corner, was nodding like a little pink-and-white daisy the sun has been too much for.
One by one the long hours dragged away; farther and farther through the silent, sleeping country flew the red-eyed train, swerving round zigzag curves, slackening up steeper places, flashing across the endless stretching plains.
The blackness grew grey and paler grey, and miles and miles of monotonous gum saplings lay between the train and sky. Up burst the sun, and the world grew soft and rosy like a baby waked from sleep. Then the grey gathered again, the pink, quivering lights faded out, and the rain came down—torrents of it, beating against the shaking window-glass, whirled wildly ahead by a rough morning wind, flying down from the mountains. Such a crushed, dull-eyed, subdued-looking eight they were as they tumbled out on the Curlewis platform when five o'clock came. Judy coughed at the wet, early, air, and was hurried into the waiting-room and wrapped in a rug.
Then the train tossed out their trunks and portmanteaux and rushed on again, leaving them desolate and miserable, looking after it, for it seemed no one had come to meet them.
The sound of wet wheels slushing through puddles, the crack of a whip, the even falling of horses' feet, and they were all outside again, looking beyond the white railway palings to the road.
There were a big, covered waggonette driven by a wide yellow oil-skin with a man somewhere in its interior, and a high buggy, from which an immensely tall man was climbing.
Esther rushed out into the rain. She put her arms round the dripping mackintosh and clung fast to it for a minute or two. Perhaps that is what made her cheeks and eyes so wet and shining.
"Little girl—little Esther child!" he said, and almost lifted her off the ground as he kissed her, tall though Meg considered her.
Then he hurried them all off into the buggies, five in one and three in the other. There was a twenty-five-mile drive before them yet.
"When did you have anything to eat last?" he asked; the depressed looks of the children were making him quite unhappy. "Mother has sent you biscuits and sandwiches, but we, can't get coffee or anything hot till we get home."
Nine o'clock, Esther told him, at Newcastle, but it was so boiling hot they had had to leave most of it in their cups and scramble into the train again. The horses were whipped up; and flew over the muddy roads at a pace that Pip, despite his weariness, could not but admire.
But it was a very damp, miserable drive, and the General wept with hardly a break from start to finish, greatly to Esther's vexation, for it was his first introduction to his grandfather.
At last, when everyone was beginning to feel the very end of patience had come, a high white gate broke the monotony of dripping wet fences.
"Home!" Esther said joyfully. She jumped the General up and down on her knee.
"Little Boy Blue, Mum fell off that gate when she was three," said she, looking at it affectionately as Pip swung it open.
Splash through the rain again; the wheels went softly now, for the way was covered with wet fallen leaves.
"Oh, where IS the house?" Bunty said, peeping through Pip's arm on the box seat, and seeing still nothing but an endless vista of gum trees. "I thought, you said we were there, Esther."
"Oh, the front door is not quite so near the gate as at Misrule," she said. And indeed it was not.
It was fifteen minutes before they even saw the chimneys, then there was another gate to be opened. A gravel drive now trimly kept, high box round the flower-beds, a wilderness of rose bushes that pleased Meg's eye, two chip tennis-courts under water.
Then the house.
The veranda was all they noticed; such a wide one it was, as wide as an ordinary room, and there were lounges and chairs and tables scattered about, hammocks swung from the corners, and a green thick creeper with rain-blown wisteria for an outer wall.
"O—o—oh," said Pip; "o—oh! I AM stiff—o—oh, I say, what are you doing?"
For Esther had deposited her infant on his knee, and leapt out of the waggonette and up the veranda steps.
There was a tiny old lady there, with a great housekeeping apron on. Esther gathered her right up in her arms, and they kissed and clung to each other till they were both crying.
"My little girl!" sobbed the little old lady, stroking, with eager hands, Esther's wet hair and wetter cheeks.
And Bunty, who had followed close behind, looked from the tall figure of his stepmother to the very small one of her mother and laughed.
Esther darted back to the buggy, took the General from Pip, and, springing up the steps again, placed him in her mother's arms.
"Isn't he a fat 'un!" Bunty said, sharing in her pride; "just you look at his legs."
The old lady sat down for one minute in the wettest chair she could find, and cuddled him close up to her.
But he doubled his little cold fists, fought himself free, and yelled for Esther.
Mr. Hassal had emptied the buggies by now, and came up the steps himself.
"Aren't you going to give them some breakfast, little mother?" he said, and the old lady nearly dropped her grandson in her distress.
"Dear, dear!" she said. "Well, well! Just to think of it! But it makes one forget."
In ten minutes they were all in dry things, sitting in the warm dining-room and making prodigious breakfasts.
"WASN'T I hungry!" Bunty said. His mouth was full of toast, and he was slicing the top off his fourth egg and keeping an eye on a dish that held honey in one compartment and clotted cream in another.
"The dear old plates!" Esther picked hers up after she had emptied it and looked lovingly at the blue roses depicted upon it. "And to think last time l ate off one I—"
"Was a little bride with the veil pushed back from your face," the old lady said, "and everyone watching you cut the cake. Only two have broken since—oh yes, Hannah, the girl who came after Emily, chipped off the handle of the sugar-basin and broke a bit out of the slop-bowl."
"Where did Father stand?" Meg asked. She was peopling the room with wedding guests; the ham and the chops, the toast and eggs and dishes of fruit, had turned to a great white towered cake with silver leaves.
"Just up there where Pip is sitting," Mrs. Hassal said, "and he was helping Esther with the cake, because she was cutting it with his sword. Such a hole you made in the table-cloth, Esther, my very best damask one with the convolvulus leaves, but, of course, I've darned it—dear, dear!"
Baby had upset her coffee all over herself and her plate and Bunty, who was next door.
She burst into tears of weariness and nervousness at the new people, and slipped off her chair under the table. Meg picked her up.
"May I put her to bed?" she said; "she is about worn out."
"Me, too," Nellie said, laying down her half-eaten scone and pushing back her chair. "Oh, I am so tired!"
"So'm I." Bunty finished up everything on his plate in choking haste and stood up. "And that horrid coffee's running into my boots."
So just as the sun began to smile and chase away the sky's heavy tears, they all went to bed again to make up for the broken night, and it was: six o'clock and tea-time before any of them opened their eyes again.