The children came home to one o’clock dinner, but Mother was not there. And she was not there at tea-time.
It was nearly seven before she came in, looking so ill and tired that the children felt they could not ask her any questions. She sank into an arm-chair. Phyllis took the long pins out of her hat, while Roberta took off her gloves, and Peter unfastened her walking- shoes and fetched her soft velvety slippers for her.
When she had had a cup of tea, and Roberta had put eau-de-Cologne on her poor head that ached, Mother said:–
“Now, my darlings, I want to tell you something. Those men last night did bring very bad news, and Father will be away for some time. I am very worried about it, and I want you all to help me, and not to make things harder for me.”
“As if we would!” said Roberta, holding Mother’s hand against her face.
“You can help me very much,” said Mother, “by being good and happy and not quarrelling when I’m away”–Roberta and Peter exchanged guilty glances–“for I shall have to be away a good deal.”
“We won’t quarrel. Indeed we won’t,” said everybody. And meant it, too.
“Then,” Mother went on, “I want you not to ask me any questions about this trouble; and not to ask anybody else any questions.”
Peter cringed and shuffled his boots on the carpet.
“You’ll promise this, too, won’t you?” said Mother.
“I did ask Ruth,” said Peter, suddenly. “I’m very sorry, but I did.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said I should know soon enough.”
“It isn’t necessary for you to know anything about it,” said Mother; “it’s about business, and you never do understand business, do you?”
“No,” said Roberta; “is it something to do with Government?” For Father was in a Government Office.
“Yes,” said Mother. “Now it’s bed-time, my darlings. And don’t you worry. It’ll all come right in the end.”
“Then don’t you worry either, Mother,” said Phyllis, “and we’ll all be as good as gold.”
Mother sighed and kissed them.
“We’ll begin being good the first thing tomorrow morning,” said Peter, as they went upstairs.
“Why not now?” said Roberta.
“There’s nothing to be good about now, silly,” said Peter.
“We might begin to try to feel good,” said Phyllis, “and not call names.”
“Who’s calling names?” said Peter. “Bobbie knows right enough that when I say ‘silly’, it’s just the same as if I said Bobbie.”
“Well,” said Roberta.
“No, I don’t mean what you mean. I mean it’s just a–what is it Father calls it?–a germ of endearment! Good night.”
The girls folded up their clothes with more than usual neatness– which was the only way of being good that they could think of.
“I say,” said Phyllis, smoothing out her pinafore, “you used to say it was so dull–nothing happening, like in books. Now something has happened.”
“I never wanted things to happen to make Mother unhappy,” said Roberta. “Everything’s perfectly horrid.”
Everything continued to be perfectly horrid for some weeks.
Mother was nearly always out. Meals were dull and dirty. The between-maid was sent away, and Aunt Emma came on a visit. Aunt Emma was much older than Mother. She was going abroad to be a governess. She was very busy getting her clothes ready, and they were very ugly, dingy clothes, and she had them always littering about, and the sewing-machine seemed to whir–on and on all day and most of the night. Aunt Emma believed in keeping children in their proper places. And they more than returned the compliment. Their idea of Aunt Emma’s proper place was anywhere where they were not. So they saw very little of her. They preferred the company of the servants, who were more amusing. Cook, if in a good temper, could sing comic songs, and the housemaid, if she happened not to be offended with you, could imitate a hen that has laid an egg, a bottle of champagne being opened, and could mew like two cats fighting. The servants never told the children what the bad news was that the gentlemen had brought to Father. But they kept hinting that they could tell a great deal if they chose–and this was not comfortable.
One day when Peter had made a booby trap over the bath-room door, and it had acted beautifully as Ruth passed through, that red-haired parlour-maid caught him and boxed his ears.
“You’ll come to a bad end,” she said furiously, “you nasty little limb, you! If you don’t mend your ways, you’ll go where your precious Father’s gone, so I tell you straight!”
Roberta repeated this to her Mother, and next day Ruth was sent away.
Then came the time when Mother came home and went to bed and stayed there two days and the Doctor came, and the children crept wretchedly about the house and wondered if the world was coming to an end.
Mother came down one morning to breakfast, very pale and with lines on her face that used not to be there. And she smiled, as well as she could, and said:–
“Now, my pets, everything is settled. We’re going to leave this house, and go and live in the country. Such a ducky dear little white house. I know you’ll love it.”
A whirling week of packing followed–not just packing clothes, like when you go to the seaside, but packing chairs and tables, covering their tops with sacking and their legs with straw.
All sorts of things were packed that you don’t pack when you go to the seaside. Crockery, blankets, candlesticks, carpets, bedsteads, saucepans, and even fenders and fire-irons.
The house was like a furniture warehouse. I think the children enjoyed it very much. Mother was very busy, but not too busy now to talk to them, and read to them, and even to make a bit of poetry for Phyllis to cheer her up when she fell down with a screwdriver and ran it into her hand.
“Aren’t you going to pack this, Mother?” Roberta asked, pointing to the beautiful cabinet inlaid with red turtleshell and brass.
“We can’t take everything,” said Mother.
“But we seem to be taking all the ugly things,” said Roberta.
“We’re taking the useful ones,” said Mother; “we’ve got to play at being Poor for a bit, my chickabiddy.”
When all the ugly useful things had been packed up and taken away in a van by men in green-baize aprons, the two girls and Mother and Aunt Emma slept in the two spare rooms where the furniture was all pretty. All their beds had gone. A bed was made up for Peter on the drawing-room sofa.
“I say, this is larks,” he said, wriggling joyously, as Mother tucked him up. “I do like moving! I wish we moved once a month.”
“I don’t!” she said. “Good night, Peterkin.”
As she turned away Roberta saw her face. She never forgot it.
“Oh, Mother,” she whispered all to herself as she got into bed, “how brave you are! How I love you! Fancy being brave enough to laugh when you’re feeling like that!”
Next day boxes were filled, and boxes and more boxes; and then late in the afternoon a cab came to take them to the station.
Aunt Emma saw them off. They felt that they were seeing her off, and they were glad of it.
“But, oh, those poor little foreign children that she’s going to governess!” whispered Phyllis. “I wouldn’t be them for anything!”
At first they enjoyed looking out of the window, but when it grew dusk they grew sleepier and sleepier, and no one knew how long they had been in the train when they were roused by Mother’s shaking them gently and saying:–
“Wake up, dears. We’re there.”
They woke up, cold and melancholy, and stood shivering on the draughty platform while the baggage was taken out of the train. Then the engine, puffing and blowing, set to work again, and dragged the train away. The children watched the tail-lights of the guard’s van disappear into the darkness.
This was the first train the children saw on that railway which was in time to become so very dear to them. They did not guess then how they would grow to love the railway, and how soon it would become the centre of their new life, nor what wonders and changes it would bring to them. They only shivered and sneezed and hoped the walk to the new house would not be long. Peter’s nose was colder than he ever remembered it to have been before. Roberta’s hat was crooked, and the elastic seemed tighter than usual. Phyllis’s shoe-laces had come undone.
“Come,” said Mother, “we’ve got to walk. There aren’t any cabs here.”
The walk was dark and muddy. The children stumbled a little on the rough road, and once Phyllis absently fell into a puddle, and was picked up damp and unhappy. There were no gas-lamps on the road, and the road was uphill. The cart went at a foot’s pace, and they followed the gritty crunch of its wheels. As their eyes got used to the darkness, they could see the mound of boxes swaying dimly in front of them.
A long gate had to be opened for the cart to pass through, and after that the road seemed to go across fields–and now it went down hill. Presently a great dark lumpish thing showed over to the right.
“There’s the house,” said Mother. “I wonder why she’s shut the shutters.”
“Who’s she?” asked Roberta.
“The woman I engaged to clean the place, and put the furniture straight and get supper.”
There was a low wall, and trees inside.
“That’s the garden,” said Mother.
“It looks more like a dripping-pan full of black cabbages,” said Peter.
The cart went on along by the garden wall, and round to the back of the house, and here it clattered into a cobble-stoned yard and stopped at the back door.
There was no light in any of the windows.
Everyone hammered at the door, but no one came.
The man who drove the cart said he expected Mrs. Viney had gone home.
“You see your train was that late,” said he.
“But she’s got the key,” said Mother. “What are we to do?”
“Oh, she’ll have left that under the doorstep,” said the cart man; “folks do hereabouts.” He took the lantern off his cart and stooped.
“Ay, here it is, right enough,” he said.
He unlocked the door and went in and set his lantern on the table.
“Got e’er a candle?” said he.
“I don’t know where anything is.” Mother spoke rather less cheerfully than usual.
He struck a match. There was a candle on the table, and he lighted it. By its thin little glimmer the children saw a large bare kitchen with a stone floor. There were no curtains, no hearth-rug. The kitchen table from home stood in the middle of the room. The chairs were in one corner, and the pots, pans, brooms, and crockery in another. There was no fire, and the black grate showed cold, dead ashes.
As the cart man turned to go out after he had brought in the boxes, there was a rustling, scampering sound that seemed to come from inside the walls of the house.
“Oh, what’s that?” cried the girls.
“It’s only the rats,” said the cart man. And he went away and shut the door, and the sudden draught of it blew out the candle.
“Oh, dear,” said Phyllis, “I wish we hadn’t come!” and she knocked a chair over.
“Only the rats!” said Peter, in the dark.