Early Morning at Brown's
EARLY MORNING AT BROWN'S.
By ETHEL TURNER.
FIVE o'clock. A haze of pink in the wide, young sky, a twitter of birds just waked to the new day. On the grass and leaves soft moisture from an early shower. Spiders' silver magic spun from the apple-trees. A cock's clarion call to his family to arise and look for the day's first meal. A puppy's joyous yelp for answer.
In the still bedroom a chirrup from the cot.
The mother's sleepy hand goes out mechanically, pat, pat on the moving shoulder. "H'sh, h'sh, h'sh," she murmurs drowsily.
"Chirrup," says the mite. The mother uncloses one eye and sighs, for persuasion to longer slumber is clearly impossible. Her hand goes under the pillow and comes out with a string of big beads and a biscuit as propitiation. The cot accepts them rapturously, and the bed slumbers again for the space of four minutes.
The mother is dreaming of her wooing. She is down among the shady wattles on her father's station, and her lover is lifting her face to him for his first kiss. On her forehead it comes, then on her nose and cheeks, wide and wet, and with a distinct flavour of biscuit about it. She opens the other eye and finds the mite has crawled into bed, and is bestowing some of her rare marks of affection. Such a little, merry, bobbing face it is, close to her own; such happy eyes, such a little red button of a mouth! She tries to snuggle the warm, small body down close to her own; she thinks longingly how sweet it would be if the mite now and again in her waking moments would consent to cuddle up sweetly and lovingly and quietly in the arms. Just as soon try to soothe and cuddle an eel! The mite's days are far too short for such foolishness; she must be up and working, working every minute that is not lost in sleep. She wriggles hastily out of the detaining arms now; she gathers up a handful or two of the bright brown hair loose on the pillow and tugs at it strengthfully; she explores her mother's ears, pokes inquiring fingers beneath the shut eyelids, pushes a fat thumb in between the lips to find out if the biting teeth are still there.
Then she looks further abroad, and recognises that the quiet, pleasant mountain beneath the bedclothes is the father who tosses her high in the air, and carries her head downwards, and has all manner of fearsome and fascinating games with her.
Across her mother she flings herself, fastens her eager fingers on her father's ear, that presents itself comfortably, and bumps herself joyously down upon him.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake put a pillow on her, or chuck her out of the window!" says the father.
But the mother is fast asleep again.
Baby stoops down to bestow a wide-mouthed kiss on her father in her great good-humour at having discovered him, and, intoxicated with sleep as he is, he does not refuse this favour. She gives a second one, a third; then her teeth, too delightfully new not to be used on every possible occasion, lead her into temptation, and she bites his cheek with cheerful severity.
"I'd like to wring the little beggar's neck!" says the injured man, whose paternal feelings are strangely in abeyance at this hour of the morning. He is forced to fortify his position against the siege by wrapping his head up in the bedclothes; eager fingers pick and pull and drag, he hears panting breath that testifies to the labour going on; he dozes again, dreaming pleasantly that he has been buried alive, but that willing hands are digging away to get him out.
The mite gives in at last, burrows aimlessly among the clothes for a time, then pulls herself up on the pillow to look for fresh worlds. A rapturous sound breaks from her lips. At the foot of the bed she descries a second cot, and remembrance comes flooding to her that here is to be found Alfie, whose doings are the purest joy of her life.
"Af! Af! Af!" she calls, and in her wild excitement hits abroad with her string of heavy beads, and just catches on the head her father, who had come for a moment to the surface to breathe.
"That youngster wants killing," groans the goaded man.
"Af! Af! Af!" shrieks the baby, and then there bobs up serenely Alfie's glad little head. One rub of the eyes and he is awake and ready for any fray. He stands up, a wide, beaming smile turned on baby; he puts one foot on a ledge in the cot, there is a noise of puffing and grunting—up, up—he is clinging to the brass bars—up, his hands are fastened to the rail of the bed—up—and down—head over heels he comes and lands with much glee in the middle of the big bed. Baby shrieks applause and flings herself forward to get to him. There is a wild mingling of chubby legs and arms, a queer interchange of baby language—for even Alfie is barely articulate yet—then so united a raid on the long-suffering mountain that the mother catches a tail of each little nightgown, carefully lowers it to the ground, and with a sleepy sigh rises up to the new day herself.
Out on the landing Frank and Stan, airily attired in pyjamas, are already having one of the half-dozen brotherly scuffles they have every day.
"Teach you to hide the soap," Frank says.
"I never," whimpers Stan, protecting himself from the cuffings and occasionally getting in a stroke so astonishingly successful it spurs Prank to continue for the keen enjoyment of the thing rather than for the cause of the warfare.
"You'll do it again, won't you?" he says, breathing hard and lunging heavily at the enemy.
"Didn't," sobs Stan, and he steps aside so lightly, and obtains such an advantage of the rushing figure, a smile bursts up to his lips and his eyes dry.
The sound of the bumping and banging brings Ettie to the scene, Ettie with an early-morning face ashine with soap and good resolutions, and hair very tightly and neatly plaited to be out of the way of serious work. She finishes the difficult buttoning of her frock, then bustles out of her room. "Dear, dear, dear!" she says. "Fighting again, fighting again! Bad boys, stop it this minute. Do you hear, Frank? Stop this minute, Stan. Bad, wicked boys!"
The boys take as much notice as if she had been a mosquito, and her managing little soul cannot bear such an affront. She dashes in between them and makes a desperate attempt to hold Frank's active arm—just so has she seen her mother check warfare.
"Get out of this," Frank says angrily.
"You let us alone," commands Stan, the momentary advantage inflating him with courage and making him resolve to brook no feminine interference.
But Stan! He is five years old—he cannot be trusted yet with a knife at meals, and she, Ettie, has to cut up his meat for him; he cannot wash his face clean, he cannot fasten his own collar or tie the knot of his boots securely! What respect can Ettie have for his feelings as a man? She catches him about the shoulders and gives him a series of little shakes, just as her mother is seen at times to do.
There comes a dark surge into the boy's face, such as the little fight had never brought. He glares at the officious sister, while his better angel reminds him that girls may not be hit.
"Stop that," he says thickly.
But Ettie has also the pleasant feeling of conquest, for the fight is stopped, and she cannot forbear another shake.
"Bad boy! bad boy! fighting again!" she says, and adds, "and before breakfast!" as if that were a holier time than after dinner or just before lunch.
The shake entirely dislodges the little boy's good angel; the dark blood stains his face again, his blue eyes flame, the control of his fists have quite deserted him; they are in, out, in, out, up, down, and Ettie's little slender form is the object.
Ettie is taken by surprise, but recovers speedily. The red runs into her face, her hands fly out, and twice they slap Stan quite smartly across his cheeks. This urges him to stronger efforts—he had not put forth all his strength before, with a girl for adversary, but now he grapples with her powerfully.
They bump each other up against the wall; once Stan almost has her on the ground by a leg stratagem, but at the critical moment she scratches him and he lets go. He catches her by the wrist, and she ducks her head and bites at his hand, and again he lets go. The feint gives her an opening for another slap, but now he is too much for her; he pushes her before him, bumps her roughly against the banister, hits her fair and square on the chest, and brings her to her knees. All hope of victory gone, she bursts into loud crying, and the mother comes running to the scene.
"Now, what is the matter?" says Mrs. Brown.
"He—he—he's been hitting me again," weeps Ettie.
Stan glowers at her. "She hit me first," he says.
"Stan! And you promised me so faithfully! Is this the way to be like a knight? Striking your own sister!"
"Serves her right," says Frank, who has watched the affair judicially; "teach her to mind her own business."
"Oh! oh! oh!" laments Ettie! "I'm b-b-bleeding all over, I know."
"This time," says Mrs. Brown, "I shall tell your father, Stan. Your promises are useless, and I cannot take them again. What sort of a man will you make? The boy who strikes a girl will grow into a cowardly, mean fellow."
"She hit me first," says Stan doggedly.
"They were f-f-fighting, m-m-mamma, and b-before b-breakfast," weeps Ettie. "I only t-tried to s-stop them."
Mrs. Brown well knows her eldest daughter's zeal for good works, and has sympathy enough for her pugilistic little son to know how vexatious sisterly interference must be; she resolves to take Ettie quietly on one side and point out to her that brothers must not be worried in this way.
But in her haste to return to dressing the little ones she says nothing of this at the moment, and Ettie continues to esteem and pity herself hugely, and Stan's heart swells at the injustice that never even inquires if Ettie is to blame.
"Why can't you try to be manly like Frank?" says the mother; "he would not touch a girl."
And this was true, for Frank had an affectionate contempt for Ettie, and would not have thought her worthy of his steel. Stan's breast heaves. "She hit me first," he says once more.
From the bedroom comes a sound announcing that Alfie has pulled the water-can over, and that baby is half-drowned, but still delighted at the happening.
"Go to your room now and dress, and then wait on the landing for your father," and Mrs. Brown disappears hastily.
Ettie looks victoriously at her brother.
"Serves you out," she says; "hope papa'll whip you. P'r'aps you'll do what I tell you another time."
Stan gives her one bitter look and walks back into the bedroom, from which he had issued with a heart as fresh and as light as the morning not ten minutes since.
Frank tries to cheer him. "Don't think about it," he advises; "p'r'aps he won't hurt much; the time I nabbed those tarts I hardly felt it."
Stan is gloomily regarding his heap of clothes, and takes no comfort.
"I say, let's see how many things we can put on together," says Frank, and this, as a brilliant notion they have never yet tried, is calculated to awaken Stan's interest.
Going to bed it is a frequent performance for both boys to see how many clothes they can take off at one and the same time, and Frank has of late, after much laborious practice, acquired the art of taking coat and waistcoat off together, and shirt and singlet.
But Stan's gloom makes him remember he is always excelled by Frank in this, and he shakes his head and proceeds to don each garment singly and sadly. As he dresses, the bitterness of Frank's superiority in most things is in his mind: Frank wears braces—blue, manly things that pull up through a clasp in the most enviable way; his, Stan's, knickerbockers merely fasten on to a bodice with buttons. Frank's socks reach almost up to his knees, and are held there with suspenders; his, Stan's, only rise half-way up the leg, and frequently work down to the shoe. Frank has one suit with a waistcoat to it, almost like his father's; he, Stan, wears holland coats with a belt, just as Baby Alfie does. And Frank went to the pantomime with Ettie and father, while he, Stan, was kept at home with mother and Alfie and baby, and only had a little tea-party.
His heart swelled more and more; a thick lump rose in his throat and refused to be swallowed away.
Then in bustled Ettie, all her malice gone in the pleasure of helping her mother. She had mopped up all the spilt water, and found dry clothes for baby, and buttoned Alfie's shoes, and stripped the cobs, and hung up the towels, and been called a "helpful fairy" by her father, because she had found the collar stud he lost every morning, and brought him tissue-paper to wipe his razor on.
Her face was all sunshine when she hurried off to the boys' room.
"Here's your clean galtea coat, Stan," she said; "mind you don't get the collar crushed. And I've got to sew a button on your singlet, mamma says. Stand still, and I won't prick your neck."
But Stan put the whole width of the room between them. "Go away; g-g-go away," he stuttered. "I won't have a b-button on, I won't have a c-clean coat." An undying resolve arose in him to go in a dirty coat all the rest of his days, and for ever without a singlet-button, rather than be helped to them by the worker of his woe.
Then Ettie remembered the quarrel and put out a loving arm. "Why, Tippy," she said, "you're not going to be cross any longer, are you? Kiss Ettie and be a good boy."
But Stan brushed the arm aside and strode miserably out into the passage.
Everyone but his father went down to breakfast; Stan stood at the staircase window awaiting his coming, the bitterness of death in his heart.
"Hello, son!" said his father, almost falling over him in his haste to get down to breakfast and catch his train. Then the extremely dismal look on the boy's face reminded him of a duty that must be done. He pulled himself up and went back to the bedroom with the boy.
"Look here, Stan," he said, "I've got to whip you, you know. Mother can't break her word, and she tells me she warned you you'd get this next time you touched Ettie. It seems no use reasoning with you. Now, come here."
But the boy's wretched face made the fall of the strap very light and short. "There, go away, and be a man in future, lad—fight boys, not girls."
No Stan came down to breakfast, and porridge time was almost over.
"Go and fetch him down, Ettie," the mother said, thoughtlessly choosing the wrong messenger in her struggle to prevent baby from choking herself.
Stan had been breaking his tender heart—not that the strap had hurt, but father had looked so scornful of the cowardly deed of hitting girls.
But to be found weeping by Ettie! He jumped up and pretended to be humming.
"Poor old Tippy! I'm awf'ly sorry, Tippy," the little girl said, and her eyes brimmed as the thought of little Stan under the whip rose before her. "Look, you can have my sixpence, Tippy, for your very own."
"I'm not c-crying, you d-d-donkey," he said gruffly, and went downstairs as hard as he could, singing "Cheer, boys, cheer!" in peculiar time and tone.
But both father and mother looked grave at the defiant voice. The father wished he had used the strap more vigorously; the mother told herself she must have recourse to the "silent displeasure" method, most effective of all with her children.
"Take your porridge plate and stand at that chair to eat," she said coldly. Stan obeyed with a bursting heart, and spilt milk all the way, and then was sent for a cloth to wipe it up.
No one took further notice of him. The mite was in one of her gayest, funniest moods, and all the table was in uproar every minute. She dipped her fingers in the sugar and then tried to smear them on the adjacent locks of Alfie. She stretched out her arms as if to take all the table—all the world—into her sweet embrace, and she said—
"Dirlie loves everyone," which was a wonderful achievement, and the longest attempt at conversation she had yet made. The rapturous applause that greeted her made Stan turn round an inch or two; his sore little heart ached inexpressibly; he would have given worlds to have rushed round to baby's chair and put his head on her knee to be "poored" and "loved."
Then Alfie's coaxing voice was heard: he had finished his porridge, and had a slice of bread-and-butter on his plate; he put his bonny head lovingly on his father's sleeve, he looked up with roguish, pleading eyes. "Make Afie pitty bread, oh, pitty bread," he said,
"No, no," said the mother; "daddy has no time, Alfie—be a good boy and don't worry. Daddie must go in puff-puff."
"Make Afie pitty bread, oh, pitty bread," repeated Alfie, taking no notice of the maternal advice.
Daddy glanced at the clock. "Well, only one piece," he said, and then there was an absorbed silence at the table, and a great tear fell down Stan's cheek and into his porridge, that he was not there to see. He knew just what was going on: daddy had the pretty glass of golden syrup in his hand, and a smooth slice of bread-and-butter lay on a plate; a spoonful of the beautiful stuff was lifted high, and the steady hand ran it about all over the white slice till the loveliest patterns were traced all over it—circles on circles, curves, wavy lines; a piece of bread thus treated was food fit for a king. And Stan might not even look!
Then the father rose up hastily and found his hat, and began to fill his pipe and look round for his bag and the paper.
And the mite looked at the pipe very earnestly and thoughtfully, then suddenly leapt with glee.
"Bub-bub, bub-bub," she said, and struggled frantically to get to her father.
And then there was another admiring outburst from the united family, for this was clear proof that the darling remembered the wonderful smoke and soap-bubbles her father had blown two nights before.
"There really isn't time," the mother said.
"Just two or three, mannna," he says; "the soapy water is there still," and in another moment, from the rapturous screams of delight Stan knows glorious bubbles of smoke and soap are floating around the room.
"Mamma!" he says, and the exceeding yearning in his voice brings her to his side.
She dries his eyes, kisses him, draws him into the merry circle again, calls him "little son" and "sweetheart" once more. The father pats his head and says, "Look, old fellow," and, at the imminent risk of missing his train, blows half a dozen bubbles so magnificent the family holds its breath.
Then a rush down the grass—the father with the mite aloft—an immemorial custom—Alfie at his heels, Stan holding very fast his hand, Ettie with his stick, Frank galloping along, a restive steed, with the bag on his shoulders. At the gate hasty kisses for all. Then the gate bangs, and a long-legged man is running down the hill to the station, for the scream of the incoming train is already in the air.