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   Chapter 15 ON THE ROAD

An Australian Lassie By Lilian Turner Characters: 10926

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Needless to say Betty did not "waste" any time that night over home-lessons. How can the beginner of a great singer be expected to care whether the pronoun "that" in "I dare do all 'that' may become a man," is relative or possessive? or whether Smyrna is the capital of Turkey or Japan? or even whether the Red Sea has to do with Africa or China.

Betty did not even open her school satchel, or peep at the cover of her books. Instead, she copied out the words of her song and learnt them sitting there at the table with Cyril.

Neither was Cyril doing home-lessons. He certainly had his books spread out before him, but the contents of his pockets were strewn upon his open books, and he was examining them and grumbling now and again at the rapacity of certain school-mates who had caused him to lose certain treasures, or accept less valuable ones, on the school system of "I'll give you this for that."

He turned over three coloured marbles in disgust. For them he had bartered away a catapult, and now his heart was heavy over the exchange.

"Artie Jones is a sneak," he grumbled. "He ought to have given me six marbles for that catapult. Eh? What do you say?"

The question was directed to Betty, whose lips were moving.

She shook her head, and sighed drearily, for she had entered into the very being of the little beggar girl who sang for a penny.

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing you'd understand. Don't chatter."

"Don't be so silly," said Cyril. "I'm as old as you, any way."

"Mother says I'm an hour older than you," said Betty.

"That's nothing," said Cyril.

"You can learn a lot in an hour," quoth Betty, and bent her attention to her strip of paper.

"I told mother about the dirty plates, so there," said the boy. "And--"

"Bah!" said Betty, and pushed her fingers into her ears.

Betty had several plans for waking early, amongst which may be named-putting marbles in her bed that in rolling unconsciously about for comfort she might be awakened by the discomfort. That had answered very well once or twice. Another was to place her pillow half-way down the bed, that she might be within reach of the foot of it-and then to rest her own foot on a lower rail and tie it there. Another was to prop herself into a sitting position and fold her hands across her chest, that by sleeping badly she might not sleep long.

Many a night had her father and mother laughed at the attitude chosen by their second daughter, and arranged her that her sleep might be easier.

"Betty wants to get up early," they would say and smile. But upon this night-the night before the battle-they did not go to her room at all.

Mrs. Bruce was reading a new magazine, and saying now and again, as she turned a leaf or smiled at her husband, that she had intended doing a bit of mending; and Mr. Bruce was polishing up a chapter in his book, and saying now and again as he paused for a choicer word, or smiled at his wife, that he had intended doing that blessed article on Cats, for Flavelle. So they both went on being uncomfortably comfortable.

Betty tried all her expedients for early rising, and yet peaceful was her sleep throughout the night. Her lashes lay still on her rounded cheeks, her rosy lips smiled and her brown curls strewed the pillow, just as effectively as though she were on a velvet couch, and a living illustration of a small princess, sleeping to be awakened by a kiss.

She awoke just as the day was pinkly breaking and the night stealing greyly away, awoke under the impression that John Brown was cutting off her foot. It was a great comfort to find it there and merely cold and cramped from lack of covering and an unnatural position.

She remembered everything immediately without even waiting to rub her eyes, and she sprang out of bed at once, even though her right foot refused to do its duty, and she had to stand for a valuable minute on her left.

The clock hands (she had carried the kitchen clock into her bedroom to Mary's chagrin), pointed to a quarter to five, and Betty realized she had only an hour in which to dress eat her breakfast, bid good-bye to any home objects she held dear, and travel down the road to the store.

She was vexed, for she had meant to get up at four.

She got into her tattered Saturday's frock (her Cinderella costume) and she brushed and plaited her short curly hair, as well as it would allow itself to be plaited. Then she made a bundle of her boots and stockings and school-day frock and hid them away under the skirt of her draped dressing-table, and opened her money-box and extracted the contents (thirteen half-pennies). This was the fortune with which she purposed to face the world.

And so real had this thing become to her now, that she crept to the far side of the double bed to kiss the sleeping Nancy, and down the passage to Cyril's room, to look at his face upon the pillows; and the tears were heavy in her eyes because she was quitting her "early" home.

When she had reached the pantry she remembered something, and went back to her bed room, to place by Nancy's side her only remaining doll, a faded hairless beauty, Belinda, by name.

And she pinned a note upon the pincushion (all her heroines who fled from their early homes, left notes upon the pincushion) addressed to "Father and Mother," and as she passed their door she stroked it lovingly. In the pantry she was guilty of several sobs, while she cut the bread, it seeme

d so pitiful to her to be going away from her home in the grey dawn to seek a livelihood for her family. In truth her small heart ached creditably as she ate her solitary breakfast, and it might have gone on aching only that she suddenly bethought herself of time. Half-past five, John had said, and she remembered all that she had done since half-past four.

"It must be half-past five now," she said. "I'll eat this as I go," and she folded two pieces of bread and butter together.

Then she found her bonnet and the strip of paper with the song upon it, and grasping her half-pennies set forth.

She ran most of the way to the store, which, it may be remembered, occupied the corner, just before you come to Wygate School.

As Betty came in sight of it she saw John standing still there, and she thought gratefully how good it was of him to wait for her.

He wore a very old and very baggy suit, a dirty torn straw hat (of which it must be owned he had plenty), and neither boots nor stockings.

The children eyed each other carefully, noting every detail, and both in their own heart admiring the other exceedingly.

Betty's face had lost its traces of tears, but had not got back its happy look. Her mouth drooped sadly.

"What's up?" asked John as they turned their faces towards the silent south.

"It hurts me, leaving the little ones," said Betty, who was now in imagination Madam S--. "You have no brothers and sisters to provide for."

John sighed. "No," he said, "I've no one but an old grandfather, and he grudges me every crust I eat. He's cut me off with a shilling."

For a space Betty was envious. For a space she liked John's imagination better than her own. That "cutting off with a shilling" seemed to her very fine.

He showed her his shilling. "I've that," he said, "to begin life on. Many a fellow would starve on it. I'm going to make my fortune with it."

They were the words one of his heroes had spoken, and sounded splendid to both.

"I've sixpence-halfpenny," said Betty, and unclosed her little brown hand for a second. "That's all!"

They walked on. In front of them and behind ran the dusty road, like a red line dividing a still bush world. Overhead was a tender sky, grey stealing shyly away to give place to a soft still blue. Already the daylight was wakening others than these foolish barefooted waifs. Here and there a frog uttered its protest against, mayhap, the water it had discovered, or been born to; the locusts lustily prophesied a hot day. Occasionally an industrious rabbit travelled at express speed from the world on one side of the red road to the world on the other. And above all this bustle and business and frivolity rang the brazen laugh of a company of kookaburras, who were answering each other from every corner of the bush.

After some little travelling the fortune seekers came upon a cottage standing alone in a small bush-clearing on their right. Three cows stood chewing their cud, and waiting to be milked, a scattering of fowls was shaking off dull sleep, and making no little ado about it, and near the door a shock-headed youth was rubbing both eyes with both hands.

Betty and John walked on. These signs of awakening life roused them to a livelier sense of being alive.

Yet a little further and they came to what Betty always called a "calico" cottage, which is to say, a cottage made of scrim, and white-washed. Windows belonged to it, and a door, and a garden enclosed by a brushwood fence.

"Let's peep in the gate," said Betty, "it's such a sweet little house."

"Wait till you see the house I mean to have," quoth John.

But Betty preferred to peep in then. She went close to the half-open gate and popped in her head.

Inside the gate was a garden, and all its beds were defined by upended stout bottles-weedless, sweet-scented beds wherein grew such blooms as daisies, and violets, stocks, sweetpeas, sweet williams, lad's love and mignonette.

"Oh!" said Betty. "Oh-just smell! just put your head in for a minute, John."

But John was for "pushing on," and getting to Sydney to make his shilling two.

While they were parleying, a man came round the corner of the "sweet little house," and his eyes fell on the bonneted maiden.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed, "and who's this? Polly?"

"No," said Betty.

"Na-o. Then p'raps it's Lucy. Eh?"

John tugged at Betty's dress and said "Come on," urgingly; but the man was already letting down two slip-rails a little way from the crazy gate, and his eyes rested on the second barefooted imp.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed, "An' how's this any'ow?"

John, who had a greater dread of capture than Betty, inquired innocently if there were any wild flowers up this way.

The man drew his hand across his eyes to banish sleep inclinations. "Not many now, I reckon," he said. "There might be a few sprigs of 'eath an' the flannel flowers ain't all done yet. Goin' to town?"

Betty nodded, and John said,-

"Yes-we'll be gettin' back 'ome" in a fair imitation of his questioner's voice.

"I'll be goin' as far as the markets," said the man "an' I don't mind givin' you a lift ef you like."

John's eyes brightened, for he was longing for the centre of the city, and he had felt they were covering ground very slowly. And Betty's brightened because she thought she would soon coax the man into letting her drive.

So the fortune seekers made their entry into town in a fruit cart.

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