Authors: Noel Streatfeild
It was the first week of the autumn term. The Winter children sat around the dining-room table. They were supposed to be working. Actually there was not very much homework being done. Even Rachel, the eldest, who was twelve and usually almost as conscientious about her homework as she was about her dancing practice-and that was saying a great deal-did not have her mind on her work. Tim, the youngest, who was eight, was not supposed to do any real homework but was supposed to “fill in the time usefully,” really meaning anything except playing the piano, while the girls were doing their homework. On this evening he was drawing a picture of two cats meeting on the top of a brick wall, an inferior sort of drawing but one he sometimes did very well. Jane, the middle one, who was ten, never even on her best days worked at homework or, in fact, at anything else. The worst thing about Jane, as Rachel often said and so did those who taught her, was that she seemed to learn things without working. She did not know the things very well but she annoyed whoever was teaching her because when he or she said, “Jane, you’re not listening. What have I just been saying?” she nearly always could reel off every word that had been said and looked smug after she had repeated them. The children’s grandmothers, when they came to stay, said Jane had a difficult nature. And Jane was difficult to understand. Miss Bean, called by everybody Peaseblossom, a friend of the children’s mother who had come to the house to give a hand when Rachel was born and had stayed on doing everything that nobody else wanted to do ever since, said that Jane was all right if you took her the right way. When she said that, it made Jane’s mother sigh. Rachel and Tim did not exactly criticize Jane. Sometimes they groaned and made expressive faces, but mostly they just accepted her. There she was, with bad days, worse days, and worser days, but one thing she hardly ever had was a good day. The children’s father, before the accident, had called her his little millstone, because he said she was a millstone around his neck which was bowing his back, but the way he used to say that made everybody, including Jane, laugh. You could see that though, like all the others, he often found her terribly annoying, he was very glad she was there, millstone or not.
Rachel was trying to finish her algebra. Mathematics was not her subject. Even when she was giving her whole attention to it, she was not often able to get the right answer. Today, with not even a quarter of her mind on what she was doing, the answers she was getting would have disgraced the jury in
Alice in Wonderland.
You cannot work out the sort of problem which begins “Let x equal the number ...” when both ears are strained until they feel as long as a donkey’s to hear little sounds that might tell you what is going on in the drawing room overhead.
Jane was not even pretending to read her chapter on the Magna Charta. She never had cared for history, and what she called “that old Barony bit” she hated worst of all. She was not pretty at the best of times, and now, with her braids untidy and a scowl on her face, she looked downright ugly. She felt a sort of emptiness inside which gave her a pressed feeling in front because she was frightened. Her ears were strained for sounds, just as Rachel’s were strained, only whereas Rachel tried to work to keep her mind off her worries, Jane let her feelings out by kicking at the leg of the table.
Tim looked up reproachfully.
“It’s not a very important drawing I’m doing, but this was a nearly perfect cat. Now you’ve kicked the table, and the tail has run all down into the brick wall.”
Rachel was in charge at homework. She knew, even if it was her duty to do so, it was no good telling Jane not to do something. Her voice showed she knew that what she was saying might just as well never have been said.
“Don’t kick the table, Jane.”
Rachel was pretty with the sort of prettiness that nobody argues about. She was small and fair; her hair, unlike Jane’s, curled, and, even more unlike Jane’s, her braids never got that hairs-standing-out-everywhere look. Even if Rachel got ink on her nose or had a cold, she remained more or less pretty. Jane thought it was one of the meaner things about life that Rachel should be pretty, and Tim noticeable, and she, in the middle, should be plain. There were so many things that Jane ranked as mean and hoped to put right one day that if she had written them out, they would have filled a whole exercise book.
“Doesn’t make any odds if I kick the table; nobody wants to see Tim’s drawing, and you’ll get all the answers wrong whether I do or don’t; you always do.”
This gloomy fact was so true that Rachel could not argue it. “You couldn’t be more right, but you know I’ve got to do them. I mayn’t do any practice until they’re finished.”
Rachel’s reasonableness was another thing that Jane found mean about life; she never felt reasonable herself. Now she said, “I couldn’t think that any child wanted to practice dancing with its father ill upstairs and the doctor there deciding if he’ll ever be well again.”
The words had been said. They flowed into the schoolroom like a door opening, letting in a cold wind. Until that moment the children had been trying to pretend to one another that nothing unusual was happening, that this was an ordinary day. Nobody wished more than Jane that she could take the words back. She had been glad of the pretending by the grown-ups and themselves that there was nothing wrong, that one day things would come right and life would be as it had been before Dad’s accident. Saying what she had said would not do any good; it just made them feel worse because they had to admit that there was something to fuss about. Angry with herself, she got up and marched over to the window. It was raining: long, straight, gray lines of rain, falling relentlessly on the London street.
Rachel finished her last problem; she looked at Jane’s back. She guessed that Jane had said what she had said because it was her way of showing how worried she was.
“He’ll get better,” Rachel said. “It isn’t as if he were really ill, in bed with a temperature and medicines and all that. It’s just a matter of time.”
Tim looked up from his drawing. “Everybody’s been saying it’s only a matter of time ever since it happened, and that was last January, which was months and months ago.”
Rachel joined Jane at the window. “If only it didn’t have to be winter soon. Dad’s heaps better when the sun shines.”
Jane thumped the curtain with her fist; she wanted to hurt somebody, and Rachel was the easiest person to get at.
“We ought to live in the country,” Jane blurted out. “We
live in the country if it weren’t for our dear little ballerina, Rachel Winter, the child wonder.”
There was a pause. Rachel’s insides felt queer when people talked about living in the country, and there had been talk of it since Dad’s accident. Of course, if it would cure Dad to go to the country, she would do her best to bear it, but it was something she did not want to think about, especially now when she had just had her twelfth birthday and Madame Fidolia was talking about auditions for Christmas pantomimes; besides, Rachel felt, she had sense on her side. In a pantomime she might earn some money. Money was needed now that Dad had been ill and unable to work for nearly nine months. She said at last, “There are Tim’s piano lessons as well as my dancing, and actually the sun doesn’t shine in the country any more than it does in London.”
Tim sprawled across the table. “It isn’t often that I agree with Jane, but I do think that’s the most awful lie, if you don’t mind my saying so. When I was evacuated to the country, the sun shone almost every day.”
Rachel left the window and opened her attaché case, which was on the table, and took out her ballet shoes. “You don’t really remember, Tim; you spent most of the time in a carriage.”
This was true, but Tim did not like being reminded of the fact that he was the youngest. He said in his grandest voice, “As a matter of fact, you see the sun rather better from a carriage than you do standing up.”
Jane gave a squeak and peered sideways through the windowpane up the street. “Here come Peaseblossom and Chewing-gum. I bet the poor darling is terribly wet. I told Peaseblossom it wasn’t fit for him to be out.”
Rachel tied on her shoes. “If it comes to that, it isn’t fit for Peaseblossom either.”
Jane was still peering up the road. “Oh, he is wet, the poor angel! His fur’s sticking to him so tight he looks as though he hasn’t got any. I’ll have to rub him and rub him to get him dry.” She turned angrily to Rachel. “That’s like you to stand up for Peaseblossom, who’s got a raincoat and galoshes while poor little Chewing-gum has to walk along on his bare feet with nothing to cover him but his own fur.”
Rachel had tied on her shoes; now she raised herself onto her points. “Don’t forget to see you use his own towel; it’s not the sort of day to have a row about using the bathroom one.”
Jane had opened the door. She was about to make a rude answer when voices were heard. Dr. Smith and Mrs. Winter were talking at the bottom of the stairs. They were speaking quietly, but every word could be heard by the children.
“I know you’re right,” Mrs. Winter was saying. “He mustn’t spend this winter in England. But you know how difficult things are.”
Dr. Smith was always in a hurry, and this made his voice have a permanent I-must-go note. All the same, the children could hear he was trying to be kind.
“If only you could persuade him to get this bee out of his bonnet that he can’t go alone.”
“It’s going to be difficult; he was away so long in the war he feels he must be with me and the children.”
“But it’s only a few months, and it might be the answer. It might cure him completely. Would he get on with that sister of his?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen her; she married an American who died two or three years ago. John hasn’t seen her since she was eighteen. I don’t somehow see him going off to her on his own.”
Jane suddenly realized that without meaning to, she and the others were eavesdropping. She softly closed the door but not before they heard Dr. Smith say, “All the same, you must persuade him. I assure you, another winter …”
The children looked at one another. Somehow, although they had been accustomed to being moved about during the war, that was years ago and they had almost forgotten it. They were used now to having a home and their father and mother with them. Tim spoke this thought out loud.
“Dad can’t go away without us; all proper homes have a father and mother in them.”
Rachel said to Jane, “That’s Aunt Cora they were talking about, the one who offered to have you and me and Mom when London was bombed.”
Tim felt he was being cut out of a relationship to Aunt Cora. “She would have asked me, too, if I’d been born.”
Jane looked scornful. “If we had gone to Aunt Cora, you’d have been born after we’d got there, and that would have made you a citizen of the United States of America, and you wouldn’t have been allowed to come back here after the war, which I often think would have been a good thing.”
Rachel guessed that Jane was being nasty to Tim only because she was feeling frightened inside at the thought of Dad’s having to go away. Rachel hurriedly tried to smooth things over.
“If Dad ought not to be in England this winter, we’ll simply have to persuade him to go away, but I do wonder who’s going to pay; it must cost heaps and heaps of money to go to the United States. I do hope I get a job in pantomime; then I could help.”
Jane went out into the hall. She felt miserable, and not only because of all the talk about her father going away. She hated it when Rachel talked about getting into a pantomime. It was not that Jane wanted to be able to dance, but she wished she were good at something. Nobody knew yet just how good Tim would turn out to be, but he was admitted to be unusually musical, and Rachel, if she went on as she was doing now, was sure to be a professional dancer; but here was she, good at nothing, unless you counted understanding dogs as something. She was sure that if only she had the chance, she could earn a lot of money as a dog trainer; but at present she had only Chewing-gum, and though he was willing, he was far from performing-dog standard. Even though he had learned to carry a newspaper, he had never quite understood that he must not bite the paper to pieces.
Peaseblossom was sitting on a chair in the hall, taking off her galoshes. She was the kind of woman who you could see had once been a splendid head of the school and captain of games. Even now expressions like “Play the game, old thing” came to her naturally. She and Mrs. Winter had been friends at school and remained friends after they grew up. When Peaseblossom saw the children’s mother struggling, not very effectively, to look after newborn Rachel, she gave up being a games mistress and took charge. “You aren’t fit to handle a baby and a house on your own, Bee, old thing,” she had said. “Better let me lend a hand. If we all pull together, we’ll manage splendidly.” She was quite right; they had managed splendidly. The children’s mother was the gentle, rather spoiling sort, and when their father had been away in the war, they might have grown up loathsome if Peaseblossom had not been there. Though she was nice about it, Peaseblossom believed in discipline. “Rules are made to be kept. . . . No good saying a thing and not sticking to it. . . . Play up and play the game.” Now she looked up from her galosh at Jane’s cross face.
“Quite true. Chewing-gum’s sopping. Take him and give him a good rubdown, but for goodness’ sake use his own towel.”
Jane knelt by Chewing-gum and felt his coat. He was a red cocker spaniel and usually a lovely autumn-leaf color, but now his fur was dark with water. He had been given to Jane by an American soldier who had left him behind when he went back to his own country. The little dog had not had a name when he came to the children, for the soldier had just called him Pup, so Jane had christened him Chewing-gum because that was what the American soldier was always doing. She played with his wet ears. Then she said, “Did you see Dr. Smith, Peaseblossom?”