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The Deputation

It was well for Nealie Plumstead that she could mostly laugh in spite of troubles, for her life had been shadowed by a great disaster which had brought in its turn a battalion of cares, worries, and responsibilities.

Until she was almost twelve years old life had been one unbroken happiness. She had been at the head of an ever-increasing nursery, and she had governed her small kingdom to the very best of her ability. Then had come a cloud of black trouble, the exact nature of which she did not understand even now, only vaguely she had gathered that it was something professional.

Then Ducky, whose name was Hilda Grace, had been born, and the dear mother had sunk out of life, leaving a distracted husband and seven children to mourn their loss.

Following this came the long journey from the busy manufacturing town, where they had always lived, to Beechleigh and the home of Miss Judith Webber. Dr. Plumstead had come with them to see them safely settled, but on the day that Ducky was one month old, he had kissed them all round, in a heartbreaking goodbye, and had set off on the voyage to Australia.

Sometimes he used to write to Aunt Judith and send her money for the children’s keep, when he had any to send; but he almost never wrote to his children, although they simply pelted him with letters of the most affectionate description.

Two years ago, however, a great weakness had fallen upon Aunt Judith; she could write no letters nor do any business at all, and another nephew of hers, a Mr. Runciman, undertook the administration of her affairs.

The seven hated him in a hearty, downright fashion, for he always made himself as disagreeable as possible to them, and certainly seemed to resent their existence.

It was soon after Aunt Judith had been taken ill that a letter coming from Australia, directed to Miss Webber, had been opened by Nealie in all good faith, for she never supposed that her father would write anything to her aunt that she might not read; but to her dismay she learned that the numerous letters of the children, instead of bringing pleasure to the heart of the exile, gave him so much pain that he begged Miss Webber not to let them write to him, because it reminded him too sadly of all that he had lost in the past, and was missing in the present. It was such a sad, dreadful sort of letter that Nealie had cried herself nearly blind over it, and then had gathered the others for a solemn council. The elders had no secrets from the younger ones, so Billykins and Ducky had as much to say on the subject as their seniors; and in the end it was resolved that Nealie and Rupert should write a letter to their father and tell him that they would worry him with no more letters until he expressed a desire to have them.

A year and a half had passed since that time, but although the children watched for the mails with pathetic eagerness, there had come no letter from their father for them. He did not write to Aunt Judith either, after he had been told how ill she was; but he wrote to Mr. Runciman sometimes, they knew, because Mr. Runciman had spoken of having letters from him.

This long silence would have made them very miserable, if it had not been that they were so sorry for him that it never occurred to them to be sorry for themselves. They had each other, but he was alone, and so, of course, he was to be pitied.

Inspired by the great idea, the seven woke in riotous spirits next morning, which not even the near prospect of an interview with Mr. Runciman could daunt, although he was quite sufficiently formidable at close quarters to make any ordinary person afraid.

Rupert and Rumple cleaned the boots, while Nealie and Sylvia got breakfast ready, the three juniors having to make themselves useful in any direction where help was most needed.

They had all learned to wait on themselves during the long illness of Aunt Judith, for Mrs. Puffin had her hands full with nursing, while since the death of the old lady she had been in such poor health that Nealie and Sylvia had done all the cooking and most of the housework, with a great deal of help from the others.

Breakfast consisted of big plates of porridge and slices of home-made bread spread with damson jam. There were two trees in Aunt Judith’s small garden, and they had borne a record crop this year.

There was no lingering over their food this morning, but directly the meal was dispatched the boys washed up the breakfast crockery, while the girls made the beds and put the rooms tidy. Then Nealie asked Mrs. Puffin to make them a suet pudding and bake them some potatoes for dinner, after which they brushed themselves into a fine state of neatness, and then, bringing the bath chair from the shed, Rupert and Ducky were packed into it and the expedition set out on the five miles’ journey to The Paddock, Smethwick, where Mr. Runciman lived.

It was still quite early, and Mr. Runciman, having dealt with the morning’s letters, was sitting in his library looking through the daily paper before going out to interview his steward and settling the other business of the day, when the butler entered the room and announced:

“The seven Misses and Masters Plumstead to see you, sir.”

“Goodness gracious, what next?” exclaimed Mr. Runciman in a tone of positive alarm.

“Shall I show them in, if you please, sir?” asked the butler in a sympathetic fashion, looking as if he really felt sorry for the perturbed gentleman.

“All seven of them? Yes, I suppose you must, and see here, Roberts, just ask the housekeeper to have some cakes and cocoa, or something of that kind, ready for them to have before they go back to Beechleigh, for I suppose that they are walking?”

“Yes, sir; that is to say, some of them are, but the lame young gentleman and the little girl rode down in a bath chair,” replied the butler, and then permitted himself a grin of pure amusement as he retired from the room to usher in the visitors, for the harassed master of the house fairly groaned at the thought of having callers arrive in such a fashion.

“The Misses and Masters Plumstead,” announced the butler, throwing open the door with the grand flourish which was worth at least ten pounds a year to him in salary.

Nealie and Ducky entered first, followed by Rupert, walking alone, then came Sylvia and Rumple, while Don and Billykins brought up the rear.

Mr. Runciman rose at once and came forward to greet them, trying very hard to infuse as much cordiality as possible into his manner.

“My dear children, what an unexpected pleasure! Why, Cornelia, you are positively blooming, and my little friend Hilda is as charming as always. Ah, Rupert, my boy, how goes the Latin? Nothing like the dead languages for training the mind. Sylvia, you grow so fast that there is no keeping up with you. Dalrymple, you will have to use the dumb-bells more or you will positively have Donald and William beat you in the matter of height.”

It was one of Mr. Runciman’s vices in the eyes of the seven that he would always give them the full benefit of their baptismal names, although he knew, because they had told him so, that they simply hated the formal mode of address, which no one used except himself. It always had the effect of making them stiff and self-conscious; so now Rupert limped more than usual, Sylvia dropped her gloves, which she was carrying because they had too many holes to be wearable, and Rumple lurched against a pile of books that lay at the edge of the table and brought the whole lot to the floor with a crash.

“Sorry,” murmured Rumple, diving hastily to recover the volumes, and promptly knocking his head against that of Billykins, who was also grovelling for the same purpose, while Nealie plunged into the business of their visit, hoping to divert the attention of the master of the house from the awkwardness of the boys, poor things; but Sylvia giggled in quite a disgraceful fashion, then blinked hard at a bust of Apollo which stood on a bookshelf opposite, and tried to look as if she were appreciating the admirable way in which it was sculptured.

“We have come down to see you to-day to ask you if you will please send us out to New South Wales to our father,” said Nealie, holding her head at an extremely haughty angle, just because she was so very nervous.

“Good gracious! I wonder what you will want next?” gasped Mr. Runciman, who had probably not been so much astonished for a very long time.

“It would really be taking a great load of worry from you, sir,” put in Rupert eagerly, thrusting himself abreast of Nealie and leaning on his stick while he talked. “A large family, as we are, would be a valuable asset in a new country, while here we are only an encumbrance and a nuisance. Besides, we should like to be with our father.”

“Quite so, quite so; but think of the expense!” murmured Mr. Runciman, as he rubbed his hands together in a nervous manner. He said the first thing which came into his head for the sake of gaining time. The proposition was sufficiently staggering, but on the other hand it might be worth consideration.

“I am afraid that we must be a heavy expense to you now, sir, seeing that we have to be fed and clothed,” replied Rupert, with a deference that was really soothing to Mr. Runciman, who smiled graciously and waved his hand as much as to say that the matter was too trifling to be considered.

“You will let us go, won’t you, air, because we want to build the Empire?” burst out Billykins, thrusting himself in between his elders and looking so flushed and excited that Mr. Runciman, who had no son of his own, could not be so repressive as he felt he ought to have been.

“Eh, what? And how do you expect you are going to set about it, young man?” he demanded, while Billykins went suddenly red in the face, because Sylvia had tweaked his jacket, which was the signal that he was overstepping the mark.

“I don’t know, but I expect we will find out when we get there. Don and I mostly find out how to do things, and Nealie says we are going to be the business men of the family. Rupert and Rumple have got the brains, but there is practical perseverance in us

The small boy came to a sudden pause, for Sylvia, fearing what he might say next, had dragged him into the background, leaving Nealie to speak.

“We should be very glad to go to Australia, if you please; for now that Aunt Judith is dead no one wants us here, and we might be a very great comfort to our father when he got used to having us.” Her voice broke a little on the last words; she was remembering the letter which she had so innocently opened and read, and the wonder whether he would be quite glad to see them at first crept in to spoil her joy at the thought that perhaps Mr. Runciman was for once going to do the thing they wanted so badly.

Her words brought a frown to his face, and when he spoke his voice had an apologetic ring which sounded strangely in the ears of the seven.

“I am sorry that you should feel that no one wants you here. Of course Mrs. Runciman and my daughters have so many engagements that it is not easy for them to go as far as Beechleigh very often; but we have certainly tried to take care of you since your great-aunt passed away.”

“You have been most kind,” said Nealie hastily, divining in a vague fashion that she had somehow said something to hurt his feelings, which was certainly outside her intentions. “But we hate to be a continual burden upon our connections, and there seems no way in which we can earn money here.”

“Don and I could keep pigs on the stubble fields, only Nealie won’t let us. We could earn half a crown a week at it too,” burst out Billykins, thrusting himself to the front like a jack-in-the-box and disappearing as suddenly, being again dragged back by Sylvia.

There was a troubled look on the face of Mr. Runciman as his gaze rested upon Nealie, who was the living image of her dead mother. There was a secret chamber in his heart that was tenanted by the mournful memory of a dead love. He had loved the mother of the seven, but she had passed him by to marry Dr. Plumstead, and so the secret chamber had held nothing but a shrine ever since, only it made him a little kinder to the motherless children than he otherwise might have been.

“It would be a tremendous expense to send you all such a long distance,” he said, still speaking for the sake of gaining time, yet disposed to regard the proposal as a really practical way in which to solve the problem of their future.

“It could be done for about seventy pounds, I think, if we went steerage; and it is quite comfortable for people who do not mind roughing it, and as we have not been used to any sort of luxury, of course we shall not miss it,” said Sylvia.

“I could not allow you to go as steerage passengers,” replied Mr. Runciman.

“We would much rather go as steerage passengers than not go at all,” murmured Nealie.

“I will think about it and let you know,” he said, but with so much giving way in his tone that they burst into a chorus of imploring.

“Please, please decide now and write to tell Father that we are coming. We are quite ready to start by the next boat, and it is so lonely living at Beechleigh now that Aunt Judith is dead,” pleaded Nealie, silencing the others with a wave of her hand.

If one of the others had spoken then, Mr. Runciman would certainly have refused, but because of her likeness to the dead he had to give way. He reflected, too, that if he wrote the letter now it would be impossible for him to draw back from his word, however angry his wife might be when she heard what he had done.

“Very well, I will write to your father to-night,” he said.

“Do not leave it until this evening; you might forget; there are so many other things for you to remember,” said Nealie softly. “If you will write the letter now we will post it as we go through Braybrook Lees; then it will be just in time for the outgoing mail. Tell dear Father that we are coming by the next boat. We will be ready somehow.”

“Yes, please, please, dear Mr. Runciman, write now,” said Sylvia, leaning forward in her most engaging manner, while even Ducky smiled upon him, clasping her hands entreatingly, just as Sylvia and Nealie were doing.

“Very well; but it will have to be a short letter, for the cart is coming round in twenty minutes to take me over to Aldington,” he said, giving way before their entreaties and pulling out his watch to see what the time was; and then he touched the bell at his side, saying to Nealie, as Roberts appeared in answer to the summons: “My dear, if you and the others will go into the housekeeper’s room for a little refreshment I will get the letter written, and you shall have it to take with you; then I will write to London about your passage to-night.”

“Oh, you are a dear, a most kind dear!” burst out Sylvia, flinging her arms round his neck and kissing him on the cheek ­a liberty she had never in her life ventured upon before, and which considerably shocked Nealie, who was afraid it would make him angry, and was agreeably surprised to find that he only seemed to be startled by it.

Then they all trooped off to the housekeeper’s room, where they made a tremendous onslaught upon a big and very plummy cake; and they were still drinking cups of steaming cocoa when Roberts appeared again, this time bringing a letter on a silver salver, which he handed to Nealie with a grave bow, saying that Mr. Runciman wished her to read it and then to post it, and he would ride over to Beechleigh on the day after to-morrow to tell them what arrangements he had been able to make for their journey.

“It is jolly decent of him!” muttered Rupert, who had looked over Nealie’s shoulder while she read the letter.

“Oh, he is not half bad at the bottom, I should say!” remarked Rumple, who was wondering if Mr. Runciman would feel flattered if he were to make a short poem about this most gracious concession to their wishes. The worst of it was that Mr. Runciman did not exactly lend himself to poetry, that is, he was by no means an inspiring subject.

The housekeeper looked on in smiling amusement at their frank criticism of the master of the house; but she was a kindly soul, and it was only human to feel sorry for these poor young people, whom no one seemed to want, now that old Miss Webber was dead. There had been a good deal of wondering comment in the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s room at The Paddock as to what would be done with the family. Everyone was quite sure that Mrs. Runciman would never consent to receive them, even temporarily, and it was because of her refusal to in any way recognize their claim upon her kindness that they had been left for Mrs. Puffin to look after since the death of their great-aunt.

When they could eat no more cake they bade a cordial goodbye to the housekeeper, shook hands all round with the dignified Roberts, and then trooped off in the highest spirits, talking eagerly of the voyage and the wonderful things they would do when they reached the other side of the world.

“It is almost too good to be true!” cried Sylvia, dancing along on the tips of her toes. “Race me to the gate, Rumple, so that I may get some of this excitement out of my brain, for I am sure that it can’t be good for me, and it will never do to fall ill at this juncture.”

“I can’t run; I’m thinking,” replied Rumple, with a heavy frown. He was finding difficulties at the very outset in his poem, because of the seeming impossibility of finding any word which would rhyme with Runciman.

“We will race you,” shouted Don and Billykins together, and, dropping the handle of the bath chair, they set off at full tear, while Sylvia came helter-skelter after them, her long legs helping not a little in overhauling the small boys, who had a distinct advantage by getting away so smartly at the first.

Rupert and Ducky clapped, cheered, and shouted encouragements to all the competitors, while Nealie and Rumple hurried the chair along so that they might view the finish from a distance; and they all were too much engrossed to notice a discontented lady who was approaching the drive from a side alley, and who was not a little scandalized at the noise and commotion caused by the seven in their departure.

The lady was Mrs. Runciman, and she walked on to the house, feeling very much annoyed, her thin lips screwed into a disagreeable pucker and her eyes flashing angrily.

“I thought that I told you I did not care to have those Plumstead children hanging about the place,” she remarked in an acid tone to her husband, whom she met in the hall as she entered by the big front door.

“You will not see them here many more times. I am sending them out to their father,” he answered briefly, adding hastily: “I think that the money Aunt Judith left behind her to be used for their benefit will about cover the expense, and it will mean the solving of a good many problems.”

“I hope it will,” she said as she turned away.

It had never occurred to her to look upon the seven in any other light than that of a burden to be ignored, or got rid of as speedily as possible. And because she did not like them, the children, as a matter of course, did not like her.

They did not particularly care for Mr. Runciman, but he at least always treated them properly, and they guessed that he would have been kinder still if only Mrs. Runciman had permitted it.

But when he went back to his library, and with pencil and paper began to estimate the probable cost of sending the seven to New South Wales, he soon found that the little fund left by Aunt Judith would need a lot of supplementing.

“Ah, well, something must be done for the poor things, and if that is what they want, they shall have it,” he muttered, as he shook his head in a thoughtful fashion.