CHAPTER I. UNDER THE CEDAR TREE. "There are twelve months throughout the year,From January to December,And the primest month of all the twelveIs the merry month of September!Then apples so redHang overhead,And nuts, ripe-brown,Come showering downIn the bountiful days of September!" Mary Howitt.
It was pleasant under the shade of the huge cedar tree on the lawn at Firgrove that golden Sunday afternoon. It was autumn, really and truly, going by the calendar at the back of the small cat-eared diary which Darby had coaxed from his father and always carried in his pocket. Yet the sunshine was so bright and warm, the birds were singing so joyously in the thickets, the rooks cawed so loudly as they wheeled and circled like a dense black battalion at drill up against the cloudless blue of the sky, that it was hard to believe the diary people had not made a mistake in their reckonings or stupidly mixed their dates.
Indeed, one would have been quite sure they had done something of the sort, and that it was still summer, only for the unmistakable signs and tokens of harvest that everywhere met the eye. In the fields on the hillside sloping up to meet the sky there were stooks of rich, ripe, yellow grain still standing, waiting to be carted home to Mr. Grey's stackyard, and there heaped into high domed castles round which children loved to play or linger silently, watching the sleek dun mice that darted so swiftly hither and thither, planning for themselves such glorious games in and out and round about their well-stocked store-houses amongst the crisp, rustling corn. Red-cheeked apples, dark-skinned winter pears ripened slowly on the orchard trees. Big bronze plums and late Victorias mellowed against the garden wall. And now and then when a breeze, gentle as the flutter of a fairy's wing, fanned the branches of the stately spreading lime tree that was comrade of the shining cedar on the lawn, there dropped on the grass border beside the tall hollyhocks a pale dry leaf, falling softly to the earth from which it grew, silently as a tired bird sinks to her nest amongst the clover blooms of summer.
On a wide wooden seat beneath the sheltering branches of the cedar tree Captain Dene sat with his little ones close beside him. They were very close to him indeed—as close as they could come: for Darby was bunched up on the bench, legs and all, with his head tucked under his father's elbow; while Joan was folded in his arms so tightly that the golden tangle of her shining curls mingled with the deeper hue of the dark cropped head which bent so lovingly over hers.
And no wonder that those three cuddled so close together this balmy September afternoon. No wonder they looked sad in spite of the sunbeams that boldly forced their way through the spikes on the cedar branches in long, slanting shafts of light that rested lovingly on Joan's burnished hair like the tender touch of caressing fingers. And no wonder, either, if they were all three silent—not because there was nothing to say, but because there were so many things they wanted to speak about, and yet the words would not come. For on the morrow, early in the morning, at day-dawn even, when the birds should be yet only half awake in their nests, while Darby and Joan should be still sleeping in their cribs disturbed by neither dream nor fear, their father was to leave them. He must be up and away to join the company of brave fellows who called him captain, and with them go aboard the big transport ship that even then was lying at anchor in Southampton Water, waiting to carry them, with many of their comrades, away, away—far, far away!—over the sweeping, separating sea, to fight for their beloved Queen and country amidst perils and privations on the wide, lonely veldts of South Africa.
How were they to live without him—the dear, darling daddy who had been to them father and mother for almost a year now? And that is a long time to little children, a large slice from the lives of such mites as Joan and Darby Dene. Darby was not quite seven, with thick, short brown hair and great gray eyes. Joan was five. Her hair was long and curly; it had a funny trick of falling over her face in golden tangles, from which her eyes, velvety as the heart of a pansy, blinked out solemnly like stars from the purple darkness of a summer night: while her cheeks were exactly the colour of the China roses that bloomed so freely, month in month out, about the porch at Grannie Dene's front door.
Their names were not really Darby and Joan. They had been baptized Guy and Doris; but their father had begun to call them Darby and Joan when they were tiny toddlers, just for fun, because they were such devoted chums; and after a time nearly every one called them by these names, even their mother. Only grannie, who was very much of an invalid, and whom in consequence they did not often visit, kept to Guy and Doris. But for that they should soon have forgotten that these charming names were actually theirs.
Their mother had died about nine months previously, just before Christmas, shortly after the birth of baby Eric, the wee, fragile brother whom Perry, the careful, kindly nurse, seemed always hushing to sleep and rarely permitted the others to touch. Already Joan had ceased to remember her mother, except at odd times, and in a hazy sort of fashion; and to Darby it appeared quite a great while since that day when he had heard the servants say to each other that their mistress was dead.
It was a bright, crisp winter day outside—Darby knew, because he had been sliding on the pond behind the barrack wall quite early after breakfast—but inside the house it was chill and gloomy; for all the blinds were down, and every room seemed strange and still.
At twilight their father came up to the nursery. He stood for a minute or two looking down upon Joan lying asleep in her crib. Then he took Darby in his arms, and drawing a low chair close to the window, together they sat there until from the fleckless blue of the frosty sky the little stars shone out one by one, twinkling soft bright eyes towards Darby as if to say, "Good-night, you poor little motherless lamb! Go to bed; sleep sound, and we shall watch your pillow the whole night through."
But these memories were nearly a year old now. Already they were becoming less vivid in Darby's mind, and being gradually pushed aside in order to leave room in the storehouse for more recent impressions. Many things had happened since then. Baby Eric had grown from a tiny pink morsel into quite an armful, Nurse Perry declared, and a heavy handful as well, whatever that meant. They had dwelt in different places, too, during that time; because when the regiment moved the officers also moved, and Captain Dene kept his motherless children as constantly with him as it was possible to do. Recently, however, it had become no longer possible—quite impossible, in fact—for Captain Dene's company was under orders for active service in South Africa. Darby and Joan would have been more than willing to accompany their father to the ends of the earth, riding at the tail of a baggage-wagon, seated on a gun-carriage, or perched on the hump of a camel. But Captain Dene only smiled and shook his head at the eager little ones. Then he made for them the best arrangement that circumstances permitted.
In consequence, just the previous Thursday he had brought his three children, with Perry their nurse, to Firgrove, where they were to remain during his absence, under the care and guardianship of his own two aunts, the Misses Turner.
Aunt Catharine and Auntie Alice, as Darby and Joan were told to call the maiden ladies (who in the children's eyes looked old enough to be the grandmothers of all the young folks in the neighbourhood around their country home), were sisters of Captain Dene's mother. They were not really old at all, although Aunt Catharine's thick black hair was shaded by a lace cap, and in Auntie Alice's nut-brown waves there were streaks of silver that lent a chastened charm to her faded face. Firgrove was their birthplace, and there in his boyhood Captain Dene had spent many a happy holiday.
Auntie Alice was a little, slender body, whose gentle voice and quiet ways just matched her meek brown eyes; while Aunt Catharine was a tall and stately lady, with a prim, severe manner, and a fixed belief in the natural naughtiness of all children, whom she kept down accordingly. And although he knew how truly good and kind she was at heart, Captain Dene wondered somewhat anxiously how Darby's unbroken spirit would bear the curb of such strict, stern rule. But there was Auntie Alice as well, and Captain Dene smiled as he remembered how she had petted and indulged him in his juvenile days. The aunts between them, like John Gilpin's bottles, would keep the balance true. The children would be all right. Besides, he did not expect to be very long away—six months or a year at most. The time would soon pass, and when he came home from Africa he would have his little ones to live with him again, until Darby should be old enough for school at any rate.
CHAPTER II. LEFT BEHIND! "If I could but wake and find it a dream!But I can't—oh, what shall I do?It's only the good things that change and seem,The bad ones are always true.And miracles never happen now,And the fairies all are fled;And mother's away, and the world somehowIs dark—and Flopsy's dead!" M. A. Woods.
The group on the lawn had been silent for a long time—far too long, thought Darby, who liked to use his tongue freely as well as his sturdy little legs.
At length Joan raised her head from its resting-place on her father's shoulder, and flinging her arms round his neck, she burst into a storm of sobs.
"Daddy, daddy!" she cried, "we can't do wifout you. Don't go away and leave me and Darby all alone!"
"I must go, my pet," replied Captain Dene gravely. "I am a soldier, dear, and soldiers must obey orders. Besides, I am not leaving you alone. You shall have the aunts to take care of you. They will know better how to look after a wee girlie than a great blundering fellow like father."
"You isn't a great blun'rin' fellow; you's my own dearest, sweetest daddy!" declared Joan warmly. "And I doesn't want no aunties. Auntie Alice is nice, but we doesn't love Aunt Catharine one teeny-weeny bit.—Sure we doesn't, Darby?"
"Joan!" exclaimed Darby in a shocked tone, although he smiled as he peeped in the direction of the front door, for already he had learned that Aunt Catharine had a trick of pouncing upon him when he least expected. It was embarrassing, to say the least of it, and Darby disliked it greatly.
Captain Dene pulled at his moustache as though puzzled how to act. He quite understood how little there was about his aunt's grim presence to attract a soft little creature like Joan—for a while at least. After a time he knew things would be on a freer footing between them; therefore he thought it better to take no notice of his small daughter's frankly-spoken sentiments, and after a pause he said,—
"You are forgetting Eric, surely. He will soon be old enough to play with you, and you must be very gentle with him, you know."
"Baby!" cried Joan in fine scorn. "Why, how could we play wif him? he doesn't know no games."
"I think you needn't count much on Eric, father," put in Darby wisely; "he's nearly always sleeping or crying, and nurse hardly ever lets us touch him. It's because he's delikid, she says. So when you're away there'll just be Joan and me," added the little lad sorrowfully.
Suddenly Joan spoke again, asking a question that awoke afresh the pain at her father's heart—a pain so sharp, so deep-seated as to be at times almost unbearable.
"When you have to go away in the big ship wif the solgers, why did mamsie not stay and take care of us? Other chil'ens has nice lovely muvers. Why have we none, daddy?"
Why, ah, why?
"Does she not love us any more, father?" whispered Darby, in broken, quivering tones—Darby, who remembered his fair young mother as one remembers a pleasing dream.
"Will she never come back no more?...