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A PARENTAL BIRTHDAY.

By ETHEL TURNER.


THE DIFFICULTY Frank and Ettie and Stan had in making both ends of their respective incomes meet was a frightful one. The hair of older people would have gone grey with the struggle, but these three small heads still bubbled over serenely with unfaded brown and gold.

Which plainly shows that children bear trouble with greater fortitude than their elders, whatever may be said to the contrary by those elders.

"Only that morning their father had answered their modest request for "a penny each" in a most unfeeling way.

"Another penny!" he said. "What extravagant children you are! You had your pocket-money as usual on Saturday, didn't you?"

"Threepence between us," sighed Ettie.

"Threepence," said Frank.

"Frepence," said Stan.

"And you mean to tell me it has all gone, the whole of a threepenny—piece? "The father had almost used the term "three-penny-bit," and thus betrayed the paltriness of the coin; but he caught himself up just in time, and substituted the more dignified word "piece."

"It was in pennies," said Ettie.

"A penny each," said Stan.

"Mine was two ha'pennies," protested Frank.

"And you mean to tell me you have rioted away two whole pennies and two whole halfpennies since Saturday!"

"This is Tuesday, father," Frank said with gentle reproach. "Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday."

"Tuesday," said Ettie.

"Choosday," said Stan.

"Well," said the father gravely, and he did not even attempt to put his hand into that pocket of his that even Alf and Baby knew was always full of jingling money, "you will get no more. I can't encourage a reckless expenditure like this."

But he sighed a little as he walked to his train, for a wider margin than rent, and insurance, and doctoring, and household expenses leave in a clerk's narrow income. It would be a pleasant thing to always have a handful of pennies—bright ones preferably—to scatter among his young ones for repayment in eye-sparkles.

The children moved slowly away to their own little nook in the garden, and were joined by Alfie—Alfie, who also liked the jingle his pennies made in his tin box, but who had no keener appreciation of actual money values than usually obtains between the years of two and three.

"It's enough for a girl," said Frank disconsolately, turning over the halfpenny that was his entire fortune at present; "but a fellow can't be expected to make a penny a week do for everything."

Enough for a girl! And Ettie had a family of thirteen dolls entirely dependent upon her for their frocks and bonnets and boots and opera cloaks! Even if one's mother and aunts and friends did supply materials at frequent intervals, there were still sash ribbons and other harassing toilet requisites for such a family that could only be obtained with hard cash. And Frank never took it into his consideration that Eugenie Isabella, the French doll, wore pink kid boots that cost the frightful sum of sixpence a pair—six whole weeks' money!

The dolls' house had also to be kept up, and the most ignorant householder knows the amount of money new furniture costs. The kitchen was very inadequately supplied, and grandmamma had a most disturbing axiom that "a lady is known by her kitchen."

There was a dresser, to be sure, but then the salt-box reached up nearly as high as the top of it, and the sense of proportion that was dawning with Ettie's seventh year told her that these things ought not to be so.

Down at the corner toy-shop was a dresser that would reach up to the ceiling and allow the salt-box to be a mere incident upon it. The price was fifteenpence, and among the great unattainables—unless for fifteen weeks nothing else were bought, or an uncle or aunt in an open mood happened along.

Then the drawing-room! Ettie had made all the furniture herself, with keenest delight, one wet day. She bad cut out chairs and tables, and a piano, cabinets, coal-vases, and sofas, from a furniture catalogue, neatly pasted them on cardboard, and gummed flaps on behind for standing purposes. But then there came to play one day a very fine little lady, who turned up her nose and called the beautiful suite "home-made and paper."

So Ettie now ardently desired a boxful of upholstered goods that the toy-shop had cruelly ticketed "two and sixpence."

"Look here," Frank said, "what good is money to you, Ettie? You only spend it on fooling things like dolls' combs or little teapots. How much have you got?"

Ettie held very tightly to her little purse. "A halfpenny," she said; "and I want to buy the dresser down at Green's, so you can't borrow it, Frank."

"A stupid dresser," said Frank disgustedly. "As if you couldn't make a box do! And here's Stan and me can't do anything, 'cause all the marbles are lost."

"Glad they are," said Ettie. "Baby is always picking them up, an' yesterday she nearly quite swallowed one."

"Not my best agate, was it?" said Frank anxiously.

"Had it got blue stripes on it?" said Stan excitedly. "It's mine—I've lost it for long 'nough. Where is it?—quick!—I know it's mine!"

"I tell you it's my agate!" shouted Frank. "Where'd you put it, Ettie? She didn't go and quite swallow it, did she? I gave four-pence for that agate."

"I throwed it out of the window," said Ettie; "any more I find I'll throw in the fire. If she had swallowed it, she would have been ever and ever so ill."

But Frank was quite unmoved. "She wouldn't be such a little donkey. She knows a thing or two, that kid—think of all the things she has put in her mouth, buttons and shells and pins——"

"And the pig out of my Noah's Ark." The supplement was Stan's. "And the key to wind my train up, and the feathers. And she's never let anything go down her throat yet. She knows what's good for her, that baby."

"But some day she will," persisted Ettie, whose temperament led her to share her mother's frequent fears rather than the boys' happy optimism; "and then it will be a marble, I know."

"Where'd you throw my agate, quick?" said Frank.

"My tor—which window did you frow it out of?" demanded Stan.

But here came the mother over the grass to them with pleasing but frightful news.

On Friday it would be their fathers birthday!

Now, this was the happiest of happy celebrations; but still, there was the financial question to meet, and without delay. There must be presents piled up on the breakfast-plate that stood before the flower-twined chair of honour. Not to have a present ready to wrap in many layers of paper and tie round and round and round again with knotty string, and to inscribe in your best round hand: "To dearest daddie from your lovingist little dorter Ettie," or "To dear old dad wishing you happy returns from his afecshonate son Frank," or "To Dad from me with Stan's love," would be to feel yourself an orphan and an outcast, abjectly unworthy of a father who played cricket with you and never refused to make a wooden substitute for any arm or leg your family of thirteen might have lost or broken.

"If only I'd not got that last cocoanut rock!" groaned Frank.

"Yes," said the mother sympathetically, "I ought to have warned you before, oughtn't I? But let us put our heads together."

She sat down on the grass, and Baby crawled away to try whether a nice brown pebble, upon which she had had her eye for the last minute or two, was more or less pleasantly succulent than a marble.

"If Ettie hadn't chucked my marble out of the window," said Frank, "I'd have had a good lot. There's a boy at school what often buys the other boys' marbles. I'd have sold it to him for fivepence."

"But you only gave fourpence for it," said Ettie, who had still elementary notions of business transactions, "and you've usened it for long 'nough."

Frank put on a crafty, swaggering look, copied from the boy at school who did a trade in marbles. "I wouldn't have told him that," he said.

On which the scandalised mother had to leave the great issue at stake for some minutes while she tried to inculcate her six-year-old son with sounder morals than he would deem necessary at six-and-twenty.

Then they attacked the great question again.

Sixpence was the lowest sum deemed worthy by any of them for the purchase of a parental present.

For a brother or sister indulging in a birthday, twopence, or even a penny—the savings of one week only—was considered a sufficient individual outlay, especially if maternal ingenuity could be obtained to improve the investment.

But parents were different. At their mature age, it was sadly agreed in conclave, pleasure could no longer be obtained from a penny top or a twopenny doll with a china head. Expense was the chief consideration. And expense meant sixpence and nothing less.

"Well," said Frank, his hopes dashed as to realising on a marble—and more especially a marble that was lost in the grass and, after all, might be Stan's property, "I'll just have to earn some money. Tell you," his eyes grew brilliant, "I'll clean all the windows outside with the hose." He began to drag off his shoes. "I won't get a bit wet. Six windows—I'll do them for a penny a window. Undo my coat."

"Oh, oh!" said Stan forlornly, "I was just going to pick that. Frank grabs everyfrink. I want to do frings with my coat off."

But the mother firmly refused the noble proposition connected with the hose, and made her own terms. The lawn was covered with dandelion roots; she would divide it into three equal portions, and pay sixpence to each labourer who at the end of the morning could show a strip of grass unsullied by the upstart foreigners. She hunted up some blunt knives, explained how faithfulness demanded the whole body and legs of the upstart, and not the scalp only, as Frank seemed to think sufficient, and then went back to her household duties, the baby, mulct of the pebble, tucked under her arm.

For half an hour the children worked tempestuously, their sixpences looming large before their eyes. Then Frank's ardour began to abate a little, and he sat back on his heels to find variation for the monotony. He determined to divide up his allotment so that he could better see what he had done and what remained to do, and he spent twenty minutes gathering up garden sticks and laying them in lines to act as divisions. Then he counted the weeds in each division and tried to multiply them by the number of fences, but the problem presented such frightful figures he gave it up in disgust and used his knife again for fully five minutes. Ettie and Stan meanwhile plodded along patiently, and refreshed themselves as they went on by spending the great sums verbally.

Stan inclined to a "football goal." He was sure his father would enjoy it very much, and it could be easily erected in the paddock.

"But you would enjoy it, too," said Ettie, who was ever a martinet. "You oughtn't to get things you want yourself for other people's birthdays."

Frank did not uphold this view of the question; he thought the notion a very good one—for what was the use of the football till they got one? But he added gloomily that he did not think sixpence would cover the cost.

"They're only made of wood," said little Stan. But then his face fell; the notion must be abandoned. You could not wrap a football goal up in layers of tissue and brown paper and tie it with string and let it lie palpitating on the breakfast-table. And how else could a parental gift be properly presented?

He prodded away sadly and solemnly with his knife for several minutes. Then his face beamed again.

"Tell you! " he said. "Bon-bons! He laughs like anyfring when he pulls them, and he does 'joy having a paper cap on."

But Ettie was merciless.

"He only laughs to please us," she said sententiously; "grown-up people never really like bon-bons. You're just trying to get something you like yourself, you greedy boy."

Stan protested angrily. He had never even thought of getting a cocoanut, or a balloon, or a pistol, he said indignantly; and those were the things he wanted himself. He was only trying to think of things his father really needed.

Then Frank had another restless fit, occasioned by the sight of energy going to waste. Alfie was steaming round and round a path, his arms working with a circular movement, his lips hissing steam or whistling as the need might be.

"I'll make that kid help," said Frank; "he'd like it no end. Hi, Alfie! Come, and I'll teach you how to get dandies up. It's grand, I can tell you; and if you do a lot, I'll give you a marble next time I get some."

Alfie trotted up willingly, and Frank expended much patience in trying to teach him the business. But after a time the maternal Ettie looked up, and at once insisted on the cancelling of the new apprentice's bonds, on the ground that he was too young to use a knife.

So Frank flung off angrily, and went up to the house to make more noble propositions to his mother of work that he felt convinced would be far more useful to her than getting silly weeds out of a stupid lawn.

"I could whitewash the apple-tree for you," he said. "Go on, mother. Grandpa's got all his whitewashed to keep the moths out. Oh, go on, mother. Can I get a bucket?"

"But the poor old tree never bears an apple," said his mother. "We should chop it down, only that you are so fond of climbing it."

"If I whitewashed it, it would," said Frank excitedly; "dozens and dozens—and you'd never have to buy from the green-grocer. Go on, mother. You'd soon save the sixpence in apples."

The mother stated her prejudice against having whitewash on his clothes. He offered to undress and work in his vest.

"And the whitewash will do that good," he added; " you said yourself my vests were going a bad colour."

But the mother would have no transfer. She rejected his offer to paint the fowl-house, to go on errands, to stone raisins for the next Christmas pudding, to pluck a fowl. He must keep the conditions like the others, or else content himself with buying a present for the halfpenny which was at present his only visible means.

He dragged back to the dandelions, and his spirits fell lower and lower as he noticed how far ahead of him were the other two.

Stan was still harping on his certainty that it would make his father feel "ver' happy" to open a parcel and find bon-bons within. And Ettie was still casting doubts upon the purity of his motives.

"What are you going to get?" Frank asked her. "Mother says a new hammer-handle would please him, 'cause his is split. How'd it be if you gave that? You can't give tobacco or cigars, 'cause I've picked that—it's always the best present to give a man—Jim Smith says so, an' that's what he always gives his father."

"A hammer-handle! Indeed I won't!" said Ettie. "And you can keep your old tobacco and cigars—I wouldn't give such horrid things. No. I am going to make him a shaving-ball."

"A shaving-ball!" echoed Frank. "Oh, a soap thing like the one he has."

Ettie paused, almost for the first time, in her steady work, while she dilated on the utter beauty and extreme usefulness of a shaving-ball.

"You make it with tissue-paper," she said; "all lovely colours. I have decided on pink, pale green, and scarlet, and it will be tied up with string and hang over the washstand."

"But what's it for?" demanded practical Frank.

"To wipe his razor on, of course, silly," said Ettie in a superior fashion. "It must be very miserable for him having to get any common bit of paper for it every day. Think how lovely it will be for him to dry it on a pink bit one day, and a scarlet another, and green another! Or I might put purple instead of pink. Down at Green's they've got the loveliest tissue, and it's only twopence a sheet."

"Don't believe he'll like it a bit," said Stan vindictively; "you just want to make it, that's all."

"A hammer-handle 'ud be a lot usefuller," said Frank; "men don't want finnicky tissue-paper things. He'll like my cigars much betterer." Ettie jeered at him and bade him look at his dandelions. "Perhaps daddie would enjoy the cigars—when he got them."

Frank fell to work savagely.

About twelve o'clock Ettie made a joyous dash for the house, shouting that she had finished. The mother came down to examine, praised the faithful work, paid the sixpence promptly, and gave permission for an instant visit to "Green's" which palace of delight flourished at the foot of the road.

Stan she encouraged and patted and refreshed with a juicy apple. She yearned to kneel down and help his tired little fingers, but recognised that such an act would not be compatible with the high standard of justice the children demanded of her.

Frank she let alone except for the gift of an apple, realising that this was entirely his own affair—and a character-fashioning one at that. Then she hastened back to the house, where who knew what the baby might be considering edible and delectable, Alfie steaming and whistling behind her.

From the verandah she saw a sight that quieted the maternal misgivings she occasionally felt as to whether she delivered sufficient moral maxims and homilies to her offspring. Ettie, who had sprung away with her sixpence like an arrow from a taut bow, was running back along the garden path, a lovely smile spread all over her little face.

"Don't cry, Stannie!" she said; "I'll wait for you. Don't cry, I'll help you." And then Stan dried his eyes on his sleeve, and for the next twenty minutes there were two little figures stooping and rising, rising and stooping, struggling with the upstarts on his patch.

When they had finished and were starting off hand in hand with their precious sixpences, Frank tried to squeeze a few tears, hoping he might thus enlist the services of two ministers of mercy. And indeed the pathos of his situation, sitting there with three-quarters of his patch untouched, while they dashed off free, struck him so forcibly that he even managed a roar or two of anguish.

But Ettie had no pity for him.

"Serves you right!" she said; "you played while we worked. Serves you right!"

Stan, his heart warm with the help that he himself had received, suggested that he should go back and lend a hand, even though his heart sank at the prospect, so very little headway had his brother made.

But Ettie held tightly to his hand. "Teach him not to play another time," she said self-righteously. "Come on! you've got to do as I tell you, 'cause I helped you. Come on!"

So Stan, much relieved at having the matter taken out of his hands, set briskly off with her down the shining highway that led to purple tissue-paper, and scarlet, and green, and to bon-bons marvellously made of brilliant, transparent stuff that turned the whole world green or red or orange when you held it up before your eyes.

And Frank was working desperately now—with his brain. His knife still hung idle in his hand. Sixpence he must possess, and that without any more delay. It was quite useless now to attempt to earn it in this peddling way, he decided; some bolder stroke must obtain it for him. He reviewed his grandparents, his various aunts and uncles, who doubtless would come to his assistance if they knew of his extreme need. But they were all too far away and only to be reached by the medium of trains or boats. True, Friday was still two days distant, but it was insupportable that Stan, and even Ettie, a mere girl, should be in possession of their presents this very afternoon, and able to whisper about them, and hide them hastily in drawers at the sound of a footstep, and to laugh self-consciously whenever their father referred to the coming celebration.

Something made him reject the thought of an impassioned appeal to his mother, for he recognised in his worried little soul that she was playing quite fair.

Suppose he flung himself upon his father's mercy—simply put it, as between man and man, that he needed sixpence more than he ever needed it in his life before, though he could not reveal the nature of his necessity.

But no, that would make it too nearly like the way in which they had obtained their mother's birthday presents, a couple of 'you played while we worked.'" months ago; and the mortification of that method still remained with them all.

For the financial crisis on that occasion had been precisely the same as on this one, with the added drawback that they all had very bad colds and were confined to the house. So in the morning they had been obliged, with actual tears in their eyes, to ask their mother for sixpence each, and to further require her not to demand of them why they needed such large sums.

And in the afternoon—when they hoped that she had delicately wiped from her memory the morning's transaction—they were obliged to ask her to go to Green's for them and purchase one pincushion, pear-shape for preference (at a cost of sixpence), one gilt thimble lined with blue enamel (at a cost of sixpence—on no account was she to look at the threepenny line), and one shell-covered hairpin-box (at the cost of sixpence).

Certainly her surprise and delight the next morning were very consoling, but it was an experience one did not like to repeat, so Frank sadly rejected the idea of an appeal to his father.

But here was Ettie back again, Ettie with the tears streaming down her face. Just behind her ran Stan, his face ashine with sympathy.

How could the salesman at Green's realise the bitter blow he had dealt? He had seen two children flattening their noses at his window, certainly, but then that was a sight he frequently saw. And he had civilly answered question after question as to the cost of various articles, when, after gimlet-like inspection, from the outside, of his goods, they darted in to his counter, and then retired again to the street to deliberate together.

That was all the usual preliminary. Ettie had no real intention of purchasing the pack of cards, the penwiper, the ink-bottle, though she liked to feel that the choice of all these was open to her. And nothing could make Stan swerve from his allegiance to the bons, though Ettie insisted that he should inquire the price of a china dog, a purse, and a padlock, all of which she considered were suitable for her father.

But finally they went in with firmer steps and peace in their eyes.

"A sheet of purple tissue-paper, a sheet of scarlet tissue-paper, and a sheet of green tissue-paper," said Ettie happily.

The man wrapped them up and handed them to her. "Sevenpence halfpenny, miss," he said.

"Why," gasped Ettie, "I bought a sheet of blue only a month ago; it was only two-pence a sheet."

"It's gone up," said the man. "A scarcity of cotton. It is twopence halfpenny now."

One could not burst into tears before a salesman. Ettie swallowed hard, pushed the parcel back to him, and rushed from the shop. But she cried her very heart out all the way up the hill, and Stan gulped as if the disappointment were his very own. They rushed to their mother with the heartrending tale, and Frank hastened in after them, more than half expecting to hear that they had lost their sixpences.

But the tears were swiftly dried again, for to be able to avert a tragedy with three half-pence is a power often blessedly bestowed upon grown-ups.

Frank followed them to the gate as they danced off again.

"Look here," he said, "will you wait for me if I'm only a quarter of an hour?"

Ettie's sorrow had softened her heart.

"You couldn't be finished so soon," she said, "even if we both helped."

"Oh, I don't mean dandelions," said Frank contemptuously, as he walked on with them. "I've got a very good plan, only I'm not going to tell you." He stopped at the gate of a dear old lady whom they occasionally went to see.

"You don't mean to borrow sixpence!" said Ettie with bated breath.

"Course I don't, stupid," said Frank.

"You can't ask her to give you it," Ettie said.

"As if I would!" blustered Frank. "You wait here for me, that's all."

A remembrance had come flashing to him how on one visit to this dear lady he had fallen off the roof of her summer-house on to the gravelly path beneath, and made his knees bleed so badly that she had comforted him with bread and strawberry jam, and given him sixpence for further consolation.

He strode up the path, and there was the dear lady snipping off roses.

He shook hands politely and removed his cap, and answered cheerfully to questions that related to the health of the different members of his family. Everyone was all right, he affirmed, and Baby was very well and hadn't swallowed a marble.

The old lady looked a little puzzled, since he bore no message, and it was not his habit to call on her alone, and before lunch, in his holland tunic. He had come before in his best sailor suit, and accompanied by his mother; still, she was pleasant with him, and pointed out where her little dog was that he had played with on his last visit.

But he seemed to have lost interest in dogs.

"Can I climb on the roof of your summer-house?" he said nervously.

"Certainly," said the old lady. She had long realised that that particular roof appealed passionately to the legs of all her young visitors, and she had quite forgotten this one's tumble. She went on calmly snipping her roses and considering what biscuits she had most suited to her present caller.

She turned to ask his opinion as to the merits of Mixed or Gingerbreads.

And he fell deliberately off his perch before her startled eyes!

His knees bled freely again, and one of his hands was so very badly scratched that she had to bathe it in warm water and wrap it tenderly up in white muslin.

And she administered biscuits both in their Mixed and Gingerbread forms, and finally—he had held himself so bravely under his pain—she presented him with a shilling.

If it had been sixpence, he could have borne it, perhaps.

But a shilling!

He found himself weeping on her neck and confessing his crime, and sobbing that he wouldn't have done it "only it was father's birthday." He even tendered the shilling back, but the dear lady merely kissed him again and slipped the coin back in his pocket.

Ettie and Stan were faithfully waiting without the gate, and were loud in amaze at his moneyed condition. He swaggered to the shop with them and spent fully half an hour in examining articles that bore the extremely dignified price of "one shilling" marked upon them. Even when Ettie and Stan had a parcel each securely enwrapped in tissue-paper, he was still carrying his coin and staring unhappily, now in the tobacconist's window, now in the stationer's.

"Oh!" said Ettie at last, her patience at an end, "I'm going home. Come on, Stan." They turned to leave him, a little jealousy of his wealth tugging at their hearts.

Then to their amaze they found that he was following them. He walked through the gateway and marched off to the patch where his knife lay. He took his coat off and fell to work. Lunch intervened, but he refused to leave off, and Ettie, marvelling, brought him his food as bidden by her mother.

Finally his sixpence was earned, and he breathed a deep sigh of relief, the doubt that had oppressed him, as to whether his father would derive pleasure from a present not quite honestly obtained, laid for ever.

Next morning the old lady found a very dubious-looking envelope had been slipped beneath her door.

On opening it, her shilling rolled out.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1958, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.