The Day of the Snail
THE DAY OF THE SNAIL.
By ETHEL TURNER.
"LE'S c'llect snails!"
The brilliant idea was Stan's.
Other collections, of course, had long been rife in a house that held five children. Ettie would have informed you before you had fairly seated yourself in a chair, had you gone visiting the Browns, that she collected postcards. And did you evince the faintest interest, as, being naturally polite, you may have felt compelled to do, she would have darted off to her own quarters, and before you had fairly realised what it was you were interested in, you would have had a bulky album plumped down on your knee, and landscapes and actresses and funny pictures and cathedrals would have rapidly presented themselves to your distracted vision. And you would have gone away solemnly pledged to add to the collection should you at any time be in such perilous climes as far from Australia as Africa or Germany or Japan. More especially Japan. For an envied little friend had a card sent from that land of pot-hats and kimonos, and Frank declared he could smell gunpowder on it.
You would leave the house actually promising yourself to drop a line to a friend who had a friend who knew somebody in Tokio or Kobe, requesting as a favour that a card be at once posted to the address of Miss Ettie Brown, who yearned inexpressibly for a postcard smelling of gunpowder.
Frank collected cigarette pictures. It was in vain that his parents tried to wean him from a hobby that might awaken a desire in him some day to go deeper into the packet than the picture. Indeed, Mrs. Brown once or twice, on emptying his pockets where he kept the treasured things, had a troubled vision of her chubby six-year-old grown into the cheap youth with the tissue-wrapped weed between his teeth, and a tilted straw hat on his head, and a loud necktie below his high collar.
She made haste to present him with a stamp album and a collection of foreign stamps. But his interest in them was but languid; it was possible he suspected the pursuit might be conducive to strengthening his geography.
They tried him with coins, shells, skeleton leaves, and such, but preferences are born, not made—at all events, not made by parents. Johnnie Meymott, at school, admired hero and swaggering friend, collected cigarette pictures, and all other collections were savourless to Frank. So the mother still sighed, and found famous cricketers and pretty actresses and such in the knickerbocker pockets of her eldest son.
But it was Stan who, wearied of match-box ends and flower-seeds and butterflies, proposed to collect snails.
His father, tying up the rose-creepers on the verandah one afternoon, listened with bated breath to the proposal, and held up a warning and insistent finger to Mrs. Brown, who was thoughtlessly beginning to crush so apparently uncleanly an enterprise.
"Not a word!" he whispered, "for pity's sake not a word!"
Mrs. Brown stitched on, silenced but surprised.
Mr. Brown feigned absorption in his task of teaching the young rose-branches where to shoot.
Down below on the grass, the three elder children discussed the new proposition.
"Why," said Stan, "there were free of them this morning on the pansies only—I'd soon be up to a hundred."
"I know better places," said Frank. "If once I started, I'd soon pass you—on the ficus, where you can't reach, I'd scoop them down like winking."
"You don't know places I know," said Stan, "much betterer than the ficus. Only I won't tell."
"Pooh!" said Ettie, "I'd very soon be past you both. I know of places where there are millions. I've a great mind to start myself."
"You mustn't, you mustn't!" shouted Stan. "It's my plan. No one can do it but me. Can they, Frank?
Frank ever had the judicial mind.
"N-no," he said. "He thought of it first, Ettie, so you can't. But I can if I like, 'cause I gave, him my locust."
"But you've got your cig'rette collection," said Stan anxiously.
"All right, young one, you just hand that locust back!" shouted Frank.
Stan was unwilling to do this. It was fluttering in his curved hands at the present moment, and had several times whirred passionately, thus plainly showing that it was a very superior locust to the silent ones that generally fell to his lot.
"I shall collect," said Ettie; "he only said it first. I should have said it in another minute. Wasn't it that snail on the step made you think of it, Stan?"
Stan, after a little consideration, admitted that it was, but he also let it be understood that a germ of the deep idea had been fecundating in his brain ever since he had left his collection of match-box ends out in the garden all night, and they had blown away.
"Well," said Ettie, "I saw that snail, too, and I was just going to think of collecting them, only you went and spoke first."
"All right, I'll collect postcards, too, and then you'll only get half of what mother gets sent to her."
"Yah, vou haven't got an album!"
"I'll buy one."
"Where'll you get your money?"
This cruel thrust left Stan speechless. His last halfpenny had been coaxed out of his money-box this very morning on a knife-point—the key having been lost—and had been recklessly squandered on a bull's-eye, a form of confectionery not particularly liked by any of them, but always considered the best investment for size and durability when one's fortunes were at the low ebb of a halfpenny.
The memory was not a soothing one; the bull's-eye had been a particularly "hot" one, and after a desperate effort not to waste it, Stan had been forced to give in and to cast it incontinently forth upon the garden, where at the present moment he could see it lying under a geranium bush, its pleasing red and white stripes almost obscured by its covering of depredating ants.
No, the remembrance was not soothing. A red surge of anger swept up in the boy's face.
"I'll put my l-locust down your b-b-back in a m-minute!" he stuttered.
"My locust," put in Frank. "Here, hand it back this minute. If I'm not to start snails, you shan't have my locust."
"B-but I gave you my wh-white alley for it!" spluttered Stan indignantly. Frank had forgotten this little fact for the moment.
"A locust like that's worth more than a white alley," he said—"tell you, I'll fight you for it." They had all forgotten parental presence on the verandah.
Stan recollected that he had been rather successful lately in sparring matches with his brother.
"A'right," he said cheerfully, "wait till I put him in a safe place."
He found a jam-tin and carefully put it over his capture.
Then he stepped lightly up to his brother, animation on his face, and his fists shut fast.
And of course Ettie interfered, as usual.
"You shan't!" she said. "Stop immedjutly! You know mamma says you're not to fight."
"Clear out of this, or you'll get something you don't like in a minute!" was Frank's fraternal admonition, and he gave her a push out of the way.
Ettie remembered that she was always more successful with little Stan.
She caught hold of one of his eager little fists.
"Stop immedjutly!" she repeated.
Stan twisted round unexpectedly, and, putting his hands firmly behind her, sent her flying down the grass bank on the top of which they were standing. She had to run a considerable distance on the lawn to keep her balance, and in the meantime the brothers fell-to happily, in excellent heart with each other.
Of course, Mrs. Brown started up at once, casting quite an indignant glance at her husband for letting things go so far.
But he pushed her gently back into her chair.
"Quietly, quietly," he said; "just you go on with your sewing. I don't often have a chance like this for observing my family. There's no animosity in that fight at all—let them alone. And now I want to see what Ettie will do."
He was speedily afforded a chance. Ah, nature!—sad little feminine nature!—deprived of the swift blood-letting method of fair fists!
Ettie flew to the jam-tin and released Stan's precious captive, hostage for the white alley, locust of superior wings and whirr!
It rose dizzily for a moment, weakened by its captivity, changed its course, and flew with a flapping of its mica-like wings right between the fighters, brushed actually against Stan's cheek, and then with a strident rattle swerved joyously off to the nearest gum tree.
"That was a big one," said Stan, shielding himself adroitly.
"Not as big as the one I caught for you," said Frank.
"There!" said Ettie, and flourished the empty jam-tin vindictively.
Mrs. Brown again attempted to rise up and interfere. Ettie really deserved punishment, she said; it was clearly a case for maternal interference now.
But again Mr. Brown forced her sewing back upon her and would not let her stir.
"Attention!" he said. "This is an object lesson. Attention!"
Mrs. Brown looked a very reluctant scholar, however.
The fight had ceased at the very instant of Ettie's triumphant "There!"
Stan's little face discoloured with red that bore no relation to the red of energy that had been there a moment since.
He gave one unbelieving look at his undoer and then with a shout made for her. She gave a giggle of terror and fled before him.
Over the beds, up and down the bank, round and round the house they flew, Ettie nimbly on in front, Stan panting behind, Frank keeping up with his brother all the time, urging him, encouraging him when he flagged.
At last they had her in a corner, and she turned at bay.
"Two to one, 'tisn't fair," she said.
Frank looked indignant. He always upheld fair play, and at the present moment most certainly was only regarding himself as umpire—with a possible bias against the aggressor.
"I'm not going to touch you," he said scornfully, and thrust his hands in his pockets as a guarantee of good faith.
But what might Stan do even now he had cornered his enemy? Girls might not be hit, or pinched, or kicked—parental persuasion, both moral and physical, had at last convinced him of this highly unjust fact. It was even against the canons of the household now to pull their hair, an act that had once carried much satisfaction with it.
The victor panted and sought wildly for a vindication.
The doll, still tucked under the girl's arm, suggested one. He gave an unexpected snatch at its pink-and-purple frock, swung it round his head one moment, and the next sent it flying well over the fence.
Again Mrs. Brown started to her feet. There were almost tears in her eyes this time. She could hardly believe her children could act thus to each other—her little children, who not an hour back had been sitting, arms round each other's shoulders, absorbed in the same book. Why, Ettie was only this morning loving and secretly making a set of reins for Stan, and had happily spent her last hoarded pennies on bells for them!
"I must interfere—I must, indeed," she said.
"No, no, no!" said Mr. Brown. "Can't you see this is the crisis? Now, I beg of you to let the children alone. Ettie has evidently been taught one lesson by the boys. Not long ago she would have come crying to us to tell of Stan's misdeeds."
So Mrs. Brown sat pathetically still while her eldest daughter, now crying loudly, dashed across the grass and out of the front gate.
Frank followed her, his hands in his pockets, his judicial air still lingering.
Stan brought up in the rear. His face was still red, but a hope tugged at his tender little heart that the doll had fallen on to a bush and was not injured irreparably.
Mrs. Brown watched the gate for fully five minutes before any of the three little figures returned. And then in came Ettie, with Evelyn Ann tucked under her arm and something carefully guarded in one hand. The boys were alongside, each carefully cherishing a hand-held treasure. Perfect serenity was upon each face; the quarrel might have been five years ago.
For there had been a friendly bush, and Evelyn Ann had merely subsided comfortably among light branches after her sudden aerial sail. Ettie could not even find a scratch upon her.
And under the bush were snails, precisely three of them. Two were fine in size, but one was small and in some way appealed to Stan's locust-bereaved heart. He picked it up, and it nestled confidingly in his palm—or he considered that it did, which amounts to precisely the same thing.
"Tell you," he said, and flung back his head with reckless nobility, "we'll all c'llect. You and Et can have those"—he touched the striped ones with his boot-toe; "I only want poor little lonely sad ones in my c'llection."
And thus the flag of peace waved once more over the garden, and the children dashed about, the best of friends, looking for boxes for the collections, and choice leaves upon which to feed their prospective menageries.
Mr. Brown left his creepers and went down most genially to help them. He brought out some wire gauze and tacked it over the fronts of the three wooden boxes that they had dragged out of an old shed. He was prodigal of trouble in making the cages secure, and he cut out and fitted a small door in the back of each box for the introduction of leaves and other snail-sustaining foods.
The children were enchanted with his unexpected help and interest.
Mrs. Brown understood him now, realised why he had been from the first so stricken with this brilliant idea of Stan's. He had seen a sudden rapt vision of the kindly earth giving forth her increase of cabbages and primroses and seedlings without the reluctant aid of himself, lantern-armed, making dreary nocturnal visits to gather up the loathly little depredators. No wonder he chuckled and declared to Mrs. Brown that the child has an important place in the universe, after all.
In a week Frank was the proud possessor of forty-nine fine specimens, Ettie's collection numbered twenty-eight— as she pathetically added, it would have been thirty-three, only once she left the gate open for an hour, and five escaped. Strangely enough, too, Frank added precisely five to his collection the following day, and Ettie always maintained that they were hers that had been lost and were now found. She declared that she knew them by their eyes and the way they moved their horns. But the things had been found so far from the boxes that Mr. Brown, arbitrating in the matter, had been forced to give the verdict to Frank; though he did say to Mrs. Brown it was not unlikely that the things, maddened by captivity, had put on a spurt to get away that broke all records of snail travelling.
Stan possessed fifteen only, but then he was harder to satisfy than his brother and sister. The fat, complacent variety he would not touch. But a miserable, dwarfed specimen, or a little, pale grey one with transparent shell and hardly visible horns, was at once tenderly carried of to "The Orphanage" as his home was swiftly dubbed, and regaled upon broken biscuits, chopped potatoes, lettuce leaves, and similar luxuries.
"Poor lil thing," he would say, regarding it with a swelling heart. "There 'twas zust hanging on to a dirty ole wall, an' nofing to eat anywhere; an' now look at it."
But the new addition used to seem bewildered by such plenty, and would remain motionless and with horns tightly drawn in, even when Stan hospitably pushed a fragment of lettuce right into its shell, or stuck under its very nose a doll's saucer containing milk, and adjured it to "Come an' have a nice drink!"
The baker used to be invited on frequent occasions to view the collections down at the old apple tree. And even on the days when the distribution of the staff of life around the suburb left him no time for a personal visit, he would inquire genially after the health of "The Monster," and advise its fortunate possessor, Frank, to enter it for the next agricultural show, where he declared it would undoubtedly carry off a blue ribbon.
The butcher could not be brought to evince any interest in snails, but the postman was really a delightful person.
Not only did he inquire after the well-being of the creatures, and, when time allowed, permit himself to be dragged to the tree to give an opinion as to whether the Mottled Snail was dead or merely in a "drought sleep," but more than once, passing through the neighbours' garden, he picked up a specimen and brought it along in his bag to be added to one of the collections.
Visitors to the house were always thoughtfully regarded by the children for some time after their arrival, and then classified in their minds as likely to be interested in snails or impervious to such attractions. The latter were left severely alone, but the other approved and favoured class would be eagerly invited to the menageries to view the "sweetest little snail that ever was" or the "monstrousest fellow you ever saw."
There came the new Rector of the district one afternoon. The old one had looked quite disgusted when he heard of the snail hobby, so the children did not venture to say anything of it to this one, thinking probably that the Church in general was against the inoffensive little creatures they themselves so delighted in.
But after a time the talk turned upon flowers, and the Rector, an ardent gardener, bewailed to Mrs. Brown the loss of a bed of choice calceolaria seedlings that he had been watching.
"I've had a good many gardens in my time," he said, "and suffered from a good many pests, from green caterpillar down to rabbits and kangaroo rats. But anything to equal the snail scourge in this Rectory garden I have yet to find."
He became aware that three children, who had hitherto kept very modestly in the background of the room and only had spoken when spoken to, were now pressed up close to him, their eyes lustrous, their lips apart as if to drink in his words.
"If you'd ask us over——"
"Can we come down——"
Then Mrs. Brown laughed out and explained how they, too, had suffered from the scourge, but were now quite free from it, the plague being now concentrated in one spot under an apple tree.
Of course the Rector demanded to be shown the spot, and the children, delight in their eyes, bore him off.
He was deeply impressed.
Such well-fed creatures he declared he had never met—no, not even excepting the ones that, gorged with his own calceolarias, had met his stricken gaze only a few mornings back.
"Oh," said Ettie, "mother said she'd have the c'llections all taked away and drownded it we forgot to feed them. An' we've never forgotten one single sol'tary time—only Frank, one day."
"I didn't forget," contended Frank; "I gave them some, but it takes a lot more feeding for my forty-nine than it does for her misrubble little twenty-eight."
Ettie hastened to instance the five that she considered not lost, but gone behind—in fact, into Frank's preserves.
Then she went on to further' vindicate the hobby.
"They were never, never cruel to them or teased them—mother wouldn't allow it—only Frank, just one time."
"I wasn't being cruel," said Frank hotly. "I was trying to be good to them. I knew I wouldn't like to have to lump my house round with me wherever I went, and I only tried to poke some of them out, Mr. Parker, and let them loose."
Mr. Parker gave him credit for his sympathy, while acknowledging it was not expressed in a way calculated to take well and give pleasure to the shell inhabitants.
Stan drew attention to his latest Oliver Twist.
Did Mr. Parker think its horns were growing any fatter, or did he think it looked very sick?
"Perhaps it is still cutting its teeth," smiled Mr. Parker; "it looks very young."
"Teeth!" said Ettie.
"Teeth!" said Frank. "Oh, you're having fun with us—snails don't have teeth."
"Oh, just a few," said Mr. Parker—"just 14,175 teeth each, that's all—just 135 transverse rows, with 105 teeth in each row. Come down to the Rectory some day, and I will show you one under a microscope."
The children were gasping—14,175 teeth!
Frank recovered first.
"Now I know what's the matter with Motley," he said. "She's been moping in a corner for days. I put some sugar icing in the cage, and she's got toothache in all her teeth."
"A colossal toothache, in fact!" laughed Mr. Parker.
He told them other interesting things about their pets, drew attention to the foot or sole on which each progressed, and which was flattened beneath and fringed at the edge. One foot and fourteen thousand teeth—more room in Snail-land for dentists than bootmakers, he said. And no, "Stripey" wasn't dead. In drought time like this, as well as at the approach of winter, snails closed their shells with a membrane called the epiphragm, formed by the drying of the mucous substance which they secrete, and become inactive and torpid.
The children were enchanted with their new friend, and hung on his arm to the gate, and thanked him again and again for his kind permission to "collect" all over his garden.
In a week the collections stood as follows: Frank's, one hundred and fifty-six; Ettie's, one hundred and seventeen (one hundred and twenty-two counting the five that were lost, and were found—by Frank); Stan's—still open, like the band of the Pirates of Penzance, only to well-accredited orphans—sixty-four.
And then there came another visitor to the house.
The mother and father were away on this occasion—gone with Alfie and the baby for a week's restful holiday on the mountains. An aunt had come to watch over the well-being of the house and the three elder children, but she was too busy to take the slightest interest in snails, and after one visit to the apple tree had shuddered and moved away.
The second visitor was young: and beautiful. She had come to call with her mother upon the aunt, and the little ones—artists in their way, as most little ones are—sat absorbing with pleasure her floating muslin dress, with its delicate pattern of wistaria all over it, the lace ruffles that fell over her hands, her drooping hat of lace, and other loveliness crowning her golden hair and shadowing the china blue of her eyes.
She was far too lovely and far off a vision to invite to the neighbourhood of the fowl-houses and for the purpose of seeing snails, so even Frank made no mention of the things, but allowed Ettie to produce her postcard album unchallenged.
But after a time the aunt and the lady drew their chairs more closely together and warmed up to the subject of servants, and the Vision of Delight grew restless thereat and wandered about the room and then out upon the verandah. The children hovered respectfully about her. She did not take much notice of them, but then, again, she did not actually repel them as long as they did not come too close to her flounces. The old apple tree was in bloom—the Vision decided that a spray of blossom tucked into her waist was the one thing needed to make her altogether irresistible at a little garden party to which she and her friend were going later in the afternoon.
"How very sweet! Would you mind if I went and gathered just a little, darlings?" she said.
The children looked quite dismayed, but she found it was not that they grudged her the blossom.
"It—you—we—our snails are down there," Frank blurted out at last. "You mightn't like to see them."
The Vision never expected to comprehend such vague, unknown things as children, so she made no attempt to do so in this instance, but merely continued to float in the direction of the blossoms.
"P'raps," said little Stan yearningly, as she drew near the spot, "p'raps you don't mind snails—when they're lil lonely ones like mine."
But the Vision was absorbed in breaking off a branch of the exquisite pink and white blossom just above her head.
Frank edged a little closer to the Flounces. His face was red. "I suppose, even when they're beauties like my Monster, you—you wouldn't care to look at them."
Ettie pointed a timid finger at her particular cage. "If—if you do look, those are mine," she said. "A hundred and twenty-two, only five of them have acc'dent'ly got into Frank's cage."
The Vision's eyes, having had all they wanted of the apple tree, fell to the cages with their slowly, slowly moving masses of shells.
"What on earth are they?" she said. "They can't be snails."
Frank made a desperate fight for the establishment of his endangered repute with the Vision.
"They're interestinger than you'd think," he pleaded. "They—they've got 40,000 teeth put on in transparent rows, and they've only got one foot, and when they want to shut it up, they make a gluey stuff called a member or a epitaph."
But the Flounces simply fled.
"Oh, you horrid, dirty, cruel little children! " she said, her æsthetic nature really shaken to the centre.
Coming home from the mountains, Mr. Brown opined to Mrs. Brown that the boxes of curious pebbles they had in their luggage would displace the snails in the affections of the children, and that he would be shortly afforded the opportunity he had wanted of quietly disposing of the whole menagerie.
"And how are the dear snails?" the mother said, when, greetings over, they were being escorted round the estate to see the progress made in the kitten and chicken worlds during their absence.
The children displayed three absolutely empty cages.
"It was very cruel to keep live things abutted up," said Ettie drearily, but with the dignity bestowed by her very recently awakened conscience.
"An' very dirty," added Frank sadly.
"But—but," said Mr. Brown with extreme anxiety, "what have you done with them?"
"We letted them out," said the children together.
"But where—where?" gasped Mr. Brown.
"In the garden, of course," they said.
Little Stan buried his unhappy nose in the bend of his mother's arm.
"I put my lil lonely ones in the cabbages," he said; "but I know"—and a sob shook him—"they won't get enough to eat."