Father sat watching them, worrying. They should not be so cowed. At eight and ten years old, they should be full of fun and laughter, and eating with good appetite. He shifted his eyes to his wife at the other end of the table. She sat stiff and frozen faced, though her eyes kept shifting toward the girls, watching their every move.
Just as he was about to ask where the boys were, he heard them. Pounding down the stairs, shouting and laughing – they sounded like a veritable army of boys. He turned his head to the door and watched as they burst into the dining room, like Boers attacking British troops. The boys flung themselves into their chairs and snatched pieces of toast, smeared them with preserves and tried to cram the entire piece into their mouths. Father frowned and spoke sternly.
“Alexander, Christopher, how dare you come into the dining room like that?” he demanded. “You know you are not to charge around like wild men in the house. And look at you! When was the last time either of you bathed, or changed your clothes? And your hair looks like rats nests. And your table manners are deplorable. I will not stand for such behaviour. You are both old enough to know better. Now up you go to your rooms and clean yourselves. Go quietly! And you can do without breakfast. Next time I see you, I expect to see two decently clad, clean young men. Is that clear?”
The boys looked shocked, but quickly climbed to their feet. “Yes, Father. Sorry.” They walked out of the room and headed back up stairs. Mother looked up. “But Godfrey, they need their food – they’re growing boys!” she said.
Father looked at her. “We will discuss this later, Pauline,” he said. “Meanwhile – Susan, Sarah, would you like eggs and toast instead of the porridge?”
The girls looked up, faces brightening some. “Oh, yes please, Father, if we may.” they chorused. He nodded to the servant who placed a plate of eggs, bacon and toast in front of each girl. Father moved the dish of preserves over where they could reach it, and settled down to eat his meal. Mother took a deep breath, frowning, then shook her head and said nothing. As soon as the girls had finished their meal, Father gave them permission to leave the table.
“Why don’t you take your ball and go into the back garden and play for a while?” he said. They paused on the way to the door, cast an apprehensive glance at their Mother, and said “May we, really, Father?” When he said they could, they went off happily, talking softly.
Mother waited until the servants left the room, and then turned in anger. “Godfrey, how could you? I have been trying and trying to make ladies out of those two, and you not only encourage them to eat unsuitable food, but give them permission to run around like hooligans! And the way you treated the boys – making them go without their breakfast, and calling them wild men. Really, Godfrey!”
Did you not make the girls go without lunch yesterday? And why? Because they did the only thing they could think of that would not get them in trouble. They did not make a mess, make any noise, leave the grounds without an escort; they went upstairs to the attic. A place in the house, where they could do some exploring. So they got dusty and covered in cobwebs. Even at their worst, they have never been the disgraceful sight Alexander and Christopher presented this morning. And they are twelve and fourteen. Why the difference in the treatment of your children? I will not allow it any longer. From now on the girls will be allowed to play and get exercise. They will be allowed to go out into the field behind the house and explore, and run, as much as they like. And if they get dirty – that is what children do. I really do not understand why you are so hard on them.”
Pauline sat and stared at him, stunned at his words. Then she bent her head and sat for a while, deep in thought. “You are correct, Godfrey, I have been very unfair to the girls. You have made me look deeply into my heart.” She looked up again, her face sad. “I know what the trouble is. I was so shocked by my sister’s wild behaviour. I was so ashamed of her – riding around in those awful bloomers! And bathing at the beach with young men – her behaviour was just too much for me. I did not want my girls to grow up like their aunt Lizzy.”
“Hmph – nothing wrong with Lizzy, there never was. The trouble is you are still old fashioned, and she is modern. Do you know that Susan and Sarah play field hockey at school? And go on hikes in the woods, and get thoroughly disheveled? They need freedom to be children while they are. And do for goodness sake, take the boys in hand. They have no more manners then heathens. I will discipline them when I am home, but you know that I must be away a lot. Promise me you will be even handed in dealing with them all, and do let the girls have some freedom, please.”
“I’m sorry, Godfrey, you are correct, I have been being much too lenient with the boys, and too strict with the girls. From now on, I will try my best to do as you ask. All I really want is for us to be able to be proud of our children.”
School holidays were almost over, and Susan and Sarah were walking across the field, looking for the little mice, and the moles and other things they had discovered.
“We will be back in school by this time next week,” Susan said. “I will be sorry to go. This has been the best summer ever!”
“Yes,” Sarah agreed. “I’m so happy that Mother is so nice to us now. And Alex and Chris aren’t getting away with all the awful things they did before. Being home is great, now. Come on, let’s go home and tell Mother how much we love her.”
They joined hands and ran swiftly across the field, laughing and happy. Alex and Chris met them, and all four headed home. Not only were the girls happier, but they were better friends now with their brothers. They knew they were part of a happy family, at last.