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The children were to pay an afternoon visit on the following day to Aunt Pullet at Garum Firs, where they would hear Uncle Pullet's musical-box.
Already, at twelve o'clock, Mrs. Tulliver had on her visiting costume. Maggie was frowning, and twisting her shoulders, that she might, if possible, shrink away from the prickliest of tuckers; while her mother was saying, "Don't, Maggie, my dear—don't look so ugly!" Tom's cheeks were looking very red against his best blue suit, in the pockets of which he had, to his great joy, stowed away all the contents of his everyday pockets.
As for Lucy, she was just as pretty and neat as she had been yesterday, and she looked with wondering pity at Maggie pouting and writhing under the tucker. While waiting for the time to set out, they were allowed to build card-houses, as a suitable amusement for boys and girls in their best clothes.
Tom could build splendid houses, but Maggie's would never bear the laying on of the roof. It was always so with the things that Maggie made, and Tom said that no girls could ever make anything.
But it happened that Lucy was very clever at building; she handled the cards so lightly, and moved so gently, that Tom admired her houses as well as his own—the more readily because she had asked him to teach her. Maggie, too, would have admired Lucy's houses if Tom had not laughed when her houses fell, and told her that she was "a stupid."
"Don't laugh at me, Tom!" she burst out angrily. "I'm not a stupid. I know a great many things you don't."
"Oh, I dare say, Miss Spitfire! I'd never be such a cross thing as you—making faces like that. Lucy doesn't do so. I like Lucy better than you. I wish Lucy was my sister."
"Then it's wicked and cruel of you to wish so," said Maggie, starting up from her place on the floor and upsetting Tom's wonderful pagoda. She really did not mean it, but appearances were against her, and Tom turned white with anger, but said nothing. He would have struck her, only he knew it was cowardly to strike a girl.
Maggie stood in dismay and terror while Tom got up from the floor and walked away. Lucy looked on mutely, like a kitten pausing from its lapping.
"O Tom," said Maggie at last, going half-way towards him, "I didn't mean to knock it down—indeed, indeed, I didn't."
Tom took no notice of her, but took, instead, two or three hard peas out of his pocket, and shot them with his thumbnail against the window, with the object of hitting a bluebottle which was sporting in the spring sunshine.
Thus the morning had been very sad to Maggie, and when at last they set out Tom's coldness to her all through their walk spoiled the fresh air and sunshine for her. He called Lucy to look at the half-built bird's nest without caring to show it to Maggie, and peeled a willow switch for Lucy and himself without offering one to Maggie. Lucy had said, "Maggie, shouldn't you like one?" but Tom was deaf.
Still, the sight of the peacock spreading his tail on the stackyard wall, just as they reached the aunt's house, was enough to turn the mind from sadness. And this was only the beginning of beautiful sights at Garum Firs.
All the farmyard life was wonderful there—bantams, speckled and top-knotted; Friesland hens, with their feathers all turned the wrong way; Guinea-fowls that flew and screamed, and dropped their pretty-spotted feathers; pouter pigeons, and a tame magpie; nay, a goat, and a wonderful dog, half mastiff, half bull-dog, as large as a lion!
Uncle Pullet had seen the party from the window, and made haste to unbar and unchain the front door. Aunt Pullet, too, appeared at the doorway, and as soon as her sister was within hearing said, "Stop the children, Bessy; don't let 'em come up the doorsteps. Sally's bringing the old mat and the duster to rub their shoes."
"You must come with me into the best room," she went on as soon as her guests had passed the portal.
"May the children come too, sister?" inquired Mrs. Tulliver, who saw that Maggie and Lucy were looking rather eager.
"Well," said Aunt Pullet, "it'll perhaps be safer for the girls to come; they'll be touching something if we leave 'em behind."
When they all came down again Uncle Pullet said that he reckoned the missis had been showing her bonnet—that was what had made them so long upstairs.
Meanwhile Tom had spent the time on the edge of the sofa directly opposite his Uncle Pullet, who looked at him with twinkling gray eyes and spoke to him as "young sir."
"Well, young sir, what do you learn at school?" was the usual question with Uncle Pullet; whereupon Tom always looked sheepish, rubbed his hand across his face, and answered, "I don't know."
The appearance of the little girls made Uncle Pullet think of some small sweetcakes, of which he kept a stock under lock and key for his own private eating on wet days; but the three children had no sooner got them between their fingers than Aunt Pullet desired them to abstain from eating till the tray and the plates came, since with those crisp cakes they would make the floor "all over" crumbs.
Lucy didn't mind that much, for the cake was so pretty she thought it was rather a pity to eat it; but Tom, watching his chance while the elders were talking, hastily stowed his own cake in his mouth at two bites. As for Maggie, she presently let fall her cake, and by an unlucky movement crushed it beneath her foot—a source of such disgrace to her that she began to despair of hearing the musical snuff-box to-day, till it occurred to her that Lucy was in high favour enough to venture on asking for a tune.
So she whispered to Lucy, and Lucy, who always did what she was asked to do, went up quietly to her uncle's knee, and, blushing all over her neck while she fingered her necklace, said, "Will you please play us a tune, uncle?" But Uncle Pullet never gave a too ready consent. "We'll see about it," was the answer he always gave, waiting till a suitable number of minutes had passed.
Perhaps the waiting increased Maggie's enjoyment when the tune began. For the first time she quite forgot that she had a load on her mind—that Tom was angry with her; and by the time "Hush, ye pretty warbling choir" had been played, her face wore that bright look of happiness, while she sat still with her hands clasped, which sometimes comforted her mother that Maggie could look pretty now and then, in spite of her brown skin. But when the magic music ceased, she jumped up, and running towards Tom, put her arm round his neck and said, "O Tom, isn't it pretty?"
Now Tom had his glass of cowslip wine in his hand, and Maggie jerked him so as to make him spill half of it. He would have been an extreme milksop if he had not said angrily, "Look there, now!"
"Why don't you sit still, Maggie?" her mother said peevishly.
"Little gells mustn't come to see me if they behave in that way," said Aunt Pullet.
"Why, you're too rough, little miss," said Uncle Pullet.
Poor Maggie sat down again, with the music all chased out of her soul.
Mrs. Tulliver wisely took an early opportunity of suggesting that, now they were rested after their walk, the children might go and play out of doors; and Aunt Pullet gave them leave, only telling them not to go off the paved walks in the garden, and if they wanted to see the poultry fed, to view them from a distance on the horse-block.
For a long time after the children had gone out the elders sat deep in talk about family matters, till at last Mrs. Pullet, observing that it was tea-time, turned to reach from a drawer a fine damask napkin, which she pinned before her in the fashion of an apron. Then the door was thrown open; but instead of the tea-tray, Sally brought in an object so startling that both Mrs. Pullet and Mrs. Tulliver gave a scream, causing Uncle Pullet to swallow a lozenge he was sucking—for the fifth time in his life, as he afterwards noted.
The startling object was no other than little Lucy, with one side of her person, from her small foot to her bonnet-crown, wet and discoloured with mud, holding out two tiny blackened hands, and making a very piteous face.
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