Chapter X. Australia's Mishap
 
    "'T is one thing to be tempted,
    Another thing to fall."

Through the long, sunny afternoon Mrs. Wiggs sang over her ironing, and Asia worked diligently in her flower-bed. Around the corner of the shed which served as Cuba's dwelling-place, Australia and Europena made mud-pies. Peace and harmony reigned in this shabby Garden of Eden until temptation entered, and the weakest fell.

"'T ain't no fun jes' keepin' on makin' mud-pies," announced Australia, after enough pastry had been manufactured to start a miniature bakery.

"Wish we could make some white cakes, like they have at Mr. Bagby's," said Europena.

"Could if we had some whitewash. I'll tell you what's let do! Let 's take some of Asia's paint she's goin' to paint the fence with, an' make 'em green on top."

"Ma wouldn't like it," protested Europena; "besides, I don't want my little pies green."

"I'm goin' to," said Australia, beginning her search for the paint-can. "It won't take but a little teeny bit; they'll never miss it."

After some time the desired object was discovered on a shelf in the shed. Its high position enhanced its value, giving it the cruel fascination of the unattainable.

"Could you stand up on my soldiers, like the man at the show?" demanded Australia.

"I'd fall off," said Europena.

"'Fraid-cat!" taunted her sister, in disgust. "Do you reckon you could hol' the chair while I climbed up on the back?"

"It ain't got no bottom."

"Well, it don't need to have no bottom if I'm goin' to stand on its back," said Australia, sharply. Leaders of great enterprises must of necessity turn deaf ears to words of discouragement.

"You might git killed," persisted Europena.

"'T wouldn't matter," said Australia, loftily; "'t wouldn't be but the seventh time. I got three more times to die. 'Fore you was borned I was drowned out in the country, that was one time; then I fell in the ash-bar'l and was dead, that's two times; an'--an' then I et the stove-polish, that's four times; an' I can't 'member, but the nex' time will be seven. I don't keer how much I git killed, till it's eight times, then I'm goin' to be good all the time, 'cause when you are dead nine times they put you in a hole an' throw dirt on you!"

Australia had become so absorbed in her theory of reincarnation that she had forgotten the paint, but the bottomless chair recalled it.

"Now, you lay 'crost the chair, Europena, an' I'll climb up," she commanded.

Europena, though violently opposed to the undertaking, would not forsake her leader at a critical moment. She had uttered her protest, had tried in vain to stem the current of events; nothing was left her now but to do or die. She valiantly braced her small body across the frame of the chair, and Australia began her perilous ascent.

Cuba looked mildly astonished as the plump figure of the little girl appeared above his feed-box.

"I 've 'most got it!" cried Australia, reaching as high as possible, and getting her forefinger over the edge of the big can.

At this juncture Cuba, whose nose had doubtless been tickled by Australia's apron-string, gave a prodigious sneeze. Europena, feeling that retribution was upon them, fled in terror. The ballast being removed from the chair, the result was inevitable. A crash, a heterogeneous combination of small girl, green paint, and shattered chair, then a series of shrieks that resembled the whistles on New Year's eve!

Redding was the first to the rescue. He had just driven Billy to the gate when the screams began, and with a bound he was out of the buggy and rushing to the scene of disaster. The picture that met his eyes staggered him. Australia, screaming wildly, lay in what appeared to his excited vision to be a pool of green blood; Europena was jumping up and down beside her, calling wildly for her mother, while Cuba, with ears erect and a green liquid trickling down his nose, sternly surveyed the wreck. In a moment Redding had Australia in his arms, and was mopping the paint from her face and hair.

"There, there, little sister, you aren't much hurt!" he was saying, as Mrs. Wiggs and Asia rushed in.

The damage done proved external rather than internal, so after assuring herself that no bones were broken Mrs. Wiggs constituted herself a salvage corps.

"Take off yer coat out here, Mr. Bob, an' I'll take off Austry's dress. Them's the worst, 'ceptin' her plaits. Now, we'll all go up to the kitchen, an' see what kin be did."

Now, Fate, or it may have been the buggy at the gate, decreed that just as they turned the corner of the house, Lucy Olcott should be coming up the walk. For a moment she stood bewildered at the sight that greeted her. Redding, in his shirt sleeves, was leading Australia by the hand; the little girl wore a red-flannel petticoat, and over her face and hands and to the full length of her flaxen braids ran sticky streams of bright green paint.

Involuntarily, Lucy looked at Redding for explanation, and they both laughed.

"Ain't it lucky it was the back of her head 'stid of the front?" said Mrs. Wiggs, coming up; "it might 'a' put her eyes out. Pore chile, she looks like a Mollygraw! Come right in, an' let's git to work."

Billy was despatched for turpentine; Lucy, with an apron pinned about her, began operations on Australia's hair, while Redding sat helplessly by, waiting for Mrs. Wiggs to make his coat presentable.

"I am afraid her hair will have to be cut," said Lucy, ruefully, as she held up a tangled snarl of yellow and green.

"All right," Mrs. Wiggs said promptly. "Whatever you say is all right."

But Australia felt differently; her sobs, suppressed for a time, broke forth afresh.

"I ain't goin' to have my hair cut off!" she wept. "Jes' leave it on this a-way."

Mrs. Wiggs commanded and Lucy entreated in vain. Finally Redding drew his chair up in front of the small girl.

"Australia, listen to me just a moment, won't you? Please!"

She uncovered one eye.

"You wouldn't want green hair, would you?"

A violent shake of the head.

"Well, if you will let Miss Olcott cut off all that ugly green hair, and give the pretty curls a chance to grow back, I'll give you-- let's see, what shall I give you?"

"A doll-buggy an' dishes," suggested Europena, who was standing by.

"Yes," he said, "doll-buggy and dishes, and a dollar besides!"

Such munificence was not to be withstood. Australia suffered herself to be shorn, in view of the future tempering of the wind.

"You orter been a hoss-trainer, Mr. Bob," said Mrs. Wiggs, admiringly, when the deed was accomplished; "yer voice jes' makes folks do things!"

"Not everybody, Mrs. Wiggs," he said grimly.

"Where do you suppose Billy's went with the turkentine? I declare that boy would be a good one to send after trouble! Oh, you ain't goin' to try an' wear it this a-way?" she said, as Redding insisted on putting on his coat.

As he turned to the door, a light hand touched his arm. Lucy unfastened the violets at her belt, and timidly held them toward him.

"Will you take them--to Dick?" she faltered.

He looked at her in amazement. For a moment neither spoke, but her eyes made the silence eloquent; they told the secret that her lips dared not utter. There are times when explanations are superfluous. Redding threw discretion to the winds, and, regardless of Wiggses and consequences, took the "Christmas Lady" in his arms, and kissed away the year of grief and separation.

It was not until Mrs. Wiggs saw their trap disappear in the twilight that she recovered her speech.

"Well, it certainly do beat me!" she exclaimed, after a fruitless effort to reconstruct her standard of propriety. "I 've heard of 'painters' colic,' but I never knowed it to go to the head before!"