THE TELEPHONE CALL
IT was half-past five one April evening at Mistletoe Farm. In the big sitting-room sat five people, finishing high tea.
Three children sat at the table with their father and mother. There were the twins of fifteen years old, Jane and Jack. There was eleven-year-old Susan, with Crackers the black spaniel sitting as dose to her as he could. Susan passed him everything she didn't want to eat, and he gulped it down.
Mr. Longfield, their father, was a big, burly farmer. He sat at the head of the table, eating quickly, and frowning as he thought of all the work to be done in the next week. Springtime was always so busy—never a minute to spare foranything.
Mrs. Longfield sat at the other end of the table. She was plump and short, with soft curling hair, and eyes that twinkled. They didn't always twinkle, though. They could look hard and cold and stern when she didn't approve of something.
She was half-smiling now as she looked at her family sitting round the table, eating the things she had cooked. She looked at the twins—nobody would ever think they were twins! Jack had her curly hair, Jane had straight hair. Jack was tall, Jane was short. Jane was quick, talkative and impatient, and Jack was slow and silent—but what a temper he had!
Mrs. Longfield looked at Susan, who was stolidly eating an enormous slice of cold pudding. Susan stared back at her mother solemnly, then smiled the sudden smile that made her plain face quite pretty.
"Well, Solemn Sue," said her mother. "You haven't said a word all through the meal."
"I hadn't anything to say," said Susan. "I was thinking."
"And feeding Crackers!" said Jane. "You shouldn't, Susan. He's getting so fat. I hate a fat spaniel."
"Oh! How could you possibly hate Crackers?" said Susan in a horrified voice. "Our own dog that we've had since he was so small he couldn't even bark!"
"Of course Jane would never hate Crackers," said Mrs. Longfield. "But I agree with her that fat dogs are dreadful. Crackers really is too fat now."
"I've said before that the dogs are not to be fed at table," said Mr. Longfield suddenly, entering into the conversation unexpectedly. "Do you hear, Susan?"
"Yes, Daddy," said Susan, alarmed. Her father so rarely said anything at mealtimes that it was quite a shock to hear his deep voice. He had the same sudden hot temper that Jack had —and the same kind heart and the same love for every animal and bird on the farm and in the countryside.
Silence fell on the table again. Crackers gave one of his heavy sighs, and Susan put down her hand to comfort him, feeling certain that he had understood what her father had said. He licked her fingers.
Mrs. Longfield poured Susan another cup of milk. She liked this time of the day best of all, when she had the whole of her family there together in peace. Life at Mistletoe Farm was good—plenty of work to be done, and plenty of happiness in the doing of it. She ran the farmhouse in her own way, just as her husband ran the farm the way he liked. Nobody interfered, nothing upset the happy routine of the year.
Then the telephone bell rang out in the hall. It made everyone jump. Crackers leapt to his feet and barked madly. He never could learn that the bell was nothing to worry about.
Nobody moved. Mrs. Longfield looked at her husband. "Telephone," he said, with a frown. "Isn't anyone going \to answer it? One of you children go."
The three children hated answering the telephone. Jack gave Jane a nudge. "Your turn to," he said. "Go on, Jane, before it rings again."
It rang again, shrill and loud, sounding very impatient.
"Who can it be?" said Mrs. Longfield. "Do go and answer it, Jane."
Jane got up and went into the hall. The others listened as she took off the receiver.
"Hallo! This is Mistletoe Farm."
Somebody spoke sharply and quickly the other end. Jane listened, her eyes opening wide. "What did you say? Who is it
speaking? Oh—*Uncle David!"
The voice in the telephone spoke again, urgently, and Jane listened, her eyes almost popping out of her head.
"Who is it? Uncle David? Whatever does he want?" said Mrs. Longfield.
"Oh Uncle—how dreadful! Oh, I'm so sorry! All burnt down—oh, Uncle!" she heard Jane's voice from the hall. "Ill fetch Daddy."
Jane put down the receiver and came running back from the hall, almost bumping into her mother and father, who were both on the way to the telephone.
"Mummy! Daddy! It's Uncle David. Their house has beenburnt down—and Auntie Rose is in hospital— and ..."
But her father had snatched up the receiver and was listening intently to his brother's voice. He motioned impatiently to Jane to stop talking. By now Jack and Susan and Crackers were all in the hall, and their mother was trying to gather what was being said over the telephone.
"David, I'm horrified—I'm terribly sorry for you," said Mr. Longfield. "Poor Rose—she wasn't burnt, was she? Oh—just badly shocked. What about the children-are they all right?"
The talk went on and on. Then Mr. Longfield turned to his wife. "You speak to David," he said. "He wants to know if he can bring the children over to stay with us till he can arrange for somewhere else to live—and till Rose is better. He's at his wit's end, poor boy."