“Well, if you’d rather I’d just let you fall flat on your face,” said Sphinx, his arms crossed across his chest, looking down his large nose at Millie.
“Yes, I would,” she said furiously. “I suppose you think you were being all gentlemanly. Well, you weren’t. You were just being interfering.”
Sphinx’s mouth tightened almost imperceptibly, his feelings only visible in the glitter of his black eyes.
“I apologise for trying to help you,” he said stiffly. “I’m afraid it’s the effect of my mother, who tried to instil good manners in me when I was a child. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
He turned and walked away, leaving Millie staring after him uncertainly.
When he arrived at the tree, John was trying to disentangle Randa’s foot from Poppy’s hair.
“I can’t do a thing,” he called down, frowning with worry and effort. “I don’t know how they’ve done it, but Poppy’s hair is all entwined in Randa’s shoe and round her ankle.”
“I should think you’ll have to cut it,” said Phoebe, staring upwards with interest. At this, Poppy set up a high-pitched wail.
“You’re not to cut my hair off – you mustn’t!”
“I’m sorry, Poppy,” said John, a little desperately. “I don’t see what else we can do.”
Poppy, who was already uncomfortable from spending far too long perched precariously on a sloping plank of wood and the aching bruise on her cheek, promptly burst into noisy sobs and began pummelling John with her small fists, apparently under the impression that he was about to produce a pair of scissors and begin barbering her there and then.
“Hi! Stop that!” John, taken by surprise, tried to fend her off, slipped and lost his footing. With a scream, Poppy grabbed his arm and was swept off her narrow seat as he swung outward. John scrabbled and caught hold of the plank just in time to see Poppy, with a shriek that should have raised the dead, plunge earthwards. Randa, owing to their close entanglement, was obliged to follow, but the dead weight of Poppy on the hitherto uncooperative strands of hair proved too much and they snapped. With renewed howls of pain and terror, Poppy crashed into the waiting arms of Sphinx, while Randa landed in an unceremonious heap on the grass.
Sphinx gathered the sobbing child more securely into his arms and patted her, rather clumsily, on the head.
“Well held,” said his father, with a grin. The corner of Sphinx’s mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile.
“You couldn’t have caught me, too, I suppose” said a slightly wobbly voice from the floor.
“Only one pair of arms,” said Sphinx, and grinned at her. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” said Randa, struggling to her feet while all of them pretended not to see the tears that glistened in her eyes. If there was one thing Randa hated it was not to seem as brave as her elders.
“Thanks for catching her,” said Charlie, mopping Poppy’s cheeks with a rather grubby handkerchief which had been in her pocket for the last week. “How’s your head, Poppy? Here, I’ll take her.”
Poppy, however, resisted firmly, clasping her arms round Sphinx’s neck. “My head hurts,” she said in a muffled voice.
Sphinx caught his mother’s eye.
“You’ve hurt yourself, haven’t you?” she said quietly as Charlie bent over Randa, who was still refusing to admit that she had any injury. Sphinx stared blankly at Augusta, then shrugged slightly.
“Just turned my wrist a bit. It’s nothing to worry about.” Augusta rolled her eyes but was distracted by a plaintive voice from above.
“I wouldn’t actually object if anyone fancied giving me a hand.”
They looked up. John was halfway up the tree, dangling by the tips of his fingers, looking down at them with a long-suffering expression on his face.