(Dear Reader: This takes place when the three are in their adolescent years
John had hiked a good distance from Greenstone -- just enough so the Rutledge family manor was a tiny shape below -- mindful of his governess' words to "keep the house always in sight". Well, this was as far as he could get without it disappearing completely. He had managed to exert himself quite a bit, climbing whatever hill this was. Breathing heavily he leaned over, palms on his knees, one hand still gripping a well-worn copy of Pope's Odyssey
The view from here was worth it, though. The countryside opened like a map unfurling below. A faint breeze brought sweet air, smelling of lilac and new grass. He planted himself on the ground, eagerly opened to his place in the book, relishing the day.
Belle and Regina, however, paid no attention such edicts as keeping in sight of the house. Currently, while John was settling down with a book, the two girls were emerging from the woods. A creek ran through the property, barely more than a trickle through the trees, but it often provided afternoons of wading and exploring. The sound of breathless laughter heralded their arrival, and the fair-haired girl clutched a pasteboard box in her hand. Cheeks flushed, curls frizzed from the summer heat, Belle and Regina were full of lively spirits. They were unaware of John’s presence until they were practically upon him.
"But what do you think we should do
with them?" Regina asked Belle in a loud whisper. Why was she was whispering in the first place, out in the open like this? Other than... the only idea she had involving the contents of the pasteboard box was quite nefarious indeed. One, she knew, would land them all in hot water. Would it be worth it? She bit her lip, trying to hide a silly grin that was forcing itself through.
And nearly tripped over a dark lump in the grass. It leaped up as though it was hit by lightning. A book went sailing through the air. John -- the lump -- gave them an open-mouthed stare. "Oh . . . I thought you were still down at the creek?" he asked weakly, lifting his eyebrows.
"Oh no!" The box fell to the ground and the top fell off. Three large bullfrogs hopped out of the box, and Belle scrambled after them, gathering them back up into the box after only a moment's struggle. She hadn't been able to answer Ginny's question, which was a good thing, because she wasn't sure she knew the answer. It had seemed like the thing to do when they'd found the frogs - gather them up and bring them back to the house - but beyond that, she had no real plan, except for keeping them as pets, which seemed unlikely. She replaced the lid on the box, returning to Ginny's side dutifully.
John searched the grass for his book -- Father will be furious if I lose the only copy in the house!
-- before his eyes landed back on Belle. And in the blink of an eye three bullfrogs broke free from their confines and were gone again in seconds.
"Are those. . . frogs?" John forgot all about his missing book.
"Indeed!" Regina replied. "From down there. I already have a name for mine."
"We brought you one, Jacky! The one with the big brown spot on it." Belle opened up the box just a tiny crack to reveal the shadowy contents, and shoved the box in his face so he could look. "Mine is the little one, and Regina has the big one."
Something slimy and bulbous lurked in the box, just waiting to leap out and attach itself to John's head. He stepped back an inch... or three... with a minute glance towards the opening.
"Oh -- um -- thank you," he replied. Maybe he should be a little more enthusiastic about it. After all, Belle
was giving him the present. He was rather honored she thought of him. John forced a large smile. "What are you going to do with them, then? Surely they would be happier in the water...?"
“Why would they be happier in the water when they can come live at Greenstone or Rosewood and have all the food they want and a lovely house to live in?” Annabelle rolled her eyes at what was clearly a foolish suggestion, and cast a world-weary smile towards Regina, as if to say He certainly is a dense fellow, isn’t he?
. “In any case, we like them, and I am certain they like us.”
There was the little sticking point of where to keep them. But then, John might be able to help with that. “Come on, Jacky, we need you to help us find a cage or some such thing to keep them in!” Belle took off towards the house, leaving John with little option but to follow.
Regina grabbed her brother's arm and tugged him along, chasing after the blur of blonde.
"I -- there might be a large bowl in the kitchen -- perhaps if we put some grass and water in there," John said uncertainly. The house loomed in view. "But Father might -- "
"Father always wanted to get a pet!" Regina reminded him, beaming at him over her shoulder. "A frog is much more fun than a hunting dog."
"Yes!” Belle shouted over her shoulder. “A frog barely needs any food or water. And our housekeeper is always complaining about the hair from Papa’s hounds.” Blonde curls bounced ahead as she led the impromptu race back to the house, the pasteboard box clutched tightly in her hands.
Rather than heading through the front doors, she headed for the back, and the entrance to the kitchen. She paused to catch her breath, and had enough sense not to go barging into the kitchen of a house at which she was only a guest. She turned to look at Regina and John as they caught up. “In any case, frogs are so small, my Papa and your father would hardly even notice. If we take good care of the frogs, they can hardly say no, can they?”
"No, but --"
"I think I know which pot we can put them in," Regina said, her voice dropping to an excited whisper as she pushed open the door to Cook's domain. "They will be quite at home there."
The trio tiptoed into the kitchen, hot as hellfire it seemed compared to the summer breezes outside. It was just before supper, so Cook certainly was lurking somewhere. The last thing John wanted was to get caught . . . stealing a pot . . . for some frogs
But as they approached a shelf -- on which was the pot that Regina identified -- he realized there was no other choice: he was doomed to be the tallest one of the bunch and, unfortunately, the only one who could reach it.
Turning to Belle, he said gently, "Well, there it is. But you know, frogs are keen on ponds, and surely these would be happier in our fountain. . ." One last chance at changing her mind.
Belle did an antsy little dance, still holding the box firmly in her hands. “We’ve already discussed this, John, now –“ Her thought was interrupted by a bellow from behind.
“Oi! What are ye doin’ here?!” The pudgy red face of Cook appeared, looming behind the children. Belle let out a shriek, more startled by the loud noise than by the actual presence of the cook. In an instant, the box was dropped, landed on its side, the top fell to the floor, and three frogs were unleashed upon the kitchen.
Regina squealed in tandem with Belle's high shriek and dodged Cook's grasp. The frogs! They bounced straight out the open door, through which Cook had presumably come.
"What in the --" the cook spun around.
"I am sorry, Cook -- we shan't disturb you any further --" John said as he trailed -- then chased -- his sister and friend after the frogs. "Continue cooking!"
"Where did they go?" Regina breathed as the three reached the staircase that went up to the ground floor. "Not up the stairs, do you think?" She turned large eyes on Belle and John.
Belle stared wide-eyed between the two of them. This was terrible – and was not a scenario they had entertained when they’d found the frogs and dreamed of docile pets in the schoolroom. She pointed up the stairs, where the frogs were obviously escaping. How bullfrogs could get to be so fast, Belle had no clue. “Quick, we have to get them!”
A nightmare flashed through John's mind -- Father, sitting in his chair with his pipe, reading a book . . . when suddenly three giant frogs burst through the doors and fling their green slimy selves upon him. He shuddered and with a burst of energy sprinted up the steps.
"Wait for us!" Regina called, giving Belle a confused wrinkle of the brow.
Belle shared the confused look with Regina, wondering if John had lost his mind once at for all. But then, he’d never really seemed to be in full control of his senses anyway, not that Belle was one to judge. She took off up the steps after him, shouting. “John! Wait! Be careful not to step on them!” The image of John accidentally crushing one of the poor frogs under his feet was enough to spur her on.
All the shouting and panicked voices had brought the servants running, and there were several footmen and maids staring into the hallway curiously. It would have been a ridiculous site – the three children, trying to catch frogs who, despite their tiny size and fat shape, were very adept at thwarting all attempts of capture.
"Have you seen three frogs -- about this big around --" Regina stopped to breathlessly ask one of the servants, and made a little circle with her fingers.
A scream shot from the library.
"We may have found one already," John mumbled. With his head down and ears pink from embarrassment he sprinted towards the library, motioning for the others to follow. What was bothering him now? The frogs still had no container and could not be carried by one person alone when found. He'd be stuck carrying one for sure. Maybe if he nabbed a serviette he could wrap it up . . .
The trio darted for the library, Belle and Regina breathlessly following John who, despite the fact that he had been highly against the acquisition of the frogs, seemed to have taken control of finding them. The library door was open, revealing a maid standing on a chair, shrieking with fright.
“A frog! Gracious me, Master John! It’s underneath the desk. Fetch it up!” All respect for the natural respect between master and servant was lost as the young maid dissolved into shrieks upon the chair. Underneath the desk, two frogs were apparently seeking an exit. They were snatched up easily enough by Belle and Regina, who had finally cornered the escapees. That left the last frog still lurking somewhere. Out in the hall, shouts and cries gave away the hiding place.
John looked at his two companions as though they'd graciously taken a bullet for him in scooping up and securing the frogs. Of course, there was one left and he was the only one with empty hands. Swallowing anxiously, he led the rescue team back into the hall.
A maid had plastered herself against the wall and a bundle of linens lay at her feet, dropped, presumably, in her fright. A passing footman, arms full with a large hamper, gave the children a knowing grin and lifted his eyebrows as they approached.
"In there," he said, dipping his chin in the direction of Father's study. The door was ajar, just a crack. John blanched. He turned to face Belle and Ginny, in all seriousness as though they were preparing for battle.
"Father takes his afternoon nap about this time, so we must be Very Quiet," he insisted, already whispering. If they managed to not wake him it would be a gift from Heaven. Perhaps Father would not even know about this whole. . . incident.
Belle had never realized frogs could move so fast – or cause so much havoc – otherwise she never would have brought them back to the house. Of course, she had never foreseen this. Belle didn’t have much foresight at all, really.
“Let’s find it quickly. Then…we’ll take them back to the creek.” Oh, if only it were that easy. She opened the door and entered the library, but stopped short when she saw Lord Westmore standing before them, holding the culprit in his hands.
“Ooooh. Oh dear.” If John and Regina hadn’t been standing behind her, Belle probably would have made a run for it.
John felt his sister tense beside him, and heard Belle's soft exclamation. What on earth was Father doing awake at this hour? He and Regina would have to be a bit more careful, considering this was the time they usually took to sneak around the house and peek inside some of the forgotten rooms in the manor.
"It appears we have a visitor," John's father said, raising a large eyebrow. His entreating gaze switched from the frog, to Belle, to John, to Regina, back to John, and to the frog. It settled weightily on John.
John gulped and stepped forward. "Sir, there *is* an explanation for a frog disturbing your nap --"
Father raised a hushing hand. John bit his lip and went silent. "Don't worry -- I've already rung for Cook to send someone up to come get it."
". . . Cook?" Regina squeaked.
Belle, being the over-indulged child who had little reason to hide her emotions, cried out. “Oh no, sir! You can’t cook them! Please! We brought them in to keep them as pets…and…to study in the schoolroom…you simply cannot kill them!” Her eyes welled up with tears as she looked up at Lord Westmore, entreating him.
Lord Westmore looked mildly stunned at the blonde lass before him; an expression John rarely saw flit across his father's features.
"A pet?" He looked further at Belle and Regina and noted the frogs clasped in their hands. The line of his mouth wiggled. "Ah - I see. I misunderstood. Do you have an adequate container for your pets? They will be much happier there than my study. Not a drop of water for them in here."
"Yes sir," John said quickly.
"Well, then, here is your frog, John."
John extended his hands and winced as Father offered the wriggling pop-eyed frog when suddenly it sprung from Father's grasp and landed on Belle's head.
Belle gave a shriek – only to be expected at such a sensation as a slimy amphibian landing on one’s head. She dropped her frog, which hopped away a few feet but seemed disinclined to go further, having obviously decided that one jailbreak was enough for the day. She grabbed the frog off her head and thrust it at job, forcing him to take it.
She then let out a laugh – always cheerful, never cross. “Perhaps frogs do not make very pleasant pets.”
"Perhaps not. I do not think they will take kindly to living in a house where they are always being chased." Lord Westmore said, and with a bit of surprising youthful energy managed to capture Belle's escapee. He handed it back to her with a smile. "Now, be off with you three. I still have some napping to be done."
As they filed out of his study, Regina hurried over to her friend and stood on tip-toes to examine the top of Belle's head. "Oh, are you all right?"
John, meanwhile, was holding his frog at arm's length. "It didn't hurt you , did it?" He too would have moved closer, had it not been for his frog still trying to make a getaway. And the fact that he would have felt a bit awkward staring that close at Belle's head for an extended period of time.
Belle peered at John as the study door closed behind them, and laughed loudly. “Are you afraid of the frog?! Ginny, look how he holds it!” Her laughter echoed off the walls of the corridor. “How silly!” The idea of an almost-grown John being actually afraid of a big, fat bullfrog was too amusing.
She did not want to hurt John’s feelings – he was so sensitive sometimes – that she quieted her laughter shortly. “Well, if you want to set him free, we won’t be insulted – right Ginny?”
John's face was heating faster than Cook's fire. Belle must think him absolutely corkbrained, judging by her laughter. He glanced down at the frog in his hands, who appeared to look up at him with buldging, sympathetic eyes. It's not your fault I'm slimy, bumpy and green,
it seemed to say. And that I like to jump.
Regina too had a quirked smile as though she was holding in a laugh. She tilted her head and gave him a pitying look. "The frog will not bite you, John. Do not hold him like that, or you shall strangle him!" She turned to Belle. "Father is right; the frogs will be happier out of doors, but let us tie a ribbon around their leg so we can visit them later!"
“Oh you are so clever, Ginny!” Belle looked with admiration to her friend. If only she were as wise as Ginny – but then, Ginny was almost grown too, and soon Belle would catch up. She did not notice John’s reddened face, or at least pretended not to notice. She headed for the doors, blonde curls bouncing as she clutched her frog in both hands. “Come, we can bring them back to the creek right now!”
The trio -- Belle and Regina bounding ahead, John following at an awkward run (how ELSE do you run with a frog in your hands?) -- headed down the slope to the creek which their three frogs called home.