The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is farthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it so one could be taken to look at the dolls' houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day. If the weather were not too wet, one was expected to "save the penny and walk."
Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their lives.
"Gum," Pauline, the oldest, would say, "must have been a very taxi person; he couldn't have ever thought about walking or he'd never have bought a house at the far end of the longest road in London."
"I expect," Petrova, the second, would argue, "he had a motorcar all his own, and he never hired anything."
G.U.M. was the quick way of saying Great-Uncle Matthew. He was a legendary figure to the children, as he had gone on a voyage, and not come back, before any of them were old enough to remember him clearly. He had, however, been of the utmost importance in their lives.
"He's been," Pauline once said, "like the stork in the fairy tale. He very nearly did bring us in his beak." Storks in the Fossil children's nursery were always called Gums after that.
Gum had been a very important person. He had collected some of the finest fossils in the world, and though to many people fossils may not seem to be very interesting things to collect, there are others who find them as absorbing as sensible collections, such as stamps. Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it, and he found just the right person. Gum had one nephew, who had died leaving a widow and a little girl. What was more suitable than to invite the widow and her child Sylvia, and Nana her nurse, to live in the house and take care of it for him? Ten years later the widowed niece died, but by then his great-niece Sylvia was sixteen, so she, helped by Nana, took her mother's place, and saw that the house and the fossils were all right.
Sometimes when the house got too full Nana would say:
"Now, Miss Sylvia dear, you must tell your uncle not another fossil until a few have gone out of the door."
Sylvia hated saying this, but she was far too much in awe of Nana to do anything else. Terrible upsets were the result. First Gum said no fossil would leave the house except over his dead body. Then, when he'd toned down a little and realized some had to go, in spite of his body being anything but dead, he would collect a few small, rather bad specimens and give them away. Then, after a day or two, during which he mooned round the house under Nana's stern eyes and Sylvia's rather sorry ones, a notice would suddenly appear in The Times, to say that Professor Matthew Brown had given another generous gift of fossils to a museum. That meant that men would come with packing-
cases and take some of the most important (which often meant the largest) fossils away. Nana would settle down with a sigh of contentment to cleaning those places where the fossils had stood, and Sylvia would comfort Gum by listening to his descriptions of where he was going to look for some more.
It was while looking for some more that the accident happened which put an end to Gum's fossil-hunting forever. He had climbed a mountain after a particular specimen, and he slipped and fell hundreds of feet, and crushed his leg so badly that he had to have it taken off.
You would have thought that a man who lived for nothing but fossils would have felt that there was nothing left to do when he couldn't go and look for them anymore, but Gum wasn't that sort of man.
"I have traveled a lot on land, my dear," he said to Sylvia, "but very little by sea. Now I shall really see the world. And maybe I'll be finding something interesting to bring back."
"There's no need to do that, sir," Nana broke in firmly. "The house is full enough as it is. We don't want a lot of carved elephants and that about the place."
"Carved elephants!" Gum gave Nana a scornful look. "The world is full of entrancements, woman, any of which I might bring home, and you talk to me of carved elephants!"
But Nana held her ground.
"All right, sir; I'm sure I'm pleased you should see these entrancements, as you call them, but you let them bide. We want nothing more in this house."
The entrancement that Gum actually brought home was Pauline.
The ship on which he was traveling struck an iceberg, and all the passengers had to take to the boats. In the night one of the boats filled with water and the passengers were thrown into the sea. Gum's boat went to the rescue, but by the time it got there everybody was drowned except a baby who was lying on a lifebelt, cooing happily. Gum collected the baby and wrapped her in his coat, and when they were at last rescued by a liner and taken to England, tried to find out to whom she belonged. That was the trouble. Nobody knew for sure whose baby she was; there had been other babies on board, and three were missing. She must go to an orphanage for female orphans, said everybody; but Gum said "No" to that. Things he found went to the Cromwell Road. He had meant to bring Sylvia back a present. Now, what could be better than this? He fussed and fumed while the adoption papers were made out, then he tucked the baby into the crook of his left arm, took his shabby old holdall in his right, and limping because of his game leg, walked to the railway station, and went home to London and the Cromwell Road.
Gum, to whom time meant very little indeed, was never able to remember that other people might not be expecting him when he turned up without a word of warning after being away for months. This time he opened his front door, put down his holdall, and looked round for a suitable place to put the baby. Seeing nowhere but the hall table or the umbrella stand, he called rather angrily for Sylvia.
Copyright © 1993 by Noel Streatfeild. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.