“It’s called a what?” Violet, stared at her friend, mouth open.
“James, my fiancé, said it’s called an Oolacunta (ooh-la-cun-tah)....” Annabelle trailed off.
Violet was biting her lower lip and her face was rapidly turning several shades of red.
“What?” Demanded Annabelle. “What’s the joke?”
“Well,” said Violet, learning conspiratorially towards Annabelle, “I mean, the name sounds a bit naughty doesn’t it? Are you sure James isn’t having you on?”
Annabelle raised an eyebrow at Violet, who gave her a knowing look in return.
“If you prefer,” said Annabelle in a clipped tone, “you can call it a Desert Rat Kangaroo. Hopefully that name doesn’t offend your delicate nature.”
A snort from directly behind Violet made both ladies turn around. John, Violet’s husband, was standing directly behind Violet’s chair, holding out two glasses of lemonade.
“I’m sorry darling,” he said, proffering one of the glasses. “There are many, many words I would use to describe you, the love of my life. But I must say that ‘delicate’ is not one of them.
Violet glowered at her husband.
“And that,” he continued, leaning over the chair to give his wife a peck on her cheek, “is one of the many reasons I love you. Now, you’ll forgive me for interrupting. I merely stopped by to offer my wife some lemonade.
I had intended to go join the croquet game. However, if the subject of said chat is going to be something that might offend someone’s ‘delicate nature,’ perhaps I’ll stick around.” He grinned.
It was later agreed by the 60 or so adults present that their host could not have chosen a more perfect day, or a more perfect spot, for a picnic. The sky was an intense shade of blue, speckled here and there with billowy white clouds. A delicate breeze blew, preventing the day from becoming uncomfortably warm.
The large meadow in which they had gathered for the picnic was carpeted with wildflowers in brilliant shades of blue, purple, white and yellow. A grove of trees situated at one end of the meadow offered shade to all who wanted it.
A shallow, yet noisy river rushed along the meadow’s edge, affording the young boys in attendance no end of pleasure. They turned over rocks, raced twig “boats,” and blithely ignored their parents’ calls of “Watch yourself now! Don’t fall in! Keep your feet dry.” A few of the younger girls joined the boys in their play, but most went off in search of quieter (and drier) activities.
A large tent had been set up in the meadow’s center. It contained numerous tables that currently held bulging picnic hampers and flasks of drinks.
Servants moved in and among the throng of guests. Fetching drinks, setting up chairs, laying out picnic blankets and beginning the long and laborious process of setting out the various culinary offerings.
“Hold off on the story for just a moment won’t you?” John hurried over to the nearby tent, snatched up an empty chair, and returned to the spot beneath the large oak tree where the two women had settled themselves about a half hour earlier.
“Now,” said John, “what were you talking about before I so rudely interrupted?”
“Well,” began Annabelle, “I was telling Violet about this newly discovered Australian animal called an Oolacunta, or Desert Rat Kangaroo.”
There was a prolonged silence as John and Violet exchanged glances.
“Now I know James was having you on,” said Violet. “1) rats don’t live in the desert, 2) how can an animal be both a rat and a kangaroo? and 3) what on earth is a kangaroo?”
“A kangaroo Aunt Violet! Don’t you remember? Mr. Brandon showed us a drawing of one when he came to dinner last month. Mother invited specially to have him to tell us about his trip to Australia.”
These remarks came from Violet’s 10 year-old niece, Victoria. Moments before the girl had been sitting quietly about 10 yards away, on the river bank with her friends; all of whom had been completely engrossed in seeing who could make the longest daisy chain. Now all the children were staring at Violet and Annabelle with rapt attention.
“Is anyone else listening to this conversation?” demanded Violet. “Shall I expect Queen Victoria herself to join us next?” Her tone was sarcastic but she smiled to show she wasn’t truly upset.
Violet, who had no children of her own, doted on her niece. Wise beyond her years, the girl had shown an interest, bordering on obsession, in exotic animals ever since Violet had first taken her to the London Zoo when she was four.
“Go on then,” said Violet. “Remind me about this kangaroo creature.”
Victoria puffed up with importance. She climbed to her feet and stood ramrod straight with her hands clasped behind her back and her feet together, just as she did when asked to recite at school.
“A kangaroo is an animal with large hind legs and a long tail. It has a long face, and ears that stand up straight like a rabbit’s. It carries its baby in that little pouch in its tummy. And it doesn’t walk or run, but jumps everywhere it wants to go!”
“That will be quite enough Victoria, thank you.” Violet jumped at the sound of her mother’s voice. She hadn’t noticed her approaching the gathering.
“You should know better than to interrupt adults when they are talking. Now, run along and join your friends.” She gestured to the group of girls who had been listening with interest as Victoria described the kangaroo, but upon seeing Victoria’s mother approach, had immediately returned to their daisy chains.
“Yes mother,” said Victoria quietly. She started to walk away, but after a backward glance showed her that her mother was not watching, she began jumping forward on both feet, holding her hands up to her chest exactly like paws.
Watching Victoria the Kangaroo hop away, Violet thought to herself that they were overdue for another trip to the London Zoo.
“Violet, you indulge that child too much and you know it.”
Violet smiled up at her older sister.
“Come now Margaret, she meant no harm. She was merely helping to jog my memory.”
“She must learn not to interrupt her elders and for goodness sake, to stop showing off,” huffed Margaret. “Even if she does know the information, it is impolite, not to mention improper, to show up her Aunt.”
Although an outsider wouldn’t know it from listening to the exchange, Margaret and Violet adored each other. They were as close as it was possible for sisters to be. Victoria was the one subject over which they tended to quarrel.
The same feeling of closeness however could not be said to exist between John (Violet’s husband) and Margaret. Eyeing the sisters to make sure he wouldn’t be overheard, he leaned towards Annabelle and whispered, “How like my sister-in-law to swoop in and put a damper on a good time.” He straightened up and made a show of looking around then added “I wonder where she parked her broom.”
Annabelle choked on her lemonade.
Margaret glanced over at Annabelle.
“Are you alright?” She asked, genuinely concerned.
“What? Oh, yes, quite alright. I just, uh...oh, look, John has brought you a chair. Isn’t that thoughtful.”
John set the chair down in the shade next to Violet. After Margaret had sat down and arranged her skirts she asked, “Now, what on earth could you three have been talking about that required Victoria to start prattling on about kangaroos of all things?!”
“Oh!!” Exclaimed Annabelle. “I was telling Violet about a lecture that James attended last week when he was away in London. John Gould, the famous ornithologist, was making a presentation to the London Zoological Society. James has a close friend who is a member and invited him to attend the lecture.
Mr. Gould was recently sent a new species of animal! He called it an Oolacunta or…”
“He called it a what?” Margaret interrupted.
“Margaret,” said Violet with a wicked grin, “don’t interrupt the adults when they’re talking. It’s impolite.” Margaret shot a withering look at her sister.
“He called it an Oolacunta,” chimed in John.
Margaret pursed her lips like she was sucking on a sour candy and thought for a long moment.
“I don’t know that I like that name,” she said at last. “It has a faintly, distasteful sound to it.”
“Then perhaps,” responded Violet in a sincere and innocent tone, “you should write to Mr. John Gould and suggest that the next time he learns about a new creature, he is duty bound to consult you before naming it.”
Margaret shot daggers at her sister as the entire group fell about laughing.
“Anyway,” Annabelle went on when the laughter died down, “an Oolacunta is also known as a Desert Rat Kangaroo. James said its body looks just like that of a rat, but that it has long hind legs like a kangaroo, and a small pouch for carrying its babies.”
Margaret looked askance at Annabelle. “Are you sure James isn’t pulling your leg?”
“That’s just what I asked!” exclaimed Violet, who seemed to be in league with her sister again.
“I’m quite sure!” said Annabelle firmly. “James told me he actually saw one. Well, a stuffed one anyway. The governor of South Australia sent several specimens to Mr. Gould, and James said Mr. Gould brought one to display as part of his talk!
Mr. Gould said he has even commissioned a stereographer to create a series of stereoscopic images, not just of the Oolacunta but of a number of Australian animals. Won’t that be thrilling to see?!”
Margaret nodded and smiled agreeably, but said nothing.
Just then lunch was called. Annabelle and Violet rose and, accompanied by John, began moving across the flower-filled field towards the large open tent where the picnic food and drink were temptingly arrayed across the tables.
Margaret lingered a moment, lost in thought.
“A Desert Rat Kangaroo,” she said softly to herself. “Well, I never. Perhaps I will accompany Violet and Victoria the next time they make a trip to the London Zoo. If nothing else, I should like to see this hippopotamus creature that Victoria went on about after her last trip there.”
And with that thought, she rose, shook out her skirts, and went off to join her sister and Annabelle for lunch.