"Get the gate, Jane," Tim said, and she pulled it open. "Now, one, two, three: HOIST!" Together the boys lifted the basket containing the baby from the wagon. They carried it to the sagging, dusty porch of the mansion and left it there.

The Willoughbys walked home.

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"What did you add to the note at the end, Tim?" Barnaby A asked.

"Another P.S."

"What did it say, Tim?" asked Barnaby B.

"It said, 'Her name is Ruth.'"

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Jane pouted. "Why?" she asked.

"Because," Tim said with a sly smile, "we are the ruthless Willoughbys."

2. A Parental Conspiracy

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby were seated in front of the fireplace after dinner. He was reading a newspaper, and she was knitting something out of beige wool.

The four children, in flannel pajamas, entered the room.

"I'm making the cat a sweater," Mrs. Willoughby told them, holding up the knitting, in which one small, thin sleeve had already been formed.

"I was hoping maybe you were making a second sweater for me and B," Barnaby A said. "It's difficult taking turns with a sweater."

"I've explained and explained," their mother said in exasperation. "A, you wear it on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. B, you have Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. On Sunday you can fight over it."

She turned to her husband. "It's disgusting," she said, "the way children today all want their own sweaters." She knit a few more stitches industriously.

"Children?" Mr. Willoughby said in an impatient voice, putting his newspaper down. "Did you want something?"

"We were hoping that perhaps you would read us a story," Tim said. "Parents in books always read stories to their children at bedtime."

"I believe the mother usually does that," Mr. Willoughby said, looking toward his wife.

"I'm busy," Mrs. Willoughby said. "The cat needs a sweater." Hastily she knit another stitch.

Mr. Willoughby scowled. "Hand me a book," he said.

Tim went to the bookcase and began fingering the volumes that were lined on the shelf. "Make it fast," his father said. "I'm in the middle of an article about interest rates."

Quickly Tim handed him a volume of fairy tales. His father opened it in the middle as the children arranged themselves in a semicircle by his feet. They looked like a painting on a Christmas card. "God bless us, every one!" murmured Barnaby A, but Tim poked him. Mr. Willoughby began to read aloud.

Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife: "What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?" "I'll tell you what, husband," answered the woman. "Early tomorrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest; there we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.

"

Jane's lower lip trembled and she gave a small sob. Barnaby A and Barnaby B looked very nervous. Tim scowled.

"The end," said their father, closing the book with a snap. "Bedtime"

Silently, though Jane was still sniffling, the children scurried away and up the staircase to bed. Mrs. Willoughby turned to her needles and began a new row of stitches. Mr. Willoughby picked up his newspaper but did not begin reading again. Instead, he stared into space for a moment. Then he said, "Dearest?"

"Yes, dearest?"

"I need to ask you a question." He chewed his lip briefly.

"Yes, dearest?"

"Do you like our children?"

"Oh, no," Mrs. Willoughby said, using her gold-plated scissors to snip off a bit of yarn that had made a snarl. "I never have. Especially that tall one. What is his name again?"

"Timothy Anthony Malachy Willoughby."

"Yes, him. He's the one I least like. But the others are awful, too. The girl whines incessantly, and two days ago she tried to make me adopt a beastly infant."

Her husband shuddered.

"And then there are the two that I can't tell apart," Mrs. Willoughby went on. "The ones with the sweater."

"The twins."

"Yes, them. Why on earth do they look so much alike? It confuses people and isn't fair."

"I have a plan," Mr. Willoughby said, putting his paper down. He stroked one eyebrow in a satisfied way. "It's thoroughly despicable."

"Lovely," said his wife. "A plan for what?"

"To rid us of the children."

"Oh goodness, do we have to walk them into a dark forest? I don't have the right shoes for that."

"No, this is a better plan. More businesslike."

"Oooh, goody. I'm all ears," she replied with a malevolent smile, as she meticulously dropped a few stitches to make a hole for the cat's tail.

3. Contemplating Orphanhood

"Shouldn't we be orphans?" Barnaby B asked.

The Willoughby children were seated on the front steps playing a complicated game to which only Tim knew the rules.

"Why?" asked Barnaby A, moving down a step because the rules said he must if he asked a question, and of course "Why?" was a question.

"Because," Barnaby B explained, "we are like children in an old-fashioned book. And—"

"Mostly they are orphans," Jane said. She moved down two steps because she had interrupted, which was against the rules, and now she was the lowest of the four.

"Worthy and deserving orphans," Barnaby B added.

"Winsome, too," added Jane.

The three younger children each moved down one more step just on general principles. Only Tim, who had invented the game and its rules, remained at the top of the short staircase that led to the front door. "I win," he announced. "Let's play one more time."

They all moved to sit side by side on the middle step.

"The baby we left at the mansion was an orphan," Jane pointed out, "but she wasn't deserving at all, or worthy or winsome."

"Don't be such a dodo, Jane," Tim said. "You have to move down a step for that. Ruth was not an orphan."

With a sigh, Jane moved down. "But—" she began.

"She had a mother, dodo. She had a hideous mother who abandoned her in a basket. A true orphan has a dead father and then perhaps a mother who dies of cholera in India, like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden."

"Oh, yes!" said Jane, enthusiastically remembering. "Or Pollyanna! Her parents were dead so she got to take a long train ride all by herself! And Anne of Green Gables, remember? She came straight from the orphan asylum!

"Those are all girls, though," she added. "I wonder if there are boy orphans."

"Yes. James. The Giant Peach fellow. His parents were eaten by a hippo who escaped from the zoo," Barnaby B pointed out.

"Down one step, B," Tim commanded.

"Why?"

"For not saying hippopotamus. Willoughbys do not use silly nicknames."

"I think it was a rhino, actually," Barnaby A said, still thinking about James. "Oops. Sorry," he said when Tim glared. "I meant rhinoceros."

"But your full name is Timothy Anthony Malachy Willoughby." Barnaby B pointed out. "Isn't 'Tim' a silly nickname?"

Tim simply pointed to a lower step. Barnaby B moved down. His twin joined him.

"I do like the idea of us being orphans, though," Tim said. "I'll let you come up one step for thinking of it, B. And I'll move up one at the same time."

They shifted steps.

"I suppose we must do away with our parents somehow," Tim said. "I'm moving up for having that brilliant thought." He moved to the next-to-top step.

"I don't like them very much anyway," said Barnaby B. "Mother makes us wear this bilious beige sweater. The sleeves are too long." He held up one arm and showed them. "I definitely don't like her. Father either."

"Nor do I," added Barnaby A. "Father is neglectful, and Mother is a vile cook."

"Jane?" Tim gave his sister a questioning look.

Jane shrugged. "I'm at the very bottom step," she said sadly. "I can't go any lower."

"We could put you in the coal bin in the basement," Tim pointed out, "and we will, if you say you are fond of our parents."

Jane thought. "No," she said. "I'm not. Not especially."

"Good answer," Tim announced. "I move to the top step for getting that good answer out of Jane."

He moved up. "I win," he said. "Again. You people don't try."

"May I speak?" Barnaby A asked from his low step. Tim nodded permission.

"A sea voyage sometimes produces orphans," Barnaby A pointed out. "There are often pirates. Or icebergs."

"And sea serpents," his twin added, "even though I don't entirely believe in sea serpents."

"I believe in giant squids," Jane said with a shudder.

"Good point," Tim acknowledged. "And piranhas. Are our parents planning a vacation, by any chance? On a ship?"

"I don't know."

"I don't know."

"I don't know."

The three younger children spoke at the same time and were each demoted one step for being monotonous and sounding like echoes, even though the game had ended.

"And now," Tim announced, going to retrieve his bicycle from under the stoop, "I am going out for a bit, to visit the Reprehensible Travel Agency and obtain some brochures. I have come up with a perfectly despicable plot to get rid of our parents"

"You are ruthless, Tim," Barnaby A commented happily.

"Yes. And soon to be an orphan, as well."

4. An Impending Vacation

"Dear ones," Mrs. Willoughby said at dinner as she sliced the overcooked leg of lamb with a small handsaw, "Father and I have decided to take a vacation."

"A sea voyage?" asked Tim, as he spooned some glutinous gravy onto the gray slab of meat she had given him.

"Why, yes," his mother replied. "As a matter of fact, we are taking a long sea voyage, with many interesting stops along the way. This very colorful brochure appeared through our mail slot, from the—let's see, what was that name again?" She picked up the glossy paper and looked at it.

"The Reprehensible Travel Agency?" suggested Tim.

"That's it exactly!" His mother beamed at him. "You're so clever, son. I hope your cleverness will win you a scholarship so that you can go to college."

"What about B and me?" Barnaby A asked. "We're not clever."

"And Jane? She's a complete dodo," Barnaby B added. "Does that mean that we won't be able to go to college?"

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