"But we have no wood for a fire, and we can't make porridge without a fire," objected Sylvia.
"Ducky and the boys can get us some twigs and little bits of wood from those bushes just over the hill," said Nealie. "We shall all feel better for having something warm to eat, as the weather is so uncomfortable this morning, and while they are looking after the fire we three can clear the things from the wagon in readiness for having it set right way up once more. Never, never will I be so careless again as to leave it standing on a slope at night!"
"I should not grieve overmuch about that if I were you, for I fancy the wagon being on its side last night saved us from things more unpleasant still," replied Rupert; and then Nealie shivered and said no more about regretting her carelessness, which, after all, had not been so much carelessness as overcarefulness, because she had been so anxious that they should be stationed where the wind would not trouble them.
By the time Ducky and the boys had got a fire going, and the porridge—a kind of mush—safely on in course of preparation, the three elders had got the wagon cleared of all it contained and were ready to do their best to get it on its feet, or rather on its wheels again. But without Rockefeller to help this appeared to be a task quite beyond their power to accomplish, although they tugged and tugged with all their might.
"Whatever shall we do?" cried Sylvia in despair. "If only Rumple would come back with the horse we might manage it."
"I know," said Nealie, and, struck with a sudden bright idea, she rushed off to the heap of properties lying at a little distance, and selecting a stout iron bar which had been used as a stay for the rack at the back of the wagon she came running back with it.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Rupert curiously, failing to see what possible help the iron bar could be to them.
"I am going to use the bar as a lever and jack the wagon up. You see, we can lift it a little piece and poke something under; there are plenty of big stones and boulders lying about that will do, and if we lift it a few feet we may then be able to drag it over; at least we can try that plan, and if it does no other good it will keep us warm, and I am most dreadfully chilly," said Nealie, who was secretly very anxious lest Rupert should get a chill in the cold wind, and was also weatherwise enough to know that it might rain at any minute now.
"The mush is ready; will you have breakfast first?" called Don, who was cook-in-chief, while the others ran hither and thither doing his bidding.
"We will get the wagon up first, and then the mush will be the reward for our exertions," replied Nealie. She was bustling about with feverish anxiety now, for she had felt a spot of rain, and it was too dreadful to think what might happen if a downpour began before their belongings could be got under shelter.
"Yes, we will get the wagon up first," echoed Rupert, for he too had felt a spot of rain and was as anxious as Nealie to get the wagon right way up once more. "Leave Ducky to look after the mush and do you two come and help us here, for every ounce tells, you know."
Don and Billykins came at a run and collected stones, which Rupert wedged under the wheel every time Nealie and Sylvia managed to jack it a trifle higher. But what hard work it was! The perspiration poured from the faces of the two girls, and Rupert panted with haste and exertion as he struggled with the stones which Don and Billykins brought in lavish abundance.
"Hurrah, she rises!" cried Sylvia in a jubilant tone.
"We can pull her up now, if we are careful!" yelled Rupert, who was to the full as much excited; and then, calling to the small boys to come and pull, the three of them hung on to the rope, putting all their strength into the task, while Nealie and Sylvia, chanting a funny refrain:
"Heave ho, my boys, heave ho, With strength of arm, and might and main, Heave ho, my boys, heave ho!"
bent to the task of lifting with the iron bar. The wagon shivered and trembled like a live thing, swayed, rocked, and finally with a jarring crash settled on its four wheels once more, while ringing hurrahs broke from the hard-working five, which were echoed in Ducky's shrillest treble.
It was at this moment that Rumple hove in sight again, clinging in a very undignified fashion to the neck of Rockefeller, while the old horse came on at a lumbering trot, warranted to stir up the most sluggish liver.
"What is all the row about?" he demanded, when Rockefeller, stopping short with disconcerting suddenness, pitched him off anyhow on to a pile of mattresses, tinware, and other miscellaneous properties.
"We are so delighted to see you back, for one thing, and for another we are rejoicing to have our house on wheels standing erect on all-fours," said Nealie, just stopping to give him a big hug, and then, running up to the horse, she dropped a resounding kiss on his nose, held a lump of sugar out for the wise animal to eat, and then, slipping the hobbles back on his legs, sent Rocky off to forage for himself.
"We must get these things put back before we have breakfast; for it is going to rain, and it will never do to let the bedding get wet," she said decidedly, and, hungry though they were, they came to the task without a murmur, only Ducky remained stationary at the fire, carefully stirring the mush, which was slowly cooking there.
But although everyone worked their hardest, the rain was coming down steadily before they had done, and they were all rather damp when they climbed into the wagon, carefully carrying the pot of mush, which was all that could be mustered for breakfast, owing to their stock of provisions having run out.
"Now, Rumple, let us hear your adventures?" said Nealie, who was reclining at ease on a rolled-up mattress at the back of the wagon, while Rupert acted as master of the ceremonies and served out the mush in such fragments of basins as were not too smashed up in the disaster of the night, and on tin plates, his own portion being eaten from the inverted lid of the one saucepan contained in the wagon outfit.
They all made a great deal of fun of that saucepan lid, and the favourite diversion of Sylvia and Rumple was continually to ask Rupert to pass them something, because it was so funny to see him have to balance his awkward plate carefully on the top of the saucepan before he could do what was required of him.
Then Nealie came to the rescue with her question about Rumple's adventures, and at once the hero rose to the occasion, puffing out his chest with such an air of unconscious importance that Sylvia at once called him a pouter pigeon, to his great disgust; for he said it always made him feel sick to look at those conceited birds.
"Never mind the pigeons, they will keep; tell us what you did while you were away," said Rupert, eating in a great hurry, so as to get done before anyone required anything more at his hands.
"I was precious careful when I rose the hill to lie along Rocky's neck, so that anyone who noticed us would only think that it was a horse out on the feed," said Rumple. "But I put the old horse along when we went down the next slope, only I kept on the grass, for I could hear the men ahead of me, and I did not want them to know that I was following. Then there came a long hill and I could see them ever so far ahead of me, as it was beginning to get light. Luckily they disappeared over the crest of the hill before it was full daylight, or I guess that they would have spotted me, though I was lying along the horse like a sack of meal. When I got to the top of that hill, and it is something like a hill too, the sort of thing that will work the starch out of poor old Rocky if we take the wagon that way, the men had disappeared and there was no one in sight for miles and miles. Presently I saw someone coming towards me mounted on a jolly fine horse, and I felt quaky from my hat right down to my boots. Then I caught a gleam of buttons, and I was sure that it was a mounted policeman; so I cooeyed for all I was worth and he rode up at a smart gallop to ask me if I had run away from home or what was the matter."
"What an impudent person!" cried Sylvia wrathfully.
"I don't think that he meant to be impudent," said Rumple, shutting his eyes with a languid air. "But I suppose it is not a common thing to see a kid like me doing extraordinary things!"
"Hear him!" cried Nealie, with derisive laughter, clicking her spoon against her tin plate.
"Well, I suppose that it is a little out of the ordinary for a boy of my size to do detective work on the track of a mob like those fellows who rode past us in the night," said Rumple, with edifying modesty. "Anyhow, he sat up and treated me with real respect when I told him what I was doing, and at once offered to take the job on for me; to which, as you may guess, I hadn't the ghost of an objection. So I told him all that we knew about them, and then I turned round and came back while he rode off after the men."
"But didn't you see anything of the cattle which bowled us over so neatly last night?" asked Sylvia.
"No, I didn't, and I can tell you it puzzled me no end, for I went miles and miles and I did not see so much as the swish of a tail," answered Rumple, with a dramatic flourish of the broken basin from which he had been eating his portion of mush.
"Mrs. Warner told me that stampeding cattle will run sometimes for many miles without stopping, and sometimes they kill themselves by their exertions," Nealie said as she wriggled into a more comfortable position against the mattress.
"It struck me as just wonderful what a lot Mrs. Warner knew about cattle," remarked Sylvia, with a yawn. "Her knowledge made me feel quite tired; for beyond the fact that a cow had four legs, two horns, and a tail, I had never realized that there was anything to know about cattle."
"There is something to know about everything; just see what a lot Mr. Wallis knew about horses," replied Rupert.
"Yes, and about other things too; but I do wonder what he will say when he hears how nearly I wrecked his beautiful wagon," said Nealie, with a sigh, for the thought of her shortcomings worried her a good deal.
"He won't trouble, or, if he does, he knows that Mr. Melrose will see that everything is put straight," said Sylvia.
"I do not like being indebted to the promiscuous charity of strangers, and Mr. Melrose was hardly more than a stranger to us," Nealie put in a little primly. Being the eldest, it was natural she should be a little more conventional than the others.
"Oh, Mr. Melrose likes being kind to people! Mrs. Warner told me so," remarked Rumple, with the air of knowing all that there was to be known. "He is most awfully rich, too, and he came into his money quite by a fluke."
"What is a fluke?" demanded Billykins, who was catching rainwater in the tin dish in which he had been eating his breakfast, so that he could have a wash-up after his feed.
"A fluke is what happens," explained Rumple vaguely. "It was a fluke that toppled our wagon over last night."
"There was not any money in that," said Don decidedly.
"Very much the reverse, I should say," laughed Nealie. "Think of the broken basins, the waste of marmalade and pepper, not to say anything of the damage to our clothes, and all the rest of it. There are flukes and flukes, and our kind, unfortunately, was not the sort that pays. But, do you know, I don't believe that it rains as fast as it did, and so I am going to harness Rocky, and then we will crawl ahead for a few miles; for if we stop here we shall starve, and I want some dinner."
In Sight of Hammerville
It was the next day but one, and Rockefeller was toiling along the heavy road outside Pomeroy, when a man in a cabbage-tree hat, red flannel shirt, and long boots rode up to Hutton's store, which stood on the outskirts of the town, and, seeing the van coming, dismounted, threw his horse's bridle over the fence, and walked towards it.
"Are you the Plumstead lot?" he asked, with a jerk of his hat towards Nealie, which was meant for politeness and accepted in the same spirit.
"We are," she answered, with a bow, wondering nervously if he were a bushranger, of which she had read so much during the voyage and yet had not set eyes on since landing.
"Which is Dalrymple Plumstead?" demanded the red-shirted individual, fixing a ferocious gaze on Rupert, who flushed and turned a trifle pale, wondering what could be the matter.
"I am Dalrymple," said Rumple, dodging round from the shady side of the wagon, where he had been walking and trying to compose blank verse about Australian roadside scenery, but not succeeding over-well.
"Why, you are only a kid!" exclaimed the man in ludicrous disappointment, falling back a step and surveying Rumple with an expression of bewildered surprise.
"It is a fault that will mend with time," replied Rumple, with such crushing dignity that Sylvia, who was sitting behind Nealie in the wagon, gurgled and choked.
The red-shirted person threw back his head with a great burst of laughter, then, thrusting out a brown, hairy hand, cried eagerly: "Well, you are plucky anyhow, every ounce of you! Shake, will you? I'm downright proud to make your acquaintance, sir, and if you have come to these parts to settle, all I've got to say is that we are proud to have you among us."
This was quite too much for Sylvia, who choked so badly that Ducky thought she had a bone in her throat, and patted her with great concern.
But Rumple flushed up in an offended fashion, for he thought that he was being laughed at, and it made him angry, although, as a rule, he was remarkably even-tempered.
"Perhaps I should understand better if you explained your business with me," he said, puffing out his chest in what Nealie called his best pigeon manner, and which caused her to turn her head abruptly to gaze at the fence on the other side of the road, so that the stranger should not see that she was laughing so much.
"Well, I take it that you are the young gentleman that stalked the cattle thieves out by Russell Downs, and kept them from getting clear away with five hundred head of my cattle; and if that is not cause for thankfulness I don't know what is," said the man, gripping Rumple hard, and sawing away at his hand much as if it were a pump handle and the water was hard to fetch.
"Oh, they were your cattle that stampeded, and bowled our wagon over in the dead of night!" exclaimed Nealie, while Rumple turned pink with pleasure at the thought of being so much appreciated.
"No, Miss, I should say it was the other lot, which belong to Tom Jones of Hobson's Bottom, and if you want to make any claim for damages you had better send it in to him, seeing that he is much better off than I am, and his cattle are the wildest lot in the New South Wales boundary," said the red-shirted person, with such an air of wriggling out of it that the whole seven burst into a shout of laughter, and then promptly apologized for their apparent rudeness.
But he waved his hand in an airy fashion, and begged them to have their laugh out.
"And it does me good to see young things so lively," he exclaimed, taking his hat right off and bowing to right and left, as if he had received an ovation. "My name is Tim Callaghan, and I am Irish on my father's side, though I never saw old Ireland, and am never likely to."
"We are very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Callaghan, and we are quite sure that it must have been Mr. Jones's cattle that knocked our wagon over, so we will give his address to Messrs. Peek & Wallis, if there is any complaint of damage made to us about the wagon when it is returned to the owners," said Nealie; and then she asked in an interested tone; "But how did you hear anything about it? Were you helping to drive the cattle?"
"No; if I had been I would have taken good care that there was a better watch set," replied Tim Callaghan. "I couldn't leave because my wife was ill, but I heard through the police, who sent me word that I should be fined for letting my cattle stray to the danger of other people's property, and that I should have doubtless lost the greater part of my mob for good and all if it had not been for a Mr. Dalrymple Plumstead, who rode after the thieves and gave warning to the police. There is one comfort about it, and that is that Tom Jones will be fined too, and it will do him a world of good to be taken down a peg or two. And now what can I do for you, ladies and gentlemen?"
"You might tell us which is the best place in Pomeroy to buy food, for our provision box is nearly empty, and things are so dear in these country places," said Nealie rather wistfully, for her money was running very low, and there was always present with her the dread that she would not have enough to keep them going until they reached Hammerville.
"You had better come along with me to Gil Addington's; he is about as reasonable as anyone in Pomeroy, and we are having a deal over some pigs that may help me to pull his prices down a bit for you, and they will stand a little paring off at most times," said Mr. Callaghan, who was uncommonly glad to pay his debt of gratitude in this fashion, since the cost would fall upon someone else.
"We ought to have some corn for Rockefeller too, if we can manage it," said Nealie rather anxiously. She knew that it was the poorest sort of economy to let the good horse go underfed, and ungrateful as well, seeing what a useful beast it had been. But corn for horses was a tremendous price in most of the little towns through which they had passed, and food for Rockefeller had become a very big item in the expenses.
"Want some corn for the hoss, did you say?" demanded Mr. Callaghan in a breezy tone. "Well, I don't know as I can't let you have half a bushel free, gratis, and for nothing, as they say in the old country. My wagon is in the town now, I believe, and the corn is in it safe enough, unless someone has stolen it, which isn't likely."
A queer, choky feeling came into the throat of Nealie as she drove Rocky along the main street of Pomeroy, with Mr. Callaghan riding on ahead. How kind people were to them! Of course she did not know that in common decency Tim Callaghan should have paid Rumple fifteen shillings or a sovereign for the service rendered in caring for the cattle, and that he also should have paid something towards the damage sustained in the overturning of the wagon. Ignorance was certainly bliss in her case, and she esteemed the Irishman a benefactor indeed, when as a matter-of-fact he was doing his level best to shuffle out of his obligations.
However, he beat Gil Addington's prices down to a figure so low that Nealie worried considerably as to whether she would not be a party to a fraud if she took the goods at Mr. Callaghan's valuation, and was not even consoled when he whispered to her in a loud aside that Gil was quite sharp enough to make the next customer run up his profits for him.
Still, it was an amazing comfort to find the provision box full once more, to know that there was enough corn to last Rocky to the end of the journey, and to feel that she had still a little money left in her purse. On shipboard there had seemed to be no anxieties at all, but ever since landing she had carried a very heavy load indeed.
There were a good many miles yet to travel, and the worst of it was that, although they had a very good map of the route, which Mr. Wallis had marked for them, they had several times made mistakes, and had gone miles out of their way in consequence. And in a journey like theirs such things tell seriously in the mileage.
The weather had grown very hot again, and everyone, including the horse, was feeling the effects, while Rupert and Ducky, the most delicate of the party, were almost in a state of collapse. Rupert, according to his wont, made no complaint at all, but Ducky, who had less self-control, enquired fifty times a day how soon it would be before they could live in a nice cool house again, and have beds with sheets to them.
Sylvia did her utmost to keep these plaints from reaching the ears of Nealie, for surely the elder sister had more than enough of worry and care. Sylvia had never troubled herself about things of this sort in the days at Beechleigh, when she had been as irresponsible in her way as either Don or Billykins, but the long journey and the sense of responsibility in being so peculiarly on their own had steadied her and developed her character in quite a wonderful manner.
She rigged Ducky up a little shelter at the back of the wagon, because it was cooler there, and the dust was less. Then she would walk behind for miles, finding all sorts of things to interest the petulant little maiden, and beguile her from fretting, while Rupert sat on the front seat and drove.
By this time the boots of the most active members of the family began to show signs of heavy wear and tear; but that really mattered very little, as the weather was for the most part dry, and they had all a spare pair to put on if those in active use became too aged to be worn.
One day which followed a succession of other hot days Sylvia paused at a little wooden house by the roadside to interview a woman who had eggs and milk to sell. Even after the purchasing was completed she lingered talking to the woman, while the wagon lumbered on along a winding road that gave peeps of exquisite beauty here and there, where a river valley opened to view.
Presently she came running to overtake the wagon, crying, in an excited fashion: "Nealie, Nealie, what do you think?"
"I think a good many things when I have time, but I have not had much lately, and so the thinking has not been done," replied Nealie, who was riding this morning because she had stockings to darn. They washed their stockings most nights, and hung them on the tilt of the wagon to dry in the morning, and then it was Nealie's business to darn them, while Rupert drove; and as so much walking induced holes and thin places in every direction, the task was one of magnitude.
"The woman at the house yonder told me that when we reached the top of the next high ground we should see the smoke of the Hammerville factories right away in the distance."
"Hurrah!" cried Nealie, forgetting her occupation, and clapping her hands, with the result that she stuck her needle into her finger with such violence that it brought the tears to her eyes and made her wince.
"And she says that last winter, when her little boy was ill, a Dr. Plumstead came out from Hammerville to see him," chanted Sylvia, whirling round on the tips of her toes in the dusty track, and flinging up her hands like an Italian dancing-girl, which made Rocky snort and plunge as if he wanted to join in the fun.
"Steady there, steady, old fellow, we don't want you bolting at this time of day!" called Rupert in a warning tone. "Control your transports, Sylvia, for the sake of Rocky's nerves, or we shall have the old fellow developing a temperature, and then what shall we do?"
"You look as if you had a temperature yourself. Do you feel bad, Rupert?" asked Sylvia, coming closer to the wagon, and speaking so anxiously that Nealie glanced quickly up from her stocking-darning to look at her brother's face.
"Oh, I'm right enough!" he answered quietly. "I feel a bit heavy, but that is because of the weather. I think we shall have a storm before night."
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Nealie in a tone of dismay.
"It would cool the air, and that would be a blessing. Don't you think it is very close this morning?" he asked, wiping his face with the hand that was not occupied with the reins.
"It is hot certainly, but so it is every day," she said, glancing up at the sky, and feeling relieved to see that there were no storm clouds hovering in sight. "Give me the reins, Rupert, and do you go astern and lie down beside Ducky. You will be cooler there, and these stockings can wait."
"I think that it is a great mistake to mend stockings at all in weather like this, for holes are much cooler than little lumps of darning cotton," remarked Sylvia.
"I don't see the use of wearing them at all. I am comfortable enough with bare feet in my shoes, and so would you be if only you were used to it," said Rumple, coming up with a sackful of grass for Rocky's midday feed on his back. The younger boys took it in turns to provide Rocky's luncheon, and to-day was Rumple's turn.
"Sylvia and I are not boys, you see, and so the same rules do not apply to us, for girls always have to observe the conventions," said Nealie, with the prim little air which she sometimes put on for the sake of her juniors.
"What are they?" demanded Billykins, who at this moment ran up from the other side. But Nealie was spared a lengthy explanation by the timely arrival of Don upon the scene, calling shrilly upon the others to come and see a snake which was swallowing a frog, and getting choked in the process.
"I suppose we ought to kill the snake," said Rupert wearily. "But personally I would rather not."
"That is how I feel; for after all we have no quarrel with the snake, and it may be a very harmless creature after all," said Sylvia. "Don't you remember that Mrs. Warner told us a great many people keep a snake in their houses in preference to a cat, just to keep the mice down."
"Well, there is no accounting for tastes," said Nealie, and then she deftly guided Rocky on to the side of the road, drawing rein under the drooping branches of a lightwood tree, where they could rest for two or three hours until the fiercest heat of the day was past.
They were not as merry as usual to-day. The heat was so great that they all wore a more or less wilted appearance.
Presently a breeze sprang up and moaned its way through the trees, and Nealie decided, with nervous haste, that it was time to be moving on. She had a great horror of thunderstorms, although she mostly kept it to herself, and to-day she was vaguely oppressed by a brooding sense of coming disaster, which was doubtless the effect of the electricity in the air.
The way at this part was very solitary. Once they passed a bark-roofed hut standing close to the road; but when they knocked at the door they found that no one was at home, and so went on their way, by no means certain that they were taking the right direction, for although the route lay clear enough before them on paper, in actual fact it was very hard to find, especially here, where there were so many roads and beginnings of roads that did not show upon the map.
After some consultation they took the road which seemed the best and the most used, and, following it, arrived in time on very high ground, from whence they had a fine view over a great stretch of country, dotted here and there with little townships and solitary stations, a rich and fertile land apparently, most of it being under close cultivation.
Thunder grumbled in the west, and the lightning played fitfully along the distant horizon.
"There is Hammerville!" cried Sylvia, flinging out her hand in the direction where tall chimneys stood outlined against a copper-hued sky.
"What a long way off!" cried Nealie, with a new note of dismay in her voice. She had thought that it would be possible to reach the goal of their journeying before the storm broke, but those chimneys were at least eight or ten miles away, and Rocky was showing signs of being nearly done up, for the hills had been heavier than usual, and the heat had been enough to try the mettle of the strongest horse.
"We had better camp for the night in the first convenient place, and then to-morrow we can arrive in style," said Sylvia, who was quite pink with excitement at the thought that when those distant chimneys were reached she would see her father again.
"I suppose that will be better; but, oh, I had so hoped that we should have reached home to-night, so that Rupert would not have to sleep on the ground any more! I am so worried about him," said Nealie, who had jumped down from the wagon, and was standing in the road trying to make up her mind which was the best pitch for a camp, always a time of anxiety for her since that night when the stampeding cattle had bowled the wagon over in their mad rush down the steep hillside.
"Let the boys have the wagon to-night, and we will sleep underneath. I should love it!" cried Sylvia, clapping her hands and whirling round on the tips of her toes, bowing to an imaginary audience, then giving a sideway skip to show the lightness of her poise.
But at that moment there was a crackle of thunder right above their heads, a blaze of lightning, and then a downpour of rain, as if the roll of the thunder had opened the floodgates of the clouds. It was no longer a question of where to camp or where to sleep. They just had to crowd into the wagon and stay there until the tempest had spent itself.
Never had any of the seven seen a storm to equal the one that followed. The thunder was almost incessant, while the lightning played in blue forks and flashes round a couple of stringy barks growing by the side of the road a little farther on, darting in and out like live things at play, until Nealie forgot half of her fear in the fascination of watching them.
Ducky had crept under the roll of mattresses at the back of the wagon, and was hiding there in the dark from the terror of the storm, while Rupert and Rumple were doing valiant service, one at either end of the wagon, in holding the curtains together, as the fierce wind kept ripping them open, letting in sheets of rain upon the group cowering within.
Rocky had been tied by his halter to the lee side of the wagon to prevent him from wandering under the trees and courting speedy destruction there. He stood with bent head and bunched hindquarters, as if in stolid resignation, although Ducky cried because he was too big to be taken into the shelter of the tilt—to be made comfortable, as she said. It was quite in vain that Don and Billykins sought to console her by saying that horses rather enjoyed being out in the rain. She was quite positive that they knew nothing about it, and told them so with brisk decision that left them without anything more to say on the subject. But the interest of the argument had dried her tears and taken away so much of her fear of the storm that everyone felt it was well worth while to have roused her to such a pitch.
It was dark before the rain ceased, and by then Rupert and Rumple were just about wet through from their efforts at keeping the rain from the others. There was no question of who should sleep under the wagon to-night, for by the time sundown came they were surrounded by about two feet of water, and although this would doubtless run off before very long, the mud which was left behind was every bit as bad as the water when considered in the light of a foundation for one's mattress.
So they all sat in chilly discomfort in the wagon, making a frugal supper from damper left over from breakfast, eked out with biscuits. Then, leaning against each other's shoulders, they tried to forget their discomfort in sleep.
Nealie had insisted that Rupert and Rumple should strip off their wet jackets and wrap themselves in blankets; but the worst of it was that Rupert was wet below his jacket, which was thin, to suit the heat of the day, and so, as might be expected, he took a violent chill, and as he had been very unwell on the day before, his condition, when morning dawned, fairly frightened Nealie. For he was blazing with fever, and talking all sorts of nonsense about his mother and Aunt Judith.
It was his constant harping on the people who had died which so worried her; because, of course, she very naturally thought that he was going to die too.
The driving on this day was left to Sylvia and Rumple, who put Rockefeller along at his very best pace, for they were all frightened at Rupert's sad plight, which was to rob their arrival of all the delight they had pictured when they should drive up to their father's house and personally announce to him the arrival of his family.
Don and Billykins trotted along the road by the side of Sylvia and Rumple, all four walking to ease the load, so that the wagon might get along faster. Ducky sat on the front seat, her small face pinched to a wistful anxiety, while Nealie knelt at the back end of the wagon trying to soothe Rupert, who lay on a mattress wildly declaring that he must get up, because his mother and Aunt Judith were in trouble and calling out to him for help.
"Will dear Father be able to cure Rupert quick?" asked the little girl, leaning forward to let her voice reach Sylvia, who walked on one side of the horse while Rumple walked on the other.
Sylvia held up her hand with a warning gesture. "Sit up, Ducky darling, or you will be tumbling off your perch, and we do not want any more disasters this trip if we can help it," she said, adding: "Of course Father will be able to make Rupert well. The poor, dear boy is only running a temperature, you know, and the shaking of the wagon aggravates it."
"Then it will only walk when we get home?" asked Ducky wistfully, with a scared backward glance over her shoulder as Rupert burst into a wild peal of laughter, and told Nealie that he had taken an engagement as a circus rider.
"What will only walk when we get home?" asked Rumple, who had noticed the noise Rupert was making, and was anxious to distract the attention of Ducky if he could.
"Why, the temperature, of course. Didn't Sylvia say that it was running now?" enquired Ducky innocently, and then was highly indignant with Sylvia and Rumple because they burst into a peal of laughter.
"What is the joke?" demanded Don, arriving alongside in a rather breathless condition, for he had been investigating a cross track, and then had to hurry to catch up the wagon.
But by this time they were grave again, and, truth to tell, a little ashamed of having laughed so much when Rupert was so ill. Then Ducky had to be pacified, for, frightened by the nonsense her eldest brother was talking, she had begun to cry, until Sylvia hit on the grand idea of making her the postilion, and, helping her to scramble on to the back of Rockefeller, let her sit there in state, pretending to drive, while the last weary miles of the long journey slid by.
They reached the outskirts of Hammerville in the late afternoon, and stopped at the very first house to enquire where Dr. Plumstead lived.
The woman who opened the door to them declared that she did not know.
"I don't hold with doctors, and physic, and that sort of stuff, so I don't know nothing about them," she said ungraciously, and then shut the door in their faces.
"Disagreeable old thing; I hope that she will be ill and want the doctor very soon," said Billykins, shaking an indignant fist in the direction of the closed door.
"That is very uncharitable of you," said Sylvia, "and besides, she does not look as if she would be at all a good paying patient, and so it would only be a bit more drudgery for dear Father, for, of course, a doctor must go to everyone who has need of him, whether the patient can pay or not."
"Then I shall not be a doctor, for I don't want to do things for people who can't pay me," said Don; and then he ran up to a pleasant-faced girl, who was weeding the garden of the next house, and asked her if she could tell him where Dr. Plumstead lived.
"Why, yes, he has got a house on the Icksted Road, that is on the Pig Hill side of the town," she said, standing up to survey the wagon and as many of its occupants as chanced to be visible.
"Is it far?" demanded Don anxiously.
"Oh, somewhere about a mile! You must turn to the left when you have passed Dan Potter's saloon; that is right in the middle of the town, so you can't miss it. What do you want the doctor for? Is anyone bad?"
"We have come to live with him; we are his children, you know," explained Don, with the engaging frankness which he could display sometimes, although as a rule he was more reserved with strangers than Rumple or Billykins.
"His children? I didn't know that he had got any!" exclaimed the girl, staring harder than ever at the wagon, although at present there was not much to see, except Ducky perched astride on the big horse that Rumple was leading, for Sylvia had retired under shelter of the tilt to make some sort of a toilet in honour of reaching the end of the journey, and Nealie was still ministering to the wants of Rupert to the best of her ability.
"That is not wonderful, because, you see, we have been living in England. But I must hurry on, and I will come to see you another day. There are seven of us, and we are just on the tiptoe of expectation about what Father will say when he sees the lot of us," said Don, with a friendly nod, and then trotted away in pursuit of the wagon, which had passed on while the girl leaned against the fence and feebly gasped, as if her astonishment were too much for her.
Dan Potter's saloon was quite an imposing place, and very tawdry with gilt adornments and coloured glass. They turned into a road at the left, according to the direction given by the girl, and then followed a road which was scarcely more than a track, and that abounded in mud puddles of a deep and dangerous sort, where the going was so bad that Nealie was forced to leave Rupert in the care of Sylvia, and come herself to guide Rocky from the pitfalls of that evil place.
There were newly finished buildings that looked as if they had been run up in the night; there were buildings in course of erection that looked as if they would tumble down before they were finished; and there were other buildings in process of being planned, but of which not much was to be seen saving a forest of scaffold poles.
"What a big place it looks," said Nealie, as with an abrupt jerk she pulled Rocky's head round in time to save him from pitching into an unexpected hole that yawned in the path. "I had somehow got the idea that it was only a little town, not much bigger than a village."
"It is awfully ugly though," replied Rumple, wrinkling his nose with an air of extreme dissatisfaction. "The man that built those houses at the end of the street ought to be condemned to live opposite to them."
"That might not be a hard sort of punishment at all," laughed Nealie; "because, you see, if he had no eye for beauty or artistic fitness the ugliness would not trouble him, he might even take a great deal of satisfaction in thinking how nicely he had done them."
"There is no accounting for tastes," grumbled Rumple, who was really more an admirer of what was beautiful than even Sylvia, who had the reputation of being artistic.
Then he dashed off to ask a man if they were going right for Dr. Plumstead's house, and, being told that it was the next small house that stood alone, he rushed back to the wagon with his information.
"I wonder if Father will be at home," cried Billykins, with an eager look on his face. "May we run forward and knock at the door, Nealie?"
"No, no; we will all go together," answered Nealie hurriedly, while a flush rose in her cheeks, and there was a nervous look in her eyes, for suddenly she was dreading the reception they might receive.
How forlorn they really were, those seven whom no one seemed to really want! And yet how kind people had been to them in all that long, long journey from Beechleigh in England. Of course, but for that bit of absent-mindedness on the part of Rumple, Dr. Plumstead would have known that his children were coming, and then he could have had a welcome of a sort ready for them. As it was, it would be the naked truth which they would have to face, and it was the fear that perhaps he would wish they had not come that made Nealie feel so nervous, as she led Rocky along the few remaining yards of that very bad stretch of road leading to the doctor's house.
Sylvia had left Rupert for a few minutes and was hanging out of the front of the wagon. Ducky still perched astride Rockefeller's broad back, while the three younger boys were grouped close to Nealie, who led the horse.
There was a bit of rising ground before the house, and so of necessity the pace was slow; but at last they halted, and then stood for a moment as if uncertain what to do next.
"Rumple, you had better knock," said Nealie in a choked tone, and then was instantly sorry for what she had said, remembering that but for Rumple's forgetfulness there might have been no need to knock at all.
"Let me knock," pleaded Don, wondering why Nealie looked so pale, and Rumple seemed so scared.
"Yes, dear, you can knock, and Billykins will go with you," she said, with a little gasp of relief.
The two small boys dashed through the gate and up the path to the door. There had once been a garden in front of the house, but it was wilderness pure and simple now, a choked jumble of weeds, and flowers struggling for existence in the garden beds, and a wattle bush filled the air with a sweet perfume which always afterwards reminded Nealie of that moment of waiting before the house.
"There is no one at home, and the door is locked," cried Don, and then he tried to peep in the window, but was not high enough to reach the lowest pane.
"I expect he has been called out to a case," said Sylvia from her perch in front of the wagon. "Nealie, can't you send the boys to find out where Father keeps the key? I am sure that we ought to get Rupert out of the wagon as soon as possible, for he seems to get more ill every minute, poor dear!"
Ah, there was Rupert to be considered! Of choice Nealie would have remained standing out in front of the house until her father's return, however long she might have to wait, but Rupert must be cared for, and because she feared that his life might hang on his having prompt attention just now, she gave way to Sylvia's suggestion, and told Don to run to the next house to ask where Dr. Plumstead kept his key when he had to go away.
Away sped Don, nothing loath, and, entering the gate of the next garden, rushed up to the house door and knocked loudly.
The houses in this part of Hammerville were older than those of the more crowded streets, indeed it looked as if the place had started as a village at the first and then on second thoughts had grown out at one side into a busy town, while the other side remained sleepy and village-like, each abode having its own garden and orchard in the rear.
There was a minute of waiting, and then the door was opened to Don by a sleepy-looking Irishwoman, garbed in a very dirty pinafore.
"I don't want any firewood to-day at all, at all, thank you," she said pleasantly, her kindly face expanding into a genial smile.
"I have not brought you firewood, but I want to know where Dr. Plumstead keeps his key when he is called away to a patient?" asked Don, lifting his hat with so much courtesy that the good woman was tremendously impressed.
"He has only got one key, sir, and he always takes that with him, except when he leaves it at home," she said, with a sudden change of manner, because she decided that this was one of the quality, and no errand boy, as she at first imagined.
"Can you tell us how to get in?" asked Don rather desperately. "We are Dr. Plumstead's children, all seven of us, and I am afraid that he was not expecting us at this minute, so he is not at home, you see."
"Dr. Plumstead with sivin children! The saints preserve us! What next!" cried the woman, flinging up her hands in such profound amazement that Don could not help laughing, she looked so funny.
"The what next is that we want to get into the house as quickly as possible, because Rupert, that is my eldest brother, is not well," he explained, wondering why everyone should be so amazed because Dr. Plumstead had children.
"I will let you in with my key. It fits the doctor's door, which is very convenient, because you see I do for him, and real hard work it is, for he is a dreadful particular gentleman. But sivin children, and you not the eldest! My word, what is the world coming to?"
As Don could not answer this question it had to go unanswered, and instead he waited in silence while the Irishwoman took her key from a nail in the wall, and set off across her garden, which was only one degree less untidy than the doctor's, to open the door for the children.
"Why, the others are bigger than you, most of them!" she exclaimed in still growing amazement, as she surveyed the group standing by the head of the horse. "The saints preserve us! What is the world coming to?"
Again Don had to let the question go unanswered, although it seemed to him rather rude. The woman unlocked the door of the little wooden house, which was plain and ugly, and did not even boast a veranda, then, dropping a curtsy to Nealie, she stood back for them to enter.
A Great Shock
There was a whirling confusion in the mind of Nealie as she crossed the threshold and stood in the little room which was her father's home.
What a poor little place it was! There were only two rooms, the one upon which the door opened, and which was evidently dining-room, kitchen, and surgery rolled into one, and beyond this there was a bedroom, very bare and poor, with an iron bedstead, on which was a mattress and some dark rugs, but no sheets.
Coming straight as she did from the almost palatial comfort of the great liner and the luxury of the Sydney hotel, this poor hut struck a real note of dismay in the heart of Nealie, for the place was as poor as the poorest cottage that she had ever seen at Beechleigh or Bodstead in England.
But it was her father's home, and perhaps he had lived in such poverty in order that he might have more money to send for the support of his big family in England, and at the thought of this her heart grew wondrously soft and pitiful, for she had no idea how very small was the amount that her father had ever contributed to the support of his family since disaster had fallen upon him.
While she stood looking round, her heart growing more and more pitiful for the father whom she had come so far to see, Sylvia came bustling into the house and took her by the arm, giving it a gentle shake.
"Dreaming, are you, dear? Come and help me lift Rupert out of the wagon, and let us get him to bed as quickly as we can, for I am afraid that he is dreadfully ill. Where are the bedrooms? Oh, what a dreadfully poky little house it is!" and Miss Sylvia turned up the tip of her nose in disdainful fashion.
"Sylvia, there is only one bedroom, with one small bed in it, without sheets. Where can we put poor Rupert?"
"On that bed, of course; and if there are no sheets, we have some among our luggage, for remember we brought the best of Aunt Judith's house linen with us, and I know where it was packed. Come along, Nealie, and let us hustle things a bit, and then we will have Rupert quite comfortable by the time Father comes home. That dirty woman who unlocked the door says she thinks he must have gone out Pig Hill way, wherever that may be."
There was no withstanding Sylvia when her mood was like this, and Nealie knew only too well that Rupert must be attended to without delay, so she followed her sister back to the wagon, where Rumple, Don, and Billykins were already hard at work unpacking the baggage which had been loaded on to the rack at the back of the wagon; and when this was all cleared away they let the backboard down. Then, while Nealie and Sylvia stood on the ground, Rumple and Don managed to lift Rupert into their arms, and with much difficulty they contrived to carry him through the garden patch into the house.
He had left off shouting and talking now, and seemed almost in a state of collapse, a condition that frightened Nealie far more than his delirium had done. There was no time just at first to look in the baggage for the sheets which had belonged to Aunt Judith, so they straightened the rugs on the hard mattress, and laid their brother down.
"It is a beautifully clean bed anyhow, and on the whole I think that clean rugs are better than fusty sheets; but of course a doctor would have his things clean," remarked Sylvia, as she patted the pillow into a more shapely lump and laid it under the head of poor Rupert.
"I am going to make a fire, and warm him a little milk; perhaps he will like it better if it is warm, and he has only had cold things all day," said Nealie, and then resolutely turned her back on the four juniors, who were so hard at work unpacking the wagon and bringing the boxes, bundles, and cases into the house.
Rockefeller had been unharnessed and turned into the doctor's paddock, which stretched away from the back of the house up to a line of hills thickly wooded. The horse was rolling with all four legs in the air, uttering equine squeals of delight, as if rejoicing in the fact of the long journey being safely accomplished. Ducky, tired of helping to unload, had perched herself on the top bar of the gate, clapping her hands in delight at the performances of the horse, which she imagined were being enacted solely for her benefit, and she grumbled quite vigorously when Billykins ran out to tell her that supper was ready and she must come in.
"We have supper every night, but it isn't every night that Rocky will cut capers like that," she said, with a swing of her plump little arm in the direction of the horse, but upset her balance in the process, and tumbled into the arms of Billykins, who proved unequal to the strain of her sudden descent, and so they rolled over in the dust together.
"I think that you are most astonishingly clumsy," said the small maiden, scrambling up with an offended air, and not even saying "Thank you" to Billykins for having been bottom dog for the moment.
"When you want to fall off gates on to people you should choose big, fat people, and then perhaps they wouldn't give way as I did; but you really are fearfully heavy," answered Billykins, who was shaking the dust from himself as a dog shakes off the water when he comes out of a pond.
Then they took hold of each other's hands and ran back to the house, where Rumple and Don had got supper ready in the outer room, while Nealie and Sylvia were busy with Rupert in the bedroom.
The luggage had all been stowed away in as shipshape a style as possible, the wagon had been drawn in at the paddock gate, and now the place was crammed full with the big family, who were all, with the exception of Rupert, strung up to the highest pitch of excitement, waiting for their father's return.
But, having had no proper meal since breakfast, they simply could not wait until he came before having their supper.
Yet, despite the fact that the long journey was safely over, and they had reached their father's house, it was not a cheerful meal. Rupert's condition forbade any laughter or joking; besides, Nealie and Rumple looked so fearfully nervous that it was quite impossible to be even as lively as usual.
Rumple's trouble was simply and solely because of that letter which he had forgotten to post, and that had led to there being no welcome for them when they arrived. Of course it was surprising that Mr. Runciman had not written again; but then everyone knew that Mr. Runciman never wrote a letter when he could possibly shirk the task, and that was why they had been so urgent in their entreaties that he should write the letter while they waited on that momentous occasion when they went to see him to ask him to send them out to the land of the Southern Cross.
"If Father is cross because he did not know that we were coming I shall just stand up and say that it was all my fault, and that the others were not to blame at all," said Rumple to himself, and then he mentally rehearsed the little scene and the speech he would make until he forgot all about his supper, and just sat by the table staring out through the door, which had been left wide open for the sake of coolness, and the strained look on his face made Nealie's heart ache.
On her own part she was a prey to acute anxiety, and she was dreading most of all the first look which would show on the face of her father when he knew that his family had come to him. If the look were pleasure, then everything would be possible, and nothing else would matter; but if there were dismay or regret in his expression, she felt that she would never be able to bear her life again. Sylvia had no such fears; her nature was so different from Nealie's, and she rarely troubled about things which were under the surface, and so was spared many worries and much heartache; while Don, Billykins, and Ducky were only tired of the long waiting until their father should come, and they were already beginning to yawn widely because they were so sleepy.
"Where shall we all sleep to-night, Sylvia?" demanded Ducky presently, breaking in upon quite a lengthy silence, and voicing the very question which was so sorely troubling Nealie at that moment, although she rose from the table and passed into the other room, where Rupert lay, and pretended that she had not heard the query.
"Oh, we shall manage somehow, and there is always the wagon, you know, if everything else fails!" said Sylvia vaguely; and then she sprang to her feet with a sudden eager movement, for to her strained listening there had come the sound of a horse's feet on the road, a smart trot which slackened down by the gate outside, not as if the animal had been pulled up, but had stopped of its own accord.
"It is Father!" she said in a whisper, just as if the power of audible speech had left her, and then she started for the door, followed by Ducky and the three boys; but Nealie, busy with Rupert, had heard no sound of arrival as yet.
They had lighted a lamp when the sun went down, and now Sylvia stood on the threshold, with the four younger ones crowding about her, and the strong light showing the group up in outline, although it left the faces indistinct.
The horseman had stopped and dismounted; then, leaving his horse standing where it was, he came striding along the path towards the group at the door.
Sylvia tried to speak, but the words would not come, as she stood with one hand tightly pressed against her wildly beating heart. And then, as the man halted in front of her, she saw that it was quite a young man, and not her father at all.
"It is only someone come for the doctor. How disappointing!" was her unspoken comment, and she was just going to tell him that the doctor had not come home yet, when to her amazement he asked a question in a surprised tone.
"May I ask why are you here?"
"We are waiting for Father, but he has not come yet. The woman in the next house told us that she thought he had gone out Pig Hill way, and that he would not be long before he was back. I hope that your business with him is not urgent?" Her voice quavered slightly in spite of her efforts to keep it steady, for surely it would be dreadful if her father were called away to another case when Rupert was so badly in need of care.
"Pardon me, but I do not seem to understand," said the man, with so much bewilderment in his manner that Sylvia longed to laugh, but managed to pull herself together and to maintain a decent gravity of expression.
"We are expecting Father, that is Dr. Plumstead, home every minute, and when he comes he will find a very great surprise in store for him," she said, flinging up her head with a happy gesture, and now her laugh would have its way and rang out on the hot air, being promptly echoed by the younger ones, who stood pressed close to her on both sides.
"But I am Dr. Plumstead, and I have just returned from a case at Pig Hill," said the man.
It was at this moment that Nealie came hurrying to the door, and, sweeping the others to the right and left to make way for her, stood in front of the man, her face white as the handkerchief she held in her hand, while her breath came in troubled gasps as if she had been running until she was spent.
"Whom did you say that you were?" she demanded, her voice having a sharp, dictatorial ring.
The stranger, who had merely lifted his hat when he spoke to Sylvia, swept it off his head and held it in his hand when Nealie thrust herself to the front.
"I am Dr. Plumstead, and this is my house," he answered. "But——"
Nealie, however, cut into the explanation he was trying to make, and now her bewilderment was as great as his had been at the first.
"But Dr. Plumstead is our father, and we have come from England to live with him," she cried, and then stood staring at the man with ever-growing dismay.
The Next Thing to be Done
The man stepped forward then and laid a kindly hand upon her arm.
"Shall we go into the house and see if we can get to the bottom of the mystery?" he asked in such a kind tone that poor, bewildered Nealie gave way before it and suffered him to lead her into the house with which they had made so free, believing it to be their father's home, while the others trooped after them and gathered round the chair in which the man who called himself Dr. Plumstead had seated her.
"Nealie, Nealie, come quick, my head is on fire!" called Rupert from the next room, his voice rising to a shriek.
"Who is that?" exclaimed the doctor, looking, if possible, more astonished than before.
"It is my eldest brother. He is very ill, and when we reached here he was so bad that we carried him in from the wagon and put him to bed; but we did not know that we had no right here," said Nealie, her voice quavering a little, although she held her head at its proudest angle and tried to look as defiant as possible.
"I will see him," said the doctor quietly, as she jumped up to go to Rupert, and then he passed into the bedroom with her; but, finding it in darkness, came back for the lamp, and, with a word of excuse to Sylvia for leaving her without a light, picked it up and disappeared with it into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
"Sylvia, if that is my father I don't like him at all. Why, he never even looked at me; there might as well have been no Ducky!" cried the poor little maiden, who keenly resented being ignored in such a fashion.
"That is not our father at all. Why, it is only a young man; but why he is here posing as Dr. Plumstead is more than I can imagine, and, oh! where can our dear father be?" said Sylvia, who was on the verge of tears, for the day had been a trying one on account of Rupert's illness, and, as they all agreed, the home-coming was just horrid.
"Buck up, old girl, it is never so bad that it might not be worse!" exclaimed Rumple in a nervous tone, for well he knew that if Sylvia broke down in miserable tears Ducky would at once join in, followed by Billykins, who only rarely cried, but always did the thing thoroughly when he did begin.
"Shall we have to go somewhere else for to-night, I wonder, or what shall we do?" Sylvia went on, drawing herself up and setting her teeth together until she could conquer that weak desire for tears, which would be sure to lower her dreadfully in the eyes of the boys and would do no good at all. "The house seemed embarrassingly small at first, but now that it is a stranger who is master, and not Father at all, why, the whole thing is impossible."
"We can sleep in and under the wagon, as we have done before; but Rupert can't, so I guess that we had better wait and see what Nealie decides is best," replied Rumple. But this was met with a whimper of protest from Ducky, who demanded to be put to bed somewhere at once.
"Could we not put Ducky on a mattress in the wagon, with Don and Billykins?" suggested Sylvia. "They would be quite safe and comfortable there, because the wagon is in enclosed ground and so close to the house also. Then you and I can wait round here to help if we are wanted."
"Brave old Syllie, I thought that you would find a way out of the muddle!" cried Rumple, giving her an approving pat on the back, and then he called to Don to come and help him carry a mattress out to the wagon, a difficult feat in the dark, but one which was safely accomplished after some struggles, a few bruises, and one fall that was happily not a serious one.
Then Sylvia carried Ducky out to the wagon and handed her up to Rumple, who stowed her inside on the mattress, bidding the two small boys lie down one on each side of her, and the three were sound asleep before Sylvia and Rumple had gone back to the house.
They were standing on the threshold of the dark little room, and wondering what they had better do next, when the door of the sleeping chamber opened and Nealie came out.
"Sylvia, where are you?" she cried, with such misery in her voice that Sylvia gave a groan of real dismay.
"What is the matter?" asked Rumple sharply. Of course he was solely to blame for all this wretched business, he told himself, as none of these disasters could have happened if he had not forgotten to post that letter.
"Rupert is very, very ill, Dr. Plumstead says, and we must make a fire at once and boil water for some kind of fomentations. Could you and Rumple do that while I help the doctor in the bedroom?"
"Of course we can. I know where the firewood is," said Rumple hastily, heaving a sigh of satisfaction to think that there was something useful for him to do.
"If Rumple is going to make the water hot, can't I come into the bedroom to help you with Rupert?" asked Sylvia, for Nealie looked thoroughly worn out.
"I will call you if we want more help, meanwhile you might make the poor doctor some tea, for I do not believe he has had a real meal since breakfast, and it is very hard for him to find his home invaded in such a fashion. But where are the children?" asked Nealie, looking round in a bewildered fashion.
"We have put them to bed in the wagon; they were so very tired," answered Sylvia. "Now I will get the doctor man such a nice supper that he will feel he is to be congratulated on his household of visitors, even though one of them is in possession of the only bed in the house. Oh, Nealie, what an awful situation it is, and whatever shall we do if we can't find dear Father?"
"Don't, dear, I dare not think about that or anything else until Rupert is better, and then God will show us what to do," said Nealie, putting her hand out with such an imploring gesture that Sylvia was instantly ashamed of herself, and set about being as cheerful as possible in order to keep up the courage of her sister.
"Oh, we shall get through all right of course, and after all it is just a part of our adventures; anything is better than stagnating I think, and we have not been in much danger of that lately!"
Nealie went back to the bedroom, while Sylvia and Rumple did their very best in the outer chamber, where the confusion almost defied description. But their days of living in the wagon had fitted them for managing comfortably where anyone else would have been bothered by the muddle all around.
As it was, Rumple's fire was burning in grand style, and the various pots and kettles on the stove were beginning to show signs of being nearly ready to boil, when the doctor came out of the inner room to get something from the medicine cupboard in the corner.
"Will you please sit down and take your supper, now that you are here?" asked Sylvia rather timidly, for to her way of thinking this doctor had a very disagreeable face; but that was, perhaps, because she was prejudiced against him through the dreadful disappointment which had met them at the end of their journey.
"I do not think that I can stay for food just now; your brother needs me," he began, in a tone which certainly was brusque, although perhaps he did not mean it to be so.
"Oh, please, do!" she pleaded. "Because then I shall not feel so worried, and I am sure that Rupert will not take much harm for half an hour, while you will feel far more fit when you have had a meal."
"It is very kind of you to be so insistent, and I really am very hungry," he replied, smiling broadly now, for the supper which Sylvia had cooked for him from their own stores smelled exceedingly good, and she was already pouring a cup of tea out for him and doing her very best to make him feel how grateful they were to him for all his kindness to Rupert.
"But won't you sit down and have something to eat also?" he asked, as she hovered about ready to anticipate his wants.
"No, thank you, we had supper before you came, when we were waiting for Father," she said, with a choke in her voice, which made her turn hastily away and knock a tin pan over, so that in the sudden clatter he might not notice how near she was to booing like a baby.
He frowned heavily, as he wondered what the guardians of this family could have been thinking of not to write and make sure that the father was in a position to receive them, before sending seven irresponsible young people halfway round the world, on the off chance of finding their father when they reached the end of the journey.
"It has really been very hard for you, and we must do our best to help you out of the muddle," he said quite kindly, as he enjoyed the results of Sylvia's handiwork and began to feel all the better for his supper.
"Do you know where Father has gone?" she asked, putting the question which Nealie lacked the courage to ask.
"When Dr. Plumstead passed the practice over to me, eighteen months ago, he said that he was going to Mostyn, and that letters from England were to be forwarded to the Post Office there, but that nothing else was to be sent on," the doctor answered.
"If your name is the same as Father's, how would you know which were your letters and which were his?" Sylvia asked in a wondering tone, for to her it seemed of all things most strange that there should be two doctors of one name, and that not a common one, in a small town like Hammerville.
"Oh, that was easy enough! I am an Australian, educated in Germany, and I have not a single correspondent in England. But only one letter has come for your father, and that arrived about two weeks ago, so I forwarded it to Mostyn at once," said the doctor.
"Where is Mostyn?" asked Sylvia.
"It is away in the back country, about fifty miles from everywhere, I imagine. It is a boom town; that is to say, they have found gold there in paying quantities, and so it will grow like a mushroom until the gold gives out, and then, unless they come across anything else of value, it will fizzle out as rapidly as it sprang to life. It is a little way we have of doing things in this part of the world," said the doctor as he finished his supper, and then he asked, in a tone of grave concern: "Pray, where can you go to sleep? There is certainly no sense in your sitting up all night. Your sister will stay up to help me with the sick boy, and then in the morning she will want to rest, and you must be ready to take her place."
"Oh, I can sit round in a chair and doze a little when I am not wanted!" replied Sylvia in that happy-go-lucky way she had of saying things, and which as a rule no one heeded. But the doctor frowned heavily as he said: "That will not do at all; young people cannot get on without proper sleep, and you must be fresh and fit to take your sister's place in the morning, for your brother is going to want a lot of nursing to pull him through. What have you done with the younger children?"
"We put them to bed in the wagon. It is just outside, you know, and we thought that they would be out of the way," answered Sylvia.
"An excellent idea. Now suppose that you go and put yourself to bed with them, and they will be sure to wake you bright and early in the morning," he said, smiling now, because there really seemed a way out of the difficulty.
"But you will want someone to keep the fire in for you to-night," protested Sylvia, who did not like the idea of being sent off to bed with the children, even though she was so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open.
"That other brother of yours will do that for me. What is his name, by the way?" asked the doctor, as Rumple disappeared from the room in search of more firewood.
"He is Dalrymple, only we always call him Rumple, because it suits him so well and is affectionate too. But you will certainly never keep him awake. He will mean not to go to sleep, for he is really a very good sort, and crammed full of the best intentions, but he simply can't keep his eyes open when he is very tired; so presently, when you least expect it, he will just double up and fall asleep, and you will not be able to wake him up however much you try. We Plumsteads are all like that, and sometimes it is very awkward," said Sylvia earnestly.
"I will risk it; only you must go to bed now," said the doctor, laughing broadly at her description of the Plumstead weakness in the matter of popping off to sleep at inconvenient times; and then he called to Rumple and asked him to see his sister safely into the wagon, and to keep an eye on it during the remainder of the night.
Poor Rumple! He honestly meant to do just what the doctor asked of him, for he was just as grateful as a boy could be for what was being done for Rupert and also for the way in which the doctor was treating the girls, so he trotted backwards and forwards for another hour, bringing in wood, stoking the stove, making kettles boil, fetching water from a crazy old pump in the next garden, falling over the tangled vegetation en route, and getting hopelessly muddled in the darkness. Then he suddenly became so sleepy that it seemed to him he would snore as he walked about; his feet became heavier and heavier, until the effort to lift them grew beyond his power. He could not see out of his eyes, and, collapsing on to the floor between the door and the stove, he lay there, happily unconscious of everything.
The doctor found him on one of his journeys out to the stove for fresh boiling water, and would certainly have thought him to be in a fit but for Sylvia's explanation of the family peculiarity. So he only smiled to himself, and, lifting Rumple, laid him more at ease in the farther corner of the room, covering him over with a rug; and then he went back to the bedroom, where Nealie was busy helping him with Rupert, and said, in a laughing tone: "I have just picked that brother of yours up from the floor, where he lay as fast asleep as if he were on the softest bed that had ever been made."
"Poor Rumple! His intentions about keeping awake are always so good that it is very hard on him to be bowled over in such a fashion," said Nealie, with a wan little smile, and then for a few minutes she was very busy helping the doctor put fresh fomentations on Rupert. But when this was finished, and the sufferer lay quiet from the comfort of it all, and there was leisure to think of other things, Nealie spoke again: "How soon will it be safe for me to leave Rupert?"
The doctor looked at her in surprise; but thinking she was tired out, and longing for sleep, he said kindly:
"You can go off to the wagon now for a sleep if you like. I should not have suggested your staying all night, only that I thought it would be good for your brother to have one of his own about him; but as he seems inclined to sleep now, it will not really matter."
"Oh, I did not mean that I wanted to go to bed!" said Nealie quickly. "This is not the first time I have stayed up all night. Whenever the children have been ill I have stayed with them. Indeed I am quite used to watching and being on guard. But I want to know how soon you think that it will be fit for me to leave Rupert to the care of Sylvia, so that I may go to find Father."
"You could not go to a place like Mostyn alone, and the best way will be for you to send and ask your father to come here for you," replied the doctor gravely.
But to this suggestion Nealie shook her head. "I heard what you said to Sylvia about Father, and I have the feeling that he needs us very badly indeed. Why did he give up the practice here?"
Dr. Plumstead hedged this question as best he could, for he simply could not tell this girl with the pathetic eyes that an old rumour had risen, which made it necessary for the doctor to go farther afield, and so the practice had been disposed of to the first person who was willing to give a little money for it.
But Nealie was shrewd enough to understand without telling, and, looking the doctor straight in the face, she asked: "Was it that affair of Father taking off the man's arm which was brought up against him?"
"Something of the kind, I think," said the doctor reluctantly. He was saying to himself how hard it was that this young girl should have so many hard things to bear when she seemed just made for joy and happiness, when, to his amazement, she broke into a low ripple of happy laughter, and softly clapped her hands.
"I thought it was that," she cried. "Strangely enough, since we landed in New South Wales I have stumbled upon the very man whose arm it was that Father took off, and someone told me that this man says it was the greatest blessing of his life that he was thrust out into the world maimed, to make his own way, and sink or swim as best he could. Now, when I have found my father I am going to ask him to communicate with this man, and to make the man set him right before the world; for why should my dear father have to suffer so heavily for having merely done his duty, and saved the man's life in spite of everything? It is a doctor's duty to save life at all costs, and no consideration of any other kind should make him do otherwise. Father was quite sure that the man would die if his arm were not taken off, and that was why he performed the operation in spite of the disapproval of the man's friends."
"It was, as you say, his duty to do his best for his patient, and it is hard lines that he should have to suffer for just having done his duty," said the doctor. "But why can you not put this in a letter, and let me send it to Mostyn for you the first thing in the morning?"
"Because I am afraid that Father would not read it," admitted Nealie, first flushing and then paling, as she looked up at the doctor with her fearless gaze. "I think that Father is so beaten by everything that he has had to bear that he just feels as if he will give up and not trouble about anything more. So that to know all his big family have suddenly been dumped upon him will be a sort of a shock; but if I am there to assure him that we shall be more help than hindrance he may feel better about it all. Of course there are a lot of us, and we have fearfully big appetites too, except Rupert, but there are so many ways of earning one's living here that I think we shall soon be able to support ourselves, that is, Sylvia, Rupert, and I, for of course the others will have to go to school."
"You are very courageous, and I think perhaps you are right in wanting to go to your father, and if you will leave it to me I will see what arrangements I can make for your journey," said the doctor, and Nealie thanked him, feeling that bad as things were they might easily have been worse if they had not found a friend like her father's successor, who by such a strange coincidence bore the same name.
Rupert had experienced such relief from the fomentations that he lay in a quiet sleep, and Nealie, with her head on the pillow at his side, slumbered also; but the doctor had gone to the outer room, and was very busy looking up his case book and trying to make up his mind whether he dared leave his patients long enough to go with Nealie to find her father.
His private fear was that when she reached Mostyn she would find that her father had gone somewhere else. Doctors in mining camps were apt to be nomadic creatures, that is, they had to go to their patients, and it was no use to stay where the people were all well, when perhaps at some place fifty or a hundred miles distant men and women might be dying like flies from some contagious disease with never a doctor to help them. It was life at its roughest and wildest in that back country, and he could not let Nealie venture alone in her youth and ignorance where so many perils might beset her path.
Day was beginning to dawn when he heard Rupert speaking, and then with a tap at the door he entered to see how it fared with his patient.
"I am better, thank you, and I am very much obliged to you for all that you have done for me," said Rupert weakly.
"Ah, I think that you will do now, by the look of you," said the doctor in a cheerful tone. "And now, with your consent, I am going to take your sister to hunt up your father, for I don't feel equal to all seven of you singlehanded," and he burst into a hearty laugh at his own small joke.
In the Thick of It
A hundred miles or more from Mostyn, right out on the sandy plains, beyond the gap in the mountains which they called the Devil's Bridge, there had been a gold find. A gold prospector had been found lying in the mulga scrub with a big nugget in his hand, while his swag, when unrolled, had shown a whole handful of lesser nuggets.
The poor wretch had found gold, but had died of thirst, and those who found him came perilously near to sharing the same fate, so keenly anxious were they to make the dead yield up the knowledge of his find, by tracing his poor wandering footprints round and round and in and out among the hillocks of sand, the clumps of spinifex, and the mulga scrub.
But one man, more human than the rest, elected to dig a grave where the dead might rest secure from the ravages of the wandering dingo, and although the others laughed at him, calling him names, and going away leaving him to do his work of mercy alone, he stuck grimly at his task, probing down between the roots of the mulga bushes to make a hollow deep enough to form a decent resting place for the nameless dead.
He was quite alone now, save for the quiet figure on the ground and a hoodie crow which was perched on a swaying branch at a little distance, watching the living and the dead with anxious beady eyes.
Down under the top layer of sand the ground was stony, and the man who dug was weak from long tramping in search of the gold he could not find. Of choice he would have gone away and left the still figure where he had found it, but it might be that some day he too would lie like this, with staring eyes that could not see the sun, and then, surely, it would be good if some kind hand would make a hole in the hot, dry ground, where his body might lie at rest until the day of days, when the dead shall rise and the earth and the ocean give back that which they have taken.
What was that?
The prospector's shovel struck something hard, something which was so much heavier than ordinary stone, and that had a peculiar ring when struck by the shovel.
He leaned forward then, and picked it up, casting a scared look round, fearful lest any of his chums had repented and come back to help him. But no, he was alone, save for the dead; even the hoodie crow had flown away because it did not seem of any use waiting any longer, and instinct had told the creature that a horse was dying by a dried-out water-hole some two miles away.
The man dug another hole after that, at some little distance, and, dragging the body there, gave it decent burial, even kneeling with clasped hands and closed eyes for a few minutes when his task was done, trying to remember "Our Father", which was the prayer he had learned at his mother's knee many years before. It was the only prayer that occurred to him then, and it was not so inappropriate as it seemed. Then he went back to the first hole that he had dug, and, carefully filling it in, made a little cross of plaited sticks, which he planted at the head of the grave that held no dead.
"I guess that will about do," he muttered to himself, and then, with a final look round, he picked up his swag, and, hoisting it to his back, set his face towards the hills and civilization once more. Tucked away in his belt he carried fragments of the stone he had taken from that first grave he had started to dig, and he meant to raise money on his expectations, then come back with horses and tools to dig up the fortune upon which he had stumbled when performing that act of mercy to the nameless dead.
He was worn out and half-starved; he had been so near to despair, too, that this tremendous find proved too much for him, and when three days later he staggered into the main street of Latimer, which was a township some fifty miles from Mostyn, he was too ill to tell anyone of what he had found, or even to get the help for himself that he so sorely needed.
Most likely he would have lain on a dirty bed at the one hotel until he died, and so the secret of that empty grave on the sandy plain would have never been revealed; but it so fell out that two other men in the township were ill with a mysterious disease which looked so much like smallpox that a doctor was sent for in all haste because of the danger to other people.
The nearest medical man lived at Mostyn, and he had not been there long, and was indeed on the point of going somewhere else, because the people of Mostyn seemed to have no use for doctors, and only died of drinking bad whisky.
With so little chance of work the doctor was in a fair way of being starved out; so when the call came for him to go to Latimer, eager though he was for work, he had to admit that he had no horse to ride and no money with which to hire one.
But when men are desperate enough to ride fifty miles on the off chance of finding a doctor it is not likely that a trifle of this kind will turn them from their purpose. A horse for the doctor was quickly forthcoming, and he rode out of Mostyn in the company of his escort, just as the cart which was bringing the weekly mail entered the town.
"Would you like to wait and claim your mail, doctor?" asked the man who rode on his right hand.
"No, thanks; I do not expect any letters," replied the man of medicine, and a pang stole into his heart as he thought of the big family of seven motherless children in far-away England, whom he had virtually cast off, just because he was writing himself down a failure, and would not be an object of pity to his friends and relations.
If only he had known it, there was a letter for him by that mail, a letter which had come from England, written by Mr. Runciman, and posted on the very day the children sailed for Sydney. The writer confessed that he ought to have followed his first letter with a second long before this; perhaps he ought to have waited until a letter came from Dr. Plumstead before letting the children start, but there had been so many difficulties in the way of taking care of them in England, and so on, and so on, which in plain English meant that as Mrs. Runciman was not willing to have them under her roof, the harassed guardian had not known what to do with them.
But it was a long time before that letter really reached the hands for which it was intended, and then it was Nealie who handed it to her father, and at his request read it to him.
It was a horrible journey for the doctor and his escort. The demon drought was stalking through the land, there were wicked little whirlwinds to raise the sand and fling it in blinding showers on to the unlucky travellers, water-holes had dried to mud puddles, and the broad lagoons, beloved of waterfowl, were thickets of wilted reeds, with never a trace of moisture to be found anywhere.
The travellers pressed on as fast as they could go, for who could tell what grim tragedies were taking place in Latimer since the two had ridden forth to find a doctor? There were stories of whole townships having been wiped out in ten days or a fortnight by smallpox, when no doctor had been forthcoming to tend the patients and insist on isolation and sanitation, with all the other precautions that belong to law and order.
"There are only eight hundred people all told in Latimer, and we may easily find half of them dead," said one man, with a pant of hurry in his voice, as the tired horses toiled up the last long hill into Latimer.
"But how many sick did you say there were when you left the town on the day before yesterday?" asked the doctor, who privately believed the men to be panic-stricken.
"There were two that had spots, and then there was that prospector who came in from the track across the sandy plain. He dropped like a felled ox in front of Jowett's saloon, and so they took him in there, because Jowett had a bed to spare and there was not another in the township," said the other man, who was tall and gaunt, and only about half as frightened as his companion, who was a small fat man with a tendency to profuse perspiration.
"Had he—this prospector, I mean—any spots on him also?" asked the doctor, frowning heavily. He had had more than one fight with smallpox in mining camps, and he knew by sad experience that the terror was worse to combat than the disease.
"I don't know. Folks were too scared to look, I fancy; but old Mother Twiney, who doesn't seem to be afraid of anything, said that she would see that he had food and drink until we got back, and Jowett will let the man have houseroom, for the simple reason that he is afraid to turn him out," returned the tall man.
Fully half the population of Latimer gathered to welcome the doctor when at last he rode up to the open space in front of Jowett's saloon, and half of these demanded that their tongues should be looked at and their pulses felt without delay.
But the doctor had always been impatient of shams; indeed more than one candid friend had told him that in this matter he had done himself much harm from a professional point of view, as a doctor who wants to get on can do it most quickly by trading upon the fears of the foolish.
Pushing the candidates for examination to right and left as he went, he sternly demanded to be taken at once to the sick—those who had the dreaded spots most fully developed—and, as he was not a man to be gainsaid or put aside, old Mother Twiney was at once pushed forward to take him to the patients.
Snuffy and dirty though the old crone was, there was a gleam of true kindliness in her eyes hidden away behind bushy grey eyelashes, and she hobbled off in a great hurry to a wooden building standing remote from the houses, and which had formerly been used as a store for mining plant.
"Are all the patients here?" asked the doctor, as he followed her across the parched and dusty grass.
"All but the man who was taken into Jowett's, your honour," she answered; then, sidling a little closer to him, she said in an undertone: "It is not smallpox at all; I am quite sure of it. Why, the two men are not even ill, only nearly scared to death."
"Then why was I sent for such a long way, and for nothing too?" he asked angrily, knowing well that his fee would be according to the need there was for his services.
"Hush!" breathed the old woman, and now there was keen anxiety in her manner. "Whatever you do, don't let anyone know for a few days that it is not smallpox. These men are not ill, and the spots are only a sort of heat rash, I think, but the poor fellow at Jowett's is real bad, and he would have died if he could not have had a doctor. He may even die now, in spite of all you can do. I knew that no one in the town would send for a doctor to come so far on account of a man who was ill from a complaint that was not infectious, so when I saw the other two with the spots, I just made the most of it, and because all the well people were afraid that they would catch the disease, there was no time lost in sending for you. Now you must just put them into strict quarantine, and make as much fuss as possible; then they will let you stay here long enough to pull the poor fellow round who is lying at Jowett's, and they will pay you according to the trouble you put them to," said the old woman, with a sagacious nod of her head.
The doctor frowned, but there was sound reason in her arguments, and he decided to see all the patients before committing himself to any course of action concerning them.
The two men with spots were in a state of terror that was pitiable to see, and from outward appearances might be said to be suffering from a very bad form of the dreaded scourge. True to the lines he had laid down for himself, however, he said nothing to allay their fears, only looked very grave, issued a hundred commands for safeguarding the rest of the community, and then demanded to be taken to the other sick man, who was lodged at Jowett's.
The prospector's quarters were not sumptuous. He was merely laid in a shed recently tenanted by calves, and which had been hastily cleared for his use. The man was very ill, and Mother Twiney had not exaggerated about the gravity of his condition.
Here indeed was scope for the doctor, and instead of wearing a face of gloom, as when he examined the men with spots, his face was bright, and his tone so brisk and cheerful that it looked as if he were going to enjoy the tussle that was in front of him.
"Can you pull me through, Doctor?" asked the sufferer, looking at the doctor with lack-lustre eyes.
"I am going to try, but I don't mind admitting that I shall have my hands full," replied the doctor, who had never been in the habit of hiding from his patients the gravity of their condition.
"Well, if you do get me on my feet, I promise you a 10-per-cent commission on all I can make during the next year," said the sick man, with a sudden burst of energy, and then he called on the old woman to witness to what he had said, after which he sank into a condition of apathy, looking as if he might die at any moment.
Never since he was a young man and just starting in his profession had the doctor worked harder than for the next few days. He was happier, too, than he had been for years, and in the hush of the quiet nights, when he watched alone by the man who was really ill, he thought of his children and resolved that no longer would he shut them out of his heart and out of his life just because he had been a victim to circumstances.
He was thinking of them one night, as he strode across to the shed where the two victims from spots were beginning to recover, when suddenly he noticed another odour on the hot air; usually it was the pungent smell of eucalyptus leaves, but now it was the reek of burning timber that smote upon his senses, and turning sharply in the track he saw to his horror that there was a red glow in the sky over Jowett's. The place was on fire.
"It will blaze like matches," he groaned, and then turned to run, thinking of his patient.
But, despite his haste, the flames were shooting out through the holes in the roof of the shed where the sick man lay, by the time the doctor turned the corner by the store.
He tried to shout a warning, and to call for help, but it was as if his voice had dried up in his throat.
No one else appeared aware of the danger. The place seemed solitary and silent, save for the hiss and crackle of the fire.
Then he heard a cry for help. It came from the inside of the shed, and dashing forward, regardless of his own danger, he groped his way in through smoke and flame, then, seizing the sick man, turned to carry him out to safety, but even in that moment was stricken to the ground with the burden he bore, and pinned there by a fall of roofing.
"Father, We Want You!"
Rupert was so much better when he woke from his long sleep that the doctor told Nealie she might be quite easy to leave him to the care of Sylvia on the following day and go in search of her father if she wished.
"You will be able to look after him too, will you not?" asked Nealie wistfully, for in her heart she rather doubted Sylvia's nursing skill.
"No, I am coming with you," he answered, looking at her with a smile.
Nealie flushed hotly and burst into vigorous protest. "Please, please do not take so much trouble for me; and besides, think of your patients, and what you may lose by being away."
He shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Doctors have very hard times in the back blocks, Miss Plumstead. Those who are really ill cannot as a rule afford to pay for medical skill, and everyone is too busy to have time for imaginary complaints. I have no patients at the moment that I cannot leave, except the man who lives out in the direction of Pig Hill, and I thought that I would ride over there this afternoon, and then we would start at dawn to-morrow morning. You don't ride, do you?"
"Not much, and I am sure that I could not sit on Rockefeller, because he is so clumsy," said Nealie.
"Then I will borrow Jim Brown's two-wheeled cart; but I think that we shall have to take your horse, because mine is rather worn. The track out to Pig Hill is a heavy one, and I have been there every day of late," said the doctor, and then he hurried away to see his patients in the town, while Nealie did her best to arrange for leaving the others for a few days.
There was one thing which Nealie had to do that she could not speak of to the doctor, who had been so truly good to them. Her money was exhausted save for a few shillings, and, being face to face with destitution, and not sure of finding her father even when she reached Mostyn, she must have money from somewhere.
In her extremity she thought of Mr. Runciman, and although it would take most of her remaining shillings to cable to him, she had determined to do it.
When Dr. Plumstead had started for Pig Hill she found her way to the telegraph office and dispatched her pitiful request.
"Please send us some money, we have not found Father here.
But cables are expensive things, and when she came to send it she found that she would not have enough money for the whole, and had to shorten it, so that when it actually went it was more a demand than a plea:
"Send us money; Father not here."
"And if he does not send it, whatever shall we do?" cried Sylvia, who had to be told, if only for the sake of sobering her and making her more keenly alive to the responsibilities of the situation.
"He will send it, I am quite sure," replied Nealie, with a beautiful faith in Mr. Runciman's real goodness of heart that was justified in due course by the arrival of a cablegram authorizing her to draw fifty pounds from the Hammerville bank as she needed it.
But she had to start off in the grey dawn of the next morning, in company with the usurping Dr. Plumstead—as Sylvia would persist in calling him—without knowing that her need was to be met in this generous manner. It was perhaps the very darkest hour in her life, and her face was drawn and pinched with the weight of her care as she lifted it to the cold grey of the sky when she mounted into the high two-wheeled cart which the doctor had borrowed for the journey. But even as she looked, all the grey was flushed with rose colour from the rising sun, and the sight brought back her courage with a rush, so that she was able to turn and smile at the little group gathered at the door of the doctor's house to see her drive away.