"Mind you take good care of Rupert, Sylvia," she called, feeling that her next sister was really not old enough for such a heavy responsibility; only, as there was no one else to take it, of course Sylvia would have to do her best.
"I will see that she looks after him properly," said Rumple, with a wag of his head, at which the doctor laughed; for when sleep seized upon Rumple he was of little use in looking after other people.
Don and Billykins flung up their caps and shouted hurrah as Rockefeller moved off, and Ducky joined in with her shrill treble, so that Nealie felt they were doing their very best to keep her spirits up at the moment of parting, and she could not let them think their efforts were wasted in the least; therefore she waved her hand and tried to appear as free from care as the rest of them.
After the heavy wagon, Rockefeller made short work of the light-weight cart, and went along at such a tremendous pace that Nealie would certainly have been afraid if anyone but Dr. Plumstead had been driving. His treatment of Rupert, however, had inspired her with such confidence in him that she sat smiling and untroubled while the big, clumsy, vanhorse cut capers in the road, and then danced on all-fours because a small boy rushed out of one of the little wooden houses on the other side of the town and blew a blast on a bugle right under the horse's nose.
"It really looks as if the creature had not had enough work for the last three or four weeks," said the doctor, with a laugh, as he proceeded to get pace out of Rocky in preference to pranks.
"It is a very good horse and has done us good service," said Nealie, in a rather breathless fashion, as a sudden swerve on the part of Rocky sent her flying against the doctor, and then, as she settled back into her own corner and clutched at the side of the cart to keep from being tossed out, she went on in an anxious tone: "I wonder what Mr. Wallis will say to our keeping Rocky to go this journey instead of at once handing him over to the nearest agent of the firm?"
"If he is the wise and just man that I take him to be he will say that you have done quite right," replied the doctor. "You have not reached your father yet, and you must have the horse for this extra journey, don't you see?"
Nealie shook her head as if in doubt about this sort of reasoning, and then she sat silent for so long that the doctor might have believed her to be asleep, if he had not seen that her gaze was fixed on the landscape.
The district outside Hammerville on the Mostyn track was at first mainly composed of rich pasture, mostly settled by dairy farmers, although farther away on the higher ground it was sheep farming that was most in evidence.
Twenty miles out of Hammerville the road had dwindled to a grassy track, and as they were now on the northern side of the Murrumbidgee River the country grew very wild and mountainous, the track cut through forests which the doctor told Nealie had only been half-explored, and the hilltops were so solitary that it did not seem as if there were any people in the world at all.
But it was a well-watered country, and on every side there were brawling little streams rushing down precipitous heights or scurrying away through woody valleys, as if anxious to find the very nearest way to the sea.
By the time the hottest part of the day had arrived Rockefeller had done half the journey to Mostyn, and driving up to a lone house the doctor was so fortunate as to find a woman living there, to whose care he confided Nealie for a few hours' rest and refreshment while he took a siesta lying on the ground under the cart, which had been drawn close under the shade of the willows fringing the river at this part.
It was sundown before they reached Mostyn, and then it was only to be met with disappointment, for the doctor had been sent for to cope with an outbreak of smallpox at Latimer.
"That settles it!" exclaimed the doctor. "I shall drive you back to Hammerville to-morrow morning, for certainly I cannot take you to a disease-stricken town, and equally I cannot leave you here."
"I shall not go back until I have found Father," said Nealie, smiling up at him in a way that somehow robbed her words of their mutinous flavour. "And there is no need to worry about the danger of taking me to a smallpox place, because I had the complaint when I was a little girl, before I was old enough to remember, so there is no danger for me."
The doctor was very hard to convince on this score, and was even inclined to throw doubt on her statement, and to declare that she must be mistaken, as it was so extremely unlikely that a child in her position would contract the disease.
Nealie met all his arguments in silence until he came to his doubts about her really having had the disease, and then she quietly rolled up the left sleeve of her thin blouse and showed him two distinct marks on the soft flesh above the elbow, which any doctor must know were pock marks.
"I must go until I find my father, and if you will not take me I must go alone," she said, when he left off arguing because he had no more to say; but her gaze was very wistful, for Mostyn was so much rougher than Hammerville that her heart sank very low as she thought of how rough Latimer might be.
"If you must go I must certainly go too, for I cannot let you out of my care in places like this," he said in a tone as decided as her own.
For that one night she was lodged with a good woman who cleaned the church and school, and who kept her awake for half the night telling her gruesome stories of happenings in disease-stricken towns, such as Latimer was at that moment supposed to be. But if she thought to frighten Nealie into consenting to go back to Hammerville without finding her father she made a very great mistake indeed.
Bad as had been the journey of the doctor and his escort when he rode from Mostyn to Latimer through the fierce heat, the experiences of young Dr. Plumstead and Nealie were still worse. Rockefeller had lost the fine vigour displayed on the first part of the journey, and went at a slow trot, hanging his head and stumbling so often that Dr. Plumstead was forced into a pretty liberal use of the whip to keep the creature on his feet at all.
There was a strong wind blowing to-day, but luckily it came from behind, and so Nealie opened a big umbrella, which kept off some of the dust and also acted as a sail and helped them along. Sun, wind, and dust seemed to bring on a sort of fever in Nealie; her hands burned like coals of fire, she had a lightheaded sensation, and saw so many visions during the last miles of that trying journey that she could never after determine which was real and which was fancy of all the incidents and happenings of that long, weary day.
"Hullo, look at that smoke yonder; is it a bush fire, I wonder, or is it possible they have been having a big blaze at Latimer?" said the doctor, pointing with his whip to the crest of a long hill up which the track wound its dusty way.
"Are we near to Latimer?" asked Nealie in a languid tone.
"I think we ought to be by this time, unless we have come wrong. But what a hill! I fancy Rockefeller expects me to walk up here," said the doctor, who was secretly very anxious concerning that smoke which was hanging in a cloud about the crest of the hill.
"Shall I walk too?" she asked, wondering whether the act of walking would tend to steady her wavering fancies, and to stop that horrible tendency to light-headedness which bothered her so badly.
"I think not; you must be quite tired enough without adding to your fatigue by scrambling along this dusty track. Hullo!"
Nealie saw a sudden swerve on the part of Rocky, then the doctor's cane came cutting through the air, and there was a great wriggling and commotion on the dusty ground; but the doctor was so busy soothing the horse that he did not even answer when she called out to know what was the matter.
"Was it a snake?" she asked, as the cart was dragged forward at a jerk, and Rocky, prancing along on two legs, snorting and plunging, took all the doctor's skill to keep him from bolting in sheer fright.
"Yes; and I am very glad that you were not walking, for they are not pleasant creatures to meet," replied the doctor, thinking how fortunate it was that he happened to be on foot at the moment, and with a stick in his hand, for the snake was of a very deadly kind, and the horse would have stood no chance at all against the poison of its forked tongue.
Nealie shivered and sat suddenly straight up; it seemed as if the little shock had restored her in some strange way. The fiercest heat of the sun was past, and the raging of that terrible wind had dropped to a gentle breeze which blew cool and refreshing from another quarter. Indeed she would have felt quite cheerful had it not been for the menace of that smoke haze lying in a cloud along the line of the hills.
Another half-hour and they were crossing the top of the ridge, while Latimer, most snugly placed, lay on the slope of the other side. But at first sight of the town both Nealie and the doctor had burst into exclamations of horror, for it looked as if it had been burned out. A cloud of smoke from the ruined houses hung thickly over the place, and Rockefeller, with a horse's objection to facing fire, turned about on the track and showed so much disposition to go back by the way he had come that the doctor had to get down again and lead the scared creature.
Presently they saw a man just ahead of them, the first human being they had glimpsed for hours, and calling to him the doctor asked what had happened.
"It has been a fire," said the man, which, considering the smoke rising in all directions from the ruins, was rather an unnecessary explanation.
"So I see; but what started it?" asked the doctor.
"No one will admit knowing much about that," replied the man grimly, "but we have our thoughts all the same. We have got smallpox in the town, you know, and one case was lodged in Jowett's hotel. The doctor that we fetched from Mostyn said pretty decidedly that the one at Jowett's was certainly not smallpox whatever the other two might be, but some people won't be convinced, try how you will. So when the doctor's back was turned it is supposed that someone, either by accident or design, set the place on fire where the sick man was lying. In a drought such as we are having now you may guess how the place burned. The doctor happened to catch sight of it starting; but though he ran at the top of his speed, all that he could do was to get there in time to see the place one mass of fire, and he might easily have been forgiven if he had turned his back on it then. He is made of brave stuff, though, and they said he dashed straight into that blazing place, and, with the flames and smoke all around him, he brought his patient out in the nick of time, for the whole show collapsed just as he got to the doorway, the sheets of red-hot corrugated roofing fell down upon him, and he was so badly burned that someone will have to go and find a doctor to cure up the one we've got, for I'm thinking that Latimer won't let a hero of that sort die without making an attempt to save him."
"I am a doctor; I can look after him. Just lead on, and show me where he is, will you, please?" said young Dr. Plumstead brusquely. He would have spared Nealie the ugly story if he could, but on the whole it was good for her to hear that her father had played the part of a hero. If he had only known it, the hearing was good for him too, for he had been very ready to despise the man who had given up his practice in Hammerville and rushed away because he had not the moral courage to live down a scandal. He had despised Nealie's father, too, because of his treatment of his children, and altogether had decided that the poor man was very much of a detrimental, so that this story of heroism had a mighty effect on him as he walked by the side of the loquacious person who had first given them the news; while Nealie sat perched up in the cart behind, straining her ears to catch what they were saying, and feeling so thankful that she had insisted on coming all the way that she could have shouted with joyfulness in spite of her anxiety.
The man told Dr. Plumstead that the fire had spread from building to building with such awful rapidity that it had been as much as anyone could do to get the people out of their houses, so many of them having gone to bed when the outbreak started.
"What about the smallpox patients?" asked the doctor.
"We have looked everywhere, but can't find a trace of them, and we should have thought that they had lost their lives in the fire, only the building where they lay was not touched, and they had not merely disappeared, but they had taken their clothes with them, and as much else as they could lay hands on," replied the man, and the doctor was so tickled that he burst out laughing at the story.
"It does not look as if the outbreak of smallpox could have been very serious," he remarked.
"Just what everyone is saying, and the boys are downright mad with old Mother Twiney because the old woman could not tell whether it was really smallpox or not; but, as I said, you could not expect an ignorant woman to know a disease of that sort, and we had better have a scare that ended in smoke than let the real thing gain ground without our taking any steps to stamp it out," said the man, and then he turned off short between two heaps of smoking ruins, and the doctor led Rocky, snuffing and snorting, past the smouldering fire to the cool shadow of the forest beyond.
"The doctor and his patient are in that hut yonder. It is where the smallpox patients were lying; but there was no other place, and so we had to put them there," said the man; and the doctor, turning round, said to Nealie:
"You had better get down now and wait here by the horse while I go and have a look at your father. Oh yes, I will come back for you in a few minutes, and then I shall be able to arrange with this good man about somewhere to shelter you for the night. I dare say the accommodation will not be very grand, seeing the condition of things here."
"I don't mind about accommodation, but I do want to go to my father," said Nealie, her voice breaking in a sob as she scrambled down from the cart, ignoring the hand her companion stretched out to help her, and then she stood beside Rocky leaning her head against his side, while her heart beat so furiously that it seemed to her the man who told them the news, and was still lingering near, must hear it thumping away against her side.
Would Dr. Plumstead never come? How could he be so cruel as to keep her waiting so long?
"Ah, what news have you for me?" she asked, as the doctor emerged from the hut with a quick step and a very grave face indeed.
"Nothing very good, I fear," he said quietly, and then turned to the man and asked him to see that the horse was fed and cared for without delay.
"Tell me, please, is Father very bad? I can bear anything better than suspense," she said, keeping her voice steady by a great effort.
"I think you can, and you have already proved yourself a girl of mettle; but you will want all your courage now, for I fear that you have found your father only to bid him goodbye," replied the doctor; and then he caught her by the arm and held her fast while the first dizziness of the shock was upon her.
"I am all right now," she said, moving forward in the direction of the door, and he walked beside her, still holding her arm, as if he doubted her strength to stand alone.
There was an old woman, very snuffy and dirty to look at, but with a face of genuine kindness, who came forward to meet her, and, leading her past the first bed, where a man was lying who had a much-bandaged head, she took her to another bed in the far corner, whispering: "That is your pa, Miss dear, and you had better speak to him quick, for we think that he is going fast, poor brave gentleman!"
Going fast, and she had only just found him!
Nealie gave a frightened gasp, and crept closer, falling on her knees by the bed, and trembling so that she could hardly clasp the fingers of the uninjured hand which lay outside the thin coverlet.
"Father, dear Father, I am Nealie, your own daughter, and I have come all the way from England to find you, and to help make home again! Oh, you cannot go away and leave me now!" she wailed in passionate protest against his dying.
"Hush, Missy dear, it may scare him if you speak so loud!" said the old woman in a warning tone, for Nealie's voice had unconsciously risen almost to a scream.
The heavy eyelids opened, and the eyes looked straight into Nealie's face with blank amazement in their gaze.
"Who are you?" he asked, his voice so faint that it was hardly more than a whisper.
"I am your child, dear Father; I am Nealie! We have come to Hammerville to live with you. You should have had a letter weeks ago to warn you that we were all coming, only it was forgotten to be posted," she said, being determined to take half the blame of that omission on her own shoulders, for surely it was as much her fault as Rumple's, seeing that she had never thought to remind him of the letter or to ask if it had been safely posted.
"All seven of you?" he asked, and now there was a shocked expression in his face which cut Nealie to the heart; only, for once, she was quite mistaken as to its cause, and the shocked look did not mean that he was angry with them for coming, but was solely because of what their plight would be if he slipped out of life just then.
"Yes, we are all here," she admitted, feeling more guilty than in all her life before; and then, almost against her will, her voice rose again in a passionate plea to him to get better. "Dear Father, do try and get better, for we all want you so badly!"
"I will try. All seven of you! I can't go and leave you yet!" he exclaimed, with so much more strength in his tone that Nealie was amazed at the change.
At that moment young Dr. Plumstead, who had come close to the bed, touched her on the shoulder, saying quietly: "Go and sit on that bench just outside the door until I call you in again. You have done him good already, and perhaps now we may pull him through, if God wills; but Mrs. Twiney is going to help me dress his wounds properly now, and then perhaps he will be more comfortable."
And Nealie went obediently to sit on the bench outside the door, where the air was heavy with the tarry smell of burning pine and the strong eucalyptus odours; then, clasping her hands, she prayed fervently that her father might be restored to health, so that they might let him know how much they loved him.
"Four days since Dr. Plumstead and Nealie went away, and never a word to say what has happened!" cried Sylvia as she came into Rupert's room to see how he had slept.
"I expect they have eloped," remarked Don calmly, as he sat up on his mattress and yawned widely, stretching first one leg and then another, in order to get them properly awake, as he said; for, being at the bottom, his legs always woke up last, according to his ideas.
"What do you mean?" demanded Sylvia, with a frown. She was feeling tremendously grown-up in these days, and did not permit overmuch levity on the part of her juniors.
"Isn't that what people do when they want to get married?" asked Billykins, who was also just awake, and put his question while Don was struggling to find a definition of the word.
"But Nealie does not want to marry that usurping doctor who has taken dear Father's place!" cried Sylvia hotly, the colour flaming over face and neck at the bare idea of such a thing.
"I expect they will want to marry each other. Mrs. Brown said so," returned Billykins; and then he and Don trotted off to wash in the horse trough outside the stable door, where they had found they could get quite a decent bath without much trouble; and Sylvia bent her energies to waking Rumple, who, being a genius, was always so unwilling to get up in the mornings.
"Perhaps we shall get some news to-day," said Rupert, who, because he was feeling stronger, was very much more hopeful than he had been.
"I don't know what will happen to the doctor's patients if he doesn't soon come back," Sylvia went on in a dissatisfied tone. "You see, they are all getting better without medicine; and it is so very bad for the practice, for if once people get the idea in their heads that they can do without doctors it is so hard to get them back to thinking they must call one in every time their little fingers ache."
"A fresh crop of patients will turn up when the doctor comes home, I expect. Anyhow, I should not worry about it, for perhaps these people would not have paid the bills, and so in reality it is money saved," Rupert said drowsily; and then he stretched his limbs in a luxurious fashion, and dropped into another doze, while Sylvia went back to the other room to start breakfast preparations. She and Ducky slept in the sitting-room now, while the four boys had the bedroom. They had taken complete possession of the doctor's house, and felt so much at home in it that it was a little difficult to imagine how he would find room for himself when he came back.
Rumple, indeed, had suggested that the doctor might occupy the wagon; but as Rupert had pointed out that the wagon would have to be yielded up to the agent when Rockefeller came back from Mostyn, the only thing was to get the stable ready for use in an emergency.
On this morning, when breakfast was over, the three younger boys and Ducky went off to finish their task of turning the stable inside out. This, was the third day they had been at work on it, and the place was looking quite clean and respectable, thanks to their very hard work. They had even ejected the carpet snake that lived there and killed the mice which levied toll on the doctor's cornbin; but the snake, like other ejected persons, was continually harking back to its old quarters, and so this morning, when Ducky rushed into the stable, the first thing which met her gaze was Slippy, the snake, curled up in a heap just inside the door, and of course there was promptly a fuss, for not all the arguments of the others about the absolute harmlessness of Slippy could convince Ducky that the creature was anything but a most dangerous foe.
She had rushed into the house and demanded the united efforts of Rupert and Sylvia to console her, and then was going back to the stable to insist on Slippy being again ejected, when she saw a wagon drawn by a fast pair of horses approaching at a rapid rate, and, having noticed with her sharp little eyes that the man sitting by the driver had only one arm, the empty coat sleeve being pinned across his chest in true warrior style, she rushed back into the house, crying shrilly: "Sylvia, Sylvia, the doctor has got a new patient coming! He has had his arm torn off in a dreadful accident, and has come to have it put on again!"
"Oh, Rupert, whatever shall we do? The poor fellow may die before help comes to him, and all through our fault in sending Dr. Plumstead to take care of Nealie!" cried Sylvia, turning white to the lips at the thought of the horrors which were about to be thrust upon her.
Rupert stood up and gripped her hand reassuringly.
"Don't worry, old girl; just cut off into the bedroom and hide there until I am through with the business. I am not a doctor, but I know a good deal, and I think I can bandage the arm so that the man won't die. Anyhow, I will have a good try."
Sylvia made a bolt for the bedroom, and, casting herself on Rupert's bed, rolled her head in a blanket, and, stuffing her fingers in her ears, remained quaking and shivering until there was a determined clutch on the blanket, and Ducky squealed in her ears: "Sylvia, Sylvia, Mr. Wallis has come to take Rockefeller and the wagon home; only Rocky isn't here to be took, and he—that is, Mr. Wallis—has brought the man with him what made Father so poor; and now we are going to be well off again, and Father won't be under a cloud any more. Isn't it splendiferous? Just scrumptious, I call it! Oh my, but your hair is a sight! You will have to do it with Rupert's comb, and that has lost half its teeth!" and Ducky whirled round in an ecstasy of excitement, while Sylvia hastily made her long mane presentable, and then went out to speak to Mr. Wallis, quaking a little, truth to tell, from the wonder as to whether he would be angry to find that they had sent Rocky off upon another long journey which was certainly not in the contract.
But one look at Rupert's face assured her that she had nothing to be afraid of on that score, for he was looking simply radiant as he stood in earnest talk with a man who had only one arm.
"Why, I do believe that it is the very individual who upset poor Nealie so badly that day when we went to the botanical gardens in Sydney!" she exclaimed; and then she went forward, to be warmly greeted by Mr. Wallis, who claimed to be an old friend, and who at once introduced her to Mr. Reginald Baxter, the gentleman who had only one arm.
Sylvia, knowing so little of her father's professional disgrace, which, indeed, should not have been disgrace at all, seeing that he had only done his duty, was not so much interested in this meeting as Rupert, and turned again to Mr. Wallis, anxious to get it made quite clear to that gentleman that it was through no fault of theirs that Rocky had not been handed over to the agent long before this.
"It was so terrible for us all to arrive here, as we did, with Rupert ill, and to take possession of what we thought was our father's house, only to find that it belonged to another man of the same name," she said, pouring out her words in a breathless hurry. "It seems a pity to me that doctors should be allowed to have the same name; only I suppose it can't be helped. Anyhow, it was very bad for all of us, but it was especially dreadful for poor Nealie, because, you see, she is grown up, and so the conventions had to be considered. Then he—the usurping doctor, that is—would go with her to take care of her when she went to find Father; and that was awkward too, and a little unnecessary as well, for Nealie is so well able to take care of herself. But they have not come back, and we have not heard anything from them, and we are afraid that the practice will go all to pieces if the doctor does not soon come back to nurse it a little."
"The practice will not suffer very much, I hope," said Mr. Wallis soothingly. "But I do not think you quite understand, Miss Sylvia, what good things are happening, or are going to happen, to your father. Mr. Baxter, who has come with me to-day, has had a long letter from your friend Mr. Melrose, who, you may remember, left the ship at Cape Town. It seems that when the rich relative of Mr. Baxter disinherited him, because, owing to his arm having been amputated, he was maimed, she left her money to Mr. Melrose, who really needed it much more. But Mr. Melrose did not know that your father had had to suffer so badly in the matter, and when he gathered some idea of it through meeting you on board ship, he at once wrote to Mr. Baxter calling for his co-operation in setting your father straight with the world again, and it is in order to see how this can best be done that Mr. Baxter has travelled from Sydney with me."
"What a wonderful story! Why, it sounds like a fairy tale. But does not Mr. Baxter hate my father for having been the means of making him poor?" asked Sylvia wistfully.
"No indeed! Mr. Baxter realizes that it was being thrust out upon the world which really gave him his chance, and so he is in a way as grateful to your father as Mr. Melrose; and between the two of them they will clear the way to a greater prosperity, I hope," replied Mr. Wallis kindly.
"Here comes Dr. Plumstead, but Nealie is not with him!" yelled Billykins, rushing up from a short journey to the next house, where he had been to see if the woman who did for the doctor would undertake to provide luncheon for the two gentlemen.
Dr. Plumstead was riding a horse that was certainly not Rockefeller, for it was a miserable wry-necked screw, with nothing but pace to recommend it, and a temper so vicious that it just stood and kicked, from sheer delight at being disagreeable, when the doctor hastily dismounted and came forward to explain his solitary return.
"Your father is a hero; but, like other brave men, he has to pay the price of his heroism in suffering," said the doctor to Rupert, and then he told them all how the other Dr. Plumstead had risked his life to pull the sick man from the burning shed, and that Nealie was staying to nurse him back to health again, she, in her turn, being taken care of by Mother Twiney, who was really a good soul at the bottom, although a little lacking in matters of personal cleanliness.
"Your sister was in great trouble about you all; but I said that Rupert and I could manage to take care of you for a few days or even weeks until she is able to come back and look after you," said the doctor, linking Rupert with himself in the matter of responsibility in a way that made the boy flush with pleasure, although Sylvia wrinkled her nose with a fine disdain.
"I am quite equal to taking care of myself, and of Ducky too," she said loftily. "But of course it will be convenient to have someone to keep the boys in order."
How It All Ended
In reality it was the prospector whose life Dr. Plumstead had saved at the risk of his own, who did most towards setting the father of the seven on his feet again and righting him in the eyes of the world, which is so quick to approve the successful man.
A word which the young doctor dropped in the ear of Mr. Reginald Baxter sent that gentleman and Mr. Wallis posthaste to Latimer, where they held private conferences with the now convalescent prospector, and the result of it all was that a company was promptly formed for the developing of a gold claim staked out round the grave which the prospector in mercy had begun to dig for the unknown dead. So rich did this prove to be that when the prospector kept his word, and paid over the proportion of his earnings which he had promised to the doctor, there was no more worry about ways and means for Nealie, who was now her father's right hand, as she had been his devoted nurse when he was recovering from his burns.
For a little while they all went to live at Latimer, in a brand-new wooden house which was made of pine trees and was fragrant of the forest in every room. But the first break in the family came when Rupert and Rumple went to Sydney to be educated.
Thanks to the skill of his father and the other Dr. Plumstead, Rupert had quite recovered from his lameness, and although he might never be quite so nimble as his younger brothers, he was no longer lame, and that was such a comfort to him that he seemed to expand into quite a different creature.
But, as Sylvia remarked to Rupert on the day before he and Rumple were to start for Sydney, they were going to have trouble with that other Dr. Plumstead, who, not content with having the same name as the rest of them, had shown a great desire to be still closer linked to them by becoming a relation.
"It is so stupid of him to want to marry Nealie," she said plaintively. "Because I know very well that if she says yes, then I shall have to keep house for Father, and mother the rest of you, which will certainly spell ruin to my chance of an artistic career, and I am beginning to paint in quite an intelligent fashion."
"There is room for improvement," scoffed Rumple, who chanced to overhear what she said. "Don't you remember your picture of Kaffir kraals that Mr. Melrose took for mushrooms in a meadow? It will not do for you to indulge in swelled head as yet."
"I think that on the whole the mistake was rather in the nature of a compliment," said Sylvia, with a ripple of laughter. "For doubtless in the first place the Kaffirs took the patterns of their huts from some sort of fungi, and so there you are."
"Well, anyhow, Dr. Plumstead is a rattling good sort—for witness how cheerfully he put up with all of us that time we took possession of his house—and if he wants to marry Nealie I don't see what is to prevent it myself," said Rumple; but Rupert only made a grimace, which was his way of saying that he would just as soon have the question of marriage put further off into the future.
"If the man wants a wife, why can't he wait until Ducky is old enough?" went on Sylvia, in the tone of one who has a grievance.
"Why Ducky? You might aspire to the position yourself, for you are awfully nice looking!" cried Rumple, putting an affectionate arm round Sylvia and giving her a mighty hug.
"Oh, I am not going to waste my talents in such a fashion! I feel as if I had been born to greatness, and I shall achieve it some day I am sure; only it will put the clock back for a few years if I have to concentrate on breakfasts, dinners, and household things generally," said Sylvia, with a sigh, and then the talk came to an abrupt end, for Don rushed in to say that Billykins was all smashed up from a fall down a ladder at the mines, and of course there was instant confusion.
But Billykins seemed to have a charmed life, for although he was brought home in the ambulance, and groaned as loudly as a whole hospital full of patients, when his father came to make an examination of his hurts they turned out to be only a few surface scratches and a bruise or two.
"Why, I made sure that I had got a broken leg!" exclaimed Billykins, standing straight up on both feet and looking the picture of disappointment. "Are you sure there are no bones broken, Father?"
"Quite sure, my son," said Dr. Plumstead, with a laugh of relief, for he had supposed there must have been some more serious injury considering how far the boy had fallen. "But if you feel dissatisfied with my examination, here comes the other doctor, and you can ask him to overhaul you."
"Oh, he does not care for anything but Nealie!" said Billykins in a tone of deep disgust. "I expect that you will have to let them get married, Father, if it is only to stop him coming over here so often; for his patients in Hammerville will be calling in another doctor very soon if he neglects them so shamefully. Why, this is the second time in a month that he has been here."
"Yes, I expect that will be the best way," said his father quietly, and then he went out to greet the other doctor; and that same evening, when the sun went down in splendour over beyond the sandy plain where the gold reef lay, Nealie's father put her hand in that of the other Dr. Plumstead and gave them both his blessing.
Then the crimson faded through gold to grey in the sky above the sandy plain, and the shadows of night dropped down on the grave of the nameless stranger under the mulga scrub; but in Latimer the streets and shops were brightly lighted, and all the busy life of getting and having went on, as it had done in the haunts of men since the world began.
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN At the Villafield Press, Glasgow, Scotland