E. L. HAVERFIELD
THOMAS NELSON AND SONS, LTD. LONDON, EDINBURGH, AND NEW YORK
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN AT THE PRESS OF THE PUBLISHERS
I. Home, 9
II. Bob, 22
III. The Barefoot Visitor, 39
IV. A Night of Terror, 49
V. The First Shot, 60
VI. Bob's Verdict, 69
VII. Peter's Nightmare, 80
VIII. The Witch, 91
IX. A Riderless Horse, 102
X. A Voice from the Scrub, 114
XI. Black-fellows, 124
XII. The Secret of the Thicket, 136
XIII. A Great Surprise, 148
XIV. A Moonlight Disturbance, 158
XV. Who is in the Boat? 168
XVI. What the Tide brought in, 177
XVII. Mother's Home, 188
XVIII. Peter makes a Diversion, 201
XIX. The Last Straw, 212
XX. Breaking the News, 225
"It has come, it has come, it has come! Oh, do be quick, father!"
The cry rang out lustily from three young voices, three eager heads were thrust over the veranda railings. Below, on horseback, was a big, brown-haired, brown-bearded man, who looked up from under his soft slouch hat with a laugh, and exclaimed,—
"What has come, you outrageously noisy youngsters? One would think I had a family of dingoes, to hear you."
Then another head appeared over the railings—a gentle-faced, fair-haired woman looked down.
"It is the parcel from home, Jack," she said. "Hadji brought it up an hour ago."
"Yes, yes, father; it is the parcel from England at last, and mother wouldn't open it till you came, so we have been waiting a whole hour—the longest hour I have ever lived."
Nesta Orban, to whom one of the first heads over the railing belonged, shook back her masses of fair, fluffy hair with an impatient little toss.
"Stuff, Nesta; you always say that," exclaimed Eustace, her twin of fourteen. "You said it yesterday coming through the scrub because you were tired; and the day before when mother made you sew for an hour instead of reading; and the day before—"
"Oh, shut up!" Nesta retorted. "You needn't quote pages from my biography like that. Let's think about the parcel.—Hurry up, dad, darling."
This last she called after her father, for Mr. Orban had not stayed a second after his wife's explanation of the excitement.
"The parcel from home," he repeated, all the laughter dying out of his face, and he spurred his horse into a trot round the house towards the stable.
The heads all came back into the veranda, and there fell a hush of expectancy as every one listened for Mr. Orban's footsteps coming up through the house.
"La, la, la! look, Nesta. Dolly downside up; Becky done it," piped a little voice from the floor.
"Oh, do be quiet, Becky. Think about the parcel from England. Perhaps there is something in it for you," said Nesta.
Mrs. Orban had seated herself again in a low wicker chair, and was busy sewing—patching a well-worn shirt with utmost patience.
"Don't be cross with Becky," she said gently. "She can't be expected at two years old to realize the meaning of a parcel from home. I don't believe you do yourself, Nesta. It is just a lot of nice things from England to you—only to father and me is it 'a parcel from home.'"
Nesta flushed a little and looked grave as she stood by the table fingering the string of the wonderful parcel. Such a lot of string there was, and so much sewing and writing! Whatever it might contain, at least the parcel looked interesting.
The owner of the third head that had looked over the veranda railing to shout the news was ten-year-old Peter. It always seemed to Nesta and Eustace that he was ever so much younger than they were—perhaps because he had been the baby for so many years, till Becky came.
"Mother," said Peter, setting himself right in front of her, and staring at her with wide blue eyes, "why don't you and father live in England when you want to so much?"
Peter was fair, and very like his mother and Nesta. Eustace and little Becky were the two who were like their father, brown-haired and brown-eyed. Peter had a delicate, sensitive face, and he was always wondering about things in a queer, dreamy sort of way.
"It is easier said than done, my little son," Mrs. Orban answered, bending low over her sewing that the child might not see the tears his question had brought to her eyes. "Father must work."
"But couldn't he work in England just as well as Queensland?" asked Peter.
"Unfortunately not," said his mother sadly. "Work is not easy to get in England, or anywhere for the matter of that."
Eustace caught the note of sadness in his mother's voice, and strolling behind Peter he gave him a kick on the ankle with all the air of its being accidental.
"Ow-wow-wow!" exclaimed Peter, hopping on one leg and holding on to the other. "You hurt me."
"Sorry," said Eustace carelessly, following him across the veranda.
"La, la, la! dolly upside downey," crooned Becky from the floor, where she sat deeply engaged in trying to make her boy doll stand on its head as she had seen Eustace do.
"Look here," said Eustace under cover of Becky's singing, "don't ask stupid questions, Peter. It always makes mother feel bad to talk about England—any silly could see that without being told, I should think."
But Peter looked surprised.
"Then you kicked me on purpose," he said, no louder than Eustace had spoken.
"Of course," said Eustace.
"What for?" demanded Peter, flushing hotly.
"To make you shut up, that's all," Eustace said coolly.
Peter dropped his injured leg and flung himself upon his brother with doubled fists.
"How dare you, you—you horrid boy!" he said chokily, for Peter's temper always sprang out like a sheet of flame up muslin curtains.
With a queer little smile, Eustace gripped his slender wrists, and held them so that the little chap could do nothing but wriggle about like an eel.
"Let me go, I say," he said; "let me go, I tell you. I won't be held like a baby."
He had about as much strength as a baby in Eustace's grip, for the elder boy was a well-built, square-shouldered fellow, and powerful for his age.
Mrs. Orban looked up at the commotion, and wondered what it could be all about so suddenly.
"As you are strong, be merciful, Eustace," she said quietly—that was all.
Eustace instantly let go, and Peter stood for a second staring down at the two red rings round his wrists, then, as Eustace turned unconcernedly away, dashed at his back and pommelled it.
"Go on," said Eustace with seeming carelessness, but the words were jerked out by the thumps; "my coat hasn't had a brushing for a week. Glad to get the dust out of it."
"Peter, Peter," said his mother warningly, "you surely don't want to be sent away before the parcel is opened, do you?"
This stopped Peter effectually; a minute later he had forgotten his grievance, which was also Peter's way.
"So the great day has come at last," said Mr. Orban, coming out from the house on to the veranda, which was so large and spacious that it was as useful to the household as several extra rooms.
Mrs. Orban put away her sewing, and every one gathered round the table as Mr. Orban began carefully undoing the string.
"Here's my knife, father," Eustace said, with a pleading note in his voice.
"Plenty of time, my lad," Mr. Orban said quietly. "One doesn't get a bit of string like this every day."
Becky had become infected by the excitement at last, and now insisted upon being held up in her mother's arms. All the eager eyes were bent on Mr. Orban's hands as he skilfully untied knot after knot.
"You won't unpick the sewing on the American cloth too, will you?" asked Nesta anxiously.
"No; I think we can cut that, Miss Impatience," laughed her father. "Mother could hardly use it again even for hemming floor-cloths."
"I'm not so sure, Jack," said Mrs. Orban; "my stock of cottons is running very low. It is time you went away and brought me a fresh supply."
Mr. Orban undid the last knot, but instead of taking the knife Eustace was still patiently holding out, he began winding up the string into a neat coil. The children glanced up in desperation, to find his face grave and preoccupied. He looked as if he had entirely forgotten the parcel.
"What is it, dear?" said Mrs. Orban, with sudden alarm in her voice. "Is anything wrong?"
Mr. Orban roused himself with an effort.
"Oh no," he replied slowly; "nothing wrong exactly. Only your words struck me oddly, for, as a matter of fact, I have to go away, and soon too."
Eustace glanced quickly at his mother, and the look in her eyes made him forget the parcel too.
"Not far, Jack, I hope," she said.
"Rather, I'm afraid," was the answer. "I hope you won't mind being left for a week or two."
"A week or two!" exclaimed Mrs. Orban in a tone that was unmistakably disturbed.
"I can't do it in less," Mr. Orban went on. "I am obliged to go down to Brisbane on business."
"To Brisbane!" Nesta cried. "O dad, couldn't you take us all with you? It would be lovely!"
"If you will find the fares, young woman, I shall be delighted," said her father, pinching her ear. "The journey to Brisbane is rather an expensive matter. I couldn't afford to take myself there just for the fun of the thing."
"When must you go, Jack?" asked Mrs. Orban, trying hard to speak steadily and naturally.
"Next week—as soon as possible, that is," Mr. Orban said; "and I will get back just as quick as I can. You will be all right, dear. I will tell Farley or Robertson to sleep up here in the house, and you won't feel so lonely at night."
"Oh no, no," Mrs. Orban said, "don't do that. They have both got their wives and families to look after. Eustace will be an efficient man of the house and companion to his mummie—won't you, son?"
"I'll do my best," Eustace said soberly.
To be quite honest, he was as startled as his mother at his father's announcement; he did not like the idea at all. He had caught that curious look in his mother's eyes, and it troubled him.
But Nesta was too much taken up with the thought of the parcel to notice anything except the delay in opening it.
"Couldn't we go on?" she pleaded.
"Poor Nesta," said Mr. Orban, beginning to cut the sewing, "is it getting beyond your patience altogether? Well, here goes then!"
Inside the American cloth was yet another wrapper, this time of linen sewn up most carefully, and within that paper after paper. The excitement grew more and more tense, till at last, when they came to a series of neat packages, each with a label to say from whom and to whom the gift was, every one except Becky was beyond speaking point.
The joys that parcel contained were indescribable, because no child born and bred in England could be made to understand how wonderful, how undreamed of, how surprising were the most ordinary things to those four Bush children. They lived right out of the world, and had spent most of their lives on a sugar plantation in North Queensland; the common things of our everyday existence were marvels to them.
A clockwork train sent out to Peter with a hope that "he was not too old for it" fascinated Eustace, despite his four years' seniority; the exquisite little doll's dinner service for Becky set Nesta longing to play with it and cook pretence dinners for it.
There was something for every one, and the children's eyes shone with pleasure; but Mrs. Orban's were dim as, the unpacking over, she turned quietly away and disappeared into the house.
In the midst of turning the pages of his new book to look for pictures, Eustace missed her, and shortly after Mr. Orban went away too.
"Oh!" Eustace exclaimed, slamming his book together with a big sigh, "I do wish parcels from England didn't always make mother sad."
"I guess she wants to see grannie and Aunt Dorothy badly," Nesta suggested.
"Oh, it is more than that," Eustace said, getting up and moving restlessly about. "I sometimes think she simply hates this place and everything to do with it."
"Do you, Eustace?" asked Peter, his eyes round with wonder.
"Well, it is fearfully dull, isn't it?" Nesta said. "England must be quite different. English stories always make me ache to go there. It must be so awfully interesting, mustn't it?"
"Wouldn't it be splendid if father said suddenly one day we could all go to England!" Peter cried excitedly.
"I don't think there is the least chance of that," Eustace said. "You heard what he said about its being too expensive to take us even to Brisbane. It would cost ten times as much to go to England."
"I say," Nesta said quickly, "I wonder why father has to go to Brisbane in such a hurry? Don't you, Eustace?"
"I haven't thought about it," Eustace answered. "But, anyhow, mother doesn't like his going—that's very clear."
"Doesn't she?" Nesta asked in a surprised voice. "How do you know?"
"Didn't you see her face when father said he must go?" Eustace asked with a touch of impatience.
Nesta shook her head.
"Oh!" was all Eustace exclaimed; then he turned, and resting his elbows on the railings, stared straight ahead with unseeing eyes.
The Orbans' house was built on the top of an isolated hill three hundred feet above a valley which, except where the scrub had been cleared for the growing of sugar-cane, was thickly wooded. On three sides of the valley, stretching round like a great horse-shoe, lay range upon range of hills, now softest purple. The fourth side, on which the boy gazed, was bounded by the sea—a shimmering patch of blue. No scene could have been grander, none more infinitely lonely. But Eustace was not thinking about it either admiringly or otherwise.
Nesta joined her brother, and stared curiously at his unusually serious face.
"What do you mean, Eustace?" she demanded.
He did not speak, so she put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a little shake.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked.
"Mother," Eustace said quite shortly.
"Yes, I know," Nesta said; "but what about her?"
"Father's going away," Eustace said.
"Of course," Nesta said, rather scornfully; "you told me that before. And I know mother will be dreadfully dull without him."
"Dull!" exclaimed Eustace, knocking the tips of his toes impatiently against the woodwork.
"Yes, dull," said the girl.
"Worse than dull," Eustace responded soberly.
"But we can do our best to cheer her up till he comes back."
Eustace turned slowly round until he was staring right into Nesta's eyes, and his look was so queer that she was startled.
"Do you mean to say you don't understand?" he said solemnly.
"No, I certainly don't," Nesta replied.
Eustace wheeled quickly back to the railing, gazing seaward again.
"Then I'm not going to tell you," he said decidedly.
Nesta stood blankly wondering for a moment.
"Well, it's hateful of you," she began; then suddenly her expression changed. "Eustace," she exclaimed, grabbing his arm with both hands, "do you mean mother will be frightened?"
"I'm not going to tell you," repeated the boy with seeming obstinacy.
But Nesta's face was full of certainty.
"It is that!" she said with conviction. "You think she will be scared at being left."
Now Eustace had suddenly begun to repent of having said so much. He had not the least desire to frighten Nesta; he had honestly believed that she must have noticed what he did in their mother's tone and look, but now he realized Nesta had not understood. He stood silent, regretting his carelessness.
"O Eustace," Nesta cried, "of course it is that. How dreadful! I remember now what father said—he knew mother might be frightened, and that is why he offered to have Farley or Robertson up."
There was terror in Nesta's voice now, and Eustace rounded sharply upon her.
"I say, shut up!" he said, with a glance towards Peter, who was too engrossed with his train at the other side of the veranda to be listening. "You don't want to frighten the kids, do you? Besides, father said we should be all right, and he knows."
"But mother was frightened," Nesta said, looking unconvinced.
"She didn't say so," Eustace argued. "She refused to have either of the men up, you see. That doesn't look much like funking it."
"Then what did you mean?" demanded Nesta.
"Oh, never mind," Eustace said, throwing himself into a chair and reopening his book. "Don't let's talk about it."
"That is nonsense," Nesta said. "How can I help minding about a thing like that?"
"Well, but what's the good of talking?" Eustace exclaimed. "Dad has to go; we can't prevent that if we talk for ever."
"Yes; but if it is dangerous—" Nesta began in a low, awe-struck voice.
"Dangerous!" Eustace repeated. "What could there be dangerous about it?"
"You know as well as I do," Nesta replied. "Supposing the blacks were to come down on us in the night when we were here all alone!"
"Oh, do shut up!" Eustace said sharply. "Why should the blacks happen to come just because father is away? They may not even be in the neighbourhood."
"Yes; but you remember that horrid story Kate told us," Nesta said, almost whispering. "The father was away—there were nothing but women and children in the house—"
"Oh, stop, Nesta!" Eustace said. "Of course I remember all about it. I don't want to hear the beastly thing all over again. What is the good of frightening ourselves all for nothing? Don't you know that father wouldn't go if he could possibly help it? And if he must go, we've got to make the best of it, that's all. Now I'm going to read, so do shut up."
Nesta stood silently staring at him a moment, but he seemed already to have forgotten her very existence.
"Well, you are a queer boy," she said, in what the boys always called her "huffy" voice.
Still Eustace took no notice.
"Perhaps you will be sorry some day," Nesta said with a little gulp, and turned away to Becky, who was calling her.
Eustace was apparently engrossed in his book, but not a word did he see on the page he stared at so intently. He had done a stupid thing, and he regretted it, for the mischief was past remedy now. Quite unintentionally he had made Nesta as nervous as he was himself, and he knew that nothing he might say would reassure her. He was quite right that there was no use in talking about it; he felt sure that his father would say he ought not to have said so much, and he was vexed with himself for his carelessness. Silence seemed the only course open to him—silence on the subject for the present, and for the future a great, whole-hearted resolve to play the man come what might.
Eustace was right: their father would not have gone to Brisbane had it not been necessary; but this was not because Mr. Orban was troubled by any fears for the safety of his family. He had lived so long in North Queensland that he was used to the solitude, and thought nothing of the dangers surrounding them. It distressed him to have to go away simply because he knew that his wife would be terribly nervous without him. Fifteen years in the colony had not accustomed her to the loneliness of their position.
Besides the two engineers, and the field manager, Mr. Ashton, who all lived at the foot of the hill, the Orbans had no white neighbours nearer than five miles off. The field hands were coloured men of some five or six different races, chiefly Chinese or Malays—the good-for-nothing riff-raff of their own countries come to seek a living elsewhere.
There was no society, no constant dropping in of friends, nothing to relieve the monotony of daily life. But none of this did Mrs. Orban mind; she was always busy and content by day. It was only of the night-time she was afraid, when strange-voiced creatures were never silent an hour, weird cries from the scrub pierced the air, and there arose from the plantation below wild sounds, sometimes of revelry over a feast, the beating of tom-toms, and wailing of voices as the natives conducted their heathen worship, or indulged in noisy quarrels likely to end in bloodshed between antagonistic tribes.
But though for some reasons the coolies were not pleasant neighbours, the house on the hill had nothing to fear from them. Their worst feature was their utter uselessness in any real danger, coming from quite another quarter. Though they might serve him solely for their own benefit, and were for the most part thieves and rogues, the coolies had no desire to harm the white man personally.
But wandering stealthily through the woods, homeless and lawless, is a race that hates the white man—the aborigines of Australia. Civilization has driven them farther and farther north, for the Australian black-fellows cannot be tamed and trained—their nature is too wild and fierce to be kept within bounds except by fear and crushing. They are treacherous and savage, and most repulsive in appearance. Though spoken of as black, they are really chocolate-brown, but so covered with hair as to be very dusky.
Being very cunning in their movements, it is always difficult to know where they are, and there are often such long lapses between the times they are heard of, that most people forget their existence as a matter of any importance. But Mr. Orban knew that his wife was haunted by a very constant horror of them—a dread lest one night the blacks should make a raid upon their plantation, as they had been known to do upon other white men's dwellings.
What neither Mr. nor Mrs. Orban realized was how much Eustace and Nesta knew of certain terrible events happening from time to time in just such isolated homes as their own. It was from the two young white maidservants the children heard tales they listened to with a kind of awful enjoyment by day, but which were remembered at night with a shudder. The creaking of the wooden house in which they lived as the boards contracted after the tropical heat of day, and the weird sounds rising from the plantation below, held a hundred terrors to be ashamed of in the morning.
Eustace and Nesta never spoke of these night panics to any one, least of all to each other—they seemed so silly when broad daylight proved there had been absolutely nothing to be cowardly about.
By some unspoken rule Peter was never allowed to hear these stories. He was always considered so very much younger than Eustace and Nesta that even the servants had the sense not to frighten him. So Peter's spirits were not damped by the thought of their father's departure, and he knew nothing of the queer little tiff that had taken place between Eustace and Nesta.
It is very odd how people can quarrel over a matter upon which they are perfectly agreed; but they frequently do, especially when it has anything to do with fear.
Nesta went to bed that night still in the sulks, with an air of "You'll be sorry some day" about her every attitude. Eustace seemed inseparable from his book, and disinclined to talk. He went heavily to bed, more troubled than ever because, though his mother was unusually merry, making much of all the presents from England, and showing great interest in them, he saw she was very white, and there was still a strange look about her eyes. He suspected her gaiety to be only put on for their amusement, and he felt sorrier and sorrier for her.
But a good night's rest did wonders for both children, and they came in to breakfast in better humours. Nesta forgot to be tragic when she heard her father and mother discussing what material should be brought from Brisbane for the girls' new dresses. New clothes were a rare event for the Orban children, and always caused a good deal of excitement.
Eustace had been up early, and everything looked so calm, peaceful, and ordinary about the place that he was inclined to be more than half ashamed of his outburst the day before. "After all," he argued, "nothing ever has happened to us—why should it now? The black-fellows have never come this way. Why should they, just because father is away? How could they get to know of his going? Besides, the plantation isn't so awfully far off."
He had stood on the veranda and stared down at the sugar mill lying at the foot of the hill, where Robertson and Farley lived; at Mr. Ashton's house, and all the familiar, odd-shaped huts in which the coolies lived. It was all just as he had seen it every day of his life, and nothing had ever happened—why, indeed, should it now?
Mrs. Orban's interest in the new dresses was certainly not feigned.
"Now, Jack," she was saying as Eustace entered the room, "don't—don't go and ask for dusters. It is that pretty pink and blue check zephyr I want—pink for Becky, and blue for Nesta."
"Well, dear, you must confess it is just like duster stuff—now, isn't it?" demanded Mr. Orban with a laugh.
"O daddy, not a bit!" Nesta exclaimed. "What a horrid thought!"
"Some of mother's dusters are very pretty, young woman," said her father. "I wouldn't mind having shirts made of them myself."
"I should object very much," Mrs. Orban said with a laugh; "you would look like a coolie. But let us talk sense again."
Talking sense meant talking business, which on this occasion was the making out of a list of really rather dull things wanted in the house.
Daily life begins early on a sugar plantation. It was now only half-past six, and the house had been astir since half-past four; the children playing, Mrs. Orban working about the house, and Mr. Orban away down on the plantation. The comparative cool of the morning was the best time for any sort of activity. Later, as the fierce December sun rose higher, even the children became listless and disinclined to race about.
After breakfast, when Mr. Orban went back to work, Mrs. Orban gave the children lessons—the only teaching they had ever had. At eleven Mr. Orban returned for early dinner.
To our English ideas the routine seems strange; but the Orban children were used to it, and had no realization of how different was life in their parents' old home. It did not seem at all funny even to the twins to have tea at five, and go to bed at half-past six or seven. They were generally very ready for sleep by then, after their long, exhausting day.
"I say, father," Eustace said suddenly, after a long meditation while business was being discussed, "I can stay up to dinner with mother when you are away—can't I? It will be awfully dull for her if I don't."
"And me too," said Nesta, who never allowed it to be forgotten that, being the same age as Eustace, she claimed the same privileges.
"Rot," said Eustace; "you're only a girl."
"And me too," chimed in Peter.
"Oh, you silly baby," said Eustace impatiently, "what good would you do?"
Peter's delicate face became scarlet.
"I could play games with mother quite as well as you," he said with an angry frown.
"Mother doesn't want amusing like that to keep her from being dull," Eustace declared. "She wants somebody who can talk sensibly like father, and be grown up."
Nesta gave a little derisive laugh.
"Like father!" she repeated; "that is funny. I suppose you think you could be just like him. Why don't you ask him to let you smoke one of his pipes at once?"
"Don't be silly, Nesta," Eustace retorted.
"It's you who are silly," Nesta said, "thinking only boys can be grown up or of any use."
"When you have quite done snapping each other's heads off," interposed their father in his deep, quiet voice, "perhaps you will allow me to speak. As a matter of fact, the mother thinks of going to bed with the cocks and hens herself."
"To bed with the cocks and hens!" repeated Peter, with an expression of blank surprise in his blue eyes.
Now the cocks and hens many of them roosted under the house, which was built on pillars, and set some distance above the ground. It was not an attractive spot at any time, for here there also lived many strange creatures, snakes amongst them.
"Well, not exactly in the henhouse, Peter," said his father, with a twinkle in his eyes. "I dare say she will sleep as usual in her own bedroom. I was referring more to the hour at which she says she means to go to bed—not very long after you."
"Still you will have dinner—won't you, mummie?" Eustace said.
"Certainly," Mrs. Orban answered with a smile; "and I don't think it would be a bad plan for you and Nesta to stay up for it, if you will promise not to get up quite so early in the morning. We will have dinner directly after Peter and Becky are in bed; but we won't sit up late ourselves, any of us."
Mrs. Orban certainly showed no signs of nervousness to-day; the strained expression had left her eyes; she was laughing and talking quite naturally.
"I suppose," thought Eustace, "she was partly upset by the parcel from England."
"Father," Nesta exclaimed, "I'm certain I hear a horse coming up the hill. Who can it be at this time of day?"
"Don't know, I'm sure," said her father; "it might be one of a dozen people. You had better go and sing out 'friend or foe' over the veranda; but I dare say it isn't a horse at all. More probably it is old Hadji with the mail bag that ought to have come with the parcel yesterday."
But the three elder children had disappeared out on to the veranda and were leaning over, straining their eyes down the road that wound up the hill from the plain.
It was a very rough road, with ruts in it sometimes two or three feet deep. During the rains little better than a bog, it was now burnt hard as flint.
There was nothing to be seen though a mile of road was visible, lost now and then among bends; but the children listened breathlessly, and at last Eustace said,—
"It is two horses and a four-wheel buggy, and it has only just begun the hill. Let's go in and tell father."
"Oh, what a bother it is so far off!" Nesta exclaimed, with a sigh of impatience. "We shall have to wait ages to find out who it is."
"Who do you think it can be, father?" Peter asked, as Eustace explained what he believed to be coming.
"How should I know?" Mr. Orban answered with mock seriousness.
"It might be a magician with milk-white steeds, or a fairy godmother, Peter, in a coach made out of pumpkins," said Mrs. Orban.
"O mother!" Peter cried impatiently, "don't be silly—"
The sentence was never completed; it finished in a howl of mingled pain and rage.
"What on earth is the matter now?" asked Mr. Orban.
"Eustace ki-ki-kicked me," stormed Peter, making a dive at his brother with doubled fists; but his father caught him and held him pinioned.
"I can pretty well guess why," said the big man severely. "If he hadn't, I should have spanked you myself. How dare you say 'don't be silly' to your mother?"
Peter hung his head.
"I didn't mean—" he began.
"I should just think you didn't mean it," said his father. "You'll kindly remember you've no right by birth to be a cad, and it is caddish for a gentleman to speak like that to a lady—whether he is ten years old or a hundred."
"Besides," said Eustace, looking furiously at the small culprit, "mother couldn't be silly if she tried."
Peter's humbled expression changed.
"It wasn't for you to kick me," he spluttered resentfully; "I'll kick you back."
"Oh, if you like to be a donkey," began Eustace in a lordly tone.
"Who was donkey first?" demanded Peter.
"I guess," said Nesta, who was accustomed to these scenes, "the buggy may be in sight at the first bend by now. I'm going to look."
"Well, Peter, what comes next?" asked Mr. Orban, without letting go the child's wrists.
Peter looked over his shoulder towards his mother—the blue eyes were swimming with tears, there was a choke in his voice.
"I'm sorry, mummie," he gasped.
The next moment he was clasped in his mother's arms, there was a manful struggle with gathering tears, and then like an arrow from a bow Peter was off to the veranda with every intention of thumping Eustace soundly. But the news that greeted him there put the recent fray right out of his mind.
"It is a buggy, Peter," said Nesta, "and I believe Bob Cochrane is driving it."
Now the Cochranes were the Orbans' nearest neighbours—the family that lived only five miles away. It consisted of a father and mother and this young fellow Robert, who was six-and-twenty, the idol and greatest admiration of the Orban children's hearts. In their eyes there was nothing Bob could not do; his shooting, his driving and riding, his jokes, his ways—everything about him was wonderful. A visit from Bob was a splendid event, no matter what the hour of the day.
Bob had a sister who was about the twins' age, and Nesta's only friend.
"It looks just like Bob's driving," said Eustace.
Then they waited with eager faces, too excited to speak, till suddenly they all cried at once,—
"It is Bob—it is—it is—it is!"
Mr. and Mrs. Orban came out on to the veranda, Becky toddling behind.
"There is no doubt about it," said Mr. Orban as he watched the jolting, bumping carriage toiling up the terribly steep hill that was almost too much for the horses, fine beasts though they were.
"How strange of him to come in the buggy instead of riding, as he is alone," said Mrs. Orban.
"Yes," chimed in Nesta, "that was just what I was thinking. Bob always—always rides, excepting—"
She paused to think whether she had ever seen Bob driving before, and Eustace finished her sentence for her.
"Excepting when he doesn't," he said.
"Goose," said Nesta tartly.
"Or, more correctly speaking, 'gander,'" said Mr. Orban. "Well, we needn't squeeze our heads to a pulp trying to guess what we shall learn from Bob without the slightest trouble in another twenty minutes at most."
When Bob Cochrane came within earshot he was greeted with such a chorus of yells that not a single word could he hear of what the children were trying to say. He grinned back good-humouredly, waved, and whipping up his horses, came as fast as he could under the veranda. Then he gathered the meaning of the noise.
"What have you come for, Bob?" shouted the three.
"What have I come for?" he repeated, with his particular laugh which had a way of setting every one else off laughing too as a rule. "Well, upon my word, that is a nice polite way to greet a chap. I had better be off again."
He was big, fair-haired, and gray-eyed, not handsome, but far too manly for that to matter. As Manuel the Manila boy ran round the house to take charge of the horses, Bob got down from the buggy and sprang up the veranda steps in contradiction of his own words. He was surrounded at the top by the children, all talking at once. Without an attempt at answering, he picked up Becky, who adored him with the rest, and passed on to Mr. and Mrs. Orban.
"I apologize for the disorder," Mr. Orban said, "but they have been working themselves up into a fever of expectation ever since they first heard the buggy wheels. Seriously though, I hope nothing is wrong at home. Your mother isn't ill, is she? You haven't come to fetch the wife as nurse, or anything?"
Such friendly acts as these were the common courtesies of their simple colonial life. But Bob only laughed now.
"Oh, nothing wrong at all," he replied. "Mater is right enough; it is only Trix who is the trouble now. She doesn't seem to pick up after that last bout of fever, and she is so awfully depressed and lonely, mother thought if you would let me take a couple of the children—Nesta and another—back with me for a week, it might brighten the kiddy up. Could you spare them, Mrs. Orban?"
"With pleasure," began Mrs. Orban readily, when Nesta started a sort of war-dance with accompanying cries of delight.
"When you have quite done!" said Bob, with a solemn stare that quelled the disturbance after a moment. "I shan't have an ear to hear with by the time I get home, at this rate. Well, who is the other one to be? You, Eustace?"
Eustace coloured deeply. There was nothing he would have liked better. To go to the Highlands, as the Cochranes' plantation was called, was the greatest pleasure that could have been offered him—the treat had only come his way about twice in his life. It meant so much—rides with Bob, shooting with Bob, long rambles always with his hero.
"I should like to awfully," he said, and stopped, looking beseechingly at his father.
"Why, what's the matter, old chap?" asked Bob in a kindly voice. "You're as limp as if all the starch had been boiled out of you. Come along if you want to, of course. Peter can come another time, if it's afraid of being selfish that you are."
"But it isn't that," Eustace said with difficulty. "I mean I can't. You see, father is going away, and I couldn't leave mother."
Bob darted a quick look at Mr. Orban.
"Are you really going away?" he asked—"any distance, I mean?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Mr. Orban said gravely. "I have to be away about a fortnight or three weeks. I go the day after to-morrow."
Bob looked serious.
"Oh, I say," he said, "I'm sorry."
To Nesta, standing there in the sunshine, with a great big pleasure ahead of her, the words conveyed nothing beyond a civil sympathy with the annoyance it must be to Mr. Orban to have to go away on business. To Eustace, who must stay behind, there was something underlying those few words that brought back all the fears of the day before.
"It is a nuisance, but it can't be helped," Mr. Orban said; "business won't wait."
"I am sorry," repeated Bob, with that same strange solemnity, "because I can't offer to come and stay here while you are away. Father is going away too, and of course I couldn't leave the mater and Trix. If only it hadn't happened just now—"
"It is very good of you to think of it, Bob," said Mrs. Orban, "but of course we shall be perfectly safe. I think I would rather you took Peter, though," she added in a lower tone. "Eustace is more companionable. I can spare one of the twins, but not both at once."
"Of course," agreed Bob.
He was strangely unlike his usual cheerful self, but he roused himself, as every one seemed to be looking at him, and added, "Could the children be ready to go back with me soon?"
"Stay till the heat is over, and drive home in the cool with them," suggested Mr. Orban. "I'll say good-bye for the present; I'm due at the plantation."
Eustace was left alone with Bob, for the others went with their mother to watch her preparations for their departure.
"Well, old man," questioned Bob from the depths of a cane chair, where he had flung himself for a quiet smoke, "what's up?"
Eustace stood staring at him.
"I say," he said with some difficulty, "it's beastly about father going, isn't it?"
"Rather," said Bob carelessly. "Mrs. Orban will feel awfully dull."
"That isn't the worst of it," said the lad mysteriously.
"Really?" questioned Bob indifferently, as he packed his pipe with great apparent interest.
"You know it isn't, Bob," Eustace broke out desperately.
"Do I?" questioned Bob lazily, but with a shrewd glance at the thin, pale face before him. "Why, what's the trouble?"
"It's the black-fellows," Eustace said in a half whisper.
Bob raised his eyebrows a little, and was again attentive to his pipe.
"Indeed?" he said; "what about them?"
"They are all round us in the scrub; you never know where they are," Eustace said with a gulp.
"They always are, and one never does," said Bob lightly. "I don't see that it matters. Are you in a funk about them?"
The cool question brought crimson to Eustace's cheeks.
"No," he said sturdily, "but they are a fearfully low grade lot, and—and they have done some awful things in lonely places, out of revenge, on white people."
Bob looked up sharply.
"What do you know about it?" he asked in a voice that sounded almost stern.
"The servants—Kate and Mary—have told us stories," Eustace explained.
"Oh, they have, have they?" Bob positively snorted in indignation. "Then they deserve to be sacked."
He was silent a long time, puffing out volumes of smoke, then he said suddenly,—
"Look here, Eustace, don't get stupid and frightened about the black-fellows. Your father has never done them any harm; they have nothing to revenge here, for he hasn't interfered with any of them."
"But Kate says that doesn't matter," Eustace said dismally. "She says they have a deadly hatred against all white people."
"Kate is an ignorant goose," growled Bob; "much she can know about it! Why, my father has had black-fellows in his employment for years, and they've been all right. Don't you listen to Kate's nonsense."
There was silence awhile, then Bob went on,—
"But I tell you what I'll do, if it will be any comfort to Mrs. Orban. I'll come over nearly every day and hang about the place as if I were living here. How would that do?"
"I should like it, of course, and I believe mother would," said the boy slowly.
"Of course you would be all right anyhow," Bob said bracingly.
"Of course," repeated Eustace with less certainty, hesitated, then went on haltingly, "but supposing—of course I believe you, Bob—but just only supposing one night some black-fellows did turn up, what should you do?"
"I should shoot them," Bob said promptly.
"But if you were me?" questioned Eustace.
"Oh, if I were you," repeated Bob thoughtfully. "Well, of course, you wouldn't shoot them—they wouldn't be scared enough of a chap your size. On the whole, I think if I were you I should scoot down the hill as hard as I could go for Robertson, Farley, and Ashton. They would soon settle matters."
"But that would be leaving mother to face them alone," objected Eustace.
Bob stared solemnly for one moment, then broke into a laugh.
"Cheer up, old boy," he exclaimed; "you look as if you had a whole tribe at your heels this minute. Why, what has happened to you? I thought you had more spirit than to be scared by a pack of silly maids' stories."
The laugh was so genuine, the look in Bob's eyes so quizzical, that Eustace felt suddenly abashed, and as if he had been making a stupid fuss about nothing. With all his heart he wished he had not mentioned the subject to Bob—Bob whose opinion he valued above all others, except, perhaps, his own father's.
THE BAREFOOT VISITOR.
When Mr. Orban came home to dinner he brought with him another excitement—the mail letters that Hadji ought to have brought with the parcel the day before.
To Bob Cochrane, whose parents were Australian born and bred, this meant nothing; but he was so intimate with the Orbans that he understood their feelings on the subject. He sat silently puffing at his pipe while Mr. and Mrs. Orban read their letters. Eustace, Nesta, and Peter had seized on some packets which they knew to contain English papers and magazines.
Suddenly Mrs. Orban gave a curious exclamation, and all eyes were turned questioningly upon her.
"Mother, mother, what is it?" cried Nesta, noting the colour flooding her mother's usually pale face.
"Any news, darling?" asked Mr. Orban.
"I should just think it is news," said Mrs. Orban unsteadily. "Listen to this, Jack: 'Dorothy has been so very slow in her recovery from the terrible bout of typhoid she had in spring that the doctor advises a long sea voyage at once, and we have decided to send her out to you by the first boat available. We go up to London to-morrow to get her outfit.'"
"Aunt Dorothy!" yelled the children. "Aunt Dorothy coming here!"
It was a most surprising piece of news, almost incredibly so. The children had never seen any of their parents' people, as none of them had been over to Queensland. They knew them only by name and the oft-repeated tales of childhood, which were their favourite stories of all Mr. and Mrs. Orban told.
This was their mother's unmarried sister, Dorothy Chase, who lived with her father and mother in Herefordshire, in the "old home" the children knew so well by hearsay, and longed so much to see. Some one coming out from England was next best to going home, and the news produced the wildest commotion of questions and suggestions.
"When will she come, mother? When can she be here?" came in chorus.
"Well, I am sure I don't know," Mrs. Orban said; "but it seems to me she will not be very far behind this letter."
"Not more than a fortnight, I should think," said Mr. Orban. "You see they are hurrying her off."
"O mummie, this is exciting!" Nesta exclaimed. "Do tell us how old Aunt Dorothy is!"
"Just twenty-three. She was a little child when I last saw her, and I can never picture her grown up."
"Twenty-three is a decent age for girls," said Eustace.
"Out of a vast and varied experience speaks Sir Eustace," laughed Bob—and Eustace reddened.
"Twenty-three," said Mr. Orban. "Fancy little Dot twenty-three! There'll be a big change in her."
"There must be a big change in every one, Jack," Mrs. Orban sighed. "What wouldn't I give to see them all!"
"The next thing we shall hear," remarked Bob solemnly, "is that you will be clearing out to England—the whole lot of you. I don't think I like the idea of Miss Dorothy coming at all. She will bewitch you, and off you will all go."
"No such luck," cried Nesta impulsively.
"Alas! an impossibility," said Mrs. Orban.
Mr. Orban said nothing, but looked very grave.
These few words, however, could only shadow the great excitement a moment. Mrs. Orban returned to her letter, and read interesting little scraps from time to time, such as "'I am cudgelling my brains in the hurry to think of everything I can send you—it is such a grand opportunity—I wish I had time to get a list of wants from you—but I dare say nothing will come amiss. Frocks for the girls and yourself, of course—'"
"Darling gran!" cried Nesta.
"Then I needn't get the duster stuff," said Mr. Orban.
"No, none of the clothes," said Mrs. Orban. "I know what grannie is when she gets a chance to send a box."
Nesta and Peter went off in high spirits with Bob later in the day, Nesta exacting many promises that should Aunt Dorothy by some miracle appear before she was expected, Mrs. Orban would send for the children back.
Eustace let the party go without a pang; he was actually glad not to be going. So taken up was he with the new idea that he even forgot his fear lest he had made a bad impression on the great Bob.
There was so much to be thought of in the preparations for Miss Chase's arrival that even Mr. Orban's departure two mornings later left no one depressed. Up to the last Mrs. Orban was wondering whether there was anything she could think of that could be brought from Brisbane for their visitor's greater comfort.
"She will be used to such a different life," Mrs. Orban said. "I do hope she won't mind roughing it."
"Not she," said Mr. Orban heartily. "She will like it all the better if we make no changes for her, but just let her see life as we live it. After all, it is only for a time with her."
* * * * *
"Well, my darling old man," said Mrs. Orban gaily that evening, as she and Eustace sat alone at late dinner, "how does it feel to be 'man of the house'? Do you feel a great burden of responsibility as mummie's guardian and protector?"
"I don't know, mummie," said Eustace.
He was looking very grave, for now that the lamps were lighted and it was dusk outside everything felt different again.
The veranda ran round the entire house; only on one side was there a flight of steps down to the ground. The drawing-room opened out on to the other side of the house, facing the sea. It was here Mrs. Orban and Eustace went after dinner, for the day had been exhaustingly hot, and now a slight breeze blew landwards.
But for the rustling of leaves and a distant murmur from the plantation, the night was very still. As she meant to go to bed so early, Mrs. Orban did not have lamps brought out on to the veranda; she and Eustace sat close together in the gloom, their only light a faint golden streak from the drawing-room.
Becky had been in bed a long time, and was fast asleep. For a while they could hear the servants clearing away the dinner; then there was silence even in that quarter, and they knew that Mary and Kate had gone to bed.
"We ought to be going too, I think, my man," Mrs. Orban said softly.
Eustace slipped down on to a stool at her feet and rested his head against her knee.
"O mummie," he pleaded, "not just yet. Couldn't you tell me a story first?"
"I could, of course," Mrs. Orban admitted slowly, "but the question is, Ought I to? It is getting late for you."
"But it is awfully early for you," Eustace argued. "I don't believe you will sleep if you go now. You always say you can't if you go to bed too soon. You see, we needn't get up quite so early, as father isn't here to go out to the plantation."
"That is true," said Mrs. Orban with a laugh. "I really think we shall have to make a barrister of you, Eustace, you plead a cause so eloquently. But what kind of story shall I tell you?"
"Oh, one of the old home stories, please," he said instantly. "I should like to know all I can about it before Aunt Dorothy comes."
"I wonder if there are any I have not told you," Mrs. Orban said thoughtfully.
"There must be hundreds," Eustace said. "I always think Maze Court must have stories without end."
"We used to think so, I remember," said his mother; "but I suppose that is always the case with a house when one family has possessed and occupied it for so many generations."
"It is a sixteenth-century house, isn't it?" Eustace asked.
"Seventeenth century," was the answer, "built in 1688 by Eustace Chase, a loyal subject of the king. His father lost everything for the cause, and the young man was rewarded for following the Royalist fortunes—or rather misfortunes—soon after the king came to his own again."
Eustace gave a huge sigh.
"I do like belonging to people like that," he said with satisfaction.
There was a long silence.
"Mummie—the story," prompted Eustace at last.
"I was just hunting my memory for one," said his mother. "Did you ever hear how we lost Aunt Dorothy?"
Eustace shook his head and settled himself comfortably to listen, so Mrs. Orban went on:—
"One summer we gave a large party for young people. It happens that several of us have birthdays in the summer, and this was a sort of combined birthday treat. So we invited friends varying in age from five, suitable for Dorothy, to seventeen or eighteen, and a very merry party it promised to be. The day began gloriously, but father prophesied it was going to be too hot to be perfect; and he was right. About the middle of the afternoon thunder-clouds gathered quickly, and by tea-time there was a raging storm; but it was as short as it was sharp, and all over in an hour. There was no question as to going out again, the ground was too sopping wet after the rain to dream of such a thing, so it was proposed that we should have a good game of hide-and-seek all over the house. I wish I could tell you what a lovely place home is for hide-and-seek. There are so many rooms with doors between that you can almost go the round of the house on any landing without coming out into the passage more than twice or three times. Then there are several staircases, and lastly the turret, which was always used for 'home,' because it was a regular trap for hiding in. Once found, you could never get away from there."
"O mummie," breathed Eustace softly, "how it does make me want to go and see it all."
"I am glad it does, sonny," Mrs. Orban said. "I want you to want to go—I always pray some day you will. It is a home to be proud of."
"Go on, please," said Eustace in the little pause that followed.
"I don't think people ever get tired of hide-and-seek," Mrs. Orban continued. "It is the one game that seems to suit all ages—I mean among young people. We played on and on till dusk, and then the game was only stopped by people coming for or sending to fetch their children home. Just in the middle of the first 'good-byes,' mother, who had been entertaining grown-ups most of the afternoon, came and asked for Dorothy. No one knew where she was. 'Who had seen her last?' It was impossible to find out, but apparently she had not been seen by any one for a long time. Dorothy at five years old was a very independent little person, and resented being obviously looked after. She always liked to hide by herself, for instance. Well, then, there began a game of hide-and-seek in real earnest, and it became more and more serious every minute, when white-faced groups met in the hall declaring that every corner had been searched, and still there was no trace of Dorothy."
"Didn't grannie nearly go mad?" asked Eustace feelingly. He well knew what the loss of Becky would mean to his mother.
"Very nearly," was the answer; "but I think your grandfather was even worse. All the tiny children were taken home, but many of the elder boys and girls begged to be allowed to stay and help, and now the hunt began outside with lanterns among outhouses and stables. The echoes rang with Dorothy's name, but in vain; the hunt was useless, and some of us straggled back into the house and began calling and looking all over the same ground again. I cannot tell you what terrible thoughts had got into our heads by that time. We remembered the story of the lady who hid herself in the old spring chest and could not get out—"
"The Mistletoe Bough lady," breathed Eustace.
"Yes; and we hunted every box, chest, and cupboard in the house, but Dorothy was in none of them. She seemed literally to have been spirited away. It became so late that at last all the other children were taken home, and we were left just ourselves—a very miserable family."
Eustace sat up suddenly and held his breath, his face blanched, his eyes alert.
"At last, close on midnight," Mrs. Orban went on in a low voice.
"Mother, mother," Eustace said in a sharp whisper, kneeling and putting an arm protectingly round her, "did you hear something?"
"Yes, darling," Mrs. Orban continued, "close on midnight—"
"No, no," Eustace said, "not then—now—this minute, as you were speaking!"
Mrs. Orban started perceptibly.
"No, darling," she answered. "Why? Did you?"
There was an instant's tense silence.
"It is some one coming round the veranda—barefoot," Eustace whispered.
"One of the maids, perhaps," said Mrs. Orban, but her voice quivered.
"They would come through the house," said the boy. "This fellow has come up the veranda steps. I heard them creak."
A lifetime in great solitude sharpens the hearing to the most extraordinary extent. Children born and brought up in the wilds often have this sense more keenly developed than any other. The Orban children seemed to hear without listening—sounds which, even when she was told of them, Mrs. Orban, with her English training, did not catch till several minutes later.
But now the pad-pad-pad of bare feet was unmistakable—a pad-pad-pad, then a halt, as if the visitor stopped to listen.
Below in the scrub—that wild thick undergrowth among trees, harbouring so many strange creatures—there were hoarse cries, and now and then the howl of a dingo, so horribly suggestive of a human being in an agony of pain.
The pair on the veranda clung together for an instant—one only.
"I must go to Becky," whispered Mrs. Orban, recovering herself.
But Eustace held her down.
"Oh, don't—don't for one moment," he implored; "wait and see what it is."
"Pad-pad-pad" came the steps, nearer and nearer. A shadow fell aslant the corner of the veranda—the shadow of a man thrown by the light from the drawing-room side window.
A NIGHT OF TERROR.
"Mrs. Orban," called a voice softly—a familiar English-speaking voice; "Mrs. Orban, are you still up?"
Mother and son fell apart, and Eustace sprang to his feet.
"Why, it is Bob!" he exclaimed in bewilderment.
"Bob!" cried his mother. "Impossible!"
"Not a bit," said Bob Cochrane, coming round into the streak of lamplight, carrying his boots in his hands. "I just strolled over to see if you were all right. When I got to the steps it struck me I might startle you if I came thundering up, so I took my boots off and crept round to find out where you were. You were so quiet I thought you must have gone to bed and left the lights burning."
"We were talking, nevertheless, when you arrived," Mrs. Orban said, "for I was telling Eustace a story."
"I didn't hear you," Bob said. "Probably my heart was in my mouth, and beating so loud that it deafened me; for, of course, I knew I carried my life in my hand."
"Your life in your hand?" repeated Eustace wonderingly.
"Certainly. I felt sure you would bound on me with a revolver the moment you heard me, shoot me dead, and then demand an explanation. It is the sort of ardent thing one might expect from a knight of your order, Sir Eustace."
Bob's chaff went deeper home than he meant it to. Eustace was in no mood for joking after the strain of the last few minutes. He hoped with all his heart that Mrs. Orban would not betray to Bob how terror-stricken he had just shown himself. Perhaps she understood, or it may be that she was half ashamed of her own unnecessary panic, for she only said,—
"It is really very good of you to have come in the face of that grave peril, and at such an hour too."
"Well, the fact is I wanted to," Bob said in his casual way, "and the mater insisted. I've left our old foreman sleeping in the house for to-night, and I thought I would just turn in with Eustace, if you don't mind."
"We shall be simply delighted," Mrs. Orban said, with a feeling of real relief.
"The mater wants me to take you all back to the Highlands early to-morrow," Bob went on; "you, Becky, and Eustace. She can't bear to think of your loneliness here. Do come and stay with us till Mr. Orban comes back."
It was the kind of thought good, homely little Mrs. Cochrane was celebrated for. But Mrs. Orban shook her head.
"It is just like your mother to think of such a thing," she said, "and just like her son to be her messenger so readily, but I can't do it, Bob. I couldn't possibly leave the maids and the house to take care of themselves. Mary and Kate would be terrified."
"Oh, bother Mary and Kate!" said Bob.
"I should be most bothered if they took it into their heads to run away and leave us, especially now that my sister is coming. No, really, I cannot leave home, much as I should enjoy it. Your mother, as an experienced housekeeper, will feel for me in that."
"We forgot the maids and the house," said Bob in a disappointed tone.
"It can't be helped," said Mrs. Orban lightly; "and, indeed, we are quite all right. There is nothing to be afraid of, and I have Eustace.—Which reminds me, old man, hadn't you better be off to bed? This is considerably later than I meant you to be."
"Oh but, mother," Eustace exclaimed, "what about Aunt Dorothy? I couldn't sleep without the rest of that story."
"Oh yes, do let's have the rest of the story first," pleaded Bob.
"There isn't much left now," said Mrs. Orban. "I was only telling him how we once lost Dorothy in a game of hide-and-seek when she was five years old. We had been hunting the house for hours; a sort of awful silence had fallen among us, as if we were expecting I don't know what—"
"When close upon midnight," quoted Eustace in a mysterious voice.
"There arose the cry of a terror-stricken child—shriek upon shriek—feeble because of the distance it was from the great hall, where we were all mustered in shivering silence, but distinct enough to be recognized as Dorothy's voice. I shall never forget it—it makes me shudder now—for the panic in that child's cry was appalling. What was being done to her? What awful pain was she in that she should shriek in such a way? Such were our thoughts as we hurried in a tumbling mass after father and mother. We reached the turret stairs, and father commanded every one with lanterns to go first and light the way. Right to the very top we went, into the little round room we called the Watchman's Nest, and here the sounds were loudest; but they were still muffled, and there was not a sign of Dorothy anywhere."
"Was there any furniture for her to hide in?" asked Eustace, looking puzzled.
"One table, one chair," said Mrs. Orban, "and a small black oak cupboard against the inner wall—it would have just about held Dorothy on the lower shelf. We opened it, flashed in our lanterns, but it was black and empty. One peculiar feature there was about it—when the cupboard door was open we heard the child more clearly. It seemed a stupid, senseless thing to do, but down I went on my hands and knees to feel those empty shelves, as if I imagined Dorothy might be there in spite of our seeing nothing—invisible but tangible. Of course there was nothing but wood to touch; but with my head inside there, I could hear Dorothy so well I might have been in the same room with her."
"How queer!" Eustace broke out excitedly.
"'Dorothy, Dorothy,' I shouted. 'Mother—I want mother, mother, mother,' she shrieked. 'Where are you? Tell us where you are,' I called. 'I want mother, mother, mother,' was the only answer. 'Mother is here,' I said; and again, 'Tell us where you are.' Something made me feel the cupboard again, and this time I did not only touch the shelves, but put my hand right back. 'Quick, quick! a lantern,' I simply screamed, and half a dozen were lowered instantly. There was no back to the cupboard on the lower shelf. The blackness we had mistaken for the old oak was just nothingness—a deep, deep hollow into the wall."
"Mother," Eustace cried, "a secret chamber!"
"A secret chamber that no one had ever suspected; and Dorothy it was who had found it."
"But how?" The question came from Bob Cochrane.
"She was the most daring child I have ever known," said Mrs. Orban. "I don't think Dorothy knew what fear meant in those days. She knew that scarcely any one ever searched the turret, because it was difficult to get away from, and it entered her small head to creep up to the Watchman's Nest and into this cupboard. Whether she went to sleep waiting for us to find her, or whether she rolled over at once and fell down the little flight of steps into the secret chamber, to lie there stunned, no one knows. Dorothy could not explain herself. Anyhow, there she was, and the moment she came to her senses and found herself in the dark she began to scream with fright."
"But how was it no one had ever discovered the secret chamber before?" demanded Eustace. "It seems funny."
"You would not think so if you saw the cupboard," Mrs. Orban said. "It is a little, insignificant-looking thing—low and rather deep, and, as we then found, built into the wall. The back of the lower shelf was a sliding panel; and your grandfather's theory is that the last person who used the secret chamber left the panel open. Without nearly standing on one's head it was impossible to see the back of the lower shelf, and no one had ever suspected such a thing."
"O Bob, Bob, wouldn't you just like to see Maze Court?" cried Eustace. "I shall never be happy till I do."
"I tell you you will all be off on Miss Dorothy's broomstick one of these fine days," growled Bob. "She is a witch, and she has already bewitched you, for you can talk of nothing but England now."
"You had better go to bed, Eustace," Mrs. Orban said with a laugh. "Bob is getting quite fierce."
Bob left very early next day to get back to work. As Nesta and Peter were having holidays, Eustace, of course, did no lessons, but spent the day very contentedly helping his mother. She was busy rearranging furniture in the room that was to be Miss Chase's, and they scarcely sat down the whole day till evening.
"Early to bed this night, my son," said Mrs. Orban as they left the dinner-table. "I expect you will sleep like a top."
He was looking sleepy already, and a quarter of an hour later went very readily to his room, with a parting entreaty to his mother that she would not sit up late.
"Not I," was the laughing rejoinder. "I promise you I will only write one little line to father and begin my mail letter to grannie, and then I will go to bed."
This Mrs. Orban did, and being very tired she fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.
For several hours a great silence reigned over the house; but even when it was broken by the soft pad-pad-pad of bare feet creeping stealthily round the veranda, the sleepers lay utterly unconscious. The stairs had not creaked under the weight of this figure; it cast no shadows, for there was no light either within the house or without. At every window it halted, listened, peered in, as if it had the eyes of a cat to see with in the dark.
First came the dining-room, and next it the room in which Eustace and Peter slept. Round the corner were Mrs. Orban's room and part of the drawing-room. At the other corner was Nesta's room, where Miss Chase would also sleep, and next to that the servants' room.
The strange visitor made a complete tour of the veranda and reached the stair again.
Eustace was dreaming vividly. He was out with Nesta and Becky. Becky had been specially entrusted to their care, and they had been told only to go a little way into the scrub. As a rule the children were not allowed to go into the scrub without a grown-up in charge, for there were dangers among the thick bushy undergrowth known by this odd name. For one thing, snakes abounded there; for another, it was only too easy to lose one's bearings, wander farther and farther into the wood, and eventually die of thirst and starvation, utterly unable to find the way home again. To Eustace's distraction, in his dream Becky would insist on playing hide-and-seek, and kept constantly disappearing and returning, flitting on in front of them now and again like a will-o'-the-wisp.
"We mustn't let her do it," Eustace exclaimed. "Run, Nesta; we must catch her."
But the faster they ran, the farther Becky went; it was extraordinary how fast she could go.
"I can't keep up," Nesta panted.
"Just like a girl," puffed Eustace back, for he was getting exhausted himself.
Then Becky disappeared right out of sight, and though Eustace called her till the echoes rang again and again with her name, there came no answer.
"Now I guess we shall all be lost," thought Eustace desperately.
He was rushing madly hither and thither, when suddenly he heard a blood-curdling yell not very far off. It was followed by another and another, till his heart stood still with terror.
"Of course," he said, pulling himself together with all his might, "she must be in the secret chamber. I never thought of that."
But even as the notion flashed into his mind he knew how silly it was to think of a secret chamber in the Bush. He was so paralyzed by the awfulness of the sounds that for a moment he could not move; but at last, with a mighty effort, he forced himself to dart forward in the direction whence the cries came.
A second later he was fighting blindly with some thing that clung unpleasantly to him. It took him a moment to realize that this was the mosquito net round his bed. He was out on the floor in his own room at home. He had been dreaming, and was now awake; but the screams continued, and were most horribly real. It was not Becky's voice—no child could have cried like that.
There was a door from his room into Mrs. Orban's, and through this the boy dashed.
"Mother, mother," he cried, "what is happening?"
There was a light in the room. Mrs. Orban was standing with a look of terror on her face.
"I don't know," she said unsteadily.
"It has been going on for ages," Eustace whispered.
But Mrs. Orban shook her head. "It has only just begun," she said. "I must go and see what is the matter."
Eustace was haunted by his dream—a second in a dream is equivalent to hours of real life.
"O mother, don't go!" he exclaimed in an agonized voice, and clung to her.
"I must," was the answer, and gently but firmly Mrs. Orban put the boy from her. "Perhaps one of the servants is ill. At least they are both frightened, and need me. Stay here with Becky."
The words were hardly out of her mouth when the door burst open, and in rushed Mary, followed by Kate. Both girls looked half mad with fear.
"O ma'am, ma'am," they cried, piecing out the tale between them, "there was a black-fellow in our room. He has stolen our watches from under our pillows, and everything he could find before we woke, and he was pulling the rings off Mary's finger when she felt him and jumped out of bed. But he got the rings, and we don't know where he is—somewhere about the house—and maybe there are others with him. O ma'am, whatever shall we do? We shall all be murdered in our beds."
"Nonsense, you silly girls," said Mrs. Orban, with sudden sternness; "we can't possibly be murdered in our beds when we are all out of them."
Even in the stress of the moment Eustace could not help being struck by the humour of the assertion, but he was in no mood for laughing.
Creeping to the window, he peered out, to find that it was no longer pitch dark; there was a sufficient glimmer of light to have enabled their uninvited guest to do all that the servants described.
By this time Becky was awake and howling. Her mother took her into her arms and soothed her gently.
"As to what we shall do," Mrs. Orban said in that same firm tone; "we must all stay here till daylight together. If there are thieves about the house, we can do nothing to check them. They will not hurt us if we don't interfere. There is nothing to be done but to behave as little like cowards as we can manage."
"But black-fellows do such—" began Kate.
"Hold your tongue, Kate," said the usually gentle Mrs. Orban, with sudden anger. "What good can it do to scare yourself and us by talking in such a way? We are in God's hands, don't forget that."
"Mother," Eustace said, "has father got his revolver away with him?"
"There are two in this room," Mrs. Orban replied. "Could you use one if necessary?"
"Oh, for mercy's sake don't let Master Eustace have a gun in his hands!" said Mary. "There's no saying which of us he might shoot in mistake if he began playing with one."
"Playing with one!" repeated Eustace scornfully; "why, father says my shooting is very good for my age."
Mrs. Orban took a revolver from a cupboard and gave it into the boy's hands.
"It is loaded," she said, and now there was the suspicion of a quiver in her voice; "but realize I am trusting you to be sensible. Don't shoot at random. Remember what Bob said last night. You are only to fire if terribly necessary. Now jump into Becky's bed, or you will be getting a chill and fever."
From beneath her own pillow she drew out a second revolver, examined it, and set it on a table within easy reach.
"Mother," said Eustace in surprise, "do you always sleep with a revolver under your pillow?"
"Only when your father is away," was the reply. "Now, Mary and Kate, get into my bed. I am going to sit in this cosy chair with Miss Becky. We will talk and keep the light burning; but it is my belief nothing more will happen to-night."
The maids obeyed, still looking terrified, and then Mrs. Orban seated herself, with Becky in her arms, near the table where the revolver lay.
Thus they prepared to face the remaining hour of darkness, powerless to do anything, utterly helpless, with nerves strung to the highest possible pitch, and hearts that beat wildly at every sound.
THE FIRST SHOT.
Mrs. Orban's words were brave, her whole bearing courageous, but she was more frightened than she had ever been in her life before. It is doubtful whether she really believed her own assertion that nothing more would happen that night, though she tried to. As a matter of fact her prophecy was correct. Scared by the screams of the women, the unpleasant guest must have promptly run away. He was probably alone, and, uncertain as to who was in the house, had fled from the chance of being peppered by a revolver.
It was found in the morning that nothing was missing except the servants' watches, their few small trinkets that were lying on the dressing-table, and Mary's rings. The extraordinary silence with which he had perpetrated the theft, his skill in taking the rings off Mary's hand as it lay outside the coverlet, were not at all unprecedented—the natives were known to be silent and subtle as snakes in their doings.
Mrs. Orban sent Eustace down to the plantation as soon as she knew every one would be astir. Mr. Ashton, the field manager, was suffering from fever, so that it was useless to go to him; but on hearing the story, Robertson, the chief engineer, returned with the boy to look into the matter.
Investigations were in vain; the man had left no tracks around the house, no footprints on the veranda.
The servants were so terrified that they declared they would not stay another night in the house. They wanted to be sent to Cooktown immediately—a five days' journey by sea. Robertson, a big burly Scotsman, roughly told them that such a thing was impossible. They could not get away for another week, when the schooner might be expected to bring provisions. He lectured them on their cowardice in wanting to run away and leave their mistress alone at such a time, but the girls would not listen to reason; they said they would hire horses and ride all the way to the first civilized place they could find.
Then Mrs. Orban tried persuasion. Had they not better wait at least to see whether anything could be heard of their lost possessions? She would offer a reward to any one finding the thief or restoring the stolen goods to their owners—the offer should be made known all over the plantation.
The suggestion carried the day, and the bargain was made. Mrs. Orban felt that at all costs she must keep the maids until Mr. Orban's return, for the work and the solitude would have been too much for her to stand, brave as she had proved herself to be.
The offering of a reward was greatly against Robertson's advice. He pointed out that it would only prove an incentive to further robbery. The plantation hands were an unprincipled lot, and if they discovered that they could get money by stealing things and bringing them back, as if they had discovered them in the possession of some one else, there would be no end to the thefts, and no tangible means of getting hold of the thieves unless they were caught red-handed.
But so anxious was Mrs. Orban to keep the servants that she disregarded Robertson's opinion, and the reward was duly offered. The engineer had one proposal to make, which was accepted. With Mrs. Orban's leave, he said, he, with his wife and two little children, would come up the hill and sleep in the house until Mr. Orban's return. There would be safety in numbers; and if the night visitor came again, some one to deal with him better than by screaming at him.
In spite of the fuller house, and the fact that Robertson's eight-year-old boy was sleeping in Peter's bed that night, Eustace did not feel particularly happy in the hours of darkness before him, after the party had broken up and said good-night.
The door between his mother's room and his own was left open, by way of companionship for them both, but the boy was so overtired as to be restless and unable to go to sleep. To his excited fancy there were unusual sounds about. The creaking of unwarping boards, the soughing of the night breeze round the house, even Sandy Robertson turning round in his bed, with an impatient but sleepy flump at the heat, were noises that set his hair on end and made him feel cold and damp all over again and again. Once or twice he stole from his bed to peer into his mother's room, but she always seemed asleep; or he would look stealthily out of the window, as if he could possibly have seen anything in the dark.
Robertson, with his wife and baby, was in Nesta's room at the other side of the house. It occurred to Eustace that if anything did happen—anything needing immediate action—Robertson was very far away and ungetatable. The boy sat up in bed hugging his knees, making feverish plans as to what he should do supposing the night visitor came again and he should see him.
Unknown to his mother, Eustace had taken the revolver he had been entrusted with the night before to bed with him. He meant to sleep with it under his pillow, but every time he got up to make his investigations he took it, gripped tightly in his hand ready for immediate use.
When the first gray light stole into the room at last, Eustace began to feel drowsy. Almost against his will he lay back on his pillow and fell asleep. He had determined to watch the night through, but a great heaviness overpowered him, and he lay like a log.
It seemed to him he had hardly closed his eyes—indeed, it cannot have been much later, for there was but little difference in the light—when a resounding pistol report rang through the silent house. Eustace awoke with an instant consciousness of having slept on his self-imposed sentry work. He felt queer and oddly shaken as, with a cry of dismay, he sprang out of bed and rushed into his mother's room.
"Oh, what is it?" exclaimed Mrs. Orban, frightened out of her wits by the noise.
She stared at Eustace, who stood, revolver in hand, gazing blankly round the room.
"I don't know," he began, stopped abruptly, and added in a choked voice, "Oh, look! look!"
He was staring towards the window. Outside on the veranda, crouching on all fours in the dusk, was a dark figure. With a strange, sudden movement it raised itself and stretched out an arm towards the room—standing lank, tall, and horribly sinister.
Without a moment's hesitation Eustace raised his hand and fired. There was a splintering of glass, a wild howl of pain, and the figure dropped like a stone.
"Eustace," cried Mrs. Orban in a horrified voice, "what have you done?"
"I had to fire first," returned the boy in an odd, sullen tone.
The figure outside moved, and with a succession of dreadful yells began rapidly crawling along the veranda towards the stairs.
At the bedroom door appeared the entire household, Robertson leading the way, his usually ruddy face ghastly with astonishment.
"What on earth is happening?" he asked, staring at Eustace and his mother.
"I've shot something," Eustace faltered. "It is going down the steps—"
Robertson waited to hear no more. Seizing the boy's revolver, he took a short cut through the house for the veranda steps.
"What was it?" asked the frightened women, as they huddled together in the doorway.
"I don't know," Eustace answered—"a black-fellow of some sort. I wonder if I—I killed him."
There had fallen a sudden silence outside; the awful howling had ceased.
Eustace sat down on the edge of his mother's bed feeling sick and shivery. To have killed a man—a white fellow, black-fellow, any sort of fellow; it was horrible!
The most extraordinary sounds arose from the veranda. Had Robertson gone mad, or what could be the matter with him?
"Ho-ho-ho! ha-ha-ha! ho-ho-ho-ho!" he roared.
Every one stood as if paralyzed. There was something terribly uncanny about the laughter. It seemed so ill-timed, so jarring and unkind.
Robertson appeared at the broken window.
"Upon my word, Eustace," exclaimed the Scotsman, "it's the best joke ever I heard or saw. Come and look at your black-fellow and be proud of yourself."
"I can't!" said Eustace, his knees knocking together as he attempted to stand, and he fell back on the bed.
"Oh, what is it, Mr. Robertson?" asked Mrs. Orban.
"Why, it's nothing but a miserable, half-starved dingo-dog that must have prowled up to the house in search of food," Robertson said. "You marked him well—I will say that for you, Eustace. He was dead before I could reach the steps."
"Thank God it was not a human being," exclaimed Mrs. Orban.
"A dingo!" cried Eustace, sitting up suddenly with a perplexed expression in his eyes. "Then who fired the first shot? I mean the one that woke me."
The relief faded from Mrs. Orban's face. It was a startling question, an uncomfortable reflection that the first shot had not been accounted for.
"Yes, by the way," she said, "there was that other shot. It seemed to come from Eustace's room, and I was frightened out of my wits. I was thankful to see him safe and sound a minute later."
"I heard two shots distinctly," Robertson said, looking grave; "but of course I fancied Eustace had fired twice at the dingo."
"Not I," said Eustace. "I never saw the beast till I came into mother's room; and I didn't fire till it stood up against the window and looked like a human being."
"H'm," said Robertson. "It strikes me I had better have a look round. Just stay here till I come back."
The women all looked scared. It was not a pleasant idea that the person who fired that first shot was possibly lurking about somewhere in the shadows. They listened breathlessly as Robertson made the tour of the house, momentarily expecting a fresh commotion, the firing of shots and a struggle. Mrs. Robertson was dreadfully upset, and held her two children close; the maids huddled together in a corner. Mrs. Orban stood, revolver in hand, near Becky's bed with such quiet dignity that somehow Eustace was steadied.
The chances were that, finding himself hunted by Robertson, the man would try to effect an escape on to the veranda this way as a short cut to the steps.
If the visitor were the same as that of the night before, it was all important he should be captured—otherwise this disagreeable night raid might be repeated.
But no shots and no sound of a scuffle were heard. Robertson returned to say that he had investigated every nook and cranny that a man might have hidden in, and found no trace of any one having entered the house anywhere.
The little gathering stared about with questioning, bewildered eyes, and no one felt any happier for the news. The fact remained that a shot had been fired by a mysterious being who had apparently vanished into air. For what purpose had that shot been fired? At what? At whom?
"I can't make it out," said Robertson. "There seems no sense in a fellow coming and letting off fireworks in the middle of the night for nothing."
"Perhaps it is a trick of some sort," suggested Mrs. Orban; "some one trying to frighten us. But I don't see that that is possible."
"Nor I," said Robertson. "People aren't in the habit of playing practical jokes without some purpose in them hereabouts. All the same, it doesn't seem much good all of you staying up like this. If you'll just get back to your beds, I'll watch for the rest of the night. It may be a better way of trapping a chap, if he hasn't got clean away by now. That is the most likely thing, of course—his firearm probably went off inadvertently as he was coming round the veranda, and he knew he had done for himself, so made tracks at once. He might come back as soon as he thought the house was quiet again, but I don't expect him."
No one felt much inclined to take Robertson's practical advice. At the same time it seemed foolish to stay up and exhaust themselves for nothing, and Mrs. Orban agreed that every one should go to bed.
Eustace went very reluctantly. He would have liked to stay up and share Robertson's watch like a man; it seemed so childish to be sent to bed after taking part in such an excitement. He wondered what Nesta would have thought of it had she been there.
"Goodness, wouldn't she have been scared!" he reflected. "I do wonder what she would have done."
At least there would be plenty to tell her when she came home. She might be having a jolly time; but Eustace guessed, when it was all over, she would be disappointed at having been out of such adventures as these. There was a sort of glow about the realization that they were such very real adventures—experiences that did not come every day and to every one. The only stupid part about it was having to go to bed.
Mrs. Orban felt no glow in her realization of the situation. She longed for her husband, and wondered how she was going to bear his absence much longer. If this sort of thing were to go on she felt that it would break her nerve entirely.
Having kissed Eustace and sent him away, she felt too restless to get into bed. Sleep she knew would be impossible; and taking a book, she was just sitting down with the set purpose of making herself read awhile, in order to quiet her mind, when a sharp cry reached her from the next room.
"Mother! mother!" Eustace cried, "come here—quick!"
She found Eustace standing beside his bed staring at it in utter bewilderment.
"My dearest boy, what is it?" she asked.
"Why, look at that!" Eustace exclaimed, pointing down at the coverlet.
From about the centre of the bed on the right side, down almost to the foot, was a long brown streak like a burn: the coverlet was cut and charred.
Mrs. Orban stared at it in astonishment
"What can it be?" she said.
"I can't think," Eustace replied.
"You had better fetch Robertson," Mrs. Orban said. "There is something very odd about this."
"Don't you mind being left alone, mother?" Eustace asked, looking round anxiously, as if he thought an explanation of the mystery might jump from under a bed or out of a cupboard.
"Of course not, dear," Mrs. Orban replied gravely.
It amused her even in her anxiety that this slender scrap of fourteen should assume such an air of protection, but it touched her also, and she would not for worlds have let him fancy she could smile at him.
Robertson hurried to the spot immediately, and when he saw the condition of the coverlet he looked utterly nonplussed.
"Well, this is a queer state of things," he said, rubbing his head meditatively. "I never saw anything to equal it."
Further examination proved that not only was the coverlet burnt right through, but the under clothes were scorched and crumbled like tinder at a touch.
"It looks like the track of a shot," Robertson said; "but how could it come there?"
"I don't know," Eustace said, "unless some one was kneeling on the floor at the foot of the bed and tried to shoot me without raising his hand. The shot sounded most awfully close."
Robertson took a quick survey of the situation, ending with an examination of the wall at the head of the bed.
"No," he said, "that couldn't be. The bullet would have gone into the pillow or lodged in the wall, but there isn't a sign of it. Seems to me it went the other way by the mark. It is broadest in the middle of the bed."
He followed the line with his eye, then glanced across the room.
"Why," he exclaimed, going over to the opposite wall, "here is the mark of the bullet—here is the bullet itself, deep in the wood. That shot went off from the middle of your bed, lad."
Eustace looked incredulous, Mrs. Orban horrified. It was awful to think that the boy had been in such danger. The man who had fired that first alarming shot was close to him, perhaps bending over him, when inadvertently the weapon had gone off! The mother could picture it only too vividly, and she felt sick at the thought of the ghastly peril.
"But what happened to the man?" questioned Eustace. "I was awake in a minute, and must have seen him."
"Not if he ducked under the bed," suggested Mrs. Orban. "He must have been there when you came to me, and made his escape the instant you were out of the way."
"Much more likely if he had knocked the youngster on the head to silence him," argued Robertson, as he stood toying with Mr. Orban's revolver. "I don't think that story will wash."
Quite suddenly the man threw back his head and laughed aloud.
"I have it," he said. "Eustace, you young rascal, what a scare you have given us!"
"I!" exclaimed Eustace, with a touch of indignation in his tone.
"Yes, you," was the reply. "Why, you fired that first shot yourself; I'll bet you anything you did. You only shot once at the dingo—there are two chambers empty in this revolver. Come, own up; where was the revolver when you went to sleep?"
Eustace flushed crimson as the realization flooded his mind.
"It was in my hand when I jumped out of bed," he said. "I—I do believe I went to sleep holding it. I dropped off suddenly."
He remembered how inexplicably queer and shaken he had felt when he awoke. Now he came to think of it, he had been strangely jarred. A mere sound could scarcely have accounted for the feeling.
"Well, that clears the whole mystery, then," said Robertson. "There is no one lurking about the house, and there hasn't been anything to be frightened about—except that you might have shot your own foot through, and lamed yourself for life."
"He might have killed himself," said Mrs. Orban seriously. "It was a terribly dangerous thing to do."
She said nothing more, for it was evident Eustace felt very small and uncomfortable. It was the tamest possible ending to what had promised to be such a stirring adventure—such a tale to tell!
Presently, when he was left alone to try and get a little sleep before it was time to get up and dress, the full humiliation of it overcame him. What would his father say? and Nesta? and, worse and worse, Bob Cochrane? How he would be laughed at—teased! He would never be allowed to forget the dingo he had mistaken for a black-fellow; and he felt hot all over when he thought of that foolish shot—the cause of all the commotion.
It was a very depressed Eustace who appeared at breakfast. He took Robertson's unabated amusement so gravely that the engineer stopped laughing at him, and wondered if the youngster were sulking.
Mrs. Orban felt a good deal distressed to see how pale the boy was, and that he could hardly touch the food set before him. But every one showed signs of exhaustion, as was natural after two nights of such unusual strain. Mrs. Orban kept Eustace with her all day, setting him small jobs to keep him occupied. They all went to bed early that night, and the household slept without rocking.
Next day, in the cool of the morning, Bob Cochrane rode over to inquire how the Orbans were getting on. Eustace heard him come—the boy was on the lookout for this particular visit—and as Bob walked round one side of the veranda, Eustace disappeared along the other, left a message with Mary that he was going down to the mill, and started away from the house at a run. The truth was, he felt he simply could not be present while Bob listened to the story of his absurd adventures; he wanted the narration to be over before he faced the fusillade of chaff with which the young fellow might pepper him. "He'll think me a silly little fool, I know he will," Eustace told himself again and again; "and he'll say, 'What did I tell you about shooting recklessly?' I expect he'll think I'm a baby, not fit to be trusted with firearms. It's disgusting, just when I was hoping he might begin to think me worth taking out shooting with him soon."
Thoroughly out of conceit with himself, Eustace wished he need not go home at all until Bob was certain to be gone. But no sooner did he reach the mill and begin wandering about the rooms full of machinery than it struck him it had been rather cowardly even to run away for a time. Bob would know he had not felt equal to facing him, and perhaps he would despise that as much as he was bound to be amused at the other. The lad had a sharp tussle with himself, and at last started back up the hill with the feelings of a most unwilling martyr going to the stake.
He was about two-thirds of the way up when he caught sight of Bob Cochrane coming swinging down towards him. Bob was just the kind of fellow every boy wants to grow into—big, well-made, splendidly manly; he looked jolly in his riding-suit.
"Hulloa!" he called as soon as he came within speaking distance.
"Hulloa!" Eustace called back tonelessly, his heart thumping hard, his colour coming and going ridiculously.
Bob waited till they met. Then, "Well, youngster," he said gravely, putting a big hand on the lad's shoulder and walking on beside him, "you've had a rough time since I saw you last. I don't wonder you shot at that dingo in the way you did; I should have done it myself, I believe, under the circumstances."
Eustace's heart almost stopped beating, he was so surprised; he could not speak a word.
"Of course that chap coming the night before put you all on edge," proceeded Bob, "and you were flurried by the first shot. That might have been a nasty business too. Glad you didn't hurt yourself."
There was another pause, but Bob did not seem to mind. He went on again presently,—
"It is just this kind of thing, I always think, that gives one a bit of a useful warning: first, to be cautious; and second, to keep a cool head. You'll never go to sleep with a revolver ready cocked again, and another time you will give yourself a second's deliberation before you fire at anything looking like a man. It might have been Robertson making a tour of the house, you know."