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The Adventure League
by Hilda T. Skae
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[Frontispiece: 'There is something in the man's appearance which seems familiar to me.' page 139]



THE ADVENTURE LEAGUE

BY

HILDA T. SKAE



THOMAS NELSON AND SONS, LTD.

LONDON, EDINBURGH, NEW YORK

TORONTO, AND PARIS



CONTENTS

CHAP.

I. WHAT HAPPENED IN ERRICHA II. 'THE PIRATES' DEN' III. A SURPRISE IV. THE COMPACT V. SUSPENSE VI. A DISCOVERY VII. THE SIEGE VIII. A CRUISE IN THE 'HEROIC' IX. DISAPPOINTMENT X. IN WHICH ALLAN IS VERY WISE XI. A NEAR SHAVE XII. SURROUNDED XIII. ANDREW MACPETERS XIV. CAUGHT XV. HAMISH TO THE RESCUE



THE ADVENTURE LEAGUE

CHAPTER I

WHAT HAPPENED IN ERRICHA.

It was very early on a bright summer morning. Rocks and heather and green fields lay bathed in sunshine; and round the shores of a small island on the west coast of Scotland the sea was dancing and splashing, while in the distance the Highland hills raised their bare crests towards a cloudless sky.

The sun had not long risen, and it seemed as though no one could be stirring at this early hour; yet there was an unusual commotion among the birds nesting on the ledges of a high cliff. The funny little puffins, with their red, parrot-like bills, were peering anxiously out of the crevices; while the curious little auks, standing erect in rows like black and white mannikins, were exceedingly perturbed; and the kittiwakes flew screaming from the rocky shelves, joining their voices to the hoarser cries of the guillemots and the booming of the waves among walls and pillars of rock.

The cause of the birds' agitation was not far to seek. Some figures, looking very small upon the huge cliff, were crawling on their hands and knees upon the ledges, gathering eggs. Two were boys; and the red cap and serge frock of another proclaimed her to be a girl. About fifty feet below, with nothing between him and the waves which looked small in the distance, a lad hung suspended by a rope, while the birds circled and screamed around him.

One of the boys came to where the ledge ended in a sheer drop down to the sea; and putting something very carefully in his pocket, he rose to his feet and began to climb upward.

Catching hold of the tufts of heather on the verge of the cliff, he swung himself on to firm ground, and proved to be a boy of about ten years of age; thin and wiry, with a dark face and bright twinkling eyes. His thin brown wrists had grown a long way out of the sleeves of his jacket; and he had torn a hole in the knee of each knicker.

After rubbing his elbows, which he had grazed against the rocks, he turned to speak to a little girl who was sitting on a tuft of heather, looking somewhat forlorn. A handsome collie dog, yellow-brown with a white ruffle round his neck, was lying impatiently at her feet, every now and again glancing up at his mistress with bright, inquiring eyes.

'Well, Tricksy,' said the boy; 'tired of waiting, eh?'

'Yes,' replied his sister, 'you've been a long time, and I'm cold. I don't see why I shouldn't go down the cliffs with the rest of you. Laddie's tired of waiting too.'

The collie rose upon hearing his name mentioned, and thrust his nose into the boy's hand, wagging his tail and looking as though he would say, 'Come along now, do; and tell the others to come; you've played at that dangerous game long enough; let's all have a jolly scamper after rabbits!'

A red cap appeared over the edge of the cliff, followed immediately by a laughing face framed in a crop of fair curly hair; then a girl scrambled on to firm ground.

'Hulloa, Reggie! are you there already?' she said. 'How many have you got?'

'Five,' said Reggie, displaying the contents of his pockets; 'an auk's, two puffin's, and two kittiwake's. Aren't they prettily marked?'

'Beauties,' replied the girl, examining the eggs. 'Better get Neil to blow them for you; he always does it the best. I have only two, and another broke as I was getting it out; but oh, it was glorious down on these ledges! I'd like to have a scramble like this every morning!'

'I daresay,' broke in an exasperated little voice; 'fine fun for you others to get up at four in the morning when the steamer isn't expected until six, and go scrambling about on the rocks, getting sea-birds' eggs, saying that you'll only be five minutes, and then stay an hour!'

The child spoke in little rushes and gushes, and her eyes twinkled and looked pathetic by turns in her little dark, round face.

'An hour, Tricksy! It can't have been so long as that!'

'Indeed it was, Marjorie, because I have Reggie's watch; he left it with me, and it has been rather tiresome waiting here, when you know I mayn't climb the rocks as you do.'

'Poor Tricksy, what a shame! It's too bad of us, leaving you alone all that time. Just wait until you are a year or two older, and then your mother will let you climb like the rest of us. Who would have thought that we had been away so long! Time does go so quickly when you're scrambling about for eggs!'

She looked around with bright, fearless blue eyes; a tall, slight girl of fifteen, with a face so tanned by sun and wind as almost to have lost its extreme fairness, and with the quick, free movements which speak of perfect health and an open-air life.

'Hulloa,' said Reggie suddenly; 'there's the steamer!'

'Where?' asked both the girls eagerly.

'Over there, just rounding the headland, quite in the distance; you can see the trail of smoke, She won't be in for some time yet.'

For a minute or two the young people stood watching the grey line upon the horizon; then Marjorie said—

'She's coming along pretty quickly. Hadn't we better call the others and let them know?'

'Yes, do,' said Reggie; and hollowing their hands, they shouted, 'Neil!—Hamish!—hulloa!—the steamer!'

Their voices were blown back to them by the wind; but the lad on the rope happening to look up, the others pointed energetically out to sea, where the hull of the steamer was now becoming visible.

The boy glanced round; then climbed quickly hand over hand up the rope, and joined the others.

'The steamer at last,' said Reggie. 'See, she is just rounding Erricha Point now; she won't be long in coming in. Isn't it jolly about the measles, Neil?'

'Jolly for those who didn't happen to take them,' suggested Marjorie.

'Allan's holidays began six weeks sooner than they would have done if the boys hadn't all been sent home,' continued Reggie.

'He is coming just when we're having the best fun,' said Marjorie, watching the steamer with thoughtful eyes; 'what jolly times we'll have now. That was an awfully good idea of yours, Neil.'

The tall lad looked gratified. He was a handsome youth of about seventeen, dressed in the rough clothes of a fisherman, but refined in appearance, with a straight nose, dark blue eyes, and curly black hair.

'I will be thinking that you and the others had as much to do with it as I had, Miss Marjorie,' he replied.

'Not at all, old fellow,' said Reggie, who always spoke to his friend as though he were a boy of his own age; 'not at all; we never could have made the place what it is if it hadn't been for you. Hulloa, Hamish, old chap,' he added good-humouredly, as a somewhat sleepy-looking, fair-haired boy joined the group—'reached the top?'

Marjorie looked angry, as she always did when Reggie Stewart assumed patronising airs towards her brother.

'Yes,' replied Hamish simply; 'I thought there was no hurry, as the steamer won't be in for a while, and I was trying to reach down for these little things. Look, Tricksy, I thought you might like to have them—two young puffins, not long hatched.'

'O Hamish, what lovely little things!' cried Tricksy, her eyes growing large and her little round face dimpling with pleasure; 'it was good of you to get them for me.'

At this moment Laddie, who had been standing impatiently beside the group, pricked up his ears with a growl, looking at something a short distance away.

'What's the matter with you, Laddie?' said Reggie.

'He's looking at that man over there,' said Marjorie; 'who is it? He seems to want to speak to you, Neil.'

Neil looked round and then reddened slightly.

'It will be that poor fellow Gibbie Mackerrach, one of the band of gipsies who are staying here just now,' he said. 'Go away, Gibbie,' he added in Gaelic, shaking his head, since it was unlikely that the gipsy would be able to hear distinctly where he stood; 'I can't come.'

'It's the lad who isn't quite right in his mind, isn't it?' said Marjorie; 'the one whom you helped when his boat was upset on the loch?'

'Yes, it will be the poor fellow who had the ducking,' replied Neil. 'He will be quite harmless, only a little odd. You will nefer be seeing him with the others; he will always be wandering about by himself, and sleeping in all kinds of places. Och! but this will not do though; he is meddling with our coats that we took off when we were going to climb. Hi, Gibbie! you must not be touching these things.'

The lad's handsome, foolish face became overspread with a smile as Neil came towards him.

'Good Neil—kind Neil,' he said, patting him on the arm.

'Now go away, Gibbie; there's a good lad,' said Neil. 'I will have no time to be talking to you just now, and you must not be touching our things. You had better go home, Gibbie; they will be looking for you.'

'Be quiet, Laddie,' said Reggie authoritatively to the dog, who was still growling; 'he is not doing any harm.'

Laddie's remonstrances died away in a disapproving grumble, as though he were saying that he wasn't satisfied yet, and would renew the subject upon some future occasion.

'If you don't mind,' said Neil, who had been watching the retreating form of the gipsy, 'I will be going a bit of the way with him. He iss trying to cross the Shaking Bog now, and he might be coming to harm in it.'

'All right, Neil; see you again later,' said the others.

'Tricksy, what's the matter with you?' cried Marjorie; 'you are trembling like anything, and your teeth are chattering in your head.'

'Cold,' said the little girl, whose small dark face was beginning to look pinched and unhappy; 'and I'm a little hungry too; we hadn't time to get anything to eat when you and Hamish came for us so early.'

'Comes of leaving you up there so long,' said Marjorie; 'how careless we were. Whatever will your mother say if you get ill.'

'Here, Tricksy,' said Hamish, 'take this coat, I don't want it; and look, the steamer is not far from the pier; she is coming in at a rate. We'll have to run if we want to get in as soon as she does. Take my hand, and I'll help you along, and you'll be warm in half a jiff.'

Tricksy smiled in a consoled way as she put her hand into the big outstretched one of the boy; and the whole party set off to race along the top of the cliff and down to where the pier jutted out from a small village nestled in a low part of the shore.

Laddie gave an excited bark and scampered beside the others, wondering what was going to happen.

The steamer was coming in pretty fast, and the pier being encumbered with nets and with crans of newly caught fish, they reached the mooring-place just as the hawser was being thrown ashore.

A bright-looking boy of about fourteen years of age was standing on deck with his hands in his pockets and a tweed cap on the back of his head, and a tall, sunburnt gentleman was beside him.

'Hulloa, father! hulloa, Allan!' said Tricksy, dimpling and smiling.

Laddie looked up for a minute; then burst into a joyous barking, and sprang several feet off the ground, turning round in the air before once more alighting upon his paws; then he tore up and down the pier like a dog out of his senses.

In the midst of his excitement the gangway was thrown across, and the sailors stood aside to let the laird and his son leave the vessel.

Immediately Laddie bounded forward and danced around them, barking until the rocks echoed, and waving his bushy tail in an ecstasy of welcome.

'Down, Laddie, down,' said Mr. Stewart sternly; and Laddie, after looking up pathetically for a minute or two, contented himself with following Allan as closely as he could.

'How do you do, Marjorie?' said Allan. 'Hulloa, Hamish; glad to see you! Hulloa, Reggie!—Tricksy, why don't you keep your dog in better order?'

Tricksy looked hurt.

'He's a very well-trained dog,' she declared. 'He only barks because he is glad to see you.'

'Tricksy thinks she owns a dog,' said her father, smiling down at the little girl, 'but in reality the dog owns her.'

'Daddy, you are always teasing me,' said Laddie's eight-year-old mistress; 'he's a most obedient dog.—Laddie, come here.'

Laddie glanced at her and then looked up adoringly at Allan without stirring from his side.

'That is so like a dog,' observed Marjorie; 'they always make more fuss about a boy, even if he hardly notices them, than over a girl who is always petting them. It's too bad.'

Tricksy looked mortified.

'It's because he's so glad that Allan has come home,' she said. 'Just wait, Daddy; he'll obey me sometime.'

Mr. Stewart and Hamish smiled; but the others were clustering round Allan, asking questions.

'Had you a good journey, Allan? The steamer's very late. How are the measles? Are many of the boys ill? Lucky you didn't take it.'

'It's very jolly that you've got such long holidays, Allan,' said Tricksy, who was walking on her tip-toes with pleasurable anticipation. 'We've got such a jolly game at present; and Neil's helping us.'

'How is old Neil?' asked Allan.

'First-rate,' said Reggie. 'He was with us this morning, gathering eggs.'

'Gathering eggs!' said Allan; 'you've been up very early.'

'Yes,' replied Marjorie; 'Reggie and Tricksy heard that you were expected at six in the morning, so they rode over to ask us to be sure to come and meet you at the steamer. We got up ever so early—I don't know when; and what do you think? After we'd come all that long way those lazy people were still asleep!'

'Yes,' piped Tricksy; 'at four in the morning we were wakened by having pebbles thrown up at our windows, and we had to get up and dress in a brace of shakes.' (Reggie's face darkened. Tricksy was fond of using slang picked up from her brothers, and he felt it his duty to disapprove.) 'Then we didn't know what to do to fill up the time, so we went to Neil's mother's cottage, and Reggie knocked at Neil's window, so that he came out to see what was the matter; and we all went egg-gathering on the rocks.'

'Where's father?' said Allan suddenly; he has been left behind.'

'Go on—all of you!' called Mr. Stewart, who was engaged in talking to a respectably dressed man on the pier; 'don't wait for me.—Take Hamish and Marjorie home, Allan, and give them some breakfast, and tell your mother I shan't be long.'

'I wonder who that is with father,' said Reggie; 'I can't see his face. He looks like a stranger. Father is always having people coming to talk to him now that he has been made a J.P.'

'Allan,' said Marjorie, 'before we go to your house, I think we had better go into Mrs. MacAlister's and get a scone or a piece of oat-cake for Tricksy. She has gone far too long without food. You're hungry, aren't you, Tricksy?'

Tricksy nodded. Her little dark face was very pale, and she was struggling with a vexatious desire to cry.

'She always will insist upon doing what the rest of us do, that child,' said Marjorie in an undertone to Hamish; and Hamish looked kindly at the youngest member of the band.

'She has no end of pluck, the little kid,' he aid.

'We'll go to Mrs. MacAlister's shop,' said Marjorie. 'I am sure she must be up by now, and we'll be able to get something.'

The young folks pattered along the unevenly paved streets of the little village, which had the sea on one side and grassy cliffs on the other.

'It's curious what a lot of people are about so early,' said Marjorie, as they passed some knots of men and women standing in corners and talking. 'I wonder whether there is anything unusual going on.'

The party stopped at the door of a small shop which had some cakes and jars of sweets in the window, and a post-box let into the wall.

'Here's Mrs. MacAlister's,' said Marjorie; 'she has her shop open very early.'

The little place was in confusion. The shutters were down, but the shop had not been tidied, and Mrs. MacAlister herself, when she came forward to serve her customers, was pale and had red eyes.

'Is anything the matter, Mrs. MacAlister?' asked Marjorie, while the others looked at the untidy shop in surprise.

'Indeed, Miss Marjorie, I will just be having my shop broken into this night; and they will be opening the post-box and taking away a lot of the letters,' and the woman threw herself into a chair and began talking and lamenting in Gaelic, while the children crowded together open-eyed.

'No, Master Reggie—no, Miss Marjorie; do not be touching anything,' said Mrs. MacAlister hurriedly, as they approached the shattered letter-box; 'it hass all to remain as it iss until the chief constable and the laird hev seen it; and they will be bringing the Sheriff from Stornwell; it iss an unlucky day for a poor woman like me, whateffer.'

'It's a dreadful thing,' said Marjorie; 'I hope they'll catch the thief, Mrs. MacAlister.'

Mr. Stewart, accompanied by the stranger and the island constable, was approaching the door, so the young people trooped out into the street, feeling greatly excited.

'Who do you think has done it, Allan?' asked Tricksy in an awestruck voice.

Allan did not answer, and Reggie said, 'How can he tell, Tricksy?' somewhat curtly.

Tricksy subsided, and a cart laden with peats coming by, Allan stopped the driver and asked him to give them a 'lift.'

The man helped Tricksy into the cart, and the others scrambled in the best way they could, and settled themselves among the peats.

'It's a dreadful business this,' said Marjorie, her eyes shining brighter and bluer with excitement.

'I don't believe such a thing has ever happened with us before,' said Allan; 'our people have always had the credit of being very honest.'

'Who can it have been?' said Hamish, after considering for a minute. 'I can't believe that any of our people would have done it.'

'There will be no end of a row,' said Reggie, speaking for the first time. 'Father will have his work cut out for him, as he is a J.P. now.'

'Yes, and the Sheriff coming here, and everything,' said Marjorie. 'How will you like to meet your friend the Sheriff again, Tricksy?'

There was no reply.

Tricksy had fallen asleep among the peats, her head pillowed upon her arm, and her soft, dark waves of hair falling over her face.

The others began to realise how sleepy they were, after having risen before sunrise and spent several hours in the strong sea air, and in spite of excitement, conversation languished while the cart jolted along and finally halted at the gates of Ardnavoir, the manor-house of the island of Inchkerra.



CHAPTER II

THE PIRATES' DEN

'Neil, old fellow,' Allan was saying, 'I wonder how much longer these people are going to keep us waiting.'

The two were in a boat that was bobbing up and down upon the waves. The shore close by was low and sandy, with some seaweed-covered stones forming a convenient landing-place. On one side the bay swept round in a curve ending in a rocky headland; and on the other arose low cliffs with brambles and sea-pinks growing in the crevices. A breeze was blowing shoreward; and the waves curled and broke upon the beach with a pleasant sound.

'Nothing more found out about the robbery yet, I suppose?' said Allan, after they had waited a little longer.

'Nothing at all,' said Neil. 'It iss a most extraordinary affair, for there iss not a man on the island one could effer be suspecting of doing such a thing; and if it wass a stranger, the wonder iss how he will be managing to come and go without being seen. The letter-box wass broken into from inside the house, and whoever will be doing it must have got in after MacAlister and his wife wass gone to bed. It iss a wonder they will not have been hearing anything.'

'There's the MacGregors' pony-cart at last,' said Allan, 'with Marjorie and Hamish in it. Let's bring the boat to the landing-stones. They will leave the trap at Mrs. MacMurdoch's cottage until we come back.'

A man came out of the cottage and held the little shaggy pony while Marjorie and her brother took a variety of miscellaneous articles out of the cart.

'Hulloa, Allan! hulloa, Neil!' they cried; 'where are the others?'

'Don't know,' said Allan, 'they are dawdling somewhere, and we'll never get off at this rate. What's all this that you've got with you?'

'Things for the hiding-place,' said Marjorie; 'and a nice lot of trouble we've had to bring them all this way without breaking any of them. The pony was particularly tricky, not having been exercised. You'll get a basket of crockery, Allan, if you'll go and take it out of the trap. Hamish is carrying some provisions and a tablecloth, and I've got some knives and forks, and just look at this!—It's a girdle for making scones with.'

'All right,' said Allan; 'chuck them into the boat, and get in yourself. But won't it be a little too civilised, bringing all these things with you?'

'Not at all,' said Marjorie; 'wait till we show you what a jolly place we're making. We can spend whole days there without ever coming home, and we must be able to cook dinner and tea for ourselves. We've had no end of trouble to get all these things out of the kitchen without Elspeth seeing us. She's so mean, you know, about letting us carry away anything that doesn't belong to us.'

'All right,' said Allan; 'but when are Reggie and Tricksy going to turn up? It would serve them jolly well right if we went off without them.'

'There they are in the distance,' said Hamish; 'at least, these seem to be the dogs.'

'That's certainly Laddie,' said Allan, standing up and looking, 'and that little black speck seems to be Carlo; but surely those can't be Reggie and Tricksy with them?'

All stared at two curious figures that looked like animated bundles of hay coming along the road.

'It is Reggie and Tricksy,' said Neil, whose sailor's sight enabled him to see farthest; 'and they're carrying something.'

'Carrying what?' said Allan, more and more puzzled.

'Perhaps they're bringing straw for bedding,' suggested Marjorie.

'Then if they are, they're not going to fill up the boat with it on this trip,' said Allan decidedly. 'We shall be heavily enough loaded already, with all of ourselves; and they're bringing both the dogs.'

As they came nearer the two walking bundles proved to be indeed Reggie and Tricksy, carrying enormous bundles of ferns. Reggie's face peeped, hot and perspiring, round one side of his bundle, which he clasped with the utmost extent of his arms; and Tricksy, with a smaller burden, looked with a long-suffering expression over the fronds which tickled her little nose. Beside them Laddie stepped lightly along, his tail curling over his back; while in the rear a small King Charles spaniel waddled painfully along upon his little short legs; his tongue hanging out, and his long ears sweeping the dust of the road.

'Well,' said Allan; 'whatever are they up to now?'

Reggie came down to the shore, picking his way cautiously over the stepping-stones.

'You might hold the boat steady for me,' he said in a half-stifled voice; then, stepping on to the thwarts, he lost his footing and fell forward, load and all, into the boat.

Promptly he struggled to his feet and wiped his forehead, looking around with a self-congratulatory smile.

'There,' he said, 'these will be a great improvement to the place. Got them up, roots and all.'

Meanwhile Hamish had relieved Tricksy of her load, and Neil was helping the little girl over the stones.

'Why, Tricksy,' said Marjorie, as the little girl took her seat, 'you have got yourself into a state!'

'I know, but I couldn't help it,' said Tricksy, looking ruefully down at her little black hands and muddy frock. 'Reggie wanted the ferns for our garden, and we've been digging away with pieces of wood in the banks of the burn. Some of them had roots ever so deep down, and we couldn't help making ourselves muddy. I'll wash my face and hands in the sea.'

'Why ever did you bring that thing with you?' said Allan in disgust, pointing to the little dog who was standing on the shore. Already Laddie had sprung on board and was lying curled up on the stern seat, confident of his welcome. 'We'll have to leave him in one of the cottages until we come back.'

'No, no!' cried Marjorie and Tricksy; 'Carlo must come too.'

'Let him come,' said Hamish; 'he won't be in the way.'

The little dog, who had been frisking about and wagging his tail, sat up and begged, looking from one to the other of the young people with a beseeching whine.

'You darling,' cried both the girls; and Tricksy sprang out of the boat and lifted him in.

Allan looked contemptuous as he pushed off; but Laddie gave a little yelp of satisfaction, and the little spaniel curled himself cosily in Tricksy's lap, while Marjorie leaned over and petted him when the boys were not looking.

The steady strokes of the rowers brought the boat rapidly through the water, while the herring gulls flew screaming around, and a small island in the middle of the firth came nearer and nearer.

Presently the sea became shallower, and the boat shot up on the beach.

'Here we are,' said Marjorie, springing out first; 'now you must see what we've made of the place, Allan. Haul up the boat, Hamish; and Reggie, you might hand out some of these things. Take care you don't drop any of them. Every one take something, and let's come.'

Laddie waited impatiently while the articles were distributed among the party, and then followed his young friends with an anticipatory bark. Carlo was lifted out by Hamish, and immediately set off to chase a gull which sailed majestically out to sea, and left him barking on the shore.

'Now, Allan,' said Reggie, his dark eyes twinkling; 'you are going to see what we've been about.'

The island consisted of a beach, rocky on the one side, sandy on the other, enclosing a stretch of grass and heather. A tiny hill rose by a deserted shepherd's hut, and a miniature burn trickled down to the sea. The place had once been used as a grazing ground for a few sheep, but of late years had been entirely uninhabited.

'Now look, Allan,' said Reggie, as they stood by the bit of dyke which protected the windy side of the cottage.

'Wh-e-ew,' said Allan; 'you have made a jolly place of it!'

'Rebuilt the cottage, which had been falling to ruins,' said Reggie. 'That was mostly Neil's doing, and Hamish and I helped. Filled up the holes in the thatch with fresh heather. We all worked at that part of it. Then you see we've made a bit of a garden and thrown up the turf for a dyke on the side where the stone one was broken down. The shells on the path were brought up from the beach of this very island. Isn't it jolly?'

'Awfully fine,' said Allan. 'Have you given the place a name yet?'

'Why,' said Marjorie, 'it's our Pirates' Den, and we mean to have all kinds of fun in it all through the summer. The boat is called the Pirates' Craft now, and we are going to have no end of fine doings, particularly if Neil has time to join us.'

Allan shoved his cap to the back of his head, and looked about him again with brightening eyes.

'Awfully jolly,' was all that he could say. 'Neil, you are a fellow for hitting upon good ideas.'

'Now come along and see the inside,' said Reggie, leading the way.

'This fine strong door was made by Neil,' said Marjorie; 'a fine time we had getting it over in the boat. We haven't got glass for the windows yet, and I don't suppose we ever shall; but it doesn't matter. What do you think of our kitchen?'

Hamish pushed open the door, and they all crowded in to see how Allan would look.

'Well,' said Allan, 'you have done a lot to the place!'

The clay floor had been swept dean and had been repaired in places; the hearth had been cleared out, and a kettle hung from a hook in the wide chimney. Some gaily-coloured pictures had been nailed up over the damp stains on the walls, and there were some rough chairs and a somewhat rickety table. Altogether it was a fairly comfortable little cottage.

'You must have worked very hard at this,' said Allan.

'Indeed we have,' said Marjorie. 'We've been gardening, and hammering, and carpentering all our spare time since you left; Tricksy and all of us. We'd never have stuck to it as we did if it hadn't been for Neil.'

'Good old Neil,' said Allan, giving the elder lad a friendly pat on the shoulder. 'Well, I must say it's an awfully jolly place, and I wish I'd been here while you were working on it.'

'There's plenty to do yet,' said Marjorie; 'we are going to make all kinds of improvements. Mother and Mrs. Stewart can't make out how we manage to spend so much time by ourselves and never come to any harm.'

They stood looking around for a few minutes and then Tricksy's voice broke in, with a little laugh in it, 'Yes, these are very nice chairs, and it's a very nice table; but are we going to get anything to put on it?'

All the others laughed.

'Well,' said Allan, 'now I come to think of it, I am a bit peckish. What do you say, Hamish?'

'Yes,' said Marjorie energetically; 'bustle about, all of you, and we'll have some dinner before we do anything else. Get some peats, will you, Reggie; some of the shepherd's peat-stack is still there, and it comes in very usefully for us.'

A fire was soon burning on the hearth, and Marjorie suggested that the boys should go to the rocks on the farther side of the island and try to catch a few fish while she and Tricksy made scones and boiled the kettle.

The boys scrambled out as far as they could and threw out their lines; and when half-a-dozen rock-cod had been caught they returned to find Marjorie and Tricksy very busy over the fire, while a pile of hot bannocks smoked beside them.

'Take the dishes and set the table,' said Marjorie, rubbing her eyes, which smarted a little with 'peat reek,' for the chimney did not vent very well.

'Where shall we set it?' asked Reggie.

'Outside, of course; what's the good of being in a house when it isn't raining? Besides, it's smoky here.'

A tablecloth was spread on a sheltered piece of turf, and secured at the corners with stones to keep it from blowing away; then the dishes were set out upon it.

'What are the dogs about?' asked Marjorie, coming out of the cottage with a plate of smoking fish.

'Rabbiting, I bet,' said Reggie, and began shouting, 'Laddie! Carlo!'

In a few minutes there was a scamper, and Laddie's head appeared above a ridge, waiting with pricked-up ears to know what was required of him.

'Dinner, Lad!' said Reggie.

Laddie gave a yelp, sprang up and turned a somersault in the air and came running, followed by Carlo, who yapped with excitement, his ears flying behind him and his curly black coat covered with earth and stalks from burrowing in the rabbit-holes.

'Trust, Laddie,' said Tricksy; and the collie lay down obediently with his nose on his paws. Carlo stretched himself beside him, but was unable to restrain his impatience, and sat up more than once and begged, undeterred by warnings from Laddie, who feared that his little friend's disobedience might get him into trouble.

'Isn't it awfully jolly having dinner out-of-doors?' said Marjorie, whose short curly hair was blowing about her face and glistening in the sun, while her blue eyes danced with merriment.

'Much nicer than indoors,' said Tricksy. 'I wish we could live here altogether.'

'Jolly tired you'd get of it,' growled Reggie; 'wait till it rains, and you find yourself shut up with half-a-dozen other people, and both the dogs, in one little smoky room. You'd tell another tale then.'

'What I will be wondering, Miss Marjorie,' said Neil; 'iss why you will all be taking so much trouble to keep every one but ourselves from knowing that you have this place?'

'It is only for a little while,' replied Marjorie. 'Of course we will bring father and mother over here for a picnic some day and give them a surprise.'

'And my father and mother too,' piped Tricksy; 'we wouldn't want to keep a thing from Mummie, except just for a little while, for fun.'

'Then how iss it that you will be finding so much pleasure in having a secret just now?'

Marjorie looked out to sea with a puzzled expression.

'I don't know,' she said at last, with a little laugh; 'except that it's such fun knowing that we've got a secret!'

'I've been thinking,' said Allan, who was lying full length upon a ridge and looking towards Inchkerra, 'while we are having such a jolly time of it over here, what must be the feelings of the man who stole those letters, now he knows that the police are after him!'

The others all looked towards the island, where they could see the low, grey cottages of the little village.

'It seems strange that they haven't got him yet,' observed Marjorie.

'I met MacLean the constable from Stornwell this morning,' said Hamish, 'and he told me that they had no trace as yet, and that they believed it must have been done by some stranger who came over from the mainland, and got away immediately after the robbery.'

'I hope so,' said Allan; 'it isn't nice to think of any of our people being dishonest.'

'If it was a stranger,' said Reggie; 'they may never catch him.'

'I heard father say that he would be traced by the money-orders,' replied Allan. 'It seems that there were several post-office orders in a registered letter addressed to father, and that is one of the letters that is missing. Father says that the thief is sure to try to make use of the orders sooner or later, and they have sent the numbers to every post-office in the kingdom.'

'And then the man will be caught!' said Tricksy in an awestruck tone.

'That will be the best chance of getting him,' replied Allan.

'The fellow will find himself in the wrong box then, won't he, Neil?'

'I suppose he will,' replied Neil, rather absently.

'I hope it won't turn out to have been some one on the island,' said Reggie.

'I hope not,' said Marjorie, looking over to the green fields and brown heather moors of Inchkerra. 'Isn't it dreadful to think that it may have been some one whom we know; some one we have spoken to quite lately?'

'Well, Miss Marjorie,' said Neil, 'do you not think we had better be getting the table cleared and the things put away? We have plenty of work before us, if we are to plant all Reggie's ferns; and we must not stay too late, for it iss anxious about you that Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. MacGregor will be.'

'Not they,' said Tricksy; 'no one is anxious when they know that you are with us, Neil.'

Neil looked gratified, and the young people began to collect the dishes.

'Now, don't you bother about this piece of work,' said Marjorie, when the boys had carried the plates into the cottage; 'you go and amuse yourselves out-of-doors while Tricksy and I wash the dishes.'

'I wonder why you don't let them do their share of the disagreeable work, Marjorie,' said Tricksy a little discontentedly, when the boys had vanished.

'Pooh,' said Marjorie, with her arms in the hot water; 'what's the good? They'd only hate it, and besides, boys always do these things badly.'

When the dishes and cooking utensils had been arranged upon the shelves, Marjorie and Tricksy went out into the garden, their eyes somewhat dim with peat smoke.

'Come along and help, you two,' cried Reggie; 'must get these things in this afternoon, or they'll be dead before we come back again. Bother it, though; we haven't enough tools to go round.'

'Here, Miss Tricksy,' interposed Neil; 'you take this little spade. This sharp piece of wood will be doing just as well for me.'

'And I've got a pointed piece of slate; I can scrape holes with that,' said Allan. 'Take this old trowel, Marjorie; it hasn't a handle, but I don't suppose you'll mind.'

For a long time the young people worked with a will. The sun beat down upon the unshaded island, and the breeze blew in from the sea, bringing a salt taste to the lips and blowing the girls' hair about. The waves babbled round the shore, and the gulls sailed overhead and screamed.

When the sun's rays began to slant, and the pile of ferns was diminishing, Neil kept glancing over his shoulder to watch the tide.

'There now, that's done,' said Reggie, pressing the earth round the roots of the last fern and then rising; 'it's a jolly long time it has taken us. What shall we do next?'

'I think we ought to go now,' said Hamish. 'What do you say, Neil?'

'It is high time we wass making a start,' said Neil. 'The tide iss rising fast, and the beach iss half covered already.'

'What a pity,' said Tricksy regretfully; 'we've had such a jolly day of it, haven't we, Marjorie?'

'Awfully jolly,' replied Marjorie; 'but we'll come again soon.—You'll come too, won't you, Neil?'

'I will be coming as soon as I can be sparing the time, you may be sure of that, Miss Marjorie,' replied the lad with a smile.

The dogs were recalled from the rabbit-holes and came, their faces covered with sand, and the boat was pushed off from the shore.

Half-way across the firth, Marjorie turned and looked back regretfully.

'What a pity we have to go home,' she said. 'It would be awfully jolly to spend all night in the cottage.'

'Look to your oar, Marjorie,' sang out Allan, for the boat was beginning to turn round.

In a short time they reached the landing-stones, of which the lower ones were already submerged.

'Won't you all look in and see Mother before you go home?' suggested Neil, after the boat had been drawn up and secured to the mooring-chain. 'She'd be pleased if you'd come and say good evening to her; and Miss Tricksy, you would be seeing the little puffins that Hamish gave you; Mother tells me that they're coming along finely.'

Mrs. Macdonnell's cottage was not far distant, and the young people accepted Neil's invitation.

'I'll just tell Mother that you're here,' said Neil, lifting the latch and vanishing in the interior of the cottage.

'I wonder who Mrs. Macdonnell has with her,' said Allan, in an undertone. 'I hear voices inside. Perhaps we had better not go in this evening.'

They waited for some time; but still no one came to bid them enter.

'This is strange,' said Marjorie. 'I wonder whether Neil has forgotten us.'

The door was pushed half open, and Neil's face looked out of the aperture, with his mother's behind him. Both appeared agitated, and Neil looked at the others as though he did not see them.

CHAPTER III

A SURPRISE

'Allan,' said Mrs. Stewart, coming downstairs, 'your father has to go to Stornwell and will not be back until to-morrow, so there will be no cricket match this afternoon. I have a note from Mrs. MacGregor, asking you all to spend the day at Corranmore instead.'

'All right, Mother,' replied Allan; 'when are we to be there?'

'Mrs. MacGregor asks you to come early,' said Mrs. Stewart, consulting the letter; 'I had better send you in the dog-cart, as it's rather far to walk. Duncan is driving your father to the steamer, but he won't be long.'

'Don't bother about the dog-cart, Mother,' said Allan; 'it would be much jollier to walk; and we'd like to look in at Mrs. Macdonnell's cottage on the way and ask what's the matter with Neil. We haven't seen him for a day or two.'

'I wouldn't go there to-day, I think,' interposed Mrs. Stewart hurriedly. 'I don't think Neil will be at home. I'm afraid the walk would be too much for Tricksy,' she went on quickly, for the young people were looking surprised.

'Not if we start now, I think, Mother, and give Tricksy a rest now and again. What do you say, Tricksy?'

'Of course I can walk,' said Tricksy. 'I shan't be a bit tired, Mother.'

Mrs. Stewart looked at her little daughter with a smile.

'I am afraid of your overdoing it, Tricksy; she said. 'You are always trying to do as much as the others, who are so much older than yourself. Well, do as you like; I leave you in Allan's charge, and he will see that you are not made to walk too fast.'

'All right, Mother,' said Reggie; 'but won't you come a bit of the way with us?'

'Not this morning, dear. I will come with you some other time.'

'All right, Mother,' said Reggie; 'but it's a long time since you've gone anywhere with us. Cut away upstairs, Tricksy, and get your hat; it's time we started if we are to take rests on the way.'

'Don't you think Mother is very quiet?' observed Tricksy, as the three young people, accompanied by Laddie, were crossing the moor. 'I wonder whether she's sorry about something?'

'I did not notice anything,' said Allan.

Tricksy had almost said, 'No, boys never do, but checked herself in time.

The road between Ardnavoir and Corranmore led across the northern part of the island, through fields and moorland. All the turnings of the way brought into view fascinating glimpses of the sea, running inland between brown rocks. Fishing-boats with white and russet sails lay upon water turned to a sheet of silver by the sunlight, and grey and white gulls floated about and screamed.

The breeze was blowing shoreward, tempering the warmth of the sun and bringing brine and the odour of seaweed to mingle with the perfume of bell-heather from the moors.

Laddie stepped lightly beside his young friends, waving his tail in the air, and now and again pausing to investigate a rabbit-burrow or an interesting tuft of heather or cotton-grass.

'Well, Tricksy, getting tired yet?' said Allan to his little sister after they had walked between three and four miles.

'Not a bit,' replied Tricksy, trudging along determinedly, but with a little roll in her gait which betrayed that she was.

'I think we'll rest awhile,' said Allan, and the three young folk sat down upon a patch of fragrant, springy heather, while Laddie, after looking at them for a minute, surprised at such an early halt, curled himself up beside them.

'I wish Father would get the yacht out soon,' said Allan, watching the sea and the fishing-boats.

'Yes,' said Reggie; 'he is very late this year.'

'He won't be long now,' said Allan. 'We are going to have visitors soon. Father has written to ask Graham major and Graham minor and their Pater to come and stay with us as they have such long holidays this year, owing to the measles.'

'Who are they?' inquired Reggie.

'Fellows from my school. Did you never hear me speak of them?'

'I didn't,' said Tricksy. 'Are they nice boys?'

'Decent enough.'

'Big or little?'

'One's a small fellow; only been at school one term. The other's bigger; not more than eleven, though; more of an age for Reggie than for me.'

Reggie looked indignant, but said nothing. There was nothing that annoyed him so much as to be reminded that he was not yet a very big boy.

'Well,' said Allan, 'perhaps we had better be going, if you have rested enough, Tricksy. Hulloa, there's Euan Macdonnell, the coastguard, Neil's cousin; we'll stop and ask him if he can come out fishing with us some day soon.'

'Good day, Euan,' said the young people, pausing to speak, but the coastguard only saluted and passed on as though he were in a hurry.

Reggie looked at Allan in surprise.

'Been sent on a message, I suppose,' said Allan, 'and hasn't time to talk. The whole island seems to be upset by this affair at the post-office. I wish they'd hurry up and catch the fellow and be done with it. What's the matter with Laddie now?'

The collie, who had been sniffing about, following up a scent, had suddenly given a bark and sprang over a dyke, and was now yelping and baying excitedly as he jumped about on the other side.

'Hamish and Marjorie, I bet,' said Allan; and sure enough, two heads appeared above the dyke, a good-natured one and a mischievous one, the latter crowned by a scarlet cap on the top of a mass of fair curly hair.

'We thought we'd give you a surprise,' they said, 'but Laddie spoilt it for us. Good dog, Laddie, lie down,' for Laddie's manifestations of delight were taking the form of a loud baying which drowned all attempts at conversation.

'Trust, Laddie!' said Tricksy in her little soft voice; but Laddie took no notice.

'Laddie, trust!' said Reggie severely; and Laddie subsided at once, surprised that his attentions should be so little appreciated.

Tricksy uttered a reproachful sigh, caused by her dog's inattention to her commands.

'When does your mother expect us?' inquired Allan.

'Any time before dinner,' said Hamish. 'That's half-past one, and it's only eleven now. We've got any amount of time. What do you say to coming and looking at the gipsy encampment in the Corrie Wood? They're breaking up camp and leaving the island to-morrow, so we may not have another chance of seeing them.'

'All right,' said the others, and they trooped off to the tiny wood nestling in a hollow through which a burn trickled, and from whence a trail of smoke came blowing across the fresh green foliage of the trees.

All was bustle and stir in the gipsy encampment. Two carts were standing at the entrance to the hollow, and upon these the gipsies were piling their household goods—iron pots and kettles, bundles of rags, some gaudy crockery, and a variety of miscellaneous articles whose use it would be hard to determine.

At the sight of the young people the gipsies smiled a welcome, and the men took off their hats. Some small black-eyed children toddled forward, and stood staring, with their fingers in their mouths.

'Trust, Laddie!' said Allan; for two mongrel curs had rushed out and barked, whereupon Laddie had stiffened his back and was growling defiance.

Laddie was obliged to content himself with glaring at the other dogs and making a few remarks to express his contempt for gipsy dogs, and his view of their impertinence in presuming to look at his young ladies and gentlemen.

'Tell your fortune, pretty lady,' said a woman to Marjorie, with a smile which displayed her white teeth; but Marjorie shook her head.

'You are leaving Inchkerra?' said Allan to one of the men.

'Yes, sir. We start for Ireland to-morrow, in a sailing boat.'

'You haven't stayed very long,' observed Marjorie.

'Three months, lady. A long time for the gipsies.'

'Will you ever come back again?' inquired Marjorie.

The man shook his head.

'Can't say, lady. Maybe yes, maybe no. We never can tell. Thanks, master; good luck to you,' he said, touching his straggling forelock as Allan slipped a few coins into his hand.

'Good-bye, masters; good-bye, pretty ladies,' cried the gipsies in farewell.

Some distance from the hollow, a tall, loosely-made youth rose unexpectedly from where he had been basking in the sun, by the side of a dyke which screened him from the cold wind.

In the weak, handsome face and roving eyes the young people recognised Gibbie, the half-witted gipsy lad. An expression of disappointment crossed his face as he looked over the group and seemed to miss some one.

'Neil no with you,' he murmured. 'Want to see Neil. Was not at home.'

'Can we give him any message from you?' inquired Allan.

'Tell Neil, Gibbie go away. Long way; want to see Neil to say good-bye.'

'Very well,' said Allan. 'When we see him, we'll tell him.'

A crafty smile flitted over the lad's face, and he lowered his voice to a mysterious whisper.

'Neil will be pleased soon,' he said. 'Good Neil, good Neil. Neil will be very rich, richer than the Gorjos; has a piece of paper worth hundreds of pounds. Tell him to look for it. Gibbie go long way off.'

'Poor fellow,' observed Allan to Hamish, as the gipsy returned to his lazy basking on the heather; 'he is quite crazy; can't speak connectedly for two minutes at a time.'

'There is one good point in Gibbie's character,' said Hamish; 'he knows that Neil saved his life, and he is grateful. I think the island won't be sorry to see the last of him, though. He hasn't lived with his tribe for weeks. He had a den of his own in the banks of the burn that flows past our house; a queer place, far up in the hills.'

'Look,' said Reggie, 'that must be the gipsies' boat over there, off the south side of the island; and a little boat is going out to it with some of their things.'

'And there are the carts going down,' said Allan; 'it won't be long before the camp is broken up.'

'Pity we couldn't go gipsying for a little while,' observed Marjorie; 'just for the summer. It would be such fun wandering about from place to place. But look at the tide coming up in Cateran Bay; the waves are dashing on the shore and making the most beautiful foam. Would there be time for us to go down to the beach for a little while?'

'Plenty,' said Hamish; 'Mother doesn't expect us before one o'clock.'

'Come along, then,' said Marjorie; 'let's run;' and they all raced down to the shore, Laddie with them, the dog jumping with all four paws off the ground, and barking in anticipation of sport.

Breeze and tide together were flinging up little breakers which curled on the shore and then retreated, only to be sent up again by the next roller. A fascinating game was to run down to the very edge of a retreating wave, with one's toes almost within the line of foam; to wait until it gathered itself up again, and then fly to avoid being overtaken by the water which came hissing and bubbling over the pebbles.

Laddie, after watching the fun for a minute or two, suddenly rushed off with a bark, and returned dragging a huge flat stone which he deposited at Allan's feet; then he stood eagerly waiting, making a variety of signs to show Allan that he expected him to do something with it.

'Fetch, Laddie!' said Allan, throwing the stone as far as he could.

Laddie uttered a joyful yelp and sprang after it, returning with it in his mouth to ask Allan to throw it again.

'Laddie, fetch!' cried Allan, throwing it into the sea this time, and Laddie plunged into the water and came back dripping.

He laid down the stone and shook himself, to the great inconvenience of Marjorie; then he jumped about, baying for Allan to throw the stone once more.

The shouts and laughter and Laddie's barking were making a tumult which vied with the noise of wind and waves, when Hamish touched Allan's arm and pointed to the sky.

'Oh, I say,' said Allan, 'we really ought to go; it's going to pour like anything, and the girls will get wet.'

'I'm wet enough already, I think, especially about the feet,' murmured Tricksy; while Marjorie's lips tightened. She did not like the boys to show that they thought her less hardy than themselves.

Some large drops on the stones warned them to hasten; and they reached the doctor's house just as the storm burst.

Mrs. MacGregor, a pretty, young-looking lady, ran down into the hall to meet them.

'My dear Tricksy,' she cried, as she took the little girl's wet, cold hand, 'you are soaking! Your feet are drenched!'

'It's all right, Mrs. MacGregor,' piped Tricksy; 'we've been having a fine game. Hamish, you've let Laddie in, and his feet are making wet marks all over the floor!'

'Never mind Laddie,' said Mrs. MacGregor; 'take her upstairs and give her dry shoes and stockings, Marjorie, and then come to dinner, all of you.'

'You know, Marjorie,' observed Tricksy, as the elder girl somewhat anxiously assisted her to pull off her wet stockings; 'you know you are always telling me that we must be plucky and do all the things they want us to do when we play with boys, or else they think we're a bore.'

'That's all very well, Tricksy,' replied Marjorie, 'but what shall we do if you get ill? Your mother would stop your playing with us altogether if that happened.'

'I get ill with playing out of doors and having fun,' returned Tricksy scornfully; 'I'm not such a duffer, Marjorie.'

Just before dinner Dr. MacGregor came in, 'such a dear of a man,' as Tricksy had once described him, with bright blue eyes and curly hair like Marjorie, and a kind expression like Hamish.

'How do you do, Reggie?' he said. 'How do you do, Allan? Do you like school as much as ever? My dear,' turning to his wife, 'I shall have to start immediately after lunch, and here is a note asking you to——'

The remainder of the sentence was lost, but the boys could see that both Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor were looking very grave.

'I am sorry that Mrs. MacGregor and I must leave you,' said the doctor while the meal was in progress, 'but I daresay you will manage to amuse yourselves without getting into mischief; eh, Marjorie?' smiling at his daughter, whose eyes flashed a saucy answer. 'You can have the boat down if the rain keeps off.'

But the rain showed no disposition to keep off, despite the anxious glances which were directed towards the window. When the clouds gathered once more in threatening masses, and the rain came lashing the panes, Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor took their departure in a closed carriage, warning Hamish that the boat was not to be used unless the sea went down.

'Bother!' said Tricksy, looking at the waves, which were tumbling over each other and whitening with foam; 'what are we to do while it rains?'

'Sit round the nursery fire, of course, and talk,' said Marjorie.

An immense pile of peats was built up on the hearth of the cosy, untidy room which had been the MacGregors' nursery; and the young folk sat round the 'ingle-neuk' and discussed matters dear to the heart of gamesome youth.

Suddenly Marjorie looked up and said, 'Hurrah! the rain's stopped. What shall we do?'

'Too stormy to get the boat out,' said Hamish, rising and going to the window; 'it's still very rough, and there will be another squall soon.'

'I know,' said Marjorie; 'let's play hide-and-seek. No, not a rubbishy game in the house,' she said, meeting Allan's look of disapproval; 'a real good game out of doors, in the garden and the sheds and the ruins. The rain will only make it jollier, and those who mind getting wet are funks.'

With the wind blowing in gusts, and sudden showers splashing down from all the roofs, the game promised some fun. Dr. MacGregor's was a first-rate place for hide-and-seek, with a number of outhouses built round a paved court, and the ruins of an old castle overlooking the garden.

Marjorie and Reggie stayed at 'home' in the front lobby, where they could hear calls both from out of doors or within; and the hiders dispersed themselves quickly.

Soon three shouts were heard, coming from different directions; and the pursuers ran out into the rain, which was beginning to fall again.

Hamish was quickly discovered in a window of the old ruin, for he could not resist the temptation of grinning good-naturedly down from his perch; but he escaped along the broken flooring while they were waiting at the foot of a stairway, and reached 'home' before they were aware.

'You didn't give us enough of a chase,' cried Marjorie to him through the streaming pane; then she went off, rather annoyed, to look for the others.

They hunted for some time among the outhouses, getting shower-baths of drops from the eaves; but no one was to be found. At last they saw a movement among some straw in the byre, and Marjorie made a dash forward, just too late to catch Allan, who slipped out and made for the door.

Reggie barred his passage.

'Unfair—different directions!' cried Allan; for it was the rule among the Stewarts and MacGregors that when two were chasing one they must both keep to the same route; and Reggie stood aside.

They were pretty fairly matched, pursuers and pursued; and for a long time Allan led the two others a chase among the maze of buildings; but at last, his foot slipping upon the wet paving-stones, he was captured by a bold dash from Marjorie.

'Only Tricksy now,' gasped Marjorie, pushing back her wet hair, which was clinging about her face; 'we haven't seen a sign of her; where can she be?'

'You have run enough,' suggested Allan; 'go in and let one of us take your place.'

Marjorie flashed a glance of indignation at him, annoyed that he should suppose that she was not going to see the thing out, and after drawing a few long breaths she and Reggie started off again.

By this time the rain had ceased, and a pleasant smell was rising from the damp earth and dripping trees.

No little footprints were to be seen in the garden; and it was impossible that Tricksy could have escaped observation had she been in the ruins or in any of the outhouses.

They hunted all over the house, then went into the field, and even climbed the dyke which separated the doctor's grounds from the moorland; but no Tricksy was to be seen.

'I believe she has gone beyond bounds,' said Allan, who, with Hamish, had grown tired of waiting and had wandered out to see what was going on; 'we said the garden and the field, you know.'

'Not she,' declared Reggie, perched outside upon the dyke, with the wind drying his wet face and clothing; 'we have taught her to play fair. She is only lying low in some place that we haven't thought of. Let's shout to her to call "cuckoo."'

They raised their voices and cried, 'Call cuckoo, Tricksy;' and Laddie, who had been shut in the house to keep him from spoiling sport, but who had made good his escape behind the boys, pricked up his ears and resolved to be useful.

A muffled voice was heard in response, and Laddie, with a bark, sprang towards the peat-stack and stood before it, wagging his tail and trying to make an entrance with nose and paws.

Some of the peats were tumbled aside, and Tricksy emerged, looking very indignant.

'A nice way to play,' she said, 'setting Laddie on to me when you couldn't find me yourselves.'

They tried to explain, but Tricksy's eyes were full of contempt, and her small figure seemed to grow taller with offended dignity.

'Such a nice hiding-place,' she said; 'and now you've gone and spoilt it all.'

'Don't be a little silly, Tricksy,' said Reggie to her in an undertone; and Tricksy allowed her dignity to subside.

Fresh hiding-places were chosen; and when at last the young people were so tired as to be disinclined to run any more, Marjorie suggested going indoors to see whether tea were ready.

The dining-room table was bare, and all faces fell.

'I'll just go into the kitchen and see what Elspeth is about,' said Marjorie; 'perhaps the servants are forgetting us.'

In the stone-floored kitchen, whither they all trooped after Marjorie, Elspeth was sitting knitting by the fireside.

'Elspeth, when is tea going to be ready?' inquired Marjorie, rather impatiently.

The girl looked up at her, then down again at her knitting with pretended indifference.

'Tea, Miss Marjorie? I wass thinking you would not be wanting any tea to-day.'

Marjorie's lips tightened, but she kept down the rising temper with an effort.

'Why not?' she asked. 'Here are Allan and Reggie and Tricksy from Ardnavoir; and we want our tea, please.'

Elspeth looked up, and seemed to see the others for the first time.

'Would you ask the young ladies and gentle men to wipe their feet on the rug, Miss Marjorie if you please? They are spoiling my kitchen floor.'

This request made the whole troop feel uncomfortable, and they began shifting from one foot to the other, conscious that they must have brought more mud into the house than the authorities were at all likely to approve of.

'All right,' said Marjorie impatiently; 'we are not coming in any further; but will you please get tea ready for us as soon as you can?'

'Get tea ready! And how am I to do that, Miss Marjorie, if you please, when the girdle hass been taken away out of the kitchen? I cannot be making scones on the open fire.'

Marjorie turned red and bit her lip.

'Oh, never mind the girdle,' she said. 'We'll do without scones for one day.'

'Indeed, Miss Marjorie, I never saw tea without scones. That may be the way in foreign parts, but there never wass tea in the West Highlands without scones; and I will be thinking you will have to wait till the girdle comes home again.'

A flash darted out of Marjorie's eyes; and she remained rooted to the spot for a minute. Then she took a sudden resolve and turned away, elbowing the others out of the room.

'Cat!' she muttered; 'I'll be even with her yet. Never mind, people; if she won't give us our tea we can get it for ourselves. Get cups and things out of the pantry, Hamish; and Reggie, you come with me.'

The larder window was rather high up from the ground and was secured by several iron bars.

With some difficulty they pushed up the lower sash a little way; and through the opening thus made Reggie contrived to wriggle his slight, thin body.

'Is there anything there worth carrying away?' said Marjorie, standing on tip-toe and peering in.

'Here's a cake,' said Reggie; 'and there are several pots of jam.'

'All right, hand them out. There's a pie; we might as well have that; serve Elspeth right for getting into a temper. Now let's come in with what we've got.'

Reggie squeezed himself through the opening, feet foremost, and dropped to the ground.

'Here—Hamish—Allan;' said Marjorie, entering the house; 'take these things to the dining-room. Have you any plates? No. I'll get them out of the pantry; and knives and spoons too. Bother, she's got the teapot in the kitchen; I'll have to go in and get it.'

She strode into the kitchen with flashing eyes and a haughty step; then stopped short in amazement.

'Elspeth!' she exclaimed; 'whatever are you crying for?'

There was no answer.

'Is it because of the girdle?'

The girl shook her head; the tears falling upon the knitting which she was holding with trembling hands.

'Is it because we are taking the things out of the larder?'

'Not that, Miss Marjorie.'

'Then whatever is the matter?'

By this time all the others had crowded in, looking very much astonished.

'Elspeth, are you ill?' asked Tricksy, her large dark eyes growing very round in her little face.

'No, Miss Tricksy; no, Miss Marjorie; it will be none of that; it will be Neil.'

'Neil!' exclaimed Marjorie, while the others looked more and more amazed. 'What's the matter with him? Neil is Elspeth's cousin, you know,' she explained.

'Neil, poor lad; he will hev been arrested, Miss Marjorie. They will hev taken him up for robbing the post-office! Eh, Miss Marjorie, your mother said you weren't to know, and it iss me that will hev been telling you. Och! the disgrace to an honest family!' and the girl threw her apron over her head and moaned and lamented to herself in Gaelic, while they all stood around her, speechless.



CHAPTER IV

THE COMPACT

'Neil!' said Reggie; 'it's impossible.'

Marjorie had become deadly white, and Allan pushed the hair back from his forehead and stood staring, his hands in his pockets. Reggie pranced backwards and forwards, in uncontrollable excitement, while Tricksy's dark eyes were growing as large as saucers in her little face.

'Elspeth,' said Marjorie sharply; 'you're talking nonsense, it can't be true.'

'Indeed, Miss Marjorie, it's the truth I will be telling you; the police came and arrested him before his mother's eyes that very day just after he had been out with you on the boat, and he's before the Sheriff in Stornwell this very day!'

'But, Elspeth, he did not do it! Nobody could believe that old Neil would do such a thing!'

'Indeed, Master Allan, there are those that do, although Neil, poor laddie, would no more do such a thing than the laird himsel, or the king upon his throne! Appearances are against him, poor lad; and it's for appearances that they've arrested him.'

'What appearances, Elspeth? Tell us about it?'

'Well, Miss Marjorie, it's just this; one of the money orders that was stolen was sent back from Edinburgh Post Office; and it was Neil who had sent it away in a letter. It's from that they make out that it was Neil who stole it.'

'Neil couldn't have done such a thing,' broke in Reggie, with signs of a storm in his voice.

'Does Mother know? and Father?' asked Tricksy breathlessly.

'Indeed, Miss Tricksy, the laird's away at the trial, and Mrs. Stewart too, to be with Mrs. Macdonnell, poor soul; and Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor went away this afternoon. The whole island's away, except just those whose work obliges them to stay; and it's a sore disgrace to a respectable family, whateffer.'

'That's all right then, if father's there,' said Reggie confidently. 'He knows Neil far too well to believe such a thing of him, no matter what may have happened.'

'The laird can't help him much if the case goes against him, Master Reggie. It's an awful thing that the money order should have come out of the poor lad's letter; and it looks very bad.'

'But Neil couldn't have taken it,' protested Reggie; 'no matter where the order came from, it wasn't Neil who stole it.'

'Well, anyhow,' said Tricksy, 'I'll never speak to the Sheriff again, no matter what he does, if he lets Neil be put in prison.'

'The Sheriff only has to do his duty, Miss Tricksy; and if things go against poor Neil he can't help him.'

'Well, we'll stand up for him, no matter who doesn't,' declared Allan; 'and we'll write and tell him so.'

'Of course we shall,' joined in the others.

'It's very kind of you, I'm sure,' said Elspeth, wiping her eyes; 'we must just hope for the best. And now, young ladies and gentlemen, you must have your tea and not think too much about it; and Miss Marjorie, I'm thinking I must just make you a few scones!'

Little appetite was left to the young folks for the meal; and the half-hearted clatter of knives and plates soon died away.

'We'll stand up for old Neil, no matter what happens,' was the upshot of their deliberations; and Elspeth, coming in and out, dried her tears furtively with the corner of her apron.

Later in the evening a dog-cart drove up; and Dr. and Mrs. MacGregor alighted.

Marjorie ran down into the hall, while the others all clustered about the banisters and looked down.

'Mother,' said Marjorie, with a set face, 'we know about Neil; tell us how things have gone for him to-day.'

'The case is against him, so far,' replied Mrs. MacGregor.

A groan burst from upstairs, and Marjorie set her lips tightly.

'What will be done to him?' inquired Tricksy piteously.

'Nothing yet, dear; the case is not finished. He has to go to Edinburgh to be tried; and we hope that something else may be found out before that time.'

'Shall we see him before he goes?'

'No, he will not come back before then.'

'Where is he?' demanded Allan.

'At present he is in the—in the County Jail,' faltered Mrs. MacGregor.

'Poor Neil,' burst from the children.

'He will be kindly treated,' interposed the doctor; 'and it is only until the case comes up in Edinburgh.'

The tears rolled over Tricksy's cheeks; and Marjorie turned away and looked out of the window.

'And now,' said the doctor cheerily, 'you must not take the matter tragically yet. We must hope for the best. Neil must stand his trial like a man, and it isn't often that a miscarriage of justice takes place. He will have the very best advice, your father and I will see to that; and you may depend upon it that some fresh evidence will turn up before then, which will show matters in an altogether different light. In the meanwhile you must not go about looking doleful, as though you had made up your minds already that Neil would not be able to show a good case for himself.'

It was hard to be cheerful; and the young folk clustered about in melancholy groups until the dog-cart arrived, when the Stewarts unwillingly took their leave, with many promises on both sides to communicate whatever might come to light in the meanwhile.

'Now, Duncan,' said Allan, after the dog-cart had started; 'tell us what has happened?'

'Indeed, Master Allan; it iss ahl ferry unlucky indeed; and it iss ferry sorry I will be for puir Neil and for Mrs. Macdonnell. You will be knowing the night before the robbery wass committed Neil will have been spending the evening with the MacAlisters. He wass expecting a letter; and it will be a stormy evening and the mail steamer will not be coming in till ferry late so that the letters wass not sent away that night, but Neil wass allowed to look among them for his own. There wass a registered letter for the laird; and it come out in the evidence that Neil would see it, and that no one else but only Mr. and Mrs. MacAlister and Neil himself could have peen knowing that it wass there.'

'But what could make them think that Neil would break into the post-office and steal a letter? Neil, of all people!'

'Well then, the ferry next day Neil will pe sending away a letter, and in that letter wass one of the ferry orders that had been in the laird's letter.'

'But how do they know that it was the same order; and how can they be certain that it was Neil who sent it away. There must have been a great many orders presented in the Edinburgh Post Office that day.'

'They know that it wass the laird's order, Master Allan, because the gentleman who had sent away the orders had kept the number of them all; and they know that Neil had sent it away because the man he sent it to took it out of the envelope in ta post-office, and there wass a letter with it signed clearly in his own handwriting; "Neil Macdonnell."'

Allan sat up and pushed his cap to the back of his head.

'It's very strange,' he said; 'there must be some mistake!'

'How did poor old Neil take it, when he was arrested and all that?' asked Reggie.

'Neil wass ferry much astonished, Master Reggie, and could not pelieve it at ahl. He said the order he had sent away wass not the laird's but another one ahltogether. Afterwards he wass ferry angry; and in court he stood up as prave as a lion and said he had neffer seen the order and that he had neffer sent it away whateffer, and that it wass all lies. They will be showing him his name written on the order; and he had to own that it wass his handwriting, but he will not be knowing how it had come on the order. Then when some of the people didn't seem to pelieve him, he wass ferry angry again, wass Neil; and when the Sheriff said he wass to go and pe tried at Edinburgh he went out of the court in a terrible rage and a fury; and he said to us ahl that he would not go to Edinburgh, because if ta people here who wass his friends didn't peliefe him, they would not pe peliefing him neither in Edinburgh where they wass ahl strangers to him, and that he would be finding some way of escaping pefore he wass sent there and not be pringing disgrace upon an honest family. He will be saying a lot of foolish things, will Neil, puir lad.'

Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were in the hall when their children arrived. Tricksy flew into her mother's arms and burst into tears; Allan turned a grave, concerned face towards his parents; and Reggie looked inquiringly at his father without speaking.

'I see that you have been told about Neil,' said the laird in his kind voice. 'We had been hoping that the matter might have been cleared up without delay, and that it would be unnecessary that you should be informed of it. However, you need not despair; Neil is not the lad to have committed a dishonest action, and I am convinced that we shall find some evidence that will clear him.'

'And now,' said Mrs. Stewart, 'you must all go to bed, Allan as well as the others. It is late, and Tricksy is quite exhausted. Sleep well; you don't know what news may come in the morning! Something may be found out by that time.'

'I am sure,' said Tricksy still tearfully to Reggie as he said good-night to her in her little bed; 'I don't know what I should do if I hadn't a mother! It's great fun running about with you and the others, and staying out-of-doors for whole days at a time; but when we get hurt or sorry, it's Mummie that we want!'

Little sleep came to the boys that night. Each turned and tossed uneasily upon his bed, trying not to disturb the other; falling into broken dreams of being with Neil on the rocks in their own island, and awakening to a sense of the reality.

Early in the morning it became useless to keep up the pretence any longer. They rose and dressed and went out-of-doors.

By the garden gate two shaggy ponies were standing; and the boys were not at all surprised to see Marjorie and Hamish, who turned anxious faces towards them.

'Well,' said Marjorie, 'anything new?'

'Nothing since we saw you.'

'There hasn't been time, of course,' said Marjorie. 'We couldn't rest, so we came along to see you.'

'Let's go down to the shore,' said Allan. 'Can't talk here.'

A window was thrown open on the upper story of the house, and a little voice cried, 'Wait a minute, people! don't go away! I'm coming too.'

'Tricksy awake already!' said Marjorie; 'that child will make herself ill.'

In a few minutes a little figure emerged from the front door, and Tricksy ran towards them.

'What are you going to do?' she said. 'Is there any news?'

'Nothing at all, Tricksy,' said Marjorie; 'we were only going down to the shore to talk.'

The little girl slipped her hand confidingly into Allan's and walked beside him, trying to accommodate her steps to his long stride.

'Hullo, there's Euan Macdonnell,' said Allan. 'He was at the trial yesterday; let's ask him about it.'

The fine frank-faced young coastguard touched his cap to the girls and waited to be spoken to.

'Euan,' said Allan abruptly; speaking in Gaelic, which was always most convenient for the islanders if a conversation was likely to be long; 'we know about Neil. You were there; tell us about the trial.'

'Well, Mr. Allan, it was a very bad business, and we none of us expected it to go as it did. Poor Neil was most frightfully cut up about it, and no wonder, poor fellow. What he felt most was that some of the people were against him when he thought they would be quite sure to believe in his honesty, no matter what might have happened.'

'So they ought,' declared Allan. 'Any one who knows Neil in the least would know that whether he sent away that order or not, he would never have stolen it, and that there must have been a mistake.'

'Of course there must have been,' said Euan, 'and I'm glad to hear you say so, Mr. Allan.'

'Suppose things were to go wrongly,' said Marjorie; 'I mean, supposing that nothing is found out that will help to clear Neil when he comes before the Edinburgh court, what will he have to expect?'

Tricksy's eyes were growing wider, and the pink in Marjorie's cheeks became deeper.

'I am afraid the penalty for the poor lad would be two or three years in prison, Miss Marjorie. It's a serious crime, you know; house-breaking, and robbing his Majesty's mails. We can only hope it won't come to that.'

The hearers all drew a long breath, like a gasp.

'Let's go down and sit on the rocks,' said Marjorie abruptly. 'Now, Euan, tell us how you think it happened.'

'Well,' said Euan, 'the only explanation is, that that order came into Neil's possession without his knowing it.'

Allan nodded.

'You see, Miss Marjorie,' continued Euan, 'Neil made no secret of having sent off a post-office order that day. He had got one on the evening before, when he was at the MacAlisters', and he put it in the pocket of his reefer jacket. You know that new churn he got for his mother? Well, he was paying for that by instalments and this was one of the payments. The day after the robbery, he went into the post-office, got the order, put it into an envelope containing a note to say that he hoped to send the last instalment next week, and sent it away. But the order that came out of the letter was not the one that he bought at Mrs. MacAlister's that night; and the curious thing is, that he found the order that he believed he had sent away, still in his coat pocket when he went to look. At least that's the story he tells, poor lad.'

'Then,' said Allan, 'how do you account for the wrong order being in the letter?'

Euan pondered a minute, and then said, 'Mr. Allan, there's only one explanation of it, so far as I can see. Some person must have been trying to screen himself by throwing suspicion on to Neil. You say that there was more than one order in the laird's letter?'

'Yes,' replied Allan, 'and they don't seem to have heard anything about the others yet.'

'They will turn up some day, no doubt, and then the whole matter may be cleared up; but in the meanwhile there's nothing to go by to help the poor lad. Perhaps they may be traced before the case comes up in Edinburgh.

'Oh, I hope so,' cried the girls, 'and then they'll get their finger on the real culprit?'

'The person who did it must have put the order into Neil's pocket,' said Allan. 'How could they have managed it and what would make them think of Neil?'

'Well, Mr. Allan; you know how these country post-offices are kept. The letter-box is in the MacAlisters' kitchen, which is at the same time their shop, and where every one goes in and out. The box is never locked; and after the letters are sorted they often lie on the table for hours, waiting until the postman comes to take them away. Any one who was not honest could easily slip into the kitchen when Mrs. MacAlister's back was turned and do what they liked with the letters; but such a thing has never happened before. Now, whoever committed the robbery has seen that Neil was in the post-office that evening, turning over the letters; and he saw that Neil got a money order to send away. All this made him think that Neil was the one to fasten the guilt on to, so after breaking into the post-office that night he slipped into the house, unknown to Neil or his mother, and put the order where Neil was likely to take it for his own.'

Allan nodded approvingly when the coastguard paused in what was an unusually long effort for him.

There's something in that,' he said. 'But who would have done such a thing?'

'There is one man on the island who might have done it, and that man has had every opportunity.'

'Who is that?'

'Do you know a lad called Andrew MacPeters? He works for the MacAlisters sometimes.'

'I know him,' said Reggie, who had been listening but saying little. 'A red-headed man with foxy eyes.'

'The same,' said Euan. 'He is always in and out of the house; and most likely he was there that night and saw everything that went on. He has always hated Neil since he was a lad, and got a beating from Neil, who was much smaller than himself. He would only be too pleased to do him an ill turn. It shows a nasty, mean disposition that he should have taken the trouble to break open the box and throw the letters all about the shop when he only had to open it and take out what he wanted. Keep a look-out on that man, young ladies and gentlemen, if you want to find out what is at the bottom of the whole affair.'

'We will,' they all said.

'And if you could find out anything before the case comes up,' said Euan, 'you might be the means of saving the lad and his mother too; for she will be heart-broken if her son is not cleared, and that quickly.'

'We'll do all we can,' said Marjorie.

'Yes,' said Allan slowly and deliberately; 'I vote we all make up our minds not to rest until we find out who did it and get Neil cleared.'

'We will, we will,' cried all the others in a chorus.

'How are we going to manage it?' asked Tricksy, with eyes and mouth open.

The others did not reply.

'We will make a compact,' cried Marjorie, rising with sparkling eyes, 'and we'll all sign an agreement; something like this: "We hereby promise never to rest until we find out who committed the robbery and show that Neil didn't do it."'

'Yes,' said Tricksy; 'let's write it at once.'

'No pens or paper here,' said Marjorie; 'we'll write it down when we get into the house. Euan, you must join the compact too; we'll send you a copy for yourself. Each of us shall have his or her own copy to carry about wherever we go; and each copy shall be signed by every member of the compact. We'll form ourselves into a Society to prove that Neil is innocent.'

'So we shall,' said Allan; 'good idea that of yours, Marjorie.'

'That's all right,' said the youngest member of the Society; 'now, when are we going to begin?'

'You must give us time, Tricksy,' said Allan; 'it won't be so very easy;' but all the faces wore a more cheerful expression.

'There's a telegraph boy,' said Marjorie suddenly, 'do you see him?—just going in at the gates of Ardnavoir. Perhaps it's some news of Neil.'

'Run, Reggie,' said Allan, 'you are the best runner; and see whether it's anything of that kind.'

Reggie started off, and after an interval he came speeding back again.

It's something to do with Neil,' he said; 'come quickly.'



CHAPTER V

SUSPENSE

All crowded into the hall, where Mr. Stewart was standing with an open telegram in his hand.

The laird was looking very grave.

'Most unfortunate,' he said. 'Neil has done a very foolish thing. He has broken out of the County Gaol and disappeared. I regret extremely that it should have happened. It will prejudice many people against him.'

Mrs. Stewart was looking extremely concerned; and the young people crowded together in speechless dismay.

'Puir Neil,' said Duncan in the background, 'he said he would not go to Edinburgh to pring disgrace on his family whateffer.'

'He would have done far better to have gone up for his trial,' said Mr. Stewart.—'Good morning, Dr. MacGregor'—for the doctor had come in to hear the news, having been summoned from a visit in the neighbourhood—'unfortunate affair this; it's a pity Neil couldn't have been more patient.'

The doctor read the telegram and looked extremely disappointed.

'Foolish fellow!' he exclaimed. 'If the lad was innocent he should have stayed to see the thing out; he has only made things a dozen times worse for himself by doing this.'

'But, Father,' said Marjorie, 'Neil couldn't have taken the letters; they are sure to find out that he is innocent.'

The doctor was looking angry.

'He has made it far more difficult for his friends to see him through,' he declared. 'Foolish, foolish lad; I have no patience with him;' and the doctor strode out of the hall and away to his gig with a disappointed expression of countenance.

Mrs. Stewart looked kindly at the dismayed faces of the young people.

'I am sure,' she said, 'that Neil did not realise what he was doing,' and here she looked at her husband; 'he was hurt and disappointed at finding that some of the people were able to believe that he could have done such a thing, and that made him think that he might not get justice. It is a great pity, but those who have known Neil all his life would never believe him capable of dishonesty.'

'Of course not,' said the laird kindly, 'and I only regret that Neil did not wait to see the thing out, as I am convinced that some evidence would have turned up which would have {74} enabled us to prove his innocence. As it is, he remains under a cloud, and it will be a great grief to his mother.'

The young people went out, feeling very much discouraged, and wandered down to the seashore, Laddie following with drooping ears and tail. Mechanically they seated themselves upon the beach to discuss the position of affairs, but no one seemed to have anything to suggest.

'Well,' said Marjorie at last, digging holes in the sand with a sharp-pointed shell; 'what are we to do now?'

Allan pushed his cap on to the back of his head, and Reggie looked thoughtful; but they did not reply.

It was a beautiful morning, and the distant hills showed the first flush of heather where the light fell upon them. Right in front the waves were glancing like silver, and beyond the ripples the island of the Den stood out invitingly clear.

Tricksy, who had been gazing wistfully across the water, suddenly melted into tears.

'All our fun spoilt,' she said, with the big drops rolling down her face; 'what a horrid, horrid summer we are going to have, and poor Neil——

'Buck up, Tricksy,' said Allan; 'the bottom hasn't tumbled out of the Universe yet.'

Laddie, who had been looking with a concerned expression at his young friends, rose up and thrust his nose under Tricksy's hand, wagging his tail in an encouraging manner.

'Good old dog, good Laddie,' said Allan, patting the dog's rough coat; 'he is telling us that we must not give in.'

Laddie pricked up his ears, and went from one to another of the group, endeavouring to rouse them from their despondency.

'Poor Laddie, good Laddie,' said Marjorie, caressing him and feeling a lump in her throat.

'Laddie, dear, don't lick me in the face—you're knocking me over, Laddie!' cried Tricksy, as her big pet became more demonstrative.

When Laddie had been induced to sit down, which he did with the expression of a dog convinced that his endeavours had been crowned with success, Allan resumed: 'Well, we must remember that we've made a compact, and we've got to stick to it and help Neil somehow, although it looks pretty difficult at present.'

A murmur of approval went round the group.

'Yes,' said Tricksy, sitting with knitted brows; 'but we don't seem to be doing anything.'

The others were silent.

'What would you have us do, Tricksy?' inquired Allan.

'Do? I'd do something.'

'Well?'

Tricksy's face puckered again.

'I'd catch some of the people.'

'Well, Tricksy, and how?'

'I'd dig holes for them to fall into.'

Reggie uttered a contemptuous 'humph.'

'You'd dig holes for them, would you, Tricksy, said Allan; 'how could you tell whether you had caught the right one?'

'I'd catch them all until I came to the right one. I'd make them tell me what they'd been doing, and then let the wrong one go.'

No one had any reply to make.

Tricksy looked extremely mortified.

'Well, anyhow,' said Allan, springing to his feet, 'we aren't doing Neil any good by sitting here; let's go to Rob MacLean's cottage and see whether he can help us.'

Rob MacLean was Neil's second cousin, and the proposition met with approval.

The short, black-haired Highlander was working in his garden, and came forward to greet his visitors with true Gaelic courtesy.

'How do you do, young ladies and gentlemen?' he said; 'it iss ferry proud to see you that I am. Come in, and it is ferry pleased that Mistress MacLean will pe.'

In the dark, smoky hut the party were accommodated with seats, and Mrs. MacLean went to fetch milk and oat-cakes according to Highland ideas of hospitality.

'You will pe out early,' said Rob MacLean. 'Ferry fine day this, and exercise iss good for the health.'

'Yes, Mr. MacLean,' said Allan abruptly; 'we came to speak to you about Neil.'

Instantly the Highlander's countenance underwent a change.

'You hev?' he said. 'Poor Neil, it iss a ferry bad business whateffer; a ferry bad business for the puir lad.'

'Yes,' replied Allan, 'of course we don't believe that Neil had anything to do with robbing the post-office.'

'That iss right, Master Allan; that is right,' said the Highlander. 'No, puir lad; no one who will pe knowing him will hev been pelieving that of him; and it wass ferry hard that efferything went against him at the trial, whateffer.'

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