THE ADVENTUROUS SEVEN
* * * * * *
By BESSIE MARCHANT
THE YOUNGEST SISTER: A Tale of Manitoba. 5s.
A PRINCESS OF SERVIA: A Story of To-day. 3s. 6d.
A GIRL OF DISTINCTION: A Tale of the Karroo. 5s.
A COUNTESS FROM CANADA: A Story of Life in the Backwoods. 5s.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DOMINION: A Story of the Canadian Frontier. 5s. "Related with immense spirit."—Globe.
SISTERS OF SILVER CREEK: A Story of Western Canada. 5s. "A very attractive and brightly written story."—Daily Chronicle.
THE FERRY HOUSE GIRLS: An Australian Story. 3s. 6d. "The story is told with great realistic force and style."—British Weekly.
GRETA'S DOMAIN: A Tale of Chiloe. 3s. 6d. "Few girls but will enjoy this exciting tale."—Academy.
THREE GIRLS IN MEXICO: A Story of Life in the Interior. 3s. 6d. "The style is simple and direct, and the whole book pleasing."—Saturday Review.
A COURAGEOUS GIRL: A Story of Uruguay. 3s. 6d. "It is a most fascinating story."—Schoolmistress.
NO ORDINARY GIRL: A Story of Central America. 3s. 6d. "The conception of the story is fresh, and deserves praise."—Athenaeum.
A GIRL OF THE FORTUNATE ISLES: A Story of New Zealand. 3s. 6d.
A DAUGHTER OF THE RANGES: A Story of Western Canada. 3s. 6d.
A HEROINE OF THE SEA: A Story of Vancouver Island. 3s. 6d.
THREE GIRLS ON A RANCH: A Story of New Mexico. 2s. 6d.
THE GIRL CAPTIVES: A Story of the Indian Frontier. 2s. 6d.
THE BONDED THREE: A Story of Northern India. 2s. 6d.
HOPE'S TRYST. 2s.
LONDON: BLACKIE & SON, LTD., 50 OLD BAILEY, E.C.
* * * * * *
THE ADVENTUROUS SEVEN
Their Hazardous Undertaking
Author of "The Heroine of the Ranch" "The Loyalty of Hester Hope" "A Princess of Servia" "The Youngest Sister" &c.
Illustrated by W. R. S. Stott
Blackie and Son Limited London Glasgow and Bombay
Chap. Page I. The Great Idea 9 II. The Deputation 18 III. The Emigrants 34 IV. Rumple's Discovery 49 V. The End of the Voyage 61 VI. A Real Friend 73 VII. The One-armed Man 88 VIII. The Start 102 IX. In a Strange Place 114 X. A Fright at Night 124 XI. Anxious Hours 136 XII. Repairing the Damage 148 XIII. In Sight of Hammerville 159 XIV. The Arrival 173 XV. A Great Shock 186 XVI. The Next Thing To Be Done 196 XVII. In the Thick of It 213 XVIII. "Father, We Want You!" 225 XIX. The News 243 XX. How It All Ended 252
THE ADVENTUROUS SEVEN
The Great Idea
The village schoolroom was packed as full as it would hold, and the air was so thick that, as Sylvia said, it could almost be scooped up with a spoon. The lecturer was stout and perspiring freely, but he meant to do his duty at all costs, and he rose to the occasion with tremendous vigour, declaiming in really fine style:
"It is a poor man's paradise, and there is no place on the face of this earth to rival it. You reach it by a pleasure cruise across summer seas, to find it has the finest scenery your eyes have ever beheld and a climate that is not to be beaten."
"Hear, hear!" shouted Rumple, clapping vigorously. He had led the applause from the very beginning of the lecture, only it was a little awkward for the lecturer that he mostly broke into the middle of a sentence instead of waiting for a pause, as a more judicious person might have done.
"Encore!" yelled Billykins, forgetting for the moment that it was not a concert, and, as the lecture had already lasted for upwards of an hour and a half, it might have proved a little tedious to some of the audience if it had been repeated from the very beginning.
The rows of people sitting in the seats behind broke into a wild uproar of stamping, thumping, and clapping which lasted for nearly five minutes, and, of course, raised more dust to thicken the atmosphere.
The pause gave the lecturer time to recover his breath and wipe some of the perspiration from his face; it also made him rather cross, for he had somehow got the idea that he was being laughed at, which was quite wrong, because all seven of the Plumsteads, from Nealie down to Ducky, thought that he was doing very well indeed.
"If you don't believe what I say," concluded the lecturer, "just come out to New South Wales and see for yourselves if I have not told you the plain, unvarnished truth; and I repeat what I have said before, that although it is no place for the idle rich, for the man or the woman who wants to work it is not to be beaten."
It was at this moment that Nealie leaned forward to whisper to Rupert, who sat on the other side of Don and Billykins:
"Would it not be lovely for us all to go? Just think how we could help dear Father, and he would not be lonely any more."
"Rather!" ejaculated Rupert, making a noise which was first cousin to a whistle; then he passed the whisper on to Sylvia and Rumple, and that was how the great idea started.
When the lecture was over they all crowded forward to speak to the lecturer, explaining in a rather incoherent fashion the reason of their keen interest in what he had been saying, and their hard and fast intention to emigrate as soon as possible.
"Our father lives in New South Wales; but most likely you have met him," said Nealie, whose knowledge of Australian geography was rather vague, and who supposed that, as the lecturer came from Sydney, he would most probably know everyone who lived in the country known as New South Wales.
"I can't remember him offhand, young lady, but perhaps if you tell me his name I may recollect whether I have met him," said the lecturer, smiling at her in a genial fashion.
"He is Dr. Plumstead, and he is very clever," said Nealie, giving her head the proud little tilt which it always took on when she spoke of her father. She was very much of a child, despite her nineteen years, and she never seemed able to understand that her father was not at the top of his profession.
"Father is very much like Rumple, only, of course, bigger," broke in Billykins, who could never be reduced to silence for many minutes together nor yet be thrust into the background.
But Rumple blushed furiously at being dragged into notice in such a way, and, turning his head abruptly, gave the lecturer no chance of comparing his face with those of possible acquaintances on the other side of the world.
"Most likely I have met him. I see so many people, far too many to be able to recall their names at will," said the lecturer; but then the vicar came up to claim his attention and the seven could get no further chance to talk to him.
They set off home then; and as it was so dark, and a drizzling rain was falling, Nealie took Ducky on her back, while Sylvia and Rumple helped Rupert, who was lame, leaving Don and Billykins to bring up the rear.
The nearest way was down through Boughlee Wood, but this route was not to be thought of in the dark. It was not even wise to take the short cut across Kennel Hill, so they tramped along the hard road, splashing through the puddles and talking like a set of magpies about the lecture, the lecturer, and their own determination to emigrate at once.
"No one wants us here, and there is nothing to do except get into mischief," said Sylvia, with a sigh.
"Father will be glad to have us, of course, and we will make him so very happy!" cried Nealie, and then Ducky leaned forward to kiss her on the nose, hugging her so tightly that it was quite wonderful she was not choked.
"But how are we to get to Australia?" panted Rupert, who was finding the pace rather trying.
"We must ask Mr. Runciman to let us have the money," said Nealie. "I should think that he would be glad to do it, for then he will get rid of us, don't you see? And he is always grumbling about our being such a dreadful expense."
"Mr. Runciman is horrid!" burst out Ducky, giving Nealie another hug. "I just hate him when he says nasty things to you, Nealie."
"Of course we are an expense to him, especially when dear Father is not able to send enough money to keep us, and we have all got such big appetites," said Nealie, with a sigh.
"I am hungry now, dreadfully hungry," put in Billykins from the rear.
"Shall we go to see Mr. Runciman to-morrow?" asked Rumple.
"We can't manage to get back before dark, I am afraid, and Mrs. Puffin makes such a fuss if we are out after dark; just as if anyone would want to run away with the seven of us," returned Nealie in a scornful tone.
"We can go in the morning, for the vicar is going to a Diocesan Conference, and he has given us a holiday. He told me about it to-night," said Rupert.
"That will be lovely. Then we will have Aunt Judith's chair for you and Ducky, it will be just a jolly jaunt for us; only we must be at The Paddock early, to catch Mr. Runciman before he goes out," said Nealie.
"I would rather walk——" began Ducky, with a touch of petulance in her voice, but Nealie stopped her quickly with a whisper:
"You must ride, darling, or Rupert won't have the chair, and a long walk does take it out of him so badly you know."
"If we have the chair, Don and I will be the horses, and we will go down Coombe Lane at a gallop," said Billykins, with a festive prance.
"That will be perfectly lovely, only Rupert will have to hold me tightly or I shall be tossed out at the turn, and I might damage my nose again," replied Ducky, with a gleeful chuckle.
By this time they had reached Beechleigh, and turning short across the green by the pond they tramped in at the gate of the funny little house where their great-aunt, Miss Judith Webber, had lived and died, and which was the only home they had known since Ducky was a tiny babe.
Mrs. Puffin, a lean little widow of mouldy aspect, opened the door to let them in and exclaimed loudly to see how damp they were.
"Now you will all be catching colds, and I shall have to nurse you," she said in a woebegone tone, as she felt them all round. "If you must go out in the wet in this fashion, why can't you take umbrellas?"
"Because we haven't got them," answered Nealie, with a laugh. She mostly laughed about their limitations, because it made them just a little easier to bear. "The little boys had the last umbrella that we possess to play at Bedouin tents with on Tuesday, and they had a sad accident and broke three of its ribs, poor thing. But we shall not catch cold, Mrs. Puffin, because we are all going straight to bed."
"But I am hungry," protested Billykins.
"I know, and so am I; but we will all have a big piece of seed cake when we get into bed, and go to sleep to dream of big bowls of steaming porridge with brown sugar on the top," said Nealie; and the vision proved so alluring that all seven trooped up the dark stairs and crowded into the small bedrooms, feeling quite cheerful in spite of tired limbs, hunger, and the discomfort of damp clothes.
But their voices hushed, and a wistful look crept into their faces, as they passed the door leading into Aunt Judith's empty bedroom. The old lady had loved them so dearly, and they had given her love for love in unstinted measure, so that now she was dead there was an awful blank in their hearts and their lives.
Being very tired and very healthy, however, they went to sleep directly they tumbled into bed; indeed Ducky could not keep awake long enough to eat her cake, so Nealie laid it on the chair by the little girl's bed for her to find when she opened her eyes in the morning.
Sleep was longer in coming to Nealie than to the others. She was older than they were, and had been mother to them so long that she was apt to be thinking out ways and means when she ought to have been asleep.
It would be too utterly delightful to go out to Australia and live with her father. It was nearly seven years since she had seen him, and her heart was always aching at the thought of his lonely exile.
If only Mr. Runciman would consent to their going! But would he?
"Well, it is of no use to worry and to wonder; we must just wait and see. But I think when all seven of us go marching into that splendid library of his at The Paddock, he will be so dismayed to see what a lot of us there are, that he will be quite ready to take the very shortest way of getting rid of the bother of looking after us," she said to herself, with a soft little laugh which rippled through the dark room and even made itself heard in the other room across the passage where the four boys were sleeping; and Rupert, who had been having bad dreams because his lame foot was hurting rather badly, smiled in his uneasy slumber and straightway drifted off into a more profound repose, from which he did not wake until the misty September dawning crept over the wide plantations of beech and larch for which Beechleigh was famous.
It was well for Nealie Plumstead that she could mostly laugh in spite of troubles, for her life had been shadowed by a great disaster which had brought in its turn a battalion of cares, worries, and responsibilities.
Until she was almost twelve years old life had been one unbroken happiness. She had been at the head of an ever-increasing nursery, and she had governed her small kingdom to the very best of her ability. Then had come a cloud of black trouble, the exact nature of which she did not understand even now, only vaguely she had gathered that it was something professional.
Then Ducky, whose name was Hilda Grace, had been born, and the dear mother had sunk out of life, leaving a distracted husband and seven children to mourn their loss.
Following this came the long journey from the busy manufacturing town, where they had always lived, to Beechleigh and the home of Miss Judith Webber. Dr. Plumstead had come with them to see them safely settled, but on the day that Ducky was one month old, he had kissed them all round, in a heartbreaking goodbye, and had set off on the voyage to Australia.
Sometimes he used to write to Aunt Judith and send her money for the children's keep, when he had any to send; but he almost never wrote to his children, although they simply pelted him with letters of the most affectionate description.
Two years ago, however, a great weakness had fallen upon Aunt Judith; she could write no letters nor do any business at all, and another nephew of hers, a Mr. Runciman, undertook the administration of her affairs.
The seven hated him in a hearty, downright fashion, for he always made himself as disagreeable as possible to them, and certainly seemed to resent their existence.
It was soon after Aunt Judith had been taken ill that a letter coming from Australia, directed to Miss Webber, had been opened by Nealie in all good faith, for she never supposed that her father would write anything to her aunt that she might not read; but to her dismay she learned that the numerous letters of the children, instead of bringing pleasure to the heart of the exile, gave him so much pain that he begged Miss Webber not to let them write to him, because it reminded him too sadly of all that he had lost in the past, and was missing in the present. It was such a sad, dreadful sort of letter that Nealie had cried herself nearly blind over it, and then had gathered the others for a solemn council. The elders had no secrets from the younger ones, so Billykins and Ducky had as much to say on the subject as their seniors; and in the end it was resolved that Nealie and Rupert should write a letter to their father and tell him that they would worry him with no more letters until he expressed a desire to have them.
A year and a half had passed since that time, but although the children watched for the mails with pathetic eagerness, there had come no letter from their father for them. He did not write to Aunt Judith either, after he had been told how ill she was; but he wrote to Mr. Runciman sometimes, they knew, because Mr. Runciman had spoken of having letters from him.
This long silence would have made them very miserable, if it had not been that they were so sorry for him that it never occurred to them to be sorry for themselves. They had each other, but he was alone, and so, of course, he was to be pitied.
Inspired by the great idea, the seven woke in riotous spirits next morning, which not even the near prospect of an interview with Mr. Runciman could daunt, although he was quite sufficiently formidable at close quarters to make any ordinary person afraid.
Rupert and Rumple cleaned the boots, while Nealie and Sylvia got breakfast ready, the three juniors having to make themselves useful in any direction where help was most needed.
They had all learned to wait on themselves during the long illness of Aunt Judith, for Mrs. Puffin had her hands full with nursing, while since the death of the old lady she had been in such poor health that Nealie and Sylvia had done all the cooking and most of the housework, with a great deal of help from the others.
Breakfast consisted of big plates of porridge and slices of home-made bread spread with damson jam. There were two trees in Aunt Judith's small garden, and they had borne a record crop this year.
There was no lingering over their food this morning, but directly the meal was dispatched the boys washed up the breakfast crockery, while the girls made the beds and put the rooms tidy. Then Nealie asked Mrs. Puffin to make them a suet pudding and bake them some potatoes for dinner, after which they brushed themselves into a fine state of neatness, and then, bringing the bath chair from the shed, Rupert and Ducky were packed into it and the expedition set out on the five miles' journey to The Paddock, Smethwick, where Mr. Runciman lived.
It was still quite early, and Mr. Runciman, having dealt with the morning's letters, was sitting in his library looking through the daily paper before going out to interview his steward and settling the other business of the day, when the butler entered the room and announced:
"The seven Misses and Masters Plumstead to see you, sir."
"Goodness gracious, what next?" exclaimed Mr. Runciman in a tone of positive alarm.
"Shall I show them in, if you please, sir?" asked the butler in a sympathetic fashion, looking as if he really felt sorry for the perturbed gentleman.
"All seven of them? Yes, I suppose you must, and see here, Roberts, just ask the housekeeper to have some cakes and cocoa, or something of that kind, ready for them to have before they go back to Beechleigh, for I suppose that they are walking?"
"Yes, sir; that is to say, some of them are, but the lame young gentleman and the little girl rode down in a bath chair," replied the butler, and then permitted himself a grin of pure amusement as he retired from the room to usher in the visitors, for the harassed master of the house fairly groaned at the thought of having callers arrive in such a fashion.
"The Misses and Masters Plumstead," announced the butler, throwing open the door with the grand flourish which was worth at least ten pounds a year to him in salary.
Nealie and Ducky entered first, followed by Rupert, walking alone, then came Sylvia and Rumple, while Don and Billykins brought up the rear.
Mr. Runciman rose at once and came forward to greet them, trying very hard to infuse as much cordiality as possible into his manner.
"My dear children, what an unexpected pleasure! Why, Cornelia, you are positively blooming, and my little friend Hilda is as charming as always. Ah, Rupert, my boy, how goes the Latin? Nothing like the dead languages for training the mind. Sylvia, you grow so fast that there is no keeping up with you. Dalrymple, you will have to use the dumb-bells more or you will positively have Donald and William beat you in the matter of height."
It was one of Mr. Runciman's vices in the eyes of the seven that he would always give them the full benefit of their baptismal names, although he knew, because they had told him so, that they simply hated the formal mode of address, which no one used except himself. It always had the effect of making them stiff and self-conscious; so now Rupert limped more than usual, Sylvia dropped her gloves, which she was carrying because they had too many holes to be wearable, and Rumple lurched against a pile of books that lay at the edge of the table and brought the whole lot to the floor with a crash.
"Sorry," murmured Rumple, diving hastily to recover the volumes, and promptly knocking his head against that of Billykins, who was also grovelling for the same purpose, while Nealie plunged into the business of their visit, hoping to divert the attention of the master of the house from the awkwardness of the boys, poor things; but Sylvia giggled in quite a disgraceful fashion, then blinked hard at a bust of Apollo which stood on a bookshelf opposite, and tried to look as if she were appreciating the admirable way in which it was sculptured.
"We have come down to see you to-day to ask you if you will please send us out to New South Wales to our father," said Nealie, holding her head at an extremely haughty angle, just because she was so very nervous.
"Good gracious! I wonder what you will want next?" gasped Mr. Runciman, who had probably not been so much astonished for a very long time.
"It would really be taking a great load of worry from you, sir," put in Rupert eagerly, thrusting himself abreast of Nealie and leaning on his stick while he talked. "A large family, as we are, would be a valuable asset in a new country, while here we are only an encumbrance and a nuisance. Besides, we should like to be with our father."
"Quite so, quite so; but think of the expense!" murmured Mr. Runciman, as he rubbed his hands together in a nervous manner. He said the first thing which came into his head for the sake of gaining time. The proposition was sufficiently staggering, but on the other hand it might be worth consideration.
"I am afraid that we must be a heavy expense to you now, sir, seeing that we have to be fed and clothed," replied Rupert, with a deference that was really soothing to Mr. Runciman, who smiled graciously and waved his hand as much as to say that the matter was too trifling to be considered.
"You will let us go, won't you, air, because we want to build the Empire?" burst out Billykins, thrusting himself in between his elders and looking so flushed and excited that Mr. Runciman, who had no son of his own, could not be so repressive as he felt he ought to have been.
"Eh, what? And how do you expect you are going to set about it, young man?" he demanded, while Billykins went suddenly red in the face, because Sylvia had tweaked his jacket, which was the signal that he was overstepping the mark.
"I don't know, but I expect we will find out when we get there. Don and I mostly find out how to do things, and Nealie says we are going to be the business men of the family. Rupert and Rumple have got the brains, but there is practical perseverance in us——"
The small boy came to a sudden pause, for Sylvia, fearing what he might say next, had dragged him into the background, leaving Nealie to speak.
"We should be very glad to go to Australia, if you please; for now that Aunt Judith is dead no one wants us here, and we might be a very great comfort to our father when he got used to having us." Her voice broke a little on the last words; she was remembering the letter which she had so innocently opened and read, and the wonder whether he would be quite glad to see them at first crept in to spoil her joy at the thought that perhaps Mr. Runciman was for once going to do the thing they wanted so badly.
Her words brought a frown to his face, and when he spoke his voice had an apologetic ring which sounded strangely in the ears of the seven.
"I am sorry that you should feel that no one wants you here. Of course Mrs. Runciman and my daughters have so many engagements that it is not easy for them to go as far as Beechleigh very often; but we have certainly tried to take care of you since your great-aunt passed away."
"You have been most kind," said Nealie hastily, divining in a vague fashion that she had somehow said something to hurt his feelings, which was certainly outside her intentions. "But we hate to be a continual burden upon our connections, and there seems no way in which we can earn money here."
"Don and I could keep pigs on the stubble fields, only Nealie won't let us. We could earn half a crown a week at it too," burst out Billykins, thrusting himself to the front like a jack-in-the-box and disappearing as suddenly, being again dragged back by Sylvia.
There was a troubled look on the face of Mr. Runciman as his gaze rested upon Nealie, who was the living image of her dead mother. There was a secret chamber in his heart that was tenanted by the mournful memory of a dead love. He had loved the mother of the seven, but she had passed him by to marry Dr. Plumstead, and so the secret chamber had held nothing but a shrine ever since, only it made him a little kinder to the motherless children than he otherwise might have been.
"It would be a tremendous expense to send you all such a long distance," he said, still speaking for the sake of gaining time, yet disposed to regard the proposal as a really practical way in which to solve the problem of their future.
"It could be done for about seventy pounds, I think, if we went steerage; and it is quite comfortable for people who do not mind roughing it, and as we have not been used to any sort of luxury, of course we shall not miss it," said Sylvia.
"I could not allow you to go as steerage passengers," replied Mr. Runciman.
"We would much rather go as steerage passengers than not go at all," murmured Nealie.
"I will think about it and let you know," he said, but with so much giving way in his tone that they burst into a chorus of imploring.
"Please, please decide now and write to tell Father that we are coming. We are quite ready to start by the next boat, and it is so lonely living at Beechleigh now that Aunt Judith is dead," pleaded Nealie, silencing the others with a wave of her hand.
If one of the others had spoken then, Mr. Runciman would certainly have refused, but because of her likeness to the dead he had to give way. He reflected, too, that if he wrote the letter now it would be impossible for him to draw back from his word, however angry his wife might be when she heard what he had done.
"Very well, I will write to your father to-night," he said.
"Do not leave it until this evening; you might forget; there are so many other things for you to remember," said Nealie softly. "If you will write the letter now we will post it as we go through Braybrook Lees; then it will be just in time for the outgoing mail. Tell dear Father that we are coming by the next boat. We will be ready somehow."
"Yes, please, please, dear Mr. Runciman, write now," said Sylvia, leaning forward in her most engaging manner, while even Ducky smiled upon him, clasping her hands entreatingly, just as Sylvia and Nealie were doing.
"Very well; but it will have to be a short letter, for the cart is coming round in twenty minutes to take me over to Aldington," he said, giving way before their entreaties and pulling out his watch to see what the time was; and then he touched the bell at his side, saying to Nealie, as Roberts appeared in answer to the summons: "My dear, if you and the others will go into the housekeeper's room for a little refreshment I will get the letter written, and you shall have it to take with you; then I will write to London about your passage to-night."
"Oh, you are a dear, a most kind dear!" burst out Sylvia, flinging her arms round his neck and kissing him on the cheek—a liberty she had never in her life ventured upon before, and which considerably shocked Nealie, who was afraid it would make him angry, and was agreeably surprised to find that he only seemed to be startled by it.
Then they all trooped off to the housekeeper's room, where they made a tremendous onslaught upon a big and very plummy cake; and they were still drinking cups of steaming cocoa when Roberts appeared again, this time bringing a letter on a silver salver, which he handed to Nealie with a grave bow, saying that Mr. Runciman wished her to read it and then to post it, and he would ride over to Beechleigh on the day after to-morrow to tell them what arrangements he had been able to make for their journey.
"It is jolly decent of him!" muttered Rupert, who had looked over Nealie's shoulder while she read the letter.
"Oh, he is not half bad at the bottom, I should say!" remarked Rumple, who was wondering if Mr. Runciman would feel flattered if he were to make a short poem about this most gracious concession to their wishes. The worst of it was that Mr. Runciman did not exactly lend himself to poetry, that is, he was by no means an inspiring subject.
The housekeeper looked on in smiling amusement at their frank criticism of the master of the house; but she was a kindly soul, and it was only human to feel sorry for these poor young people, whom no one seemed to want, now that old Miss Webber was dead. There had been a good deal of wondering comment in the servants' hall and the housekeeper's room at The Paddock as to what would be done with the family. Everyone was quite sure that Mrs. Runciman would never consent to receive them, even temporarily, and it was because of her refusal to in any way recognize their claim upon her kindness that they had been left for Mrs. Puffin to look after since the death of their great-aunt.
When they could eat no more cake they bade a cordial goodbye to the housekeeper, shook hands all round with the dignified Roberts, and then trooped off in the highest spirits, talking eagerly of the voyage and the wonderful things they would do when they reached the other side of the world.
"It is almost too good to be true!" cried Sylvia, dancing along on the tips of her toes. "Race me to the gate, Rumple, so that I may get some of this excitement out of my brain, for I am sure that it can't be good for me, and it will never do to fall ill at this juncture."
"I can't run; I'm thinking," replied Rumple, with a heavy frown. He was finding difficulties at the very outset in his poem, because of the seeming impossibility of finding any word which would rhyme with Runciman.
"We will race you," shouted Don and Billykins together, and, dropping the handle of the bath chair, they set off at full tear, while Sylvia came helter-skelter after them, her long legs helping not a little in overhauling the small boys, who had a distinct advantage by getting away so smartly at the first.
Rupert and Ducky clapped, cheered, and shouted encouragements to all the competitors, while Nealie and Rumple hurried the chair along so that they might view the finish from a distance; and they all were too much engrossed to notice a discontented lady who was approaching the drive from a side alley, and who was not a little scandalized at the noise and commotion caused by the seven in their departure.
The lady was Mrs. Runciman, and she walked on to the house, feeling very much annoyed, her thin lips screwed into a disagreeable pucker and her eyes flashing angrily.
"I thought that I told you I did not care to have those Plumstead children hanging about the place," she remarked in an acid tone to her husband, whom she met in the hall as she entered by the big front door.
"You will not see them here many more times. I am sending them out to their father," he answered briefly, adding hastily: "I think that the money Aunt Judith left behind her to be used for their benefit will about cover the expense, and it will mean the solving of a good many problems."
"I hope it will," she said as she turned away.
It had never occurred to her to look upon the seven in any other light than that of a burden to be ignored, or got rid of as speedily as possible. And because she did not like them, the children, as a matter of course, did not like her.
They did not particularly care for Mr. Runciman, but he at least always treated them properly, and they guessed that he would have been kinder still if only Mrs. Runciman had permitted it.
But when he went back to his library, and with pencil and paper began to estimate the probable cost of sending the seven to New South Wales, he soon found that the little fund left by Aunt Judith would need a lot of supplementing.
"Ah, well, something must be done for the poor things, and if that is what they want, they shall have it," he muttered, as he shook his head in a thoughtful fashion.
"Oh, Nealie, it is a most beautiful ship, and bigger than Bodstead Church!" cried Ducky, rushing up to her eldest sister and flinging herself into the arms held out to her. She and Sylvia had rushed below to find their berths, while Nealie was still standing on deck by the side of Mr. Runciman, who had himself escorted them to London to see them safely on board the big liner which was to take them to Sydney.
Events had marched so fast in the last fortnight that sometimes Nealie had wondered if she were really dreaming. For the first time in her life she was realizing what a lot of things money can do. Mr. Runciman had told her that Aunt Judith had left a little money to be used for the benefit of the seven. He had not told her how much it was, but had merely said it would be enough to cover the cost of their journey, and so they could start as soon as they pleased. And because of the fear there was in her heart lest her father should send word they were not to come, she had declared that she was ready to set off as soon as berths could be secured for them.
Perhaps Mr. Runciman was also afraid that Dr. Plumstead would cable that they were not to come, for he certainly spared neither time nor money to facilitate their going, using so much energy in the preparations that his servants were about equally divided in calling him hard names for his eagerness to rid himself of a heavy burden and in praising his generosity in making the way so easy for the seven to go to their father.
Just at the last it had been quite hard to say goodbye to the old home at Beechleigh and all the people they had known there. So standing on the deck of the ocean-going liner Nealie was thankful that it was all over, and that at last she was free from the necessity to say any more goodbyes. Any more save one, that is, for there was still the farewell to Mr. Runciman to be faced, and she was dreading this with a very real shrinking as she stood so quietly by his side, while the others ran up and down exploring their new quarters and exclaiming in delight at the bustle and novelty all around them.
"Now mind, Cornelia, if when you land at Sydney you find that you have not sufficient money, you must not hesitate to cable to me, and I shall be most willing to cable you back what you may require," said Mr. Runciman impressively, and because of the kindness in his tone Nealie forgave him calling her Cornelia.
"Thank you very much, but I am sure that we ought not to need any more, and I will be very, very careful not to waste our funds," she said, smiling up at him, but her lips quivered a little in spite of her determination to maintain a Spartan-like control of her emotions.
"Money melts when you are travelling, and you are all such babies in the matter of finance. Let me see what I have in my pocket," he said, thrusting his hand in and tugging out a bulky purse from some mysterious inner depths. "Three, five, seven, ten. Yes, I can let you have ten pounds. Put it in your pocket and say nothing about it. If you do not need it for your journey you can keep it as a little gift from me and spend it for your own pleasure."
"You are so very kind, I cannot think what we should have done without you in getting away; you seem to have forgotten nothing, and I am sure that Father will be most grateful to you," she said, looking at him with so much trust and affection in her eyes that his conscience pricked him dreadfully for what he knew to be his selfish eagerness to shift a heavy burden on to the shoulders of someone else.
"It is no great virtue to be kind to you, child; indeed it would be a hard heart that would be anything else," he said in a deeply moved tone; and because the bell began to ring then, in warning to people to leave the ship, he took both her hands in his, and, leaning down, kissed her on the forehead; then with a nod in the direction of the others, who at the sound of the bell had gathered round to bid him a civil goodbye, he disappeared down the gangway and was lost to view in the crowd.
"The old chappy cut up quite decent at the last. I expect it was that little poem of mine which fetched him," said Rumple, who was strutting round like a peacock in a new suit of clothes and feeling himself someone of importance.
"Hush, dear, don't call him names, I do not like it," said Nealie with gentle dignity, while she struggled with her tears.
"Are you crying over saying goodbye to Mr. Runciman?" asked Sylvia in a wondering tone. "I thought we all made up our minds ages ago that he was really an unmitigated nuisance?"
"We have had to suspend judgment a bit of late in his direction," put in Rupert, coming to the rescue, for he guessed that Nealie did not want to talk just then, not even in defence of Mr. Runciman.
"I think there is more in him than we know," said Rumple in a patronizing tone. "At any rate he had the sense to like my verses, and that shows that he is not altogether callous; he even said that it was clever of me to find such a nice rhyme for Runciman."
"How does that first line go?" asked Rupert, still intent on shielding Nealie, who had walked to the side, and, with tear-blinded eyes, was watching the gangways being lifted.
Rumple instantly struck an attitude, screwed his face into what he called an intense expression, and, waving one arm like a semaphore, declaimed in loud, clear tones:
"Oh, Runciman, dear Runciman, You've proved yourself a gentleman, Both in pocket and in sense, For your care to send us hence; And we join in three times three, May your shadow ne'er less be."
"Hip, hip, hooray!" yelled Billykins, waving his cap; then Don and Ducky cheered lustily also, and the sound of the jubilant shouting reached the ears of Mr. Runciman as he stood on the shore and watched the big ship glide slowly from the land.
Nealie went down to the cabin then, meaning to have a hearty good cry by way of relieving her feelings; but Ducky ran down with her to show her how delightfully cosy their quarters were, and there was so much to be seen and admired on every hand that, on second thoughts, Nealie decided to let the crying stand over until she went to bed, by which time she was so sleepy that she entirely forgot about it.
By the kindness of Mr. Runciman the three girls had a four-berth cabin to themselves; for, realizing how trying it would be for them to have a stranger thrust in among them, he had paid the extra so that they might be undisturbed. The four boys had also a four-berth cabin, which opened a little farther along the lower deck; so they were all quite near together, and speedily made themselves at home.
Don and Billykins made up their minds to be sailors long before they were out of the Thames, and although they changed their minds when they got a terrific tossing in the Bay of Biscay, their bearing was strictly nautical right through the voyage.
Rupert and Sylvia were the only two who did not suffer from seasickness, but, as Sylvia remarked, it was not all fun being immune, because they had such hard work in waiting upon the others. However, the end of the week found them all upon their feet again, and very much disposed to enjoy the novelty of life at sea.
Nealie and Don sang duets, to which Rupert played accompaniments on the banjo, while Ducky and Billykins led the applause, and Sylvia posed as audience, aping the languid, bored look of a fine lady at a concert with such inimitable mimicry that she came in for nearly as much applause as the proper performers from such of the other passengers as gathered round to hear.
Then Rumple would do his share towards entertaining the company by declaiming his own poetry, and he was so funny to look at when he stood on one foot, with his face screwed into puckers, and his arms waving wildly above his head, that his performance used to evoke shouts of laughter.
"I can't think what makes the silly goats guffaw at such a rate when I recite my 'Ode to a Dying Sparrow'," he said in a petulant tone to Nealie, one day when his audience had been more than usually convulsed. "It must be shocking bad form to double up in public as they did; a photograph of them would have served as an up-to-date advertisement of the latest thing in gramaphones, and when I came to that touching line, about the poor bird sighing out its last feeble chirp ere it closed its eyes and died, those two very fat women simply howled."
"Dear, they could not help it, you did look so funny, and—I don't think that dying birds sigh, at least I never heard them, and I have seen quite a lot of Mrs. Puffin's chickens die," replied Nealie, who was struggling with her own laughter at the remembrance of the comic attitude which Rumple had struck. He was a queer-looking boy at the best, and then he always went in for the most extraordinary gestures, so it was not wonderful that people found food for mirth in watching him.
"I shall not go in for pathetic poetry with an audience who cannot appreciate fine shades of feeling," he said in a disgusted fashion. "I will just get away by myself and throw a few thoughts together which may prove suitable to their intelligence."
"That would be a good idea," said Nealie in a rather choky voice, and then, when he had gone, she put her head down on her hands, laughing and laughing, until someone touched her shoulder, to ask her in kindly pity what she was crying for.
That was really the last straw, and Nealie gurgled and choked as if she were going to have a very bad fit of hysterics, which made the sympathizer—a kind-looking elderly man—still more concerned on her account.
"My dear, shall I call the stewardess, or one of your friends, to help you?" he asked, with so much anxiety on her account that Nealie was instantly sobered, and proceeded to explain the situation.
"You see, Rumple, that is my brother, always does take himself and his poetry so seriously; but the worst of it is that everyone who hears him recite his own things fancies it is the latest idea in comedy, and they laugh accordingly."
"And I have been watching you for the last five minutes, until I could no longer bear to see you, as I thought, in such trouble, and that was why I spoke to you," the gentleman said, scarcely able to make up his mind whether he was vexed with her for having so innocently deceived him, or whether he was only relieved to find himself mistaken.
"You must think us all very foolish and childish, I am afraid," Nealie murmured in apology. "But the children must have amusement, and we are always interested in what we can each do. Some of Rumple's verses are quite nice, although, of course, others are pure nonsense."
"Just so, just so; young folks must have something to amuse them, and it is very much to the credit of you all that you are so thoroughly amused by it, and I do not remember that I have ever heard you quarrel since you came on board," the gentleman said in a musing tone.
"We do not quarrel," rejoined Nealie with quite crushing dignity, for really the idea sounded almost insulting in her ears.
"Then you as a family must be the eighth wonder of the world, I should think, for I never heard of a family yet who did not have an occasional row," he said in an amused tone.
"Oh, but we are different; and besides we only have each other, and so we cannot afford to disagree," she replied earnestly.
"Are you orphans, and going to Australia alone?" he asked in great surprise.
"Oh no, we are not orphans; that is, our father is living in New South Wales, and we are going out to him, but we have not seen him for seven years. Indeed, Ducky, that is my youngest sister, may be said not to have seen him at all, as she was only four weeks old when he went away; the little boys do not remember him very well either. But Rupert, Sylvia, and I can remember him perfectly," replied Nealie.
"It is certain that he will not know you if he has not seen you for seven years," said the gentleman; and then he asked, with a great deal of interest in his tone: "and are you travelling all that distance without a chaperon of any sort?"
"I have my brothers, and I do not need anyone else," she answered, looking up at him in surprise at his question. "I have always had to take care of myself, for our great-aunt, with whom we lived, was very old and feeble; for two years before she died she did not leave her room, so it would not have done for me to require taking care of, seeing that it was not possible for anyone to spare time to look after me."
"I think that you must be a very remarkable young lady, for I thought that all girls required someone to take care of them, unless they were colonials that is, and you are not that," he said, in the manner of one who seeks information.
"No, we are only going to be," she said, with a happy little laugh, for it was fine to have achieved one's heart's desire with so little delay in the getting, and she was setting her face towards the new and untried life with radiant happiness in her heart.
"I am going to Cape Town, so I shall have to say goodbye to you when your voyage is only half done, although it would have been a great pleasure to me to have seen you safely ashore and in the care of your father. Does he meet you in Sydney?" asked the gentleman, when he had told Nealie that his name was Melrose, and that he was at the bottom as English as she was herself.
"I don't know; I suppose he will, for Mr. Runciman would have written to tell him the name of the ship we were coming by," said Nealie; but now there was a dubious note in her tone, for she was trying to remember whether Mr. Runciman had said anything about having written to her father. She had thought of writing herself, but had refrained from doing it because of the feeling of hurt pride which was still strong upon her, as it had been ever since she read the letter which was not meant for her.
"What will you do if he does not?" asked Mr. Melrose.
"Oh, we shall find our way out to Hammerville! That is the name of the place where he lives. There are seven of us, you see; it is not as if we were just one or two," she answered brightly.
"Hammerville? I wonder whether that is the Hammerville in the Murrumbidgee district, where Tom Fletcher went to live?" said Mr. Melrose in a musing fashion. "They have a little way of repeating names in these colonial places which is rather distracting. But Fletcher told me that the Hammerville to which he went was nearly three hundred miles from Sydney."
"I suppose there is a railway?" queried Nealie, knitting her brows, and wondering how they were all to be transported for three hundred miles across an unknown country, in the event of there being no railway by which they could travel.
"I suppose the rail would go a point nearer than three hundred miles, unless indeed the place is quite at the back of beyond, as some of those Australian towns are," replied Mr. Melrose. "But Fletcher told me that he hired a horse and wagon and drove the whole distance, sleeping in the wagon at night to save hotel charges."
"Oh, what a perfectly charming thing to do!" cried Sylvia, who had come up behind and was leaning over the back of Nealie's chair. "If Father is not waiting to meet us when we reach Sydney, shall we hire a horse and a wagon and drive out to Hammerville, Nealie?"
"It would be very jolly," said Nealie, with shining eyes. "I have always longed to go caravanning, but I expect the difficulty would be to find anyone willing to hire a horse and wagon to entire strangers like ourselves; and if Hammerville is so far from Sydney, Father would hardly be known so far away, even though he is a doctor."
"Did you say your father is a doctor?" asked Mr. Melrose, who was very much interested in this adventurous family, who seemed so well able to take care of themselves, and were roaming about the world without even the pretence of a guardian to look after them.
"Yes; he is Dr. Plumstead. Have you heard of him?" asked Sylvia, with the happy belief in her father's greatness which was characteristic of them all.
"I used to know a Dr. Plumstead some years ago, but I do not expect it was the same," said Mr. Melrose, looking as if he were going to say something more, and then suddenly changing his mind.
It was some days later, and they were nearing Cape Town, which was the halfway house of their journey, when Mr. Melrose, who had been keeping his cabin from illness, appeared again on deck, and, seeking Nealie out, laid an addressed envelope in her hand.
"It is the privilege of friends to help each other," he said quietly. "I know a man in Sydney who lets horses and wagons on hire, and I have ventured to give you a letter to him from myself, so that you may have no difficulty in hiring a conveyance for the journey to Hammerville if your father does not meet you."
"How very kind you are!" exclaimed Nealie.
He waved an impatient hand. "It is nothing, nothing. I may even be coming to New South Wales next year, if only my health is better, and then I shall do myself the pleasure of finding you out and renewing our acquaintance," he said.
"That will be very pleasant," replied Nealie, her hand closing upon the letter. "Then we can introduce you to Father, and tell him how kind you have been to us."
"We shall see; but I fancy the indebtedness is on my side," he answered, and then he turned abruptly away.
Nealie looked at him a little wistfully. He was so very friendly and kind up to a certain point; but when that was reached he was in the habit of retiring into himself, and she was left out in the cold.
"What is the matter, old girl?" asked Rupert, who came up at that moment, and noticed the cloud on Nealie's face.
"I was only thinking how much nicer it would be if we could know what was in the minds of people, and whether they were really friendly all through, or only pretending," she answered, with a sigh.
"Rather a tall order that would be," said Rupert, laughing. "Why, all the rogues would stand betrayed, and honest folk would get the credit of their good intentions. The world would be turned upside down in short!"
"I suppose it would," replied Nealie, shaking her head, and then she laughed too.
Day after day of unbroken fine weather followed. There was the halt of twelve hours at Cape Town, and the seven earnestly desired to be allowed to go ashore. But the captain refused to allow them off the vessel, as they had been placed in his charge by Mr. Runciman, and so they had to content themselves with gazing at Table Mountain from the deck of the ship, or rather at the tablecloth, as the brooding cloud was called, which hid the mountain from their view.
The shipping in the bay, and the distant glimpses of the town, gave them plenty to look at, however; and although the little boys and Rumple were in a state of simmering rebellion against the dictates of the kindly but rather autocratic commander, Rupert and Nealie were so well amused that they had no room for grumbling, while Sylvia had taken to drawing as a pastime, and spent the hours in making an ambitious sketch of the scene. It was a little out in drawing, naturally as she had had no lessons, and it was difficult to determine whether the ships were sailing up Table Mountain, or the houses taking short voyages across the bay; but she was so thoroughly happy and satisfied with her performance that it would have been almost cruel to have found any fault with it; and, as Rupert said, there was the fun of finding out whether any particular object stood for a ship, a warehouse, or a clump of trees, the fun being increased when the artist herself was not sure on the subject.
When they were a week out from Cape Town the weather changed and became wet and stormy. The rolling was dreadful, and great was the groaning and the lamentation when they were not allowed on deck for three whole days in succession.
The fourth day broke without wind, although the sea was still very rough. But, having gained permission to go on deck, the three younger boys were out, steadying themselves by anything which came handy, and vastly enjoying the fun of seeing other people lurching about in all sorts of funny antics, all involuntary ones of course.
Then suddenly something happened which might easily have been a tragedy. Rumple and Billykins were rounding the curve of one of the lower decks, when a heavy sea struck the vessel as she pitched nose first down into a deep valley of foam, and a stout old lady, who had been rashly trying to ascend the stairs to the upper deck, was hit by the shower of spray and knocked off the stairs. She must have fallen with great violence, and would probably have been very badly hurt, had it not been for Rumple, who ran in to her, as if she had been an extra big cricket ball which he was trying to catch. Of course she descended upon him with an awful smash, and nearly knocked the wind out of him, and equally of course they both rolled over together, and were drenched by the showers of spray. But he had broken her fall, and although she was badly shaken there were no limbs broken, as there must have been had she fallen with full force on to the slippery boards. A steward who was passing ran to pick up the old lady, while a passenger sorted Rumple out from under the old lady's skirts, and, draining some of the water out of him, held him up so that the air might revive him.
Meanwhile Billykins, who had been a horrified spectator of his brother's rash heroism, and had remained speechless until Rumple was picked up, burst into the very noisiest crying of which he was capable, and, standing with his legs very wide apart and his mouth as far open as it would go, howled his very loudest, the sound of his woe speedily bringing a crowd to see what was the matter.
"I don't think that he is very much the worse for his fall, only a little bit dazed by having the old lady come flop down upon him; but if he had not been there to break her fall, it is quite likely that she would have broken her neck," said the gentleman who had picked Rumple up, as he handed him over to the care of Nealie.
"Poor, poor boy, how frightened he must have been when she fell upon him!" cried Nealie, who thought that the whole affair was an accident, and had no idea of Rumple's bravery.
Then Billykins promptly stopped howling to explain, which he did in jerks, being rather breathless from his vocal efforts.
"Rumple saw her fall, and rushed in to save her. It was just splendid heroism—the sort that gets the Victoria Cross; but so dreadful hopeless you see, because she was so big, and she came down flop on the top of him, and he was just—just extinguished, you know, like the candle flame when we used to put the tin extinguishers on them when we lived at Beechleigh."
"I'll be all right in a minute, only my wind is gone," gasped Rumple, who looked rather flattened, and was not at all pleased to find himself momentarily famous.
The old lady's daughter, a thin, angular person with a long nose, rushed up at this juncture, and, seizing upon Rumple, hugged and kissed him in the presence of everyone, declaring that she would always love him for having saved her dear mother's life in such a noble fashion.
"I am wet through, Nealie; help me to get into dry clothes," panted Rumple, struggling to escape from this unexpected and wholly unwelcome embrace.
Nealie rose to the occasion, and swept him off to their own quarters, where Rupert met them and undertook the task of getting him rubbed down and into dry clothes as quickly as possible, while Nealie went back to the deck for news of the old lady.
Everyone was full of praises of Rumple's action in breaking the old lady's fall; but Nealie was secretly uneasy as to whether he had received more damage from the impact than had at first appeared. So, when she had been assured that Mrs. Barrow, who apparently weighed about fourteen stone, was only shaken, and not otherwise hurt, she hurried back again to satisfy herself that Rumple was sound in wind and limb.
She found Rupert hanging the wet garments up to drain, and was talking to him about Rumple, when the door of the boys' cabin was pushed open and they heard Rumple calling to them in a tone of such dismay that a sudden cold shiver went all over Nealie, making her turn white to the lips.
"Something is wrong; come along, Nealie," said Rupert curtly, and he turned to limp toward the door of the cabin, which stood ajar.
But Nealie passed him with a fleet tread, and, pushing open the door, stood on the threshold transfixed with surprise. It was not clear to her what she expected to see, her one thought being that Rumple must certainly have been much more hurt than they had imagined.
What she did see was Rumple sitting on the lower berth partly dressed, and holding a letter in his hand, a letter which had a stamp upon it which had not been through a post office, but that even at the first glance struck her as having a familiar look, a something she had seen before.
"Rumple, what is it? What is the matter, laddie?" she asked in the very tenderest tone of which she was capable; for there was that in his face which warned her the trouble was one of magnitude.
"I don't expect that you will any of you ever be able to forgive me, and I haven't a word to say in excuse, and however I came to be such a goat I can't think," he replied in a shaken tone as he held the envelope out for her to take.
But even now she did not understand, and only stared at it in a stupid fashion, then read the address aloud in a bewildered tone:
"Dr. Plumstead, "Hammerville, "Clayton, "New South Wales, "Australia."
"What letter is it?" asked Rupert in a shocked voice. He was standing close to Nealie now, and looking to the full as amazed as she did herself.
"It is the letter that Mr. Runciman wrote to tell Father that we were to be sent out to him," replied Rumple in a hollow tone. "Don't you remember that we asked to be allowed to post it ourselves, just because we were so afraid that he would forget to write it unless we waited until it was done? And now it is just the same as if it had never been written at all."
Twice, three times, Nealie tried to speak, but no sound came, and she plumped down upon the berth beside Rumple with a shocked bewilderment upon her face which was dreadful to see.
"Don't look like that, Nealie; buck up, old lady, we'll find a way out of the muddle somehow," said Rupert, slapping her on the back, with a harsh laugh that had a weird sound; it was so far removed from merriment.
But Nealie only shook her head, as much as to say that it was quite beyond her power to do anything in the way of bucking up just then, and they were all three staring at each other in dismayed silence, when there came a rush of feet outside, and the door was flung open by Don, who was followed by Sylvia and Ducky, while Billykins, still snorting heavily, brought up the rear.
"Billykins told us how brave Rumple had been in saving the life of that fat old woman——" began Sylvia, then stopped suddenly, scared by the look on the faces of the three; then she asked in a hushed tone: "Oh, whatever can be the matter! Is Rumple very badly hurt?"
"I am not hurt at all, except in my feelings," replied Rumple, who was nursing his old jacket, as if it were a troublesome infant which he had to put to sleep.
"Was she horrid to you? And after you had saved her life, fourteen stone of it?" demanded Sylvia, with a stormy note in her tone.
"It is not the woman at all," here Rumple waved the old jacket with a tragic air. "The fault lies with me, and you had all better know about it at once, and if you decide to disown me for the future, I can't complain, for I deserve to be sent to Coventry for evermore."
"Oh, drop your figures of speech, and tell us in plain English what the trouble is all about!" exclaimed Sylvia impatiently. "Nealie looks as if she had seen a ghost, and Rupert is glum, so out with it, Rumple, old boy, and own up like a man."
"I have owned up," he answered gloomily, and again he waved the old jacket to and fro, then hugged it closely in his arms again. "When I changed my clothes I thought that I would put this jacket on, though it is rather tight across the back, and I always hate wearing it for that reason. I have not put it on since the day we all went down to the Paddock to ask Mr. Runciman to send us to Australia. We stopped eating cakes in the housekeeper's room, you remember, and then when he had written the letter he sent it to us to put in the post as we came home. It was given to me. I put it in my pocket, and here it is!"
Sylvia gasped as if a whole bucket of water had suddenly been shot over her from some unexpected quarter, and then she burst into a ringing laugh, and clapped her hands. "Oh, what a joke! Then I suppose that Father has not a notion that his family are on the way to make him happy?"
"That is about it, and whatever we can do to get out of the muddle is more than I can imagine," said Rupert in a strained tone, while his face looked pinched and worn from the burden of worry that had suddenly descended upon him.
"Do?" cried Sylvia. "Why, of course we shall just do as we are doing, and go straight forward, until we reach Hammerville, when we will walk in upon dear Father some fine evening, and announce our own arrival. Nothing could be simpler, and we shall give him the surprise of his life, bless his heart! There is no need to look so tragic that I can see."
"But we must tell the captain, and there will be a great fuss. He will very likely keep us on board ship until Father can reach Sydney to claim us," said Nealie in a voice of distress.
"We won't tell the captain; he is as meddlesome as an old woman!" cried Sylvia, who very much resented the commander's kindly meant endeavours to take care of them.
"He would not let us go ashore at Cape Town, and I did so want to go to the top of Table Mountain, and see for myself what the tablecloth was made of," said Don in an aggrieved tone. His ideas of distance were rather vague, and he had an impression that half an hour's brisk walking from the docks at Cape Town would have landed him on the top of the mountain.
"No, we won't tell the captain, we certainly won't," put in Billykins, with a mutinous look on his chubby face. He had had his own views on the way in which he had meant to spend the time ashore, and having one shilling and threepence in his pocket, to spend as he chose, had laid out a pretty full programme for the occasion.
"We won't tell the captain; I don't like him, because he calls me Goosey instead of Ducky," pouted the youngest of the family, who had had her feelings very much hurt on more than one occasion, and was simply thirsting for revenge upon the disturber of her peace.
"Do you hear? The majority have decided on silence," said Sylvia triumphantly, as she sat down by the side of Nealie, and slipped her arm round her sister's waist.
"Oh, I don't know what to do, and it was dreadful of Rumple to forget!" cried Nealie, and at the reproach in her words Rumple fairly doubled up, muttering, in a resigned fashion:
"Lay it on, and spare not. There is one comfort about the beastly business, you cannot blame me more than I blame myself."
"It might have been worse," said Sylvia, who always championed Rumple through thick and thin. "And of course no one expects quite so much from a poet as from a more ordinary person. People with teeming ideas are always rather absent-minded I find; it is one of the penalties of the artistic temperament. I suffer from it myself, and Rumple is far cleverer than I am."
"I don't know about that; you have got the colour sense, even though you don't seem to get the hang of perspective," said Rumple, looking visibly cheered. "When I begin to sell my poems you shall have the money to have lessons in art, old girl, for I fancy you are worth developing."
"I hope I am," rejoined Sylvia, tossing her head with a saucy air. "But I am afraid that the process will be rather delayed if it has to wait until your poetry brings the money for doing it, for everyone says that there is no money in poetry. Now, Nealie, darling, do cheer up and be happy; poor Rumple will have no peace at all while you look like that."
"I will try; but you must give me time. But I am so disappointed, for I had hoped that Father would be at Sydney to meet us," answered Nealie, with a sigh.
The End of the Voyage
Rumple found himself immediately popular, because of his prompt and spirited action in doing what he could to save the old lady. But, like a good many other people upon whom greatness descends, he had to pay a rather heavy price for his popularity, and when it came to being kissed by the old lady and her daughter every time they appeared on deck, he began to ask himself savagely if it were quite worth while to be regarded as a hero of the first class.
Two or three days of kissing and hugging were enough for him, and then he took to subterfuge, and whenever the old lady or her very angular but kindly daughter hove in sight, Rumple bolted like a frightened rabbit, taking to any sort of cover which came handy.
The stewards, entering into the joke of the thing, co-operated with great heartiness, and for the remainder of the voyage there was no more elusive person on board than Rumple Plumstead; so the old lady and her daughter were forced to lavish on the rest of the family the tenderness they felt solely for the boy, who loathed their indiscreet petting.
"Rupert, where is Rumple?" asked Nealie, coming on deck one afternoon a day or two before they expected to reach Fremantle.
"I haven't an idea. Come to think of it, I have not seen him since breakfast. Where can the young rascal have got to?" exclaimed Rupert, starting up in dismay. He had been so engrossed in a book all the morning that he had taken very little notice of what was going on around him. He had certainly had to intervene once in a spirited encounter between Don and Billykins, who had taken to what they called wrestling, but which in reality amounted to a lively round of punching each other black and blue. Both small boys were considerably upset at being stopped in this entirely novel diversion, and declared that Rupert was neither public-spirited nor sporting to put a veto upon it; but he was firm, and threatened to send one of them to bed if they did not desist, and so they had been forced to find some other occupation.
But where was Rumple?
Enquiry elicited the alarming fact that he had not been seen at lunch, and for a healthy boy, especially one with a Plumstead appetite, to be absent from a meal meant that something must be very wrong indeed.
An active search through the vessel was at once organized; but when, after half an hour of brisk hunting, no trace of Rumple could be found, Nealie grew seriously alarmed, a horrible dread coming into her heart that he had in some way tumbled overboard.
She was running along the lower deck in search of one of the officers, to whom she might tell her fear, when she almost tumbled into the arms of the jolly fat purser, who had been so kind to all the children during the weeks of voyaging.
"Oh, Mr. Bent, we have lost my brother Rumple; he has not been seen since breakfast, and I am most dreadfully afraid that he must have fallen overboard!" she cried, the sharp distress in her tone showing how keen was her anxiety.
"Tut, tut, Missy, he could not have done that in broad daylight without someone seeing him," replied the purser, who always treated Nealie as if she were no older than Rumple or Sylvia.
"Are you quite sure?" she asked anxiously.
"Quite! A big ship like this is all eyes in the daytime, you know, and to-day there have been men at work on the railings ever since breakfast, so there is no danger at all that anything of that sort can have happened. But I wonder where the young rascal can be? I seem to remember having seen him nipping round somewhere this morning. Let me see; what could I have been doing?" and the purser screwed up his face until there was nothing of his eyes visible.
"Oh, please try to think where it was that you saw him, and then we may be able to find him!" cried Nealie, clasping her hands in entreaty.
"Let me see." The purser opened his eyes and glared about him, as if he expected to find the record of the morning's doings chalked in big letters somewhere on the clean deck. "First thing after breakfast there was that affair of the linen having been miscounted. It is funny how some folks are born without any sense of number. Then there were the cook's lists to be gone through. I remember seeing the boy then, for he lent me a pencil when mine broke. Now, what was I doing after that?"
"Oh, make haste, Mr. Bent! Please make haste to remember!" pleaded Nealie, feeling as if she would really have to take hold of this slow-witted man, and shake the information out of him if he did not hurry up a little.
"I've got it!" ejaculated Mr. Bent, slapping his sides with resounding whacks. "The next thing I did was to go down to the cold storage with the second officer. We must have been there for nearly an hour, for I know I was chilled through and through by the time we came up again, and I have not seen your brother since."
"Then I am quite sure that Rumple must be down in the cold-storage place, and he will be frozen stiff by this time. Oh, fly, Mr. Bent, and let him out, for think how awful his sufferings must be!" cried Nealie, seizing the purser by the arm to drag him along. She had been down in the cold storage herself, and shivered at the recollection of the Arctic chill of the place, although she had been hugely interested at seeing the stacks of frozen provisions which were there to be preserved for daily use on the voyage.
There was no need to tell Mr. Bent to hurry, as he strode away to his own particular den to get the keys, and then, with Nealie running close behind him, made his way down, down, down, until the storeroom corridor was reached.
The cold-storage rooms were at the far end, and when he thrust the key into the lock, Nealie could have screamed with the anguish of her keen apprehension.
Mr. Bent thrust open the door, and then both of them cried out in amazement, for the place was brilliant with electric light, and Rumple, covered from head to foot in hoar frost, as if he had just stepped out of the Arctic regions, was lifting boxes of butter from the shelves, and then lifting them back again, as hard as he could work.
"I'm about tired of this," he managed to drawl out in a would-be casual tone, and then he suddenly collapsed in a limp heap in Nealie's arms.
Quickly they lifted him out into the warmth of the corridor, and then Nealie started chafing his cold hands and face, while Mr. Bent replaced the butter boxes on the shelves, then, turning off the electric light, came out and locked the door behind him.
"Now I should like to know what monkey trick you were up to when you went and got yourself locked in a place like that?" he said in an angry tone as he bent over poor Rumple, unwinding a lot of sacking from the boy's shoulders, and slapping him vigorously to quicken circulation.
"Oh, you will hurt him dreadfully if you beat him like that, and I am quite sure that he did not mean to do wrong!" burst out Nealie in red-hot indignation, as she pushed away those vigorously slapping hands, and gathered Rumple's cold, limp figure into a warm embrace.
"Bless you, Missy, I was not doing it to hurt him, only to make his blood flow quicker, and save him a bit of misery later on. If he has been in mischief, he has had to pay quite dearly enough for it, without any more punishment. It is lucky for him that the freezing plant is out of order to-day, and we have only been able to keep the place just down to freezing-point. If it had been as cold as it is sometimes, it might have been too late to save him, poor fellow," said Mr. Bent, pushing Nealie gently aside, and starting on his slapping with more vigour than before.
"I wasn't in mischief; I only bolted in there because the door was open, and I wanted to get clear of Miss Clarke, who was being shown round the storerooms by one of the officers," said Rumple feebly. "She always will kiss me, don't you know, and I just can't stand it. I was crouching behind a case of things at the farther end, when to my horror the light went out, and a minute later, before I could yell, the door slammed. I did yell then for all that I was worth, but I could not make anyone hear, and it was so long before I could grope my way to the door, for I was at the farther end, you see, and I turned silly with funk at the first."
"I don't wonder at that, poor darling!" murmured Nealie, lavishing endearments on him, which he accepted all in good part, although he had been so hotly resentful of Miss Clarke's openly expressed affection. She was the daughter of the fat old lady, and he disliked the pair of them so heartily that his one desire was to put as much distance as possible between them and himself at all times and in all places.
"Well, laddie, it is a good thing for you that you were born with your share of common sense, for you seem to have gone the right way to work to keep from being frozen," said Mr. Bent, as he rolled the sacking into a bundle and tossed it into a corner; then, slipping his arm round Rumple, lifted the boy to a standing posture.
But he would have promptly fallen again if they had not supported him on either side, for his feet were thoroughly chilled, and he was so tired that he seemed to have no strength at all.
"I was a long time finding the electric light, but when I did come upon it, and pressed the button, I felt ever so much better," said Rumple, as his rescuers helped him to climb the stairs. "And I knew that I must not stand still; but there was so little room to walk about that I had to lift cases from the shelves and put them back again. I found that great piece of sacking, and when I had wrapped it round my shoulders I felt a little warmer; but it was more than a little nippy, I can tell you, and it made me think of the January mornings at Beechleigh, when the old pump used to freeze up and we undertook to thaw it out for Mrs. Puffin before breakfast," said Rumple wearily.
At this moment the others, headed by Sylvia, came rushing down upon them, and Rumple was at once overwhelmed with enquiries and congratulations. But Nealie was so concerned at his desperate weariness that she insisted on his going to bed at once.
"You must have some hot soup, too, and then you will get warm quickly and go to sleep," she said in the careful, elder-sisterly manner which always came uppermost when any of them were in any sort of difficulty.
"I don't want any soup or mucks of that kind, but I should be glad if I could have a piece of dry bread or some hard biscuits, for I do not mind admitting that I ate half a pound of butter to keep out the cold, and I feel rather greasy inside," said Rumple, puckering his face into a grimace as Rupert hustled him off to their cabin to put him to bed.
"What made you do that?" demanded Rupert sternly, for this partook of the nature of thieving, and the juniors had to be reproved for any lapse from strict morality.
"The Esquimaux eat blubber to keep out the cold, and as I had no blubber, and did not like to break open one of the lard pails, I just took the butter. Do you expect that Mr. Bent will mind?" asked Rumple anxiously. "I have got enough money to pay for it if he gets waxy, but of course I have had no lunch, and, seeing that the shipping company have got to keep me, I do not see that it matters much whether I eat half a pound of butter for my meal or whether I have two goes of meat and three of pudding. Hullo, who is that?"
The exclamation was caused by someone pounding on the door for admittance, and when Rumple found that the someone was the ship's doctor, great was his wrath at the coddling which Nealie had supposed to be necessary for him. But the doctor roared with laughter when he heard about the butter, and Rumple was so far mollified by his mirth as to be beguiled into laughing also, after which he was rolled in blankets and promptly went to sleep, not rousing again until the following morning, when he appeared to be none the worse for his adventure among the ice.
But someone must have dropped a hint to the indiscreet Miss Clarke and her mother, because from that time onward they left Rumple in peace, so far as kissing was concerned, although they seemed to be just as fond of him as ever.
The seven were all getting just a little bit weary of voyaging when at length the boat entered the fine harbour of Sydney, and berthed among the other vessels at the Circular Quay.
Then, indeed, things became exciting, and although they knew that their father had not had the first letter which had been sent to him, there was still the probability that he had received a later letter from Mr. Runciman, and that he might be among the crowd who were waiting to board the liner when she came to her berth, beside the big vessel from Hong-Kong.
They were gathered in a group forward, and were eagerly scanning all that could be seen of the shore, when one of the stewards came hurrying up to say that a gentleman had come on board for Miss Plumstead, and was at that moment waiting to see her in the dining saloon.
"Oh, it must be dear Father; I am quite sure of it!" cried Nealie, and, seizing Ducky by the hand, she hurried away down to the big dining saloon, followed by the other five.
Very different the big room looked to-day from the time when they had seen it first. Then the tables were spread for a meal, and decorated with flowers and fruit; now everything was in confusion, the tables were bare, or heaped with the hand baggage of departing passengers, and there was an air of desolation over all, such as is seen in a house from which a family are flitting.
But Nealie had no eyes for details of this sort at such a moment, as she clattered down the steps, holding Ducky fast by the hand. When she reached the bend, from whence she had a full view of the room, she saw a tall, grey-haired man, very sprucely dressed, standing at the end of the third table.
"Oh, it is Father!" she cried, half-turning her head to let the others know; and then, taking the last three steps at a bound, and dropping her hold of Ducky's hand, she rushed with tumultuous haste along the end of the room, and flinging herself upon the man, who had turned at her approach, she cried joyfully: "Oh, my dear, dear father, how glad we are to see you!"
But even as her arms closed around his neck a chill doubt seized her, and the next moment the astonished gentleman had drawn himself away from her grasp, saying hurriedly:
"My dear young lady, I am not your father."
A Real Friend
"Oh, oh, I am so sorry——" began Nealie in breathless apology, but got no further, being at that moment swept aside by Sylvia, who fairly flung herself into the gentleman's arms, crying shrilly:
"Daddy, my darling Daddy, I should have known you anywhere, although I was such a tiny kiddy when you went away!"
Again the amazed stranger tried to protest; but although his lips moved, no sound was audible, for at this instant Don and Billykins reached him in company, and the impact of their embrace was sufficient to momentarily deprive him of the power of speech, while Rupert seized his left hand, sawing it up and down like a pump handle, and Rumple patted him on the back, leaving Ducky no chance at all saving to dance round and round, yelling at the top of her voice.
"It is Father, dear Father, and he does not know his little Ducky at all!"
"Oh, hush, hush! We have made a mistake, and it is not dear Father at all," cried Nealie. And there was such genuine distress in her tone that the gentleman, who had been feeling decidedly ruffled at this boisterous onslaught, was at once sorry for her.
"Are you Miss Plumstead, and did you expect to meet your father here?" he asked kindly, while Sylvia slipped her arms from his neck and looked very confused, for it is not pleasant to rush about the world hugging the wrong people, and her blushes were a sight to see as she stammered out an incoherent apology for her blunder.
The boys had dropped away from him and stood in a bewildered group, while Ducky ceased her jubilant outcry, and it was left to Nealie to explain the situation and ask why it was that he had asked to see her.
"My name is Wallis, of the firm of Peek & Wallis, transport agents, Sydney," said the stranger as his hand stole up to settle his ruffled tie, which Sylvia's greeting had half-pulled unfastened. "Mr. Melrose sent me a cable from Cape Town, asking me to meet this boat and to be of service to you in any way that I could. He said that he had given you a letter of introduction to my firm. Is that so?"
"Oh yes, and I have it here in my bag!" said Nealie, pulling open the little bag she wore slung from her shoulder and taking from it an envelope addressed to Messrs. Peek & Wallis.
Mr. Wallis looked relieved at the sight of the letter, as it made the position quite clear, despite its brevity, for it was really very short, and ran as follows:—
"Kindly supply Miss Plumstead with a horse and wagon for the journey to Hammerville, Clayton, and if she cannot pay you I will.
"But of course our father, who is a doctor at Hammerville, will send you the money for the horse and wagon when we reach him," said Nealie, with the proud little lift of her head which had its due effect on Mr. Wallis, who had a great respect for most things which were straight from England, and who had already decided that Nealie was, to use his own expression, "no ordinary young lady".
"Of course," echoed Mr. Wallis politely, but without anxiety. In any case his firm would not suffer, as Mr. Melrose had undertaken to see them paid, and so he was prepared to be very kind indeed to this family who had made the comical mistake of supposing him to be their father. "And now I suppose that you would like to go ashore at once and have a look at Sydney before you start on your journey?"
Nealie hesitated and looked at Rupert, who, however, did not seem disposed to help her out; and so again it was she who had to do the explaining, which was quite right and proper, seeing that she was the eldest and had always mothered the others.
Then, because Mr. Wallis was elderly, and looked kind now that he had had some of the starch taken out of him by Sylvia's rapturous hugging, she decided that it would be better to take him into confidence concerning their dilemma.
"You see, it is like this," she said, boldly taking the plunge. "Captain Moore would not let us go ashore at Cape Town, because we were under his care, and we are so afraid that he will not let us disembark until Father comes to fetch us, and we are not at all sure that Father knows we have come."
"You mean that he would not know the boat was in, or that he did not know by which boat you were to travel?" asked Mr. Wallis in perplexity; for to him the situation was certainly novel.
"We are not sure that he knows we are in New South Wales," said Nealie, speaking very slowly and distinctly, under the impression that Mr. Wallis must be either deaf or stupid, or perhaps a little of both. "Our guardian, Mr. Runciman, wrote to tell Father that we were being sent out here to him, and he gave us the letter to post; but by an accident it got no farther than my second brother's pocket. He is very poetical, and that of course makes him very absent-minded. We did not find the letter until we were some days away from Cape Town, and then, after a consultation, we decided that we would not cable from Perth and we would not tell the captain, but we would give dear Father the surprise of his life by walking in upon him one fine day."
"I should think that it would be a surprise, and it is possible that it may be more than a little inconvenient to him; for you see houses here are not so commodious and roomy as houses in England, and there are six—no, seven of you," murmured Mr. Wallis, wondering what Dr. Plumstead would feel like when this troop of jolly, hearty young people walked in upon him. Still, confused as he had been by the onslaught of their riotous greeting, Mr. Wallis could not help admitting to himself that it had been very delightful to feel the clasp of Sylvia's arms about his neck, and he could not help wishing that he had children of his own to love him in that tempestuous but wholly delightful fashion.