Read CHAPTER XV of The Adventurous Seven Their Hazardous Undertaking , free online book, by Bessie Marchant, on

A Great Shock

There was a whirling confusion in the mind of Nealie as she crossed the threshold and stood in the little room which was her father’s home.

What a poor little place it was! There were only two rooms, the one upon which the door opened, and which was evidently dining-room, kitchen, and surgery rolled into one, and beyond this there was a bedroom, very bare and poor, with an iron bedstead, on which was a mattress and some dark rugs, but no sheets.

Coming straight as she did from the almost palatial comfort of the great liner and the luxury of the Sydney hotel, this poor hut struck a real note of dismay in the heart of Nealie, for the place was as poor as the poorest cottage that she had ever seen at Beechleigh or Bodstead in England.

But it was her father’s home, and perhaps he had lived in such poverty in order that he might have more money to send for the support of his big family in England, and at the thought of this her heart grew wondrously soft and pitiful, for she had no idea how very small was the amount that her father had ever contributed to the support of his family since disaster had fallen upon him.

While she stood looking round, her heart growing more and more pitiful for the father whom she had come so far to see, Sylvia came bustling into the house and took her by the arm, giving it a gentle shake.

“Dreaming, are you, dear? Come and help me lift Rupert out of the wagon, and let us get him to bed as quickly as we can, for I am afraid that he is dreadfully ill. Where are the bedrooms? Oh, what a dreadfully poky little house it is!” and Miss Sylvia turned up the tip of her nose in disdainful fashion.

“Sylvia, there is only one bedroom, with one small bed in it, without sheets. Where can we put poor Rupert?”

“On that bed, of course; and if there are no sheets, we have some among our luggage, for remember we brought the best of Aunt Judith’s house linen with us, and I know where it was packed. Come along, Nealie, and let us hustle things a bit, and then we will have Rupert quite comfortable by the time Father comes home. That dirty woman who unlocked the door says she thinks he must have gone out Pig Hill way, wherever that may be.”

There was no withstanding Sylvia when her mood was like this, and Nealie knew only too well that Rupert must be attended to without delay, so she followed her sister back to the wagon, where Rumple, Don, and Billykins were already hard at work unpacking the baggage which had been loaded on to the rack at the back of the wagon; and when this was all cleared away they let the backboard down. Then, while Nealie and Sylvia stood on the ground, Rumple and Don managed to lift Rupert into their arms, and with much difficulty they contrived to carry him through the garden patch into the house.

He had left off shouting and talking now, and seemed almost in a state of collapse, a condition that frightened Nealie far more than his delirium had done. There was no time just at first to look in the baggage for the sheets which had belonged to Aunt Judith, so they straightened the rugs on the hard mattress, and laid their brother down.

“It is a beautifully clean bed anyhow, and on the whole I think that clean rugs are better than fusty sheets; but of course a doctor would have his things clean,” remarked Sylvia, as she patted the pillow into a more shapely lump and laid it under the head of poor Rupert.

“I am going to make a fire, and warm him a little milk; perhaps he will like it better if it is warm, and he has only had cold things all day,” said Nealie, and then resolutely turned her back on the four juniors, who were so hard at work unpacking the wagon and bringing the boxes, bundles, and cases into the house.

Rockefeller had been unharnessed and turned into the doctor’s paddock, which stretched away from the back of the house up to a line of hills thickly wooded. The horse was rolling with all four legs in the air, uttering equine squeals of delight, as if rejoicing in the fact of the long journey being safely accomplished. Ducky, tired of helping to unload, had perched herself on the top bar of the gate, clapping her hands in delight at the performances of the horse, which she imagined were being enacted solely for her benefit, and she grumbled quite vigorously when Billykins ran out to tell her that supper was ready and she must come in.

“We have supper every night, but it isn’t every night that Rocky will cut capers like that,” she said, with a swing of her plump little arm in the direction of the horse, but upset her balance in the process, and tumbled into the arms of Billykins, who proved unequal to the strain of her sudden descent, and so they rolled over in the dust together.

“I think that you are most astonishingly clumsy,” said the small maiden, scrambling up with an offended air, and not even saying “Thank you” to Billykins for having been bottom dog for the moment.

“When you want to fall off gates on to people you should choose big, fat people, and then perhaps they wouldn’t give way as I did; but you really are fearfully heavy,” answered Billykins, who was shaking the dust from himself as a dog shakes off the water when he comes out of a pond.

Then they took hold of each other’s hands and ran back to the house, where Rumple and Don had got supper ready in the outer room, while Nealie and Sylvia were busy with Rupert in the bedroom.

The luggage had all been stowed away in as shipshape a style as possible, the wagon had been drawn in at the paddock gate, and now the place was crammed full with the big family, who were all, with the exception of Rupert, strung up to the highest pitch of excitement, waiting for their father’s return.

But, having had no proper meal since breakfast, they simply could not wait until he came before having their supper.

Yet, despite the fact that the long journey was safely over, and they had reached their father’s house, it was not a cheerful meal. Rupert’s condition forbade any laughter or joking; besides, Nealie and Rumple looked so fearfully nervous that it was quite impossible to be even as lively as usual.

Rumple’s trouble was simply and solely because of that letter which he had forgotten to post, and that had led to there being no welcome for them when they arrived. Of course it was surprising that Mr. Runciman had not written again; but then everyone knew that Mr. Runciman never wrote a letter when he could possibly shirk the task, and that was why they had been so urgent in their entreaties that he should write the letter while they waited on that momentous occasion when they went to see him to ask him to send them out to the land of the Southern Cross.

“If Father is cross because he did not know that we were coming I shall just stand up and say that it was all my fault, and that the others were not to blame at all,” said Rumple to himself, and then he mentally rehearsed the little scene and the speech he would make until he forgot all about his supper, and just sat by the table staring out through the door, which had been left wide open for the sake of coolness, and the strained look on his face made Nealie’s heart ache.

On her own part she was a prey to acute anxiety, and she was dreading most of all the first look which would show on the face of her father when he knew that his family had come to him. If the look were pleasure, then everything would be possible, and nothing else would matter; but if there were dismay or regret in his expression, she felt that she would never be able to bear her life again. Sylvia had no such fears; her nature was so different from Nealie’s, and she rarely troubled about things which were under the surface, and so was spared many worries and much heartache; while Don, Billykins, and Ducky were only tired of the long waiting until their father should come, and they were already beginning to yawn widely because they were so sleepy.

“Where shall we all sleep to-night, Sylvia?” demanded Ducky presently, breaking in upon quite a lengthy silence, and voicing the very question which was so sorely troubling Nealie at that moment, although she rose from the table and passed into the other room, where Rupert lay, and pretended that she had not heard the query.

“Oh, we shall manage somehow, and there is always the wagon, you know, if everything else fails!” said Sylvia vaguely; and then she sprang to her feet with a sudden eager movement, for to her strained listening there had come the sound of a horse’s feet on the road, a smart trot which slackened down by the gate outside, not as if the animal had been pulled up, but had stopped of its own accord.

“It is Father!” she said in a whisper, just as if the power of audible speech had left her, and then she started for the door, followed by Ducky and the three boys; but Nealie, busy with Rupert, had heard no sound of arrival as yet.

They had lighted a lamp when the sun went down, and now Sylvia stood on the threshold, with the four younger ones crowding about her, and the strong light showing the group up in outline, although it left the faces indistinct.

The horseman had stopped and dismounted; then, leaving his horse standing where it was, he came striding along the path towards the group at the door.

Sylvia tried to speak, but the words would not come, as she stood with one hand tightly pressed against her wildly beating heart. And then, as the man halted in front of her, she saw that it was quite a young man, and not her father at all.

“It is only someone come for the doctor. How disappointing!” was her unspoken comment, and she was just going to tell him that the doctor had not come home yet, when to her amazement he asked a question in a surprised tone.

“May I ask why are you here?”

“We are waiting for Father, but he has not come yet. The woman in the next house told us that she thought he had gone out Pig Hill way, and that he would not be long before he was back. I hope that your business with him is not urgent?” Her voice quavered slightly in spite of her efforts to keep it steady, for surely it would be dreadful if her father were called away to another case when Rupert was so badly in need of care.

“Pardon me, but I do not seem to understand,” said the man, with so much bewilderment in his manner that Sylvia longed to laugh, but managed to pull herself together and to maintain a decent gravity of expression.

“We are expecting Father, that is Dr. Plumstead, home every minute, and when he comes he will find a very great surprise in store for him,” she said, flinging up her head with a happy gesture, and now her laugh would have its way and rang out on the hot air, being promptly echoed by the younger ones, who stood pressed close to her on both sides.

“But I am Dr. Plumstead, and I have just returned from a case at Pig Hill,” said the man.

It was at this moment that Nealie came hurrying to the door, and, sweeping the others to the right and left to make way for her, stood in front of the man, her face white as the handkerchief she held in her hand, while her breath came in troubled gasps as if she had been running until she was spent.

“Whom did you say that you were?” she demanded, her voice having a sharp, dictatorial ring.

The stranger, who had merely lifted his hat when he spoke to Sylvia, swept it off his head and held it in his hand when Nealie thrust herself to the front.

“I am Dr. Plumstead, and this is my house,” he answered. “But

Nealie, however, cut into the explanation he was trying to make, and now her bewilderment was as great as his had been at the first.

“But Dr. Plumstead is our father, and we have come from England to live with him,” she cried, and then stood staring at the man with ever-growing dismay.