Read CHAPTER XVI of The Adventurous Seven Their Hazardous Undertaking , free online book, by Bessie Marchant, on ReadCentral.com.

The Next Thing to be Done

The man stepped forward then and laid a kindly hand upon her arm.

“Shall we go into the house and see if we can get to the bottom of the mystery?” he asked in such a kind tone that poor, bewildered Nealie gave way before it and suffered him to lead her into the house with which they had made so free, believing it to be their father’s home, while the others trooped after them and gathered round the chair in which the man who called himself Dr. Plumstead had seated her.

“Nealie, Nealie, come quick, my head is on fire!” called Rupert from the next room, his voice rising to a shriek.

“Who is that?” exclaimed the doctor, looking, if possible, more astonished than before.

“It is my eldest brother. He is very ill, and when we reached here he was so bad that we carried him in from the wagon and put him to bed; but we did not know that we had no right here,” said Nealie, her voice quavering a little, although she held her head at its proudest angle and tried to look as defiant as possible.

“I will see him,” said the doctor quietly, as she jumped up to go to Rupert, and then he passed into the bedroom with her; but, finding it in darkness, came back for the lamp, and, with a word of excuse to Sylvia for leaving her without a light, picked it up and disappeared with it into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

“Sylvia, if that is my father I don’t like him at all. Why, he never even looked at me; there might as well have been no Ducky!” cried the poor little maiden, who keenly resented being ignored in such a fashion.

“That is not our father at all. Why, it is only a young man; but why he is here posing as Dr. Plumstead is more than I can imagine, and, oh! where can our dear father be?” said Sylvia, who was on the verge of tears, for the day had been a trying one on account of Rupert’s illness, and, as they all agreed, the home-coming was just horrid.

“Buck up, old girl, it is never so bad that it might not be worse!” exclaimed Rumple in a nervous tone, for well he knew that if Sylvia broke down in miserable tears Ducky would at once join in, followed by Billykins, who only rarely cried, but always did the thing thoroughly when he did begin.

“Shall we have to go somewhere else for to-night, I wonder, or what shall we do?” Sylvia went on, drawing herself up and setting her teeth together until she could conquer that weak desire for tears, which would be sure to lower her dreadfully in the eyes of the boys and would do no good at all. “The house seemed embarrassingly small at first, but now that it is a stranger who is master, and not Father at all, why, the whole thing is impossible.”

“We can sleep in and under the wagon, as we have done before; but Rupert can’t, so I guess that we had better wait and see what Nealie decides is best,” replied Rumple. But this was met with a whimper of protest from Ducky, who demanded to be put to bed somewhere at once.

“Could we not put Ducky on a mattress in the wagon, with Don and Billykins?” suggested Sylvia. “They would be quite safe and comfortable there, because the wagon is in enclosed ground and so close to the house also. Then you and I can wait round here to help if we are wanted.”

“Brave old Syllie, I thought that you would find a way out of the muddle!” cried Rumple, giving her an approving pat on the back, and then he called to Don to come and help him carry a mattress out to the wagon, a difficult feat in the dark, but one which was safely accomplished after some struggles, a few bruises, and one fall that was happily not a serious one.

Then Sylvia carried Ducky out to the wagon and handed her up to Rumple, who stowed her inside on the mattress, bidding the two small boys lie down one on each side of her, and the three were sound asleep before Sylvia and Rumple had gone back to the house.

They were standing on the threshold of the dark little room, and wondering what they had better do next, when the door of the sleeping chamber opened and Nealie came out.

“Sylvia, where are you?” she cried, with such misery in her voice that Sylvia gave a groan of real dismay.

“What is the matter?” asked Rumple sharply. Of course he was solely to blame for all this wretched business, he told himself, as none of these disasters could have happened if he had not forgotten to post that letter.

“Rupert is very, very ill, Dr. Plumstead says, and we must make a fire at once and boil water for some kind of fomentations. Could you and Rumple do that while I help the doctor in the bedroom?”

“Of course we can. I know where the firewood is,” said Rumple hastily, heaving a sigh of satisfaction to think that there was something useful for him to do.

“If Rumple is going to make the water hot, can’t I come into the bedroom to help you with Rupert?” asked Sylvia, for Nealie looked thoroughly worn out.

“I will call you if we want more help, meanwhile you might make the poor doctor some tea, for I do not believe he has had a real meal since breakfast, and it is very hard for him to find his home invaded in such a fashion. But where are the children?” asked Nealie, looking round in a bewildered fashion.

“We have put them to bed in the wagon; they were so very tired,” answered Sylvia. “Now I will get the doctor man such a nice supper that he will feel he is to be congratulated on his household of visitors, even though one of them is in possession of the only bed in the house. Oh, Nealie, what an awful situation it is, and whatever shall we do if we can’t find dear Father?”

“Don’t, dear, I dare not think about that or anything else until Rupert is better, and then God will show us what to do,” said Nealie, putting her hand out with such an imploring gesture that Sylvia was instantly ashamed of herself, and set about being as cheerful as possible in order to keep up the courage of her sister.

“Oh, we shall get through all right of course, and after all it is just a part of our adventures; anything is better than stagnating I think, and we have not been in much danger of that lately!”

Nealie went back to the bedroom, while Sylvia and Rumple did their very best in the outer chamber, where the confusion almost defied description. But their days of living in the wagon had fitted them for managing comfortably where anyone else would have been bothered by the muddle all around.

As it was, Rumple’s fire was burning in grand style, and the various pots and kettles on the stove were beginning to show signs of being nearly ready to boil, when the doctor came out of the inner room to get something from the medicine cupboard in the corner.

“Will you please sit down and take your supper, now that you are here?” asked Sylvia rather timidly, for to her way of thinking this doctor had a very disagreeable face; but that was, perhaps, because she was prejudiced against him through the dreadful disappointment which had met them at the end of their journey.

“I do not think that I can stay for food just now; your brother needs me,” he began, in a tone which certainly was brusque, although perhaps he did not mean it to be so.

“Oh, please, do!” she pleaded. “Because then I shall not feel so worried, and I am sure that Rupert will not take much harm for half an hour, while you will feel far more fit when you have had a meal.”

“It is very kind of you to be so insistent, and I really am very hungry,” he replied, smiling broadly now, for the supper which Sylvia had cooked for him from their own stores smelled exceedingly good, and she was already pouring a cup of tea out for him and doing her very best to make him feel how grateful they were to him for all his kindness to Rupert.

“But won’t you sit down and have something to eat also?” he asked, as she hovered about ready to anticipate his wants.

“No, thank you, we had supper before you came, when we were waiting for Father,” she said, with a choke in her voice, which made her turn hastily away and knock a tin pan over, so that in the sudden clatter he might not notice how near she was to booing like a baby.

He frowned heavily, as he wondered what the guardians of this family could have been thinking of not to write and make sure that the father was in a position to receive them, before sending seven irresponsible young people halfway round the world, on the off chance of finding their father when they reached the end of the journey.

“It has really been very hard for you, and we must do our best to help you out of the muddle,” he said quite kindly, as he enjoyed the results of Sylvia’s handiwork and began to feel all the better for his supper.

“Do you know where Father has gone?” she asked, putting the question which Nealie lacked the courage to ask.

“When Dr. Plumstead passed the practice over to me, eighteen months ago, he said that he was going to Mostyn, and that letters from England were to be forwarded to the Post Office there, but that nothing else was to be sent on,” the doctor answered.

“If your name is the same as Father’s, how would you know which were your letters and which were his?” Sylvia asked in a wondering tone, for to her it seemed of all things most strange that there should be two doctors of one name, and that not a common one, in a small town like Hammerville.

“Oh, that was easy enough! I am an Australian, educated in Germany, and I have not a single correspondent in England. But only one letter has come for your father, and that arrived about two weeks ago, so I forwarded it to Mostyn at once,” said the doctor.

“Where is Mostyn?” asked Sylvia.

“It is away in the back country, about fifty miles from everywhere, I imagine. It is a boom town; that is to say, they have found gold there in paying quantities, and so it will grow like a mushroom until the gold gives out, and then, unless they come across anything else of value, it will fizzle out as rapidly as it sprang to life. It is a little way we have of doing things in this part of the world,” said the doctor as he finished his supper, and then he asked, in a tone of grave concern: “Pray, where can you go to sleep? There is certainly no sense in your sitting up all night. Your sister will stay up to help me with the sick boy, and then in the morning she will want to rest, and you must be ready to take her place.”

“Oh, I can sit round in a chair and doze a little when I am not wanted!” replied Sylvia in that happy-go-lucky way she had of saying things, and which as a rule no one heeded. But the doctor frowned heavily as he said: “That will not do at all; young people cannot get on without proper sleep, and you must be fresh and fit to take your sister’s place in the morning, for your brother is going to want a lot of nursing to pull him through. What have you done with the younger children?”

“We put them to bed in the wagon. It is just outside, you know, and we thought that they would be out of the way,” answered Sylvia.

“An excellent idea. Now suppose that you go and put yourself to bed with them, and they will be sure to wake you bright and early in the morning,” he said, smiling now, because there really seemed a way out of the difficulty.

“But you will want someone to keep the fire in for you to-night,” protested Sylvia, who did not like the idea of being sent off to bed with the children, even though she was so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open.

“That other brother of yours will do that for me. What is his name, by the way?” asked the doctor, as Rumple disappeared from the room in search of more firewood.

“He is Dalrymple, only we always call him Rumple, because it suits him so well and is affectionate too. But you will certainly never keep him awake. He will mean not to go to sleep, for he is really a very good sort, and crammed full of the best intentions, but he simply can’t keep his eyes open when he is very tired; so presently, when you least expect it, he will just double up and fall asleep, and you will not be able to wake him up however much you try. We Plumsteads are all like that, and sometimes it is very awkward,” said Sylvia earnestly.

“I will risk it; only you must go to bed now,” said the doctor, laughing broadly at her description of the Plumstead weakness in the matter of popping off to sleep at inconvenient times; and then he called to Rumple and asked him to see his sister safely into the wagon, and to keep an eye on it during the remainder of the night.

Poor Rumple! He honestly meant to do just what the doctor asked of him, for he was just as grateful as a boy could be for what was being done for Rupert and also for the way in which the doctor was treating the girls, so he trotted backwards and forwards for another hour, bringing in wood, stoking the stove, making kettles boil, fetching water from a crazy old pump in the next garden, falling over the tangled vegetation en route, and getting hopelessly muddled in the darkness. Then he suddenly became so sleepy that it seemed to him he would snore as he walked about; his feet became heavier and heavier, until the effort to lift them grew beyond his power. He could not see out of his eyes, and, collapsing on to the floor between the door and the stove, he lay there, happily unconscious of everything.

The doctor found him on one of his journeys out to the stove for fresh boiling water, and would certainly have thought him to be in a fit but for Sylvia’s explanation of the family peculiarity. So he only smiled to himself, and, lifting Rumple, laid him more at ease in the farther corner of the room, covering him over with a rug; and then he went back to the bedroom, where Nealie was busy helping him with Rupert, and said, in a laughing tone: “I have just picked that brother of yours up from the floor, where he lay as fast asleep as if he were on the softest bed that had ever been made.”

“Poor Rumple! His intentions about keeping awake are always so good that it is very hard on him to be bowled over in such a fashion,” said Nealie, with a wan little smile, and then for a few minutes she was very busy helping the doctor put fresh fomentations on Rupert. But when this was finished, and the sufferer lay quiet from the comfort of it all, and there was leisure to think of other things, Nealie spoke again: “How soon will it be safe for me to leave Rupert?”

The doctor looked at her in surprise; but thinking she was tired out, and longing for sleep, he said kindly:

“You can go off to the wagon now for a sleep if you like. I should not have suggested your staying all night, only that I thought it would be good for your brother to have one of his own about him; but as he seems inclined to sleep now, it will not really matter.”

“Oh, I did not mean that I wanted to go to bed!” said Nealie quickly. “This is not the first time I have stayed up all night. Whenever the children have been ill I have stayed with them. Indeed I am quite used to watching and being on guard. But I want to know how soon you think that it will be fit for me to leave Rupert to the care of Sylvia, so that I may go to find Father.”

“You could not go to a place like Mostyn alone, and the best way will be for you to send and ask your father to come here for you,” replied the doctor gravely.

But to this suggestion Nealie shook her head. “I heard what you said to Sylvia about Father, and I have the feeling that he needs us very badly indeed. Why did he give up the practice here?”

Dr. Plumstead hedged this question as best he could, for he simply could not tell this girl with the pathetic eyes that an old rumour had risen, which made it necessary for the doctor to go farther afield, and so the practice had been disposed of to the first person who was willing to give a little money for it.

But Nealie was shrewd enough to understand without telling, and, looking the doctor straight in the face, she asked: “Was it that affair of Father taking off the man’s arm which was brought up against him?”

“Something of the kind, I think,” said the doctor reluctantly. He was saying to himself how hard it was that this young girl should have so many hard things to bear when she seemed just made for joy and happiness, when, to his amazement, she broke into a low ripple of happy laughter, and softly clapped her hands.

“I thought it was that,” she cried. “Strangely enough, since we landed in New South Wales I have stumbled upon the very man whose arm it was that Father took off, and someone told me that this man says it was the greatest blessing of his life that he was thrust out into the world maimed, to make his own way, and sink or swim as best he could. Now, when I have found my father I am going to ask him to communicate with this man, and to make the man set him right before the world; for why should my dear father have to suffer so heavily for having merely done his duty, and saved the man’s life in spite of everything? It is a doctor’s duty to save life at all costs, and no consideration of any other kind should make him do otherwise. Father was quite sure that the man would die if his arm were not taken off, and that was why he performed the operation in spite of the disapproval of the man’s friends.”

“It was, as you say, his duty to do his best for his patient, and it is hard lines that he should have to suffer for just having done his duty,” said the doctor. “But why can you not put this in a letter, and let me send it to Mostyn for you the first thing in the morning?”

“Because I am afraid that Father would not read it,” admitted Nealie, first flushing and then paling, as she looked up at the doctor with her fearless gaze. “I think that Father is so beaten by everything that he has had to bear that he just feels as if he will give up and not trouble about anything more. So that to know all his big family have suddenly been dumped upon him will be a sort of a shock; but if I am there to assure him that we shall be more help than hindrance he may feel better about it all. Of course there are a lot of us, and we have fearfully big appetites too, except Rupert, but there are so many ways of earning one’s living here that I think we shall soon be able to support ourselves, that is, Sylvia, Rupert, and I, for of course the others will have to go to school.”

“You are very courageous, and I think perhaps you are right in wanting to go to your father, and if you will leave it to me I will see what arrangements I can make for your journey,” said the doctor, and Nealie thanked him, feeling that bad as things were they might easily have been worse if they had not found a friend like her father’s successor, who by such a strange coincidence bore the same name.

Rupert had experienced such relief from the fomentations that he lay in a quiet sleep, and Nealie, with her head on the pillow at his side, slumbered also; but the doctor had gone to the outer room, and was very busy looking up his case book and trying to make up his mind whether he dared leave his patients long enough to go with Nealie to find her father.

His private fear was that when she reached Mostyn she would find that her father had gone somewhere else. Doctors in mining camps were apt to be nomadic creatures, that is, they had to go to their patients, and it was no use to stay where the people were all well, when perhaps at some place fifty or a hundred miles distant men and women might be dying like flies from some contagious disease with never a doctor to help them. It was life at its roughest and wildest in that back country, and he could not let Nealie venture alone in her youth and ignorance where so many perils might beset her path.

Day was beginning to dawn when he heard Rupert speaking, and then with a tap at the door he entered to see how it fared with his patient.

“I am better, thank you, and I am very much obliged to you for all that you have done for me,” said Rupert weakly.

“Ah, I think that you will do now, by the look of you,” said the doctor in a cheerful tone. “And now, with your consent, I am going to take your sister to hunt up your father, for I don’t feel equal to all seven of you singlehanded,” and he burst into a hearty laugh at his own small joke.