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A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce

Part 4 out of 4

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"Then I'll race you!" said Norah, snatching a towel and disappearing
down the hall, a slender, flying figure in blue pyjamas. Mr. Linton gave
chase, but Norah's start was too good, and the click of the lock greeted
him as he arrived at the door of the bathroom. The noise of the shower
drowned his laughing threats, while a small voice sang, amid splashes,
"You should have been here last week!"

Breakfast was a merry meal, although, as Norah said, it was unreasonable
to expect anybody to have an appetite at that hour. Still, with a view
to the future, and to avoid wounding Mrs. Brown too deeply, they made as
firm an attempt as possible, with surprisingly good results. Then brief
good-byes were said, the pack scientifically adjusted to the saddle on
the old mare, and they rode off in the cool, dewy morning.

This time there was no "racing and chasing o'er Cannobie Lea" on the way
to Anglers' Bend. Mr. Linton's days of scurrying were over, he said,
unless a bullock happened to have a difference of opinion as to the way
he should go, and, as racing by one's self is a poor thing Norah was
content to ride along steadily by her father's side, with only an
occasional canter, when Bobs pulled and reefed as if he were as anxious
to gallop as his young mistress could possibly be. It was time for lunch
when they at length arrived at the well-remembered bend on the creek.

The horses were unsaddled and hobbled, and then turned out to wander at
their own sweet will--the shortness of the hobbles a guarantee that they
would not stray very far; and the three wanderers sat on the bank of the
creek, very ready for the luncheon Mrs. Brown had carefully prepared and
placed near the top of the pack. This despatched, preparations were made
for pitching camp.

Here luck favoured them, for a visit to their former camping place
showed that tent poles and pegs were still there, and uninjured--which
considerably lessened the labour of pitching the tents. In a very short
time the two tents were standing, and a couple of stretchers rigged up
with bags--Mr. Linton had no opinion of the comfort of sleeping on beds
of leaves. While her father and Billy were at this work, Norah unpacked
the cooking utensils and provisions. Most of the latter were encased in
calico bags, which could be hung in the shade, secure from either ants
or flies, the remainder, packed in tins, being stowed away easily in the
corner of one of the tents.

When the stretchers were ready Norah unpacked the bedding and made their
beds. Finally she hung the tooth-brushes to the ridge poles and said
contentedly, "Daddy, it's just like home!"

"Glad you think so!" said Mr. Linton, casting an approving eye over the
comfortable-looking camp, and really there is something wonderfully
homelike about a well-pitched camp with a few arrangements for comfort.
"At any rate, I think we'll manage very well for a few days, Norah. Now,
while Billy lays in a stock of firewood and fixes up a 'humpy' for
himself to sleep in, suppose you and I go down and try to catch some
fish for tea?"

"Plenty!" laughed Norah.

It soon became evident that Anglers' Bend was going to maintain its name
as a place for fish. Scarcely was Norah's line in the water before a big
blackfish was on the hook, and after that the fun was fast and furious,
until they had caught enough for two or three meals. The day was ideal
for fishing--grey and warm, with just enough breeze to ripple the water
faintly. Mr. Linton and Norah found it very peaceful, sitting together
on the old log that jutted across the stream, and the time passed
quickly. Billy at length appeared, and was given the fish to prepare,
and then father and daughter returned to camp. Mr. Linton lit the fire,
and cutting two stout forked stakes, which he drove into the ground, one
on each side of the fire, he hung a green ti-tree pole across, in
readiness to hold the billy and frying-pan. Billy presently came up with
the fish, and soon a cheery sound of sizzling smote the evening air. By
the time that Norah had "the table set," as she phrased it, the fish
were ready, and in Norah's opinion no meal ever tasted half so good.

After it was over, Billy the indispensable removed the plates and washed
up, and Norah and her father sat by the fire and "yarned" in the cool
dusk. Not for long, for soon the little girl began to feel sleepy after
the full day in the open air, and the prospect of the comfortable
stretcher in her tent was very tempting. She brushed her hair outside in
the moonlight, because a small tent is not the place in which to wield a
hairbrush; then she slipped into bed, and her father came and tucked her
up before tying the flap securely enough to keep out possible intruders
in the shape of "bears" and 'possums. Norah lay watching the flickering
firelight for a little while, thinking there was nothing so glorious as
the open-air feeling, and the night scents of the bush; then she fell
asleep.

"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!!"

A cheeky jackass on a gum tree bough fairly roared with laughter, and
Norah woke up with a violent start. The sunlight was streaming across
her bed. For a moment she was puzzled, wondering where she was; then the
walls of the tent caught her eye, and she laughed at herself, and then
lay still in the very pleasure of the dewy morning and the wonderful
freshness of the air. For there is a delight in awaking after a night in
the open that the finest house in the world cannot give.

Presently the flap of the tent was parted and Mr. Linton peeped in.

"Hallo!" he said, smiling, "did the old jackass wake you? I found him as
good as an alarum clock myself. How about a swim?"

"Oh--rather!" said Norah, tumbling out of bed. She slipped on a jacket
and shoes, and presently joined her father, and they threaded their way
through the scrub until they came to a part of the creek where a beach,
flat and sandy, and shelving down to a fairly deep hole, offered
glorious bathing. Mr. Linton left Norah here, and himself went a few
yards farther up, round a bend in the creek.

At the first plunge the water was distinctly cold, but once the first
dip was taken Norah forgot all about chilliness, and only revelled in
the delights of that big pool. She could swim like a fish--her father
had seen to that in the big lagoon at home. Not until Mr. Linton's
warning voice sang out that it was time to dress did she leave the
water, and then with reluctance.

A brisk rub down with a hard towel and she rejoined her father. He cast
an approving look at her glowing face.

"Well, you look as if you'd enjoyed your swim," he said.

"Oh it was lovely, Daddy! Did you have a good bathe?"

"Yes--I struck a very good place--deep enough to dive in," her father
answered. "Not that I counsel diving altogether--you strike such a lot
of mud at the bottom--soft, sticky, black mud! I spent most of my bathe
in getting myself clean after my dive! Still, I had a good swim,
notwithstanding. I say, Norah, I'm ready for breakfast."

"So am I," said his daughter. "I hope Billy's got the fish on!"

However, there was no sign of the black retainer when they reached the
camp. The fire was blazing and the billy boiling, but of the other Billy
no trace existed.

"He's gone after the horses," Mr. Linton said. "I told him to see to
them--but he ought to be back. I hope they're all right. Well, you get
dressed, Norah."

By the time Norah's toilet was completed the fish, under Mr. Linton's
supervision, were in the pan, and she hurried to set out the breakfast
things. They were just beginning breakfast when the sound of hoofs was
heard and Billy rode into the clearing on his own pony, with evident
signs of perturbation on his ebony face.

"What's up, Billy?" Mr. Linton asked sharply.

"That feller pack-mare," Billy said briefly. "Broken hobbles--clear out.
Plenty!" He produced a hobble as he spoke, the broken leather telling
its own tale.

Mr. Linton uttered an exclamation of anger.

"That comes of not seeing to the hobbles myself," he said sharply. "No
sign of her?"

Billy shook his head.

"Not likely," Mr. Linton said; "that old mare would make for home like a
shot. I dare say she's half-way there by now. Well, Billy, there's only
one thing to do--get your pony saddled and go after her."

Billy's face expressed unuttered depths of woe.

"Get your breakfast first," said his master; "there's no particular
hurry, for you're bound to have to go all the way home--and bring some
good hobbles back with you, if you do!"

Billy slid to the ground.

"Plenty!" he said ruefully.

Billy, a black vision of despondency, had faded away into the distance,
making his chestnut pony pay for the disappointment of his long ride
back to the homestead for the missing mare. Norah and her father had
"cleaned up house," as Norah put it, and again they were sitting on the
old log that spanned the creek.

Their lines were in water, but the fish were shy. The promise of a hot
day had driven them to the shady hollows under the banks. The juiciest
worms failed to lure them from their hiding-places. Norah thought it
dull and said so.

Her father laughed.

"You'll never make a fisherman without cultivating an extra stock of
patience," he said. "The thought of last night's luck ought to make you
happy."

"Well, it doesn't," his daughter answered decidedly. "That was
yesterday, and this is to-day; and it is dull, Daddy, anyhow."

"Well, keep on hoping," said Mr. Linton; "luck may change at any minute.
Norah, do you know, I have something to tell you?"

"What?" Norah's dullness was gone. There was something unusual in her
father's tone.

"I'm afraid you won't think it the best news," he said, smiling at her
eager face. "But it had to come some day, I suppose. I couldn't keep you
a baby always. There's a tutor coming to make a learned lady of my
little bush maid."

"Daddy!" There were worlds of horror in the tone.

"Oh, don't!" said her father. "You make me feel a criminal of the
deepest dye. What can I do with you, you ignorant small child? I can't
let you grow up altogether a bush duffer, dear." His voice was almost
apologetic. "I can assure you it might have been worse. Your Aunt Eva
has been harrowing my very soul to make me send you to a boarding
school. Think of that now!"

"Boarding school!" said Norah faintly. "Daddy, you wouldn't?"

"No--not at present, certainly," said her father. "But I had to agree to
something--and, really, I knew it was time. You're twelve, you know,
Norah. Be reasonable."

"Oh, all right," said Norah, swallowing her disgust. "If you say it's
got to be, it has to be, that's all, Daddy. My goodness, how I will hate
it! Have I got to learn heaps of things?"

"Loads," said her father, nodding; "Latin, and French, and drawing, and
geography, and how to talk grammar, and any number of things I never
knew. Then you can teach the tutor things--riding, and cooking, and
knitting, and the care of tame wallabies, and any number of things he
never dreamed of. He's a town young man, Norah, and horribly ignorant of
all useful arts."

"I'll turn him over to Billy after school," said Norah laughing. "Is he
nice, Dad?"

"Very, I should say," rejoined her father. "He's the son of an old
friend"--and his face saddened imperceptibly. "Your Aunt Eva said it
ought to be a governess, and perhaps it would have been one only young
Stephenson came in my way. He wanted something to do, and for his
father's sake I chose him for my daughter's instructor."

"Who's his father, Daddy?"

"Well, you wouldn't know if I told you, girlie. A dear old friend of
mine when I was a young man--the best friend I ever had. Jim is named
after him."

"Is he dead now?"

Mr. Linton hesitated.

"We lost him years ago," he said sadly. "A great trouble came upon
him--he lost some money, and was falsely accused of dishonesty, and he
had to go to prison. When he came out his wife refused to see him; they
had made her believe him a thief, and she was a hard woman, although she
loved him. She sent him a message that he must never try to see her or
their boy."

"She was cruel." Norah's eyes were angry.

"She was very unhappy, so we mustn't judge her," her father said,
sighing. "Poor soul, she paid for her harshness. Later the truth of the
whole bad business came out, and she would have given the world to be
able to beg his forgiveness-only it was too late."

"Was he dead, Daddy?"

"They found his body in the river," said Mr. Linton. "Poor old chap, he
couldn't stand the loss of his whole world. I've wished ever since that
I could tell him I never believed the lie for a moment. I was in England
at the time, and I knew nothing about it until he was dead."

"Poor old Daddy," said Norah softly.

"Oh, it's an old story, now," Mr. Linton said. "Only I never lose the
regret--and wish that I could have done something to help my old friend.
I don't quite know why I've told you about it, except that I want you to
be kind to young Dick Stephenson, because his life has been a sad enough
one."

"Is his mother alive?"

"She lives in Melbourne," said her father. "I think she only lives for
this boy, and the time when she can go to her husband and beg his
forgiveness. He'll give it, too--poor old Jim. He could never bear
malice in his life, and I'm certain death couldn't change his nature.
The lad seems a good chap; he's had a first-rate education. But his
mother never gave him any profession; I don't know why. Women aren't
made for business. So he wants to teach."

"I'll be good to him, Daddy." Norah slipped her hand into her father's.

"That's my little girl. I knew I could depend on you," said Mr. Linton.
A far-away look came into his eyes, and he pulled hard at his pipe.
Norah guessed he was thinking of days of long ago.

She pulled her bait up, and examination told her it was untouched. The
fish were certainly shy, and another half-hour's tempting did not bring
them to the hook. It was exceedingly dull. Norah wound up her line
slowly. She also had been thinking.

"I'm going for a walk, Daddy," she said.

"All right, dear; don't go far," said her father absently.

Norah walked soberly along the log until she reached the creek bank, and
then jumped ashore. She looked round at her father, but he was absorbed
in his fishing and his thoughts, and so the little girl slipped away
into the bush. She made her way among the trees quickly, keeping to the
line of the creek. Presently she sat down on a moss-grown stump and
thought deeply.

The Hermit had been pretty constantly in Norah's mind since the troopers
had been scouring the district in their search for the Winfield
murderer. She had longed intensely to warn him--scenting certain
unpleasantness to him, and possible danger, although she was loyally
firm in the belief that he could not be the man for whom they were
searching. Still, how like the description was! Even though Norah's
faith was unshaken, she knew that the veriest hint of the Hermit's
existence would bring the troopers down on him as fast as they could
travel to his camp. She put aside resolutely the thoughts that flocked
to her mind--the strange old man's lonely life, his desire to hide
himself from his fellow-men.

"I don't understand it a bit," she said aloud. "But I'll have to tell
him. He ought to know."

With that she sprang up and ran on through the scrub. It was thick
enough to puzzle many a traveller, but the little maid of the bush saw
no difficulties in the way. It was quite clear to her, remembering how
the Hermit had guided their merry party on the first visit, weeks ago.
At the exact spot on the creek she struck off at right angles into the
heart of the trees, keeping a sharp lookout for the tall old form that
might appear at any moment--hoping that her father might not grow tired
of fishing and coo-ee for her to return.

But there was silence in the bush, and no sign of the Hermit could be
seen. The thought came to Norah that he might have struck camp, and gone
farther back into the wild country, away from the men he dreaded. But
she put the idea from her. Somehow she felt that he was there.

She came to the clump of dogwood that hid the old log along which lay
the last part of the track to the Hermit's camp and, climbing up, ran
along it lightly. There were no recent footprints upon it. Suddenly the
silence of the surroundings fell heavily on her heart.

Reaching the end of the log that gave access to the clearing, she took a
hasty glance round. The ashes of the fire were long dead. No one was
there.

Norah's heart thumped heavily. For a moment she fought with the longing
to run back--back from this strange, silent place--back to Daddy. Then
she gulped down something in her throat, and giving herself an impatient
shake, she went resolutely across the clearing to the tent and peeped
in.

The interior of the tent was as neat and homelike as when Norah had seen
it first. The quaint bits of furniture stood in their places, and the
skins lay on the floor. But Norah saw nothing but her friend's face.

The Hermit was lying on his bunk--a splendid old figure in his dress of
soft furry skins, but with a certain helplessness about him that brought
Norah's heart into her mouth. As the flap of the tent lifted he turned
his head with difficulty, and looked at the little girl with weary,
burning eyes that held no light of recognition. His face was ghastly
white beneath the sunburnt skin, which was drawn like parchment over the
cheekbones. A low moan came from his dry lips.

"Water!"

Norah cast a despairing glance around. An empty billy by the old man
told its own tale, and a hurried search in the camp only revealed empty
vessels.

"I'll be back in a minute," said Norah, sobbing.

Afterwards she could not remember how she had got down to the creek. Her
blouse was torn, and there were long scratches on her wrists, and she
was panting, as she came back to the sick man, and, struggling to raise
his heavy head, held a cup to his lips. He drank fiercely, desperately,
as Norah had seen starving cattle drink when released after a long
journey in the trucks. Again and again he drank--until Norah grew afraid
and begged him to lie down. He obeyed her meekly and smiled a little,
but there was no comprehension in the fevered eyes. She put her hand on
his forehead and started at its burning heat.

"Oh, what'll I do with you!" she said in her perplexity.

"Do?" said the Hermit with startling suddenness. "But I'm dead!" He
closed his eyes and lay very still. "Dead--ages ago!" He muttered. A
second he lay so, and then he turned and looked at her. "Where's the
child?" he asked. "I must go to him; let me go, I tell you!" He tried to
rise, but fell back weakly. "Water!" he begged.

She gave him water again, and then bathed his face and hands, using her
handkerchief for a sponge. He grew quieter, and once or twice Norah
thought he seemed to know her; but at the end he closed his eyes and lay
motionless.

"I'll be back very soon," she said. "Do please be still, dear Mr.
Hermit!" She bent over him and kissed his forehead, and he stirred and
murmured a name she could not catch. Then he relapsed into
unconsciousness, and Norah turned and ran wildly into the scrub.

To bring Daddy--Daddy, who knew everything, who always understood! There
was no other thought in her mind now. Whatever the Hermit might have
done, he needed help now most sorely--and Daddy was the only one who
could give it. Only the way seemed long as she raced through the trees,
seeing always that haggard, pain-wrung face on the rude bunk. If only
they were in time!

Mr. Linton, sitting on the log and lazily watching his idle float,
started at the voice that called to him from the bank; and at sight of
the little girl be leaped to his feet and ran towards her.

"Norah! What is it?"

She told him, clinging to him and sobbing; tugging at him all the time
to make him come quickly. A strange enough tale it seemed to Mr.
Linton--of hermits and hidden camps, and the Winfield murderer, and
someone who needed help,--but there was that in Norah's face and in her
unfamiliar emotion that made him hurry through the scrub beside her,
although he did not understand what he was to find, and was only
conscious of immense relief to know that she herself was safe, after the
moment of terror that her first cry had given him. Norah steadied
herself with a great effort, as they came to the silent camp.

"He's there," she said, pointing.

Mr. Linton understood something then, and he went forward quickly. The
Hermit was still unconscious. His hollow eyes met them blankly as they
entered the tent.

"Oh, he's ill, Daddy! Will he die?"

But David Linton did not answer. He was staring at the unconscious face
before him, and his own was strangely white. As Norah looked at him,
struck with a sudden wonder, her father fell on his knees and caught the
sick man's hand.

"Jim!" he said, and a sob choked his voice. "Old chum--Jim!"

CHAPTER XV

FOR FRIENDSHIP

"Daddy!"

At the quivering voice her father lifted his head and Norah saw that his
eyes were wet.

"It's my dear old friend Stephenson," he said brokenly. "I told you
about him. We thought he was dead--there was the body; I don't
understand, but this is he, and he's alive, thank God!"

The Hermit stirred and begged again for water, and Mr. Linton held him
while he drank. His face grew anxious as he felt the scorching heat of
the old man's body.

"He's so thirsty," Norah said tremulously, "goodness knows when he'd had
a drink. His poor lips were all black and cracked when I found him."

"Had he no water near him?" asked her father, quickly. "You got this?"

"Yes, from the creek," Norah nodded. "I'll get some more, Daddy; the
billy's nearly empty."

When Norah returned, laden with two cans, her father met her with a very
grave face.

"That's my girl," he said, taking the water from her. "Norah, I'm afraid
he's very ill. It looks uncommonly like typhoid."

"Will he--will he die, Daddy?"

"I can't tell, dear. What's bothering me is how to get help for him. He
wants a doctor immediately--wants a dozen things I haven't got here. I
wish that blessed black boy hadn't gone! I don't quite know what to
do--I can't leave you here while I get help--he's half delirious now."

"You must let me go," said Norah quietly. "I can--easily."

"You!" said her father, looking down at the steady face. "That won't do,
dear--not across fifteen miles of lonely country. I--" The Hermit cried
out suddenly, and tried to rise, and Mr. Linton had to hold him down
gently, but the struggle was a painful one, and when it was over the
strong man's brow was wet. "Poor old chap!" he muttered brokenly.

Norah caught his arm.

"You see, I must go, Daddy," she said. "There's no one else--and he'll
die! Truly I can, Daddy--quite well. Bobs'll look after me."

"Can you?" he said, looking down at her. "You're sure you know the
track?"

"Course I can," said his daughter scornfully.

"I don't see anything for it," Mr. Linton said, an anxious frown
knitting his brow. "His life hangs on getting help, and there's no other
way, I'll have to risk you, my little girl."

"There's no risk," said Norah. "Don't you worry, Daddy, dear. Just tell
me what you want."

Mr. Linton was writing hurriedly in his pocket-book.

"Send into Cunjee for Dr. Anderson as hard as a man can travel," he said
shortly. "Don't wait for him, however; get Mrs. Brown to pack these
things from my medicine-chest, and let Billy get a fresh horse and bring
them back to me, and he needn't be afraid of knocking his horse up. I'm
afraid we're too late as it is. Can he find his way here?"

"He's been here."

"That's all right, then. Tell Anderson I think it's typhoid, and if he
thinks we can move him, let Wright follow the doctor out with the
express-wagon--Mrs. Brown will know what to send to make it comfortable.
Can you manage Bobs?"

"Yes--of course."

Mr. Linton put his hand on her shoulder.

"I've got to let you go," he said. "It's the only way. Remember, I won't
have a minute's peace until I know you've got safely home."

"I'll be all right, Daddy--true. And I'll hurry. Don't bother about me."

"Bother!" he said. "My little wee mate." He kissed her twice.
"Now--hurry!"

* * * * *

Bobs, grazing peacefully under a big gum tree, was startled by a little
figure, staggering beneath saddle and bridle. In a minute Norah was on
his back, and they were galloping across the plain towards home.

* * * * *

A young man sat on the cap of the stockyard fence at Billabong
homestead, swinging his legs listlessly and wishing for something to do.
He blessed the impulse that had brought him to the station before his
time, and wondered if things were likely to be always as dull.

"Unless my small pupil stirs things up, I don't fancy this life much,"
he said moodily, in which he showed considerable impatience of judgment,
being but a young man.

Across the long, grey plain a tiny cloud gathered, and the man watched
it lazily. Gradually it grew larger, until it resolved itself into
dust--and the dust into a horse and rider.

"Someone coming," he said, with faint interest. "By Jove, it's a girl!
She's racing, too. Wonder if anything's wrong?"

He slipped from the fence and went forward to open the gate, looking at
the advancing pair. A big bay pony panting and dripping with sweat, but
with "go" in him yet for a final sprint; and on his back a little girl,
flushed and excited, with tired, set lips. He expected her to stop at
the gate, but she flashed by him with a glance and a brief "Thank you,"
galloping up to the gate of the yard. Almost before the pony stopped she
was out of the saddle and running up the path to the kitchen. The man
saw Mrs. Brown come out, and heard her cry of surprise as she caught the
child to her.

"Something's up," said the stranger. He followed at a run.

In the kitchen Norah was clinging to Mrs. Brown, quivering with the
effort not to cry.

"Someone ill in the bush?" said the astonished Brownie, patting her
nurseling. "Yes, Billy's here, dearie--and all the horses are in.
Where's the note? I'll see to it. Poor pet! Don't take on, lovey, there.
See, here's your new governess, Mr. Stephenson!"

Norah straightened with a gasp of astonishment.

"You!" she said.

"Me!" said Dick Stephenson ungrammatically, holding out his hand.
"You're my pupil, aren't you? Is anything wrong?"

"There's a poor gentleman near to dyin' in the scrub," volunteered Mrs.
Brown, "an' Miss Norah's come all the way in for help. Fifteen mile, if
it's a inch! I don't know ow' you did it, my blessed pet!"

"You don't mean to say you did!" said the new "governess" amazed. Small
girls like this had not come his way. "By Jove, you're plucky! I say,
what's up?"

Norah was very pale.

"Are you really Mr. Stephenson?" she asked. "I . . . You'll be
surprised. . . . He's . . ." Her voice failed her.

"Don't worry to talk," he said gently. "You're done up."

"No--" She steadied her voice. "I must tell you. It's--it's--your
father!"

Dick Stephenson's face suddenly darkened.

"I beg your pardon," he said stiffly. "You're making a mistake; my
father is dead."

"He's not," said Norah, "He's my dear Hermit, and he's out there with
typhoid, or some beastly thing. We found him--and Dad knows him quite
well. It's really him. He never got drowned."

"Do you know what you're saying?" The man's face was white.

But Norah's self-command was at an end. She buried her face in Brownie's
kind bosom, and burst into a passion of crying.

The old woman rocked her to and fro gently until the sobs grew fainter,
and Norah, shame-faced, began to feel for her handkerchief. Then Mrs.
Brown put her into the big cushioned rocking-chair.

"Now, you must be brave and tell us, dearie," she said gently. "This is
pretty wonderful for Mr. Stephenson."

So Norah, with many catchings of the breath, told them all about the
Hermit, and of her father's recognition of him, saying only nothing of
her long and lonely ride. Before she had finished Billy was on the road
to Cunjee, flying for the doctor. Dick Stephenson, white-faced, broke in
on the story.

"How can I get out there?" he asked shortly.

"I'll take you," Norah said.

"You!--that's out of the question."

"No, it isn't. I'm not tired," said Norah, quite unconscious of saying
anything but the truth. "I knew I'd have to, anyhow, because only Billy
and I know the way to the Hermit's camp, and he has to fetch the doctor.
You tell Wright to get Banker for you, and put my saddle on Jim's
pony--and to look well after Bobs. Hurry, while Brownie gets the other
things!"

Dick Stephenson made no further protests, his brain awhirl as he raced
to the stables. Brownie protested certainly, but did her small maid's
bidding the while. But it was a very troubled old face that looked long
after the man and the little girl, as they started on the long ride back
to the camp.

Mile after mile they swung across the grey plain.

Norah did not try to talk. She disdained the idea that she was tired,
but a vague feeling told her that she must save all her energies to
guide the way back to the camp hidden in the scrub, where the Hermit lay
raving, and her father sat beside the lonely bed.

Neither was her companion talkative. He stared ahead, as if trying to
pierce with his eyes the line of timber that blurred across the
landscape. Norah was glad he did not bother her with questions. She had
told him all she knew, and now he was content to wait.

"It must be hard on him, all the same," thought Norah, looking at the
set young face, and sparing an instant to approve of the easy seat in
the saddle displayed by her new "governess." To believe that your father
was dead all these years, and then suddenly to find him alive--but how
far apart in every way! "Why, you hardly know," mused Norah, "whether
you'll like him--whether he'll be glad to see you! Not that anyone could
fail to like the Hermit--anyone with sense, that is!"

Mile after mile! The plain slipped away beneath the even beat of the
steadily cantering hoofs. The creek, forded slowly, sank into the
distance behind them; before, the line of timber grew darker and more
definite. Jim's pony was not far inferior to Bobs in pace and easiness,
and his swinging canter required no effort to sit, but a great weariness
began to steal over his rider. Dick Stephenson, glancing at her
frequently, saw the pallor creeping upon the brave little face.

He pulled up.

"We'll go steady for a while," he said. "No good knocking you up
altogether."

Norah checked her pony unwillingly.

"Oh, don't you think we ought to hurry?" she said. "Dad's waiting for
those medicines you've got, you know."

"Yes, I know. But I don't think we'll gain much by overdoing it."

"If you're thinking about me," Norah said impatiently, "you needn't. I'm
as right as rain. You must think I'm pretty soft! Do come on!"

He looked at her steadily. Dark shadows of weariness lay under the brave
eyes that met his.

"Why, no," he said. "Fact is, I'm a bit of a new chum myself where
riding's concerned--you mustn't be too ashamed of me. I think we'd
better walk for a while. And you take this."

He poured something from his flask into its little silver cup and handed
it to Norah. Their eyes met, and she read his meaning through the
kindness of the words that cloaked what he felt. Above her weariness a
sense of comfort stole over Norah. She knew in that look that henceforth
they were friends.

She gulped down the drink, which was hateful, but presently sent a
feeling of renewed strength through her tired limbs. They rode on in
silence for some time, the horses brushing through the long soft grass.
Dick Stephenson pulled hard at his pipe.

"Did--did my father know you this morning?" he asked suddenly.

Norah shook her head mournfully.

"He didn't know anyone," she answered, "only asked for water and said
things I couldn't understand. Then when Dad came he knew him at once,
but the Hermit didn't seem even to know that Dad was there."

"Did he look very bad?"

"Yes--pretty bad," said Norah, hating to hurt him. "He was terribly
flushed, and oh! his poor eyes were awful, so burning and sunken.
And--oh!--let's canter, Mr. Stephenson, please!"

This time there was no objection. Banker jumped at the quick touch of
the spur as Stephenson's heel went home. Side by side they cantered
steadily until Norah pulled her pony in at length at the entrance to the
timber, where the creek swung into Anglers' Bend.

"We're nearly there," she said.

But to the man watching in the Hermit's camp the hours were long indeed.

The Hermit was too weak to struggle much. There had been a few sharp
paroxysms of delirium, such as Norah had seen, during which David Linton
had been forced to hold the old man down with unwilling force. But the
struggles soon brought their own result of helpless weakness, and the
Hermit subsided into restless unconsciousness, broken by feeble
mutterings, of which few coherent words could be caught. "Dick" was
frequently on the fevered lips. Once he smiled suddenly, and Mr. Linton,
bending down, heard a faint whisper of "Norah."

Sitting beside his old friend in the lonely silence of the bush, he
studied the ravages time and sorrow had wrought in the features be knew.
Greatly changed as Jim Stephenson was, his face lined and sunken, and
his beard long and white as snow, it was still, to David Linton, the
friend of his boyhood come back from the grave and from his burden of
unmerited disgrace. The frank blue eyes were as brave as ever; they met
his with no light of recognition, but with their clear gaze undimmed. A
sob rose in the strong man's throat--if he could but see again that
welcoming light!--hear once more his name on his friend's lips! If he
were not too late!

The Hermit muttered and tossed on his narrow bed. The watcher's thoughts
fled to the little messenger galloping over the long miles of lonely
country--his motherless girl, whom he had sent on a mission that might
so easily spell disaster. Horrible thoughts came into the father's mind.
He pictured Bobs putting his hoof into a hidden crab-hole--falling--Norah
lying white and motionless, perhaps far from the track. That was not the
only danger. Bad characters were to be met with in the bush and the pony
was valuable enough to tempt a desperate man--such as the Winfield
murderer, who was roaming the district, nobody knew where. There was a
score of possible risks; to battle with them, a little maid of twelve,
strong only in the self-reliance bred of the bush. The father looked at
the ghastly face before him, and asked himself questions that
tortured--Was it right to have let the young life go to save the old
one that seemed just flickering out? He put his face in his hands and
groaned.

How long the hours were! He calculated feverishly the time it would take
the little messenger to reach home if all went well; then how long it
must be before a man could come out to him. At that thought he realised
for the first time the difficulty Norah had seen in silence--who should
come out to him? Black Billy must fetch the doctor and guide him to the
sick man; but no one else save Norah herself knew the track to the
little camp, hidden so cunningly in the scrub, at that rate it might be
many hours before he knew if his child were safe. Anxiety for the
remedies for his friend was swallowed up in the anguish of uncertainty
for Norah. It seemed to him that he must go to seek her--that he could
not wait! He started up, but, as if alarmed by his sudden movement, the
Hermit cried out and tried to rise, struggling feebly with the strong
hands that were quick to hold him back. When the struggle was over David
Linton sat down again. How could he leave him?

Then across his agony of uncertainty came a clear childish voice. The
tent flaps were parted and Norah stood in the entrance white and
trembling, but with a glad smile of welcome on her lips--behind her a
tall man, who trembled, too. David Linton did not see him. All the world
seemed whirling round him as he caught his child in his arms.

CHAPTER XVI

FIGHTING DEATH

"You!" Mr. Linton said.

He had put Norah gently into the rough chair, and turned to Dick
Stephenson, who was standing by his father, his lips twitching. They
gripped hands silently.

"You can recognise him?"

"I'd know him anywhere," the son said. "Poor old dad! You think--?"

"I don't know," the other said hastily. "Can't tell until Anderson
comes. But I fancy it's typhoid. You brought the things? Ah!" His eyes
brightened as they fell on the leather medicine-case Mrs. Brown had
sent, and in a moment he was unstrapping it with quick, nervous
fingers..

The Hermit stirred, and gasped for water. He drank readily enough from
the glass Mr. Linton held to his lips, while his son supported him with
strong young arms. There was not much they could do.

"Anderson should be here before long," Mr. Linton said. "What time did
Billy leave?"

"A little after twelve."

"What did he ride?"

"A big black."

"That's right," Mr. Linton nodded. "Anderson would motor out to
Billabong, I expect, and Mrs. Brown would have the fresh horses ready.
They should not be very long, with ordinary luck. Billy left about
twelve, did he? By Jove, Norah must have made great time! It was after
half-past ten when she left me."

"She and the pony looked as if they'd done enough."

"And she came back! I hadn't realised it all in the minute of seeing
her," her father said, staring at Stephenson. "Norah, dear, are you
quite knocked up?" He turned to speak, but broke off sharply. Norah was
gone.

Mr. Linton turned on his heel without a word, and hurried out of the
tent, with Stephenson at his side. Just for a moment the Hermit was
forgotten in the sudden pang of anxiety that gripped them both. In the
open they glanced round quickly, and a sharp exclamation of dismay broke
from the father.

Norah was lying in a crumpled heap under a tree. There was something
terribly helpless in the little, quiet figure, face downwards, on the
grass.

Just for a moment, as he fell on his knees beside her, David Linton lost
his self-control. He called her piteously, catching the limp body to
him. Dick Stephenson's hand fell on his shoulder.

"She's only fainted," he said huskily. "Over-tired, that's all. Put her
down, sir, please"--and Mr. Linton, still trembling, laid the little
girl on the grass, and loosened her collar, while the other forced a few
drops from his flask between the pale lips.

Gradually Norah's eyes flickered and opened, and colour crept into her
cheeks.

"Daddy!" she whispered.

"Don't talk, my darling," her father said. "Lie still."

"I'm all right now," Norah said presently. "I'm so sorry I frightened
you, Daddy--I couldn't help it."

"You should have kept still, dear," said her father. "Why did you go
out?"

"I felt rummy," said his daughter inelegantly; "a queer, whirly-go-round
feeling. I guessed I must be going to tumble over. It didn't seem any
good making a duffer of myself when you were busy with the Hermit, so I
cut out."

Dick Stephenson turned sharply and, without a word, strode back into the
tent.

Norah turned with a sudden movement to her father, clinging to the rough
serge of his coat. Something like a tear fell on her upturned face as
the strong arms enfolded her.

"Why--Daddy--dear old Dad!" she whispered.

It was nearly twilight when Dr. Anderson and black Billy rode into the
clearing, to the joy of the anxious watchers.

The doctor did not waste any words. He slipped off his horse and entered
the tent. Presently Dick Stephenson came out and sat down beside Norah
to await the verdict.

"I can't do any good there," he said, "and there's no room."

Norah nodded. Just then there seemed nothing to say to this son whose
father, so lately given back from the grave, seemed to be slipping away
again without a word. She slid her hand into his and felt his fingers
close warmly upon it.

"I can stand it," he said brokenly, after a little, "if he can only know
we--the world--knows he was never guilty--if I can only tell him that. I
can't bear him to die not knowing that."

"He'd know it anyhow."

The little voice was very low, but the lad heard it.

"I--I guess he will," he said, "and that's better. But I would like to
make it up to him a bit--while he's here."

Then they were silent. The shadows deepened across the clearing. Long
since the sun had disappeared behind the rim of encircling trees.

The tent flaps parted and the doctor and Mr. Linton came out. Dick rose
and faced them. He could not utter the question that trembled on his
lips.

The doctor nodded cheerily.

"Well, Norah?" he said. "Yes; I think we'll pull the patient through
this time, Mr. Stephenson. It'll be a fight, for he's old and weakened
by exposure and lack of proper food, but I think we'll do it." He talked
on hopefully, appearing not to see the question the son could not
altogether hide. "Take him home? Yes, we'll get him home to-morrow, I
think. We can't nurse him out here. The express-wagon's following with
all sorts of comforting things. Trust your old Mrs. Brown for that,
Norah. Most capable woman! Mattresses, air pillows, nourishment--she'd
thought of everything, and the wagon was all ready to start when I got
to Billabong. By the way, Billy was to go back to show Wright the way.
Where are you, Billy? Why haven't you gone?"

"Plenty!" said Billy hastily, as he disappeared.

"Queer chap, that," said Dr. Anderson, lighting a cigarette. "That's
about the only remark he's made all day, and in the motor he didn't say
as much--sat like an ebony statue, with his eyes bulging in unholy
terror. I hear you've been flying all over the country, Norah. What do
you mean by looking so white?"

The tale of Norah's iniquities was unfolded to him, and the doctor felt
her pulse in a friendly way.

"You'll have to go to bed soon," he said. "Can't have you knocking
yourself up, you know; and we've got to make an early start to-morrow to
avoid the worst heat of the day for the patient. Also, you will take a
small tabloid to make you 'buck up,' if you know what that means,
Norah!" Norah grinned. "Ah, well, Mr. Stephenson here will make you
forget all that undesirable knowledge before long--lost in a maze of
Euclid, and Latin, and Greek, and trigonometry, and things!"

"I say!" gasped Norah.

"Well, you may," grinned the doctor. "I foresee lively times for you and
your tutor in the paths of learning, young lady. First of all, however,
you'll have to be under-nurse to our friend the patient, with Mrs. Brown
as head. And that reminds me--someone must sit up to-night."

"That's my privilege," said Dick Stephenson quickly. And all that night,
after the camp had quieted to sleep, the son sat beside his newly-found
father, watching in the silver moonlight every change that flitted
across the wan old face. The Hermit had not yet recovered consciousness,
but under the doctor's remedies he had lost the terrible restlessness of
delirium and lay for the most part calmly. In heart, as he watched him,
Dick was but a little boy again, loving above all the world the tall
"Daddy" who was his hero--longing with all the little boy's devotion and
all the strength of his manhood to make up to him for the years he had
suffered alone.

But the calm face on the bed never showed sign of recognition. Once or
twice the Hermit muttered, and his boy's name was on his lips. The pulse
fluttered feebly. The great river flowed very close about his feet.

CHAPTER XVII

THE END OF THE STRUGGLE

The long slow journey to Billabong homestead was accomplished.

The Hermit had never regained consciousness throughout the weary hours
during which every jolt of the express-wagon over the rough tracks had
sent a throb to the hearts of the watchers. All unconscious he had lain
while they lifted him from the bunk where he had slept for so many
lonely nights. The men packed his few personal belongings quickly.
Norah, remembering a hint dropped by the Hermit in other days, had
instituted a search for buried papers, which resulted in the unearthing
of a tin box containing various documents. She had insisted, too, that
the rough furniture should go, and it was piled in the front of the
wagon. Another man had brought out the old pack mare for the baggage of
the original fishing party, and the whole cavalcade moved off before the
sun had got above the horizon.

But it was a tedious journey. Dr. Anderson sat beside his patient,
watching the feeble action of the heart and the flickering pulse, plying
him with stimulants and nourishment, occasionally calling a halt for a
few minutes' complete rest. Close to the wheel Dick Stephenson rode, his
eyes scarcely leaving his father's face. On the other side, Norah and
her father rode in silent, miserable anxiety, fretting at their utter
helplessness. Dr. Anderson glanced sharply now and then at the little
girl's face.

"This isn't good for her," he said at length quietly to Mr. Linton.
"She's had too much already. Take her home." He raised his voice. "You'd
better go on," he said; "let Mrs. Brown know just what is coming; she'll
need you to help her prepare the patient's room, Norah. You, too,
Stephenson."

"I won't leave him, thanks," he said. "I'd rather not--he might become
conscious."

"No chance of that," the doctor said, "best not, too, until we have him
safely in bed. However, stay if you like--perhaps it's as well. I think,
Linton, you'd better send a wire to Melbourne for a trained nurse."

"And one to mother," Dick said quickly.

"That's gone already," Mr. Linton said. "I sent George back with it last
night when he brought the mare out." He smiled in answer to Dick's
grateful look. "Well, come on, Norah."

The remembrance of that helpless form in the bottom of the wagon haunted
Norah's memory all through the remainder of the ride home. She was
thoroughly tired now--excitement that had kept her up the day before had
prevented her from sleeping, and she scarcely could keep upright in the
saddle. However, she set her teeth to show no sign of weakness that
should alarm her father, and endeavoured to have a smile for him
whenever his anxious gaze swept her white face.

The relief of seeing the red roof of home! That last mile was the
longest of all--and when at length they were at the gate, and she had
climbed stiffly off her pony, she could only lean against his shoulder
and shake from head to foot. Mr. Linton picked her up bodily and carried
her, feebly protesting, into Mrs. Brown.

"Only knocked up," he said, in answer to the old woman's terrified
exclamation. "Bed is all she needs--and hot soup, if you've got it.
Norah, dear"--as she begged to be allowed to remain and help-- "you can
do nothing just now, except get yourself all right. Do as I tell you,
girlie;" and in an astonishingly short space of time Norah found herself
tucked up in bed in her darkened room, with Daddy's hand fast in hers,
and a comforting feeling of everything fading away to darkness and
sleep.

It was twilight when she opened her eyes again, and Brownie sat knitting
by her side.

"Bless your dear heart," she said fervently. "Yes, the old gentleman's
come, an' he's quite comfertable in bed--though he don't know no one
yet. Dr. Anderson's gone to Cunjee, but he's coming back in his steam
engine to stay all night; an' your pa's having his dinner, which he
needs it, poor man. An' he don't want you to get up, lovey, for there
ain't nothin' you can do. I'll go and get you something to eat."

But it was Mr. Linton who came presently, bearing a tray with dainty
chicken and salad, and a glass of clear golden jelly. He sat by Norah
while she ate.

"We're pretty anxious, dear," he told her, when she had finished, and
was snugly lying down again, astonishingly glad of her soft bed. "You
won't mind my not staying. I must be near old Jim. I'll be glad when
Anderson's back. Try to go to sleep quickly." He bent to kiss her. "You
don't know what a comfort your sleep has been to me, my girlie," he
said. "Good-night!"

It was the third day of the struggle with death over the Hermit's
unconscious body, and again twilight was falling upon Billabong.

The house was hushed and silent. No footfall was allowed to sound where
the echo might penetrate to the sick-room. Near its precincts Mrs. Brown
and the Melbourne trained nurse reigned supreme, and Dr. Anderson came
and went as often as he could manage the fourteen-mile spin out from
Cunjee in his motor.

Norah had a new care--a little fragile old lady, with snowy hair, and
depths of infinite sadness in her eyes, whom Dick Stephenson called
"mother." The doctor would not allow either mother or son into the
sick-room--the shock of recognition, should the Hermit regain
consciousness suddenly, might be too much. So they waited about,
agonisingly anxious, pitifully helpless. Dick rebelled against the
idleness at length. It would kill him, he said, and, borrowing a spade
from the Chinese gardener, he spent his time in heavy digging, within
easy call of the house. But for the wife and mother there was no help.
She was gently courteous to all, gently appreciative of Norah's attempts
to occupy her thoughts. But throughout it all--whether she looked at the
pets outside, or walked among the autumn roses in the garden, or
struggled to eat at the table--she was listening, ever listening.

In the evening of the third day Mr. Linton came quickly into the
drawing-room. Tears were falling down his face. He went up to Mrs.
Stephenson and put his hand on her shoulder.

"It's--it's all right, we think," he said brokenly. "He's conscious and
knew me, dear old chap! I was sitting by the bed, and suddenly his eyes
opened and all the fever had gone. 'Why, Davy!' he said. I told him
everything was all right, and he mustn't talk--and he's taken some
nourishment, and gone off into a natural sleep. Anderson's delighted."
Then he caught Mrs. Stephenson quickly as she slipped to his feet,
unconscious.

Then there were days of dreary waiting, of slow, harassing
convalescence. The patient did not seem to be alive to any outside
thought. He gained strength very slowly, but he lay always silent,
asking no questions, only when Mr. Linton entered the room showing any
sign of interest. The doctor was vaguely puzzled, vaguely anxious.

"Do you think I could go and see him?" Norah was outside the door of the
sick-room. The doctor often found her there--a little silent figure,
listening vainly for her friend's voice. She looked up pleadingly. "Not
if you think I oughtn't to," she said.

"I don't believe it would hurt him," Dr. Anderson said, looking down at
her. "Might wake him up a bit--I know you won't excite him."

So it was that the Hermit, waking from a restless sleep, found by his
side a small person with brown curls that he remembered.

"Why, it's my little friend," he murmured, feeling weakly for her hand.
"This seems a queer world--old friends and new, all mixed up."

"I'm so glad you're better, dear Mr. Hermit," Norah said. She bent and
kissed him. "And we're all friends--everybody."

"You did that once before," he said feebly. "No one had kissed me for
such a long, long while. But mustn't let you."

"Why?" asked Norah blankly.

"Because--because people don't think much of me, Miss Norah," he said, a
deep shade falling on his fine old face. "They say I'm no good. I don't
suppose I'd be allowed to be here, only I'm an old man, and I'm going to
die."

"But you're not!" Norah cried. "Dr. Anderson says you're not!
And--and--oh, you're making a great mistake. Everyone wants you."

"Me!" said the Hermit, in sudden bitter scorn. "No, only strangers like
you. Not my own."

"Oh, you don't know," Norah protested. She was painfully aware of the
order not to excite the patient, but it was awful to let him be so
unhappy! "Dad's not a stranger--he always knew you. And see how he wants
you!"

"Dad?" the Hermit questioned feebly. "Is David Linton your father?" She
nodded, and for a minute he was silent. "No wonder you and I were
friends!" he said. "But you're not all--not even you and Davy."

"No, but--"

He forced a smile, in pity for her perplexity.

"Dear little girl, you don't understand," he said. "There's something
even friendship can't wipe out, though such friendship as your father's
can bridge it over. But it's always there--a black, cruel gulf. And
that's disgrace!"

Norah could not bear the misery of his eyes.

"But if it's all a horrible mistake?" she said. "If everybody knew
it--?"

"If it's a mistake!"

The Hermit's hand was on her wrist like a vice. For a moment Norah
shivered in fear of what her words might have done.

"What do you mean? For God's sake, tell me?"

She steadied her voice to answer him bravely.

"Please, you mustn't get excited, dear Mr. Hermit," she said. "I'll tell
you. Dad told me all about it before we found you. It's all a terrible
mistake. Every one knows you were a good man. Everyone wants to be
friends with you. Only they thought you were dead."

"I managed that." His voice was sharp and eager. "I saw the other body
in the river and the rest was easy." He struggled for calmness and Norah
held a glass of water to his lips.

"Please don't get excited!" she begged.

"I won't," he smiled at her. "Tell me--does everyone know?"

"Everyone," Norah nodded. There was a step behind her and a sudden light
flashed into the Hermit's eyes.

"Davy! Is it true? I am cleared?"

"Years ago, old man." David Linton's voice was husky. "All the world
wants to make it up to you."

"All the world--they're only two!" the sick man said. "Do they know?"

"Yes."

"Where are they?"

For a moment Mr. Linton hesitated, not knowing what risk he might run.

"Oh! for pity's sake don't be cautious, David," the Hermit begged. "I'll
be calm--anything--only don't refuse a starving man bread! Davy, tell
me!"

"They're here, old man."

"Here! Can I--will they--?"

"Ah, we've got to be careful of you, Jim, old chap," Mr. Linton said.
"You've been a very sick man--and you're not better yet. But they're
only living on the hope of seeing you--of having you again--of making it
up to you."

"And they believe in me?"

"The boy--Dick--never believed a word against you," Mr. Linton said.
"And your wife--ah, if she doubted, she has paid for it again and again
in tears. You'll forgive her, Jim?"

"Yes," he said simply. "I've been bitter enough God knows, but it all
seems gone. You'll bring her, Davy?"

But at the word Norah was out of the room, racing along the hall.

Out in the gardens Dick Stephenson dug mightily in the hard soil, and
his mother watched him, listening always. She heard the flying footsteps
on the gravel and turned quickly to meet Norah.

"Mr. Stephenson, he wants you!"

"Is he worse?" Dick gasped.

"No--I think he's all right. But he knows everything and he wants you
both!"

In his room the Hermit heard the steps in the hall--the light, slow
feet, and the man's tread, that curbed its impatience, lingering to
support them. His breath came quickly as he stared at the door.

Then for a moment they faced each other, after the weary years; each
gaunt and wan and old, but in their eyes the light and the love of long
ago. The hermit's eyes wandered an instant to his son's face, seeking in
the stalwart man the little lad he knew. Then they came back to his
wife.

"Mary!"

"Jim!" She tottered to the bed.

"Jim--can you forgive me?"

"Forgive--oh, my girl!" The two grey heads were close together. David
Linton slipped from the room.

CHAPTER XVIII

EVENING

They were all sitting on the lawn in the twilight.

Norah had dispensed afternoon tea with laborious energy, ably seconded
by Dick, who carried cups and cake, and made himself generally useful.
Then they had talked until the sun slipped over the edge of the plain.
There was so much to talk of in those days.

The Hermit had been allowed to leave his room a fortnight since. He was
still weak, but strength was coming every day--strength that follows on
happiness. Norah declared he grew better every day and no one
contradicted her.

He and his wife sat hand in hand. They were rarely seen any other
way--perfect content on each placid face. Dick lay on the grass at their
feet and smoked, and threw stems of buffalo grass at Norah, who returned
them honourably. Mr. Linton, also smoking, surveyed the group with
satisfaction.

They had been talking over plans for the future, plans which Mr.
Linton's masterfulness modified very considerably.

"Go away?" he said. "Certainly not! I've engaged your son as tutor to my
daughter, and I really can't spare him from the poor neglected child!
Then, as you, curiously enough, don't wish to leave your son, the course
is quite clear--you must stay here."

"I'm not going to live on you, Davy."

"You needn't. I'm bitterly in need of someone with a head for figures--a
thing I never possessed. You can help me tremendously. And, good as dear
old Brownie is, I know Norah ought to be with a gentlewoman--to learn
the things that aren't in school books. It's the best chance you and I
have ever had, isn't it, Norah? We aren't going to let it--or you--slip
through our hands."

"It's--it's all very well, Davy, old man--"

"I know it is. Now, can't you let well alone, Jim? Talk of it again in
five years' time--you may have better luck then. I don't say you
will--but you may! Hang it all, man, you're not going to thwart me when
I've just got my family together!"

"Well, I won't for a while," the Hermit said-and immediately received a
kiss on the top of his head.

"Thank you, Norah," he said meekly.

"Don't mention it," Norah answered politely. "Oh, I'm so glad you're
going to stay with us, Mr. Hermit!"

Norah had flatly declined to call her friend anything but the name she
had given him in the bush. As for the Hermit, he was perfectly content
with anything Norah did and had no idea of objecting.

"You heard, didn't you, Norah, that they'd found your friend, the
Winfield murderer?" Mr. Linton asked.

"Daddy!--no!"

"Found his body in an old shaft--not far from Winfield. He had the
stolen property on him, so there's no doubt of his guilt. So that clears
your Hermit, even in your suspicious mind!"

"Ah, don't, Daddy," Norah said, flushing. "I wasn't suspicious. I was a
duffer."

"I don't think you were," the Hermit said decidedly. "A very sensible
duffer, anyhow."

Dick laughed.

"No use trying to come between those two," he said.

"Not a bit," said the Hermit with great cheerfulness. He smiled at
Norah. "You brought me back to life--twice."

"When I think--but for Norah," Mrs. Stephenson murmured brokenly, "no
one would have known you were dying in that dreadful tent."

"Yes," said the Hermit, "but I didn't know anything about it. My best
memory is of my little friend who brought me good news when I was
wishing with all my soul that I'd died in the tent!"

"Don't, Jim!" said Mr. Linton.

"Well, between one and another there's a fair chance of spoiling my
pupil," laughed Dick, stretching himself. "I'll have to be doubly stern
to counteract the evil influences, Norah. You can prepare for awful
times. When next Monday comes, Mr. Linton--may it be soon!--you can say
good-bye to your pickle of a daughter. She will come out from my mill
ground into the most approved type of young lady--accomplishments,
prunes and prisms personified!"

Mr. Linton laughed.

"Will she?" he said, pulling Norah's hair gently. "I wonder! Well, you
can do your worst, Dick. Somehow, I fancy that under all the varnish
I'll find my little bush maid."

The End

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