THE LONG TRAIL

It was a queer procession that moved away from Narrung homestead in the
early morning. A great motor ambulance, with a bed for Dick that was a
marvel of cushions and springs, went first, his mother and a nurse with
him. Mr. Lester and the second nurse followed in another car that had
come up from Perth; and, last of all, Mr. Warner, in his own motor,
with Merle’s little white face beside him. For Merle had got her
wish–not because it was hers, but because of Dick’s few words. “If
Dick wants Merle, or my house, or every penny I have in the world, he
has only got to say so,” Mr. Warner had said. “If she’s in the way, or
whenever Dick is tired of her, you can consign her to her grandmother
in Perth.” He looked at Merle as if she were a bale of goods. If the
words stung her she made no sign.

Both the cars were piled high with baggage. Where possible they would
stay in towns on the way, but since Dick’s fatigue might demand that
they should stop at any moment, there were tents to be carried, food,
cooking utensils–all that was necessary for his comfort. The driver
of the ambulance was a skilled man, trained to steer his great car so
gently as to avoid the slightest jolt, if the roads were reasonably
good–and there were favourable reports of the condition of the tracks.
The Westown doctor had arrived the night before on his motor cycle to
see his patient start; he helped to carry him out, with the nurses,
when it was time to go.

Dick was a little flushed with excitement, and his eyes very bright.
He smiled at the people who thronged round to say good-bye to him, and
his weak hand had a special pat for Bobby–Bobby, who wailed because he
was going, and refused to be comforted. The doctor and nurses hurried
the farewells; their patient must not have any more fatigue than was
necessary. Indeed, the doctor heaved a sigh of relief when he was
safely in the ambulance, and it moved slowly away down the paddock.

The two mothers clung together for a moment at the last.

“I would give up my own son if I could give yours back to you,” Mrs.
Warner murmured. Tears were running down her kind face.

“I will have him back,” Mrs. Lester said steadily. “Some day you must
come to see him–straight and well again.” But Mrs. Warner had no
words.

The day passed more easily than they had dared to hope. If the tracks
were sandy, at least they were in good order; the ambulance passed over
them gently, and the fresh air acted as a sedative to Dick, who slept
calmly during the warmest hours of the morning. They pitched a camp
early in the afternoon, afraid to make the first stage a long one. It
was an ideal spot–a grassy clearing, ringed round with tall trees and
low bushes, full of birds that had never learned to be afraid of
humans. Dick begged to be taken out, and they lifted his stretcher
into the shade, where he could lie watching the business of camping.
Mr. Warner and Mr. Lester were old hands at the business; the tents
went up, firewood was brought in, and the camp-fire lit, and their
evening meal prepared, long before it was time to put Dick back to bed
and make him comfortable for the night. He put off the moving as long
as he could. “I’ve been in bed so jolly long–I’m sick of four walls,”
he pleaded. So they let him wait until their meal was over and dusk
came down; and the nurses, fearing the chill of the evening air, became
adamant, and carried him off.

[Illustration: “They pitched a camp early in the afternoon.”]

Mrs. Lester woke when the first rays of the sun came into her tent.
She slipped on a coat and hurried across to the ambulance, peeping in.
Already the nurse was busying herself about nourishment, and Dick’s
eyes, clear and merry, peeped at her over the edge of his blankets.

“Isn’t it jolly, mother! Did you sleep well?”

“Ever so well,” she told him. “And you?”

“Oh, we’ve had a beautiful night!” the nurse said, cheerfully. “My
patient snored serenely, while the ‘possums and wombats and things kept
me awake. This boy of yours thrives on the bush, Mrs. Lester!”

“But, of course; isn’t he a bush baby?” She laughed. Not since his
illness had there been such a ring of health in Dick’s voice. Looking
at his face, with its touch of colour, it seemed impossible that
presently he would not leap up to join her in the old way, to ramble
through the trees, exploring the new world. Her thoughts flew back to
their last day near Perth, when he had gone climbing, swinging from
bough to bough with all his lithe young body like a steel spring,
supple and strong. Now–she choked back the sigh that came to her lips.

“Can he get up to breakfast, do you think, nurse?”

“Oh, I think so, as he’s so good!”

“Well, rather!” Dick stated. “Wash me quick, nurse, dear, and take me
out. I want to see trees and scrub, and bacon frying, and everything.
Oh–cocoa? Well, all right!” He submitted to be fed, more or less
meekly.

So the days passed, one like the other. They left the main roads as
they came near civilisation, finding good camping places, since Dick
showed that he had a dread of being taken to hotels. “I don’t want to
be carted in and out, with people staring at me,” he pleaded. “And the
bush is so lovely. You don’t mind camping, mother?” She would have
lain on the bare earth to keep the ring of happiness in his voice.
They made each day’s journey short, so that the vibration, however
softened, should not affect him. It never tired him to be in the open,
watching them move about the camp. His old keen interest awoke again.
They made a point of consulting him about everything, so that he should
feel himself an active part of each day’s life, his father desiring his
opinion about the set of a tent rope with earnestness equal to that of
Mr. Warner when he carried a pan of bacon to his side to find out if it
were properly cooked. The motor driver entered into the spirit of it,
and discoursed to him learnedly on the finer parts of his car’s
anatomy; and no one thought of watching the billy, since it was Dick’s
job to attend to it, and to call out when the steam poured from the
lid. Merle had a task all her own. From the moment they halted each
day she sought through the bush tirelessly bringing to his bedside
whatever treasures she could gather–flowers, deserted nests, curiously
marked stones, gorgeous beetles; all that keen eyes could find. Dick
grew to look for her collections with delighted interest. “My word,
you are a brick, the way you find things!” he told her.

As she had begged Mrs. Lester, so her desire came to her–she was
indeed “legs” to him. He could not shake off his innate distaste for
asking older people to run about for him. Even with the nurses he
would go without something he wanted rather than send one on an errand.
Somehow, Merle was different. He began to look on her rather as a
younger brother; to find it easy to employ one whose eagerness to be
employed was evident in every look. He never omitted thanks, but she
did not want them. Her gratitude was for being used–thanks did not
matter.

With everyone else she was as silent as ever. Sometimes Mrs. Lester
would manage to make her talk a little; but for the most part she
rarely spoke, and when she was not watching Dick her eyes followed her
father about like a hungry dog’s. She knew that he no longer wanted
her. In his way he was sorry for her; but his overmastering feeling
was angry disgust and impatience that through one of his children so
bitter a calamity had befallen his friends. He had said to his wife,
“When I look at that boy, remembering what he was, and then think it is
Merle’s fault that he lies there, I feel as if I never wanted to see
her again.”

The journey might have been accomplished much more quickly than it was.
There was no need to hurry, for there was no doubt that the open-air
life was doing Dick good. He was as helpless as ever, but his appetite
was keener; he slept better and he had fewer attacks of pain. They
watched him hungrily, snatching at each hopeful sign. Supplies ran
out, but it was easy for one of the cars to run ahead into a town and
lay in a store of all that they needed. The weather held good, with
calm, starry nights, that made sleeping in the open delightful. They
were all better for the trip when at last they rolled into Perth late
one afternoon. Dr. Brereton had made all arrangements for them. His
big private hospital was on the outskirts of the city, and there Dick
was installed with his nurses in a room with a balcony overlooking the
Swan, where he might be wheeled to pass the day. They found a corner
also for Mrs. Lester, since she flatly refused to be parted from Dick;
and there was a hotel not far off for the others. Dr. Brereton
whistled with delight when he came in to see his former patient.

“Well, young man! Why, you look as fit as a fiddle!” he ejaculated.
“What have you been doing with him, Mrs. Lester? He’s brown as a
berry.”

“Camping suits him, and we have been over a fortnight on the road,” she
said, smiling. “I don’t know how he is going to stand being inside
walls again.”

“We’ll keep him on the balcony, then,” responded the doctor. “Feel
strong, old man?”

“Pretty good,” Dick nodded. “I’ll be all right once I can sit up.
When will that be, doctor?”

“Oh, some day. We’ve got to get you thoroughly fit first,” the doctor
evaded.

Dick’s face fell. What he had hoped from his meeting with Dr. Brereton
only he knew.

“Don’t you think I’m well enough to try now?” he pleaded. “You don’t
know how jolly well I feel.”

“I’m going to bring another man to see you to-morrow,” the doctor said.
“Too late to-night to overhaul you; but I want to see how my job looks.”

“Oh, your job was all right long ago–you did it awfully well,” Dick
assured him kindly. “Dr. Carter took the stitches out at Narrung.”

“Hurt you?”

“Well–everything hurts a bit,” Dick admitted. “It didn’t hurt more
than other things. I’d be lonely now if I didn’t have an ache or two!”

“Poor old chap!”

“Oh I’m all right. At least, I would be, I know, if you’d let me sit
up. No one could get well, always lying flat. Why you couldn’t keep
me flatter if my silly back was broken!–and you said it wasn’t, didn’t
you, mother?”

His eyes were like a pleading animals. Mrs. Lester smiled at him with
stiff lips.

“And it isn’t, old son. But you must be patient–give us time.”

Dick saw her mouth quiver, and was seized with swift penitence.

“I didn’t mean to be a brute, mother. I won’t worry you.” He gave a
little laugh. “You see, Dr. Brereton was someone new for me to worry,
so I had to.”

“H’m!” said the doctor. “We poor wretches are supposed to be able to
stand anything. Never mind–just wait until you’re up, and able to
fight—-”

He was interrupted by a quick cry from Dick. The boy’s eyes were
shining, his voice shaking with excitement.

“Doctor! You mean that! You mean I’ll t-truly be up–able to
f-fight–I won’t lie here always! You did m-mean it—-!”

Mrs. Lester turned to the window, unable for a moment to command her
face. The doctor patted the boy’s head with swift remorse.

“Of course I meant it, old man,” he spoke soothingly. “Only you must
give us time.”

“I’ll wait any time, if I know it’s all right,” Dick muttered. A shade
of weariness passed over his face. Then he looked at his mother, and
put out a hand to her.

“Been a beast again,” he said apologetically. “Didn’t mean to,
mummie–only he sort of surprised me.”

She dropped a butterfly kiss on his brow.

“Here’s nurse with your tea,” she said, thankful for the diversion. “I
wonder how you will like food cooked in a respectable oven again?”

“There’s no food anywhere like the food you cook over a camp fire,”
Dick declared.

“You can’t have lost the camp appetite yet,” said the nurse warmly.
“So don’t tell me.” She tucked a napkin under his chin with a deft
movement. “Please, we would like people to run away–my lion doesn’t
like to be watched while he’s fed!”

“I’m sorry I said it,” Dr. Brereton confessed out in the corridor.
“One says things hurriedly–anything to soothe a patient. And you know
I strongly advised that he should not be told his case was hopeless.”

“No, and of course we have not told him so. But I think he looked on
any statement from you as coming with special authority. I’m sorry,
too; he has never been so excited.”

“Poor little chap! I wouldn’t have given him false hope for anything.”

“And you are sure it is false?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“I haven’t any hope, Mrs. Lester. It wouldn’t be fair to you to tell
you otherwise. Mind, I would leave no stone unturned; I want another
surgeon, the best man in Perth, to examine him with me to-morrow. But
I think his verdict will be the same as my own.”

They told it to the parents gently next morning trying to soften the
cruel words. No hope, so far as they could see, that Dick would ever
walk again. In time, with special treatment and massage he might sit
up; but further than that they could promise nothing.

“He’s wonderfully strong,” Dr. Brereton said. “Everything is in his
favour, to a limited extent; there’s no reason why he should not have a
long and happy life, because he has pluck enough to face the future
when once it becomes necessary to tell him.”

“You would not tell him yet?” Mr. Lester said.

The doctor shook his head.

“He’s too young–too full of hope. Later on, when lying still has
become second nature”–Mrs. Lester shivered suddenly–“it will be
easier for him to bear the telling. Now, if you take hope from him, he
might slip back.”

“What did you say to him this morning? He asked you, of course?”

“Oh, yes, he asked, poor laddie. We put him off; told him–it’s the
truth, too–that he was getting on well, but that he must be patient
and put up with the massage. It will be painful, you know, Mrs.
Lester. He was very good–extraordinarily patient under our handling
this morning. After it all he was dog-tired, so we have put him to
sleep. The nurse is with him.”

“When do you think we can move him to Melbourne?” Mr. Lester asked.

“Oh–almost any time. Let him have a few days’ rest. I should advise
you to get passages on one of the big mail steamers; the inter-state
boats are more apt to kick about if there’s bad weather in the Bight.
Not that you should have bad weather now.”

“The _Occident_ is due next week,” the second doctor put in. “She’s
one of their newest boats–you should be able to get a deck cabin on
her for the boy. I know the manager here, Mr. Lester; would you care
to go round with me and arrange matters?”

So Dick, lying wearily on his balcony that afternoon, still stiff and
sore from the morning’s handling, heard with relief that they were to
be homeward bound.

“That’s jolly,” he said. “I’d like to see Melbourne again–and the
fellows at school. Will the old doc. let Bottles and Nuge and Teddy
come to see me, do you think, mother?”

“Of course he will,” Mrs. Lester said. “They will be wild to hear
about your adventures–think of the untold sums they have spent on
wiring to you!” The story of the Northern blacks’ raid upon Narrung
had been sent to the papers in the Eastern States, and Dick had been
inundated with telegrams from his school.

“Well, it will be great to see them,” he said. “Perhaps one of them
would come up to Kurrajong next holidays, mother; I expect I’ll be
sitting up by then, so it wouldn’t be so very dull for them.” He
grinned. “Old Bottles is going to be a doctor–it would be handy for
him to practise on me!”

“Thank you,” said the nurse hurriedly; “I’d rather not!”

“So would I,” agreed Dick. “Just you keep your eye on him, though,
nurse; he’s safe to have some patent pill of his own that he’ll be mad
keen to give me!”

“I will be there,” said the nurse, with a grim determination not to
quit her patient’s side during any invasion by Bottles.

“Mother,” Dick said, “will there be more doctors in Melbourne?–more
overhauling like to-day?”

“There may be, my son. You won’t mind, Dick, if it’s to make you
better?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “Anything’s better than lying still. I didn’t seem
to mind it so much at Narrung, but since we began to move about, and I
feel stronger, I just feel that I’d be all right if I could only get
up. But these silly asses of doctors won’t let me try.”

“Never mind,” said his father hastily. “We’ll see what the Melbourne
men say. Meanwhile, I’ve got you such a jolly deck cabin on the
_Occident_, Dick, with one for mother and me next door. You’ll be able
to be out on deck every day. It’s her first trip out, and she’s one of
the finest boats that ever came to Australia. It will be something to
tell the boys that you came in her.”

“Yes, that’ll be ripping,” said Dick, with interest. “I say, father,
what about Merle?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Mr. Lester said, pondering. “I know she wants to
come with us; and if you would like to have her, of course she can
come.”

“Oh, I don’t think I could do without my old ‘Legs,’ could I?” said
Dick, laughing. “Do let her come–she just hates the idea of going
back to Narrung. And let me tell her, father, will you–she’ll be no
end bucked!”

Merle was waiting at the street corner for a tram. It was the day
before they were to sail for Melbourne, and she had been to say
good-bye to her grandmother; the distance was not great, and she was
allowed to make the little trip to and from the hotel by herself. She
was impatient, for she was to go on to the hospital to see Dick; and
the only part of Merle’s day worth consideration to her was the part
she spent in being “legs” to the boy. She looked up the long road,
fidgeting and frowning to see no tram in sight.

Two men came strolling along and stopped near her, also glancing up the
tram track. They went on chatting, without noticing the small figure
by the lamp post.

“—-won’t be out here long,” one said, completing a sentence. “No,
he’s not coming out to practise; just on a visit to Melbourne to see
his mother. He’s been away four years, and she is getting old.”

“He was always a very devoted son, wasn’t he?” the other said.

“Yes, very. My brother died when the boy was at school, and he’s been
everything to his mother. Of course he would have done remarkably well
in the ordinary course of things; he had a big practice before he went
to Germany. But his mother was as keen as he was about his becoming a
specialist, and he has always been determined to keep himself abreast
of the latest discoveries in spinal treatment.”

“The spine was always Neil’s pet subject.”

“Yes–he used to say there ought to be another big war, because then
surgeons had a chance of finding out things they would never find in
ordinary practice. True enough, too. Anyhow, he has been at extended
research work in America and Germany these four years, and when he
finally comes out he will practise only as a spine specialist. That
won’t be for another two years, however; this is only a flying visit,
as I said.”

The word “spine” had caught Merle’s idle ears, and she was listening,
with parted lips, her breath coming quickly.

“There’s the tram,” the first man said. “Lunch with us at the club
to-morrow, won’t you, Onslow? I’d like you to meet my nephew again.
The _Occident_ gets in in the morning, and I’m going to run down in the
car to meet him, and bring him up for the day.”

“Thanks, I’ll be delighted,” his friend said. He nodded good-bye as
the tram rattled up. The first man stood aside courteously to let
Merle in, and then sat down in a seat across the aisle. The tram
banged its way down the hill.

The conductor said, “Fares, please!” three times, each with mounting
impatience, before Merle realised that he was speaking to her. Then
she took out her purse and paid him mechanically, with an air so
distracted that the conductor reported later to the motorman that there
was a kid back there quite cracked.

Her heart was thumping furiously. Someone was on the
_Occident_–someone who knew all about spines–who might cure Dick!
Someone who would not practise; but if he only saw Dick, he might
relent. She did not think anyone could possibly see Dick and not
relent. Anyway, if he were asked. And then she realised with a kind
of horror that she did not know his name.

She looked across the aisle at the man who had talked about his nephew.
He was kind-looking, she thought; short and plump, with a grey beard
and nice eyes. He surely would not mind being asked. But to speak to
a stranger was a stupendous task to Merle, who found it difficult
enough to speak to anyone she knew quite well. The very thought was
enough to make her trembling and tongue-tied. Perhaps, if he got off
when she did. And just then she looked again, and almost cried aloud
in her dismay. The tram had stopped, unnoticed by her, and the man had
got off and was walking briskly up a side street.

The conductor’s bell had rung, and the tram was already under way as
she started up, springing to the side. A woman caught at her dress
with an alarmed exclamation; from his end of the car the conductor
uttered an angry shout of warning; but Merle did not heed them. She
swung herself to the roadway, spinning round as she alighted, and
finally falling heavily. The tram was stopped, people were shouting.
Her one thought was to get away. She scrambled to her feet, brushing
the dust from her dress, and, bruised but determined, raced up the side
street.

“It’s the cracked kid,” reported the conductor gloomily, ringing his
car on again. “Wonder why they let her out without a keeper. That’s
the sort as makes us chaps get bad marks on our tickets!” He stared
wrathfully after Merle as long as she was in sight.

The stout gentleman heard running feet behind him, but he was in a
hurry, and did not turn until a breathless voice addressed him.

“Oh, please!” Merle panted.

“Bless my soul!” said the man, looking at the dishevelled figure. “Are
you hurt? What’s the matter?”

“You were talking,” Merle choked–and then took a long breath–“about a
man on the _Occident_–somebody who knows all about the spine.”

“Well–if I was?” said the amazed Westralian.

“Oh, please, would you tell me his name?”

“Why on earth—-?”

Merle cut him short.

“Oh, tell me! There’s a boy going on the _Occident_ with a hurt
spine–he might look at him! It wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Well—-” began the man, staring at her. “My nephew won’t practise,
if that’s what you mean. But his name is Neil Fraser, if you must
know. Better not tell him I told you, for he’s on a holiday, and
doesn’t want to think about spines!”

“He couldn’t help it if he knew Dick!” said Merle solemnly. “Thanks,
very much.” She turned. “I must go and catch another tram.”

“I think you had better let me brush you down a bit first,” said the
Westralian, suiting the action to the word. “I’ve got daughters
myself, and if your mother sees the state your frock is in—-!”

Merle submitted to his ministrations more or less gratefully. At the
moment it would not have mattered to her if she had no frock at all.
She was seething with excited hope. Each night she prayed blindly,
desperately, to some God she did not in the least realise that He would
make Dick well–that He would let her work out her wickedness by taking
Dick’s pain, if He only could. Perhaps God was really there, after
all–perhaps He really meant to help! She said good-bye to the
fatherly Westerner, and managed to get back to the hotel–how, she
never knew. A great thought had come to her. She had heard of cases
of skin-graft–taking skin from a sound person to heal another’s wound.
Perhaps this wonderful new man could take a piece of her spine and put
it into Dick’s. She knelt down by her bed, and prayed wildly to God
that He would arrange it.

“It doesn’t matter what becomes of me,” she said. “Daddy has two sons,
and I’m only a girl–and they’ve only Dick. And it’s all my fault. If
you can fix it so’s he’ll be able to walk soon, before he gets any
discourageder, I don’t care what you do to me. Oh, God, won’t you let
this Fraser man know all about spines like Dick’s!” It was a queer
prayer; but who shall say that it did not go straight upwards?

The burden of Merle’s secret was heavy upon her as she climbed the
gangway of the _Occident_ next day. She had not dared to speak to
anyone, in a childish fear of being ridiculed; and the temptation to
speak to Dick was so strong that in resisting it she became entirely
silent, until Dick grew worried, and said finally, “Look here, Legs,
old girl, are you really sure you want to come?”

“Want to come?” She looked at him in a dazed way. “Oh, I never wanted
anything so much in my life! You don’t want to leave me behind, do
you?”

“Rather not!” Dick said, relieved. “You’re jolly good to me, you know,
old Legs! Only I thought you were a bit down in the mouth at leaving
your father. Sure you’re not?”

She shook her head emphatically.

“No. He wants me to go with you. You can send me back any time, you
know, to Grannie. But even if you send me back at once, I want to go
on the _Occident_.”

Dick, being a gentleman, was indignant.

“You make me feel like a perfect beast!” he said warmly. “I don’t want
to send you back at all–and I wish you wouldn’t talk as if you were a
beastly parcel! You’re coming up to Kurrajong with us, and you’ll have
to ride Tinker for me until I can ride him myself.”

Until he could ride himself! The words were in her ears as she climbed
the gangway, up which two sailors had carried Dick’s stretcher
carefully a moment before. She went to the side of the ship, scanning
the faces of the passengers as they came along the pier, wondering
which could be “Neil Fraser,” and hoping that any man with a specially
kind face would be he. The time passed, and the cry of “Visitors
ashore!” startled her. Then she heard her father’s voice behind her.

“That you, Merle? I’m going.” His big face was sadder than she had
ever seen it, and he kissed her gently. She flushed; he had not often
kissed her since Dick’s accident. “Be a good girl, and do all you
possibly can for that poor boy. Remember, none of us can ever make up
what we have cost him. If–if you see anything he would like, buy it
for him–you can have all the money you want.” He half turned, and she
heard him say miserably under his breath, “If one were not so
helpless!” Then he put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s
something–just a little–if you can be legs for him. Don’t spare
yourself.”

“I won’t,” she said. “Oh, I won’t, daddy!”

He kissed her again, and went down the gangway. She watched his huge
form threading its way along the pier. His head was bent down, and he
did not look back again.

Dick did not leave his cabin that evening. He was tired with the
excitement of starting, and was, moreover, developing an invalid’s
dread of being stared at. The nurses kept him very quiet; even Merle
was not allowed inside the cabin, and she wandered about miserably,
handicapped by her shyness, and wondering how, in the crowded mail
steamer, she was ever going to find a man she did not know. She went
to bed with the problem still unsolved, slept badly, and got up early
in the morning, dressing as noiselessly as possible in order not to
disturb the nurse whose cabin she shared. In the alleyway she met a
steward, and a sudden thought came to her.

“Steward,” she said, “do you know which is Mr. Fraser’s cabin?”

“Not in my lot,” said the steward carelessly. “You don’t know ‘is
number, by any chance?”

“No.”

“Well, I dunno. Ask some of the other stewards–or the purser’d tell
you, of course.”

Merle’s courage was fast oozing away; to tackle the purser, a
mysterious and terrible individual of great power, was a task beyond
her. She dived into her pocket and produced a bright half-crown.

“You find out for me,” she said, proffering the coin, which the steward
pocketed with an adroitness born of long habit. “It’s very important;
I’ve got to know soon. I’ll come down after breakfast, and you tell me
and I’ll give you another.”

“Right-oh!” said the steward, with a new respect for a small girl who
could distribute half-crowns with such large ease. “I’ll ‘ave ‘is
number ready for you, miss.”

Dick was better; a good night had made him inclined for breakfast, and
he was longing to get out into the fresh air, even if people did look
at him. He kept Merle busy, running errands and telling him all about
the passengers; and it was not until the nurses were ready to prepare
him for going out that she was able to slip away and hurry down to her
own cabin.

The steward met her, rather aggrieved.

“Nice little jig-saw puzzle you set me, miss!” he said. “Mr. Fraser,
you says; well, there’s seven Frasers on board! Now which is it?”

Merle’s face fell.

“Seven!” she exclaimed. “How will I ever–oh, but, of course, his
name’s Neil!”

“Ah, that’s something like,” said the steward, cheering up. He
consulted a paper in his hand. “Neil–that’s N. Well, there’s two N.
Frasers, apparently, miss; N. F. Fraser in 352, and N. H. Fraser in
279. Now, which is your mark, I wonder?”

“I don’t know,” Merle said hopelessly. “Couldn’t you find out for me?”

A sudden cry of “Smithers!” smote upon the ear of the steward.

“That’s me,” he said hurriedly. “‘Fraid I’ll ‘ave to go, miss–that’s
my chief ‘owlin’. You won’t ‘ave any difficulty in findin’ your
man–just try each in turn.” He put the paper into her hand, and
almost mechanically Merle parted with her second half-crown, and
watched him rush off in response to another call.

Merle stood looking at the paper for a helpless moment. To track these
mysterious Frasers to their lairs seemed a task beyond her courage.
Still, there was nothing to be gained by putting it off–and the sooner
she set about finding her man, the sooner would her suspense about Dick
be relieved. So she set her lips firmly and went off along the
alleyways, hunting for one of the numbers she wanted.

She found one presently–279. No one was about, and she knocked at the
door timidly. There was no response at first; but presently awful
sounds arose, and Merle realised with a shudder of horror that the
inmate of 279 was extremely seasick!

She took to her heels, rushing wildly along the corridor until she
considered herself at a safe distance–scarcely realising that nothing
was further than pursuit from the mind of the unfortunate 279. Then
she stopped to consider the position; what she should do if the
terrible man she had heard was indeed the object of her quest; what,
if, as might well be, 352 was in no better case. There seemed nothing
to be gained by standing still, however, so she wandered up companions
and along alleyways until she found herself confronting the second
cabin on her list.

The door was shut, and she stood trying to summon up her courage to
knock; and feeling the said courage rapidly oozing from her. But
before she had time to make up her mind, the door opened suddenly, and
a man came out, so quickly that he nearly knocked her over.

“I beg your pardon!” he said, stepping back. “I didn’t know anyone was
there.” He looked mildly surprised; but his voice was pleasant and his
clean-shaven face was so keen and alert, and his eyes were so kindly,
that Merle was suddenly no longer afraid. “Did you knock?” he went on.
“Were you looking for anyone?”

“I’m looking for someone called Neil Fraser,” Merle stammered. “I do
hope you’re him!”

“Well–I am!” he said, and laughed. “Why did you want me?”

Twice she tried to speak, and could not. He saw the struggle in her
face and patted her shoulder. “Is anything wrong?” he asked. “I am a
doctor–can I help you? Come in and tell me.”

He drew her into the cabin. Merle made a tremendous effort, and her
words came with a rush.

“I know all about you,” she said. “You’ve been all over the world
finding out all about spines, and now you’ve got to cure Dick’s!”

“Dick’s?” he said. “What’s wrong with Dick’s?”

“It’s all wrong–broken or something. I don’t know what. It’s all my
fault, anyhow; cause I went out and the blacks nearly got me, only Dick
came after me–and they speared him, and he fell off Conqueror when he
was galloping, and lobbed on some rocks, and now they say he’ll never
walk again. And he must walk–you don’t know how splendid he is! He’s
only thirteen, and you couldn’t let a boy like that be a cripple all
his life if you could cure him!”

Suddenly she went down on her knees before him, catching at his hand.

“Can’t you do what they do with skin when they graft it?” she prayed.
“Can’t you take a bit of my spine? You can have every bit of it, if
it’ll make Dick’s all right. I know it’s quite a good spine, if you’ll
only use it!”

If he wanted to laugh he did not show it. He pulled her to her feet
gently.

“I can’t do that,” he said; “we’re not clever enough yet. But I’ll do
what I can, though, of course, I can’t promise to cure him. Tell me
more about Dick. Where is he?”

“He’s on the ship. We came on yesterday. His father and mother–and
two nurses, and me. He’s in a deck cabin; I’ll take you to see him if
you’ll come; he’ll be out on deck now.”

“How long is it since he was hurt?”

“Over two months. It was up on our station. They got Dr. Brereton
from Perth up to him first, and then they took him to Perth in an
ambulance Now they’re taking him to Melbourne, and they’ll take him all
over the world to try and get him cured. And–” her voice broke into
sobs, and tears ran down her face–“he doesn’t know they say he’ll
always be a cripple. He lies so still, but he’s always planning for
when he’s going to get up and ride again.”

“Poor lad!” said Dr. Fraser. “And are you his sister?”

“Me?” said Merle. “No; I’m just his legs!”

“Are you?” he said, and laughed for the first time. “Well, you’re a
plucky little girl, anyhow. Shall we come up and see Dick?”

They went up together. Dick was lying in the shade of a deck house, a
nurse beside him. He opened his eyes as Merle came up, and grinned at
her.

“Hullo, old Legs!” he said. “Where have you been? I’ve been out ever
so long.”

“Oh, just about,” said Merle vaguely. “Dick this is–er–Neil Fraser.”
She flushed scarlet, conscious of the peculiar nature of the
introduction.

Dr. Fraser sat down near the stretcher, apparently unconscious of
anything unusual. Dick had shrunk into his shell at the idea of
speaking to a stranger, but this man proved to be a very decent sort of
person, with no tactless ways of looking at a fellow’s stretcher, or of
making silly inquiries as to how long a fellow had been ill. He
chatted away, in a low pleasant voice, and actually of horses! He had
been, it seemed, in the western states of America, and had the queerest
stories of cowboys and their ways and their horses, told in a quaint
American drawl that made them irresistibly funny.

The nurse slipped away. A little way off Mr. and Mrs. Lester were
talking to the captain; they glanced round once or twice, hearing Dick
laugh as he had not laughed since his accident. The poor mother
flushed with pleasure.

“Listen to my boy,” she said. “Who is his new friend, captain?”

The captain looked round.

“A nice fellow, and a clever one,” he said. “Dr. Neil Fraser, of
Melbourne. I believe he’s a spine specialist, but I don’t know for
certain. Wonder if he could do your boy any good, Mrs. Lester? He can
make him laugh, that’s certain.”

The father and mother stared at each other.

“A spine specialist!” Mrs. Lester murmured.

“So our doctor says. He’s a quiet fellow, with I don’t know how many
letters after his name; but he’s out for a holiday, and doesn’t mix
much with the other passengers. I should say someone must have told
him about your boy.”

“One of the nurses, perhaps,” Mr. Lester said. “I wonder—-” He
paused, and looked long at Neil Fraser’s face, and came to Dick’s
conclusion that it was a face to invite confidence. The captain
strolled off to talk to other passengers. John Lester put his hand on
his wife’s arm.

“Shall we go and speak to him?”

“No, don’t go,” she said. “He and Dick are getting on famously–let us
leave them to make friends. John, do you think—-”

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Somehow when I saw him beside Dick a
queer wave of hope came over me. I’d almost forgotten what hope was
like. He looks clever, Jean.”

“And kind,” she said. “Let us go and find the ship’s doctor, and ask
him about him.”

The ship’s doctor, a grizzled old Scot, had only good words to say of
Neil Fraser.

“He’s going to be a great man,” he said. “I heard of him in London
from my brother–a doctor in Harley Street. He did some great work at
Munich, did Fraser, and I knew of a case he tackled in London with
extraordinary results. Oh, I’d certainly advise you to talk to him,
Mr. Lester. He’s not practising, of course, but I’m certain he
wouldn’t refuse to give you an opinion, at least.”

“Does he only doctor spines?” asked Mrs. Lester.

“From all I hear,” said the Scot drily, “he’s disinclined to recognise
any part of the body but the spine! He’s spine mad.” He hesitated.
“I tell you this, Mrs. Lester; whatever opinion he gives you I don’t
think you need go past it. If Neil Fraser can’t cure your boy there is
no one, in Australia at any rate, who can.”

Outside the surgery the Lesters looked in each other’s eyes.

“Jean!” he said. “Take care, dearest; don’t let yourself hope too
much.”

“I shouldn’t, I suppose,” she said, trembling. “But–we’ve prayed,
John; who knows if God has not sent us on this ship to answer us!”

“Come and we’ll find him,” her husband said.

Neil Fraser was still talking to Dick. The boy called them eagerly as
they came up.

“That’s father and mother!” he said. “Do come here; this is Mr.
Fraser, and he has been telling me most gorgeous yarns. Tell them
about the pony and the rattlesnake, Mr. Fraser–I’d love to hear it
again.”

Neil Fraser told the story, and they were all laughing when the nurse
came up with a steaming cup in her hand.

“More nourishment!” said Dick, disgustedly. “My word, I’ll be glad
when I’m well and can have just food to eat and not nourishment! Why
do you have to be nourished when you’re ill, and not fed?”

“That’s one of the great problems we’ve never solved,” said Fraser,
laughing. “Never mind, Dick–it looks good.”

“Oh, it’s always good,” said Dick, grinning up at the nurse. “It’s
only its name I’m grumbling at.”

“Indeed, I’d call it anything you like, so long as you leave me an
empty cup,” she said with spirit, pulling his hair.

“We’ll leave him; he doesn’t like an audience,” said Mr. Lester, as the
second nurse appeared. They strolled out of sight, and then he turned
to Fraser suddenly.

“Will you come to our cabin for a little?” he said.

In the cabin they looked at each other.

“They tell us you are a specialist in such cases as our boy’s,” John
Lester said. “Will you undertake Dick?”

Fraser hesitated.

“I’ll examine him, and give you an opinion, if you wish,” he said. “I
can’t say more until we see the result of the examination.”

“Will you do it on the ship?”

The doctor shook his head.

“I’d rather not. The slightest roll, or vibration of the screw might
make a difference.”

“I’m glad,” said Mrs. Lester. “Dick is happy–let him have his time on
board in peace.”

“Yes, that’s so,” Fraser agreed. He looked at her eager face pityingly.

“Don’t build up false hopes,” he said. “These cases are very
difficult; there are a hundred reasons why I should not succeed where
other men fail. The little girl told me the Perth men had pronounced
against your boy’s recovery.”

“The little girl!” John Lester echoed.

“Yes; the one Dick calls ‘Legs.’ She came to my cabin and dragged me
up to see Dick. I don’t know how she knew anything about me, but she
begged me, on her knees, to take out her spine and use it for Dick.”

“Poor little soul!” said John Lester huskily. He put his arm around
his wife. She had broken down as, even in those hard days, she had not
done before. Over her bent shoulders he looked at the doctor.

“I don’t want to build up hopes,” he said, “and the Perth men certainly
did give us none. But they admitted there was a loophole; that no one
understood everything about the spine. They tell us you know more than
most men.”

“Well, I have studied nothing else for four years,” Fraser said. “And
fresh discoveries are bound to take place. We cure things now that ten
years ago would certainly have been hopeless. But I’m only a learner,
as any honest doctor must admit himself. I shall be a learner all my
life. It may be–it is possible–that I may find some solution of your
son’s trouble. I’ll do my best. Only don’t be too hopeful.”

He got up, clenching his hand.

“And still, never give up hope,” he said. “More cases are lost through
hopelessness than you would dream of. We’re only beginning to know the
power of thought; but this I can assure you, that if you surround your
boy with an atmosphere of hope and courage you go far towards helping
him, just as you help to drag him down if your heart is full of
despair. He’s a boy to fight for, too. Well–I don’t even know your
name yet–but I’ll do my best to help you fight!”

There is a quiet street in a Melbourne suburb–a street lined with big
trees, where in the long, hot days you can hear the soft cooing of wood
pigeons; and yet so near the great highway of St. Kilda Road that the
clang of the tram bells comes clearly. There are queer wild creatures
there yet; the mopokes call at night in Fawkner Park, undisturbed by
the racing motors along Toorak Road, and some quick-eyed people declare
that they have seen ‘possums dart across the tram lines. If you sleep
out on a balcony, as wise folk do, you may see owls flit by, even while
in the small hours the string of market carts from the country creeps
into Melbourne, the horses plodding along steadily, while the tired
drivers curl up on the seats asleep. But the carts do not come up the
quiet street. It lies dreaming until the magpies in the Grammar School
trees carol their morning song.

Back from the road in the quiet street stands a big house, girdled with
wide verandahs. It is the quietest place of all, though at all hours
of the day and night there are motors before its gate. Its wide lawns
and gardens shelter behind tall pittosporum hedges; climbing roses and
tecoma have clambered up the posts, making a screen to shield the
balconies. It never sleeps, although it is so quiet; white-uniformed
nurses flit here and there about it by night and day, and often the big
glass dome of a room at the back blazes with light throughout the
night, as busy surgeons fight Death over an unconscious form. In the
daytime there are beds and stretchers under the trees on the lawns, or
sheltered by gaily-striped tents; and people pass in and out, taking
sheaves of flowers to the people within, or leading pale-faced
convalescents home, to take up life anew. But it is a cheery place, as
a house of healing should be; it had seemed to smile to Dick Lester
when they brought him there from the ship, so brown and merry, after a
week on deck, that it was hard to understand why he should lie so still.

Neil Fraser gave his verdict next day.

“It’s for you to decide,” he told Dick’s parents. “There is a chance;
I’ll admit it’s a slender one. If you decide to have no operation he
will probably live a long time, as they told you before–always a
cripple. Will he suffer? Yes, probably, at intervals–a good deal;
and there is always a chance of worse trouble developing.”

“And the operation?” John Lester said.

“It is a risk. I’ve done it successfully; I’ve seen as good a man as I
am fail. Should it fail, it means a worse condition; possibly
hastening the end. If it should succeed–well, Dick will walk out of
the hospital.”

Mrs. Lester drew a long breath.

“Will you tell me,” she begged, “if you would advise us to have it
done?”

“Ah, that’s too much to ask me,” he said gently. “That is surely only
for you and his father to say. I can only tell you the chances.”

There was silence for several minutes. Then the mother spoke, quickly.

“Then I say–do it!” she said. “I can’t look Dick in the face if we do
not give him every possible chance. I can’t tell him he’s a cripple
for life without having a fight to save him. It isn’t fair–it’s like
caging some wild, free thing. I know what Dick would say, if we gave
him his choice.”

Her husband took her hand and held it tightly.

“Yes, Dick would always choose the fight–he never yet lay down to
anything,” he said. “We’ll give him his chance, dear. Can you get it
over quickly, Fraser?”

“In two days,” Neil Fraser said. He looked at them pityingly. “And
you know I’ll do my best.”

They knew it on this sunny November morning as they wandered blindly up
and down the quiet street; over to the roaring traffic of St. Kilda
Road and back again; ever back to the big house where, with two
surgeons to aid Neil Fraser, Dick was taking his last chance. They
could hear nothing yet, they knew; it was too soon to look for any word
from the glass-domed theatre at the back. Of that John Lester tried to
keep his wife from thinking. They talked of Dick–of his merry baby
days; of his first pony, of the happy years when life at Kurrajong had
centred about him while he slipped from childhood into boyhood. He had
looked only a little child when they kissed him that morning.

“We’re going out for a little while,” they had said. “You won’t mind?”

“Oh, no!” Dick had answered, faintly surprised. There were several
surprising things that morning, the worst being that no one had seemed
to have time to bring him any breakfast. The nurse had laughed when he
said he was hungry, telling him the cook had gone on strike; but he was
nearly sure he saw one of them put her handkerchief to her eyes as she
left the room. Perhaps she was worried over something, he had thought;
he would not bother her any more about breakfast, anyway. Then his
father and mother had come for that queer early visit, leaving again
very soon. They had gone out quickly–but his mother had turned back
from the door and kissed him again.

“God bless you, my darling!” she had whispered–and was gone.

He was thinking over it when Dr. Fraser had appeared beside him. They
were great friends, and he grinned up at him.

“I say, is mother all right?”

“Quite all right,” the doctor had said. “We’ve got to poke round you
again a bit, Dick, old man, but we’re not going to hurt you like we did
last time–we’ll put you to sleep instead. Just smell this–deep
breaths, now.” Something light had been slipped over his face; he had
felt the doctor’s hand over his, holding it in a firm, comforting
clasp, while a sudden roaring filled his ears, and the world slipped
away.

That was an hour ago–an hour since a nurse had run hastily to Mrs.
Lester to whisper, “He’s taken the anæsthetic beautifully, and the
doctor says you’re not to worry.” And since then minutes had been ages
to the man and woman who waited for another messenger. They set
themselves walks, at first, round a block of streets, once, twice; all
the time with a listening ear for hurrying feet that might be sent to
fetch them; and when they came back to the end of the quiet street they
found themselves walking more and more quickly, straining to catch the
first glimpse of the gate where, perhaps, someone might be standing,
ready to beckon them to hasten. And at last they could keep away no
longer. They came to the hospital and walked up and down a quiet path,
that had seen many other people tramp in just such suspense as theirs.

Mrs. Lester gave in at last. There was a garden seat under a flaming
mass of bougainvillea; she sank upon it suddenly, and hid her face in
her hands, not weeping, but shuddering from head to foot with
convulsive tremors. Her husband put his arm round her, holding her
closely, almost welcoming any sign of emotion after long weeks of
unnatural calm. She pulled herself together after a while.

“It won’t do–he may need us at any moment,” she said. “John, how long
is it?”

“Nearly two hours. They can’t be much longer, dear heart.”

“I can’t walk any more–my knees have turned stupid,” she said. “If I
had something to do–anything—-”

A woman turned in at the gate near them pushing a perambulator, in
which the baby cried angrily. They had seen her before; a young mother
whose little girl was in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. She
came to see her each morning, leaving the baby boy asleep in the
garden. But this morning the boy was considering a tooth that would
not come through; he declined to sleep, and woke the echoes with his
protests at being left. The poor young mother stood rocking him, her
face furrowed with perplexity.

“Ah, you naughty boy!” they heard her murmur. “How am I going to see
Winnie?”

John Lester took a quick stride forward.

“Lend my wife your baby,” he said. “We’ll look after him.”

He picked up the child with a deft movement that made it clear that
Dick’s thirteen years had not been long enough to make him forget how
to handle a baby. Mrs. Lester held out her hands for the crying bundle
and held it to her, rocking it backwards and forwards and crooning
brokenly. The baby struggled for a moment, and then gave in, putting
out a dimpled hand to catch the lace at her breast; and she leaned down
to him, holding him until she could touch the velvet-soft cheek. Her
husband stood looking at them, a lump in his throat; the years slipped
away, and she was a child-mother again, holding Dick to her, singing
the little sleepy song he loved. He had been so proud of them
both–his two babies, he had called them; and he had boasted that she
had never grown up. There were lines in her face now, graven in the
last three months; and in the glass-domed room his other baby lay,
taking his last fighting chance; and he could help neither. He shut
his lips on a groan, turning away.

Neil Fraser was coming across the grass, taking the flower-beds in his
stride. He was pale and tired, but his eyes blazed with triumph. John
Lester stared at him, and no words would come.

“It’s all right!” Fraser said. He put out a hand to each, and suddenly
grabbed the borrowed baby, for Mrs. Lester trembled so violently that
he feared she would faint. “It’s all right, I tell you! He’s
splendid–sleeping peacefully.”

“And the operation?” John Lester uttered.

“Don’t I tell you it’s all right?” He threw back his head, with a
laugh like a boy’s. “There were complications, as well as what I
thought, and I had to take chances–but Dick will be as fit as ever he
was. He’ll walk out of the hospital, Mrs. Lester–ah, poor soul!”

They caught her between them as she swayed forward. The baby was
dumped unceremoniously on the grass, where, in sheer perversity, he lay
kicking fat legs and chewing a clover blossom contentedly. Mrs. Lester
came back to consciousness to find herself on the garden seat, the
silver cup of a flask at her lips.

“Tell me again!” she whispered.

“I could tell you all day, for I don’t mind admitting I’m a proud man!”
Fraser said. “I don’t think it’s been done before. I had a case much
the same in Munich, but there were, as I said, complications in Dick’s
case; but it worked out splendidly. He stood it well–not that I ever
had any doubt about that; he’s so tremendously fit, physically. And
next year, unless you go hunting for scars on him, you won’t need to
remember that he was ever hurt!”

“When can we see him?” the father uttered.

“You can look at him whenever you like; he’s back in bed, fast asleep,
with a nurse watching him. And you can see him for five minutes this
evening. I’ll ring up to see how he is after lunch, and if you like
I’ll meet you here at five o’clock. Now I’m going to tell my old
mother–you’ve no idea how keen she has been about Dick. She’s coming
to see him as soon as I’ll let her!”

He wrung their hands in turn.

“We can’t thank you,” John Lester said huskily.

“There’s no need; I’ve had the most entirely successful case I’ve ever
handled. I ought to thank you for giving me such a chance. And I’m
more glad than I can say–he’s no end of a boy!”

His steps died away on the gravel. Mrs. Lester looked up at her
husband.

“Will you go and just look at him?” she said. “I can’t–my silly knees
won’t do as they’re told, and I can’t risk making a fuss. Just look at
him for me, and come and tell me every little thing about him!”

“Sure you’re all right if I leave you?”

“Quite sure.”

There was only the baby in sight. He stooped suddenly and kissed her;
they clung together for a moment, without speaking. Then he went away
across the lawn. Mrs. Lester sat still for a moment; then she stooped,
still trembling, and picked up the baby. She was holding him silently,
her face against his, when the other mother came back. Across the
little face they looked at each other.

“They told me your boy has come through all right,” the baby’s mother
said. “Oh, I’m so glad! And my little girl is better.”

“I’m so glad, too, for you,” Mrs. Lester said. Suddenly the tears she
had not shed for three months began to rain down her face, but she did
not hide them. She looked through the mist of them at the other
mother–who, being a mother, was crying too.

A big tear fell, presently, on the nose of the baby, who roared
disapproval; whereupon they both fell to consoling him apologetically.

“I must take him away–he’s so big, he’ll make you tired,” his mother
said, gathering her son up proudly.

“Thank you for lending him to me,” Mrs. Lester said. “I think he kept
me from going mad. He’s such a dear, comfortable baby–just what Dick
was. How many teeth has he?”

The baby’s mother told her, with other thrilling details–so engrossing
that they did not hear Mr. Lester’s step until he was beside them.

“He’s just as peaceful as that baby is going to be in two minutes,” he
said, smiling at the little sleepy face. “And you’re going to lie down
as peacefully, too, the moment I can get you home. Come on, we must go
and tell Merle that she need be ‘Legs’ no longer!”

“Good man!” said Teddy Raine.

“Great action!” said Bottles.

“Do you think,” queried Nugent thoughtfully, “that there’s any tendency
to string-halt? Bit of a kick about that off leg.”

“Do you realise, young man, that you’re jesting with my professional
reputation!” said Neil Fraser severely.

“Not to mention with my best leg!” put in Dick. He flung a cushion
with a quick movement that found Nugent unprepared. It took him in the
face, and he subsided on top of Teddy, who received him without any
gratification.

“Get off, young Nuge!” he said, hurling him away. “Trot up and down
again, Lester; I want to see.”

“Not if I know it,” said Dick, lowering himself gently on a couch.
“When you haven’t used your legs for about seven ages they don’t make
exercise exactly a joke. And that’s my third walk to-day. Trot
Bottles up and down; he needs it.”

“Don’t you; the balcony won’t stand it,” grinned Nugent. “There’s a
notice somewhere that nothing over ten tons is allowed to trot on this
floor!”

“Don’t listen to them, Bottles,” said Mrs. Lester, laughing. “These
skinny people are always jealous of good, honest weight!”

“Bless ’em, I don’t mind,” Bottles answered cheerfully. “Keeps ’em
happy and good, and then they’re no trouble, the pretty dears!” He
grinned in a fatherly way at Dick and Nugent.

“When I can put on the pace a bit,” said Dick with emphasis, “I’ll
teach you to call me a pretty dear! Pound him to-night in the dormer
for me, Nuge, will you? He’s got horribly above himself since I’ve
been away.”

They were all on the hospital balcony, where, on a table, were the
remains of afternoon tea. Mrs. Lester sat near Dick’s couch–he still
liked to feel that she was within reach of his hand. On a cushion
beside her chair Merle was curled up; she held jealously to her
position as “Legs,” and looked forward with some dismay to the day when
Dick would need her no longer. The three boys had come racing across
from school directly the unfeeling claims of education ceased to hold
them. Afternoon tea with Dick had become an institution that was
seriously threatening the claims of cricket, insomuch that Melville,
the school captain, was endeavouring to screw himself to the point of
exercising his authority in the matter. He found it difficult to be
authoritative. It was not so very long since the day when Mr. and Mrs.
Lester had kept their vigil in the Quiet Street, when, in the school
chapel, the boys had gathered while the chaplain prayed for Dick
Lester, whose feet were in the Valley of the Shadow.

Melville himself had been to tea on the balcony since then, and it is
safe to say that at no time had Dick been so near pride as when the
great man, rather shy and tongue-tied at first in the presence of Mrs.
Lester, had sat on his couch and talked to him, a scrubby junior, as an
equal!

“You’ve got to look sharp and well, you know, Lester,” he had said, at
parting. “We want all our men badly; the Wesley and Scotch juniors are
going to take a heap of beating next term!” Which had left Dick
speechless, yet glowing. He astonished the nurse that evening by
demanding two eggs for tea!

Neil Fraser had brought his mother this afternoon–a sweet-faced old
lady, who sat beaming alternately on her tall son, and on the “case”
that had already made his name a household word among surgeons. And
John Lester leaned against the balcony rail, smoking, and looking
contentedly at his son.

Dick’s feet were very uncertain still. He had discarded crutches after
a few days’ use, declaring that they hurt him more than they helped
him. Then he had hobbled, with a stick or between two helpers; only
the day before had he suddenly declared that he would walk alone–and
had walked! A few steps, at first, from his couch to his mother;
subsiding on her, flushed and laughing, while she caught him to her and
held him, as she had done when, twelve years before, his baby feet had
first carried him to her across the nursery floor. She remembered yet
the pride of that long ago day. It was a small thing beside the utter
thankfulness of this.

The hospital was keenly interested in Dick’s convalescence. It was not
often that they had a patient so doggedly determined to get well. He
demanded instructions as to working his muscles, and struggled with
them as soon as he was permitted, rubbing himself, moving limbs that no
longer seemed to belong to him, and performing the limited amount of
“physical jerks” possible to one who lies flat in bed. The scope of
his energies widened as he was allowed to sit up; he learned from Neil
Fraser and from the masseur who visited him daily how to second their
efforts, and the nurses found him, at regular intervals, exercising
solemnly, grimacing with pain at the creaking of his unused muscles,
and working the harder the more he grimaced. The pretty girl in room
five, who had just lost her appendix, and the stout old gentleman in
three, very bad-tempered with the gout, used to ask their nurses each
morning how many inches young Lester had moved since breakfast, and
send him messages of congratulation; the matron, tall and beautiful in
snowy white, would stand at the end of his bed, cheering him on, with
an eye wary for signs of fatigue. And when he sat up–and when he
first hobbled on his crutches–the word ran from room to room, and the
nurses left their work to peep in at him and applaud. Even the
bad-tempered old gentleman, who was wont to drive his nurse almost to
tears if a stray sound penetrated his room, was found only smiling on
the morning that Dick, forgetting his surroundings in the triumph of
his first steps, sat on the end of his bed and woke the echoes with a
shout of “Buck up, School!”

In the intervals of exercising there came over him a great peace;
something altogether different from the weary patience of the months
when he had lain helpless. He seemed to want nothing if his mother
were near; looking at her, he would lie quietly, his happy face so
peaceful that a tired night nurse, peeping in, declared to a comrade
that only to look at that Lester boy made you feel as if you’d had a
night’s sleep and a cold swim! Not until long after did he confide to
his mother what the dread and terror of those first months had been.
“It was only you who kept me going,” he said. “I knew the others
thought I was always going to lie there; only you told me my back
wasn’t broken–that I’d be better some day. I just hung on to that,
when everything else in the world was black, ’cause I knew you’d never
tell me a lie!”

Peace too, had come to Merle. Something of her burden lifted upon the
ship–when Dick’s father and mother had heard from her stumbling lips
the story of how she had found Neil Fraser, and had thanked her as best
they might. The rest had rolled away on the day of the operation. She
had known nothing of it until it was over; they had agreed that she had
already borne sufficient strain. She only knew that heaven had
suddenly come out of darkness when Mrs. Lester, her worn face smiling
through tears, had taken her in her arms and told her that Dick would
walk again.

They did not want her to go back to Narrung for a year. So much of
shock and horror and bitter self-reproach hung over the vision of her
home that they dreaded what might be the effect of returning too soon;
besides which, Dick declared that he wanted old “Legs” at
Kurrajong–and nobody just then denied Dick anything, which made it
fortunate that he was a sweet-natured and unexacting person. So Mrs.
Lester had written to ask if Merle might be her daughter for a year–to
go to a good boarding-school, returning to Kurrajong, with Dick and his
mates, for the holidays. Already Bottles and Teddy and Nugent had
unknowingly done much to convince Merle that she might have been wrong
in believing that all boys were beasts! She was beginning to laugh
naturally; to make, occasionally, remarks that were more than curt
monosyllables. “She’s getting quite human!” Dick’s nurses said.

They were planning the return to Kurrajong that afternoon on the
hospital balcony. In a few days they were to go down to a hotel by the
sea, where Dick could lie in the sand and let sun and ozone have a
share in completing his cure. Mr. and Mrs. Lester would leave him
there with a nurse in charge, while they paid a flying visit to their
home, to make sure that everything was in readiness for the real
return. They would come back for Dick and Merle.

“And that will make it just about breaking-up time,” Dick said. “So
you three chaps can join up, and we’ll all go home in a bunch. Glory,
won’t it be a day!”

“And Mrs. Fraser and the doctor will come for Christmas,” Mrs. Lester
said, smiling at them over Dick’s head.

“I think you had better arrange to travel with us, Fraser,” Mr. Lester
said. “I’ll need some support if I have to take all these young people
home. Four–five of them; and a wife who always forgot to grow up!
You can’t expect a man to handle an unbroken team like that
single-handed!”

“Don’t you worry, sir,” said Bottles ponderously. “I can sit on any
two of ’em at once–except Mrs. Lester!” he added hastily, with a
furious blush.

The others roared unkindly.

“I’d hate you to try, Bottles dear!” said Mrs. Lester–whereat the
unfortunate Master Glass reddened yet more painfully.

“It’ll be jolly dull for you chaps, I’m afraid,” Dick said. “They
won’t let me ride or play tennis, or do anything, for a bit. You’ll
just have to find your way about, and get busy on the station.
There’ll be plenty of work for them, won’t there, father?”

“Any amount,” said his father. “I’ll start a bush fire, if necessary,
to prevent their feeling bored. Merle, how are you at fire fighting?”

“Had too much, thanks,” said Merle.

“Then I can’t entertain you that way. How is your tennis?”

“Rotten,” said Merle, with emphasis.

“So’s mine, Merle,” said Bottles. “Never mind–you and I’ll go out
together and kill snakes!”

“Right,” said Merle, unusually cheerful. “I’d like that!”

“There’s something unexpected about you; but give me guests who are
willing to entertain themselves,” said Mr. Lester, laughing. “We had a
man out from Scotland once who turned down all our schemes for his
amusement. But he never gave us any trouble; whenever we missed him he
was sure to be down in the pig paddock looking at my Berkshires! Queer
taste, but it kept him happy.”

“When you begin to tell calumnious stories about my nation, it’s time
we went, isn’t it, mother?” said Neil Fraser. “Pigs, indeed! Are you
sure your Scot wasn’t an Irishman, Lester?”

“He was not–and I never saw an Irishman who would look at a pig when a
horse was about,” Mr. Lester remarked. “Not that I think there was any
love of my pigs, as pigs, on M’Glashan’s part; he was a confirmed
mathematician, and he was merely calculating the amount of bacon those
Berkshires would cut into! Must you really go?”

“I must–apart from the painful nature of your conversation,” Fraser
said, laughing. “I’m taking this young mother of mine to the theatre
to-night, and she must have a rest first.”

They said good-bye, and disappeared through the long window. Teddy
Raine rose.

“Come on, you fellows,” he said. “I must take ’em back, Mrs. Lester,
or poor old Melville’ll be throwing fits. Cricket practice has slumped
since you people came here.” He patted Dick’s head, his merry face
gentle. “Going to have a mighty supper in the dormer to-night, old
thing!” he said. “Wish you were going to be there.”

“I wish I was!” said Dick ruefully. “Never mind, there’ll be lots next
term!”

“And we’ll drink more power to your old back,” said Teddy, “in
raspberry vinegar!”

“Out of a soap-dish lid?” queried Mrs. Lester demurely.

“Now, you know too much, Mrs. Lester,” Teddy reproached her. “‘Spose
this fellow revealed all our black secrets when he was delirious. You
ought to be ashamed, anyhow, Lester. No chap in our form was ever
delirious before!”

“Why, I thought it was your normal condition!” said Mr. Lester.

“That’s one below the belt!” murmured Bottles, amidst the laughter.
“Come on, chaps, we’re not appreciated here–or anywhere else! It
doesn’t matter!” They clattered downstairs, to the profound wrath of
the bad-tempered old gentleman. Dick propped himself on one elbow to
wave to them as they raced down to the gate.

“Want to be going with them, old son?” his father asked.

Dick shook his head contentedly.

“No,” he said. “Next term I will, I s’pose–when my silly old back is
in going order again. But just now”–his eyes lingered on his father
and mother–“between you two and old ‘Legs,’ and learning to
walk–well, I’ve just got jolly well all I want.”