"'I know him to be valiant.'
'I was told that by one that knows him better than you.'
'Marry, he told the so himself, and he said
he cared not who knew it'"
Bunty had been betrayed into telling another story. It was a very, big one, and he was proportionately miserable. Everyone else had gone out but Meg, who was still in bed after her fainting fit, and he had been having a lonely game of cricket down in the paddock by himself. But even with a brand-new cricket ball this game palls after a time when one has to bowl and bat and backstop in solitary state. So presently he put his bat over into the garden, and began to throw the ball about in an aimless fashion, while he cogitated on what he should do next. His father's hack was standing away at the farther end of the paddock, and in an idle, thoughtless way Bunty sauntered down towards it, and then sent his ball spinning over the ground in its direction "to give it a jump." Nothing was further from his thoughts than an idea of hurting the animal, and when the ball struck it full on the leg, and it moved away limping, he hastened down to it, white and anxious.
He could see he had done serious mischief by the way the poor thing held its leg up from the ground and quivered when he touched it. Terror seized him forthwith, and he turned hastily round with his usual idea of hiding in his head. But to his utter dismay, when he got half-way back across the paddock he saw his father and a brother officer come out of the wicket gate leading from the garden and saunter slowly down in the direction of the horse, which was a valuable and beautiful one.
In terror at what he had done, he slipped the cricket ball into the front of his sailor jacket, and, falling hurriedly upon his knees, began playing an absorbing game of marbles. His trembling thumb had hit about a dozen at random when he heard his name called in stentorian tones.
He rose, brushed the dust from his shaking knees, and walked slowly down to his father.
"Go and tell Pat I want him instantly," the Captain said. He had the horse's leg in his hand and was examining it anxiously. "If he's not about, send Pip. I can't think how it's happened—do you know anything of this, Bunty?"
"No, of course not! I n—never did n—n—nothing," Bunty said with chattering teeth, but his father was too occupied to notice his evident guilt, and bade him go at once.
So he went up to the stables and sent Pat posthaste back to his father.
And then he stole into the house, purloined two apples and a bit of cake from the dining-room, and went away to be utterly miserable until he had confessed.
He crept into a disused shed some distance from the house; in days gone by it had been a stable, and had a double loft over it that was only to be reached by a ladder in the last stage of dilapidation. Bunty scrambled up, sat down in an unhappy little heap among some straw, and began thoughtfully to gnaw an apple.
If ever a little lad was in need of a wise loving, motherly mother it was this same dirty-faced, heavyhearted one who sat with his small rough head against a cobwebby beam and muttered dejectedly, "'Twasn't my fault: 'Twas the horse:"
He fancied something moved in the second loft, which was divided from the one he was in by a low partition. "Shoo—shoo, get away!" he called, thinking it was rats. He struck the floor several times with his heavy little boots.
"Shoo!" he said.
The boy turned pale to his lips. That odd, low whisper of his name, that strange rustle so near him—oh, what COULD it mean?
Again the name sounded. Louder this time, but in a tired voice, that struck him some way with a strange thrill. The rustling grew louder, something was getting over the partition, crossing the floor, coming towards him. He gave a sob of terror and flung himself face downwards on the ground, hiding his little blanched face among the straw.
"Bunty," said the voice again, and a light hand touched his arm.
"Help me—HELP me!" he shrieked. "Meg—oh! Father—Esther!"
But one hand was hastily put over his mouth and another pulled him into a sitting position.
He had shut his eyes very tightly, so as not to see the ghostly visitant that he knew had come to punish him for his sin. But something made him open them, and then he felt he could never close them again for amazement.
For, it was Judy's hand that was over his mouth, and Judy's self that was standing beside him.
"My golly!" he said, in a tone of stupefaction. He stared hard at her to make sure she was real flesh and blood. "However did you get here?"
But Judy made no answer. She merely took the remaining apple and cake from his hand, and, sitting down, devoured them in silence.
"Haven't you got any more?" she said anxiously. Then he noticed what a tall, gaunt, strange-looking Judy it was. Her clothes were hanging round her almost in tatters, her boots were burst and white with dust, her brown face was thin and sharp, and her hair matted and rough.
"My golly!" the little boy said again, his eyes threatening to start out of his head—"my golly, Judy, what have you been doin'?"
"I—I've run away, Bunty," Judy said, in a quavering voice. "I've walked all the way from school. I wanted to see you all so badly."
"My jiggery!" Bunty said.
"I've thought it all out," Judy continued, pushing back her hair in a weary moray. "I can't quite remember everything just now, I am so tired, but everything will be all right."
"But what'll he say?" Bunty said with frightened eyes, as a vision of his father crossed his mind.
"He won't know, of course," Judy returned, in a matter-of-fact manner. "I shall just live here in this loft for a time, and you can all come to see me and bring me food and things, and then presently I'll go back to school." She sank down among the straw and shut her eyes in an exhausted way for a minute or two, and Bunty watched her half fascinated.
"How far is it from your school?" he said at last.
"Seventy-seven miles." Judy shuddered a little. "I got a lift in a luggage train from Lawson to Springwood, and a ride in a cart for a little way, but I walked the rest. I've been nearly a week coming," she added after a pause, and shut her eyes again for quite a long time. Then a tear or two of weakness and self-pity trickled from beneath her black lashes, and made a little clean mark down her cheeks. Bunty's throat swelled at the sight of them, he had never seen Judy cry as long as he could remember. He patted her thin hand, he rubbed his head against her shoulder, and said, "Never mind, old girl," in a thick voice.
But that brought, half a dozen great heavy drop hurrying down from beneath the closed lashes, and the girl turned over and lay face downwards to hide them. Then she struggled up to a sitting position and actually began to laugh.
"IF the Miss Burtons could see me!" she said. "Oh, I've managed everything so beautifully; they think I'm spending a fortnight at Katoomba—oh, BUNTY, you ought to see the curls Miss Marian Burton wears plastered at each side of her cheeks!" She broke off, laughing almost hysterically, and then coughing till the tears came back in her eyes.
"Do go and get me something to eat," she said crossly, when she got her breath—"you might remember I've had nothing to eat since yesterday morning; only you always were selfish, Bunty."
He got up and moved away in a great hurry. "What could you eat? what shall I get?" he said, and put one leg down the trap-door.
"Anything so long as it's a lot," she said—"ANYTHING!—I feel I could eat this straw, and crunch up the beams as if they were biscuits. I declare I've had to keep my eyes off you, Bunty; you're so fat I keep longing to pick your bones."
Her eyes shone with a spark of their old fun, but then she began to cough again, and, after the paroxysm had passed, lay back exhausted.
"Do fetch some of the others," she called faintly, as his head was disappearing. "You're not much good alone, you know."
His head bobbed back a moment, and he tried to smile away the pain her words gave him, for just at that minute he would have died for her without a murmur.
"I'm awf'ly sorry, Judy," he said gently, "but the others are all out. Wouldn't I do? I'd do anything, Judy please."
Judy disregarded the little sniffle that accompanied the last words, and turned her face to the wall.
Two big tears trickled down again.
"They MIGHT have stayed in," she said with a sob. "They might have known I should try to come. Where are they?"
"Pip's gone fishing," he said, "and Nell's carrying the basket for him. And Baby's at the Courtneys', and Esther's gone to town with the General. Oh, and Meg's ill in bed, because her stays were too tight last night and she fainted."
"I suppose they haven't missed me a scrap," was her bitter thought, when she heard how everything seemed going on as usual, while she had been living through so much just to see them all.
Then the odd feeling of faintness came back, and she closed her eyes again and lay motionless, forgetful of time, place, or hunger.
Bunty sped across the paddock on winged feet; the sight of his father near the stables gave him a momentary shock, and brought his own trouble to mind, but he shook it off again and hurried on. The pantry door was locked. Martha, the cook, kept it in that condition generally on account of his own sinful propensities for making away with her tarts and cakes; it was only by skilful stratagem he could ever get in, as he remembered dejectedly.
But Judy's hunger! Nothing to eat since yesterday morning!
He remembered, with a feeling of pain even now, the horrible sinking sensation he had experienced last week when for punishment he had been sent to bed without his tea. And Judy had forgone three meals! He shut his lips tightly, and a light of almost heroic resolve came into his eyes. Round at the side of the house was the window to the pantry; he had often gazed longingly up at it, but had never ventured to attempt the ascent, for there was a horrible cactus creeper up the wall.
But now for Judy's sake he would do it or die. He marched round the house and up to the side window; no one was about, the whole place seemed very quiet. Martha, as he had seen, was cooking in the kitchen, and the other girl was whitening the front veranda. He gave one steady look at the great spiky thorns, and the next minute was climbing up among them.
Oh, how they pierced and tore him! There was a great, jagged wound up one arm, his left stocking was ripped away and a deep red scratch showed across his leg, his hands were bleeding and quivering with pain.
But he had reached the sill, and that was everything.
He pushed up the narrow window, and with much difficulty forced his little fat body through. Then he dropped down on to a shelf, and lowered himself gingerly on to the floor. There was no time to stay to look at his many hurts, he merely regarded the biggest scratch with rueful eyes, and then began to look around for provender. The pantry was remarkably empty—not a sign of cakes, not a bit of jelly, not a remnant of fowl anywhere. He cut a great piece off a loaf, and carefully wrapped some butter in a scrap of newspaper. There was some corned beef on a dish, and he cut off a thick lump and rolled it up with the remains of a loquat tart. These parcels he disposed of down the loose front of his sailor coat, filling up his pockets with sultanas, citron-peel, currants, and such dainties as the store bottles held. And then he prepared to make his painful retreat.
He climbed upon the shelf once more, put his head out of the window, and gave a look of despair at the cactus. And even as he knelt there sounded behind him the sharp click of a turning key.
He looked wildly round, and there was Martha in the doorway, and to his utter horror she was talking to his father, who was in the passage just beyond.
"Row's Embrocation, or arnica," the Captain was saying. "It is probably in this pantry, my good girl, because it is the last place I should expect it to be in. I left it on my bedroom mantelpiece, but somebody has seen fit to meddle with it. Why in the name of all that is mysterious can't you let my things alone?"
"And for what should I be after moving it for?" Martha retorted. "I don't mix the pastry with it to make it lightsome, leastway not ordinarily."
She tossed her head, and the action revealed the small, kneeling, terrified figure at the window. Now the door was only half open, and her master was standing just beside it outside, so she only had the benefit of the spectacle.
Twice she opened her mouth to speak, but Bunty made such frantic, imploring faces at her than she closed it again, and even began to examine the bottles on the shelf near the door to give the boy an opportunity of retreat.
One minute and he would, have been safe—one minute and he would have been in the thick of the cactus, that had quite lost its terrors.
But the Fates were too strong for him. And all because Martha Tomlinson's shoe was don at the heel. In turning round it twisted a little under her, and, in trying to recover her balance, she put out one hand. And in putting out one hand she knocked over a jug. And the jug communicated its shock to dish. Which toppled over, and coolly pushed the great basin of milk off the shelf on to the floor. I don't know if ever you have tried to clean a board floor after milk, but I am sure you can imagine it would be a disagreeable task, especially if you had scrubbed it well only that morning. It was hardly to be wondered at, therefore, that Martha, in her profound irritation at the disaster, turned angrily round, and, pointing to the figure now stuck in the window, demanded in an exasperated tone whether the blessed saints could stand that dratted boy any longer, for she couldn't, so there.
The Captain took an angry step into the pantry and gave a roar of command for Bunty to come down.
The boy dropped in an agony of dread and shrinking.
"Always his hands a-pickin' and stealin' and his tongue a-lyin'," said Martha Tomlinson, gazing unkindly at the unhappy child.
Two, three, four, five angry cuts from the riding-whip in the Captain's hands, and Bunty had ducked under his arm and fled howling down the passage and out of the back door.
Away across the paddocks he went, sobbing at every step, but hugely commending himself for bearing all this for someone else's sake.
He could hardly have believed, had anyone told him previously, that he could have done anything so absolutely noble, and the thought comforted him even while the cuts and scratches smarted. He tried to stifle his sobs as he reached the shed, and even stuffed half a handful of currants into his mouth towards that end.
But it was a very tearful, scratched, miserable face that bobbed up the opening near Judy again.
She did not move, though her eyes were half open, and he knelt down and shook her shoulder gently.
"Here's some things, Judy—ain't you goin' to eat them?"
She shook her head very slightly.
"Have some corned beef, or some currants; there's some peel, too, if you'd rather."
She shook her head again. "Do take them away," she said, with a little moan.
A look of blank disappointment stole over his small, heated face.
"An' I've half killed myself to get them! Well, you ARE a mean girl!" he said.
"Oh, DO go away,": Judy moaned, moving her head restlessly from side to side. "Oh, how my feet ache! no—my head, and my side—oh! I don't know what it is!"
"I got hit here and here," Bunty said, indicating the places, and wiping away tears of keen self-pity with his coat sleeve. "I'm scratched all over with that beastly old cactus."
"Do you suppose there are many miles more?" Judy said, in such a quick way that all the words seemed to run into each other. "I've walked hundreds and hundreds, and haven't got home yet. I suppose it's because the world's round, and I'll be walling in at the school gate again presently."
"Don't be an idjut!" Bunty said gruffly.
"You'll be sure and certain, Marian, never to breathe a word of it; I've trusted you, and if you keep faith I can go home and come back and no one will know. And lend me two shillings, can you? I've not got much left. Bunty, you selfish little pig, you might get me some milk! I've been begging and begging of you for hours, and my head is going to Catherine wheels for want of it."
"Have some corned beef, Judy, dear—oh, Judy, don't be so silly and horrid after I nearly got killed for you," Bunty said, trying with trembling fingers to stuff a piece into her mouth.
The little girl rolled over and began muttering again.
"Seventy-seven miles," she said, "and I walked eleven yesterday, that makes eleven hundred and seventy-seven—and six the day before because my foot had a blister—that's eleven hundred and eighty-three. And if I walk ten miles a day I shall get home in eleven hundred and eighty-three times ten, that's a thousand and—and—oh! what is it? whatever is it? Bunty, you horrid little pig, can't you, tell me what it is? My head aches too much to work, and a thousand and something days—that's a year—two years—two years—three years before I get there. Oh, Pip, Meg, three years! oh, Esther! ask him, ask him to let me come home! Three years—years—years!"
The last word was almost shrieked and the child struggled to her feet and tried to walk.
Bunty caught her arms and held her. "Let me go, can't you?" she said hoarsely. "I shall never get there at this rate. Three years, and all those miles!"
She pushed him aside and tried to walk across the loft, but her legs tottered under her and she fell down in a little senseless heap. "Meg—I'll fetch Meg," said the little boy in a trembling, alarmed voice, and he slipped down the opening and hastened up to the house.