He burst into Meg's bedroom like a whirlwind. "She's in the old shed, Meg, and I'm not sure, but I think she's gone mad; and I've had the awfullest beating, and got nearly killed with the cactus for her, and never told anything. She can't eat the corned beef, either, after all. She's run away—and oh, I'm sure she's mad!"
Meg lifted a pale, startled face from the pillows. "Who on earth—what—"
"Judy," he said, and burst into excited sobs. "She's in the shed, and I think she's mad!"
Meg got slowly out of bed, huddled on some clothes, and even then utterly disbelieving the wild story, went downstairs with him.
In the hall they met their father, who was just going out.
"Are you better?" he said to Meg. "You should have stayed in bed all day; however, perhaps the air will do you more good."
"Yes," she said mechanically.
"I'm going out for the rest of the day; indeed, I don't expect either Esther or myself will be back till to-morrow morning."
"Yes," repeated Meg.
"Don't let the children blow the house up, and take care of yourself—oh! and send Bunty to bed without any tea—he's had enough for one day, I'm sure."
"Yes," said the girl again, only taking in the import of what the last pledged her to when Bunty whispered a fierce "Sneak!" at her elbow.
Then the dogcart rattled up; and the Captain went away, to their unspeakable relief.
"Now what is this mad story?" Meg said, turning to her small brother. "I suppose it's one of your untruths, you bad little boy."
"Come and see,"' Bunty returned, and he led the way through the paddocks. Half-way down they met Pip and Nell, returning earlier than expected from the fishing expedition. Nellie looked sad, and was walking at a respectful distance behind her brother.
"You might as well take a phonograph with you as Nellie," he said, casting a look of withering scorn on that delinquent. "She talked the whole time, and didn't give me a chance of a bite."
"Judy's home," said Bunty, almost bursting with the importance of his knowledge. "No one's seen her but me; I've nearly got killed with climbing up cactuses and into windows and things, and I've had thrashings from Father and everything, but I never told a word, did I, Meg? I've got her up in the shed here, and I went and got corned beef and everything just you look at my legs:"
He displayed his scars proudly, but Meg hurried on, and Pip and Nell followed in blank amazement. At the shed they stopped.
"It's a yarn of Bunty's," Pip said contemptuously. "'Tisn't April the first yet, my son."
"Come and see," Bunty returned, swarming up. Pip followed, and gave a low cry; then Meg and Nell, with rather more difficulty, scrambled up, and the scene was complete.
The delirium had passed, and Judy was lying with wide-open eyes gazing in a tired way at the rafters.
She smiled up at them as they gathered round her. "If Mahomet won't come to the mountain," she said, and then coughed for two or three minutes.
"What have you been doing, Ju, old girl?" Pip said, with an odd tremble in his voice. The sight of his favourite sister, thin, hollow-checked, exhausted, was too much for his boyish manliness. A moisture came to his eyes.
"How d'you come, Ju?" he said, blinking it away.
And the girl gave her old bright look up at him. "Sure and they keep no pony but shank's at school," she said; "were you afther thinkin' I should charter a balloon?"
She coughed again.
Meg dropped down on her knees and put her arms round her little thin sister.
"Judy," she cried, "oh, Judy, Judy! my dear, my dear!"
Judy laughed for a little time, and called her an old silly, but she soon broke down and sobbed convulsively. "I'm so hungry," she said, at last pitifully.
They all four, started up as though they would fetch the stores of Sydney to satisfy her. Then Meg sat down again and lifted the rough, curly head on her lap.
"You go, Pip," she said, "and bring wine and a glass, and in the meat-safe there's some roast chicken; I had it for my lunch, and Martha said she would put the rest there till tea; and be quick, Pip."
"My word!" said Pip to himself, and he slipped down and flew across to the house.
"Upon my word!" said Martha, meeting him in the hall five minutes later, a cut-glass decanter under his arm, a wineglass held in his teeth by the stem, a dish of cold chicken in his hand, and bread and butter in a little stack beside the chicken. "Upon my word! And what next, might I ask?"
"Oh, shut up, and hang your grandmother!" said Pip, brushing past her, and going a circuitous voyage to the shed lest she should be watching.
He knelt down beside his little sister and fed her with morsels of chicken and sips of wine, and stroked her wild hair, and called her old girl fifty times, and besought her to eat just a little more and a little more.
And Judy, catching the look in the brown, wet eyes above her, ate all he offered, though the first mouthful nearly choked her; she would have eaten it had it been elephant's hide, seeing she loved this boy better than anything else in the world, and he was in such distress. She was the better for it, too, and sat up and talked quite naturally after a little time.
"You shouldn't have done t you shouldn't really, you know, old girl, and what the governor will say to you beats me."
"He won't know," she answered quickly. "I'd never forgive whoever told him. I can only stay a week. I've arranged it all beautifully, and I shall live here in this loft; Father never dreams of coming here, so it will be quite safe, and you can all bring me food. And then after a week"—she sighed heavily—"I must go back again."
"Did you really walk all those miles just to see us?" Pip said, and again there was the strange note in his voice.
"I got a lift or two on the way," she said, "but I walked nearly all of it, I've been coming for nearly a week:"
"How COULD you do it? Where did you sleep, Judy? What did you eat?" Meg exclaimed, in deep distress.
"I nearly forget," Judy said; closing her eyes again. "I kept asking for food at little cottages, and sometimes they asked me to sleep, and I had three-and-six—that went a long way. I only slept outside two nights, and I had my jacket then."
Meg's face was pale with horror at her sister's adventure. Surely no girl in the wide world but Judy Woolcot would have attempted such a harebrained project as walking all those miles with three-and-six in her pocket.
"How COULD you?" was all she could find to say. "I hadn't meant to walk all the way," Judy said, with a faint mile. "I had seven shillings in a bit of paper in my pocket, as well as the three-and-six, and I knew it would take me a long way in the train. But then I lost it after I had started, and I didn't believe in going back just for that, so, of course, I had to walk."
Meg touched her cheek softly.
"It's no wonder you got so thin," she said.
"Won't the Miss Buttons be raising a hue-and-cry after you?" Pip asked. "It's a wonder they've not written to the pater to say you have skedaddled."
"Oh! Marian and I made that all safe," Judy said, with a smile of recollective pleasure. "Marian's my chum, you see, and does anything I tell her. And she lives at Katoomba."
"Well?" said Meg, mystified, as her sister paused. "Well, you see, a lot of the girls had the measles, and so they sent Marian home, for fear she should get them. And Marian's mother asked for me to go there, too, for a fortnight; and so Miss Burton wrote and asked Father could I? and I wrote and asked couldn't I come home instead for the time?"
"He never told us," Meg said softly.
"No, I s'pose not. Well, he wrote back and said 'no' to me and 'yes' to her. So one day they put us in the train safely, and we were to be met at Katoomba. And the thought jumped into my head as we went along: Why ever shouldn't I come home on the quiet? So I told Marian she could explain to her people I had gone home instead, and that she was to be sure to make it seem all right, so they wouldn't write to Miss Button. And then the train stopped at Blackheath, and I jumped straight out, and she went on to Katoomba, and I came home. That's all. Only, you see, as I'd lost my money there was nothing left for it but to walk."
Meg smoothed the dusty, tangled confusion of her hair.
"But you can't live out here for the week," she said, in a troubled voice. "You've got a horrid cough with sleeping outside, and I'm sure you're ill. We shall have to tell Father about it. I'll beg him not to send you back, though."
Judy started up, her eyes aflame.
"If you do," she said—"if you do, I will run away this very night, and walk to Melbourne, or Jerusalem, and never see any of you again! How can you, Meg! After I've done all this just so he wouldn't know! Oh, how CAN you?"
She was working herself up into a strong state of excitement.
"Why, I should be simply packed back again tomorrow—you know I would, Meg. Shouldn't I now, Pip? And get into a fearful row at school into the bargain. My plan is beautifully simple. After I've had a week's fun here with you I shall just go back—you can all lend me some money for the train. I shall just meet Marian at Katoomba on the 25th; we shall both go back to school together, and no one will be a bit the wiser. My cough's nothing; you know I often do get coughs at home, and they never hurt me. As long as you bring me plenty to eat, and stay with me, I'll be all right."
The rest and food and home faces had done much already for her; her face looked less pinched, and a little more wholesome colour was creeping slowly into her cheeks.
Meg had an uncomfortable sense of responsibility, and the feeling that she ought to tell someone was strong upon her; but she was overruled by the others in the end.
"You couldn't be so mean, Meg," Judy had said warmly, when she had implored to be allowed to tell Esther.
"Such a blab!" Bunty had added. "Such an awful sneak!" Pip had said.
So Meg held her tongue, but was exceedingly unhappy.