"Chapter XVI" by Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958).
"You!" Mr. Linton said.
He had put Norah gently into the rough chair, and turned to Dick Stephenson, who was standing by his father, his lips twitching. They gripped hands silently.
"You can recognise him?"
"I'd know him anywhere," the son said. "Poor old dad! You think–?"
"I don't know," the other said hastily. "Can't tell until Anderson comes. But I fancy it's typhoid. You brought the things? Ah!" His eyes brightened as they fell on the leather medicine-case Mrs. Brown had sent, and in a moment he was unstrapping it with quick, nervous fingers..
The Hermit stirred, and gasped for water. He drank readily enough from the glass Mr. Linton held to his lips, while his son supported him with strong young arms. There was not much they could do.
"Anderson should be here before long," Mr. Linton said. "What time did Billy leave?"
"A little after twelve."
"What did he ride?"
"A big black."
"That's right," Mr. Linton nodded. "Anderson would motor out to Billabong, I expect, and Mrs. Brown would have the fresh horses ready. They should not be very long, with ordinary luck. Billy left about twelve, did he? By Jove, Norah must have made great time! It was after half-past ten when she left me."
"She and the pony looked as if they'd done enough."
"And she came back! I hadn't realised it all in the minute of seeing her," her father said, staring at Stephenson. "Norah, dear, are you quite knocked up?" He turned to speak, but broke off sharply. Norah was gone.
Mr. Linton turned on his heel without a word, and hurried out of the tent, with Stephenson at his side. Just for a moment the Hermit was forgotten in the sudden pang of anxiety that gripped them both. In the open they glanced round quickly, and a sharp exclamation of dismay broke from the father.
Norah was lying in a crumpled heap under a tree. There was something terribly helpless in the little, quiet figure, face downwards, on the grass.
Just for a moment, as he fell on his knees beside her, David Linton lost his self-control. He called her piteously, catching the limp body to him. Dick Stephenson's hand fell on his shoulder.
"She's only fainted," he said huskily. "Over-tired, that's all. Put her down, sir, please"–and Mr. Linton, still trembling, laid the little girl on the grass, and loosened her collar, while the other forced a few drops from his flask between the pale lips.
Gradually Norah's eyes flickered and opened, and colour crept into her cheeks.
"Daddy!" she whispered.
"Don't talk, my darling," her father said. "Lie still."
"I'm all right now," Norah said presently. "I'm so sorry I frightened you, Daddy–I couldn't help it."
"You should have kept still, dear," said her father. "Why did you go out?"
"I felt rummy," said his daughter inelegantly; "a queer, whirly-go-round feeling. I guessed I must be going to tumble over. It didn't seem any good making a duffer of myself when you were busy with the Hermit, so I cut out."
Dick Stephenson turned sharply and, without a word, strode back into the tent.
Norah turned with a sudden movement to her father, clinging to the rough serge of his coat. Something like a tear fell on her upturned face as the strong arms enfolded her.
"Why–Daddy–dear old Dad!" she whispered.
It was nearly twilight when Dr. Anderson and black Billy rode into the clearing, to the joy of the anxious watchers.
The doctor did not waste any words. He slipped off his horse and entered the tent. Presently Dick Stephenson came out and sat down beside Norah to await the verdict.
"I can't do any good there," he said, "and there's no room."
Norah nodded. Just then there seemed nothing to say to this son whose father, so lately given back from the grave, seemed to be slipping away again without a word. She slid her hand into his and felt his fingers close warmly upon it.
"I can stand it," he said brokenly, after a little, "if he can only know we–the world–knows he was never guilty–if I can only tell him that. I can't bear him to die not knowing that."
"He'd know it anyhow."
The little voice was very low, but the lad heard it.
"I–I guess he will," he said, "and that's better. But I would like to make it up to him a bit–while he's here."
Then they were silent. The shadows deepened across the clearing. Long since the sun had disappeared behind the rim of encircling trees.
The tent flaps parted and the doctor and Mr. Linton came out. Dick rose and faced them. He could not utter the question that trembled on his lips.
The doctor nodded cheerily.
"Well, Norah?" he said. "Yes; I think we'll pull the patient through this time, Mr. Stephenson. It'll be a fight, for he's old and weakened by exposure and lack of proper food, but I think we'll do it." He talked on hopefully, appearing not to see the question the son could not altogether hide. "Take him home? Yes, we'll get him home to-morrow, I think. We can't nurse him out here. The express-wagon's following with all sorts of comforting things. Trust your old Mrs. Brown for that, Norah. Most capable woman! Mattresses, air pillows, nourishment–she'd thought of everything, and the wagon was all ready to start when I got to Billabong. By the way, Billy was to go back to show Wright the way. Where are you, Billy? Why haven't you gone?"
"Plenty!" said Billy hastily, as he disappeared.
"Queer chap, that," said Dr. Anderson, lighting a cigarette. "That's about the only remark he's made all day, and in the motor he didn't say as much–sat like an ebony statue, with his eyes bulging in unholy terror. I hear you've been flying all over the country, Norah. What do you mean by looking so white?"
The tale of Norah's iniquities was unfolded to him, and the doctor felt her pulse in a friendly way.
"You'll have to go to bed soon," he said. "Can't have you knocking yourself up, you know; and we've got to make an early start to-morrow to avoid the worst heat of the day for the patient. Also, you will take a small tabloid to make you 'buck up,' if you know what that means, Norah!" Norah grinned. "Ah, well, Mr. Stephenson here will make you forget all that undesirable knowledge before long–lost in a maze of Euclid, and Latin, and Greek, and trigonometry, and things!"
"I say!" gasped Norah.
"Well, you may," grinned the doctor. "I foresee lively times for you and your tutor in the paths of learning, young lady. First of all, however, you'll have to be under-nurse to our friend the patient, with Mrs. Brown as head. And that reminds me–someone must sit up to-night."
"That's my privilege," said Dick Stephenson quickly. And all that night, after the camp had quieted to sleep, the son sat beside his newly-found father, watching in the silver moonlight every change that flitted across the wan old face. The Hermit had not yet recovered consciousness, but under the doctor's remedies he had lost the terrible restlessness of delirium and lay for the most part calmly. In heart, as he watched him, Dick was but a little boy again, loving above all the world the tall "Daddy" who was his hero–longing with all the little boy's devotion and all the strength of his manhood to make up to him for the years he had suffered alone.
But the calm face on the bed never showed sign of recognition. Once or twice the Hermit muttered, and his boy's name was on his lips. The pulse fluttered feebly. The great river flowed very close about his feet.