Mike, Peggy, and Nora were sitting in the fields, talking together. They were very unhappy. Nora was crying, and would not stop.
As they sat there, they heard a low call. “Coo-ee!”
“There’s Jack,” said Mike. “Dry your eyes, Nora. Jack will cheer you up!”
A boy came running by the hedge and sat down by them. He had a face as brown as a berry and bright blue eyes that shone with mischief.
“Hallo!” he said. “What’s up, Nora? Crying again?”
“Yes,” said Nora, wiping her eyes. “Aunt Harriet slapped me six times this morning because I didn’t wash the curtains well enough. Look!”
She showed him her arm, red with slaps.
“It’s a shame!” said Jack.
“If only our father and mother were here they wouldn’t let us live like this,” said Mike. “But somehow I don’t believe they’ll ever come back now.”
“How long is it since they’ve been gone?” asked Jack.
“It’s over two years now,” said Mike. “Dad built a fine new aeroplane, you know, and he set off to fly to Australia. Mother went with him, because she loves flying, too. They got nearly there - and then nothing more was heard of them!”
“And I know Aunt Harriet and Uncle Henry think they will never come back again,” said Nora, beginning to cry once more, “or they would never treat us as they do.”
“Don’t cry any more, Nora,” said Peggy. “Your eyes will get so red and horrid. I’ll do the washing instead of you next time.”
Jack put his arm round Nora. He liked her the best of them all. She was the smallest, although she was Mike’s twin. She had a little face, and a head of black curls. Mike was exactly like her, but bigger. Peggy had yellow hair and was a year older. Nobody knew how old Jack was. He didn’t know himself. He lived with his grandfather on a tumble-down farm, and worked as hard as a man, although he wasn’t much bigger than Mike.
He had made friends with the children as they wandered through the fields. He knew how to catch rabbits. He knew how to catch fish in the river. He knew where the best nuts and blackberries were to be found. In fact, he knew everything, the children thought, even the names of all the birds that flew about the hedges, and the difference between a grass snake and an adder, and things like that.
Jack was always dressed in raggedy things, but the children didn’t mind. His feet were bare, and his legs were scratched with brambles. He never grumbled; he never whined. He made a joke of everything, and he had been a good friend to the three miserable children.
“Ever since Aunt Harriet made up her mind that Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t come back, she has been perfectly horrid,” said Nora.
“And so has Uncle Henry,” said Mike. “We none of us go to school now, and I have to help Uncle in the fields from morning to night. I don’t mind that, but I do wish Aunt Harriet wouldn’t treat the two girls so badly. They are not very old, and she makes them do all the work of the house for her.”
“I do every bit of the washing now,” said Nora. “I wouldn’t mind the little things, but the sheets are so big and heavy.”
“And I do all the cooking,” said Peggy. “Yesterday I burnt a cake because the oven got too hot, and Aunt Harriet sent me to bed for the rest of the day without anything to eat at all.”
“I climbed through the window and gave her some bread and cheese,” said Mike. “And Uncle caught me and shook me so hard that I couldn’t stand up afterwards. I had to go without my supper, and my breakfast this morning was only a small piece of bread.”
“We haven’t had any new clothes for months,” said Peggy. “My shoes are dreadful. And I don’t know what we shall do when the winter comes, because none of our coats will fit us.”
“You are much worse off than I am,” said Jack. “I have never had anything nice, so I don’t miss it. But you have had everything you wanted, and now it is all taken away from you - you haven’t even a father and mother you can go to for help.”
“Do you remember your father and mother, Jack?” asked Mike. “Did you always live with your old grandfather?”
“I never remember anyone except him,” said Jack. “He’s talking of going to live with an aunt of mine. If he does I shall be left all alone, for she won’t have me, too.”
“Oh, Jack! Whatever will you do?” asked Nora.
“I shall be all right!” said Jack. “The thing is what are you three going to do? I hate to see you all unhappy. If only we could all run away together!”
“We should be found at once and brought back,” said Mike gloomily. “I know that. I’ve read in the papers about boys and girls running away, and they are always found by the police and brought back. If I knew some place where we would never be found, I would run away - and take the two girls with me too. I hate to see them slapped and worked hard by Aunt Harriet.”
“Now listen to me,” said Jack suddenly, in such an earnest voice that all three children turned to him at once. “If I tell you a very great secret will you promise never to say a word about it to anyone?”
"Oh, yes, Jack, we promise,” said all three.
“You can trust us, Jack,” said Mike.
“I know I can,” he said. “Well, listen. I know a place where nobody could find us - if we ran away!”
“Where is it, Jack?” they all cried in great excitement.
“I’ll show you this evening,” said Jack, getting up. “Be by the lakeside at eight o’clock, when all your work is done, and I’ll meet you there. I must go now, or Granpa will be angry with me, and perhaps lock me into my room so that I can’t get out again to-day.”
“Good-bye, Jack,” said Nora, who was feeling much better now. "We’ll see you this evening.”
Jack ran off, and the three children made their way slowly back to Uncle Henry’s farm. They had taken their dinner out into the fields to eat - now they had to go back to work. Nora had a great deal of ironing to do, and Peggy had to clean the kitchen. It was a big stone kitchen, and Peggy knew it would take her until supper-time - and, oh dear, how tired she would be then! Aunt Harriet would scold her all the time, she knew.
“I’ve got to go and clean out the barn,” said Mike to the girls, "but I’ll be in at supper-time, and afterwards we’ll see about this great secret of Jack’s.”
They each began their work, but all the time they were thinking excitedly of the evening. What was Jack’s secret? Where was the place he knew of? Could they really and truly run away?
They all got into trouble because they were thinking so hard of the evening that they did not do their work to Aunt Harriet’s liking nor to Uncle Henry’s either. Nora got a few more slaps, and Peggy was scolded so hard that she cried bitterly into her overall. She was made to scrub the kitchen floor all over again, and this made her late for supper.
Mike was shouted at by Uncle Henry for spilling some corn in the barn. The little boy said nothing, but he made up his mind that if it was possible to run away in safety he would do so, and take the girls with him, too.
“Nora and Peggy ought to be going to school and wearing nice clothes that fit them, and having friends to tea,” said Mike to himself. “This is no life for them. They are just very hard-worked servants for Aunt Harriet, and she pays them nothing.”
The children ate their supper of bread and cheese in silence. They were afraid of speaking in case their aunt or uncle shouted at them. When they had finished Mike spoke to his aunt.
“Please may we go for a walk in the fields before we go to bed?” he asked.
“No, you can’t,” said Aunt Harriet in her sharp voice. “You’ll just go to bed, all of you. There’s a lot of work to do to-morrow, and I want you up early.”
The children looked at one another in dismay. But they had to do as they were told. They went upstairs to the big bedroom they all shared. Mike had a small bed in the corner behind a screen, and the two girls had a bigger bed between them.
“I believe Aunt Harriet and Uncle Henry are going out to-night, and that’s why they want us to go to bed early,” said Mike. “Well, if they do go out, we’ll slip down and meet Jack by the river.”
“We won’t get undressed then,” said Nora. “We’ll just slip under the sheets, dressed - and then it won’t take us long to run down to the lake.”
The three children listened hard. They heard the front door close. Mike popped out of bed and ran to the front room. From there he could see the path to the gate. He saw his uncle and aunt walk down it, dressed to go out.
He ran back to the others. “We’ll wait for five minutes,” he said, "then we’ll go.”
They waited quietly. Then they all slipped downstairs and out of the back door. They ran down to the lake as fast as they could. Jack was there waiting for them.
“Hallo, Jack,” said Mike. “Here we are at last. They sent us to bed, but when they went out we slipped down here to meet you.”
“What’s your great secret, Jack?” asked Nora, “we are longing to know.”
“Well, listen,” said Jack. “You know what a big lake this is, don’t you, perfectly wild all round, except at the two ends where there are a few farmhouses and cottages. Now I know a little island, a good way up the south side of the lake, that I’m sure nobody knows at all. I don’t think anyone but me has ever been there. It’s a fine island, and would make the best hiding-place in the world!”
The three children listened, their eyes wide with astonishment. An island on the big lake! Oh, if only they could really go there and hide - and live by themselves - with no unkind aunt and uncle to slap them and scold them and make them work hard all day long!
“Are you too tired to walk down the lakeside to a place where you can see the island?” asked Jack. “I only found it quite by chance one day. The woods come right down to the lakeside opposite the island, and they are so thick that I don’t think anyone has ever been through them, and so no one can have seen my island!”
“Jack! Jack! Take us to see your secret island!” begged Nora. “Oh, we must go. We’re all tired - but we must, must see the secret island.”
“Come on, then,” said Jack, pleased to see how excited the others were. “Follow me. It’s a good way.”
The bare-footed boy took the three children across the fields to a wood. He threaded his way through the trees as if he were a rabbit. The wood thinned out and changed to a common, which, in turn, gave way to another wood, but this time the trees were so thick that it seemed as if there was no way through them at all.
But Jack kept on. He knew the way. He led the children without stopping, and at last they caught sight of the gleam of water. They had come back to the lakeside again. The evening was dim. The sun had sunk long since, and the children could hardly see.
Jack pushed his way through the trees that grew down to the waterside. He stood there and pointed silently to something. The children crowded round him.
“My secret island!” said Jack.
And so it was. The little island seemed to float on the dark lake-waters. Trees grew on it, and a little hill rose in the middle of it. It was a mysterious island, lonely and beautiful. All the children stood and gazed at it, loving it and longing to go to it. It looked so secret - almost magic.
“Well,” said Jack at last. “What do you think? Shall we run away, and live on the secret island?”
“Yes!” whispered all the children. “Let’s!”