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Title: Back to Billabong
Author: Bruce, Mary Grant
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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BACK TO BILLABONG


By Mary Grant Bruce



1921



    “Beyond the distant sky-line
     (Now pansy-blue and clear),
     We know a land is waiting,
     A brown land, very dear:
     A land of open spaces,
     Gaunt forest, treeless plain:
     And if we once have loved it
     We must come back again.”

     (Dorothea Mackellar.)



CONTENTS

CHAP.

I.    LANCASTER GATE, LONDON, W

II.   THE RAINHAMS

III.  PLAYING TRUANT

IV.   COMING HOME

V.    THE TURN OF FORTUNE’S WHEEL

VI.   SAILING ORDERS

VII.  THE WATCH DOGS

VIII. HOW TOMMY BOARDED A STRANGE TAXI

IX.   THE WELCOME OF AUSTRALIA

X.    BILLABONG

XI.   COLONIAL EXPERIENCES

XII.  ON INFLUENZA AND FURNITURE

XIII. THE HOME ON THE CREEK

XIV.  THE CUNJEE RACES

XV.   HOW WALLY RODE A RACE

XVI.  BUILDING UP AGAIN



BACK TO BILLABONG



CHAPTER I

LANCASTER GATE, LONDON, W


“Do the beastly old map yourself, if you want it. I shan’t, anyhow!”

“Wilfred!”

“Aw, Wil-fred!” The boy at the end of the schoolroom table, red-haired,
snub-nosed and defiant, mimicked the protesting tone. “I’ve done it
once, and I’m blessed if I do it again.”

“No one would dream that it was ever meant for Africa.” The young
teacher glanced at the scrawled and blotted map before her. “It--it
doesn’t look like anything earthly. You must do it again, Wilfred.”

“Don’t you, Wilf.” Wilfred’s sister leaned back in her chair, tilting it
on its hind legs.

“You have nothing to do with Wilfred’s work, Avice. Go on with your
French.”

“Done it, thanks,” said Avice. “And I suppose I can speak to my own
brother if I like.”

“No, you can’t--in lesson time,” said the teacher.

“Who’s going to stop me?”

Cecilia Rainham controlled herself with an effort.

“Bring me your work,” she said.

She went over the untidy French exercise with a quick eye. When she had
finished it resembled a stormy sky--a groundwork of blue-black, blotted
writing, lit by innumerable dashes of red. Cecilia put down her red
pencil.

“It’s hopeless, Avice. You haven’t tried a bit. And you know it isn’t
hard--you did a far more difficult piece of translation without a
mistake last Friday.”

“Yes, but the pantomime was coming off on Saturday,” said Wilfred, with
a grin. “Jolly little chance of tickets from Bob if she didn’t!”

“You shut up!” said Avice.

“Be quiet, both of you,” Cecilia ordered, a spot of red in each pale
cheek. “Remember, there will be other Saturdays. Bob will do nothing for
you if I can’t give him a decent report of you.” It was the threat she
hated using, but without it she was helpless. And the red-haired pair
before her knew to a fraction the extent of her helplessness.

For the moment the threat was effective. Avice went back to her seat,
taking with her the excited-looking French exercise, while Wilfred
sullenly recommenced a dispirited attack upon the African coastline.
Cecilia leaned back in her chair, and took up a half-knitted sock--to
drop it hastily, as a long-drawn howl came from a low chair by the
window.

“Whatever is the matter, Queenie?”

“I per-ricked my finger,” sobbed the youngest Miss Rainham. She stood
up, tears raining down her plump cheeks. No one, Cecilia thought, ever
cried so easily, so copiously, and so frequently as Queenie. As she
stood holding out a very grubby forefinger, on which appeared a minute
spot of blood, great tears fell in splashes on the dark green linoleum,
while others ran down her face to join them, and others trembled on her
lower eyelids, propelled from some artesian fount within.

“Oh, dry up, Queenie!” said Wilfred irritably. “Anyone ‘ud think you’d
cut your silly finger off!”

“Well--it’th bleed-in’!” wailed Queenie. She dabbed the injured member
with the pillow case she was hemming, adding a scarlet touch in pleasant
contrast to its prevailing grime.

“Well--you’re too big a girl to cry for a prick,” said Cecilia wearily.
“People who are nearly seven really don’t cry except for something
awfully bad.”

“There--I’ll tell the mater you said awfully!” Avice jeered. “Who bites
our heads off for using slang, I’d like to know?”

“You wouldn’t have much head left if I bit for every slang word you
use,” retorted her half-sister. “Do get on with your French, Avice--it’s
nearly half-past twelve, and you know Eliza will want to lay the table
presently. Come here, Queenie.” She took the pillow case, and unpicked
a few stitches, which clearly indicated that the needle had been taking
giant strides. “Just hem that last inch or two again, and see if you
can’t make it look nice. I believe the needle only stuck into your
finger because you were making it sew so badly. Have you got a
handkerchief?--but, of course, you haven’t.” She polished the fat,
tear-stained cheek with her own. “Now run and sit down again.”

Queenie turned to go obediently enough--she was too young, and possibly
too fat, to plan, as yet, the deliberate malice in which her brother and
sister took their chief pleasure. Unfortunately, Wilfred arrived at the
end of Africa at the wrong moment for her. He pushed the atlas away from
him with a jerk that overturned the ink bottle, sending a stream of ink
towards Avice--who, shoving her chair backwards to escape the deluge,
cannoned into Queenie, and brought her headlong to the floor. Howls
broke out anew, mingled with a crisp interchange of abuse between the
elder pair, while Cecilia vainly sought to lessen the inky flood with a
duster. Upon this pleasant scene the door opened sharply.

“A nice way you keep order at lessons,” said Mrs. Mark Rainham acidly.
“And the ink all over the cloth. Well, all I can say is, you’ll pay for
a new one, Cecilia.”

“I did not knock it over,” said Cecilia, in a low tone.

“It’s your business to look after the children, and see that they do not
destroy things,” said her stepmother.

“The children will not obey me.”

“Pouf!” said Mrs. Rainham. “A mere question of management. High-spirited
children want tact in dealing with them, that is all. You never
trouble to exercise any tact whatever.” Her eyes dwelt fondly on her
high-spirited son, whose red head was bent attentively over Africa
while he traced a mighty mountain range along the course of the Nile.
“Wilfred, have you nearly finished your work?”

“Nearly, Mater,” said the industrious Wilfred, manufacturing mountains
tirelessly. “Just got to stick in a few more things.”

“Say ‘put,’ darling, not ‘stick.’ Cecilia, you might point out those
little details--that is, if you took any interest in their English.”

“Thethilia thaid ‘awfully’ jutht now,” said Queenie, in a shrill pipe.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Mrs. Rainham, bitterly. “Of course, anyone
brought up in Paris is too grand to trouble about English--but we think
a good deal of these things in London.” A little smile hovered on
her thin lips, as Cecilia flushed, and Avice and her brother grinned
broadly. The Mater could always make old Cecilia go as red as a
beetroot, but it was fun to watch, especially when the sport beguiled
the tedium of lessons.

A clatter of dishes on a tray heralded the approach of Eliza.

“It is time the table was clear,” Mrs. Rainham said. “Wilfred, darling,
I want you to post a letter. Put up your work and get your cap. Cecilia,
you had better try to clean the cloth before lunch; it is ruined, of
course, but do what you can with it. I will choose another the next time
I am in London. And just make sure that the children’s things are all in
order for the dancing lesson this afternoon. Avice, did you put out your
slippers to be cleaned?”

“Forgot all about it, Mater,” said Avice cheerfully.

“Silly child--and it is Jackson’s day off. Just brush them up for her,
Cecilia. When the children have gone this afternoon, I want you to see
to the drawing-room; some people are coming in to-night, and there are
fresh flowers from Brown’s to arrange.”

Cecilia looked up, with a sudden flush of dismay. The children’s dancing
lesson gave her one free afternoon during the week.

“But--but I am going to meet Bob,” she stammered.

“Oh, Bob will wait, no doubt; you need not keep him long, if you hasten
yourself. Yes, Eliza, you can have the table.” Mrs. Rainham left the
room, with the children at her heels.

Cecilia whisked the lesson books hastily away; Eliza was waiting with a
lowering brow, and Eliza was by no means a person to be offended. Maids
were scarce enough in England in the months after the end of the
war; and, even in easier times, there had been a dreary procession
of arriving and departing servants in the Rainham household--the
high-spirited characteristics of the children being apt to pall quickly
upon anyone but their mother. In days when there happened to be no
Eliza, it was Cecilia who naturally inherited the vacant place, adding
the duties of house-maid to those of nurse, governess, companion and
general factotum; all exacting posts, and all of them unpaid. As Mrs.
Rainham gracefully remarked, when a girl was not earning her own living,
as so many were, but was enjoying the comfort of home, the least she
could do was to make herself useful.

“Half a minute, Eliza.” She smiled at the slatternly girl. “Sorry to
keep you waiting; there’s a river of ink gone astray here.” She placed
the soaked cloth on the waste-paper basket and polished the top of the
table vigorously.

“I’ll bet it worn’t you wot spilt it--but it’s you wot ‘as the cleanin’
up,” muttered Eliza. “Lemme rub that up now, Miss.” She put down her
tray and took the cloth from Cecilia’s hand.

“Thanks, ever so, Eliza--but you’ve got plenty to do yourself.”

“Well, if I ‘ave, I ain’t the on’y one wot ‘as,” said Eliza darkly.
Her wizened little face suddenly flushed. “Lor, Miss,” she said
confidentially, “you doan’t know wot a success that ‘at you trimmed for
me is. It’s a fair scream. I wore it larst night, an’ me young man--‘im
wot’s in the Royal Irish--well, it fair knocked ‘im! An’ ‘e wants me to
go out wiv ‘im next Benk ‘Oliday--out to ‘Ampstead ‘Eath. ‘E never got
as far as arstin’ me that before. I know it was that ‘at wot done it.”

“Not it, Eliza,” Cecilia laughed. “It was just your hair under the hat.
I told you how pretty it would be, if you would only brush it more.”

“Well, I never ‘ad no brush till you give me your old one,” said Eliza
practically. “I did brush it, though, a nundred times every night, till
Cook reckoned I was fair cracked. But ‘air’s on’y ‘air, an’ anyone ‘as
it--it’s not every one ‘as an ‘at like that.” She clattered plates upon
the table violently. “You goin’ out this awfternoon, Miss?”

“As soon as I can, Eliza.” Cecilia’s face fell. “I must arrange flowers
first.”

“I’ll ‘ave the vawses all ready wiv clean water for you,” said Eliza.
“An’ don’t you worry about the drorin’-room--I’ll see as it’s nice.”

“Oh, you can’t, Eliza--you have no time. I know it’s silver-cleaning
afternoon.”

“Aw, I’ll squeeze it in some’ow.” Eliza stopped suddenly, at a decided
footstep in the passage, and began to rattle spoons and forks with a
vigour born of long practice. Cecilia picked up the inky cloth, and went
out.

Her stepmother was standing by the hall-stand, apparently intent on
examining Wilfred’s straw hat. She spoke in a low tone as the girl
passed her.

“I wish you did not find so much pleasure in gossiping with servants,
Cecilia. It is such a bad example for Avice. I have spoken about it to
you before.”

Cecilia did not answer. She went upstairs with flaming cheeks, and
draped the cloth across the hand basin in the bathroom, turning the tap
vengefully. A stream of water flowed through the wide stain.

“There’s more real kindness in that poor little Cockney’s finger than
there is in your whole body!” Cecilia whispered, apparently addressing
the unoffending cloth--which, having begun life as a dingy green and
black, did not seem greatly the worse for its new decoration. “Hateful
old thing!” A smile suddenly twitched the corners of her mouth.
“Well, she can’t stop the money for a new cloth out of this quarter’s
allowance, because I’ve just got it. That’s luck, anyhow. I’ll give it
to Bob to keep, in case she goes through my desk again.” She poured some
ammonia upon the stain, and rubbed gingerly, surveying the result with a
tilted nose. It was not successful. “Shall I try petrol? But petrol’s
an awful price, and I’ve only got the little bottle I use for my gloves.
Anyhow, the horrible old cloth is so old and thin that it will fall to
pieces if I rub it. Oh, it’s no use bothering about it--nothing will
make it better.” She squeezed the water from the cloth and spread the
stained area over a chair to dry, looking disgustedly at her own dyed
finger-nails. “Now for Avice’s shoes before I scrub my hands.”

Avice’s shoes proved a lengthy task, since the younger Miss Rainham had
apparently discovered some clay to walk through in Regent’s Park on her
way home from the last dancing lesson; and well-hardened clay resists
ordinary cleaning methods, and demands edged tools. The luncheon bell
rang loudly before Cecilia had finished. She gave the shoes a final
hurried rub, and then fell to cleansing her hands; arriving in the
dining-room, pink and breathless, some minutes later, to find a dreary
piece of tepid mutton rapidly congealing on her plate.

“I think you might manage to be down in time for meals, Cecilia,” was
Mrs. Rainham’s chilly greeting.

Cecilia said nothing. She had long realized the uselessness of any
excuses. To be answered merely gave her stepmother occasion for further
fault-finding--you might, as Cecilia told Bob, have a flawless defence
for the sin of the moment, but in that case Mrs. Rainham merely changed
her ground, and waxed eloquent about the sin of yesterday, or of last
Friday week, for which there might happen to be no defence at all. It
was so difficult to avoid being a criminal in Mrs. Rainham’s eyes that
Cecilia had almost given up the attempt. She attacked her greasy
mutton and sloppy cabbage in silence, unpleasantly conscious of her
stepmother’s freezing glance.

Mrs. Rainham was a short, stout woman, with colourless, rather pinched
features, and a wealth of glorious red hair. Some one had once told her
that her profile was classic, and she still rejoiced in believing it,
was always photographed from a side view, and wore in the house loose
and flowing garments of strange tints, calculated to bring out the
colour of her glowing tresses. Cecilia, who worshipped colour with every
bit of her artist soul, adored her stepmother’s hair as thoroughly as
she detested her dresses. Bob, who was blunt and inartistic, merely
detested her from every point of view. “Don’t see what you find to rave
about in it,” he said. “All the warmth of her disposition has simply
gone to her head.”

There was certainly little warmth in Mrs. Rainham’s heart, where her
stepdaughter was concerned. She disapproved very thoroughly of Cecilia
in every detail--of her pretty face and delicate colouring, of the fair
hair that rippled and curled and gleamed in a manner so light-hearted as
to seem distinctly out of place in the dingy room, of the slender grace
that was in vivid contrast to her own stoutness. She resented the very
way Cecilia put on her clothes--simple clothes, but worn with an air
that made her own elaborate dresses cheap and common by comparison. It
was so easy for her to look well turned out; and it would never be easy
to dress Avice, who bade fair to resemble her mother in build, and had
already a passion for frills and trimmings, and a contempt for plain
things. Mrs. Rainham had an uneasy conviction that the girl who bore all
her scathing comments in silence actually dared to criticize her in
her own mind--perhaps openly to Bob, whose blue eyes held many unspoken
things as he looked at her. Once she had overheard him say to Cecilia:
“She looks like an over-ornamented pie!” Cecilia had laughed, and Mrs.
Rainham had passed on, unsuspected, her mind full of a wild surmise.
They would never dare to mean her--and yet--that new dress of hers was
plastered with queer little bits of purposeless trimmings. She never
again wore it without that terrible sentence creeping into her mind.
And she had been so pleased with it, too! An over-ornamented pie. If she
could only have been sure they meant her!

She thought of it again as she sat looking at Cecilia. The new dress was
lying on her bed, ready to be worn that afternoon; and Cecilia was going
to meet Bob--Bob, who had uttered the horrible remark. Well, at least
there should be no haste about the meeting. It would do Bob no harm to
cool his heels for a little. She set her thin lips tightly together, as
she helped the rice pudding.

The meal ended, amidst loud grumbles from Wilfred that the pudding was
rice; and Cecilia hurried off to find the flowers and arrange them. The
florist’s box was near the vases left ready by the faithful Eliza; she
cut the string with a happy exclamation of “Daffodils!” as she lifted
the lid. Daffodils were always a joy; this afternoon they were doubly
welcome, because easy to arrange. She sorted them into long-necked vases
swiftly, carrying each vase, when filled, to the drawing-room--a painful
apartment, crowded with knick-knacks until it resembled a bazaar stall,
with knobby and unsteady bamboo furniture and much drapery of a would-be
artistic nature. It was stuffy and airless. Cecilia wrinkled her pretty
nose as she entered. Mrs. Rainham held pronounced views on the subject
of what she termed the “fresh-air fad,” and declined to let London
air--a smoky commodity at best--attack her cherished carpets; with the
result that Cecilia breathed freely only in her little attic, which had
no carpet at all.

The lady of the house rustled in, in her flowing robe, as Cecilia put
the last vase into position on the piano--finding room for it with
difficulty amid a collection of photograph frames and china ornaments.
She carried some music, and cast a critical eye round the room.

“This place looks as if it had not been properly dusted for a week,”
 she remarked. “See to it before you go, Cecilia.” She opened the
piano. “Just come and try the accompaniment to this song--it’s rather
difficult, and I want to sing it to-night.”

Cecilia sat down before the piano, with woe in her heart. Her
stepmother’s delusion that she could sing was one of the minor trials of
her life. She had been thoroughly trained in Paris, under a master who
had prophesied great things for her; now her hours at the Rainhams’
tinkly piano, playing dreary accompaniments to sentimental songs with
Mrs. Rainham’s weak soprano wobbling and flattening on the high notes,
were hours of real distress, from which she would escape feeling her
teeth on edge. Her stepmother, however, had thoroughly enjoyed herself
since the discovery that no accompaniment presented any difficulty to
Cecilia. It saved her a world of trouble in practising; moreover, when
standing, it was far easier to let herself go in the affecting passages,
which always suffered from scantiness of breath when she was sitting
down. Therefore she would stand beside Cecilia, pouring forth song after
song, with her head slightly on one side, and one hand resting lightly
on the piano--an attitude which, after experiment with a mirror, she had
decided upon as especially becoming.

The song of the moment did make some demands upon her attention. It
had a disconcerting way of changing from sharps to flats; trouble being
caused by the singer failing to change also. Cecilia took her through it
patiently, going over and over again the tricky passages, and devoutly
wishing that Providence in supplying her stepmother with boundless
energy, a tireless voice and an enormous stock of songs, had also
equipped her with an ear for music. At length the lady desisted from her
efforts.

“That’s quite all right,” she said, with satisfaction. “I’ll sing it
to-night. The Simons will be here, and they do like to hear what’s new.
Go on with your dusting; I’ll just run through a few pieces, and you can
tell me if I go wrong.”

Cecilia hesitated, glancing at the clock.

“It is getting very late,” she said. “Eliza told me she could dust the
room.”

“Eliza!” said Mrs. Rainham. “Why, it’s her silver day; she had no
business to tell you anything of the sort--and neither had you, to ask
her to do it. Goodness knows it’s hard enough to make the lazy thing do
her own work. Just get your duster, and make sure as you come down that
the children are properly dressed for the dancing class.” She broke into
a waltz.

Cecilia ran. Sounds of woe greeted her as she neared Avice’s room,
and she entered, to find that damsel plunged in despair over a missing
button.

“It was on all right last time I wore the beastly dress,” wailed she.
“If you’d look after my clothes like Mater said you had to, I wouldn’t
be late. Whatever am I to do? I can’t make the old dress shut with a
safety pin.”

“No, you certainly can’t,” said her half-sister. “Never mind; there are
spare buttons for that frock, and I can sew one on.” She accomplished
the task with difficulty, since Avice appeared quite unable to stand
still.

“Now, are you ready, Avice? Shoes, hat, gloves--where are your gloves?
How do you ever manage to find anything in that drawer?” She rooted
swiftly in a wild chaos, and finally unearthed the gloves. “Yes, you’ll
do. Now, where’s Wilfred?” Search revealed Wilfred, who hated dancing,
reading a “penny dreadful” in his room--ready to start, save for the
trifling detail of having neglected to wash an extremely dirty face.
Cecilia managed to make him repair the omission, after a struggle,
and saw them off with a thankful heart--which sank anew as she heard
a neighbouring clock strike three. Three--and already she should be
meeting Bob in Hyde Park. She fled for a duster, and hurried to the
drawing-room. Eliza encountered her on the way.

“Now, wotcher goin’ to do wiv that duster, Miss?” she inquired. “I told
yer I’d do it for yer.”

“Mrs. Rainham is waiting for me to do it, Eliza. I’m sorry.”

“Ow!” Eliza’s expression and her tilted nose spoke volumes. “Suppose
she finks I wouldn’t clean ‘er old silver proper. Silver,
indeed!--‘lectrer-plyte, an’ common at that. Just you cut and run as
soon as she’s out of the ‘ouse, Miss; I know she’s goin’, ‘cause ‘er
green and yaller dress is a-airin’ on ‘er bed.”

“It’s not much good, Eliza. I ought to be in the Park now.” Cecilia
knew she should not allow the girl to speak of her mistress so
contemptuously. But she was disheartened enough at the moment not to
care.

“Lor!” said Eliza. “A bloomin’ shyme, I calls it!”

Cecilia found her stepmother happily engaged upon a succession of wrong
notes that made her wince. She dusted the room swiftly, aware all the
time of a watchful eye. Occasionally came a crisp comment: “You didn’t
dust that window-sill.” “Cecilia, that table has four legs--did you only
notice two?”--the effort to speak while playing generally bringing the
performer with vigour upon a wrong chord. The so-called music became
almost a physical torment to the over-strained girl.

“If she would only stop--if she would only go away!” she found herself
murmuring, over and over. Even the thought of Bob waiting in Hyde Park
in the chill east wind became dim beside that horrible piano, banging
and tinkling in her ear. She dusted mechanically, picking up one cheap
ornament after another--leaving the collection upon the piano until the
last, in the hope that by the time she reached it the thirst for
music would have departed from the performer. But Mrs. Rainham’s tea
appointment was not yet; she was thoroughly enjoying herself, the charm
of her own execution added to the knowledge that Cecilia was miserable,
and Bob waiting somewhere, with what patience he might. She held on
to the bitter end, while the girl dusted the piano’s burden with a set
face. Then she finished a long and painful run, and shut the piano with
a bang.

“There--I’ve had quite a nice practice, and it isn’t often the
drawing-room gets really decently dusted,” she remarked. “Nothing like
the eye of the mistress; I think I must practise every day while you are
dusting, Cecilia. Oh, and, Cecilia, give the legs of the piano a good
rubbing. Dear me, I must go and dress.”

Cecilia dragged herself upstairs a few minutes later. All the spring was
gone out of her; it really did not seem to matter much now whether she
met Bob or not; she was too tired to care. This was only a sample of
many days; so it had been for two years--so it would be for two more,
until she was twenty-one, and her own mistress. But it did not seem
possible that she could endure through another two years.

She reached her own room, and was about to shut the door, when the harsh
voice rasped upwards.

“Cecilia! Cecilia! Come here a minute.”

The girl went down slowly. Mrs. Rainham was standing before her mirror.

“Just come and hook my dress, Cecilia. This new dressmaker has a knack
of making everything hard to fasten. There--see that you start with the
right hook and eye.”

At the moment, physical contact with her stepmother was almost the last
straw for the girl. She obeyed in silence, shrinking back as far as she
could from the stout, over-scented body and the powdered face with the
thin lips. Mrs. Rainham watched her with a little smile.

“Yes, that’s all right,” she said. “Now, my hat, Cecilia--it’s in the
bandbox under the bed. I can’t stoop in this dress, that’s the worst
of it. And my gloves are in that box on the chest of drawers--the white
pair. Hurry, Cecilia, my appointment is for four o’clock.”

“Mine was for three o’clock,” said the girl in a low voice.

“Oh, well, you should manage your work better. I always tell you that.
Nothing like method in getting through every day. However, Bob is only
your brother--it would be more serious if it was a young man you were
meeting. Brothers don’t matter much.”

Cecilia flamed round upon her.

“Bob is more to me than anyone in the world,” she cried. “And I would
rather keep any other man waiting.”

“Really? But I shouldn’t think it very likely that you’ll ever have to
trouble about other young men, Cecilia; you’re not the sort. Too thin
and scraggy.” Mrs. Rainham surveyed her own generous proportions in the
glass, and gathered up her gloves with a pleased air. For the moment she
could not possibly believe that anyone could have referred to her as “an
over-ornamented pie.” “Good-bye, Cecilia; don’t be late for tea.” She
sailed down the stairs.

Even the bang of the hall door failed to convey any relief to Cecilia.
For the second time she toiled upstairs, to the bare freshness of her
little room. Generally, it had a tonic effect upon her; to-day it seemed
that nothing could help her. She leaned her head against the window,
a wave of homesick loneliness flooding all her soul. So deep were its
waters that she did not hear the hall door open and close again, and
presently swift feet pounding up the stairs. Someone battered on her
door.

“Cecilia! Are you there?”

She ran to open the door. Bob stood there, a short, muscular fellow, in
Air Force blue, with twinkling eyes. She put out her hands to him with a
little pitiful gesture.

“Don’t say that horrible name again,” she whispered. “If anyone else
calls me Cecilia I’ll just go mad.”

Bob came in, and flung a brotherly arm round her shoulders.

“Has it been so beastly?” he said. “Poor little Tommy. Oh, Tommy, I saw
the over-ornamented pie sailing down the street, and I dived into a side
alley until she’d gone out of range. I guessed from her proud and happy
face that you’d been scarified.”

“Scarified!” murmured Cecilia. But Bob was not listening. His face was
radiant.

“I couldn’t wait in the park any longer,” he said. “I had to come and
tell you. Tommy, old thing--I’m demobilized!”



CHAPTER II

THE RAINHAMS


It was one of Mrs. Mark Rainham’s grievances that, comparatively late
in her married life, she should suddenly find herself brought into
association with the children of her husband’s first marriage. They were
problems that Fate had previously removed from her path; she found it
extremely annoying--at first--that Fate should cease to be so tactful,
casting upon her a burden long borne by other shoulders. It was not
until she had accepted Mark Rainham, eleven years before, that she found
out the very existence of Bob and Cecilia; she resented the manner of
the discovery, even as she resented the children themselves. Not that
she ever dreamed of breaking off her engagement on their account. She
was a milliner in a Kensington shop, and to marry Mark Rainham, who
was vaguely “something in the city,” and belonged to a good club, and
dressed well, was a distinct step in the social scale, and two unknown
children were not going to make her draw back. But to mother them was
quite another question.

Luckily, Fate had a compassionate eye upon the young Rainhams, and was
quite willing to second their stepmother’s resolve that they should come
into her life as little as possible. Their father had never concerned
himself greatly about them. A lazy and selfish man, he had always been
willing to shelve the care of his small son and daughter--babies were
not in his line, and the aunt who had brought up their mother was only
too anxious to take Bob and Cecilia when that girl-mother had slipped
away from life, leaving a week-old Cecilia and a sturdy, solemn Bob of
three.

The arrangement suited Mark Rainham very well. Aunt Margaret’s house
at Twickenham was big enough for half a dozen babies; the children went
there, with their nurse, and he was free to slip back into bachelor
ways, living in comfortable chambers within easy reach of his club and
not too far, with a good train service, from a golf links. The regular
week-end visits to the babies suffered occasional interruptions, and
gradually grew fewer and fewer, until he became to the children a vague
and mysterious person named Papa, who dropped from the skies now
and then, asked them a number of silly questions, talked with great
politeness to Aunt Margaret--who, they instinctively felt, liked him
no better than they did--and then disappeared, whereupon every one
was immensely relieved. Even the fact that he generally brought them a
packet of expensive sweets was as nothing beside the harrowing knowledge
that they must kiss him, thereby having their faces brushed with a large
and scrubby moustache. Aunt Margaret and nurse did not have to endure
this infliction--which seemed to Bob and Cecilia obviously unfair. But
the visits did not often happen--not enough to disturb seriously an
existence crammed with interesting things like puppies and kittens, the
pony cart, boats on the river that ran just beyond the lawn, occasional
trips to London and the Zoo, and delirious fortnights at the seaside
or on Devonshire moors. Cecilia had never known even Bobby’s shadowy
memories of their own mother. Aunt Margaret was everything that
mattered, and the person called Papa was merely an unpleasant incident.
Other little boys and girls whom they knew owned, in their houses,
delightful people named Daddy and Mother; but Cecilia and Bob quite
understood that every one could not have the same things, for possibly
these fortunate children had no puppies or pony carts. Nurse had pointed
out this, so that it was perfectly clear.

It was when Cecilia was eight and Bob eleven, that their father married
again. To the children it meant nothing; to Aunt Margaret it was a bomb.
If Mark Rainham had happened to die, or go to the North Pole, she would
have borne the occurrence calmly; but that he should take a step which
might mean separating her from her beloved babies shook her to her
foundations. Even when she was assured that the new Mrs. Rainham
disliked children, and had not the slightest intention of adding Bob and
Cecilia to her household, Aunt Margaret remained uneasy. The red-haired
person, as she mentally labelled her, might change her mind. Mark
Rainham was wax in her hands, and would always do as he was told. Aunt
Margaret, goaded by fear, became heroic. She let the beloved house at
Twickenham while Mr. and Mrs. Rainham were still on their honeymoon;
packed up the children, her maids, nurse, the parrot and most of the
puppies; and kept all her plans a profound secret until she was safely
established in Paris.

To the average Londoner, Paris is very far off. There are, of course,
very many people who run across the Channel as easily as a Melbourne man
may week-end in Gippsland or Bendigo, but the suburban section of
London is not fond of voyaging across a strip of water with unpleasant
possibilities in the way of choppiness, to a strange country where most
of the inhabitants have the bad taste not to speak English. Neither Mark
Rainham nor his new wife had ever been in France, and to them it seemed,
as Aunt Margaret had shrewdly hoped it would, almost as though the
Twickenham household had gone to the North Pole. A great relief fell
upon them, since there could now be no question of assuming duties
when those duties were suddenly beyond their reach. And Aunt Margaret’s
letter was convincing--such a good offer, suddenly, for the Twickenham
house; such excellent educational opportunities for the children, in
the shape of semi-English schools, where Bob and Cecilia might mix with
English children and retain their nationality while acquiring Parisian
French. If Mark Rainham felt any inward resentment at the summary
disposal of his son and daughter, he did not show it; as of old, it was
easier to let things slide. Aunt Margaret was given a free hand, save
that at fourteen Bob returned to school in England; an arrangement that
mattered little, since all his holidays were spent at the new home at
Fontainebleau--a house which, even to the parrot, was highly reminiscent
of Twickenham.

Bob and Cecilia found life extremely interesting. They were cheery,
happy-go-lucky youngsters, with an immense capacity for enjoyment; and
Aunt Margaret, while much too shrewd an old lady to spoil children,
delighted in giving them a good time. They found plenty of friends in
the little English community in Paris, as well as among their French
neighbours. Paris itself was full of fascination; then there were
wonderful excursions far afield--holidays in Brussels, in the South
of France, even winter sporting in Switzerland. Aunt Margaret was
determined that her nurselings should miss nothing that she could give
them. The duty letters which she insisted on their writing, once a
month, to their father told of happenings that seemed strangely remote
from the humdrum life of London. “By Jove, the old lady gives those
youngsters a good time!” Mark Rainham would comment, tossing them across
the table to his wife. He did not guess at the dull rage that filled her
as she read them--the unreasoning jealousy that these children should
have opportunities so far beyond any that were likely to occur for her
own, who squabbled angrily over their breakfast while she read.

“She seems to have any amount of money to spend on gadding about,” she
would say unpleasantly.

“Oh, pots of money. Wish to goodness I had some of it,” her husband
would answer. Money was always scarce in the Rainham household.

When the thunderbolt of war fell upon the world, Aunt Margaret, after
the first pangs of panic, stiffened her back, and declined to leave
France. England, she declared, was not much safer than anywhere else;
and was it likely that she and Cecilia would run away when Bob was
coming back? Bob, just eighteen, captain of his school training corps,
stroke of its racing boat, and a mighty man of valour at football, slid
naturally into khaki within a month of the outbreak of war, putting
aside toys, with all the glad company of boys of the Empire, until such
time as the Hun should be taught that he had no place among white men.
Aunt Margaret and Cecilia, knitting frantically at socks and mufflers
and Balaclava helmets, were desperately proud of him, and compared his
photograph, in uniform, with all the pictures of Etienne and Henri and
Armand, and other French boys who had played with him under the trees at
Fontainebleau, and had now marched away to join him at the greater game.
It was difficult to realize that they were not still little boys in
blouses and knickerbockers--difficult even when they swooped down from
time to time on short leave, filling the quiet houses with pranks and
laughter that were wholly boyish. Even when Bob had two stars on
his cuff, and wore the ribbon of the Military Cross, it would have
astonished Aunt Margaret and Cecilia very much had anyone suggested that
he was grown up.

Indeed, Aunt Margaret was never to think of him as anything but “one of
the children.” Illness, sudden and fierce, fell upon her after a long
spell of duty at the hospital where she worked from the first few months
of the war--working as cook, since she had no nursing experience, and
was, she remarked, too old to learn a new trade. Brave as she was, there
was no battling for her against the new foe; she faded out of life after
a few days, holding Cecilia’s hand very tightly until the end.

Bob, obtaining leave with much difficulty, arrived a few days later, to
find a piteous Cecilia, white-faced, stunned and bewildered. She pleaded
desperately against leaving France; amidst all the horror and chaos that
had fallen upon her, it seemed unthinkable that she should put the sea
between herself and Bob. But to remain was impossible. Aunt Margaret’s
English maids wanted to go back to their friends, and a girl of
seventeen could scarcely stay alone in a country torn by two years of
war. Besides, Aunt Margaret’s affairs were queerly indefinite; there
seemed very little money where there had formerly been plenty. There was
no alternative for Cecilia but England--and England meant the Rainham
household, and such welcome as it might choose to give her.

She was still bewildered when they made the brief journey across the
Channel--a new Channel, peopled only with war-ships of every kind, from
grim Dreadnoughts to submarines; with aircraft, bearing the red, white
and blue circles of Britain, floating and circling overhead. Last time
Cecilia had crossed, it had been with Aunt Margaret on a big turbine
mail boat; they had reached Calais just as an excursion steamer from
Margate came up, gay with flags and light dresses, with a band playing
ragtime on the well-deck, and people dancing to a concertina at the
stern. Now they zig-zagged across, sometimes at full speed, sometimes
stopping dead or altering their course in obedience to the destroyer
nosing ahead of them through the Channel mist; and she could see the
face of the captain on the bridge, strained and anxious. There were
so few civilians on board that Cecilia and the two old servants were
greeted with curious stares; nearly all the passengers were in uniform,
their boots caked with the mud of the trenches, their khaki soiled with
the grime of war. It was all rather dream-like to Cecilia; and London
itself was a very bad dream; darkened and silent, with the great beams
of searchlights playing back and forth over the black skies in search of
marauding Zeppelins. And then came her father’s stiff greeting, and the
silent drive to the tall, narrow house in Lancaster Gate, where Mrs.
Rainham met her coldly. In after years Cecilia never could think without
a shudder of that first meal in her father’s house--the struggle to
eat, the lagging talk round the table, with Avice and Wilfred, frankly
hostile, staring at her in silence, and her stepmother’s pale eyes
appraising every detail of her dress. It was almost like happiness again
to find herself alone, later; in a dingy little attic bedroom that smelt
as though it had never known an open window--a sorry little hole, but
still, out of the reach of those unblinking eyes.

For the first year Cecilia had struggled to get away to earn her own
living. But a very few weeks served to show Mrs. Rainham that chance
had sent her, in the person of the girl whose coming she had sullenly
resented, a very useful buffer against any period of domestic stress.
Aunt Margaret had trained Cecilia thoroughly in all housewifely virtues,
and her half-French education had given her much that was lacking in
the stodgy damsels of Mrs. Rainham’s acquaintance. She was quick
and courteous and willing; responding, moreover, to the lash of the
tongue--after her first wide-eyed stare of utter amazement--exactly as a
well-bred colt responds to a deftly-used whip. “I’ll keep her,” was Mrs.
Rainham’s inward resolve. “And she’ll earn her keep too!”

There was no doubt that Cecilia did that. Wilfred and Avice saw to it,
even had not their mother been fully capable of exacting the last ounce
from the only helper she had ever had who had not the power to give her
a week’s notice. Cecilia’s first requests to be allowed to take up work
outside had been shelved vaguely. “We’ll find some nice war-work for
you presently”. . . and meanwhile, the household was short-handed, Mrs.
Rainham was overstrained--Cecilia found later that her stepmother was
always “overstrained” whenever she spoke of leaving home--and duties
multiplied about her and hemmed her in. Mrs. Rainham was clever; the net
closed round the girl so gradually that she scarcely realized its meshes
until they were drawn tightly. Even Bob helped. “You’re awfully young
to start work on your own account,” he wrote. “Can’t you stick it for
a bit, if they are decent to you?” And, rather than cause him any extra
worry, Cecilia decided that she must “stick it.”

Of her father she saw little. He was, just as she remembered him in her
far-back childhood at Twickenham, vague and colourless. Rather to her
horror, she found that the ordeal of being kissed by his large and
scrubby moustache was just as unpleasant as ever. Cecilia had no idea
of how he earned his living--he ate his breakfast hurriedly, concealed
behind the Daily Mail, and then disappeared, bound for some mysterious
place in the city--the part of London that was always full of mystery to
Cecilia. Golf was the one thing that roused him to any enthusiasm, and
golf was even more of a mystery than the city. Cecilia knew that it
was played with assorted weapons, kept in a bag, and used for smiting
a small ball over great expanses of country, but beyond these facts her
knowledge stopped. Mrs. Rainham had set her to clean the clubs one day,
but her father, appearing unexpectedly, had taken them from her hands
with something like roughness. “No, by Jove!” he said. “You do a good
many odd jobs in this house, but I’m hanged if you shall clean my golf
sticks.” Cecilia did not realize that the assumed roughness covered
something very like shame.

Money matters were rather confusing. A lawyer--also in the city--paid
her a small sum quarterly--enough to dress on, and for minor expenses.
Bob wrote that Aunt Margaret’s affairs were in a beastly tangle. An
annuity had died with her, and many of her investments had been hit by
the war, and had ceased to pay dividends--had even, it seemed, ceased to
be valuable at all. There was a small allowance for Bob also, and some
day, if luck should turn, there might be a little more. Bob did not say
that his own allowance was being hoarded for Cecilia, in case he “went
west.” He lived on his pay, and even managed to save something out of
that, being a youth of simple tastes. His battalion had been practically
wiped out of existence in the third year of the war, and after a
peaceful month in a north country hospital, near an aerodrome, the call
of the air was too much for him--he joined the cheerful band of flying
men, and soon filled his letters to Cecilia with a bewildering mixture
of technicalities and aviation slang that left her gasping. But he
got his wings in a very short time, and she was prouder of him than
ever--and more than ever desperately afraid for him.

The children’s daily governess, a down-trodden person, left after
Cecilia had been in England for a few months, and the girl stepped
naturally into the vacant position until some one else should be found.
She had no idea that Mrs. Rainham made no effort at all to discover any
other successor to Miss Simpkins. Where, indeed, Mrs. Rainham
demanded of herself, would she be likely to find anyone with such
qualifications--young, docile, with every advantage of a modern
education, speaking French like a native, and above and beyond all else,
requiring no pay? It would be flying in the face of Providence to ignore
such a chance. Wherefore Cecilia continued to lead her step-sisters
and brother in the paths of learning, and life became a thing of utter
weariness. For Mrs. Rainham, though shrewd enough to get what she
wanted, in the main was not a far-sighted woman; and in her unreasoning
dislike and jealousy of Cecilia she failed to see that she defeated her
own ends by making her a drudge. Whatever benefit the girl might have
given the children was lost in their contempt for her. She had no
authority, no power to enforce a command, or to give a punishment,
and the children quickly discovered that, so long as they gave her the
merest show of obedience in their mother’s presence, any shortcomings in
education would be laid at Cecilia’s door. Lesson time became a period
of rare sport for the young Rainhams; it was so easy to bait the new
sister with cheap taunts, to watch the quick blood mount to the very
roots of her fair hair, to do just as little as possible, and then to
see her blamed for the result. Mrs. Rainham’s bitter tongue grew more
and more uncontrolled as time went on and she felt the girl more fully
in her power. And Cecilia lived through each day with tight-shut lips,
conscious of one clear thing in her mist of unhappy bewilderment--that
Bob must not know: Bob, who would probably leave his job of skimming
through the air of her beloved France after the Hun, and snatch an hour
to fly to England and annihilate the entire Rainham household, returning
with Cecilia tucked away somewhere in his aeroplane. It was a pleasant
dream, and served to carry her through more than one hard moment. But it
did not always serve; and there were nights when Cecilia mounted to her
attic with dragging footsteps, to sit by her window in the darkness,
gripping her courage with both hands, afraid to let herself think of the
dear, happy past; of Aunt Margaret, whose very voice was love; least of
all of Bob, perhaps even now flying in the dark over the German lines.
There was but one thing that she could hold to: she voiced it to
herself, over and over with clenched hands, “It can’t last for ever! It
can’t last for ever!”

And then, after the long years of clutching anxiety, came the Armistice,
and Cecilia forgot all her troubles in its overwhelming relief. No one
would shoot at Bob any longer; there were no more hideous, squat guns,
with muzzles yawning skywards, ready to shell him as he skimmed high
overhead, like a swallow in the blue. Therefore she sang as she went
about her work, undismayed by the laboured witticisms of Avice
and Wilfred, or by Mrs. Rainham’s venom, which increased with the
realization that her victim might possibly slip from her grasp, since
Bob would come home, and Bob was a person to be reckoned with. Certainly
Bob had scarcely any money; moreover, Cecilia was not of age, and,
therefore, still under her father’s control. But Mrs. Rainham felt
vaguely uneasy, and visions floated before her of the old days when
governesses and maids had departed with unpleasant frequency, leaving
her to face all sorts of disagreeable consequences. She set her thin
lips, vowing inwardly that Cecilia should remain.

Nevertheless it was a relief to her that early demobilization did
not come for Bob. At the time of the Armistice he was attached to an
Australian flying squadron, and for some months remained abroad; then he
was sent back to England, and employed in training younger fliers at a
Surrey aerodrome. This had its drawbacks in Mrs. Rainham’s eyes, since
he was often able to run up to London, and, to Bob, London merely meant
Cecilia. It was only a question of time before he discovered something
of what life at Lancaster Gate meant--his enlightenment beginning upon
an afternoon when, arriving unexpectedly, and being left by Eliza to
find Cecilia for himself, he had the good fortune to overhear Mrs.
Rainham in one of her best efforts--a “wigging” to which Avice and
Wilfred were listening delightedly, and which included not only
Cecilia’s sin of the moment, but her upbringing, her French education,
her “foreign fashion of speaking,” and her sinful extravagance in
shoes. These, and other matters, were furnishing Mrs. Rainham with
ample material for a bitter discourse when she became aware of another
presence in the room, and her eloquence faltered at the sight of Bob’s
astonished anger.

Mrs. Rainham did not recall with any enjoyment the interview which
followed--Cecilia and the children having been brushed out of the way
by the indignant soldier. Things which had been puzzling to Bob
were suddenly made clear--traces of distress which Cecilia had often
explained away vaguely, the children’s half-contemptuous manner towards
her, even Eliza’s tone in speaking of her--a queer blend of anger and
pity. Mrs. Rainham held her ground to some extent, but the brother’s
questions were hard to parry, and some of his comments stung.

“Well, I’ll take her away,” he stormed at length. “It’s evident that she
does not give you satisfaction, and she certainly isn’t happy. She had
better come away with me to-day.”

“Ah,” said his stepmother freezingly, “and where will you take her?”

Bob hesitated.

“There are plenty of places--” he began.

“Not for a young girl alone. Cecilia is very ignorant of England;
you could not be with her. Your father would not hear of it. You must
remember that Cecilia is under his control until she is twenty-one.”

“My father has never bothered about either of us,” Bob said bitterly.
“He surely won’t object if I take her off your hands.”

“He will certainly not permit any such thing. Whatever arrangement he
made during your aunt’s lifetime was quite a different matter. If you
attempt to take Cecilia from his control you commit an illegal action,”
 said Mrs. Rainham--hoping she was on safe ground. To her relief Bob did
not contradict her. English law and its mysteries were beyond him.

“I don’t see that that matters,” he began doubtfully. His stepmother cut
him short.

“You would very soon find that it matters a good deal,” she said coldly.
“It would be quite simple for your father to get some kind of legal
injunction, forbidding you to interfere with your sister. Home training
is what she needs, and we are determined that she shall get it. You will
only unsettle and injure her by trying to induce her to disobey us.”

The hard voice fell like lead on the boy’s ears. He felt very helpless;
if he did indeed snatch his sister away from this extremely unpleasant
home, and their father had only to stretch out a long, legal tentacle
and claw her back, it was clear that her position would be harder than
ever. He could only give in, at any rate, for the present, and in his
anxiety for the little sister whom Aunt Margaret had always trained him
to protect, he humbled himself to beg for better treatment for her. “No
one ever was angry with her,” he said. “She’ll do anything for you if
you’re decent to her.”

“She might give less cause for annoyance if she had had a little
more severity,” said Mrs. Rainham with an unspoken sneer at poor Aunt
Margaret. “You had better advise her to do her best in return for the
very comfortable home we give her.” With which Bob had to endeavour
to be content, for the present. He went off to find Cecilia, with a
lowering brow, leaving his stepmother not nearly so easy in her mind as
she seemed. For Bob had a square jaw, and was apt to talk little and do
a good deal; and his affection for Cecilia was, in Mrs. Rainham’s eyes,
little short of ridiculous.

Thereafter, the brother and sister took counsel together and made great
plans for the future, when once the Air Force should decide that it had
no further wish to keep Captain Robert Rainham from earning his living
on terra firma. What that future was to be for Bob was very difficult to
plan. Aunt Margaret had intended him for a profession; but the time for
that had gone by, even had the money been still available. “I’m half
glad that it isn’t,” Bob said; “I don’t see how a fellow could go back
to swotting over books after being really alive for nearly five years.”
 There seemed nothing but “the land” in some shape or form; they were
not very clear about it, but Bob was strenuously “keeping his ears
open”--like so many lads of his rank in the early months of 1919,
when the future that had seemed so indefinite during the years of war
suddenly loomed up, very large and menacing. Cecilia had less anxiety;
she had a cheerful faith that Bob would manage something--a three-roomed
cottage somewhere in the country, where he could look after sheep, or
crops, or something of the kind, while she cooked and mended for
him, and grew such flowers as had bloomed in the dear garden at
Fontainebleau. Sheep and crops, she was convinced, grew themselves, in
the main; a person of Bob’s ability would surely find little difficulty
in superintending the process. And, whatever happened, nothing could be
worse than life in Lancaster Gate.

Neither of them ever thought of appealing to their father, either for
advice or for help. He remained, as he had always been to them, utterly
colourless; a kind of well-bred shadow of his wife, taking no part in
her hard treatment of Cecilia, but lifting not a finger to save her. He
did not look happy; indeed, he seldom spoke--it was not necessary,
when Mrs. Rainham held the floor. He had a tiny den which he used as a
smoking-room, and there he spent most of his time when at home, being
blessed in the fact that his wife disliked the smell of smoke, and
refused to allow it in her drawing-room. Nobody took much notice of him.
The younger children treated him with cool indifference; Bob met him
with a kind of strained and uncomfortable civility.

Curiously enough, it was only Eliza who divined in him a secret
hankering after his eldest daughter--Cecilia, who would have been very
much astonished had anyone hinted at such a thing to her. The sharp eyes
of the little Cockney were not to be deceived in any matter concerning
the only person in the house who treated her as if she were a human
being and not a grate-cleaning automaton.

“You see ‘im foller ‘er wiv ‘is eyes, that’s all,” said Eliza to
Cook, in the privacy of their joint bedroom. “Fair ‘ungry he looks,
sometimes.”

“No need for ‘im to be ‘ungry, if ‘e ‘ad the sperrit of a man,” said
Cook practically. “Ain’t she ‘is daughter?”

“Well, yes, in a manner of speakin’,” said Eliza doubtfully. “But there
ain’t much of father an’ daughter about them two. I’d ruther ‘ave my
ole man, down W’itechapel way; ‘e can belt yer a fair terror, w’en ‘e’s
drunk, but ‘e’ll allers tike yer out an’ buy yer a kipper arterwards.
Thet’s on’y decent, fatherly feelin’.”

“Well, Master don’t belt ‘er, does ‘e?”

“No; but ‘e don’t buy ‘er the kipper, neither. An’ I’d ruther ‘ave the
beltin’ from my ole man, even wivout no kipper, than ‘ave us allers
lookin’ at each other as if we was wooden images. Even a beltin’ shows
as ‘ow a man ‘as some regard for ‘is daughter.”

“It do,” said Cook. “Pity is, you ain’t ‘ad more of it, that’s the only
thing!”



CHAPTER III

PLAYING TRUANT


“Demobilized! Oh, Bob--truly?”

“Truly and really,” said Bob. “At least, I shall be in twenty-seven
days. Got my orders. Show up for the last time on the fifteenth of next
month. Get patted on the head, and told to run away and play. That’s the
programme, I believe, Tommy. The question is--What shall we play at?”

Cecilia brushed the hair from her brow.

“I don’t know,” she said vaguely. “It’s too big to think of; and I can’t
think in this awful house, anyhow. Take me out, quick, please, Bobby.”

“Sure,” said Bob, regarding her with an understanding eye. “But you want
to change or something, don’t you, old girl?”

“Why, yes, I suppose I do,” said Cecilia, with a watery smile, looking
at her schoolroom overall. “I forgot clothes. I’ve had a somewhat packed
morning.”

“You look as if this had been your busy day,” remarked Bob. “Right-oh,
old girl; jump into your things, and I’ll wait on the mat. Any chance of
the she-dragon coming back?”

“No; she’s gone out to tea.”

“More power to her,” said Bob cheerfully. “And the dragon puppies?”

“Oh, they’re safely out of the way. I won’t be five minutes, Bob. Don’t
shut the door tight--you might disappear before I opened it.”

“Not much,” said Bob, through the crack of the door. “I’m a fixture.
Want any shoes cleaned?”

“No, thanks, Bobby dear. I have everything ready.”

“From what the other fellows say about their sisters, I’m inclined to
believe that you’re an ornament to your sex,” remarked Bob. “When you
say five minutes, it really does mean not more than five and a half, as
a rule; other girls seem to mean three-quarters of an hour.”

“I get all my things ready the night before when I’m going to meet you,”
 said Cecilia. “Catch me losing any time on my one day out. You can come
back again--my coat’s on the hanger there, Bobby.” He put her into it
deftly, and she leaned back against him. “If you knew how good it is
to see you again--and you smell of clean fresh air and good tobacco and
Russia leather, and all sorts of nice things.”

“Good gracious, I’ll excite attention in the street!” grinned Bob. “I
didn’t imagine I was a walking scent-factory!”

“Neither you are--but everything in this house smells of coal-smoke and
cabbage-water and general fustiness, and you’re a nice change, that’s
all,” said Cecilia. They ran downstairs together light-heartedly, and
let themselves out into the street.

“Do we catch a train or a ‘bus?”

“Oh, can’t we walk?” Cecilia said. “I think if I walked hard I might
forget Mrs. Rainham.”

“I’d hate you to remember her,” Bob said. “Tell me what she has been
doing, anyhow, and then we won’t think of her any more.”

“It doesn’t sound much,” Cecilia said. “There never is anything very
much. Only it goes on all the time.” She told him the story of her day,
and managed to make herself laugh now and then over it. But Bob did not
laugh. His good-humoured young face was set and angry.

“There isn’t a whole lot in it, is there?” Cecilia finished. “And no
one would think I was badly off--especially when the thing that hit me
hardest of all was just dusting that awful drawing-room while she plays
her awful tunes. Yes, I know I shouldn’t say awful, and that no lady
says it--that must be true because Mrs. Rainham frequently tells me
so--but it’s such a relief to say whatever I feel like.”

“You can say what you jolly well please,” said Bob wrathfully. “Who’s
she, I’d like to know, to tell us what to say? And she kept you there
all the afternoon, when she knew you were due to meet me!--my hat, she
is a venomous old bird! And now it’s half-past four, and what time does
she expect you back?”

“Oh--the usual thing; the children’s tea-time at six. She told me not to
be late.”

Bob set his jaw.

“Well, you won’t be late, because you won’t be there,” he said. “No
going back to tea for you. We’ll have dinner at the Petit Riche in Soho,
and then we’ll do a theatre, and then I’ll take you home and we’ll face
the music. Are you game?”

Cecilia laughed.

“Game? Why, of course--but there will be awful scenes, Bobby.”

“Well, what can she do to you?” asked Bob practically. “You’re too big
to beat, or she’d certainly do it; she can’t stop your pay, because you
don’t get any; and as you have your meals with the youngsters, she can’t
dock your rations. That doesn’t leave her much beside her tongue. Of
course, she can do a good deal with that; do you think you can stand
it?”

“Oh, yes,” said Cecilia. “You see, I generally have it, so it really
doesn’t matter much. But if she forbids me to go out with you again,
Bobby?”

Bob pondered.

“Well--you’re nineteen,” he said. “And the very first minute I can, I’m
going to take you away from her altogether. If you were a kid I wouldn’t
let you defy her. But, hang it all, Tommy, I’m not going to let her
punish you as though you were ten. If she forbids you to meet me--well,
you must just take French leave, that’s all.”

“Oh, Bob, you are a satisfying person!” said Cecilia, with a sigh.

“Well, I don’t know--it’s you who will have to stand the racket,” said
Bob. “I only wish I could take my share, old girl. But, please goodness,
it won’t be for long.”

“Bob,” said Cecilia, and paused. “What about that statement of
hers--that it would be illegal for you to take me away? Do you think
it’s true?”

“I’ve asked our Major, and he’s a bit doubtful,” said Bob. “All the
other fellows say it’s utter nonsense. But I’m going to ask the old
lawyer chap who has charge of Aunt Margaret’s money--he’ll tell me. We
won’t bother about it, Tommy; if I can’t get you politely, I’ll steal
you. Just forget the she-dragon and all her works.”

“But have you thought about what you are going to do?”

“I don’t think of much else, and that’s the truth, Tommy,” said her
brother ruefully. “You see, there’s mighty little in sight. I could get
a clerkship, I suppose. I could certainly get work as a day labourer.
But I don’t see much in either of those possibilities towards a
little home with you, which is what I want. I’m going to answer every
advertisement I can find for fellows wanted on farms.” He straightened
his square shoulders. “Tommy, there must be plenty of work for any chap
as strong as an ox, as I am.”

“I’m sure there’s work,” said Cecilia. “But the men who want jobs don’t
generally advertise themselves as ‘complete with sister.’ I’m what’s
technically known as an encumbrance, Bob.”

“You!” said Bob. “You’re just part of the firm, so don’t you forget it.
Didn’t we always arrange that we should stick together?”

“We did--but it may not be easy to manage,” Cecilia said, doubtfully.
“Perhaps we could get some job together; I could do inside work, or
teach, or sew.”

“No!” said Bob explosively. “If I can’t earn enough for us both, I ought
to be shot, Aunt Margaret didn’t bring you up to work.”

“But the world has turned upside down since Aunt Margaret died,” said
Cecilia. “And I have worked pretty hard for the last two years, Bob; and
it hasn’t hurt me.”

“It has made you older--and you ought to be only a kid yet,” said Bob
wistfully. “You haven’t had any of the fun girls naturally ought to
have. I don’t want you to slave all your time, Tommy.”

“Bless you!” said his sister. “But I wouldn’t care a bit, as long as it
was near you--and not in Lancaster Gate.”

They had turned across Hyde Park, where a big company of girl guides
was drilling, watched by a crowd of curious on-lookers. Across a belt of
grass some boy scouts were performing similar evolutions, marching with
all the extra polish and swagger they could command, just to show the
guides that girls were all very well in their way, but that no one with
skirts could really hope to do credit to a uniform. Cecilia paused to
watch them.

“Thank goodness, the children can come and drill in the park again!” she
said. “I hated to come here before the armistice--soldiers, soldiers,
drilling everywhere, and guns and searchlight fixings. Whenever I saw a
squad drilling it made me think of you, and of course I felt sure you’d
be killed!”

“I do like people who look on the bright side of life!” said Bob
laughing. “And whenever you saw an aeroplane I suppose you made sure I
was crashing somewhere?”

“Certainly I did,” said his sister with dignity.

“Women are queer things,” Bob remarked. “If you had these unpleasant
beliefs, how did you manage to write as cheerfully as you did? Your
letters were a scream--I used to read bits of ‘em out to the fellows.”

“You had no business to do any such thing,” said Cecilia, blushing.

“Well, I did, anyhow. They used to make ‘em yell. How did you manage
them?”

“Well, it was no good assuring you you’d be killed,” said Cecilia
practically. “I thought it was more sensible to try to make you laugh.”

“You certainly did that,” said Bob. “I fancied from your letters that
life with the she-dragon was one huge joke, and that Papa was nice and
companionable, and the kids, sweet little darlings who ate from your
hand. And all the time you were just the poor old toad under the
harrow!”

“I’m not a toad!” rejoined his sister indignantly. “Don’t you think you
could find pleasanter things to compare me to?”

“Toads aren’t bad,” said Bob, laughing. “Ever seen the nice old fellow
in the Zoo who shoots out a tongue a yard long and picks up a grub every
time? He’s quite interesting.”

“I certainly never had any inclination to do any such thing,” Cecilia
laughed.

They had turned into Piccadilly and were walking down, watching the
crowded motor traffic racing north and south. Suddenly Bob straightened
up and saluted smartly, as a tall staff officer, wearing a general’s
badges, ran down the steps of a big club, and nearly cannoned into
Cecilia.

“I beg your pardon!” he said--and then, noticing Bob--“How are you,
Rainham?” He dived into a waiting taxi, and was whisked away.

“Did he bump you?” inquired Bob.

“No--though it would be almost a privilege to be bumped by anyone as
splendid as that!” Cecilia answered. “He knows you, too!--who is he,
Bobby?”

“That’s General Harran, the Australian,” said Bob proudly. “He’s a great
man. I’ve run into him occasionally since I’ve been with the Australians
in France.”

“He looks nice.”

“He is nice,” replied Bob. “Awful martinet about duty, but he treats
every one under him jolly well. Never forgets a face or a name, and he’s
always got a decent word for everybody. He’s had some quite long talks
to me, when we were waiting for some ‘plane or other to come back.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” asked Cecilia, who considered it a privilege for
anyone to talk to her brother.

Bob regarded her in amazement.

“Good gracious!” he ejaculated. “Why, he’s a major-general; I can tell
you, most men of his rank haven’t any use for small fry like me--to talk
to, that is.”

Cecilia had a flash of memory.

“Isn’t he the general who was close by when you brought that German
aeroplane down behind our lines? Didn’t he say nice things to you about
it?”

“Oh, that was only in the way of business,” said Bob somewhat confused.
“The whole thing was only a bit of luck--and, of course, it was luck,
too, that he was there. But he is just as nice to fellows who haven’t
had a chance like that.”

Out of the crowd two more figures in Air Force uniform came, charging at
Bob with outstretched hands.

“By Jove, old chap! What luck to meet you!”

They shook hands tumultuously, and Bob made them known to
Cecilia--comrades he had not seen for months, but with whom he had
shared many strange experiences in the years of war. They fell into
quick talk, full of the queer jargon of the air. The newcomers, it
appeared, had been with the army of occupation in Germany; there seemed
a thousand things they urgently desired to tell Bob within the next
few minutes. One turned to Cecilia, presently, with a laughing
interpretation of some highly technical bit of slang.

“Oh, you needn’t bother to translate to Tommy,” Bob said. “She knows all
about it.”

The other boys suddenly gave her all their attention.

“Are you Tommy? But we know you awfully well.”

“Me?” Cecilia turned pink.

“Rather. We used to hear your letters.”

The pink deepened to a fine scarlet.

“Bob!” said his sister reproachfully. “You really shouldn’t.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” said the taller boy, by name Harrison. “They were
a godsend--there used to be jolly little to laugh about, pretty often,
and your letters made us all yell. Didn’t they, Billy?”

“They did,” said Billy, who was small and curly-haired--and incidentally
a captain, with a little row of medal ribbons. “Jolliest letters ever.
We passed a vote of thanks to you in the mess, Miss Tommy, after old Bob
here had gone. Some one was to write and tell him about it, but I don’t
believe anyone ever did. I say, you must have had a cheery time--all the
funny things that ever happened seemed to come your way.”

Cecilia stammered something, her scarlet confusion deepening. A rather
grim vision of the war years swept across her mind--of the ceaseless
quest in papers and journals, and wherever people talked, for “funny
things” to tell Bob; and of how, when fact and rumour gave out, she used
to sit by her attic window at night, deliberately inventing merry jests.
It had closely resembled a job of hard work at the time; but apparently
it had served its purpose well. She had made them laugh; and some one
had told her that no greater service could be rendered to the boys who
risked death, and worse than death, during every hour of the day and
night. But it was extremely difficult to talk about it afterwards.

Bob took pity on her.

“I’ll tell you just what sort of a cheery time she had, some time or
other,” he remarked. “What are you fellows doing this evening?”

“We were just going to ask you the same thing,” declared Billy. “Can’t
we all go and play about somewhere? We’ve just landed, and we want to be
looked after. Any theatres in this little town still?”

“Cheer-oh!” ejaculated Billy. “Let’s all go and find out.”

So they went, and managed very successfully to forget war and even
stepmothers. They were all little more than children in enjoyment of
simple pleasures still, since war had fallen upon them at the very
threshold of life, cutting them off from all the cheery happenings that
are the natural inheritance of all young things. The years that would
ordinarily have seen them growing tired of play had been spent in grim
tasks; now they were children again, clamouring for the playtime they
had lost. They found enormous pleasure in the funny little French
restaurant, where Madame, a lady whose sympathies were as boundless
as her waist, welcomed them with wide smiles, delighting in the
broken French of Billy and Harrison, and deftly tempting them to fresh
excursions in her language. She put a question in infantile French to
Bob presently, whereupon that guileless youth, with a childlike smile,
answered her with a flood of idiomatic phrases, in an accent purer than
her own--collapsing with helpless laughter at her amazed face. After
which, Madame neglected her other patrons to hover about their table
like a stout, presiding goddess, guiding them gently to the best dishes
on the menu, and occasionally putting aside their own selection with a
hasty, “Mon-non; you vill not like that one to-day.” She patted Cecilia
in a motherly fashion at parting, and their bill was only about half
what it should have been.

They found a musical comedy, and laughed their way through it--Billy and
Harrison had apparently no cares in the world, and Bob and Cecilia were
caught up in the whirl of their high spirits, so that anything became
a huge joke. The evening flew by on airy wings, when Billy insisted
on taking them to supper after the theatre. Cecilia allowed herself a
fleeting vision of Mrs. Rainham, and then, deciding that she might as
well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, followed gaily. And supper was so
cheery a meal that she forgot all about time--until, just at the end,
she caught sight of the restaurant clock.

“Half-past eleven! Oh, Bobby!”

“Well, if it is--you poor little old Cinderella,” said Bob.

But he hurried her away, for all that, amid a chorus of farewells and
efforts, on the part of Billy and Harrison, to arrange further meetings.
They ran to the nearest tube station, and dived into its depths; and,
after being whisked underground for a few minutes, emerged into the cool
night. Cecilia slipped her arm through her brother’s as they hurried
along the empty street.

“Now, you keep your nose in the air,” Bobby told her. “You aren’t
exactly a kid now, and she can’t really do anything to you. Oh, by
Jove--I was thinking, in the theatre, she might interfere with our
letters.”

“She’s quite equal to it,” said Cecilia.

“Just what she’d revel in doing. Well, you can easily find out. I’ll
write to you to-morrow, and again the next day--just ordinary letters,
with nothing particular in them except an arrangement to meet next
Saturday. If you don’t get them you’ll know she’s getting at the mail
first.”

“What shall I do, then?”

“Drop me a line--or, better still, wire to me,” said Bob. “Just say,
‘Address elsewhere.’ Then I’ll write to you at Mr. M’Clinton’s; the old
solicitor chap in Lincoln’s Inn; and you’ll have to go there and get the
letters. You know his address, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. I have to write to him every quarter when he sends me my
allowance. You’ll explain to him, then, Bob, or he’ll simply redirect
your letters here.”

“Oh, of course. I want to go and see the old chap, anyhow, to talk over
Aunt Margaret’s affairs. I might as well know a little more about them.
Tommy, the she-dragon can’t actually lock you up, can she?”

“No--it couldn’t be done,” said Cecilia. “Modern houses aren’t built
with dungeons and things. Moreover, if she tried to keep me in the house
she would have to take the children out for their walks herself; and she
simply hates walking.”

“Then you can certainly post to me, and get my letters, and I’ll be up
again as soon as ever I can. Buck up, old girl--it can’t be for long
now.”

They turned in at the Rainhams’ front gate, and Cecilia glanced up
apprehensively. All the windows were in darkness; the grey front of the
house loomed forbiddingly in the faint moonlight.

“You’re coming in, aren’t you?” she asked, her hand tightening on his
arm.

“Rather--we’ll take the edge off her tongue together.” Bob rang the
bell. “Wonder if they have all gone to bed. The place looks pretty
dark.”

“She’s probably in the little room at the back--the one she calls her
boudoir.”

“Horrible little den, full of bamboo and draperies and pampas grass--I
know,” nodded Bob. “Well, either she’s asleep or she thinks it’s fun to
keep us on the mat. I’ll try her again.” He pressed the bell, and the
sound of its whirring echoed through the silent house.



CHAPTER IV

COMING HOME


The bolt grated, as if grudgingly, and slowly the door opened as far as
the limits of its chain would permit, and Mrs. Rainham’s face appeared
in the aperture. She glared at them for a minute without speaking.

“So you have come home?” she said at last. The chain fell, and the door
opened. “I wonder you trouble to come home at all. May I ask where you
have been?”

“She has been with me, Mrs. Rainham,” Bob said cheerfully. “May I come
in?”

Mrs. Rainham did not move. She held the door half open, blocking the
way.

“It is far too late for me to ask you in,” she answered frigidly.
“Cecilia can explain her conduct, I presume.”

“Oh, there’s really nothing to explain,” Bob answered. “It was so late
when she got out this afternoon that I kept her--why, it was after
half-past four before she was dressed.”

“I told her to be in for tea.”

“Yes; but I felt sure you couldn’t realize how late she was in getting
out,” said Bob in a voice of honey.

“That was entirely her own mismanagement--” began the hard tones.

“Oh, no, Mrs. Rainham; really it wasn’t,” said Cecilia mildly. “Your
accompaniments, you remember--your dress--your music,” she stopped,
in amazement at herself. It was rarely indeed that she answered any
accusation of her stepmother’s. But to be on the mat at midnight, with
Bob in support, seemed to give her extraordinary courage.

“You see, Mrs. Rainham, there seems to have been quite a number of
little details that Cecilia couldn’t mismanage,” said Bob, following
up the advantage. It was happily evident that his stepmother’s rage was
preventing her from speaking, and, as he remarked later, there was no
knowing when he would ever get such a chance again. “She really needed
rest. I’m sure you’ll agree that every one is entitled to some free
time. Of course, you couldn’t possibly have realized that it was a week
since she had been off duty.”

“It’s her business to do what I tell her,” said Mrs. Rainham, finding
her voice, in an explosive fashion that made a passing policeman glance
up curiously. “She knew I had company, and expected her help. I had
to see to the children’s tea myself. And how do I know where she’s
been?--gallivanting round to all sorts of places! I tell you, young
lady, you needn’t think you’re going to walk in here at midnight as if
nothing was the matter.”

“I never expected to,” said Cecilia cheerfully. “But it was worth it.”

Bob regarded her in solemn admiration.

“I don’t think we gallivanted at all reprehensibly,” he said. “Just
dinner and a theatre. I haven’t made much claim to her time during the
last four years, Mrs. Rainham; surely I’m entitled to a little of it
now.”

“You!” Mrs. Rainham’s tone was vicious. “You don’t give her a home, do
you? And as long as I do, she’ll do what I tell her.”

“No; I don’t give her a home--yet,” said Bob very quietly. “But I very
soon will, I assure you; and meanwhile, she earns a good deal more than
her keep in her father’s house. You can’t treat her worse than your
servants--”

Cecilia suddenly turned to him.

“Ah, don’t, Bob darling. It doesn’t matter--truly--not a bit.” With the
end of the long penance before her, it seemed beyond the power of the
angry woman in the doorway to hurt her much. What she could not bear was
that their happy evening should be spoiled by hard and cruel words at
its close. Bob’s face, that had been so merry, was sterner than she
had ever seen it, all its boyishness gone. She put up her own face, and
kissed him.

“Good night--you mustn’t stay any longer. I’ll be all right.” She
whispered a few quick words of French, begging him to go, and Bob,
though unwillingly, gave in.

“All right,” he said. “Go to bed, little ‘un. I’ll do as I promised
about writing.” He saluted Mrs. Rainham stiffly. “You’ll remember,
Mrs. Rainham, that she stayed out solely at my wish--I take full
responsibility, and I’ll be ready to tell my father so.” The door closed
behind Cecilia, and he strode away down the street, biting his lip. He
felt abominably as though he had deserted the little sister--and yet,
what else could he do? One could not remain for ever, brawling on a
doorstep at midnight--and Tommy had begged him to go. Still--

“Hang it!” he said viciously. “If she were only a decent Hun to fight!”

In the grim house in Lancaster Gate Cecilia was facing the music alone.
She listened unmoved, as she had listened many times before, to
the catalogue of her sins and misdeeds--only she had never seen her
stepmother quite so angry. Finally, a door above opened, and Mark
Rainham looked out, his dull, colourless face weakly irritable.

“I wish you’d stop that noise, and let the girl go to bed,” he said.
“Come here, Cecilia.”

She went to him hesitating, and he looked at her with a spark of
compassion. Then he kissed her.

“Good night,” he said, as though he had called her to him simply to say
it, and not to separate her from the furious woman who stood looking
at them. “Run off to bed, now--no more talking.” Cecilia ran upstairs
obediently. Behind her, as she neared her attic, she heard her
stepmother’s voice break out anew.

“Just fancy Papa!” she muttered. Any mother sensations were lost in
wonder at her father’s actually having intervened. The incredible thing
had happened. For a moment she felt a wave of pity for him, left alone
to face the shrill voice. Then she shrugged her shoulders.

“Ah, well--he married her,” she said. “I suppose he has had it many a
time. Perhaps he knows how to stop it--I don’t!” She laughed, turning
the key in the lock, and sitting down beside the open window. The
glamour of her happy evening was still upon her; even the scene with her
stepmother had not had power to chase it away. The scene was only to be
expected; the laughter of the evening was worth so every-day a penalty.
And the end of Mrs. Rainham’s rule was nearly in sight. Not even to
herself for a moment would she admit that there was any possibility of
Bob failing to “make good” and take her away.

She went downstairs next morning to an atmosphere of sullen resentment.
Her father gave her a brief, abstracted nod, in response to her
greeting, and went on with his bacon and his Daily Mail; her
stepmother’s forbidding expression checked any attempt at conversation.
The children stared at her with a kind of malevolent curiosity; they
knew that a storm had been brewing for her the night before, and longed
to know just how thoroughly she had “caught it.” Eliza, bringing
in singed and belated toast, looked at her with pity, tinged with
admiration. Cook and she had been awakened at midnight by what was
evidently, in the words of Cook, “a perfickly ‘orrible bust-up,” and
knowing Cecilia to have been its object, Eliza looked at her as one may
look who expects to see the scars of battle. Finding none, but receiving
instead a cheerful smile, she returned to the kitchen, and reported to
Cook that Miss Cecilia was “nuffink less than a neroine.”

But as that day and the next wore on, Cecilia found it difficult to be
cheerful. That she was in disgrace was very evident, Mrs. Rainham said
no more about her sins of the night before; instead, she showed her
displeasure by a kind of cold rudeness that gave a subtle insult to her
smallest remark. The children were manifestly delighted. Cecilia was
more or less in the position of a beetle on a pin, and theirs was the
precious opportunity of seeing her wriggle. Wherefore they adopted
their mother’s tone, openly defied her, and turned school-hours into a
pandemonium.

Cecilia at last gave up the attempt to keep order. She opened her desk
and took out her knitting.

“Well, this is all very pleasant,” she said, calmly. “You seem
determined to do no work at all, so I can only hope that in time you
will get tired of being idle. I can’t attempt to teach you any more. I
am quite ready, however, if you bring your lessons to me.”

“You’ll get into a nice row from the Mater,” jeered Wilfred.

“Very possibly. She may even punish me by finding another governess,”
 said Cecilia, with a twinkle. “However that may be, I do not feel
compelled to talk to such rude little children as you any more. When
you are able to speak politely you may come to me for anything you
want; until then, I shall not answer you.” She bent her attention to the
mysteries of heel-turning.

The children were taken aback. To pinprick with rudeness a victim who
answered back was entertaining; but there was small fun in baiting
anybody who sat silently knitting with a half-smile of contempt at the
corners of her mouth. They gave it up after a time, and considered the
question of going out; a pleasant thing to do, only that their mother
had laid upon them a special injunction not to leave Cecilia, and she
was in a mood that made disobedience extremely dangerous. Cecilia quite
understood that she was being watched. No letters had yet come from Bob,
and she knew that her stepmother had been hovering near the letter-box
whenever the postman had called. Mrs. Rainham had accompanied them on
their walk the day before; a remark of Avice’s revealed that she meant
to do so again to-day.

“It’s all so silly,” the girl said to herself. “If I chose to dive into
a tube station or board a motor-bus she couldn’t stop me; and she can’t
go on watching me and intercepting my letters indefinitely. I suppose
she will get tired of it after a while.” But meanwhile she found the
spying rather amusing. Avice popped up unexpectedly if she went near the
front door; Wilfred’s bullet head peeped in through the window whenever
she fancied herself alone in the schoolroom. Only her attic was
safe--since to spy upon it would have required an aeroplane.

The third day brought no letter from Bob. Cecilia asked for her mail
when she went down to breakfast, and was met by a blank stare from her
stepmother--“I suppose if there had been any letters for you they would
be on your plate.” She flushed a little under the girl’s direct gaze,
and turned her attention to Queenie’s table manners, which were at all
times peculiar; and Cecilia sat down with a faint smile. It was time to
obey orders and telegraph to Bob.

She planned how to do it, during a long morning when the children
actually did some work--since to be rude or idle meant that their
teacher immediately retired into her shell of silence, and knitted, and
life became too dull. To employ Eliza was her first thought--rejected,
since it seemed unlikely that Eliza would be able to get time off to go
out. If Mrs. Rainham’s well-known dislike for walking proved too strong
for her desire to watch her stepdaughter, it would be easy enough to
do it during the afternoon; but this hope proved vain, for when she
appeared in the hall with her charges at three o’clock the lady of the
house sailed from the drawing-room, ready for the march. They moved off
in procession; Mrs. Rainham leading the way, with Avice and Wilfred,
while Cecilia brought up the rear, holding Queenie’s podgy hand.

She had telegraph forms in her desk, and the message, already written,
and even stamped, was in the pocket of her coat. There was nothing for
it but to act boldly, and accordingly, when they entered a street in
which there was a post office, she let Queenie lag until they were
a little distance behind the others. Then, as they reached the post
office, she turned sharply in.

“Wait a minute, Queenie.”

She thrust her message across the counter hurriedly. The clerk on duty
was provokingly slow; he finished checking a document, and then lounged
across to the window and took the form, running over it leisurely.

“Oh, you’ve got the stamps on. All right,” he said, and turned away just
as quick steps were heard, and Mrs. Rainham bustled in, panting.

“What are you doing?”

Cecilia met her with steady eyes.

“Nothing wrong, I assure you.” She had had visions of covering her real
purpose by buying stamps--but rejected it with a shrug.

“Thethilia gave the man a pieth of paper!” said Queenie shrilly.

“What was it? I demand to know!” cried Mrs. Rainham. She turned to the
clerk, who stood open-mouthed, holding the telegram in his hand. “Show
me that telegram. I am this young lady’s guardian.”

The clerk grinned broadly. The stout and angry lady made no appeal to
him, and Cecilia was a pretty girl, and moreover her telegram was for
a flying captain. The clerk wore a returned soldier’s badge himself. He
fell back on Regulations.

“Can’t be done, ma’am. The message is all in order.”

“Let me see it.”

“Much as my billet’s worth, if I did,” said the clerk. “Property of the
Postmaster-General now, ma’am. Couldn’t even give it back to the young
lady.”

“I’ll report you!” Mrs. Rainham fumed.

“Do, ma’am. I’ll get patted on the head for doin’ me duty.” The clerk’s
grin widened. Cecilia wished him good afternoon gravely, and slipped out
of the office, pursued by her stepmother.

“What was in that telegram?”

“It was to my brother.”

“What was in it?”

“It was to Bob, and that is guarantee that there was nothing wrong in
it,” Cecilia said steadily. “It was on private business.”

“You have no right to have any business that I do not know about.”

Cecilia found her temper rising.

“My father may have the power to say that--I do not know,” she said.
“But you have none, Mrs. Rainham.”

“I’ll let you see whether I have the right!” her stepmother blazed. “For
two pins, young lady, I’d lock you up.”

Cecilia laughed outright.

“Ah, that’s not done now,” she said. “You really couldn’t, Mrs.
Rainham--especially as I have done nothing wrong.” She dropped her
voice--passers-by were looking with interest at the elder woman’s
face. “Why not let me go? You do not approve of me--let me find another
position.”

“You’ll stay in your father’s house,” Mrs. Rainham said. “We’ll see what
the law has to say to your leaving with your precious Bob. Your
father’s your legal guardian, and in his control you stay until you’re
twenty-one, and be very thankful to make yourself useful. The law will
deal with Bob if he tries to take you away--you’re a minor, and it’d
be abduction.” The word had a pleasantly legal flavour; she repeated it
with emphasis. “Abduction; that’s what it is, and there’s a nice penalty
for it. Now you know, and if you don’t want to get Bob into trouble,
you’d best be careful.”

Cecilia had grown rather white. The law was a great and terrible
instrument, of which she knew nothing. It seemed to have swallowed up
Aunt Margaret’s money; it might very well have left her defenceless. Her
stepmother seemed familiar with its powers, and able to evoke them at
will; and though she did not trust her, there was something in her glib
utterance that struck fear into the girl’s heart. She did not answer,
and Mrs. Rainham followed up her advantage.

“We’ll go home,” she said. “And you make up your mind to tell me what
was in that telegram, and not to have any secrets from me. One thing I
can tell you--until you decide to behave yourself--Bob shan’t show his
nose in my house, and you shan’t go out to meet him, either. He only
leads you into mischief; I don’t consider he has at all a good influence
over you. The sooner he’s away somewhere, earning his own living in a
proper manner, the better for every one; and it’ll be many a long day
before he can give you as good a home as you’ve got now.” She paused
for breath. “Anyhow, he’s not going to have the chance,” she finished
grimly.



CHAPTER V

THE TURN OF FORTUNE’S WHEEL


“Is Mr. M’Clinton in?”

The clerk, in a species of rabbit hutch, glanced out curiously at the
young flying officer.

“Yes; but he’s very busy. Have you an appointment?”

“No--I got leave unexpectedly. Just take him my card, will you?”

The clerk handed the card to another clerk, who passed it to an
office-boy, who disappeared with it behind a heavy oaken door. He came
back presently.

“Mr. M’Clinton will see you in ten minutes, if you can wait, sir.”

“I’ll wait,” said Bob, sitting down upon a high stool. “Got a paper?”

“To-day’s Times is here, sir.” He whisked off, to return in a moment
with the paper, neatly folded.

“You’ll find a more comfortable seat behind the screen, sir.”

“Thanks,” said Bob, regarding him with interest--he was so dapper, so
alert, so all that an office-boy in a staid lawyer’s establishment ought
to be. “How old might you be?”

“Fourteen, sir.”

“And are you going to grow into a lawyer?”

“I’m afraid I’ll never do that, sir,” said the office-boy gravely. “I
may be head clerk, perhaps. But--” he stopped, confused.

“But what?”

“I’d rather fly, sir, than anything in the world!” He looked
worshippingly at Bob’s uniform. “If the war had only not stopped before
I was old enough, I might have had a chance!”

“Oh, you’ll have plenty of chances,” Bob told him consolingly. “In five
years’ time you’ll be taking Mr. M’Clinton’s confidential papers across
to Paris in an aeroplane--and bringing him back a reply before lunch!”

“Do you think so, sir?” The office-boy’s eyes danced. Suddenly he
resumed his professional gravity.

“I must get back to my work, sir.” He disappeared behind another
partition; the office seemed to Bob to be divided into water-tight
compartments, in each of which he imagined that a budding lawyer or head
clerk was being brought up by hand. It was all rather grim and solid and
forbidding. To Bob the law had always been full of mystery; this grey,
silent office, in the heart of the city, was a fitting place for it.
He felt a little chill at his heart, a foreboding that no comfort could
come of his mission there.

The inner door opened, after a little while, and a woman in black came
out. She passed hurriedly through the outer office, pulling down her
veil over a face that showed traces of tears. Bob looked after her
compassionately.

“Poor soul!” he thought. “She’s had her gruel, evidently. Now I suppose
I’ll get mine.”

A bell whirred sharply. The alert office-boy sprang to the summons,
returning immediately.

“Mr. M’Clinton can see you now, sir.”

Bob followed him through the oaken door, and along a narrow passage to a
room where a spare, grizzled man sat at a huge roll-top desk. He rose as
the boy shut the door behind his visitor.

“Well, Captain Rainham. How do you do?”

Bob gripped the lean hand offered him--it felt like a claw in his great
palm. Then he sat down and looked uncomfortably at the lawyer.

“I had thought to have seen you here before, Captain.”

“I suppose I should have shown up,” said Bob--concealing the fact that
the idea had never occurred to him. “But I’ve been very busy since I’ve
been back to England.”

“And what brings you now?”

“I’m all but demobilized,” Bob told him, “and I’m trying to get
employment.”

“What--in this office?”

“Heavens, no!” ejaculated Bob, and at once turned a fine red. “That
is--I beg your pardon, sir; but I’m afraid I’m not cut out for an
office. I want to get something to do in the country, where I can
support my sister.”

“Your sister? But does not your father support her? She is an inmate of
his house, is she not?”

“Very much so,” said Bob bitterly. “She’s governess, and lady-help, and
a good many other things. You couldn’t call it a home. Besides, we have
always been together. I want to take her away.”

“And what does your father say?”

“He says she mustn’t go. At least, that’s what my stepmother says, so my
father will certainly say it too.”

“Your sister is under age, I think?”

“She’s just nineteen--I’m over twenty-two. Can my father prevent her
going with me, sir?”

“Mph,” said the lawyer, pondering. “Do I gather that the young lady is
unhappy?”

“If she isn’t, it’s because she has pluck enough for six people, and
because she always hopes to get away.”

“And do you consider that you could support her?”

“I don’t know,” said Bob unhappily. “I would certainly have thought
I could, but there seems mighty little chance for a fellow whose only
qualification is that he’s been fighting Huns for nearly five years.
I’ve answered advertisements and interviewed people until my brain
reels; but there’s nothing in it, and I can’t leave Tommy there.”

“Tommy?” queried the lawyer blankly.

Bob laughed.

“My sister, I mean, sir. Her name’s Cecilia, but, of course, we’ve never
called her that. Even Aunt Margaret called her Tommy.”

Mr. M’Clinton made no reply. He thought deeply for a few moments. Then
he looked up, and there was a glint of kindness in his hard grey eyes.

“I think you had better tell me all about it, Captain Rainham. Would it
assist you to smoke?”

“Thanks awfully, sir,” said Bob, accepting the proffered cigarette.
He plunged into his story; and if at times it was a trifle incoherent,
principally from honest wrath, yet on the whole Cecilia’s case
lost nothing in the telling. The lawyer nodded from time to time,
comprehendingly.

“Aye,” he said at last, when Bob paused. “Just so, just so. And why did
you come to me, Captain?”

“I want your advice, sir,” Bob answered. “And I should like to know
something about my aunt’s property--if I can hope for any help from that
source. I should have more chance of success if I had a little capital
to start with. But I understand that most of it was lost. My father
seemed very disappointed over the small amount she left.” He hesitated.
“But apart from money, I should like to know if I am within the law in
taking my sister away.”

Mr. M’Clinton thought deeply before replying.

“I had better speak frankly to you, Captain Rainham,” he said. “Your
aunt, as you probably know, did not like your father. I am not sure that
she actually distrusted him. But she considered him weak and indolent,
and she recognized that he was completely under the thumb of his second
wife. Your late aunt, my old friend, had an abhorrence for that lady
that was quaint, considering that she had scarcely ever seen her.” He
permitted himself the ghost of a smile. “She was deeply afraid of any of
her property coming under the control of your father--and through him,
of his wife. And so she tied up her money very carefully. She left
direct to you and your sister certain assets. The rest of her property
she left, in trust, to me.”

“To you, sir?”

“Aye. Very carefully tied up, too,” said Mr. M’Clinton, with a twinkle.
“I can’t make ducks and drakes of it, no matter how much I may wish to.
It is tied up until your sister comes of age. Then my trust ceases.”

“By Jove!” Bob stared at him. “Then--do we get something?”

“Certainly. Unfortunately, many of your aunt’s investments were very
hard hit through the war. Certain stocks which paid large dividends
ceased to pay altogether; others fell to very little. The sum left to
you and your sister for immediate use should have been very much larger,
but all that is left of it is the small allowance paid to you both.
I imagine that a smart young officer like yourself found it scarcely
sufficient for tobacco.”

“I’ve saved it all,” said Bob simply. “A bit more, too.”

“Saved it!” said the lawyer in blank amazement. “Do you tell me, now?
You lived on your pay?”

“Flying pay’s pretty good,” said Bob. “And there was always Tommy to
think of, you know, sir. I had to put something away for her, in case I
crashed.”

“Dear me,” said Mr. M’Clinton. “Your aunt had great confidence in you
as a boy, and it seems she was justified. I’m very glad to hear this,
Captain, for it enables me to do with a clear conscience something which
I have the power to do. There is a discretionary clause in your aunt’s
will, which gives me power to realize a certain sum of money, should you
need it. I could hand you over about three thousand pounds.”

“Three thousand!” Bob stared at him blankly.

“Aye. And I see no reason why I should not do it--provided I am
satisfied as to the use you will make of it. As a matter of form I
should like a letter from your commanding officer, testifying to your
general character.”

“That’s easy enough,” said Bob. “But--three thousand! My hat, what a
difference it will make to Tommy and me! Poor old Aunt Margaret--I might
have known she’d look after us.”

“She loved you very dearly. And now, Captain, about your sister.”

“She’s the big thing,” said Bob. “Can I kidnap her?”

“It’s rather difficult to say just how your father might act. Left
to himself, I do not believe he would do anything. But urged by your
stepmother, he might make trouble. And the good lady is more likely
to make trouble if she suspects that there is any money coming to your
sister.”

“That’s very certain,” Bob remarked. “I wish to goodness I could get her
right out of England, sir. How about Canada?”

The lawyer pondered.

“Do you know any one there?”

“Not a soul. But I suppose one could get introductions. And one can
always get Government expert advice there, I believe, to prevent one
chucking away one’s money foolishly.”

Mr. M’Clinton nodded approvingly.

“I don’t know, but you might do worse,” he said. “I believe in these
new countries for young people; the old ones are getting overcrowded
and worn out. And your relations are likely to give trouble if you
are within their reach. A terrible woman, that stepmother of yours; a
terrible woman. She came to see me with your father; he said nothing,
but she talked like a mill-race. Miss Tommy has my full sympathy.
A brawling woman in a wide house, as the Scripture says. I reproach
myself, Captain, that I did not inquire personally into Miss Tommy’s
well-being. She told you nothing of her trials, you say, during the
war?”

“Not a word. Wrote as if life were a howling joke always. I only found
out for myself by accident a few months ago.”

“A brave lassie. Well, I’ll do what I can to help you, Captain.
I’ll keep a lookout for a likely land investment for your money, and
endeavour to prepare a good legal statement to frighten Mrs. Rainham
if she objects to your taking your sister away. Much may be done by
bluffing, especially if you do it very solemnly and quietly. So keep a
good heart, and come and see me next time you’re in London. Miss Tommy
will be in any day, I presume, after the telegram you told me about?”

“Sure to be,” said Bob. “She’ll be anxious for her letters. I’m leaving
one for her, if you don’t mind, and I’ll write to her again to-night.”
 He got up, holding out his hand. “Good-bye--and I don’t know how to
thank you, sir.”

“Bless the boy--you’ve nothing to thank me for,” said the lawyer. “Just
send me that letter from your commanding officer, and remember that
there’s no wild hurry about plans--Miss Tommy can stand for a few weeks
longer what she has borne for two years.”

“I suppose she can--but I don’t want her to,” Bob said.

The brisk office-boy showed him out, and he marched down the grey
streets near Lincoln’s Inn with his chin well up. Life had taken a
sudden and magical turn for the better. Three thousand pounds!--surely
that meant no roughing it for Tommy, but a comfortable home and a
chance of success in life. It seemed a sum of enormous possibilities.
Everything was very vague still, but at least the money was certain--it
seemed like fairy gold. He felt a sudden desire to get away somewhere,
with Tommy, away from crowded England to a country where a man could
breathe; his heart rejoiced at the idea, just as he had often exulted
when his aeroplane had lifted him away from the crowded, buzzing camp,
into the wide, free places of the air. Canada called to him temptingly.
His brain was seething with plans to go there when, waiting for a chance
to cross a crowded thoroughfare, he heard his own name.

“Asleep, Rainham?”

Bob looked up with a start. General Harran, the Australian, was beside
him, also waiting for a break in the crawling string of motor-buses and
taxi-cabs. He was smiling under his close-clipped moustache.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” stammered the boy, coming to the salute
stiffly. “I was in a brown study, I believe.”

“You looked it. I spoke to you twice before you heard me. What is
it?--demobilization problems?”

“Just that, sir,” said Bob, grinning. “Most of us have got them, I
suppose--fellows of my age, anyhow. It’s a bit difficult to come down to
earth again, after years spent in the air.”

“Very difficult,” Harran agreed gravely. He glanced down with interest
at the alert face and square-built figure of the boy beside him. There
were so many of them, these boys who had played with Death for years.
They have saved their country from horror and ruin, and now it seemed
very doubtful if their country wanted them. They were in every town in
England, looking for work; their pitiful, plucky advertisements greeted
the eye in every newspaper. The problem of their future interested
General Harran keenly. He liked his boys; their freshness and pluck and
unspoiled enthusiasm had been a tonic to him during the long years of
war. Now it hurt him that they should be looking for the right to live.

“I’m just going to lunch, Rainham,” he said. “Would you care to come
with me?”

Bob lifted a quaintly astonished face.

“Thanks, awfully, sir,” he stammered.

“Then jump on this ‘bus, and we’ll go to my club,” said the General,
swinging his lean, athletic body up the stairs of a passing motor-’bus
as he spoke. Bob followed, and they sped, rocking, through the packed
traffic until the General, who had sat in silence, jumped up, threaded
his way downstairs, and dropped to the ground again from the footboard
of the hurrying ‘bus--with a brief shake of the head to the conductor,
who was prepared to check the speed of his craft to accommodate a
passenger with such distinguished badges of rank. Bob was on the ground
almost as quickly, and they turned out of the crowded street into
a quieter one that presently led them into a silent square, where
dignified grey houses looked out upon green trees, and the only traffic
was that of gliding motors. General Harran led the way into one of the
grey houses, up the steps of which officers were constantly coming
and going. A grizzled porter in uniform, with the Crimean medal on his
tunic, swung the door open and came smartly to attention as they passed
through. The General greeted him kindly.

“How are you, O’Shea? The rheumatism better?”

“It is, sir, thank you.” They passed on, through a great hall lined with
oil-paintings of famous soldiers, and trophies of big game from all
over the world; for this was a Service club, bearing a proud record of
soldier and sailor members for a hundred years. Presently they were in
the dining-room, already crowded. The waiter found them a little table
in a quiet corner.

There was a sprinkling of men whom Bob already knew; he caught several
friendly nods of recognition us he glanced round. Then General Harran
pointed out others to him--Generals, whose names were household words in
England--a notable Admiral, and a Captain with the V.C. ribbon--earned
at Zeebrugge. He seemed to know every one, and once or twice he left his
seat to speak to a friend--during which absence Bob’s friends shot him
amazed glances, with eyebrows raised in astonishment that he should be
lunching with a real Major-General. Bob was somewhat tongue-tied with
bewilderment over the fact himself. But when their cold beef came,
General Harran soon put him at his ease, leading him to talk of himself
and his plans with quiet tact. Before Bob fairly realized it he had
unfolded all his little story--even to Tommy and her hardships. The
General listened with interest.

“And was it Tommy I saw you with on Saturday?”

“Yes, sir. She was awfully interested because it was you,” blurted Bob.
“You see, she and I have always been pals. I’m jolly keen to get some
place to take her to.”

“And you think of Canada. Why?”

“Well--I really don’t know, except that it would be out of reach of
England and unpleasantness,” Bob answered. “And my money would go a lot
further there than here, wouldn’t it, sir? Three thousand won’t buy much
of a place in England--not to make one’s living by, I mean.”

“That’s true. I advise every youngster to get out to one of the new
countries, and, of course, a man with a little capital has a far greater
chance. But why Canada? Why not Australia?”

“There’s no reason why not,” said Bob laughing. “Only it seems further
away. I don’t know more of one country than the other--except the sort
of vague idea we all have that Canada is all cold and Australia all
heat!”

General Harran laughed.

“Yes--the average Englishman’s ideas about the new countries are pretty
sketchy,” he said. “People always talk to me about the fearfully hot
climate of Australia, and seem mildly surprised if I remark that we have
about a dozen different climates, and that we have snow and ice, and
very decent winter sports, in Victoria. I don’t think they believe me,
either. But seriously, Rainham, if you have no more leaning towards one
country than the other, why not think of Australia? I could help you
there, if you like.”

“You, sir!” Bob stammered.

“Well, I can pull strings. I dare say I could manage a passage out for
you and your sister--you see, you were serving with the Australians,
and you’re both desirable immigrants--young and energetic people with
a little capital. That would be all right, I think, especially now that
the first rush is over. And I could give you plenty of introductions in
Australia to the right sort of people. You ought to see something of the
country, and what the life and work are, before investing your money.
It would be easy enough to get you on to a station or big farm--you to
learn the business, and your sister to teach or help in the house. She
wouldn’t mind that for about a year, with nice people, would she?”

“Not she!” said Bob. “It was her own idea, in fact; only I didn’t want
to let her work. But I can see that it might be best. Only I don’t know
how to thank you, sir--I never imagined--”

General Harran cut him short.

“Don’t worry about that. If I can help you, or any of the flying boys,
out of a difficulty, and at the same time get the right type of settlers
for Australia--she needs them badly--then I’m doing a double-barrelled
job that I like. But see here--do I understand that what you really
want to do is to take your sister without giving your father warning? To
kidnap her, in short?”

“I don’t see anything else to do, sir. I spoke to him a while ago about
taking her away, and he only hummed and hawed and said he’d consult Mrs.
Rainham. And my stepmother will never let her go as long as she can keep
her as a drudge. We owe them nothing--he’s never been a father to us,
and as for my stepmother--well, she should owe Tommy for two years’ hard
work. But honestly, to all intents and purposes, they are strangers
to us--it seems absolutely ridiculous that we should be controlled by
them.”

“You say your aunt’s family lawyer approves?”

“Yes, or he wouldn’t let me have the money. I could get him to see you,
sir, if you like; though I don’t see why you should be bothered about
us,” said Bob flushing.

“Give me his address--I’ll look in on him next time I’m in Lincoln’s
Inn,” said the General. “Your own, too. Now, if I get you and your
sister passages on a troopship, can you start at short notice--say
forty-eight hours?”

Bob gasped, but recovered himself. After all, his training in the air
had taught him to make swift decisions.

“Any time after the fifteenth, sir. I’ll be demobilized then, and a free
agent. I’ll get my kit beforehand.”

“Don’t get much,” counselled the General. “You can travel in
uniform--take flannels for the tropics; everything you need in Australia
you can get just as well, or better, out there. Most fellows who go out
take tons of unnecessary stuff. Come into the smoking-room and give me a
few more details.”

They came out upon the steps of the club a little later. Bob’s head was
whirling. He tried to stammer out more thanks and was cut short, kindly
but decisively.

“That’s all right, my boy. I’ll send you letters of introduction to
various people who will help you, and a bit of advice about where to go
when you land. Tell your sister not to be nervous--she isn’t going to a
wild country, and the people there are much the same as anywhere else.
Now, good-bye, and good luck”; and Bob found himself walking across the
Square in a kind of solemn amazement.

“This morning I was thinking of getting taken on as a farm hand in
Devonshire, with Tommy somewhere handy in a labourer’s cottage,” he
pondered. “And now I’m a bloated capitalist, and Tommy and I are going
across the world to Australia as calmly as if we were off to Margate
for the day! Well, I suppose it’s only a dream, and I’ll wake up soon.
I guess I’d better go back and tell Mr. M’Clinton; and I’ve got to see
Tommy somehow.” He bent his brows over the problem as he turned towards
Lincoln’s Inn.



CHAPTER VI

SAILING ORDERS


“Are you there, miss?”

The sepulchral whisper came faintly to Cecilia’s ears as she sat in her
little room, sewing a frock of Queenie’s. The children were out in the
garden at the back of the house. Mrs. Rainham was practising in the
drawing-room. The sound of a high trill floated upwards as she opened
the door.

“What is it, Eliza?”

“It’s a letter, miss. A kid brought it to the kitchen door--a bit of a
boy. Arsked for me as if ‘e’d known me all ‘is life--called me Elizer!
‘E’s waitin’ for an answer. I’ll wait in me room, miss, till you calls
me.” The little Cockney girl slipped away, revelling in furthering any
scheme to defeat Mrs. Rainham and help Cecilia.

Cecilia opened the letter hurriedly. It contained only one line.

“Can you come at once to Lincoln’s Inn? Important.--BOB.”

Cecilia knitted her brows. It was nearly a month since the memorable
evening when she and Bob had revolted; and though she was still made
to feel herself in disgrace, and she knew her letters were watched, the
close spying upon her movements had somewhat relaxed. It had been
too uncomfortable for Mrs. Rainham to keep it up, since it made heavy
demands upon her own time, and interfered with too many plans; moreover,
in spite of it, Cecilia had slipped away from the house two or three
times, going and coming openly, and replying to any questions by the
simple answer that she had been to meet Bob. Angry outbreaks on the part
of her stepmother she received in utter silence, against which the waves
of Mrs. Rainham’s wrath spent themselves in vain.

Indeed, the girl lived in a kind of waking dream of happy anticipation,
beside which none of the trials of life in Lancaster Gate had power to
trouble her. For on her first stolen visit to Mr. M’Clinton’s office the
wonderful plan of flight to Australia had been revealed to her, and the
joy of the prospect blotted out everything else. Mr. M’Clinton, watching
her face, had been amazed by the wave of delight that had swept over it.

“You like it, then?” he had said. “You are not afraid to go so far?”

“Afraid--with Bob? Oh, the farther I can get from England the better,”
 she had answered. “I have no friends here; nothing to leave, except the
memory of two bad years. And out there I should feel safe--she could not
get a policeman to bring me back.” There was no need to ask who “she”
 was.

Cecilia had made her preparations secretly. She had not much to do--Aunt
Margaret had always kept her well dressed, and the simple and pretty
things she had worn two years before, and which had never been unpacked
since she put on mourning for her aunt, still fitted her, and were
perfectly good. It had never seemed worth while to leave off wearing
mourning in Lancaster Gate--only when Bob had come home had she unpacked
some of her old wardrobe. Much was packed still, and in store under Mr.
M’Clinton’s direction, together with many of Aunt Margaret’s personal
possessions. It was as well that it was so, since Mrs. Rainham had
managed to annex a proportion of Cecilia’s things for Avice. To
Lancaster Gate she had only taken a couple of trunks, not dreaming of
staying there more than a short time. So packing and flitting would be
easy, given ordinary luck and the certain co-operation of Eliza. Her few
necessary purchases had been made on one of her hurried excursions with
Bob; she had not dared to have the things sent home, and they had been
consigned in a tin uniform case to Bob’s care.

She pondered over his note now, knitting her brows. It would be easy
enough to act defiantly and go at once; but if this meant that the
final flight were near at hand she did not wish to excite anew her
stepmother’s anger and suspicion. Then, as she hesitated, she heard a
heavy step on the stairs, and she crushed the note hurriedly into her
pocket.

Mrs. Rainham came into the room without the formality of knocking--a
formality she had never observed where Cecilia was concerned. The
afternoon post had just come, and she carried some letters in her hand.

“Cecilia, I want you to put on your things and go to Balding’s for me,”
 she said, her voice more civil than it had been for a month. “I’m asked
up to Liverpool for a few days; my sister there is giving a big At
Home--an awfully big thing, with the Lady Mayoress and all the Best
People at it--and she wants me to go up. I suppose she’ll want me to
sing.”

“That is nice,” said Cecilia, speaking with more truth than Mrs. Rainham
guessed. “What will you wear?”

“That’s just it,” said her stepmother eagerly. “My new evening dress
isn’t quite finished--we ran short of trimming. I can’t go out, because
the Simons are coming in to afternoon tea; so you just hurry and go over
to Balding’s to match it. I got it there, and they had plenty. Here’s
a bit.” She held out a fragment of gaudy sequin trimming. “I think you
could finish the dress without me getting in the dressmaker again--she’s
that run after she makes a regular favour of coming.”

“Very well,” said Cecilia--who would, at the moment, have agreed to sew
anything or everything that might hasten her stepmother’s journey. “When
do you go?”

“The day after to-morrow. I’ll stay there a few days, I suppose; not
worth going so far for only one evening. Mind, Cecilia, you’re not to
have Bob here while I’m away. When I come back, if I’m satisfied with
you, I’ll see about asking him again.”

“That is very good of you,” said the girl slowly.

“Well, that’s all right--you hurry and get ready; there’s always a
chance they may have sold out, because it was a bargain line, and if
they have you’ll have to try other places. I don’t know what on earth
I’ll do if you can’t match it.” She turned to go, and then hesitated. “I
was thinking you might take Avice with you--but you’ll get about quicker
alone, and she isn’t ready. The tubes and buses are that crowded it’s
no catch to take a child about with you.” In moments of excitement
Mrs. Rainham’s English was apt to slip from her. At other times
she cultivated it carefully, assisted by a dramatic class, which an
enthusiastic maiden lady, with leanings towards the stage, conducted
each winter among neighbouring kindred souls.

Cecilia had caught her breath in alarm, but she breathed a sigh of
relief as the stout, over-dressed figure went down the narrow stairs,
with a final injunction to hurry. There was, indeed, no need to give
Cecilia that particular command. She scribbled one word, “Coming,” on
Bob’s note, thrust it into an envelope and addressed it hastily, and
then tapped on the wall between the servants’ room and her own.

Eliza appeared with the swiftness of a Jack-in-the-box, full of
suppressed excitement.

“Lor! I fought she was never goin’,” she breathed. “Got it ready, Miss?
The boy’ll fink I’ve gorn an’ eloped wiv it.” She took the envelope and
pattered swiftly downstairs.

A very few moments saw Cecilia flying in her wake--to Balding’s first,
as quickly as tube and motor-bus could combine to take her, since
she dared not breathe freely until Mrs. Rainham’s commission had been
settled. Balding’s had never seemed so huge and so complicated, and when
she at length made her way to the right department the suave assistant
regretted that the trimming was sold out. It was Cecilia’s face of blank
dismay that made him suddenly remember that there was possibly an odd
length somewhere, and a search revealed it, put away in a box of odds
and ends. Cecilia’s thanks were so heartfelt that the assistant was
mildly surprised.

“For she don’t seem the sort to wear ghastly stuff like that,” he
pondered, glancing after the pretty figure in the well-cut coat and
skirt.

Outside the great shop Cecilia glanced up and caught the eye of a
taxi-driver who had just set down a fare.

“I’ll be extravagant for once,” she thought. She beckoned to the man,
and in a moment was whirring through the streets in the peculiar comfort
a motor gives to anyone in a hurry in London--since it can take
direct routes instead of following the roundabout methods of buses and
underground railways. She leaned back, closing her eyes. If this summons
to Bob indeed meant that their sailing orders had come, she would need
all her wits and her coolness. For the first time she realized what her
stepmother’s absence from home might mean--a thousandfold less plotting
and planning, and no risk of a horrible scene at the end. Cecilia
loathed scenes; they had not existed in Aunt Margaret’s scheme of
existence. Since Bob’s plans had become at all definite, she had looked
forward with dread to a final collision with Mrs. Rainham--it was untold
relief to know that it might not come.

She hurried up the steps of Mr. M’Clinton’s office. The alert office
boy--who had been Bob’s messenger to Lancaster Gate--met her.

“You’re to go straight in, miss. The Captain’s there.”

Bob was in the inner sanctum with Mr. M’Clinton. They rose to meet her.

“Well--are you ready, young lady?” the old man asked.

“Is it--are we to sail soon?”

“Next Saturday--and this is Monday. Can you manage it, Tommy?” Bob’s
eyes were dancing with excitement.

“Oh, Bobby--truly?” She caught at his coat sleeve. “When did you hear?”

“I had a wire from General Harran this morning. A jolly good ship, too,
Tommy; one of the big Australian liners--the Nauru. You’re all ready,
aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes. And there’s the most tremendous piece of luck, Bobby--Mrs.
Rainham’s going away on Wednesday!”

“Going away! How more than tactful!” ejaculated Bob. “Where is she
going?”

“To Liverpool.”

“Liverpool? Oh, by Jove!” Bob ended on a low whistle, while his face
assumed a comical expression of dismay. He turned to the lawyer. “Did
you ever hear of anything so queer?”

“Queer? Why?” demanded Cecilia.

“Well, it looks as if she wanted to see the last of you, that’s all. The
Nauru sails from Liverpool.”

“Bobby!” Cecilia’s face fell. “I thought we went from Gravesend or
Tilbury, or somewhere.”

“So did I. But the General’s wire says Liverpool, so it seems we don’t,”
 said Bob. “And that she-dragon is going there too!”

“I don’t think you need really worry,” Mr. M’Clinton said drily.
“Liverpool is not exactly a village. The chances are that if you went
there, trying to meet some one, you would hunt for him for a week in
vain. And you’ll probably go straight from the train to the docks, so
that you won’t be in the least likely to encounter Mrs. Rainham.”

“Why, of course, we’d never run into her in a huge place like
Liverpool,” Bob said, laughing. “Don’t be afraid, Tommy--you’ll have
seen the last of her when you say good-bye on Wednesday.”

“It seems too good to be true,” said Cecilia solemnly. “I remember how
I felt once before, when she went away to visit her sister in Liverpool;
the beautiful relief when one woke, to think that not all through the
day would one even have to look at her. It’s really very terrible to
look at her often; her white face and hard eyes seem to fascinate one.
Oh, I don’t suppose I ought to talk like that, especially here.” She
looked shamefacedly at Mr. M’Clinton, and blushed scarlet.

Both men laughed.

“The good lady had something of the same effect on me,” Mr. M’Clinton
admitted. “I found her a very terrible person. Cheer up, Miss Tommy,
you’ve nearly finished with her. And, now, what about getting you away?”

Cecilia turned to her brother.

“What am I to do, Bob?”

“We’ll have to go to Liverpool on Friday,” Bob replied promptly. “I
can’t find out the Nauru’s sailing time, and it isn’t safe to leave it
until Saturday. There’s a train somewhere about two o’clock that gets up
somewhere about seven or eight that evening. Mr. M’Clinton and I don’t
want to leave it to the last moment to get your luggage away from
Lancaster Gate. Can you have it ready the night before?”

“It would really be safer to take it in the afternoon,” Cecilia said
after a moment’s thought. “Mrs. Rainham’s absence will make that quite
easy, for I know I can depend upon Eliza and Cook. I can get my trunks
ready, leave them in my room, and tell Eliza you will be there to call
for them, say, at four o’clock. Then I take the three children out for a
walk, and when we return everything is gone. Will that do?”

“Perfectly,” said Bob, laughing. “And four o’clock suits me all right.
Then you’ll saunter out on Friday morning with an inoffensive brown
paper parcel containing the rest of your worldly effects, and meet me
for lunch at the Euston Hotel. Is that clear?”

“Quite. I suppose I had better put no address on my trunks?”

“Not a line--I’ll see to that. And don’t even mention the word
‘Australia’ this week, just in case your eye dances unconsciously, and
sets people thinking! I think you’d better cultivate a downtrodden look,
at any rate until Mrs Rainham is out of the house; at present you look
far too cheerful to be natural--doesn’t she, sir?”

“You have to see to it that she does not look downtrodden again, after
this week,” said Mr. M’Clinton. “Remember that, Captain--she’s going a
long way, and she’ll have no one but you.”

“I know, sir. But, bless you, it’s me that will look downtrodden,” said
Bob with a grin. “She bullies me horribly--always did.” He slipped his
hand through her arm, and they looked up at him with such radiant faces
that the old man smiled involuntarily.

“Ah, I think you’ll be all right,” he said. “Remember, Miss Tommy, I’ll
expect to hear from you--fairly often, too. I shall not say good-bye
now--you’ll see me on Friday at luncheon.”

They found themselves down in the grey precincts of Lincoln’s Inn,
which, it may be, had rarely seen two young things prancing along so
dementedly. In the street they had to sober down, to outward seeming;
but there was still something about them, as they hurried off to find a
teashop to discuss final details, that made people turn to look at
them. Even the waitress beamed on them, and supplied them with her
best cakes--and London waitresses are a bored race. But at the moment,
neither Cecilia nor Bob could have told you whether they were eating
cakes or sausages.

“The money is all right,” Bob said. “It’ll be available at a Melbourne
bank when we get there; and meanwhile, there’s plenty of ready money,
with what I’ve saved and my war gratuity. So if you want anything,
Tommy, you just say so, and don’t go without any pretties just because
you think we’ll be in the workhouse.”

“Bless you--but I don’t really need anything,” she told him gratefully.
“It would be nice to have a little money to spend at the ports, but I
think we ought to keep the rest for Australia, don’t you, Bob?”

“Oh, yes, of course; but you’re not to go without a few pounds if you
want ‘em,” said Bob. “And, Tommy, don’t leave meeting me on Friday until
lunch time. I’ll be worrying if you do, just in case things may have
gone wrong. Make it eleven o’clock at the Bond Street tube exit, and if
you’re not there in half an hour I’ll jolly well go and fetch you.”

“I’ll be there,” Cecilia nodded. “You had better give me the half-hour’s
grace, though, in case I might be held up at the last moment. One never
knows--and Avice and Wilfred are excellent little watchdogs.”

“Anyhow, you won’t have the she-dragon to reckon with, and that’s a
big thing,” Bob said. “I don’t see how you can have any trouble--Papa
certainly will not give you any.”

“No, he won’t bother,” said Cecilia slowly. “It’s queer to think how
little he counts--our own father.”

“A pretty shoddy apology for one, I think,” Bob said bitterly. “What has
he ever done for us? But I’d forgive him that when I can’t forgive him
something else--the way he has let you be treated these two years.”

“He hasn’t known everything, Bobby.”

“He has known quite enough. And if he had the spirit of a man he’d have
saved you from it. No; we don’t owe him any consideration, Tommy; and
he saw to it years ago that we should never owe him any affection. So
we really needn’t worry our heads about him. By the way, there are to be
some Australians on the Nauru who General Harran says may be of use to
us--I don’t remember their names, but he’s going to give me a letter
to them. And probably there will be some other flying people whom I may
know. I think the voyage ought to be rather good fun.”

“I think so, too. It will be exciting to be on a troopship,” Cecilia
said. “But, then, anything will be heavenly after Lancaster Gate!”

She hurried home, as soon as the little meal was over, knowing that
Mrs. Rainham would be impatiently awaiting her. Luckily, her success in
matching the trimming made her stepmother forget how long she had been
away; and from that moment until a welcome four-wheeler removed the
mistress of the house on Wednesday, she sewed and packed for her
unceasingly. Her journey excited Mrs. Rainham greatly. She talked
almost affably of her sister’s grandeur, and of the certainty of meeting
wealthy and gorgeously dressed people at her party.

“Not that I’ll be at all ashamed of my dress,” she added, looking at
the billowy waves on which Cecilia was plastering yet more trimming.
“Unusual and artistic, that’s what it is; and it’ll show off my hair.
Don’t forget the darning when I’m gone, Cecilia. There’s a tablecloth to
mend, as well as the stockings. I’ll be home on Saturday night, unless
they persuade me to stay over the week-end.”

Cecilia nodded, sewing busily.

“And just see if you can’t get on a bit better with the children. You’ve
got to make allowances for their high spirits, and treat them tactfully.
Of course you can’t expect them to be as obedient to you as they would
be to a regular governess, you being their own half-sister, and not so
much older than Avice, after all. But tact does wonders, especially with
children.”

“Yes,” said Cecilia, and said no more.

“Well, just bear it in mind. I don’t suppose you’ll see much of your
father, so you needn’t worry about him. But don’t let Eliza gossip and
idle; she never does any work if she’s not kept up to it, and you know
you’re much too familiar with her. Always keep girls like her at a
distance, and they’ll work all the better, that’s what I say. Treat her
as an equal, and the next thing you know she’ll be trying on your hats!”

“I haven’t caught Eliza at that yet,” said Cecilia with the ghost of a
smile.

“It’ll come, though, if you’re not more stand-offish with her--you mark
my words. Keep them in their place--that’s what I always do with my
servants and governesses,” said Mrs. Rainham without the slightest idea
that she was saying anything peculiar. “Now, I’ll go and put my things
out on my bed, and as soon as you’ve finished that you can come up and
pack for me.”

Cecilia stood at the hall door that afternoon to watch her go--bustling
into the cab, with loud directions to the cabman, her hard face full of
self-importance and satisfaction. The plump hand waved a highly scented
handkerchief as the clumsy four-wheeler moved off.

“To think I’ll never see you again!” breathed the girl. “It seems too
good to be true!”

A kind of wave of relief seemed to have descended upon the house. The
children were openly exulting in having no one to obey; an attitude
which, in the circumstances, failed to trouble their half-sister. Eliza
went about her work with a cheery face; even Cook, down in the basement,
manifested lightness of heart by singing love songs in a cracked soprano
and by making scones for afternoon tea. Mark Rainham did not come home
until late--he had announced his intention of dining at his club. Late
in the evening he sauntered into the dining-room, where Cecilia sat
sewing.

“Still at it?” he asked. He sat down and poked the fire. “What are you
sewing?”

“Just darning,” Cecilia told him.

He sat looking at her for a while--at the pretty face and the
well-tended hair; and who shall say what thoughts stirred in his dull
brain?

“You look a bit pale,” he said at last. “Do you go out enough?”

“Oh, yes, I think so,” Cecilia answered in astonishment. Not in two
years had he shown so much interest in her; and it braced her to a
sudden resolve. She had never been quite satisfied to leave him without
a word; whatever he was, he was still her father. She put her darning on
her knee, and looked at him gravely.

“You know Bob is demobilized, don’t you, Papa?”

“Yes--he told me so,” Mark Rainham answered.

“And you know he wants to take me away?”

Her father’s eyes wavered and fell before her.

“Oh, yes--but the idea’s ridiculous, I’m afraid. You’re under age, and
your stepmother won’t hear of it.” He poked the fire savagely.

“But if Bob could make a home for me! We have always been together, you
know, Papa.”

“Oh, well--wait and see. Time enough when you’re twenty-one, and your
own mistress; Bob will have had a chance to make good by then. I--I
can’t oppose my wife in the matter--she says she’s not strong enough to
do without your help.”

“But she never seems satisfied with me.”

Mark Rainham rose with an irritably nervous movement.

“Oh, no one is ever perfect. I suspect, if each of you went a little
way to meet the other, things would be better. Your stepmother says her
nerves are all wrong, and I’m sure you do take a great deal of trouble
off her shoulders.”

“Then you won’t let me go?” The girl’s low voice was relentless, and
her father wriggled as though he were a beetle and she were pinning him
down.

“I--I’m afraid it’s out of the question, Cecilia. I should have to be
very satisfied first that Bob could offer you a home--and by that time
he’ll probably be thinking of getting married, and won’t want you. Why
can’t you settle down comfortably to living at home?”

“There isn’t any home for me apart from Bob,” said the girl.

“Well, I can’t help it.” Mark Rainham’s voice had a hopeless tone. He
walked to the door, and then half turned. “If you can make my wife agree
to your going, I won’t forbid it. Good night.”

“Good night,” said Cecilia. The slow footsteps went up the stairs, and
she turned to her darning with a lip that curled in scorn.

“Well, that let’s me out. I don’t owe you anything--not even a good-bye
note on my pincushion,” she said presently; and laughed a little. She
folded a finished pair of socks deliberately, and, rising, stretched
her arms luxuriously above her head. “Two more days,” she whispered. She
switched off the light, and crept noiselessly upstairs.



CHAPTER VII

THE WATCH DOGS


“Well, if you ask me, she’s up to something,” said Avice with
conviction.

“How d’you mean?” Wilfred looked up curiously.

“Lots of things. She looks all different. First of all--look how red she
is all the time, and the excited look in her eyes.”

“That’s all look--look!” jeered her brother. “Girls always have those
rotten ideas about nothing at all. Just because Cecilia’s got a bit
sunburnt, and because she’s havin’ an easy time ‘cause Mater’s away--”

“Oh, you think because you’re a boy, you know everything,” retorted his
sister hotly. “You just listen, and see if I’ve got rotten ideas. Did
you know, she’s kept her room locked for days?”

“Well--if she has? That’s nothing.”

“You shut up and let me go on. Yesterday she forgot, and left it open
while she was down talking to Cook, and I slipped in. And there was
one of her great big trunks, that she always keeps in the box room,
half-packed with her things. I nicked this necklace out of it, too,”
 said Avice with triumph, producing a quaint string of Italian beads.

“Good business,” said Wilfred with an appreciative grin. “Did she catch
you?”

“Not she--I can tell you I didn’t wait long, ‘cause she always comes
upstairs as quick as lightning. She did come, too, in an awful hurry,
and locked up the room--I only got out of the way just in time. And
every minute she could, yesterday, she was up there.”

“Well, I don’t see much in that.”

“No, but look here, I got another chance of looking into her room this
morning, and that trunk was gone!”

“Gone back to the box-room,” said Wilfred with superiority.

“No, it wasn’t--I went up and looked. And her other trunk’s not there,
either.”

“Oh, you’re dreaming! I bet she’d just pushed it under her bed.”

“Pooh!” said Avice. “That great big trunk wouldn’t go under her bed--you
know she’s only got a little stretcher-bed. And I tell you they’d both
gone. I bet you anything she’s going to run away.”

“Where’d she run to?”

“Oh, somewhere with Bob.”

“Well, let her go.”

“Yes, and Mater ‘d have to spend ever so much on a new governess; and
most likely she’d be a worse beast than Cecilia. And no governess we
ever had did half the things Mater makes Cecilia do to help in the
house. Why she’s like an extra servant, as well as a governess. Mater
told me all about it. I tell you what, Wilfred, it’s our business to see
she doesn’t run away.”

“All right,” said Wilfred, “I suppose we’d better watch out. When do you
reckon she’d go? People generally run away at night, don’t they?”

“Well, anyone can see she’s just taking advantage of Mater being away.
Yes, of course she’d go at night. She might have sent her boxes away
yesterday by a carrier--I bet that horrid little Eliza would help her.
Ten to one she means to sneak out to-night--she knows Mater will be home
to-morrow.”

“What a sell it will be for her if we catch her!” said Wilfred with
glee. “I say, what about telling Pater?”

Avice looked sour.

“I did tell him something yesterday, and he only growled at me. At
least, I said, ‘Do you think Cecilia would ever be likely to run away?’
And he just stared at me, and then he said, ‘Not your business if she
does.’ So I’m not going to speak to him again.”

“Well, we’d better take it in turns to watch her,” Wilfred said. “After
dark’s the most likely time, I suppose, but we’d better be on the
look-out all the time. Where’s she now, by the way?”

“Why, I don’t know. I say, she’s been away a long time--I never
noticed,” said Avice, in sudden alarm. “She said we were to go on with
our French exercises--and that’s ages ago.”

“Come on and see,” said Wilfred jumping up.

Outside the room he caught Avice by the arm.

“Kick off your shoes,” he said. “We’ll sneak up to her room.”

They crept up silently. The door of Cecilia’s room was ajar. Peeping in,
they saw her standing before her tiny looking-glass, pinning on her
hat. A small parcel lay upon her bed, with her gloves and parasol. The
children were very silent--but something struck upon the girl’s tightly
strung nerves. She turned swiftly and saw them.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “How dare you come into my room?”

“Why, we thought you were lost,” said Avice. “We finished our French
ages ago. Where are you going?”

“I am going out,” said Cecilia. “I’ll set you more work to do while I’m
away.”

“But where are you going?”

“That has nothing to do with you. Come down to the schoolroom.”

Avice held her brother firmly by the arm. Together they blocked the way.

“Mater wouldn’t let you go out in lesson time. I believe you’re going to
run away!”

A red spot flamed in each of Cecilia’s white cheeks.

“Stand out of my way, you little horrors!” she said angrily. She caught
up her things and advanced upon them.

“I’m hanged if you’re going,” said Wilfred doggedly. He pushed her back
violently, and slammed the door.

The attic doors in Lancaster Gate, like those of many London houses,
were fitted with heavy iron bolts on the outside--a precaution against
burglars who might enter the house by rooms ordinarily little used. It
was not the first time that Cecilia had been bolted into her room by her
step-brother. When first she came, it had been a favourite pastime to
make her a prisoner--until their mother had made it an offence carrying
a heavy penalty, since it had often occurred that Cecilia was locked up
when she happened to need her.

But this time Cecilia heard the heavy bolt shoot home with feelings of
despair. It was already time for her to leave the house. Bob would
be waiting for her in Bond Street, impatiently scanning each crowd of
passengers that the lift shot up from underground. She battered at the
door wildly.

“Let me out! How dare you, Wilfred? Let me out at once!”

Wilfred laughed disagreeably.

“Not if we know it--eh, Avice?”

“Rather not,” said Avice. “What d’you think Mater’d say to us if we let
you run away?”

“Nonsense!” said Cecilia, controlling her voice with difficulty. “I was
going to meet Bob.”

There was silence, and a whispered consultation. Then Avice spoke.

“Will you give us your word of honour you weren’t going to run away?”

Words of honour meant little to the young Rainhams. But they knew that
Cecilia held it as a commonplace of decent behaviour that people did not
tell lies. They had, indeed, often marvelled that she preferred to “take
her gruel” rather than use any ready untruth that would have shielded
her from their mother’s wrath. Avice and Wilfred had no such scruples on
their own account: but they knew that they could depend upon Cecilia’s
word. They were, indeed, just a little afraid of their own action in
locking her up; their mother might have condoned it as “high spirits,”
 but their father was not unlikely to take a different view. So they
awaited her reply with some anxiety.

Cecilia hesitated. Never in her life had she been so tempted. Perhaps
because the temptation was so strong she answered swiftly.

“No--I won’t tell you anything of the kind. But look here--if you will
let me out I’ll give you each ten shillings.”

Ten shillings! It was wealth, and the children gasped. Wilfred, indeed,
would have shot back the bolt instantly. It was Avice who caught at his
arm.

“Don’t you!” she whispered. “It’ll cost heaps more than that to get
a new governess--and we’ll make Mater give us each ten shillings for
keeping her. I say, we’ll have to get the Pater home.”

“How?” Wilfred looked at her blankly.

“Easy. You go to the post office and telephone to him at his office.
Tell him to come at once. I’ll watch here, in case Eliza lets her out.
Run--hard as you can. Mater’ll never forgive us if she gets away.”

Wilfred clattered off obediently, awed by his sister’s urgency. Avice
sat down on the head of the stairs, close to the bolted door; and when
Cecilia spoke again, repeating her offer, she answered her in a voice
unpleasantly like her mother’s:

“No, you don’t, my fine lady. Wilfred’s gone for the Pater--he’ll be
here presently. You just stay there quietly till he comes.”

“Avice!” The word was a wail. “Oh, you don’t know how important it
is--let me out. I’ll give you anything in the world.”

“So’ll Mater if I stop your little game,” said Avice. “You just keep
quiet.”

Eliza’s sharp little face appeared at the foot of the flight of stairs.

“Wot’s up, Miss Avice? Anyfink wrong with Miss ‘Cilia?”

“Nothing to do with you,” said Avice rudely. “I’m looking after her.”
 But Cecilia’s sharp ears had caught the new voice.

“Eliza! Eliza!” she called.

The girl came up the stairs uncertainly. Avice rose to confront her.

“Now, you just keep off,” she said. “You’re not coming past here. The
master’ll be home directly, and till he comes, no one’s going up
these stairs.” She raised her voice, to drown that of Cecilia, who was
speaking again.

Eliza looked at her doubtfully. She was an undersized, wizened little
Cockney, and Avice was a big, stoutly-built girl--who held, moreover,
the advantage of a commanding position on the top step. In an encounter
of strength there was little doubt as to who would win. She turned
in silence, cowed, and went down to the kitchen, while Avice sang a
triumphant song, partly as a chant of victory, and partly to make sure
that no one would hear the remarks that Cecilia was steadily making. She
herself had caught one phrase--“Tell my brother”--and her sharp little
mind was busy. Did that mean that Bob would be coming, against its
mistress’s orders, to Lancaster Gate.

In the kitchen Eliza poured out a frantic appeal to Cook.

“She’s got Miss ‘Cilia locked up--the little red-’eaded cat! An’ Master
Wilfred gorn to fetch the Master! Oh, come on, Cookie darlin’, an’ we’ll
let ‘er out.”

Cook shook her head slowly.

“Not good enough,” she said. “I got a pretty good place. I ain’t goin’
to risk it by ‘avin’ a rough-an’-tumble with the daughter of the ‘ouse
on the hattic stairs. You better leave well alone, Liza. You done your
bit, ‘elpin’ ‘er git them trunks orf yes’day.”

“Wot’s the good of ‘avin the trunks off if she can’t go, too?” demanded
Eliza.

“Oh, she’ll git another chance. Don’t worry your ‘ead so much over other
people’s business. If the Master comes ‘ome an’ finds us scruffin’ ‘is
daughter, ‘e’ll ‘and us both over to the police for assault--an’ then
you’ll ‘ave cause for worry. Now you git along like a good gel--I got to
mike pastry.” Cook turned away decisively.

Wilfred had come home and had raced up the stairs.

“Did you get him?” Avice cried.

“No--he was out. So I left a message that he was to come home at once,
‘cause something was wrong.”

“That’ll bring him,” said Avice with satisfaction. “Now, look here,
Wilf--I believe Bob may come. You go and be near the front door, to
block Eliza, if he does. Answer any ring.”

“What’ll I say if he comes?”

“Say she’s gone out to meet him--if he thinks that, he’ll hurry back to
wherever they were to meet. Don’t give him a chance to get in. Hurry!”

“Right,” said Wilfred, obeying. He sat down in a hall chair, and took
up a paper, with an eye wary for Eliza. Half an hour passed tediously,
while upstairs Cecilia begged and bribed in vain. Then he sprang to his
feet as a ring came.

Bob was at the door; and suddenly Wilfred realized that he had always
been afraid of Bob. He quailed inwardly, for never had he seen his
half-brother look as he did now--with a kind of still, terrible anger in
his eyes.

“Where’s Cecilia?”

“Gone out,” said the boy.

“Where?”

“Gone to meet you.”

“Did she tell you so?”

“Yes, of course--how’d I know if she didn’t?”

“Then that’s a lie, for she wouldn’t tell you. Let me in.”

“I tell you, she’s gone out,” said Wilfred, whose only spark of
remaining courage was due to the fact that he had prudently kept the
door on the chain. “And Mater said you weren’t to come in here.”

From the area below a shrill voice floated upwards.

“Mr. Bob! Mr. Bob! Daon’t you believe ‘im. They got Miss ‘Cilia locked
up in ‘er room.”

“By Jove!” said Bob between his teeth. “Bless you, Eliza! Open that
door, Wilfred, or I’ll make it hot for you.” He thrust a foot into the
opening, with a face so threatening that Wilfred shrank back.

“I shan’t,” he said. “You’re not going to get her.”

“Am I not?” said Bob. He leaned back, and then suddenly flung all his
weight against the door. The chain was old and the links eaten with
rust--it snapped like a carrot, and the door flew open. Bob brushed
Wilfred out of his way, and went upstairs, three at a time.

Avice blocked his path.

“You aren’t coming up.”

“Oh, yes, I think so,” Bob said. He stooped, with a quick movement,
and picked her up, holding her across his shoulder, while she beat and
clawed unavailingly at his back. So holding her, he thrust back the bolt
of Cecilia’s door and flung it open.

“Did you think they had got you, Tommy?”

She could only cling to his free arm for a moment speechless. Then she
lifted her face, her voice shaking, still in fear.

“We must hurry, Bob. They’ve sent for Papa.”

“Have they?” said Bob, with interest. “Well, not a regiment of papas
should stop you now, old girl. Got everything?”

Cecilia gathered up her things, nodding.

“Then we’ll leave this young lady here,” said Bob. He placed Avice
carefully on Cecilia’s bed, and made for the door, having the pleasure,
as he shot the bolt, of hearing precisely what the younger Miss
Rainham thought of him and all his attributes, including his personal
appearance.

“A nice gift of language, hasn’t she?” he said. “Inherits it from
her mamma, I should think.” He put his arm round Cecilia and held her
closely as they went downstairs, his face full of the joy of battle.
Wilfred was nowhere to be seen, but by the door Eliza waited. Bob
slipped something into her hand.

“I expect you’ll lose your place over this, Eliza,” he said. “Well,
you’ll get a better--I’ll tell my lawyer to see to that. He’ll write to
you--by the way, what’s your surname? Oh, Smithers--I’ll remember. And
thank you very much.”

They shook hands with her, and passed out into the street. Cecilia was
still too shaken to speak--but as Bob pulled her hand through his arm
and hurried her along, her self-control returned, and the face that
looked up at his presently was absolutely content. Bob returned the look
with a little smile.

“Didn’t you know I’d come?” he asked. “You dear old stupid.”

“I knew you’d come--but I thought Papa would get there first,” Cecilia
answered. “Somehow, it seemed the end of everything.”

“It isn’t--it’s only the beginning,” Bob answered.

There was a narrow side street that made a short cut from the tube
station to the Rainhams’ home; and as they passed it Mark Rainham came
hurrying up it. Bob and Cecilia did not see him. He looked at them for
a moment, as if reading the meaning of the two happy faces--and then
shrank back into an alley and remained hidden until his son and daughter
had passed out of sight. They went on their way, without dreaming that
the man they dreaded was within a stone’s throw of them.

“So it was that,” said Mark Rainham slowly, looking after them. “Out of
gaol, are you--poor little prisoner! Well, good luck to you both!” He
turned on his heel, and went back to his office.



CHAPTER VIII

HOW TOMMY BOARDED A STRANGE TAXI


“We’re nearly in, Tommy.”

Cecilia looked up from her corner with a start, and the book she had
been trying to read slipped to the floor of the carriage.

“I believe you were asleep,” said Bob, laughing. “Poor old Tommy, are
you very tired?”

“Oh, nothing, really. Only I was getting a bit sleepy,” his sister
answered. “Are we late, Bob?”

“Very, the conductor says. This train generally makes a point of being
late. I wish it had made a struggle to be on time to-night; it would
have been jolly to get to the ship in daylight.” Bob was strapping up
rugs briskly as he talked.

“How do we get down to the ship, Bob?”

“Oh, no doubt there’ll be taxis,” Bob answered. “But it may be no end of
a drive--the conductor tells me there are miles and miles of docks, and
the Nauru may be lying anywhere. But he says there’s always a military
official on duty at the station--a transport officer, and he’ll be able
to tell me everything.” He did not think it worth while to tell the
tired little sister what another man had told him, that it was very
doubtful whether they would be allowed to board any transport at night,
and that Liverpool was so crowded that to find beds in it might be an
impossibility. Bob refused to be depressed by the prospect. “If the
worst came to the worst, there’d be a Y.W.C.A. that would take in
Tommy,” he mused. “And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve spent a night
in the open.” Nothing seemed to matter now that they had escaped. But,
all the same, there seemed no point in telling Tommy, who was extremely
cheerful, but also very white-faced.

They drew into an enormous station, where there seemed a dense crowd
of people, but no porters at all. Bob piled their hand luggage on
the platform, and left Cecilia to guard it while he went on a tour of
discovery. He hurried back to her presently.

“Come on,” he said, gathering up their possessions. “There’s a big
station hotel opening on to the platforms. I can leave you sitting in
the vestibule while I gather up the heavy luggage and find the transport
officer. I’m afraid it’s going to take some time, so don’t get worried
if I don’t turn up very soon. There seem to be about fifty thousand
people struggling round the luggage vans, and I’ll have to wait my turn.
But I’ll be as quick as I can.”

“Don’t you worry on my account,” Cecilia said. “This is ever so
comfortable. I don’t mind how long you’re away!” She laughed up at him,
sinking into a big chair in the vestibule of the hotel. There were heavy
glass doors on either side that were constantly swinging to let people
in or out; through them could be seen the hurrying throng of people
on the station, rushing to and fro under the great electric lights,
gathered round the bookstall, struggling along under luggage, or--very
occasionally--moving in the wake of a porter with a barrow heaped with
trunks. There were soldiers everywhere, British and Australian, and
officers in every variety of Allied uniform.

An officer came in with a lady and two tiny boys--Cecilia recognized
them as having been passengers on their train. With them came an old
Irish priest, who had met them, and the officer left them in his
care while he also went off on the luggage quest. The small boys were
apparently untired by their journey; they immediately began to use the
swinging glass doors as playthings to the imminent risk of their own
necks, since they were too little to be noticed by anyone coming in
or out, and were nearly knocked flat a dozen times by the swing of the
doors. The weary mother spent a busy time in rescuing them, and was not
always entirely successful--bumps and howls testified to the doors being
occasionally quicker than the boys. Finally, the old priest gathered
up the elder, a curly-haired, slender mite, into his arms and told him
stories, while his plump and solemn brother curled up on his mother’s
knee and dozed. It was clearly long after their bed-time.

The procession of people came and went unceasingly, the glass doors
always aswing. In and out, in and out, men and women hurried, and just
beyond the kaleidoscope of the platforms moved and changed restlessly
under the glaring arc lights. Cecilia’s bewildered mind grew weary of it
all, and she closed her eyes. It was some time later that she woke with
a start, to find Bob beside her.

“Sleepy old thing,” he said. “Oh, I’ve had such a wild time, Tommy; to
get information of any kind is as hard as to get one’s luggage. However,
I’ve got both. And the first thing is we can’t go on board to-night.”

“Bob! What shall we do?”

“I was rather anxious about that same thing myself,” said Bob, “since
everyone tells me that Liverpool is more jammed with people than even
London--which is saying something. However, we’ve had luck. I went to
ask in here, never imagining I had the ghost of a chance, and they’d
just had telegrams giving up two rooms. So we’re quite all right; and so
is the luggage. I’ve had all the heavy stuff handed over to a carrier to
be put on the Nauru to-morrow morning.”

“You’re the great manager,” said Cecilia comfortably. “Where is the
Nauru, by the way?”

“Sitting out in the river, the transport officer says. She doesn’t come
alongside until the morning; and we haven’t to be on board until three
o’clock. She’s supposed to pull out about six. So we really needn’t have
left London to-day--but I think it’s as well we did.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Cecilia, with a shiver. “I don’t think I could have
stood another night in Lancaster Gate. I’ve been awake for three nights
wondering what we should do if any hitch came in our plans.”

“Just like a woman!” said Bob, laughing. “You always jump over your
hedges before you come to them.” He pulled her gently out of her chair.
“Come along; I’ll have these things sent up to our rooms, and then we’ll
get some dinner--after which you’ll go to bed.” It was a plan which
sounded supremely attractive to his sister.

Not even the roar and rattle of the trains under the station hotel kept
Cecilia awake that night. She slept, dreamlessly at first; then she had
a dream that she was just about to embark in a great ship for Australia;
that she was going up the gangway, when suddenly behind her came her
father and her stepmother, with Avice, Wilfred and Queenie, who all
seized her, and began to drag her back. She fought and struggled with
them, and from the top of the gangway came Mr. M’Clinton and Eliza, who
tugged her upwards. Between the two parties she was beginning to think
she would be torn to pieces, when suddenly came swooping from the clouds
an areoplane, curiously like a wheelbarrow, and in it Bob, who leaned
out as he dived, grasped her by the hair, and swung her aboard with him.
They whirred away over the sea; where, she did not know, but it did not
seem greatly to matter. They were still flying between sea and sky when
she woke, to find the sunlight streaming into her room, and some one
knocking at her door.

“Are you awake, Tommy?” It was Bob’s voice. “Lie still, and I’ll send
you up a cup of tea.”

That was very pleasant, and a happy contrast to awakening in Lancaster
Gate; and breakfast a little later was delightful, in a big sunny room,
with interesting people coming and going all the time. Bob and Cecilia
smiled at each other like two happy children. It was almost unbelievable
that they were free; away from tryanny and coldness, with no more
plotting and planning, and no more prying eyes.

Bob went off to interview the transport officer after breakfast, and
Cecilia found the officer’s wife with the two little boys struggling to
attend to her luggage, while the children ran away and lost themselves
in the corridors or endeavoured to commit suicide by means of the lift.
So Cecilia took command of them and played with them until the harassed
mother had finished, and came to reclaim her offspring--this time with
the worry lines smoothed out of her face. She sat down by Cecilia and
talked, and presently it appeared that she also was sailing in the
Nauru.

“Indeed, I thought it was only wives who were going,” she said. “I
didn’t know sisters were permitted.”

“I believe General Harran managed our passages,” Cecilia said. “He has
been very kind to my brother.”

“Well, you should have a merry voyage, for there will be scarcely any
young girls on board,” said Mrs. Burton, her new friend. “Most of the
women on the transports are brides, of course. Ever so many of our men
have married over here.”

“You are an Australian?” Cecilia asked.

“Oh, yes. My husband isn’t. He was an old regular officer, and returned
to his regiment as soon as war broke out. I don’t think there will be
many women on board: the Nauru isn’t a family ship, you know.”

“What is that?” Cecilia queried.

“Oh, a ship with hundreds of women and children--privates’ wives and
families, as well as officers’. I believe they are rather awful to
travel on--they must be terrible in rough weather. The non-family ships
carry only a few officers’ wives, as a rule: a much more comfortable
arrangement for the lucky few.”

“And we are among the lucky few?”

“Yes. I only hope my small boys won’t be a nuisance. I’ve never been
without a nurse for them until last night. However, I suppose I’ll soon
get into their ways.”

“You must let me help you,” Cecilia said. “I love babies.” She stroked
Tim’s curly head as she spoke: Dickie, his little brother, had suddenly
fallen asleep on his mother’s knee.

Mrs. Burton smiled her thanks.

“Well, it is pleasant to think we shan’t go on board knowing no one,”
 she said. “I hope our cabins are not far apart. Oh, here is my husband;
I hope that means all our luggage is safely on board.”

Colonel Burton came up--a pleasant soldierly man, bearing the
unmistakable stamp of the regular officer. They were still chatting
when Bob arrived, to be introduced--a ceremony which appeared hardly
necessary in the case of the colonel and himself.

“We’ve met at intervals since last night in various places where they
hide luggage,” said the colonel. “I’m beginning to turn faint at the
sight of a trunk!”

“It’s the trunks I can’t get sight of that make me tremble,” grinned
Bob. “One of mine disappeared mysteriously this morning, and finally,
after a breathless hunt, turned up in a lamp-room--your biggest
Saratoga, Tommy! Why anyone should have put it in a lamp-room seems to
be a conundrum that is going to excite the station for ever. But there
it was.”

“And have they really started for the ship?” asked Cecilia.

“Well--I saw them all on a lorry, checked over my list with the
driver’s, and found everything right, and saw him start,” said Bob,
laughing. “More than that no man may say.”

“It would simplify matters if we knew our cabin numbers,” said Colonel
Burton. “But we don’t; neither does anyone, as far as I can gather,
since cabins appear to be allotted just as you go on board--a peculiar
system. Can you imagine the ghastly heap of miscellaneous luggage that
will be dumped on the Nauru, with frenzied owners wildly trying to sort
it out!”

“It doesn’t bear thinking of,” said Bob, laughing. “Come along, Tommy,
and we’ll explore Liverpool.”

They wandered about the crowded streets of the great port, where may,
perhaps, be seen a queerer mixture of races than anywhere in England,
since ships from all over the world ceaselesly come and go up and down
the Mersey. Then they boarded a tram and journeyed out of the city,
among miles of beautiful houses, and, getting down at the terminus,
walked briskly for an hour, since it would be long before there would
be any land for them to walk on again. They got back to the hotel rather
late for lunch, and very hungry; and afterwards it was time to pack up
their light luggage and get down to the docks. General Harran had warned
them to take enough hand-baggage to last them several nights, since
it was quite possible that their cabin trunks would be swept into the
baggage room, and fail to turn up for a week after sailing.

A taxi whisked them through streets that became more and more crowded.
The journey was not a long one; they turned down a slope presently, and
drew up before a great gate across the end of a pier where two policemen
were on duty to prevent the entrance of anyone without a pass. Porters
were there in singular numbers--England had grown quite used to being
without them; and Bob had just transferred their luggage to the care of
a cheerful lad with a barrow when Cecilia gave a little start of dismay.

“Bob, I’ve left my watch!”

“Whew!” whistled her brother. “Where?”

“I washed my hands just before I left my room,” said the shamefaced
Cecilia. “I remember slipping it off my wrist beside the basin.”

“Well, there’s no need to worry,” said Bob cheerfully. “Ten to one it’s
there still. You’ll have to take the taxi and go back for it, Tommy:
I can’t leave the luggage, and I may be wanted to show our papers,
besides; but you won’t have any difficulty. Come along, and I’ll see
that the policeman lets you through when you come back.”

The constable was sympathetic. He examined Cecilia’s passport, declared
that he would know her anywhere again, and that she had no cause for
anxiety.

“Is it time? Sure, ye’ll be tired of waitin’ on the ould pier hours
afther ye get back,” he said cheerfully. “I know thim transports. Why,
there’s not one of the throops marched in yet. There comes the furrst
lot.”

A band swung round the turn of the street playing a quickstep: behind
it, a long line of Australian soldiers, marching at ease, each man with
his pack on his shoulder. A gate with a military sentry swung wide to
admit them, and they passed on to where a high overhead bridge carried
them aboard a great liner moored to the pier.

“‘Tis the soldiers have betther treatment than the officers whin it
comes to boardin’ transports,” said the friendly policeman. “They get
marched straight on board. The officers and their belongin’s has to wait
till they’ve gone through hivin knows what formalities. So you needn’t
worry, miss, an’ take your time. The ould ship’ll be there hours yet.”

The taxi driver appeared only too glad of further employment, and
Cecilia, much cheered, though still considerably ashamed of herself,
leaned back comfortably in the cab as they whisked through the streets.
At the hotel good fortune awaited her, for a chambermaid had just found
her watch and had brought it to the office for safe keeping. Cecilia
left her thanks, with something more substantial, for the girl, and
hurried back to the cab.

The streets seemed more thronged than ever, and presently traffic was
blocked by a line of marching men--more “diggers” on their way to the
transport. Cecilia’s chauffeur turned back into a side street, evidently
a short cut. Half-way along it the taxi jarred once or twice and came to
a standstill.

The chauffeur got out and poked his head into the bonnet, performing
mysterious rites, while Cecilia watched him, a little anxiously.
Presently he came round to the door.

“I’m awful sorry, miss,” he said respectfully. “The old bus has broke
down. I’m afraid I can’t get another move out of ‘er--I’ll ‘ave to get
‘er towed to a garage.”

“Oh!” said Cecilia, jumping out. “Do you think I can find another near
here?”

“You oughter pick one up easy in the street up there,” said the
chauffeur. “Plenty of ‘em about ‘ere. Even if you shouldn’t, miss, you
can get a tram down to the docks--any p’liceman ‘ll direct you. You
could walk it, if you liked--you’ve loads of time.” He touched his cap
as she paid him. “Very sorry to let you down like this, miss--it
ain’t my fault. All the taxis in England are just about droppin’ to
pieces--it’ll be a mercy when repair shops get goin’ again.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cecilia said cheerfully. She decided that she would
walk; it would be more interesting, and the long wait on the pier would
be shortened. She set off happily towards the main street where the tram
lines ran, feeling that short cuts were not for strangers in a big city.

Even in the side street the shops were interesting. She came upon a
fascinating curio shop, and stopped a moment to look at the queer medley
in its window; such a medley as may be seen in any port where sailor-men
bring home strange things from far countries. She was so engrossed
that she failed to notice a woman who passed her, and then, with an
astonished stare, turned back. A heavy hand fell on her wrist.

“Cecilia!”

She turned, with a little cry. Mrs. Rainham’s face, inflamed with sudden
anger, looked into her own. The hard grasp tightened on her wrist.

“What are you doing here, you wicked girl? You’ve run away.”

At the moment no speech was possible to Cecilia. She twisted her arm
away fiercely, freeing herself with difficulty, and turning, ran, with
her stepmother at her heels. Once, Mrs. Rainham gasped “Police!” after
which she required all the breath to keep near the flying girl. The
street was quiet; only one or two interested passers-by turned to
look at the race, and a street urchin shouted: “Go it, red ‘ead--she’s
beatin’ yer!”

It follows naturally, when one person pursues another through city
streets, that the pursued falls under public suspicion and is liable to
be caught and held by any officious person. Cecilia felt this, and her
anxiety was keen as she darted round the corner into the next street,
looking about wildly for a means of escape. A big van, crawling across
the road, held Mrs. Rainham back for a moment, giving her a brief
respite.

Just in front of her, a block in the traffic was beginning to move. A
taxi was near her. She held up her hand desperately, trying to catch the
driver’s eye. He shook his head, and she realized that he was already
engaged--there was a pile of luggage beside him with big labels, and
a familiar name struck her--“H.M.T. Nauru.” A girl, leaning from the
window of the taxi, met her glance, and Cecilia took a sudden resolve.
She sprang forward, her hand on the door.

“I am a passenger by the Nauru. Could you take me in your car?” she
gasped.

“Why, of course,” said the other girl. “Plenty of room, isn’t there,
dad?”

“Yes, certainly,” said the other occupant of the cab--a big, grizzled
man, who looked at the new-comer in blank amazement. He had half risen,
but there was no time for him to assist his self-invited guest; she had
opened the door and jumped in before his daughter had finished speaking.
Leaning forward, Cecilia saw her stepmother emerge from the traffic,
crimson-faced, casting wild and wrathful glances about her. Then her
wandering eye fell upon Cecilia, and she began to run forward. Even as
she did the chauffeur quickened his pace, and the taxi slid away, until
the running, shouting figure was lost to view.

Cecilia sat back with a gasp, and began to laugh helplessly. The others
watched her with faces that clearly showed that they began to suspect
having entertained a lunatic unawares.

“I do beg your pardon,” said Cecilia, recovering. “It was inexcusable.
But I was running away.”

“So it seemed,” said the big man, in a slow, pleasant voice. “I hope it
wasn’t from the police?”

“Oh no!” Cecilia flushed. “Only from my stepmother. My own taxi had just
broken down, and she found me, and she would have made a scene in the
street--and scenes are so vulgar, are they not? When I saw Nauru on your
luggage, you seemed to me to have dropped from heaven.”

She looked at them, her pretty face pink, her eyes dancing with
excitement. There was something appealing about her, in the big childish
eyes, and in the well-bred voice with its faint hint of a French accent.
The girl she looked at could hardly have been called pretty--she was
slender and long-limbed, with honest grey eyes and a sensitive mouth
that seemed always ready to break into smiles. A little smile hovered at
its corners now, but her voice held a note of protection.

“I don’t think we need bother you to tell us,” she said. “In our country
it’s a very ordinary thing to give anyone a lift, if you have a seat to
spare. Isn’t it, daddy?”

“Of course,” said her father. “And we are to be fellow-passengers, so it
was very lucky that we were there in the nick of time.”

Cecilia looked at them gratefully. It might have been so different, she
thought; she might have flung herself on the mercy of people who would
have been suspicious and frigid, or of others who would have treated her
with familiarity and curious questioning. These people were pleasantly
matter-of-fact; glad to help, but plainly anxious to show her that they
considered her affairs none of their business. There was a little catch
in her throat as she answered.

“It is very good of you to take me on trust--I know I did an
unwarrantable thing. But my brother, Captain Rainham, will explain
everything, and he will be as grateful to you as I am. He is at the ship
now.”

“Then we can hand you over to his care,” said her host. “By the way,
is there any need to guard against the--er--lady you spoke of? Is she
likely to follow you to the docks?”

“She doesn’t know I’m going,” said Cecilia, dimpling. “Of course, if
it were in a novel she would leap into a swift motor and bid the driver
follow us, and be even now on our heels--”

“Goodness!” said the other girl. She twisted so that she could look out
of the tiny window at the back; turning back with a relieved face.

“Nothing near us but a carrier’s van and a pony cart,” she said. “I
shouldn’t think you need worry.”

“No. I really don’t think I need. My stepmother did see me in the
taxi, but her brain doesn’t move very swiftly, nor does she, for that
matter--and I’m sure she wouldn’t try to follow me. She knows, too, that
if she found me she couldn’t drag me away as if I were two years old.
Oh, I’m sure I’m safe from her now,” finished Cecilia, with a sigh of
relief.

“At any rate, if she comes to the docks she will have your brother to
deal with,” said the big man. “And here we are.”

They got out at the big gate where the Irish policeman greeted Cecilia
with a friendly “Did ye find it now, miss?” and beamed upon her when she
held up her wrist, with her watch safely in its place. He examined her
companions’ passports, but let her through with an airy “Sure, this
young lady’s all right,” which made Cecilia feel that no further proof
could be needed of her respectability. Then Bob came hurrying to meet
her.

“I was just beginning to get uneasy about you,” he said. “Did you have
any trouble?”

“My taxi broke down,” Cecilia answered. “But this lady and gentleman
most kindly gave me a seat, and saved me ever so much trouble. I’ll tell
you my story presently.”

Bob turned, saluting.

“Thanks, awfully,” he said. “I wasn’t too happy at letting my little
sister run about alone in a strange city, but it couldn’t be helped.”

“I’m very glad we were there,” said the big man. “Now, can you tell me
where luggage should go? My son and a friend are somewhere on the pier,
I suppose, but it doesn’t seem as though finding them would be an easy
matter.”

The pier, indeed, resembled a hive in which the bees have broken loose.
Beside it lay the huge bulk of the transport, towering high above all
the dock buildings near. Already she swarmed with Australian soldiers,
and a steady stream was still passing aboard by the overhead gangway to
the blare and crash of a regimental march. The pier itself was crowded
with officers, with a sprinkling of women and children--most of them
looking impatient enough at being kept ashore instead of being allowed
to seek their quarters on the ship. Great heaps of trunks were stacked
here and there, and a crane was steadily at work swinging them aboard.

“We can’t go aboard yet, nobody seems to know why,” Bob said. “An
individual called an embarkation officer, or something of the kind, has
to check our passports; he was supposed to be here before three
o’clock, but there’s no sign of him yet, and every one has to wait his
convenience. It’s hard on the women with little children--the poor mites
are getting tired and cross. Luggage can be left in the care of the
ship’s hands, to be loaded; I’ll show you where, sir, if you like. Is
this yours?” His eye fell on a truck-load of trunks, wheeled up by a
porter, and lit up suddenly as he noticed the name on their labels.

“Oh--are you Mr. Linton?” he exclaimed. “I believe I’ve got a letter for
you, from General Harran.”

“Now, I was wondering where I’d heard your name before, when your sister
happened to say you were Captain Rainham,” said the big man. “How stupid
of me--of course, I met Harran at my club this week, and he told me
about you.” He held out his hand, and took Bob’s warmly; then he turned
to his daughter. “Norah, it’s lucky that we have made friends with Miss
Rainham already, because you know she’s in our care, after a fashion.”

Norah Linton turned with a quick smile.

“I’m so glad,” she said. “I’ve been wondering what you would be like,
because we didn’t know of anyone else on board.”

“General Harran told my brother that you would befriend us, but I did
not think you would begin so early,” Cecilia said. “Just fancy, Bob,
they rescued me almost from the clutches of the she-dragon!”

Bob jumped.

“You don’t mean to say you met her?”

“I did--as soon as my cab broke down. And I lost my head and ran from
her like a hare, and jumped into Mr. Linton’s car!”

Bob regarded her with solemn amazement.

“So this is what happens when I let you go about alone!” he ejaculated.
“Why, you might have got yourself into an awful mess--it might have been
anybody’s car--”

“Yes, but it wasn’t,” said his sister serenely. “You see, I looked at
Miss Linton first, and I knew it would be all right.”

The Lintons laughed unrestrainedly.

“That’s your look of benevolent old age, Norah,” said her father. “I’ve
often noticed it coming on.”

“I wish you’d mention it to Wally,” Norah said. “He might treat me with
more respect if you did.”

“I doubt it; it isn’t in Wally,” said her father. “Now, Rainham, shall
we see about this luggage?”

They handed it over to the care of deck hands, and watched it loaded,
with many other trunks, into a huge net, which the crane seized, swung
to an enormous height and then lowered gently upon the deck of the
Nauru. Just as the operation was finished two figures threaded their way
through the crowd towards them; immensely tall young officers, with the
badge of a British regiment on their caps.

“Hullo, dad,” said the taller--a good-looking grave-faced fellow, with a
strong resemblance to Norah. “We hardly expected you down so early.”

“Well, Norah and I had nothing to do, so we thought we might as well
come; though it appears that we would have been wiser not to hurry,”
 said Mr. Linton. “Jim, I want to introduce you to two courageous
emigrants--Miss Rainham, Captain Rainham--my son.”

Jim Linton shook hands, and introduced his companion, Captain Meadows,
who was dark and well built, with an exceedingly merry eye.

“We’ve been trying to get round the powers that be, to make our way on
board,” he said. “The chief difficulty is that the powers that be
aren’t there; everything is hung up waiting for this blessed official. I
suppose the honest man is sleeping off the effects of a heavy lunch.”

“If he knew what hearty remarks are being made about him by over two
hundred angry people, it might disturb his rest,” said Wally Meadows.
“Come along and see them--you’re only on the fringe of the crowd here.”

“Wally’s been acting as nursemaid for the last half hour,” Jim said, as
they made their way along the pier. “He rescued a curly-haired kid from
a watery grave--at least, it would have been in if he hadn’t caught it
by the hind leg--and after that the kid refused to let him go.”

“He was quite a jolly kid,” said Wally. “Only he seems to have
quicksilver in him, instead of blood. I’m sorry for his mother--she’ll
have a packed time for the next five weeks.” He sighed. “Hide me,
Norah--there he is now!”

The curly-haired one proved to be little Tim Burton, who detached
himself from his mother on catching sight of Wally, and trotted across
to him with a shrill cry of “There’s mine officer!”--whereat Wally swung
him up on his shoulder, to his infinite delight. Mrs. Burton hurried up
to claim her offspring, and was made known to every one by Cecilia.

“It’s such an awful wait,” she said wearily. “We came here soon after
two o’clock, thinking we would get the children on board early for their
afternoon sleep; now it’s after four, and we have stood here ever since.
It’s too tantalizing with the ship looking at us, and the poor babies
are so tired. Still, I’m not the worst off. Look at that poor girl.”

She pointed out a white-faced girl who was sitting in a drooping
attitude on a very dirty wooden case. She was dainty and refined in
appearance; and looking at her, one felt that the filthy case was the
most welcome thing she had found that afternoon. Her husband, an officer
scarcely more than a boy, stood beside, trying vainly to hush the cries
of a tiny baby. She put up her arms wearily as they looked at her.

“Oh, give her to me, Harry.” She took the little bundle and crooned over
it; and the baby wailed on unceasingly.

“Oh!” said Norah Linton. She took a quick stride forward. They watched
her accost the young mother--saw the polite, yet stiff, refusal on the
English girl’s face; saw Norah, with a swift decided movement stoop down
and take the baby from the reluctant arms, putting any protest aside
with a laugh. A laugh went round the Linton party also.

“I knew she’d get it,” said Jim.

“Rather!” his friend echoed. “But she hasn’t arms enough for all the
babies who want mothering here.”

There were indeed plenty of them. Tired young mothers stood about
everywhere, with children ranging from a few months to three or four
years, all weary by this time, and most of them cross. Harassed young
husbands, unused to travelling with children--unused, indeed, to
anything but War--went hither and thither trying to hasten the business
of getting on board--coming back, after each useless journey, to try and
soothe a screaming baby or restrain a tiny boy anxious to look over the
edge of the pier. It was only a few minutes before Cecilia had found a
mother exhausted enough to yield up her baby without much protest; and
Jim and Wally Meadows and Bob “adopted” some of the older children, and
took them off to see the band; which diversions helped to pass the time.
But it was after five o’clock before a stir went round the pier, and a
rush of officers towards a little wooden room at the foot of the gangway
told that the long-waited-for official had arrived.

“Well, we won’t hurry,” said Mr. Linton. “Let the married men get on
first.”

There were not many who did not hurry. A few of the older officers kept
back; the majority, who were chiefly subalterns, made a dense crowd
about the little room, their long-pent impatience bursting out at
last. Passports examined, a procession began up the gangway; each man
compelled to halt at a barrier on top, where two officers sat allotting
cabins. It was difficult to see why both these preliminaries could not
have been managed before, instead of being left until the moment
of boarding; the final block strained every one’s patience to
breaking-point.

The Lintons and the Rainhams were almost the last to board the ship,
having, not without thankfulness, relinquished their adopted babies. The
officers allotting berths nodded comprehendingly on hearing the names of
the two girls.

“Oh yes--you’re together.” He gave them their number.

“Together--how curious!” said Cecilia.

“Not a bit; you’re the only unmarried ladies on board. And they’re
packed like sardines--not a vacant berth on the ship. Over two thousand
men and two hundred officers, to say nothing of wives and children.” He
leaned back, thankful that his rush of work was over. “Well, when I make
a long voyage I hope it won’t be on a trooper!”

“Well, that’s a bad remark to begin one’s journey on,” said Jim
Linton, following the girls up the gangway. “Doesn’t it scare you, Miss
Rainham?”

“No,” she said, with a little laugh. “Nothing would scare me except not
going.”

“Why, that’s all right,” he said. His hand fell on his sister’s
shoulder. “And what about you, Nor?”

The face she turned him was so happy that words were hardly needed.

“Why--I’m going back to Billabong!” she said.



CHAPTER IX

THE WELCOME OF AUSTRALIA


A path of moonlight lay across the sea. Into it drifted a great ship,
her engines almost stopped, so that only a dull, slow throb came up from
below, instead of the swift thud-thud of the screw that had pounded for
many weeks. It was late; so late that most of the ship’s lights were
extinguished. But all through her was a feeling of pulsating life, of
unrest, of a kind of tense excitement, of long-pent expectation.
There were low voices everywhere; feet paced the decks; along the port
railings on each deck soldiers were clustered thickly, looking out
across the grey, tossing sea to a winking light that flashed and
twinkled out of the darkness like a voice that cried “Greeting!” For it
was the Point Lonsdale light, at the sea gate of Victoria; and the men
of the Nauru were nearly home.

There was little sleep for anyone on board on that last night. Most of
the Nauru’s great company were to disembark in Melbourne; the last two
days had seen a general smartening up, a mighty polishing of leather and
brass, a “rounding-up” of scattered possessions. The barber’s shop had
been besieged by shaggy crowds; and since the barber, being but human,
could not cope with more than a small proportion of his would-be
customers, amateur clipping parties had been in full swing forward,
frequently with terrifying results. Nobody minded. “Git it orf, that’s
all that matters!” was the motto of the long-haired.

No one knew quite when the Nauru would berth; it was wrapped in mystery,
like all movements of troopships. So every one was ready the night
before--kit bags packed, gear stowed away, nothing left save absolute
necessaries. Then, with the coming of dusk, unrest settled down upon
the ship, and the men marched restlessly, up and down, or, gripping
pipe stems between their teeth, stared from the railings northwards. And
then, like a star at first, the Point Lonsdale light twinkled out of the
darkness, and a low murmur ran round the decks--a murmur without words,
since it came from men whose only fashion of meeting any emotion is with
a joke; and even for a “digger” there is no joke ready on the lips, but
only a catch at the heart, at the first glimpse of home.

Norah Linton had tucked herself away behind a boat on the hurricane
deck, and there Cecilia Rainham found her just after dusk. The two
girls had become sworn friends during the long voyage out, in the close
companionship of sharing a cabin--which is a kind of acid test that
generally brings out the best--and worst--of travellers. There was
something protective in Norah’s nature that responded instantly to the
lonely position of the girl who was going across the world to a strange
country. Both were motherless, but in Norah’s case the blank was
softened by a father who had striven throughout his children’s lives to
be father and mother alike to them, while Cecilia had only the bitter
memory of the man who had shirked his duty until he had become less than
a stranger to her. If any pang smote her heart at the sight of Norah’s
worshipping love for the tall grey “dad” for whom she was the very
centre of existence, Cecilia did not show it. The Lintons had taken them
into their little circle at once--more, perhaps, by reason of Cecilia’s
extraordinary introduction to them than through General Harran’s
letter--and Bob and his sister were already grateful for their
friendship. They were a quiet quartet, devoted to each other in their
undemonstrative fashion; Norah was on a kind of boyish footing with Jim,
the huge silent brother who was a major, with three medal ribbons to
his credit, and with Wally Meadows, his inseparable chum, who had been
almost brought up with the brother and sister.

“They were always such bricks to me, even when I was a little scrap of a
thing,” she had told Cecilia. “They never said I was ‘only a girl,’ and
kept me out of things. So I grew up more than three parts a boy. It was
so much easier for dad to manage three boys, you see!”

“You don’t look much like a boy,” Cecilia had said, looking at the tall,
slender figure and the mass of curly brown hair. They were getting ready
for bed, and Norah was wielding a hair-brush vigorously.

“No, but I really believe I feel like one--at least, I do whenever I
am with Jim and Wally,” Norah had answered. “And when we get back
to Billabong it will be just as it always was--we’ll be three boys
together. You know, it’s the most ridiculous thing to think of Jim and
Wally as grown-ups. Dad and I can’t get accustomed to it at all. And as
for Jim being a major!--a major sounds so dignified and respectable, and
Jim isn’t a bit like that!”

“And what about Captain Meadows?”

“Oh--Wally will simply never grow up.” Norah laughed softly. “He’s like
Peter Pan. Once he nearly managed it--in that bad time when Jim was a
prisoner, and we thought he was killed. But Jim got back just in time to
save him from anything so awful. One of the lovely parts of getting Jim
again was to see the twinkle come back into Wally’s eyes. You see, Wally
is practically all twinkle!”

“And when you get back to Australia, what will you all do?”

Norah had looked puzzled.

“Why, I don’t know that we’ve ever thought of it,” she said. “We’ll just
all go to Billabong--we don’t seem to think further than that. Anyway,
you and Bob are coming too--so we can plan it all out then.”

Looking at her, on this last night of the voyage, Cecilia wondered
whether the unknown “Billabong” would indeed be enough, after the long
years of war. They had been children when they left; now the boys were
seasoned soldiers, with scars and honours, and such memories as only
they themselves could know; and Norah and her father had for years
conducted what they termed a “Home for Tired People,” where broken and
weary men from the front had come to be healed and tended, and sent
back refitted in mind and body. This girl, who leaned over the rail and
looked at the Point Lonsdale light, had seen suffering and sorrow; the
mourning of those who had given up dear ones, the sick despair of young
and strong men crippled in the very dawn of life; and had helped them
all. Beside her, in experience, Cecilia felt a child. And yet the
old bush home, with its simple life and the pleasures that had been
everything to her in childhood, seemed everything to her now.

Cecilia went softly to her side, and Norah turned with a start.

“Hallo, Tommy!” she said, slipping her arm through the
new-comer’s--Cecilia had become “Tommy” to them all in a very short
time, and her hated, if elegant, name left as a legacy to England. “I
didn’t hear you come. Oh, Tommy, it’s lovely to see home again!”

“You can’t see much,” said Tommy, laughing.

“No, but it’s there. I can feel it; and that old winking eye on Point
Lonsdale is saying fifty nice things a minute. And I can smell the gum
leaves--don’t you tell me I can’t, Tommy, just because your nose isn’t
tuned up to gum leaves yet!”

“Does it take long to tune a nose?” asked Tommy, laughing.

“Not a nice nose like yours.” Norah gave a happy little sigh. “Do you
see that glow in the sky? That’s the lights of Melbourne. I went to
school near Melbourne, but I never loved it much; but somehow, it seems
different now. It’s all just shouting welcomes. And back of beyond that
light is Billabong.”

“I want to see Billabong,” said the other girl. “I never had a home that
meant anything like that--I want to see yours.”

“And I suppose you’ll just think it’s an ordinary, untidy old place--not
a bit like the trim English places, where the woods look as though they
were swept and dusted before breakfast every morning. I suppose it is
all ordinary. But it has meant just everything I wanted, all my life,
and I can’t imagine its meaning anything less now.”

“And what about Homewood--the Home for Tired People?”

“Oh, Homewood certainly is lovely,” Norah said. “I like it better than
any place in the world that isn’t Billabong--and it was just wonderful
to be able to carry it on for the Tired People: dad and I will always be
thankful we had the chance. But it never was home: and now it’s going to
run itself happily without us, as a place for partly-disabled men, with
Colonel Hunt and Captain Hardress to manage it. It was just a single
chapter in our lives, and now it is closed. But we’re--all of us--parts
of Billabong.”

Some one came quietly along the deck and to the vacant place on her
other side.

“Who’s talking Billabong again, old kiddie?” Jim Linton’s deep voice was
always gentle. Norah gave his shoulder a funny little rub with her head.

“Ah, you’re just as bad as I am, so you needn’t laugh at me, Jimmy.”

“I wasn’t laughing at you,” Jim defended himself. “I expected to find
you ever so much worse. I thought you’d sing anthems on the very word
Billabong all through the voyage, especially in your bath. Of course I
don’t know what Tommy has suffered!”

“Tommy doesn’t need your sympathy,” said that lady. “However, she wants
to look her best for Melbourne, so she’s going to bed. Don’t hurry,
Norah; I know you want to exchange greetings with that light for hours
yet!”

She slipped away, and Norah drew closer to Jim. Presently came Wally, on
her other side, and a few moments later a deep voice behind them said,
“Not in bed yet, Norah?”--and Wally made room for Mr. Linton.

“I couldn’t go to bed, dad.”

“Apparently most of the ship is of your mind--I didn’t feel like bed
myself,” admitted the squatter, letting his hand rest for a moment
on his daughter’s shoulder. He gave a great sigh of happiness. “Eh,
children, it’s great to be near home again!”

“My word, isn’t it!” said Jim. “Only it’s hard to take in. I keep
fancying that I’ll certainly wake up in a minute and find myself in
a trench, just getting ready to go over the top. What do you suppose
they’re doing at Billabong now, Nor?”

“Asleep,” said Norah promptly. “Oh, I don’t know--I don’t believe
Brownie’s asleep.”

“I know she’s not,” Wally said. He and the old nurse-housekeeper of
Billabong were sworn allies; though no one could ever quite come up to
Jim and Norah in Brownie’s heart, Wally had been a close third from the
day, long years back, that he had first come to the station, a lonely,
dark-eyed little Queenslander. “She’s made the girls scrub and polish
until there’s nothing left for them to rub, and she’s harried Hogg and
Lee Wing until there isn’t a leaf looking crooked in all the garden,
and she and Murty have planned all about meeting you for the hundred and
first time.”

“And she’s planning to make pikelets for you!” put in Norah.

“Bless her. I wouldn’t wonder. She’s planning the very wildest cooking,
of course--do you remember what the table used to be the night we came
home from school? And now she’s gone round all the rooms to make sure
she couldn’t spend another sixpence on them, and she’s sitting by her
window trying to see us all on the Nauru. ‘Specially you, old Nor.”

“‘Tis the gift of second sight you have,” said Jim admiringly. “A
few hundred years ago you’d have got yourself ducked as a witch or
something.”

“Oh, Wally and Brownie were always twin souls; no wonder each knows what
the other is thinking of,” Norah said, laughing. “It all sounds exactly
true, at any rate. Boys, what a pity you can’t land in uniform--wouldn’t
they all love to see you!”

“Can’t do it,” Jim said. “Too long since we were shot out of the army;
any enterprising provost-marshal could make himself obnoxious about it.”

“I know--but I’m sorry,” answered Norah. “Brownie won’t be satisfied
unless she sees you in all your war paint.”

“We’ll put it on some night for dinner,” Jim promised. He peered
suddenly into the darkness. “There’s a moving light--it’s the pilot
steamer coming out for us.”

They watched the light pass slowly from the dim region that meant the
Heads, until, as the pilot boat swung out through the Rip to where the
Nauru lay, her other lights grew clear, and presently her whole outline
loomed indistinctly, suddenly close to them. She lay to across a little
heaving strip of sea, and presently the pilot was being pulled across
to them by a couple of men and was coming nimbly up the Nauru’s ladder,
hand over hand. He nodded cheerily at his welcome--a fusillade of
greetings from every “digger” who could find a place at the railings,
and a larger number who could not, but contented themselves with
shouting sweet nothings from behind their comrades. A lean youngster
near Jim Linton looked down enviously at the retreating boat.

“If I could only slide down into her, an’ nick off to the old Alvina
over there, I’d be home before breakfast,” he said. “Me people live at
Queenscliff--don’t it seem a fair cow to have to go past ‘em, right up
to Melbourne?”

The pilot’s head appeared above on the bridge, beside the captain’s, and
presently the Nauru gathered way, and, slowly turning, forged through
the tossing waters of the Rip. Before her the twin lights of the Heads
opened out; soon she was gliding between them, and under the silent guns
of the Queenscliff forts, and past the twinkling house lights of the
little seaside town. There were long coo-ees from the diggers, with
shrill, piercing whistles of greeting for Victoria; from ashore came
faint answering echoes. But the four people from Billabong stood
silently, glad of each other’s nearness, but with no words, and in David
Linton’s heart and Norah’s was a great surge of thankfulness that, out
of many perils, they were bringing their boys safely home.

The Nauru turned across Port Phillip Bay, and presently they felt the
engines cease, and there came the rattle of the chain as the anchor shot
into the sea.

“As the captain thought,” said Jim. “He fancied they’d anchor us off
Portsea for the night and bring us up to Port Melbourne in the morning,
after we’d been inspected. Wouldn’t it be the limit if some one
developed measles now, and they quarantined us!”

“You deserve quarantining, if ever anyone did,” said Norah, indignantly.
“Why do you have such horrible ideas?”

“I don’t know--they just seem to waft themselves to me,” said Jim
modestly. “Anyhow, the quarantine station is a jolly little place for
a holiday, and the sea view is delightful.” He broke off, laughing, and
suddenly flung his arm round her shoulders in the dusk of the deck. “I
think I’m just about insane at getting home,” he said. “Don’t mind me,
old kiddie--and you’d better go to bed, or you’ll be a ghost in the
morning.”

They weighed anchor after breakfast, following a perfunctory medical
inspection--so perfunctory that one youth who, having been a medical
student, and knowing well that he had a finely-developed feverish
cold, with a high temperature, and not wishing to embarrass his
fellow-passengers, placed in his mouth the wrong end of the clinical
thermometer handed him by the visiting nurse. He sucked this gravely
for the prescribed time, reversing it just as she reappeared; and, being
marked normal and given a clean bill of health, returned to his berth
to shiver and perspire between huge doses of quinine. More than one such
hero evaded the searching eye of regulations; until finally the Nauru,
free to land her passengers, steamed slowly up the Bay.

One by one the old, familiar landmarks opened out--Mornington,
Frankston, Mordialloc, while Melbourne itself lay hidden in a mist cloud
ahead. Then, as the sun grew stronger the mist lifted, and domes and
spires pierced the dun sky, towering above the jumbled mass of the grey
city. They drew closer to Port Melbourne, and lo! St. Kilda and all the
foreshore were gay with flags, and all the ships in the harbour were
dressed to welcome them; and beyond the pier were long lines of motors,
each beflagged, waiting for the fighting men whom the Nauru was bringing
home.

“Us!” said a boy. “Why, it’s us! Flags an’ motors--an’ a blessed band
playin’ on the pier! Wot on earth are they fussin’ over us for? Ain’t it
enough to get home?”

The band of the Nauru was playing Home, Sweet Home, very low and
tenderly, and there were lumps in many throats, and many a pipe went out
unheeded. Slowly the great ship drew in to the pier, where officers in
uniform waited, and messengers of welcome from the Government. Beyond
the barriers that held the general public back from the pier was a
black mass of people; cheer upon cheer rose, to be wafted back from
the transport, where the “diggers” lined every inch of the port side,
clinging like monkeys to yards and rigging. Then the Nauru came to rest
at last, and the gangways rattled down, and the march off began, to the
quick lilt of the band playing “Oh, it’s a Lovely War.” The men took
up the words, singing as they marched back to Victoria--coming back, as
they had gone, with a joke on their lips. So the waiting motors received
them, and rolled them off in triumphal procession to Melbourne, between
the cheering crowds.

From the top deck the Lintons, with the Rainhams, watched the men
go--disembarkation was for the troops first, and not till all had gone
could the unattached officers leave the ship. The captain came to them,
at last a normal and friendly captain--no more the official master of
a troopship, in which capacity, as he ruefully said, he could make no
friends, and could scarcely regard his ship as his own, provided he
brought her safely from port to port. He cast a disgusted glance along
the stained and littered decks.

“This is her last voyage as a trooper, and I’m not sorry,” he said.
“After this she’ll lie up for three months to be refitted; and then I’ll
command a ship again and not a barracks. You wouldn’t think now, to see
her on this voyage, that the time was when I had to know the reason why
if there was so much as a stain the size of a sixpence on the deck. Oh
yes, it’s been all part of the job, and I’m proud of all the old ship
has done, and the thousands of men she’s carried; and we’ve had enough
narrow squeaks, from mines and submarines, to fill a book. But I’m
beginning to hanker mightily to see her clean!”

The Lintons laughed unfeelingly. A little mild grumbling might well be
permitted to a man with his record; few merchant captains had done finer
service in the war, and the decoration on his breast testified to his
cool handling of his ship in the “narrow squeaks” he spoke of lightly.

“Oh yes. I never get any sympathy,” said the captain, laughing himself.
“And yet I’ll wager Miss Linton was ‘house-proud’ in that ‘Home for
Tired People’ of hers, and she ought to sympathize with a tidy man. You
should have seen my wife’s face when she came aboard once at Liverpool,
and saw the ship; and she’s never had the same respect for me since!
There--the last man is off the ship, and the gangways are clear; nothing
to keep all you homesick people now.” He said good-bye, and ran up the
steps to his cabin under the bridge.

It was a queer home-coming at first, to a vast pier, empty save for a
few officials and policemen--for no outsiders were allowed within the
barriers. But once clear of customs officials and other formalities
they packed themselves into cabs, and in a few moments were outside
the railed-off space, turning into a road lined on either side with
people--all peering into the long procession of cabs, in the hope of
finding their own returning dear ones. It was but a few moments before a
posse of uncles, aunts and cousins swooped down upon the Lintons, whose
cab prudently turned down a side street to let the wave of welcome
expend itself. In the side street, too, were motors belonging to the
aunts and uncles; and presently the new arrivals were distributed among
them, and were being rushed up to Melbourne, along roads still crowded
by the people who had flocked to welcome the “diggers” home. The
Rainhams found themselves adopted by this new and cheery band of
people--at least half of whose names they never learned; not that this
seemed to matter in the least. It was something new to them, and very
un-English; but there was no doubt that it made landing in a new country
a very different thing from their half-fearful anticipations.

“And you really came out all alone--not knowing anyone!” said an aunt.
“Aren’t you English people plucky! And I believe that most of you think
we’re all black fellows--or did until our diggers went home, and proved
unexpectedly white!”

“I don’t think we’re quite so bad as that!” Bob said, laughing. “But
certainly we never expected quite so kind a welcome.”

“Oh, we’re all immensely interested in people who take the trouble to
come across the world to see us,” said Mrs. Geoffrey Linton. “That is,
if they don’t put on ‘side’; we don’t take kindly to being patronized.
And you have no idea how many new chums do patronize us. Did you know,
by the way, that you’re new chums now?”

“It has been carefully drilled into us on the ship,” Bob said gravely.
“I think we know pretty well all we have to face--the snakes that creep
into new chums’ boots and sleep under their pillows, the goannas that
bite our toes if we aren’t watchful, and the mosquitoes that sit on the
trees and bark!”

“Also the tarantulas that drop from everywhere, especially into food,”
 added Tommy, dimpling. “And the bush fires every Sunday morning, and the
blacks that rush down--what is it? Oh yes, the Block, casting boomerangs
about! There is much spare time on a troopship, Mrs. Linton, and all of
it was employed by the subalterns in telling us what we might expect!”

“I can quite imagine it,” Mrs. Geoffrey laughed. “Oh well, Billabong
will be a good breaking-in. Norah tells me you are going up there at
once?”

“Well, not quite at once,” Bob said. “We think it is only fair to let
them get home without encumbrances, and as we have to present other
letters of introduction in Melbourne, we’ll stay here for a few days,
and then follow them.”

“Then you must come out to us,” said Mrs. Geoffrey firmly. “No use to
ask my brother-in-law, of course; he has just one idea, and that is to
stay at Scott’s, get his luggage through the customs, see his bankers as
quickly as possible, and then get back to his beloved Billabong. If we
get them out to dinner to-night, it’s as much as we can hope for. But
you two must come to us--we can run you here and there in the car to see
the people you want.” She put aside their protests, laughing. “Why, you
don’t know how much we like capturing bran-new English people--and think
what you have done for our boys all these four years! From what they
tell us, if anyone wants to go anywhere or do anything he likes in
England, all he has to do is to wear a digger’s slouched hat!”

They stopped in Collins Street, and in a moment the new-comers, slightly
bewildered, found themselves in a tea-room; a new thing in tea-rooms
to Tommy and Bob, since it was a vision of russet and gold--brown wood,
masses of golden wattle and daffodils, and of bronze gum leaves; and
even the waitresses flitted about in russet-brown dresses. David Linton
hung back at the doorway.

“It isn’t a party, Winifred?”

“My dear David, only a few people who want to welcome you back. Really,
you’re just as bad as ever!” said his sister-in-law, half vexed. “The
children’s school friends, too--Jim and Wally’s mates. You can’t expect
us to get you all back, after so long--and with all those honours,
too!--and not give people a chance of shaking hands with you.” At which
point Norah said, gently, but firmly, “Dad, you mustn’t be naughty,” and
led him within.

Some one grasped his hand. “Well, Linton, old chap!” And he found
himself greeting the head of a big “stock and station” firm. Some one
else clapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to meet his banker;
behind them towered half a dozen old squatter friends, with fellow
clubmen, all trying at once to get hold of his hand. David Linton’s
constitutional shyness melted in the heartiness of their greeting.
Beyond them Norah seemed to be the centre of a mass of girls, one of
whom presently detached herself, and came to him. He said in amazement,
“Why, it’s Jean Yorke--and grown up!” and actually kissed her, to the
great delight of Jean, who had been an old mate of Norah’s. As for Jim
and Wally, they were scarcely to be seen, save for their heads, in
a cluster of lads, who were pounding and smiting them wherever space
permitted. Altogether, it was a confused and cheerful gathering, and,
much to the embarrassment of the russet-brown waitresses, the last thing
anybody thought of was tea.

Still, when the buzz of greetings had subsided, and at length “morning
tea”--that time-honoured institution of Australia--had a chance to
appear, it was of a nature to make the new arrivals gasp. The last four
years in England had fairly broken people in to plain living; dainties
and luxuries had disappeared so completely from the table that every one
had ceased to think about them. Therefore, the Linton party blinked in
amazement at the details of what to Melbourne was a very ordinary tea,
and, forgetting its manners, broke into open comment.

“Cakes!” said Wally faintly. “Jean, you might catch me if I swoon.”

“What’s wrong with the cakes?” said Jean Yorke, bewildered.

“Nothing--except that they are cakes! Jim!”--he caught at his chum’s
sleeve--“that substance in enormous layers in that enormous slice is
called cream. Real cream. When did you see cream last, my son?”

“I’m hanged if I know,” Jim answered, grinning. “About four years ago, I
suppose. I’d forgotten it existed. And the cakes look as if they didn’t
fall to pieces if you touched ‘em.”

“What, do the English cakes do that?” asked a pained aunt.

“Rather--when there are any. It’s something they take out of the war
flour--what is it, Nor?”

“Gluten, I think it’s called,” said Norah doubtfully. “It’s something
that ordinarily makes flour stick together, but they took it all out of
the war flour, and put it into munitions. So everything you made with
war flour was apt to be dry and crumbly. And when you made cakes with
it, and war sugar, which was half full of queer stuff like plaster of
paris, and egg substitute, because eggs--when you could get them--were
eightpence halfpenny, and butter substitute (and very little of
that)--well, they weren’t exactly what you would call cakes at all.”

“Butter substitute!” said the aunt faintly. “I could not live without
good butter!”

“Bless you, Norah and dad hadn’t tasted butter for nearly three years
before they came on board the Nauru,” said Jim. “It was affecting to see
Nor greeting a pat of butter for the first time!”

“But you had some butter--we read about it.”

“Two ounces per head weekly--but they put all their ration into the
‘Tired People’s food,’” said Wally.

“It wasn’t only dad and I,” said Norah quickly. “Every soul we employed
did that--Irish maids, butler, cook-lady and all. And we hadn’t to ask
one of them to do it. The Tired People always had butter. They used to
think we had a special allowance from Government, but we hadn’t.”

“Dear me!” said the aunt. “It’s too terrible. And meat?”

“Oh, meat was very short,” said Norah, laughing. “Of course we were
fairly well off for our Tired People, because they had soldiers’
rations; but even so, we almost forgot what a joint looked like. Stews
and hot pots and made dishes--you call them that because you make them
of anything but meat! We became very clever at camouflaging meat dishes.
Somehow the Tired People ate them all. But”--she paused, laughing--“you
know I never thought I could feel greedy for meat. And I did--I just
longed, quite often, for a chop!”

“And could you not have one?”

“Gracious, no!” Norah looked amazed. “Chops were quite the most
extravagant thing of all--too much bone. You see, the meat ration
included bone and fat, and I can tell you we were pretty badly worried
if we got too much of either.”

“To think of all she knows,” said the aunt, regarding her with a tearful
eye. Whereat Norah laughed.

“Oh, I could tell you lots of homely things,” she said. “How we always
boiled bones for soup at least four times before we looked on them as
used up; and how we worked up sheep’s heads into the most wonderful
chicken galantines; and--but would you mind if I ate some walnut cake
instead? It’s making me tremble even to look at it.”

After which Jean Yorke and the russet-brown waitresses vied in plying
the new-comers with the most elaborate cakes, until even Jim and Wally
begged for mercy.

“You ought to remember we’re not used to these things,” Wally protested,
waving away a strange erection of cream, icing and wafery pastry. “If
I ate that it would go to my head, and I’d have to be removed in an
ambulance. And the awful part of it is--I want to eat it. Take it out of
my sight, Jean, or I’ll yield, and the consequences will be awful.”

“But it is too dreadful to think of all you poor souls have gone
through,” said an aunt soulfully. “How little we in Australia know of
what war means!”

“But if it comes to that, how little we knew!” Norah exclaimed, “Why,
there we were, only a few miles from the fighting--you could hear the
guns on a still day, when a big action was going on; and except for the
people who came directly in the way of air raids, England knew little or
nothing of war: I mean, war as the people of Belgium and Northern France
knew it. The worst we had to admit was that we didn’t get everything we
liked to eat, and that was a joke compared to what we might have had.
Hardly anyone in England went cold or hungry through the war, and so
I don’t think we knew much about it either.” She broke off blushing
furiously, to find every one listening to her. “I didn’t mean to make a
speech.”

“It’s quite true, though,” said her father, “even if you did make a
speech about it. There were privations in some cases, no doubt--invalids
sometimes suffered, or men used to a heavy meat diet, whose wives had
not knowledge--or fuel--enough to cook substitutes properly. On the
other hand, there was no unemployment, and the poor were better fed than
they had ever been, since every one could make good wages at munitions.
The death rate among civilians was very much lower than usual. People
learned to eat less, and not to waste--and the pre-war waste in England
was terrific. And I say--and I think we all say--that anyone who
grumbles about ‘privations’ in England deserves to know what real war
means--as the women of Belgium know it.”

He stopped, and Norah regarded him with great pride, since his remarks
were usually strictly limited to the fewest possible words.

“Well, it’s rather refreshing to hear you talk,” remarked another
squatter. “A good many people have come back telling most pathetic tales
of all they had to endure. I suppose, though, that some were worse off
than you?”

“Oh, certainly,” David Linton said. “We knew one Australian, an
officer’s wife, who was stranded in a remote corner of South Wales
with two servants and two babies; it was just at the time of greatest
scarcity before compulsory rationing began, when most of the food
coming in was kept in the big towns and the Midlands. That woman could
certainly get milk for her youngsters; but for three months the only
foods she and her maids were sure of getting were war bread, potatoes,
haricot beans and salt herrings. She was a good way from the nearest
town, and there was deep snow most of the time. There was no carting out
to her place, and by the time she could get into the town most of the
food shops would be empty.”

“And if you saw the salt herrings!” said Norah. “They come down from
Scotland, packed thousands in a barrel. They’re about the length and
thickness of a comb, and if you soak them for a day in warm water and
then boil them, you can begin to think about them as a possible food.
But Mrs. Burton and her maids ate them for three months. She didn’t seem
to think she had anything to grumble about--in fact, she said she still
felt friendly towards potatoes, but she hoped she’d never see a herring
or a bean again!”

“She had her own troubles about coal, too,” remarked Jim. “The only coal
down there is a horrible brownish stuff that falls into damp slack if
you look at it; it’s generally used only for furnaces, but people had
to draw their coal allowance from the nearest supply, and it was all she
could get. The only way to use the beastly stuff was to mix it with wet,
salt mud from the river into what the country people call culm--then you
cut it into blocks, or make balls of it, and it hardens. She
couldn’t get a man to do it for her, and she used to mix all her culm
herself--and you wouldn’t call it woman’s work, even in Germany. But she
used to tell it as a kind of joke.”

“She used to look on herself as one of the really lucky women,” said
David Linton, “because her husband didn’t get killed. And I think she
was--herrings and culm and all. And we’re even luckier, since we’ve all
come back to Australia, and to such a welcome as you’ve given us.” He
stood up, smiling his slow, pleasant smile at them all. “And now I
think I’ve got to go chasing the Customs, if I’m ever to disinter our
belongings and get home.”

The girls took possession of Norah and Tommy, who left their menfolk
to the drear business of clearing luggage, and thankfully spent the
afternoon in the Botanical Gardens, glad to have firm ground under
their feet after six weeks of sea. Then they all met at dinner at Mrs.
Geoffrey Linton’s, where they found her son, Cecil, who greeted Norah
with something of embarrassment. There was an old score between Norah
and Cecil Linton, although they had not seen each other for years;
but its memory died out in Norah’s heart as she looked at her cousin’s
military badge and noted that he dragged one foot slightly. Indeed,
there was no room in Norah’s heart for anything but happiness.

The aunts and uncles tried hard to persuade David Linton to remain a few
days in Melbourne, but he shook his head.

“I’ve been homesick for five years,” he told them. “And it feels like
fifty. I’ll come down again, I promise--yes, and bring the children, of
course. But just now I can’t wait. I’ve got to get home.”

“That old Billabong!” said Mrs. Geoffrey, half laughing. “Are you going
to live and die in the backblocks, David?”

“Why, certainly--at least I hope so,” he said. “I suppose there must
be lucid intervals, now that Norah is grown up, or imagines she is--not
that she seems to me a bit different from the time when her hair was
down. Still I suppose I must bring her to town, and let her make her
curtsy at Government House, and do all the correct things--”

Some one slipped a hand through his arm.

“But when we’ve done them, daddy,” said Norah cheerfully, “there will
always be Billabong to go home to!”



CHAPTER X

BILLABONG


“Will it be fine, Murty?”

The person addressed made no answer for a moment, continuing to stare
at the western horizon with his eyes wrinkled and his face anxious. He
turned presently; a tall, grizzled man, with the stooping shoulders
and the slightly bowed legs that are the heritage of those who spend
nine-tenths of their time in the saddle.

“Sorra a one of me knows,” he said. “It’s one of thim unchancy days that
might be annything. Have ye looked at the glass?”

“It’s mejum,” replied the first speaker. She was a vast woman, with a
broad, kindly face, lit by shrewd and twinkling blue eyes, dressed, as
was her custom, in a starched blue print, with a snowy apron. “Mejum
only. But I don’t feel comferable at that there bank of clouds, Murty.”

“I’d not say meself it was good,” admitted Murty O’Toole, head stockman
on the Billabong run. He looked again at the doubtful sky, and then back
to Mrs. Brown. “Have ye no corns, at all, that ‘ud be shootin’ on ye if
rain was coming?”

“Corns I ‘ave, indeed,” said Mrs. Brown, with the sigh of one who admits
that she is but human. “But no--they ain’t shootin’ worth speakin’
about, Murty. Nor me rheumatic knee ain’t givin’ tongue, as Master Jim
would say.”

“Yerra, that’s all to the good,” said the stockman, much cheered. “I’ll
not look at the ould sky anny longer--leastways, not till I have that
cup of tea ye were speakin’ about.”

“Come in then,” said Mrs. Brown, leading the way into the kitchen--a
huge place so glittering with cleanliness and polish that it almost hurt
the eye. “Kettle’s boilin’--I’ll have it made in a jiffy. No, Murty,
you will not sit on that table. Pounds of bath-brick ‘ave gone into me
tables this last week.”

“Ye have them always that white I do not see how ye’d want them to be
whiter,” remarked Murty, gazing round him. “But I niver see anything to
aiqual the shine ye have on them tins an’ copper. And the stove is that
fine it’s a shame to be cookin’ with it.” He looked with respect at the
black satin and silver of the stove, where leaping flames glowed redly.
“Well, I’ll always say there isn’t a heartsomer place to come into than
the Billabong kitchen. And isn’t it the little misthress that thinks
so?”

“Bless her, she was always in and out of it from the time she could
toddle,” said Mrs. Brown, pausing with the teapot in her hand. “And
she wasn’t much more than toddlin’ before she was at me to teach her
to cook. When she was twelve she could cook a dinner as well as anyone
twice her age. I never see the beat of her--handy as a man out on the
run, too--”

“She was that,” said Murty solemnly. “Since she was a bit of a thing I
never see the bullock as could get away from her. And the ponies she’d
ride! There was nothin’ ever looked through a bridle that cud frighten
her.”

“Poof! Miss Norah didn’t know what it was to be afraid,” said Mrs.
Brown, filling the huge brown teapot. “Sometimes I’ve wished she was,
for me heart’s been in me mouth often and often when I see her go
caperin’ down the track on some mad-’eaded pony.”

“An’ there was niver a time when they was late home but you made sure
the whole lot of ‘em was killed,” said Murty, grinning. “I’d come in
here an’ find you wit’ all the funerals planned, so to speak--”

“Ah, go on! At least, I alwuz stayed at home when I was nervis,” said
Mrs. Brown. “Who was it I’ve known catch an ‘orse in the dark, an’ go
off to look for ‘em when they were a bit late? Not me, Mr. O’Toole!” She
filled his cup and handed it to him with a triumphant air.

“Yerra, I misremember doin’ any such thing,” said Murty, slightly
confused. “‘Tis the way I was most likely goin’ afther a sick bullock,
or it might be ‘possum shootin’.” He raised his cup and took a deep
draught; then, with a wry face, gazed at its contents. “I dunno is this
a new brand of tea you’re afther usin’, now? Sure, it looks pale.”

Mrs. Brown cast a glance at the cup he held out, and gave a gasp of
horror.

“Well, not in all me born days ‘ave I made tea an’ forgot to put the tea
in!” she exclaimed, snatching it from his hand. “Don’t you go an’ tell
Dave and Mick, Murty, or I’ll never hear the end of it. Lucky there’s
plenty of hot water.” She emptied the teapot swiftly, and refilled it,
this time with due regard to the tea-caddy.

“Now, Murty, don’t you sit there grinnin’ at me like a hyener--it isn’t
every day I get Miss Norah home.”

“It is not,” said Murty, taking his renewed cup and a large piece of
bread and butter. “Sure, I’d not blame ye if ye fried bacon in the
tea-pot--not this morning. I dunno, meself, am I on me head or me heels.
All the men is much the same; they’ve been fallin’ over each other,
tryin’ to get a little bit of extra spit-an’-polish on the whole place.
I b’lieve Dave Boone wud ‘a’ set to work an’ whitewashed the paddock
fences if I’d encouraged him at all.”

“There’s that Sarah,” said Mrs. Brown. “Ornery days it takes me, an
alarum clock, an’ Mary, to say nothin’ of a wet sponge, to get her out
of bed. But bless you--these last three days she’s up before the pair
of us, rubbin’ an’ polishin’ in every corner. An’ she an’ ‘Ogg at each
other’s throats over flowers; she wantin’ to pick every one to look
pretty in the ‘ouse, an’ ‘Ogg wantin’ every one to look pretty in the
garden.”

“Well, Hogg’s got enough an’ to spare,” was Murty’s comment. “No union
touch about his work. I reckon he’s put in sixteen hours a day at that
garden since we heard they were comin’.”

“But there never was any union touch about Billabong,” said Mrs. Brown.

“Not much! We all know when we’re well off,” said Murty. “I’ll bet no
union was ever as good a boss as David Linton.”

Two other men appeared at the kitchen door--Mick Shanahan and Dave
Boone--each wearing, in defiance of regulations, some battered remnant
of uniform that marked the “digger,” while Mick, in addition, would walk
always with a slight limp. He was accustomed to say ‘twas a mercy it
didn’t hinder his profession--which, being that of a horsebreaker, freed
him, as a rule, from the necessity of much walking. Other men Billabong
had sent to the war, and not all of them had come back; the lonely
station had been a place of anxiety and of mourning. But to-day the
memories of the long years of fighting and waiting were blotted out in
joy.

“Come in, boys,” Mrs. Brown nodded at the men. “Tea’s ready. What’s it
going to be?”

“Fine, I think,” said Boone, replying to this somewhat indefinite
question with complete certainty as to the questioner’s meaning. “I
seen you an’ Murty pokin’ your heads up at them clouds, but there ain’t
nothin’ in them.” A smile spread over his good-looking, dark face.
“Bless you, it couldn’t rain today, with Miss Norah comin’ home!”

“I don’t believe, meself, that Providence ‘ud ‘ave the ‘eart,” said Mrs.
Brown. “Picksher them now, all flyin’ round and gettin’ ready to start,
and snatchin’ a bite of breakfast--”

“If I know Master Jim ‘twill be no bite he’ll snatch!” put in Mick.

“Well, all I ‘ope is that the ‘otel don’t poison them,” said Mrs.
Brown darkly. “I on’y stopped in a Melbin’ ‘otel once, and then I got
pot-o’-mine poisoning, or whatever they call it. I’ve ‘eard they never
wash their saucepans!”

“No wonder you get rummy flavours in what you eat down there, if that’s
so,” said Dave. “Surprisin’ what the digestions of them city people
learn to put up with. Well, I suppose you won’t be addin’ to their risks
by puttin’ up much of a dinner for them to-day, Mrs. Brown.” He grinned
wickedly.

“You go on, imperence!” said the lady. “If I let you look into the
larder now (w’ich I won’t, along of knowin’ you too well), there’d be
no gettin’ you out to work to-day. Murty, that turkey weighed
five-and-thirty pound!”

“Sure he looked every ounce of it,” said Murty. “I niver see his
aiqual--he was a regular Clydesdale of a bird!”

“I rose him from the aig meself,” said Mrs. Brown, “and I don’t think
I could ‘a’ brung meself to ‘ave ‘im killed for anythink less than them
comin’ ‘ome. As it was, I feel ‘e’s died a nobil death. An’ ‘e’ll eat
beautiful, you mark my words.”

“Well, it’ll be something to think of the Boss at the head of his table,
investigatin’ a Billabong turkey again,” said Boone, putting down his
empty cup. “And as there’s nothing more certain than that they’ll all be
out at the stables d’reckly after dinner, wantin’ to see the ‘orses, you
an’ I’d better go an’ shine ‘em up a bit more, Mick.” They tramped out
of the kitchen, while Mrs. Brown waddled to the veranda and cast further
anxious glances at the bank of clouds lying westward.

Norah was watching them, too. She was sitting in the corner of the
compartment, as the swift train bore them northward, with her eyes glued
to the country flying past. Just for once the others did not matter to
her; her father, Jim, and Wally, each in his own corner, as they had
travelled so many times in the past, coming back from school. Then she
had had eyes only for them; to-day her soul was hungry for the dear
country she had not seen for so long. It lay bare enough in the early
winter--long stretches of stone-walled paddocks where the red soil
showed through the sparse, native grass; steep, stony hillsides, with
little sheep grazing on them--pygmies, after the great English sheep;
oases of irrigation, with the deep green of lucerne growing rank among
weed-fringed water-channels; and so on and on, past little towns
and tiny settlements, and now and then a stop at some place of more
importance. But Norah did not want the towns; she was homesick for the
open country, for the scent of the gum trees coming drifting in through
the open window, for the long, lonely plains where grazing cattle raised
lazy eyes to look at the roaring engine, or horses flung up nervous
heads and went racing away across the grass--more for the fun of it than
from fear. The gum trees called to her, beckoned to her; she forgot the
smooth perfection of the English landscape as she feasted her eyes on
the dear, untidy trees, whose dangling strips of bark seemed to wave to
her in greeting, telling her she was coming home. They passed a great
team of working bullocks in a wagon loaded with an enormous tree trunk;
twenty-four monsters, roan and red and speckled, with a great pair of
polled Angus in the lead; they plodded along in their own dust, their
driver beside them with his immense whip over his shoulder. Norah
pointed them out to the others with a quick exclamation, and Jim and
Wally came to look out from her window.

“By Jove, what a team!” said Jim. “Well, just at this moment I’d rather
see those fellows than the meet of the Coaching Club in Hyde Park--and I
had a private idea that that was the finest sight in the world!”

“Aren’t you a jungly animal!” quoth Wally.

“Rather--just now,” Jim rejoined. “Some day, I suppose, I’ll be glad to
go back to London, and look at it all again. But just now there doesn’t
seem to be anything to touch a fellow’s own country--and that team of
old sloggers there is just a bit of it. Isn’t it, old Nor?” She nodded
up at him; there was no need of words.

The morning was drawing towards noon when they came in sight of their
own little station: Cunjee, looking just as they had left it years ago,
its corrugated iron roofs gleaming in the sunlight, its one street green
with feathery pepper trees along each side. The train pulled up, and
they all tumbled out hastily; presumably the express wasted no more time
upon Cunjee than in days gone by, when it was necessary to hustle out
of the carriage, and to race along to the van, lest the whistle should
sound and your trunks be whisked away somewhere down the line.

There were many people on the platform, and, wonderful to relate, a band
was playing--Home Sweet Home; a little band, some of its musicians still
in the aprons in which they had rushed from their shop duties; with
instruments few and poor, and with not much training, so that the cornet
was apt to be half a bar ahead of the euphonium. The Lintons had heard
many bands since they had been away, and some had played before the King
himself; but no music had ever gripped at their heartstrings like the
music of the little backblocks band that stood on the gravelled platform
of Cunjee and played to welcome them home.

Suddenly, as they stood bewildered, there seemed people all round them;
kindly, homely faces, gripping their hands, shouting greetings. Evans,
the manager of Billabong, showed a delighted face for a moment, said,
“Luggage in the van. I’ll see to it; don’t you bother,” and was gone.
Little Dr. Anderson and his wife, friends of long years, were trying to
shake hands with all four at once. They were the centre of an excited
little crowd--and found it hard to believe that it was really for them.
The train roared away, unnoticed, and the station-master and the porter
ran up to add their voices to the chorus. Somehow they were outside the
station, gently propelled; and there was a great arch of gum leaves,
with a huge WELCOME in red letters, and beneath it were the shire
president and his councillors, and other weighty men, all with speeches
ready. But the speeches did not come to much, for the shire president
had lads himself who had gone to the war, and a lump came in his throat
as he looked at the tall boys from Billabong, whom he had known as
little children; so that half the fine things he had prepared were never
said--which did not matter, since he had it all written out and gave
it to the reporter of the local paper afterwards! Something of
speech-making there undoubtedly was, but no one could have told you much
about it--and suddenly it ended in some one calling for “Three cheers!”
 which every one gave with a will, while the band played that they were
Jolly Good Fellows--and some of the band cheered while they played, with
very curious results. Then David Linton tried to speak, and that was a
failure also, as far as eloquence went; but nobody seemed to mind. So,
between hand grips and cheers, they made their way through the welcome
of Cunjee to where the big double buggy of Billabong stood, with three
fidgeting brown horses, each held by a volunteer. Beyond that was the
carry-all of the bush; an express wagon, with a grinning black boy at
the horses’ heads--and Norah went to him with outstretched hands.

“Why, Billy!” she said.

Billy’s grin expanded in a perfectly reckless fashion.

“Plenty glad!” he stammered--and thereby doubled his usual output of
words.

Willing hands were tossing their luggage into the wagon--unfamiliar
luggage to Cunjee, with its jumble of ship labels, Continental hotel
brands, and the names of towns all over England, Ireland and Scotland.
There were battered tin uniform cases of Jim and Wally’s, bearing their
rank and regiment in half effaced letters: “Major J. Linton”; “Captain
W. Meadows”--it was hard to realize that they belonged to the two
merry-faced boys, who did not seem much changed from the days when
Cunjee had seen them arrive light-heartedly from school. Mr. Linton ran
his eye over the pile, pronouncing it complete. Then Evans was at his
side.

“The motor you sent is ready at the garage in the township if you want
it,” he said. “But you wired that I was to bring the buggy.”

“I did,” said David Linton, with a slow smile. “I suppose for
convenience sake we’ll have to shake down to using the motor. But I
drove the old buggy away from Billabong, and I’ll drive home now. Jump
in, children.”

He gathered up the reins, sitting, erect and spare, with one foot on the
brake, while the brown horses plunged impatiently, and the volunteers
found their work cut out in holding them. Norah was by him, Evans on her
other hand; Jim and Wally “tumbled up” into the back seat, as they had
done so many times. David Linton looked down at the crowd below.

“Thank you all again,” he said. “We’ll see you soon--it’s not good-bye
now, only ‘so-long.’ Let ‘em go, boys.”

The volunteers sprang back, thankfully. The browns stood on their hind
legs for a moment, endeavouring to tie themselves in knots; then the
whip spoke, and they came to earth, straightened themselves out with a
flying plunge, and wheeled out of the station yard and up the
street. Behind them cheers broke out afresh, and the band blared once
more--which acted as a further spur to the horses; they were pulling
double as the high buggy flashed along the street, where every house and
every shop showed smiling faces, and handkerchiefs waved in welcome. So
they passed through Cunjee, and wheeled to the right towards the open
country--the country that meant Billabong.

There were seventeen miles of road ahead, but the browns made little of
them. They had come into the township the evening before, and had done
nothing since but eat the hotel oats and wish to be out of a close
stable and back in their own free paddocks. They took the hills at a
swift, effortless trot, and on the down slopes broke into a hand-gallop;
light-hearted, but conscious all the time of the hand on the reins, that
was as steel, yet light as a feather upon a tender mouth. They danced
merrily to one side when they met a motor or a hawker’s van with
flapping cover; when the buggy rattled over a bridge they plainly
regarded the drumming of their own hoofs as the last trump, and fled
wildly for a few hundred yards, before realizing that nothing was really
going to happen to them. But the miles fled under their swift feet. The
trim villas near the township gave place to scattered farms. These in
their turn became further and further apart, and then they entered a
wide belt of timber, ragged and wind-swept gums, with dense undergrowth
of dogwood and bracken fern. The metalled road gave place to a hard,
earthern track, on which the spinning tyres made no sound; it curved in
and out among the trees, which met overhead and cast upon it a waving
pattern of shadows. Grim things had once happened to Norah in this belt
of trees, and the past came back to her as she looked at its gloomy
recesses again.

They were all silent. There had been few questions to ask of Evans, a
few to be answered; then speech fled from them and the old spell of the
country held them in its power. Every yard was familiar; every little
bridge, every culvert, every quaint old skeleton tree or dead grey log.
Here Jim’s pony had bolted at sight of an Indian hawker, in days long
gone, and had ended by putting his foot into a hole and turning a
somersault, shooting Jim into a well-grown clump of nettles. Here Norah
had dropped her whip when riding alone, and her fractious young mare had
succeeded in pulling away when she dismounted, and had promptly departed
post-haste for home; leaving her wrathful owner to follow as she might.
A passing bullock-wagon had given her a lift, and the somewhat anxious
rescue party, setting out from Billabong, had met its youthful mistress,
bruised from much bumping, but otherwise cheerful, progressing in slow
majesty towards its gates. Here--but the memories were legion, even to
the girl and the two boys. And David Linton’s went further back, to the
day when he had first driven Norah’s mother over the Billabong track;
little and dainty and merry, while he had been as always, silent, but
unspeakably proud of her. The little mother’s grave had long been green,
and the world had turned topsy-turvy since then, but the old track was
the same, and the memory, and the pride, were no less clear.

They emerged from the timber at last, and spun across a wide plain,
scattered with clumps of gum-trees. Then another belt of bush, a narrow
one this time; and they came out within view of a great park-like
paddock where Shorthorn bullocks, knee-deep in grass, scarcely moved
aside as the buggy spun past, with the browns pulling hard. The track
ran near the fence, and turned in at a big white gate glistening with
new paint. It stood wide open, and beside it was a man on a splendid bay
horse.

“There’s Murty, and he’s on Garryowen,” spoke Jim quickly. “The old
brick!”

“I guess if anyone else had wanted to open the gate for you to-day, he’d
have had to fight Murty for the job,” said Evans. “And Garryowen’s been
groomed till he turns pale at the sight of a brush, Great horse he’s
made, Mr. Jim.”

“He’s all that,” said his owner, leaning out to view him better, with
his eyes shining. He raised his voice in a shout as they swung in
through the gateway. “Good for you, Murty! Hurroo!”

“Hurroo for ye all!” said Murty, and found to his amazement that his
voice was shaky. “Ah, don’t shtop, sir, they’re all waitin’ on ye. I’ll
be up as soon as ye.”

Norah had tried to speak, and had found that she had no voice at all.
She could only smile at him, tremulously--and be sure the Irishman did
not fail to catch the smile. Then, as they dashed up the paddock, her
hand sought for her father’s knee under the rug, in the little gesture
that had been hers from babyhood. The track curved round a grove of
great pines, and suddenly they were within sight of Billabong homestead,
red-walled and red-roofed, nestled in the deep green of its trees.

“By Jove!” said Jim, under his breath. “I thought once I’d never see the
old place again.”

They flashed through mighty red gums and box trees, Murty galloping
beside them now. There was a big flag flying proudly on Billabong
house--they found later that the household had unanimously purchased it
on the day they heard that Jim had got his captaincy. The gate of the
great sanded yard stood open, and near it, on a wide gravel sweep, were
the dear and simple and faithful people they loved. Mrs. Brown first,
starched and spotless, her hair greyer than it had been five years
before, with Sarah and Mary beside her--they had married during the war,
but nothing had prevented them from coming back to make Billabong ready.
Near them the storekeeper, Jack Archdale, and his pretty wife, with
their elfish small daughter; and Mick Shanahan and Dave Boone, with the
Scotch gardener, Hogg, and his Chinese colleague--and sworn enemy--Lee
Wing. They were all there, a little welcoming group--but Norah could see
them only through a mist of happy tears. The buggy stopped, and Evans
sprang out over the wheel; she followed him almost as swiftly, running
to the old woman who had been all the mother she had known.

“Oh, Brownie--Brownie!”

“My precious lamb!” said Brownie, and held her tightly. She had no hands
left for Jim and Wally, and they did not seem to mind; they kissed her,
patting her vast shoulders very hard. Then Mrs. Archdale claimed Norah,
and Brownie found herself looking mistily up at David Linton and he was
gripping her hand tightly, the other hand on her shoulder.

“Why, old Brownie!” he said. “Dear old Brownie!”

They were shaking hands all round, over and over again. Nobody made any
speeches of welcome--there were only disjointed words, and once or
twice a little sob. Indeed, Brownie only found her tongue when they had
drifted across the yard in a confused group, and had reached the wide
veranda. Then she looked up at Jim and seemed suddenly to realize his
mighty height and breadth.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh! Ain’t ‘e grown big an’ beautiful!” Whereat Wally
howled with laughter, and Jim, scarlet, kissed her again, and told her
she was a shameful old woman.

No one on Billabong could have told you much of that day, after
the first wonderful moment of getting home. It was a day of blurred
memories. The new-comers had to wander through the house where every big
window stood open to the sunlight, and every room was gay with flowers;
and from every window it was necessary to look out at the view across
the paddocks and down at the gardens, and to follow the winding course
of the creek. The gong summoned them to dinner in the midst of it, and
Brownie’s dinner deserved to be remembered; the mammoth turkey flanked
by a ham as gigantic, and somewhat alarming to war-trained appetites;
followed by every sweet that Brownie could remember as having been a
favourite. They drifted naturally to the stables afterwards, to find
their special horses, apparently little changed by five years, though
some old station favourites were gone, and the men spoke proudly of some
new young ones that were going to be “beggars to go,” or “a caution to
jump.” Then they wandered down to the big lagoon, where the old boat
yet lay at the edge of the reed-fringed water; and on through the home
paddock to look at the little herd of Jerseys that were kept for the
use of the house, and some great bullocks almost ready for the Melbourne
market. So they came back to the homestead, wandering up from the creek
through Lee Wing’s rows of vegetables, and came to rest naturally in the
kitchen, where they had afternoon tea with Brownie, who beamed from ear
to ear at the sight of Jim and Wally again sitting on her table.

“I used to think of you in them ‘orrible trenches, an’ wonder wot you
got to eat, an’ if it was anything at all,” she said tremulously.

“We got something, but it was apt to be queer,” said Jim, laughing.
“We used to think of sitting on the table here, Brownie, and eating hot
scones--like this. May I have another?”

“My pore dears!” said Brownie, hastily supplying him with the largest
scone in sight. “Now, Master Wally, my love, ain’t you ready for
another? Your appetite’s not ‘alf wot it used to be. A pikelet, now?”

“I believe I’ve had six!” said Wally, defending himself.

“An’ wot used six pikelets to be to you? A mere fly in the ointment,”
 said Brownie, whose similes were always apt to be peculiar. “Just
another, then, my dear. An’ I’ve got your fav’rite sponge cake, Miss
Norah--ten aigs in it!”

“Ten!” said Norah faintly. “Hold me, daddy! Doesn’t it make you feel
light-headed to think of putting ten eggs in one cake again?”

“An’ why not?” sniffed Brownie. “Ah, you got bad treatment in that old
England. I never could see why you should go short, an’ you all ‘elpin’
on the war as ‘ard as you could.” Brownie’s indifference to national
considerations where her nurselings were concerned was well known, and
nobody argued with her. “Any’ow, the cake’s there, an’ just you try
it--it’s as light as a feather, though I do say it.”

Once in the kitchen Norah and the boys went no further. They remained
sitting on the tables, talking, while presently David Linton went away
to his study, and, one by one, Murty and Boone and Mick Shanahan drifted
in. There was so much to tell, so much to ask about; they talked until
the dusk of the short winter afternoon stole into the kitchen, making
the red flames in the stove leap more redly. It was time to dress for
tea. They went round the wide verandas and ran upstairs to their rooms,
while old Brownie stood in the kitchen doorway listening to the merry
voices.

“Ain’t it just ‘evinly to ‘ear ‘em again!” she uttered.

“It is that,” said Murty. “We’ve been quare an’ lonesome an’ quiet these
five years.”



CHAPTER XI

COLONIAL EXPERIENCES


Cecilia--otherwise Tommy--and Bob Rainham came up to Billabong three
days later, and were met by Jim, who had ridden into Cunjee with Black
Billy, and released the motor from inglorious seclusion in the local
garage. Billy jogged off, leading Garryowen, and Jim watched them half
wistfully for a minute before turning to the car. Motors had their uses
certainly; but no Linton ever dreamed of giving a car the serious and
respectful consideration that naturally belonged to a horse.

Nevertheless, it was a good car; a gift to Norah from an Irishman
they had known and loved; and Jim drove well, having developed the
accomplishment over Flemish roads that were chiefly a succession of
shell holes. He took her quietly up to the station, and walked on to the
platform as the train thundered in.

Tommy and Bob were looking eagerly from their carriage window, and
hailed him with delight; they had been alone, for the first time since
leaving England, and had begun to feel that Australia was a large and
slightly populated country, and that they were inconsiderable atoms,
suddenly dumped into its vacant spaces. Jim was like a large and
friendly rock, and Australia immediately became less wide and desolate
in their eyes. He greeted them cheerily and helped Bob to pack their
luggage into the car.

“Now, I could get you afternoon tea here,” he said; “and I warn you,
it will be bad. Or I could have you home in well under an hour, and you
wouldn’t be too late for tea there. Which is it to be, Tommy?”

“Oh--home,” said Tommy. “I don’t care a bit about tea; and I want to see
this Billabong of yours. Do let’s go, Jim.”

“I hoped you wouldn’t choose tea here,” said Jim, striding off to the
car. “Bush townships don’t run to decent tea places, as a rule; the
hotel is the only chance, and though they can give you a fair dinner,
tea always seems to be a weak spot.” He packed them in, and they moved
off down the winding street.

“Do you know,” Jim said, “that I never went down this street before
except on a horse, or behind one? It seems quite queer and unnatural
to be doing it in a car. I suppose I’ll get used to it. Had a good trip
up?”

“Oh, quite,” Tommy told him. “Jim, how few people seem to be living in
Australia!”

Jim gave a crack of laughter.

“Well, you saw a good many in Melbourne, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. But Melbourne isn’t Australia. It’s only away down in a wee
little corner.” Tommy flushed a little. “You see, I haven’t seen much of
any country except France and the England that’s near London,” she said.
“And there isn’t much waste space there.”

“No, there isn’t,” Jim agreed. “I suppose we’ll fill up Australia some
day. But the people who come out now seem to have a holy horror of going
into the ‘waste spaces,’ as you call ‘em, Tommy. They want to nestle up
to the towns, and go to picture theatres.”

“Well, I want to go and find a nice waste space,” said Tommy. “Not too
waste, of course, only with room to look all round. And I’d like it
to be not too far from Norah, ‘cause she’s very cheering to a lone
new-chum. But don’t you go planning to settle in one of those horrid
little tin-roofed towns, Bobby, for I should simply hate it.”

“Certainly, ma’am,” said Bob cheerfully. “We’ll get out into the open. I
can always run you about in an aeroplane, if you feel lonesome, provided
we make enough money to buy one, that is. Only new-chums don’t always
make heaps of money, do they, Jim?”

“Not at first, I’m afraid,” Jim said. “The days of picking up fortunes
in Australia seem to be over; anyway, there’s no more gold lying about.
Nowadays, you have to put your back into it extremely hard, if you’ve no
capital to start with; and even if you have, you can’t loaf. How did you
get on in Melbourne? I hope you didn’t buy a station without consulting
us.”

“Rather not,” Bob answered. “We raced round magnificently in your aunt’s
car and presented our letters, and had more invitations to sundry meals
than we could possibly accept. Every one was extraordinarily kind to us.
I’ve offers and promises of advice in whatever district we settle; three
squatters asked me up to their places, to stay awhile and study the
country; and one confiding man--I hadn’t a letter to him at all, by the
way, only some one introduced us to him in Scott’s--actually offered me
a job as jackeroo on a Queensland run. But he was a lone old bachelor,
and when he heard I had a sister he shied off in terror. I think he’s
running yet.”

Jim shouted with laughter.

“Poor old Tommy!” he said.

“Yes, is it not unfair?” said Tommy. “I told Bob I was a mere
encumbrance, but he would bring me.”

“You wait until you’ve settled, and Bob wants some one to run his house,
and then see how much of an encumbrance you are,” rejoined Jim. “Then
you’ll suddenly stop being meek and get swelled head.”

“And not be half so nice,” interjected Bob.

“But so useful!” said Tommy demurely. “Only sometimes I become
afraid--for you seem always to kill a whole sheep or bullock up in the
bush, and how I am to deal with it I do not know!”

“It sounds as if you preferred some one to detach an occasional limb
from the sheep as it walked about!” said Jim, laughing.

“Much easier for me--if not for the sheep,” said Tommy.

“Well, don’t you worry--the meat problem will get settled somehow,” Jim
told her cheerfully. “All problems straighten out, if you give ‘em time.
Now we’re nearly home--that’s the fence of our home-paddock. And there
are Norah and Wally coming to meet you.”

“Oh--where?” Tommy started up, looking excitedly round the landscape.
“Oh--there she is--the dear! And isn’t that a beautiful horse!”

“That’s Norah’s special old pony, Bosun,” said Jim. “We’re making her
very unhappy by telling her she’s grown too big for him, but he really
carries her like a bird. A habit might look too much on him, but not
that astride kit. You got yours, by the way, Tommy, I hope?”

“Oh yes. I look very strange in it,” said Tommy. “And Bob thinks I might
as well have worn out his old uniforms. But I shall never ride like
that--as Norah does.”

She looked at Norah, who was coming across the paddock with Wally, at a
hard canter. Her pony was impatient, reefing and plunging in his desire
to gallop; and Norah was sitting him easily, her hands, well down,
giving to the strain on the bit, her slight figure, in coat and
breeches, swaying lightly to each bound. The sunlight rippled on Bosun’s
glossy, bay coat, and on the big black horse Wally rode. They pulled
up, laughing, at the gateway, just as the car turned off the road. There
were confused and enthusiastic greetings, and the car dashed on up the
track, with an outrider on each side--both horses strongly resenting
this new and ferocious monster. The years had brought a good deal of
sober sense to Bosun and Monarch, but motors were still unfamiliar
objects on Billabong. Indeed, no car of the size of Norah’s Rolls-Royce
had ever been seen in the district, and the men gaped at it open-mouthed
as Jim drove it round to the stable after unloading his passengers.

“Yerra, but that’s the fine carry-van,” said Murty. “Is that the size
they have them in England, now?”

“No, it isn’t, Murty--not as a rule,” Jim answered. “This was built
specially for a man who was half an invalid; he used to go for long
tours, and sleep in the car because he hated hotels. So it’s a special
size. It used to be jolly useful taking out wounded men in England.”

“Sure, it would be,” Murty said. “Only--somehow, it don’t seem to fit
into Billabong, Mr. Jim!”

“So big as that! I say, Murty!”

“Yerra, there’s room enough for it,” grinned the Irishman. “Only, motors
and Billabong don’t go hand in hand--we’ve always stuck to horses,
haven’t we, Mr. Jim?”

“We’ll do that still,” Jim said. “But it will be useful, all the same,
Murty.” He laughed at the stockman’s lugubrious face. “Oh, I know it’s
giving you the sort of pain you had when dad had the telephone put on--”

“Well, ‘tis the quare onnatural little machine, an’ I niver feel anyways
at home with it, Mr. Jim,” Murty defended himself.

“There’s lots like you, Murty. But you’ll admit that when we’ve got
to send a telegram, it’s better to telephone it than make a man ride
thirty-four miles with it?”

“I suppose it is,” said the Irishman doubtfully. “I dunno, though--if
‘twas that black imp of a Billy he’d as well be doing that as propping
up the stable wall an’ smokin’!”

Jim chuckled.

“There’s no getting round an Irishman when he makes up his mind,” he
said. “And if you had to catch the eight o’clock train to Melbourne
I believe you’d rather get up at three in the morning and run up the
horses to drive in, than leave here comfortably in the car at seven.”

“Is it me to dhrive in it?” demanded Murty, in horror. “Begob, I’d lose
me life before I’d get into one of thim quare, sawed-off things. Give
me something with shafts, Mr. Jim, and a dacint horse in them. More by
token, I would not get up at three in the morning either, but dhrive in
aisy an’ comfortable the night before.” He beamed on Jim with so clear
a conviction that he was unanswerable that Jim hadn’t the heart to
argue further. Instead he ran the car deftly into a buggy-shed whence
an ancient double buggy had been deposed to make room for her, and then
fell to discussing with Murty the question of building a garage, with
a turn-table and pit for cleaning and repairs. To which Murty gave
the eager interest and attention he would have shown had Jim proposed
building anything, even had it been an Eiffel Tower on the front lawn.

Brownie came out through the box-trees to the stables, presently.

“Now, Master Jim, afternoon tea’s in these ten minutes.”

“Good gracious! I forgot all about tea!” Jim exclaimed. “Thanks awfully,
Brownie. Had your own?” He slipped his arm through hers as they turned
back to the house.

“Not yet, my dear,” said Brownie, beaming up at him. That this huge
Major, with four years of war service to his credit, was exactly the
same to her as the little boy she had bathed and dressed in years gone
by, was a matter of nightly thanksgiving in her prayers. “I was just
goin’ to settle to it when it come over me that you weren’t in--and the
visitors there an’ all.”

“I’d come and have mine with you in the kitchen if they weren’t there,”
 Jim told her. “Tea in your kitchen is better than anything else.” He
patted her shoulders as he left her at the door of her domain, going off
with long strides to wash his hands.

“We didn’t wait for you,” Norah said, as he came into the drawing-room;
a big cheery room, with long windows opening out upon the veranda, and a
conservatory at one end. A fire of red gum logs made it pleasantly
warm; the tea table was drawn near its blaze, and the arm-chairs made
a semicircle round it. “These poor people looked far too hungry to
wait--to say nothing of Wally and myself. How did the car go, Jimmy?”

“Splendidly,” Jim said, taking his cup, and retiring from the tea-table
with a scone. “Never ran better; that man in Cunjee knows his job, which
I didn’t expect. Are you tired, Tommy?”

“Tired?--no,” said Tommy. “I was very hungry, but that is getting
better. And Norah is going to show me Billabong, so I could not possibly
dream of being tired.”

“If Norah means to show you all Billabong before dark, she’ll have
to hurry,” said Jim lazily. “Don’t you let yourself be persuaded into
anything so desperate, Tommy.”

“Don’t you worry; I’ll give her graduated doses,” Norah said. “I’ll
watch the patient carefully, and see if there is any sign of strength
failing. When do you begin to teach Bob to run a station?”

“I never saw anyone in such a hurry,” said Jim. “Why, the poor beggar
hasn’t had his tea yet--give him time.”

“But we are in a hurry,” said Tommy. “We’re burning to learn all about
it. Norah is to teach me the house side, while you instruct Bob how to
tell a merino bullock--is it not?--from an Ayrshire.” Everybody ate with
suspicious haste, and she looked at them shrewdly. “Now, I have said
that all wrong, I feel sure, but it’s just as well for you to be
prepared for that. Norah will have a busy time correcting my mistakes.”

“You aren’t supposed to know anything about cattle and things like
that,” said Norah. “And when it comes to the house side, I don’t think
you’ll find I can teach you much--if anyone brought up to know French
cooking and French housekeeping has much to learn from a backblocks
Australian, I’ll be surprised.”

“In fact,” said Mr. Linton, “I should think that the lessons will
generally end in the students of domestic economy fleeing forth upon
horses and studying how to deal with beef--on the hoof. Don’t you,
Wally?”

“Rather,” said Wally. “And Brownie will wash up after them, and say,
‘Bless their hearts, why would they stay in a hot kitchen!’ And so poor
old Bob will go down the road to ruin!”

“It’s a jolly prospect,” said Bob placidly. “I think we’ll knock a good
deal of fun out of it!”

They trooped out in a body presently on their preliminary voyage
of discovery; touring the house itself, with its big rooms and wide
corridors, and the broad balconies that ran round three sides, from
which you looked far across the run--miles of rolling plains, dotted
with trees and clumps of timber, and merging into a far line of low,
scrub-grown hills. Then outside, and to the stables--a massive red brick
pile, creeper-covered, where Monarch and Garryowen, and Bosun, and the
buggy ponies, looked placidly from their loose boxes, and asked for--and
got--apples from Jim’s pockets. Tommy even made her way up the steep
ladder to the loft that ran the whole length of the stables--big enough
for the men’s yearly dance, but just now crammed with fragrant oaten
hay. She wanted to see everything, and chatted away in her eager,
half-French fashion, like a happy child.

“It is so lovely to be here,” she told Norah later, when the keen
evening wind had driven them indoors from a tour of the garden. She was
kneeling on the floor of her bedroom, unpacking her trunk, while Norah
perched on the end of the bed. “You see, I am no longer afraid; and I
have always been afraid since Aunt Margaret died. In Lancaster Gate I
was afraid all the time, especially when I was planning to run away.
Then, on the ship, though every one was so kind, the big, unknown
country was like a wall of Fear ahead; even in Melbourne everything
seemed uncertain, doubtful. But now, quite suddenly, it is all right. I
just know we shall get along quite well.”

“Why, of course you will,” Norah said, laughing down at the earnest
face. “You’re the kind of people who must do well, because you are so
keen. And Billabong has adopted you, and we’re going to see that you
make a success of things. You’re our very own immigrants!”

“It’s nice to be owned by some one who isn’t my step-mother,” said Tommy
happily. “I began to think I was hers, body and soul--when she appeared
on that awful moment in Liverpool. I made sure all hope was over. Bob
says I shouldn’t have panicked, but then Bob had not been a toad under
her harrow for two years.”

“I’m very glad you panicked, since it sent you straight into our arms,”
 said Norah. “If we had met you in an ordinary, stodgy way--you and Bob
presenting your letter of introduction, and we saying ‘How do you do?’
politely--it would have taken us ages to get to know you properly.
And as it was, we jumped into being friends. You did look such a poor,
hunted little soul as you came dodging across that street!”

“And you took me on trust, when, for all you know, the police might have
been after me,” said Tommy. “Well, we won’t forget; not that I suppose
Bob and I will ever be able to pay you back.”

“Good gracious, we don’t want paying back!” exclaimed Norah, wrinkling
her nose disgustedly. “Don’t talk such utter nonsense, Tommy Rainham.
And just hurry up and unpack, because tea will be ready at half-past
six.”

“My goodness!” exclaimed the English girl, to whom dinner at half-past
seven was a custom of life not lightly to be altered. “And I haven’t
half unpacked, and oh, where is my blue frock? I don’t believe I’ve
brought it.” She sought despairingly in the trunk.

“Yes, you have--I hung it up for you in the wardrobe ages ago,” said
Norah. “And it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish before tea. There’s
lots of time ahead. However, I certainly won’t be dressed if I don’t
hurry, because I’ve to see Brownie first, and then sew on a button for
Jim. You’ll find me next door when you’re ready.” Tommy heard her go,
singing downstairs, and she sighed happily. This, for the first time for
two years, was a real home.

The education of the new-chums began next morning, and was carried out
thoroughly, since Mr. Linton did not believe in showing their immigrants
only the pleasanter side of Australian life. Bob was given a few days of
riding round the run, spying out the land, and learning something about
cattle and their handling as he rode. Luckily for him, he was a good
horseman. The stockmen, always on the alert to “pick holes” in a
new-chum, had little fault to find with his easy seat and hands, and
approved of the way in which he waited for no one’s help in saddling up
or letting go his horse; a point which always tells with the man of the
bush.

“We’ve had thim on this run,” said Murty, “as wanted their horses led
gently up to thim, and then they climb into the saddle like a lady.
And when they’d come home, all they’d be lookin’ for ‘ud be some one to
casht their reins to, the way they cud strowl off to their tay. Isn’t
that so, Mick?”

“Yairs,” said Mick. He was riding an unbroken three-year-old, and had no
time for conversation.

After a few days of “gentle exercise,” Bob found himself put on to
work. He learned something of cutting out and mustering, both in cleared
country and in scrub; helped bring home young cattle to brand, and
studied at first hand the peculiar evilness of a scrub cow when
separated from her calf. They gave him jobs for himself, which
he accomplished fairly well, aided by a stock horse of superhuman
intelligence, which naturally knew far more of the work than its rider
could hope to do. Bob confided to Tommy that never had he felt so
complete a fool as when he rode forth for the first time to cut out a
bullock alone under the eyes of the experts.

“Luckily, the old mare did all the work,” he said. “But I knew less
about it than I did the first time I went up alone at the flying
school!”

His teaching went on all the time. Mr. Linton and Jim were tireless in
pointing out the points of cattle, and the variations in the value of
feed on the different parts of the run, with all the details of bush
lore; and the airman’s eyes, trained to observe, and backed by keen
desire to learn, picked up and retained knowledge quickly. Billabong
was, in the main, a cattle run, but Mr. Linton kept as well a flock of
high class sheep, with the usual small mob for killing for station use,
and through these a certain amount of sheep knowledge was imparted to
the new-chum. To their surprise, for all his instructors were heart and
soul for cattle, Bob showed a distinct leaning towards mutton.

“They’re easier to understand, I think,” he said. “Possibly it’s because
they’re not as intelligent as cattle, and I don’t think I am, either!”

“Well, I know something about bullocks, but these woolly objects have
always been beyond me,” said Jim. “Necessary evils, but I can’t stand
them. I used to think there was nothing more hopeless than an old merino
ewe, until I met a battery mule--he’s a shade worse!”

“Wait till you’ve worked with a camel in a bad temper, Mr. Jim,” said
Dave Boone darkly; he had put in a weary time in Egypt. “For downright
wickedness them snake-headed beggars is the fair limit!”

“Yes, I’ve heard so,” said Jim. “Anyhow, we haven’t added mules and
camels to our worries in Victoria yet; sheep are bad enough for me.
Norah says turkey hens are worse, and she’s certainly tried both; there
isn’t much about the run young Norah doesn’t know. But you aren’t going
to make a living out of turkeys.”

“No--Tommy can run them as a side line,” said Bob. “I fancy sheep will
give me all I want in the way of worry.”

“And you really think you’ll go in for sheep, old man?” asked Jim with
pity.

Bob set his lips obstinately.

“I don’t think anything yet,” he said. “I don’t know enough. Wait until
I’ve learned a bit more--if you’re not sick of teaching such an idiot.”

“Yerra, ye’re no ijit,” said Murty under his breath.

Education developed as the weeks went on. Wally had gone to Queensland,
to visit married brothers who were all the “people” he possessed; and
Jim, bereft of his chum, threw himself energetically into the training
of the substitute. Bob learned to slaughter a bullock and kill a
sheep--being instructed that the job in winter was not a circumstance to
what it would be in summer, when flies would abound. He never pretended
to like this branch of learning, but stuck to it doggedly, since it was
explained to him that the man who could not be his own butcher in the
bush was apt to go hungry, and that not one hired hand in twenty could
be trusted to kill.

More to Bob’s taste were the boundary riding expeditions made with Jim
to the furthest corners of the run; taking a pack horse with tucker and
blankets, and camping in ancient huts, of which the sole furniture was
rough sacking bunks, a big fireplace, and empty kerosene cases for
seats and tables. It was unfortunate, from the point of view of
Bob’s instruction, that the frantic zeal of Murty and the men to have
everything in order for “the Boss” had left no yard of the Billabong
boundary unvisited not a month before. Still, winter gales were always
apt to bring down a tree or two across the wires, laying a few panels
flat; the creeks, too, were all in flood, and where a wire fence crossed
one, floating brushwood often damaged the barrier, or a landslip in
a water-worn bank might carry away a post. So Jim and his pupil found
enough occupation to make their trips worth while; and Bob learned to
sink post holes, to ram a post home beyond the possibility of moving,
and to strain a wire fence scientifically. He was not a novice with an
axe, though Jim’s mighty chopping made him feel a child; still, when it
was necessary to cut away a fallen tree, he could do his share manfully.
His hands blistered and grew horny callouses, even as his muscles
toughened and his shoulders widened; and all the time the appeal of the
wide, free country called to his heart and drew him closer and closer to
his new life.

“But he’s too comfortable, you know,” David Linton said to Jim one
night. “He’s shaping as well as anyone could expect; but he won’t always
have Billabong at his back.”

Jim nodded wisely.

“I know,” he said. “Been thinking of that. If you can spare me for a bit
we’ll go over and lend ourselves as handy men to old Joe Howard.”

His father whistled.

“He’ll make you toe the mark,” he said, laughing. “He won’t have you
there as gentlemen boarders, you know.”

“Don’t want him to,” said Jim.

So it came about that early on Monday morning Jim and Bob fixed swags
more or less scientifically to their saddles--Jim made his disciple
unstrap his three times before he consented to pass it--and rode away
from Billabong, amidst derisive good wishes from Norah and Tommy, who
kindly promised to feed them up on their return, prophesying that they
would certainly need it. They took a westerly direction across country,
and after two or three hours’ riding came upon a small farm nestling at
the foot of a low range of hills.

“That’s old Howard’s,” Jim said. “And there’s the old chap himself,
fixing up his windmill. You wait a minute, Bob; I’ll go over and see
him.”

He gave Bob his bridle, and went across a small paddock near the house.
Howard, a hard-looking old man with a long, grey beard, was wrestling
with a home-made windmill--a queer erection, mainly composed of rough
spars with sails made from old wheat-sacks. He clambered to the ground
as Jim approached, and greeted him civilly.

“I thought you’d have forgotten me, Mr. Howard,” said Jim.

“Too like your dad--an’, anyhow, I know the horses,” was the laconic
answer. “So you’re back. Like Australia better’n fightin’?”

“Rather!” said Jim. “Fighting’s a poor game, I think, when you hardly
ever see the other fellow. Want any hands, Mr. Howard?”

“No.” The old man shook his head. “They want too much money nowadays,
an’ they’re too darned partickler about their tucker. Meat three times
a day, whether you’ve killed it or not. An’ puddin’. Cock ‘em up with
puddin’--a fat lot of it I ever saw where I was raised. An’ off to the
township on Saturday afternoon, an’ lucky if they get back in time for
milkin’ nex’ mornin’. No--the workin’ man ain’t what ‘e was, an’ the new
kind’ll make precious little of Australia!”

“That’s about right, I’m afraid,” said Jim, listening sympathetically to
this oration. “Well, will you take me and my friend as hands for a few
weeks, Mr. Howard?”

“You!” The old man stared at him. “Ain’t ‘ad a quarrel with yer dad,
‘ave yer? You take my tip, if yer ‘ave--go back and make it up. Not many
men in this districk like yer dad.”

“I know that, jolly well,” said Jim, laughing. “No--but my friend’s
a new-chum, and I want to show him something of work on a place like
yours. We’ve been breaking him in on Billabong, but he’ll have to take
a small place for himself, if he settles, and he’d better see what it’s
like.”

The old man shook his head doubtfully.

“English officer, I suppose?”

“Yes.”

“I dunno,” said Howard. “Too much of the fine gent about that sort, Mr.
Jim. I dunno ‘ow I’d get down to orderin’ the pair of yous about. An’ I
ain’t got no ‘comodation for yous; an’ the tucker’s not what yous ‘ave
bin used ter.”

“You needn’t let any of that worry you,” said Jim cheerfully. “He isn’t
a bit of a fine gent, really, and we’ll tackle any job that’s going.
As for accommodation, we’ve brought our blankets, and, in case you were
short of tucker, we’ve a big piece of corned beef and some bread. I
wish you’d try it, Mr. Howard; we don’t want pay, and we’ll do no end of
work. Murty reckons you won’t be sorry if you take on Captain Rainham.”

“Oh, Murty says that, does ‘e?” asked the old man, visibly cheered.
“Well, Murty ain’t the man to barrack for a useless new-chum.”

“Great Scott, do you think I am?” demanded Jim, laughing. “Or my
father?”

“Yous cert’nly didn’t ought to be,” agreed Howard. “All the same”--he
pushed his hat back from his worried brow--“I dunno as I quite like it.
If I take on a chap I like ‘im to step quick an’ lively when I tell him
anything I want done; an’ I don’t make no guests of ‘em either. They got
to do their own cookin’, an’ keep things clean an’ tidy, too.”

“We’ll take our share,” said Jim. “As for stepping quick and lively,
we’ve both been trained to that pretty thoroughly during the last few
years. If you’re worse than some of the Sergeant-majors I met when I was
training, I’ll eat my hat.”

“I’m told they’re ‘ard,” said Howard. “Well, I s’pose I’d better take
yous on, though it’s a queer day when the son of Linton of Billabong
comes askin’ old Joe Howard for a job. But, I say”--and anguish again
settled on his brow--“wot am I to call yous? I can’t order you about as
Mr. Jim. It wouldn’t seem to come natural.”

“Oh, call us any old thing,” said Jim, laughing.

The old man pondered.

“Well, I’ll call yous Major an’ Captin,” he declared, at length.
“That’ll sound like a pair of workin’ bullocks, an’ I’ll feel more at
‘ome.”

“Right-o,” said Jim, choking slightly. “Where shall we put our horses?”

“Put ‘em in the little paddock over there, an’ stick yer saddles in the
shed,” said his employer. “An’ then bring in yer beef, an’ we’ll ‘ave a
bit o’ dinner. I ain’t killed for a fortnight.”

Then began for Bob Rainham one of the most strenuous fortnights of his
existence. Once having agreed to employ them, old Joe speedily became
reconciled to the prospect of cheap labour, and worked his willing
guests with a devouring energy. Before dawn had reddened the eastern
sky a shout of “Hi, Captin! Time the cow was in!” drove him from his
blankets, to search in the darkness of a scrub-covered paddock for a
cow, who apparently loved a game of hide-and-seek, and to drive her in
and milk her by the fitful light of a hurricane lantern. Then came the
usual round of morning duties; chopping wood, feeding pigs, cleaning
out sheds and outhouses, before the one-time airman had time to think of
breakfast. By the time he came in Howard and Jim had generally finished
and gone out--the old man took a sly delight in keeping “Major” away
from “Captin”--and after cooking his meal, it was his job to wash up
and to clean out the kitchen, over which old Joe proved unexpectedly
critical. Then came a varied choice of tasks to tackle to while away the
day. Sometimes he would be sent to scrub cutting, which he liked best,
particularly as Jim was kept at it always; sometimes he slashed mightily
at a blackberry-infested paddock, where the brambles would have daunted
anyone less stout of heart--or less ignorant. Then came lessons in
ploughing on a dry hillside; he managed badly at first, and came in for
a good deal of the rough side of old Joe’s tongue before he learned to
keep to anything approaching a straight line. Ploughing, Bob reflected,
was clearly an art which needed long apprenticeship before you learned
to appreciate it, and he developed a new comprehension and sympathy for
the ploughman described by Gray as “homeward plodding his weary way.” He
also wondered if Gray’s ploughman had to milk and get his own tea after
he got home.

Other relaxations of the bush were open to him. Old Joe had a paddock,
once a swamp, which he had drained; it was free of water, but abounded
in tussocks and sword grass which “Captin” was detailed to grub out
whenever no duty more pressing awaited him. And sword grass is a
fearsome vegetable, clinging of root and so tough of stem that, if
handled unwarily, it can cut a finger almost to the bone; wherefore the
unfortunate “Captin” hated it with a mighty hatred, and preferred any
other branch of his education. There were stones to pick up and pile
in cairns; red stones, half buried in grass and tussocks, and weighing
anything from a pound to half a hundredweight. He scarred his hands and
broke his fingernails to pieces over them, but, on the whole, considered
it not a bad employment, except when old Joe took it into his head to
perch on the fence and spur him on to greater efforts by disparaging
remarks about England. Whatever his work, there was never any certainty
that old Joe would not appear, to sit down, light his short, black pipe,
and make caustic remarks about his methods or his country--or both. Bob
took it all with a grin. He was a cheerful soul.

They used to meet for dinner--dinner consisting of corned beef and
potatoes until the corned beef ran out; then it became potatoes and
bread and jam for some days, until Joe amazed them by saddling an
ancient grey mare and riding into Cunjee, returning with more corned
beef--and more jam. He boiled the beef in a kerosene tin, and Bob
thought he had never tasted anything better. Appetites did not need
pampering on Howard’s Farm. Work in the evening went on until there was
barely light enough to get home and find the cow; it was generally quite
dark by the time milking was finished, and Bob would come in with his
bucket to find Jim just in, and lighting the fire--“Major,” not being
the milking hand, worked in the paddocks a little longer. Tea required
little preparation, since the only menu that occurred to old Joe seemed
to be bread and jam. Jim, being a masterful soul, occasionally took the
matter into his own hands and, aided by Bob, made “flap-jacks” in the
frying-pan; they might have been indigestible for delicately-constituted
people, but at least they had the merit of being hot and comforting on a
biting winter night. Old Joe growled under his breath at the “softness”
 of people who required “cocking up with fal-lals.” But he ate the
flap-jacks.

After tea the “hands” divided the duties of the evening; taking it in
turn, one to wash up, while the other “set” bread. Joe’s only baking
implement was a camp-oven, which resembles a large saucepan on three
legs; it could hold just enough for a day’s supply, so that it was
necessary to set bread every night, and bake every morning. This wounded
their employer, who never failed to tell them, with some bitterness,
that when alone he had to bake only twice a week. However, he knew all
that there was to know about camp-oven baking, and taught them the art
thoroughly, as well as that of making yeast from potatoes. “That’s an
extry,” he remarked thoughtfully, “but I won’t charge yer for it, yous
‘avin’ bin soldiers!”

With the bread set, and rising pleasantly before the fire, under a bit
of old blanket, and the kitchen tidy, a period of rest ensued, when
“Major” and “Captin” were free to draw up chairs--seated with greenhide
with the hair left on, and very comfortable--and smoke their pipes. This
was the only time of the day when old Joe unbent. At first silent, he
would presently shift his pipe to the corner of his mouth and spin them
yarns of the early days, told with a queer, dry humour that kept his
hearers in a simmer of laughter. It was always a matter of regret to
poor “Captin” that he used to be the one to end the telling, since no
story on earth could keep him, after a while, from nodding off to sleep.
He would drag himself away to his blankets in the next room, hearing,
as sleep fully descended upon him, the droning voice still entertaining
Jim--whose powers of keeping awake seemed more than human!

Saturday brought no slackening of work. Whatever his previous hired
men had done, old Joe was evidently determined that his present
“parlour-boarders” should not abate their efforts, and even kept them
a little later than usual in the paddocks, remarking that “ter-morrer
bein’ Sunday, yous might as well cut a bit more scrub.” The next morning
broke fine and clear, and he looked at them a little doubtfully after
breakfast.

“Well, there ain’t no work doin’ on Sunday, I reckon. I can manage the
ol’ keow to-night, if yous want to go home.”

The guests looked at each other doubtfully.

“What do you say, Bob? Shall we ride over?”

Bob pondered.

“All one to me, o’ course,” said Joe, getting up and stumping out. He
paused at the door. “On’y if yous mean ter stick on ‘ere a bit you’ll
find comin’ back a bit ‘ard, onced yous see Billabong.”

“Just what I was thinking,” said Bob, as the old man disappeared.
“I’m not going, Jim; I know jolly well I’d hate to come back
after--er--fleshpotting at your place. But look here, old chap--why
don’t you go home and stay there? You’ve done quite enough of this,
especially as you’ve no earthly need to do it at all. You go home, and
I’ll stay out my fortnight.”

“What, leave you here alone?” queried Jim. “Not much, Bobby.”

“But why not? I’ve Joseph, and we’d become bosom friends. And your
father must think it ridiculous for you to be kept over here, slaving--”

“Don’t you worry your old head about dad,” said Jim cheerfully. “It’s a
slack time, and he doesn’t need me, and he’s perfectly satisfied at my
being here. Bless you, it’s no harm for me to get a bit of this sort of
life.”

“You’ll never have to do it.”

“No one can tell that,” said Jim. “The bottom has dropped out of land
in other countries, and it may happen here. Besides, if you’ve got to
employ labour it’s just as well to know from experience what’s a fair
thing to expect from a man as a day’s work. For which reason, I have
desired our friend Joseph to take me off scrub-duty, which I feel I know
pretty well, and to detail me for assorted fatigues, like yours, next
week. And anyhow, my son, having brought you to this savage place, I’m
not going to leave you. Finally, we couldn’t go anywhere, because this
is the day that we must wash.”

“I have washed!” said Bob indignantly.

“I didn’t mean your person, Bobby, but your clothes. The laundress
doesn’t call out here.”

“Oh!” said Bob, and grinned. “Then I’d better put on a kettle.”

So they washed, very cheerfully, taking turns in the one bucket, which
was all Joe could offer as laundry equipment. He had an iron, but after
brief consultation, “Major” and “Captin” decided that to iron working
shirts would be merely painting the lily. Old Joe watched them with a
twinkle, saying nothing. But a spirit of festivity and magnificence must
have entered into him, for when the washermen went for a walk, after
disposing their damp raiment upon bushes, he entered the kitchen
hurriedly and dived for the flour-bag; and later, they found unwonted
additions to the corned beef and potatoes--the said additions being no
less than boiled onions and a jam tart.

The week that followed was a repetition of the first, save for a day of
such rain that even old Joe had to admit that work in the paddocks was
out of the question. He consoled himself by making them whitewash the
kitchen. Large masses of soot fell down into the fireplace throughout
the day, seriously interfering with cooking operations, which suggested
to Joe that “Captin” might acquire yet another art--that of bush chimney
sweeping--which he accomplished next day, under direction, by the simple
process of tugging a great bunch of tea-tree up and down the flue.
“Better’n all them brushes they ‘ave in towns,” said Joe, watching his
blackened assistant with satisfaction.

“Well, we’re off to-morrow, Mr. Howard,” said Jim on Saturday night.
They were seated round the fire, smoking.

“I s’pose so. Didn’t think yous’d stick it out as long,” the old man
said.

“We’ve had a very good time,” said Bob; and was astonished to find
himself speaking truthfully. “Jolly good of you to have me; I know a
new-chum isn’t much use.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say as how you weren’t,” said old Joe deliberately.
“I ain’t strong on new-chums, meself--some of them immy-grants they send
out are a fair cow to handle; but I will say, Captin, you ain’t got no
frills, nor you don’t mind puttin’ your back into a job. I worked you
pretty ‘ard, too.” He chuckled deeply.

“Did you?” asked Bob--and chuckled in his turn.

“Well, I didn’t see no points in spoon-feedin’ you. If a man’s goin’ on
the land he may as well know wot ‘e’s likely to strike. There’s lots’ll
tell you you won’t strike anythink ‘arder than ol’ Joe--an’ p’raps you
won’t,” he added. “Any’ow, yous asked fer work, an’ it was up ter me ter
see that yous got it. But don’t go imaginin’ you’ve learned all there is
ter know about farmin’ yet.”

“If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that,” said Bob a trifle
grimly.

“That’s right. I ain’t got much of a farm, an’ any’ow, it’s winter. I
on’y showed yous a few of the odd jobs--an’ wot it is to ‘ave to batch
fer yerself, not comin’ in like a lord to Billabong ter see wot Mrs.
Brown’s been cookin’ for yous. Nothin’ like a bit o’ batchin’ ter teach
a cove. An’ you mind, Captin--if you start anywhere on yer own, you
batch decent; keep things clean an’ don’t get into the way o’ livin’
just any’ow. I ain’t much, nor the meenoo ain’t excitin’; but things is
clean.”

“Well--I have a sister,” said Bob. “So I’m in luck. But I guess I know a
bit more about her side of the job now.”

“And that’s no bad thing for Tommy,” said Jim.

“Oo’s ‘e?” demanded Joe.

“Oh--that’s his sister.”

“Rum names gals gets nowadays,” said Joe, pondering. “Not on’y gels,
neither. ‘S a chap on top of the ‘ill ‘as a new baby, an’ ‘e’s called it
‘Aig Wipers Jellicoe. ‘Course, ‘e did go to the war, but ‘e ain’t got
no need ter rub it into the poor kid like that.” He paused to ram the
tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a horny thumb. “One thing--I’d
like to pay you chaps somethin’. Never ‘ad blokes workin’ fer me fer
nothin’, an’ I don’t much care about it.”

“No, thanks, Mr. Howard,” said Jim. “We came for colonial experience.”

“You!” said old Joe, and permitted himself the ghost of a grin. “Well,
I ain’t goin’ ter fight yous about it, an’ I’m not worryin’ a mighty
lot about you, Major, ‘cause your little bit o’ country’s ready made for
you. But Captin’s different. We won’t ‘ave no fight about cash, Captin;
but that last year’s calf of the ol’ keow’s goin’ ter be a pretty decent
steer, an’ when you gets yer farm ‘e’s goin’ on it as yer first bit o’
stock. An’ ‘e’ll get the best o’ my grass till ‘e goes.”

“Rubbish!” said Bob, much embarrassed. “Awfully good of you, Mr. Howard,
but that wasn’t the agreement. I know I’m not worth wages yet.”

“Oh, ain’t you?” Joe asked. “Well, there’s two opinions about that.
Any’ow, ‘e’s yours, an’ I’ve christened ‘im Captin, so there ain’t
no way out of it.” He rose, cutting short further protests. “Too much
bloomin’ argument about this camp; I’m off ter bed.”



CHAPTER XII

ON INFLUENZA AND FURNITURE


“So you think he’ll do, Jim?”

“Yes, I certainly do,” Jim answered. He was sitting with his father in
the smoking-room at Billabong, his long legs outstretched before the
fire, and his great form half-concealed in the depths of an enormous
leather armchair. “Of course he’ll want guidance; you couldn’t expect
him to know much about stock yet, though he’s certainly picked up a good
bit.”

“Yes--so it seems. His great point is his quick eye and his keenness. I
haven’t found him forget much.”

“No, and he’s awfully ashamed if he does. He’s a tiger for work, and
very quick at picking up the way to tackle any new job. That was one
of the things that pleased old Joe about him. I fancy the old chap had
suffered at the hands of other new-chums who reckoned they could
teach him how to do his work. ‘Captin ain’t orffered me not one bit of
advice,’ he told me with relief.”

Mr. Linton laughed.

“Yes, I’ve had them here like that,” he said. “Full of sublime
enthusiasm for reforming Australia and all her ways. I don’t say
we don’t need it, either, but not from a new-chum in his first five
minutes.”

“Not much,” agreed Jim. “Well, there’s nothing of that sort about old
Bob. He just hoes in at anything that’s going, and doesn’t talk about
it. Joe says he must have been reared sensible. He’s all right, dad.
I’ve had a lot of men through my hands in the last few years, and you
learn to size ‘em up pretty quickly.”

David Linton nodded, looking at his big son. Sometimes he had a pang of
regret for Jim’s lost boyhood, swallowed up in war. Then, when he was
privileged to behold him rough-and-tumbling with Wally, singing idiotic
choruses with Norah and Tommy, or making himself into what little Babs
Archdale ecstatically called “my bucking donkey,” it was borne in upon
him that there still was plenty of the boy left in Jim--and that there
always would be. Nevertheless, he had great confidence in his judgment;
and in this instance it happened to coincide with his own.

The door opened, and Bob Rainham came in, hesitating as he caught sight
of the father and son.

“Come in, Bob,” Mr. Linton said. “I was just wishing you would turn up.
We’ve been talking about you. I understand you’ve made up your mind to
get a place of your own.”

“If you don’t think I’m insane to tackle it, sir,” Bob answered. “Of
course, I know I’m awfully ignorant. But I thought I could probably get
hold of a good man, and if I can find a place anywhere in this district,
Jim says he’ll keep an eye on me. Between the two, I oughtn’t to make
very hopeless mistakes. And I might as well have my money invested.”

“Quite so. I think you’re wise,” the squatter answered. “As it happens,
I was in Cunjee yesterday, talking to an agent, and I heard of a little
place that might suit you very well--just about the price you ought to
pay, and the land’s not bad. There’s a decent cottage on it--you and
Tommy could be very comfortable there. It’s four miles from here, so we
should feel you hadn’t got away from us.”

“That sounds jolly,” said Bob. “I’d be awfully glad to think Tommy was
so near to Norah. Is it sheep country, Mr. Linton?”

“So it’s to be sheep, is it? Well, I’d advise you to put some young
cattle on to some scrub country at the back, but you could certainly
run sheep on the cleared paddocks,” Mr. Linton answered. “We could drive
over and look at it to-morrow, if you like. The terms are easy; you’d
have money over to stock it, or nearly so. And there’s plenty to be done
in improving the place, if you should buy it; you could easily add a
good deal to its value.”

“That’s what I’d like,” Bob answered eagerly. “It doesn’t take a whole
lot of brains to dig drains and cut scrub. I could be doing that while
the sheep turn into wool and mutton!”

“So you could; though there’s a bit more to be done to sheep than just
to watch them turn,” said the squatter, with a twinkle. “I fancy Tommy
will be pleased if you get this place.”

“Tommy’s mad keen to start,” Bob said. “She says Norah has taught her
more than she ever dreamed that her head could contain, and she wants
to work it all off on me. I think she has visions of making me kill a
bullock, so that she can demonstrate all she knows about corning and
spicing and salting beef. I mentioned it would take two of us quite a
little while to work through a whole bullock, but she evidently didn’t
think much of the objection.”

“I’ll see you get none fat enough to kill,” grinned Jim. “Norah says
Tommy’s a great pupil, dad.”

“Oh, they have worked as if they were possessed,” Mr. Linton answered.
“I never saw such painfully busy people. But Norah tells me she has
had very little to teach Tommy--in fact, I think the teaching has been
mutual, and they’ve simply swapped French and Australian dodges. At all
events they and Brownie have lived in each other’s pockets, and they all
seem very content.”

“Are you all talking business, or may we come in?” demanded a cheery
voice; and Norah peeped in, with Tommy dimly visible in the background.

“Come in--‘twas yourselves we were talking about,” Jim said, rising
slowly from the armchair; a process which, Norah was accustomed to say,
he accomplished yard by yard. “Sit here, Tommy, and let’s hear your
views on Australia!”

Tommy shook her head.

“Too soon to ask me--and I’ve only seen Billabong,” she said, laughing.
“Wait until I’ve kept house for Bob for a while, and faced life without
nice soft buffers like Norah and Mrs. Brown!”

“I’m not a nice soft buffer!” said Norah indignantly. “Do I look like
one, Jimmy?”

“Brownie certainly fits the description better,” Jim said. “Never mind,
old girl, you’ll probably grow into one. We’d be awfully proud of you if
you got really fat, Norah.”

“Then I hope you’ll never have cause for pride,” retorted his sister.
“I couldn’t ride Bosun if I did, and that would be too awful to think
about. Oh, and Tommy’s making a great stock-rider, Bob. She declared she
could never ride astride, but she’s perceiving the error of her ways.”

“I thought I could never stick on without the moral support of the
pommels,” said Tommy. “When you arrange yourself among pommels and horns
and things on a side-saddle, there seems no real reason why you should
ever come off, except of your own free will. But a man’s saddle doesn’t
offer any encouragement to a poor scared new-chum. I pictured myself
sliding off it whenever the horse side-stepped. However, somehow, it
doesn’t happen.”

“And what happens when your steed slews around after a bullock?” asked
Jim.

“Indeed, I hardly know,” said Tommy modestly. “I generally shut my eyes,
and hold on to the front of the saddle. After a while I open them,
and find, to my astonishment, that nothing has occurred, and I’m still
there. Then we sail along after Norah, and I hold up my head proudly and
look as if that were really the way I have always handled cattle. And
she isn’t a bit taken in. It’s dreadfully difficult to impress Norah.”

Every one laughed, and looked at the new-chum affectionately. This small
English girl, so ready to laugh at her own mistakes, had twined herself
wonderfully about their hearts. Even Brownie, jealous to the point of
prickliness for her adored Norah, and at first inclined to turn up a
scornful nose at “Miss Tommy’s” pink and white daintiness, had been
forced to admit that she “could ‘andle things like a workman.” And that
was high praise from Brownie.

The telephone bell whirred in the hall, and Jim went out to answer it.
In a few minutes they heard his voice.

“Norah, just come here a moment.” He came back presently, leaving Norah
at the telephone.

“It’s Dr. Anderson,” he said. “They’re in trouble in Cunjee--there’s a
pretty bad outbreak of influenza. Some returned men came up with it,
and now it’s spreading everywhere, Anderson says. Mrs. Anderson has been
nursing in the hospital, but now two of her own kiddies have got it, so
she has had to go home, and they’re awfully shorthanded. Nurses seem to
be scarce everywhere; they could only get one from Melbourne, and she’s
badly overworked.”

“Norah will go, I suppose,” said David Linton, with a half-sigh--the
sigh of a man who has looked forward to peace and security, and finds it
again slipping from his grasp.

“Oh, yes, I’m sure she will. They have a certain number of volunteers,
not nearly enough.”

“I’m going,” said Tommy, and David Linton nodded at her kindly.

“What about you and me, Jim?” Bob asked.

“Well, Anderson says they have a number of men volunteers. Such a lot of
returned fellows about with nothing to do yet. I told him to count on us
for anything he wanted, but the need seems chiefly for women.”

“Must they go to-night? It’s pretty late,” said Mr. Linton.

“No, not to-night,” Norah answered, entering. “It would be eight o’clock
before I could get in, and Dr. Anderson says I’m to get a good sleep and
come in early in the morning. Tommy, darling, will you mind if I leave
you for a few days?”

“Horribly,” said Tommy drily. “It would be unpardonably rude for a
hostess. So I ‘m coming too.”

Norah laughed down at her.

“Somehow, I thought you would,” she said. “Well, Jimmy, you’ll take us
in after breakfast, won’t you? We’ll have it early.” She perched on the
arm of her father’s chair, letting her fingers rest for a moment on
his close-cropped grey hair. “And I’ve never asked you if I could go,
daddy.”

“No,” said David Linton; “you haven’t.” He put his arm gently round her.

“But then I knew that you’d kick me out if I didn’t. So that simplifies
matters. You’ll take care of yourself while I’m away, won’t you, dad? No
wild rides by yourself into the ranges, or anything of that sort?”

“Certainly not,” said her father. “I’ll sit quietly at home, and let
Brownie give me nourishment at short intervals.”

“Nothing she’d like better.” Norah laughed. “I don’t believe Brownie
will really feel that she owns us again until one of us is considerate
enough to fall ill and give her a real chance of nursing and feeding us.
Then the only thing to do is to forget you ever had a will of your
own, and just to open your mouth and be fed like a young magpie, and
Brownie’s perfectly happy.”

“She won’t be happy when she hears of this new plan,” Mr. Linton said.
“Poor old soul, I’m sorry she should have any worry, when she has just
got you home.”

“Yes; I’m sorry,” Norah answered. “But it can’t be helped. I’ll go and
talk to her now, and arrange things--early breakfast among them.”

“You might make it a shade earlier than you meant to, while you’re at
it, Nor,” Jim observed. “Then we could turn off the track as we go in
to-morrow to let Tommy have a look at the place that has been offered
Bob--you know that place of Henderson’s, off the main road. Bob can go
over the land with us when we’re coming back. But once you and Tommy get
swallowed up in Cunjee, there’s no knowing when we could get you out;
and Tommy ought to inspect the house.”

“Oh, I’d love to,” said Tommy enthusiastically. “No mere man can be
trusted to buy a house.”

“Don’t go to look at it with any large ideas of up-to-date improvements
floating in your mind,” Jim warned her. “It’s sure to be pretty
primitive, and probably there isn’t even a bathroom.”

“Don’t you worry, Tommy; we’ll build you one,” said Mr. Linton.

“I’m not going to worry about anything; there are always washtubs,”
 spoke Tommy cheerfully--“and thank you, all the same, Mr. Linton. I
didn’t expect much when I came out to Australia, but I’m getting so much
more than I expected that I’m in a state of bewilderment all the time.
Someday I feel that I shall come down with a bump, and I shall be
thankful if it’s only over a bathroom.”

“Distressing picture of the valiant pioneer looking for discomforts and
failing to find them,” said Bob, laughing. “It’s so difficult to feel
really pioneerish in a place where there are taps, and electric
light, and motors, and no one appears to wear a red shirt, like every
Australian bushman I ever saw on the stage.”

“Did you bring any out with you?” demanded Norah wickedly.

“I didn’t. But honest, it was only because I had so many khaki ones, and
I thought they’d do. Otherwise I’d certainly have thought that scarlet
shirts were part of the ordinary outfit for the Colonies. And if you
believed all the things they tell you in outfitting shops, you would
bring a gorgeous assortment. We’d have even arrived here with tinware.
It was lucky I knew some Australians--they delicately hinted that you
really had a shop or two in the principal cities.”

“I’ve often marvelled at the queer collection people seem to bring out,”
 said Mr. Linton. “It’s not so bad of late years, but ten years ago a
jackeroo would arrive here with about a lorry-load of stuff, most of
which he could have bought much more cheaply in Melbourne or Sydney--and
he’d certainly never use the greater part of it. Apparently a London
shop will sell you the same kind of outfit for a Melbourne suburb as
if you were going into the wilds of West Africa. They haven’t any
conscience.”

“They just never learn geography,” said Norah. “And ‘the Colonies’ to
them mean exactly the same thing, no matter in what continent the colony
may be. If they can sell pioneers tinware to take out to Melbourne, so
much the better for them. Well, I must see Brownie, or there may not be
early breakfast for pioneers or any one else.”

Brownie rose to the occasion--there had never been any known occasion
to which Brownie did not rise--and the hospital at Cunjee was still
grappling with early morning problems next day when the Billabong motor
pulled up at the door, after a flying visit to the new home--which
Tommy, regarding with the large eye of faith, had declared to be full of
boundless possibilities. Dr. Anderson came out to meet the new-comers,
Norah and Tommy, neat and workmanlike; Jim, bearing their luggage; and
Mr. Linton and Bob sharing a large humper, into which Brownie had packed
everything eatable she could find--and Brownie’s capacity for finding
things eatable at short notice was one of her most astonishing traits.
The little doctor, harassed as he was, greeted them with a twinkle.

“You Lintons generally appear bearing your sheaves with you,” he said.
“Well, you’re very welcome. How many of you do I keep?”

“Tommy and Norah, for certain,” said Mr. Linton. “And as many more of us
as you please. Want us all, doctor?”

“Well, I really don’t; there are a good many men volunteers. But if
I might commandeer the car and a driver for a few hours, I should be
glad,” the doctor went on. “There are some cases to be brought in
from Mardale and Clinthorpe. I heard of them only this morning, on the
telephone, and I was wondering how to get them in.”

“We’re at your disposal, and you’ve only to telephone for us or the car
whenever you want it,” said Mr. Linton. “How are things this morning?”

“Oh--bad enough. We have several very troublesome cases; people simply
won’t give in soon enough. My youngsters are very ill, but I’m not
really worried about them as long as my wife keeps up. Our biggest
trouble is that our cook here went down this morning. She told me she
couldn’t sleep a wink all night, and when she woke up in the morning
her tongue was sticking to the roof of her head!--and certainly she has
temperature enough for any strange symptoms. But we feel rather as if
the bottom had dropped out of the universe, for none of our volunteers
are equal to the job.”

“I can cook,” said Norah and Tommy together.

“Can you?” said the little doctor, staring at them as though the heavens
had opened and rained down angels on his head. “Are you sure? You don’t
look like it!”

“I can guarantee them,” said Mr. Linton, laughing. “Only you’ll have to
watch Norah, for the spell of the war is heavy upon her, and she’ll boil
your soup bones thirteen times, and feed you all on haricot beans and
lentils if nobody checks her!”

“Dad, you haven’t any manners,” said Norah severely. “May I cook,
Doctor?”

“You can share the job,” said Dr. Anderson thankfully. “I really think
it’s more than enough for one of you. This place is getting pretty full.
Of course, I’ve wired to town for a cook, but goodness knows if we’ll
get one; it’s unlikely. Come on, now, and I’ll introduce you to Sister.”

Sister proved to be a tall, capable, quiet woman, with war decorations.
She greeted the volunteers thankfully, and unhesitatingly pronounced
their place to be cooks, rather than nurses.

“I can get girls who will do well enough in the wards,” she said, “where
I can direct them. But I can’t be in the kitchen too. If you two can
carry on without supervision it will be a godsend.”

So the kitchen swallowed up Norah and Tommy, and there they worked
during the weeks that followed, while the influenza scourge raged
round Victoria. The little cottage-hospital became full almost to
bursting-point. Even the rooms for the staff had to be appropriated, and
nurses and helpers slept in a cottage close by. Luckily for the cooks,
Cunjee now boasted a gas supply and its citizens supplied them with
gas-stoves, as Norah said, “in clutches,” so that they worked in
comfort. It was hard work, with little time to spare, but the girls had
learned method, and they soon mapped out a routine that prevented their
ever being rushed or flurried. And they blessed the cold weather that
saved constant watching lest supplies should go bad.

From Billabong came daily hampers that greatly relieved their labours.
It was a matter of some amazement to the Lintons that Brownie did not
volunteer for the hospital, and indeed, it had been the first thought of
Brownie herself. But she repressed it firmly, though by no means feeling
comfortable. To Murty she confided her views, and was relieved by his
approval.

“I know I did ought to go,” she said, almost tearfully. “There’s those
two blessed lambs in the kitchen, doing wot I’d ought to be doing; and
I know Mrs. Archdale ‘ud come up an’ run things ‘ere for me. But wot ‘ud
‘appen if I did go, I ask you, Murty? Simply they’d take the two blessed
lambs out of the kitchen an’ put ‘em to nursing in the wards, an’ next
thing you knew they’d both be down with the beastly flu’ themselves.
They’re safer among the pots and pans, Murty. But when the master looks
at me I don’t feel comferable.”

“Yerra, let him look,” said Murty stoutly. “‘Tis the great head ye have
on ye; I’d never have thought of it. Don’t go worryin’, now. Are ye not
sendin’ them in the heighth of good livin’ every day?”

“That’s the least I can do,” said Brownie, brightening a little. “Only
I’d like to think Miss Norah and Miss Tommy got some of it, and not just
them patients, gethered up from goodness knows where.”

“Yerra, Miss Norah wouldn’t want to know their addresses before she’d
feed ‘em,” said the bewildered Murty. But there came a suspicious smell
from the kitchen, as of something burning, and Mrs. Brown fled with a
swiftness that was surprising, considering her circumference.

Jim lived a moving existence in those days, flying between Billabong
and Cunjee in the car, bringing supplies, always on hand for a job if
wanted, and insisting that on their daily “time off” Norah and Tommy
should come out for a spin into the country. Sometimes they managed to
take Sister, too, or some of the other helpers. The car never went out
with any empty seats. Presently they were recovering patients to be
given fresh air or taken home; white-faced mothers, longing to be back
to the house and children left in the care of “dad,” and whatever kindly
neighbours might drop in; or “dads” themselves, much bewildered at the
amazing illness that had left them feeling as if neither their legs nor
their heads belonged to them. Occasionally, after dropping one of these
convalescents, Jim would find jobs waiting to his hand about the bush
homestead; cows to milk, a fence to be mended, wood waiting to be
chopped. He used to do them vigorously, while in the house “mum” fussed
over her restored man and tried to keep him from going out to run the
farm immediately. There were generally two or three astonished children
to show him where tools were kept--milk buckets, being always up-ended
on a fence post, needed no introduction, and the pump, for a sluice
afterwards, was not hard of discovery. The big Rolls-Royce used to purr
gently away through the bush paddock afterwards, often with a bewildered
“mum” looking amazedly at the tall young man who drove it.

Meanwhile Bob Rainham, left alone with his host, set about the business
of his new farm in earnest, since there seemed nothing else for him to
do; and David Linton, possibly glad of the occupation, threw himself
into the work. The farm was bought on terms that seemed to Bob
very easy--he did not know that Mr. Linton stood security for his
payments--and then began the task of stocking it and of planning just
what was best to do with each paddock. The house, left bare and clean by
the last owners, was in good repair, save that the dingy white painting
of the exterior, and the varnished pine walls and ceilings within were
depressing and shabby. Mr. Linton decided that his house-warming present
to Tommy should be a coat of paint for her mansion, and soon it looked
new--dark red, with a gleaming white roof, while the rooms were painted
in pretty fresh colours. “Won’t Tommy get a shock!” chuckled Bob
gleefully. The dinginess of the house had not escaped him on the
morning that they had made their first inspection, but Tommy, who loved
freshness and colours, had made no sign. Had you probed the matter,
Tommy would probably have remarked, with some annoyance, that it was not
her job to begin by grumbling.

Wally came hurtling back from Queensland at the first hint of the
influenza outbreak, and was considerably depressed at finding his twin
souls, Jim and Norah, engaged in jobs that for once he could not share.
Therefore he, too, fell back on the new farm, and found Bob knitting his
brow one evening over the question of furniture.

“I don’t want to buy much,” he said. “Tommy doesn’t, either; we talked
it over. We’d rather do with next to nothing, and buy decent stuff by
degrees if we get on well. Tommy says she doesn’t want footling little
gimcracky tables and whatnots and things, nor dressing-tables full of
drawers that won’t pull out. But I’ve been looking at the cheap stuff in
Cunjee, and, my word, it’s nasty! Still, I can’t afford good things now,
and Tommy wouldn’t like it if I tried to get ‘em. Tommy’s death on the
simple life.”

“How are you on tools?” queried Wally.

“Using tools? Pretty fair,” admitted Bob. “I took up carpentering at
school; it was always a bit of a hobby of mine. I’m no cabinet-maker, if
that’s what you mean.”

“You don’t need to be,” Wally answered. “Up where I come from--we were
pretty far back in Queensland--we hardly ever saw real furniture, the
stuff you buy in shops. It was all made out of packing-cases and odd
bits of wood. Jolly decent, too; you paint ‘em up to match the rooms, or
stain ‘em dark colours, and the girls put sort of petticoats round some
of the things.”

“We began that way,” said David Linton, with a half-sigh. “There was
surprisingly little proper furniture in our first house, and we were
very comfortable.”

“Couldn’t we begin, sir?” asked Wally eagerly. “This wet weather looks
like setting in. Bob can’t do much on the farm. If we could get out
a few odd lengths of timber and some old packing cases from the
township--”

“Heavens, you don’t need to do that!” exclaimed their host. “The place
is full of both; packing-cases have been arriving at Billabong since Jim
was a baby, and very few of them have gone away again. There’s plenty of
timber knocking about, too. We’ll go over to the farm if you like, Bob,
and plan out measurements.”

“I think it’s a splendid idea, thanks, sir,” said Bob slowly. “Only I
don’t quite see why I should bother you--”

“Oh, don’t talk rubbish!” said David Linton, getting up. “I believe I’m
glad of the job--the place seems queer without Jim and Norah.”

“My word!” said Wally. “Let’s all turn carpenters, and give Tommy the
surprise of her life!”

They flung themselves at the work with energy. A visit to the new house,
and a careful study of each room, revealed unsuspected possibilities to
Bob, whose English brain, “brought up,” as Wally said, “on a stodgy
diet of bedroom suites,” had failed to grasp what might be done by handy
people with a soul above mere fashion in the matter of furniture. They
came back with a notebook bulging with measurements and heads seething
with ideas. First, they dealt with the bedrooms, and made for each a set
of long shelves and a dressing-table-cupboard--the latter a noble piece
of furniture, which was merely a packing-case, smoothed, planed and
fitted with shelves; the whole to be completed with a seemly petticoat
when Tommy should be able to detach her mind from influenza patients.
They made her, too, a little work-table, which was simply a wide, low
shelf, at which she could write or sew--planned to catch a good light
from her window, so that as she sat near it, she could see the line of
willows that marked the creek and the rolling plains that ended in the
ranges behind Billabong. Tommy’s room was painted in pale green; and
when they had stained all these exciting additions dark green, Bob
heaved a great sigh, and yearned audibly for the swift recovery of
the influenza patients, so that Tommy could return and behold her new
possessions.

“We could make washstands,” said Mr. Linton, when they had fitted out
the two remaining bedrooms. “But washstands are depressing things, and
would take up a good deal of space in these little rooms. You have a
good water supply, Bob; why not have built-in basins with taps, and lay
on water through the bedrooms?”

Bob whistled.

“My aunt! Is that really possible?”

“Quite, I should say. It wouldn’t take elaborate plumbing, and the pipes
could discharge into an irrigation drain for your vegetable garden. It
would save Tommy ever so much work in carrying water, too. There’s a
fearsome amount of water carried in and out of bedrooms, and I can’t see
why pipes shouldn’t do the work. It need not cost you much--just a shelf
across a corner, with an enamelled basin let in.”

“Save you buying jugs and basins,” said Wally. “Great money-saving
idea!”

“Rather,” said Bob. “Is there anyone in Cunjee who can plumb?”

“Oh, yes; there’s a handy man who can do the whole thing. We’ll get Jim
to go and see him tomorrow.”

They left this job to the handy man, who proved equal to all demands,
and went on themselves to higher flights. Kitchen and pantry were
already fitted with shelves, but they built in a dresser, and found a
spare corner, where they erected a linen press warranted to bring tears
of joy to the eye of any housewife. Round the little dining-room and
sitting-room they ran a very narrow shelf, just wide enough to carry
flowers and ornaments, and they made wide, low window seats in each
room. Then, becoming bold by success, they turned to cabinet making,
and built into the dining-room a sideboard, which was only a glorified
edition of the kitchen dresser, but looked amazingly like walnut, aided
by a little stain; and for both sitting-rooms made low cupboards,
with tops wide enough to serve as little tables. Even the verandah was
furnished with wide shelf tables and a cupboard, and with low and broad
seats.

“And it’s all done by kindness--and packing cases!” said Jim, surveying
the result with admiration.

“Indeed, I’m afraid a lot of your father’s good timber has gone into
it,” said Bob half ruefully. “He was awfully good about it, and the
supply of just-what-you-want timber on Billabong seemed inexhaustible.”

“No, you really used very little good stuff,” David Linton said. “It’s
chiefly packing cases, truly, Jim. But we had plenty of time to plane it
up and make it look decent. Bob ran an electric light into the workshop
and we worked every night. I believe it’s kept us from getting influenza
from sheer boredom, with all you people away.”

“They’ll soon be home,” Jim said cheerfully. “Influenza’s dying out, I
believe. No fresh cases for three days, and all the patients are getting
better. The little Andersons are up and about. By the way, Dad, couldn’t
we bring those kiddies out to Billabong for a change?”

“Why, of course,” his father answered. “Tell Mrs. Anderson to come too,
or, if she won’t leave her husband, Brownie will be delighted at the
chance of getting two children to look after again. Are the cooks quite
cheery, Jim?”

“As cheery as possible,” Jim answered. “They got off early to-day, and I
took them and Sister and the Anderson youngsters out for a run. Did ‘em
all good. I’m coming home to-night, and they don’t want me to-morrow,
because they’re going to afternoon tea with some one or other. Flighty
young things, those cooks! So I can help you carpenters or do any odd
jobs.”

“We’ve lots,” said Wally, who was putting a finishing coat of dark green
enamel to a rod destined as a towel rail for Tommy’s room. “Simple jobs,
suitable for your understanding. Take care, Jimmy, I’ve a wet paint
brush, and you have a good suit on! I want to put shelves from floor to
ceiling of the bathroom, because the walls are rough and unlined, and
nothing on earth will make it a beautiful room. So Tommy may as well
store there all the things she doesn’t want anywhere else. And you can
make her a medicine cupboard. I shan’t have time to look at any of you
unskilled labourers, for I’m going to build her a draining-rack for
plates and things over the kitchen sink. And I can tell you, that takes
brains!”

“Then it’s not your job!” said Jim definitely.

“Isn’t it? I’ll show you, you old Bond Street fashion plate!” Wally
stretched his long form, simply attired in a khaki shirt and dungaree
trousers, much be-splashed by paint, and looked scornfully at his neatly
dressed friend. “You needn’t think, because you come here dressed like
the lilies of the field and fresh from motoring girls round the country,
that--”

“My hat!” said Jim justly incensed. “And I after cleaning out and
whitewashing the hospital fowl-houses all the morning! Young Wally, you
need some one to sit on your head.” He took off his coat slowly.

“Ten to one,” said Wally hastily, “if we had time to look into the
matter we’d find you’d whitewashed the fowls as well! These Army
Johnnies are so beastly impractical!” He gathered up his brushes and
fled, pursued by his chum. Sounds of warfare came faintly from the
distance.

“It’s a good thing some of us are sane,” said Mr. Linton laughing.
“Nearly finished, Bob?”

He was painting a shelf-table, screwed to the wall within a space at
the end of the verandah, which they had completely enclosed with wire
mosquito netting. Bob was hanging the door of this open-air room in
position, a task requiring judgment, as the floor of the verandah was
old and uneven.

“Nearly, sir,” he mumbled, his utterance made difficult by the fact
of having several screws in his mouth. He worked vigorously for a few
moments, and then stood back to survey his job. “This is going to be
a great little room--though it’s hard just now to imagine that it will
ever be warm enough for it.”

“Just you wait a few months until we get a touch of hot weather, and
the mosquitoes come out!” said David Linton. “Then you and Tommy will
thankfully entrench yourselves in here at dusk, and listen to the
singing hordes dashing themselves against the netting in the effort to
get at you!”

“That’s the kind of thing they used to tell me on the Nauru,” Bob said
laughing; “but I didn’t quite expect it from you, Mr. Linton!”

The squatter chuckled.

“Well, indeed, it’s no great exaggeration in some years,” he said. “They
can be bad enough for anything, though it isn’t always they are. But an
open-air room is never amiss, for if there aren’t mosquitoes a lamp will
attract myriads of other insects on a hot night. That looks all right,
Bob; you’ve managed that door very well.”

“First rate!” said Jim and Wally approvingly, returning arm in arm.

“You’re great judges!” David Linton rejoined, looking at the pair. “Have
you returned to work, may I ask, or are you still imitating the lilies
of the field?”

“Jim is; he couldn’t help it,” said Wally. “But I have been studying
that oak tree out in the front, Mr. Linton. It seems to me that a
seat built round it would be very comforting to weary bones on warm
evenings--”

Bob gathered up his tools with decision in each movement.

“Wally has come to that state of mind in which he can’t look at anything
on the place without wanting to build something out of a packing case
in it, or round it, or on top of it!” he said. “When the sheep come I’ll
have to keep you from them, or you’ll be building shelves round them!”

“Why, you’re nearly as bad yourself!” grinned Wally.

“I know I am, and that’s why I’ve got to stop. I’m going to leave nice
little chisels and spokeshaves and smoothing planes, and mend up the
pigsty; it needs it badly, and so does the cow-shed. And then I’ve
got to think of ploughing, and cutting that drain across the flat, and
generally earning my living.”

“Don’t you worry,” said David Linton. “You couldn’t have done much
outside in this wet weather, and at least your house is half-furnished.
And we’ll help you through with the other things.”

“You’re all just bricks,” said Bob, his fair skin flushing--“only I
begin to feel as if I were fed with a spoon. I can’t always expect to
have my work done for me.”

“You haven’t shown much wish to leave it for anyone else,” Jim said
drily. “Neither you nor Tommy strikes this district as a loafer. Just
stop talking bosh, old man, and think what Tommy’s going to say to her
mansion.”

“Say?” queried Mr. Linton. “Why, she’ll point out to us all the places
where she wants shelves!”

“Shelves?” yelled the three as one man.

“Yes, certainly. There was never a woman born who had enough. Don’t lose
sight of your tools, Bob, for you’ll go on putting up shelves as long
as you’ve an inch of wall to put them on. Come along, boys, and we’ll go
home.”



CHAPTER XIII

THE HOME ON THE CREEK


“I think it’s the loveliest home that ever was!” said Tommy solemnly.

“Well, indeed, it takes some beating,” Wally agreed.

“Creek Cottage”--the name was of Tommy’s choosing--was ready for
occupation, and they had just finished a tour of it. There was nothing
in it that was not fresh and bright and dainty--like Tommy herself.
The rooms were small, but they had good windows, where the crisp, short
curtains were not allowed to obscure the view. There were fresh mattings
and linoleums on the floors, and the home-made furniture now boasted,
where necessary, curtains of chintz or cretonne, that matched its
colouring. Norah and Tommy had spent cheery hours over those draperies.
The curtains for Tommy’s “suite” had been Norah’s gift--of dark-green
linen, embroidered in dull blue silks; and in the corner there was a
little sofa with cushions of the same. Tommy had purred--was, in fact,
still purring--over that home-made furniture, and declared it superior
to any that money could buy. She had also suggested new ideas for
shelves.

They had not troubled furniture shops much. Save for a few comfortable
arm-chairs, there was nothing solid and heavy in the house; but it was
all pleasant and home-like, and the little rooms, bright with books
and pictures and flowers, had about them the touch of welcome and
restfulness that makes the difference between a home and a mere house.
The kitchen was Tommy’s especial pride--it was cool and spotless, with
fresh-painted walls and ceilings, and shining white tiles round the
white sink--over which Wally’s draining-rack sat in glory. Dazzling
tin-ware decorated the walls, and the dresser held fresh and pretty
china. For weeks it had been a point of honour for no one to visit
Cunjee without bringing Tommy a gift for the kitchen--meat fork, a set
of skewers, a tin pepper castor; offerings wrapped in many coverings of
tissue paper, and presented with great solemnity, generally at dinner.
The last parcel had been from Mr. Linton, and had eclipsed all the
others--an alarum clock, warranted to drive the soundest sleeper from
her bed. Bob declared it specially designed to ensure his getting fed at
something approaching a reasonable hour.

A wide verandah ran round the whole house, and rush lounges and deck
chairs stood about invitingly--Tommy had insisted that there should
be plenty of seating accommodation on the verandah for all the Linton
party, since they filled the little rooms to an alarming extent.
Near where they stood the drawing-room opened out by a French window.
Something caught Tommy’s eye, and she dived into the room--to return,
laughing with new treasure-trove--a sink brush and saucepan-scrubber,
tied up with blue ribbon.

“Your doing?” she asked, brandishing them.

“Not mine.” Wally shook his head. “I don’t do frivolous things like
that. But I heard Jim wheedling blue ribbon out of Norah this morning,
and I don’t fancy he has much use for it ordinarily. You’d better ask
him.”

“It’s like both of you--you nice stupids!” she said.

“What?--the pot-scrub! That’s not polite of you, Miss Rainham; and so
untrue, where I’m concerned.” Wally sat down on the arm of a lounge and
regarded her with a twinkle. “What’s old Bob doing?”

Tommy laughed happily.

“I think whenever we don’t know where Bob is, he’s safe to be out
looking at either the sheep or the pigs,” she said. “He just loves them;
and he says he can see them growing.”

There was a hint of Spring in the air, and more than a hint of good
grass in the green paddocks stretching away from the house. By the creek
the willows were putting out long, tender shoots that would soon be a
thick curtain. The lucerne patch that stretched along its bank was dense
and high. The Rainhams had been delayed in taking possession of Creek
Cottage; a severe cold had smitten Tommy just at the end of her labours
in the hospital, and, being thoroughly tired out, it had been some time
before she could shake off its effects. Mr. Linton and Norah had put
down their feet with joint firmness, declaring that in no circumstances
should she begin housekeeping until she was thoroughly fit; so the
Rainhams had remained at Billabong. Tommy was petted and nursed in a
way she had not known since Aunt Margaret had died, while Bob worked
feverishly at his farm, riding over every day from Billabong, with a
package of Brownie’s sandwiches in his pocket, and returning at
dusk, dirty and happy. Bob was responding to Australian conditions
delightfully, and was only discontented because he could not make his
farm all that he wanted it to be within the first week.

Therein, however, he had unexpected help. The Cunjee district was a
friendly one; station owners and farmers alike looked kindly on
the young immigrant who turned so readily to work after four years’
fighting. Moreover, Tommy’s work in the hospital was well known; the
general opinion being that “anything might be expected from young
Norah Linton, but you wouldn’t think a bit of a new-chum kid like Bob
Rainham’s sister would turn to and cook for a crowd, and she hardly off
the ship!” So the district laid its heads together and consulted Mr.
Linton; with the result that one morning Bob found himself unexpectedly
accompanied to work by his host. It was nothing unusual for Jim or
Wally, or both, to go with him. He was cutting a drain, which they
declared to be a job for which they had a particular fancy. But to-day
he found Monarch saddled with the other horses, and Mr. Linton, not only
ready to start, but hurrying them off; and there was no lunch to carry,
Norah airily declaring that since she and Tommy were to be deserted
they declined to be downtrodden, and would motor over with a hamper and
picnic at Creek Cottage. There was a mysterious twinkle in Norah’s eye;
Bob scented something afoot, and tried--in vain--to pump her on the
matter. He rode away, his curiosity unsatisfied.

But when they rode up the homestead paddock at his farm, he gave a long
whistle.

“What on earth--?” he began amazedly.

There were men in sight everywhere, and all working. Eight or nine
ploughs were moving across the paddocks destined for cultivation;
already wide strips of freshly turned earth showed that they had been
some time at work. On the flat where Bob had begun his drain was a line
of men, and some teams with earth-scoops, cutting a deep channel. There
were even men digging in the garden; and the sound of axes came faintly
from a belt of scrub that Bob was planning to clear--some day. He gaped
at them.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a bee,” said Wally kindly. “A busy bee, improving each shining
hour.”

Bob turned a puzzled, half-distressed face to Mr. Linton.

“I say, sir--what is it?”

“It’s just that, my boy,” said David Linton. “The district had a fancy
to help you--Cunjee thinks a heap of soldiers, you see. So a lot of the
fellows got together and planned to put in a day on the creek, doing odd
jobs.”

“I say,” said poor Bob flushing scarlet, “I never heard such a
thing--and I hardly know any of them. Whatever am I to say to them,
sir?”

“I wouldn’t say much at all,” said David Linton laughing. “You’ll only
embarrass them if you do. Just take a hand in any job you like, and
carry on--as we’re all going to do.”

“There’s one man you know, anyhow,” said Jim grinning. He pointed out
old Joe Howard, the nearest to them among the ploughmen.

“Heavens!” ejaculated Bob. “You don’t mean to tell me old Joe has come
of his own accord!”

“Couldn’t keep him away,” Jim said. “He remarked that you were a very
decent young feller, and he’d taught you how to work, so he might as
well lend an ‘and. It’s like old Joe’s cheek, but he’ll claim for ever
that he made you a worker.”

“Oh, let him,” said Bob. “It doesn’t hurt me, and it may amuse him.” His
gaze travelled across the busy paddocks. “Well--I’m just staggered,” he
said. “The least I can do is to get to work quickly.”

They turned the horses out and scattered; Bob to cutting scrub--it was
the job he liked least, so it seemed to him the decent thing to tackle
it--Jim to the drain construction, while Wally joined the band of
workers in the garden, since he knew Tommy’s plans concerning it; and
Mr. Linton attacked a fence that needed repairs. In the middle of the
morning came the Billabong motor, driven by Norah, with Brownie and a
maid in the tonneau with Tommy, and hampers packed wherever possible. A
cart with other supplies had been driven over by Evans in the very early
morning, since Billabong had undertaken the feeding of the workers for
the day. The Rolls-Royce picked its way delicately round the paddocks,
while the girls carried drinks and huge slabs of cake to the different
bands of workers--this being the time for “smoke-oh.” Then they hurried
back to the cottage, where Brownie and Maria were busy unpacking hampers
on the verandah, and Brownie was preparing to carve great joints of beef
and mutton and pork in readiness for the hungry horde that would descend
on them at dinner time.

It was all ready when the men trooped up from the paddocks--squatters
and stockmen, farmers, horse breakers, bush workers of every degree;
all dirty and cheery, and filled with a mighty hunger. Soap and water
awaited them at the back; then they came round to sit on the edge of the
long verandahs, balancing heaped plates on their knees, and making short
work of Brownie’s provisions. Jokes and cheery talk filled the air.
Tommy, carrying plates shyly at first, found herself the object of much
friendly interest. “Little Miss Immigrant,” they called her, and vied
with each other in making her feel that they were all welcoming her. But
they did not waste much time over dinner--soon one after another got
up and sauntered away, lighting his pipe, and presently there were
straggling lines of figures going back to work across the paddocks.
After which Norah and Tommy bullied Bob into eating something--he had
been far too anxious to wait on his hungry “bee” to think of feeding
himself, and then the ladies of the party lunched with the ardour of the
long-delayed, and fell upon the colossal business of dish-washing.

Afternoon tea came early, by which time nearly all the ploughing was
done, and the brown ribbon of the new drain stretched, wide and deep,
across the flat. The girls took the meal round the paddocks, this time
with Bob to carry the steaming billies of tea; it gave him a chance to
thank his helpers, when it was difficult to say whether the thanker or
the thanked were the more embarrassed. Soon after “cow time” loomed for
some of the workers, and whatever waits in Australia, it must not be
the cow; so that here and there a man shouldered his tools, and, leaving
them at the shed, caught his horse and rode away--apologizing to Bob, if
he happened to meet him, for going so early, with the brief apology of
the dairy farmer, “Gotter get home an’ milk.” But the majority worked on
until dusk came down and put an end to their efforts, and then came up
for their horses, singing and laughing.

Bob stood at the gate, bareheaded, as they rode away. By this time he
had no words at all. He wished from the bottom of his heart that he
could tell them what good fellows he thought them; but he could only
stand, holding the gate for them with Tommy by his side; and it may
be that the look on each tired young face moved “the bee” more than
eloquence would have done. They shouted cheery good-byes as they went.
“Good luck, Miss Immigrant! Good luck, Captain!” And the dusk swallowed
them up, leaving only the sound of the cantering hoofs.

Thanks to “the bee,” the little farm on the creek looked very
flourishing on the great day when the lady of the house came down in
state to take possession of her domain. Bob had worked hard in the
garden, where already rows of vegetables showed well; Jim and Wally had
aided Norah and Tommy in the making of a flower garden, laying heavy
toll on Hogg’s stores for the purpose; to-day it was golden and white
with daffodils and narcissi and snowdrops. The cultivation paddocks, no
longer brown, rippled with green oats; and cattle were grazing on
the rough grass of the flats, once a swamp, but already showing the
influence of the big drain. Bob had great plans for ploughing all his
flats next year. Dairy cows pastured in the creek paddock near the
house; beyond, Bob’s beloved sheep were steadily engrossed in the
fascinating pursuit of “turning into wool and mutton.” He never grew
tired of watching the process.

The ever-present problem of labour, too, had solved itself pleasantly
enough. Sarah, for many years housemaid at Billabong, had married a
man on a farm near Cunjee, whose first attempt at renting a place for
himself had been brought to an untimely end by the drought; and Sarah
had returned to Billabong, to help in preparing for the home-coming of
the long-absent family, while her husband secured a temporary job in
Cunjee and looked about for another chance. There Jim had found him,
while helping at the hospital; the end of the matter being that Sarah
and Bill and their baby were installed at Creek Cottage, Bill to be
general utility man on the farm, and to have a share of profits, while
Sarah helped Tommy in the house. Every one was satisfied, and already
there were indications that Tommy would be daft over the baby.

Sarah came out now to say that tea was ready--she had insisted on being
responsible for everything on this first day. Not that there was much
to do, for Brownie had sent over a colossal hamper, declaring that Miss
Tommy shouldn’t be bothered with thinking about food when she wasn’t
‘ardly settled. So they packed into the little dining-room; where,
indeed, it took no small ingenuity to stow so large a party, when three
of the six happened to be of the size of David Linton and Jim and Wally;
and Tommy did the honours of her own table for the first time.

“And to think,” she said presently, “that six months ago there was only
Lancaster Gate! Of course, there was always Bob”--she flashed him a
quick smile--“but Bob was--”

“In the air,” put in Norah.

“Very much so. And it didn’t seem a bit certain that I could ever get
him out of it; or, if I did, that I could ever escape from Lancaster
Gate.”

“And you wouldn’t, if the she-dragon had had her way,” Bob said.

“No. There was nothing to do but run. But even when I dreamed of
running, I never thought of more than a workman’s cottage, with you
earning wages and me trying to make both ends meet. And now--look at us!
Bloated capitalists and station owners.”

“Well, you were a cook not so long ago. I wouldn’t be too proud,” Wally
gibed.

“All the more reason for me to be proud--I’ve risen in the world,”
 declared Tommy. “Left my situation to better myself--isn’t that
the right way to put it? And we’ve got the jolliest home in
Australia--thanks to all of you. Do have some more cake, Mr. Linton; I’d
love to say I made it myself, but Brownie did--still, all the same, it’s
mine.”

“Don’t you worry,” he told her. “I’m coming here plenty of times for
cake of your own baking.”

“That’s what I want.” She beamed at him. “All of you. Bob and I will
feel lost and lonesome if we don’t see you all--oh, often.”

“But you’re going to,” Norah said. “We’ll be over goodness knows how
many times a week, and you two are always coming to dinner on Sunday,
and ever so many other days as well.”

“Was it in your plans that any work should be done on this estate?”
 queried Bob solemnly.

“Why, yes, in your spare time,” Wally answered. “Any time you’re not on
the road between here and Billabong, or catching a horse to go there, or
letting one go after coming back, or minding the Billabong horde when it
comes over, you can do a little towards improving the creek. I say, Bob,
it sounds the sort of life I’d love. Can’t you give me a job, old man?”

“Seeing that you’ve done little but work on this place since you came
back from Queensland, I shouldn’t think you’d need to ask for a job,”
 retorted Bob. “However, I’ll take you on as milker if you like--it’s
about the only thing you haven’t sampled.”

“No,” said Wally, “you won’t. Whatever beast I finally take to by way
of earning my living, it won’t be the cow--if I can help it. I’d sooner
graze giraffes!”

“Oh, do try!” Norah begged. “I’d love to see you trying to put a bridle
on one in a hurry!”

“Wonder what would happen if one rode a giraffe and he reared?” pondered
Jim.

“You’d have to swarm up his neck and hang on to his little horns,” Wally
said. “But they’re nice, silent beasts, giraffes, and I think they’d be
very restful to deal with.”

Every one laughed unsympathetically. Restfulness was the last quality
to be associated with Wally, who had been remarkable throughout his life
for total inability to keep still.

“It’s always the way,” said Wally, in tones of melancholy. “Every
fortune teller I ever saw told me that no one understood me.”

“All fortune tellers say that, and that’s why people think them so
clever,” said Tommy. “It’s so soothing to think one is misunderstood. My
stepmother always thought so. Did Bob tell you, Mr. Linton, that we had
had letters from home?”

“No--from your people?”

“From Papa. The she-dragon didn’t write. I think her words would
have been too burning to put on paper. But Papa wrote a pretty decent
letter--for him. He didn’t speak of our letters from Liverpool--the
notes we wrote from the hotel, saying we were leaving for Australia.
But he acknowledged Bob’s letter from Melbourne, saying we were going
up country under your wing, and actually wished us luck! Amazing, from
Papa!”

“I think he’s jolly glad we got away,” Bob said.

“I think that’s highly probable,” said David Linton. “You’ll write to
him occasionally, won’t you?”

“Oh, yes, I suppose so,” Bob answered. “Sometimes I’m a bit sorry
for him; it must be pretty awful to be always under the heel of a
she-dragon. Oh, and there was a really fatherly sort of letter from old
Mr. Clinton. He’s an old brick; and he’s quite pleased about our finding
you--or you finding us. He was always a bit worried lest Tommy should
feel lonesome in Australia.”

“And not you?” Norah asked laughing.

“No, he didn’t worry a bit about me; he merely hoped I’d be working
too hard to notice lonesomeness. I think the old chap always was a bit
doubtful that any fellow would get down to solid work after flying; he
used to say the two things wouldn’t agree. But you sent him a decent
report of me, didn’t you, sir?”

“Oh, yes--I wrote when you asked me, just after you bought this place,”
 David Linton said. “Told him you were working like a cart-horse, which
was no more than the truth, and that Tommy was serving her adopted
country as a cook; and that I considered your prospects good. He’ll have
had that letter before now--and I suppose others from you.”

“We wrote a few weeks ago--sent him a photograph of the house, and
of Tommy on a horse, and Tommy told him all about our furniture,” Bob
chuckled. “I don’t quite know how a staid old London lawyer will regard
the furniture; he won’t understand its beauty a bit. But he ought to be
impressed with our stern regard for economy.”

“He should,” said Mr. Linton with a twinkle. “And I presume you
mentioned the sheep?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Tommy confidentially, “his letter was little
but mutton. He described all his ewes in detail--”

“Colour of their eyes?” queried Wally.

“And their hair,” nodded Tommy. “I never read anything so poetical. And
any enthusiasm he had over went to the pigs and the Kelpie pup!”

“But what about the cows?” laughed Norah. “And the young bullocks?”

“Oh, he mentioned them. But cattle are just four-legged animals to
Bob; they don’t stir his soul like sheep and pigs. He couldn’t write
beautiful things about them. But when it comes to sheep, he just
naturally turns into a poet!”

The object of these remarks helped himself serenely to cake.

“Go on,” he nodded at his sister cheerfully. “Wait until my wool cheque
comes in, and you want a new frock--then you’ll speak respectfully of my
little merinoes. And if you don’t, you won’t get the frock!”

“Why, I wouldn’t disrespect them for anything,” Tommy said. “I think
they’re lovely beasts. So graceful and agile. Will any of them come yet
when you whistle, Bobby?”

“Are you going to put up with this sort of thing, Bob?” demanded Jim.

Bob smiled sweetly.

“I’m letting her have her head,” he said confidently. “It’s badly
swelled just now, because she’s got a house of her own--but you wait
until she wants a new set of shelves, or a horse caught in a hurry
so that she can tear over and find out from Norah how to cook
something--then she’ll come to heel. It’s something in your climate, I
think, because she was never so cheeky at home--meek was more the word
to describe her.”

“Meek!” said his sister indignantly. “Indeed, I never was meek in my
life!”

“Indeed you were, and it was very becoming,” Bob assured her. “Now
you’re more like a suffragette--” He stopped, staring. “Why, that’s it!
It must be in the air! She knows she’ll have the vote pretty soon!” He
broke into laughter. “Glory! Fancy little Tommy with a vote!”

Tommy joined in the general mirth.

“I hadn’t realized it,” she said, “and I needn’t bother for over
eighteen months, anyhow. And I don’t believe that any of you have ever
voted, even if you are twenty-one--except Mr. Linton, of course; and you
don’t know a bit more about it than I do.”

“Hear, hear!” said Wally. “I certainly don’t, and neither does Jim. But
when we do vote, it’s going to be for the chap who’ll let us go and dig
our own coal out if there’s a strike. That’s sense; and it seems to me
the only sensible thing I’ve ever heard of in politics!” A speech which
manifested so unusual an amount of reflection in Wally that every one
was spellbound, and professed inability to eat any more.

Bob and Tommy stood on the verandah to watch their visitors go; Mr.
Linton and Norah in the motor, while Jim and Wally rode. The merry
shouts of farewell echoed through the gathering dusk.

“Bless them,” said Tommy--“the dears. I don’t believe we’d have a home
now but for them, Bob.”

“We certainly wouldn’t,” Bob answered. “And sometimes I feel as if
they’d spoon-fed us. Look at all they’ve done for us--these months at
Billabong and all they’ve taught us, and all the things that they’ve
showered on us. We couldn’t pay them back in twenty years.”

“And they talk as if the favour were on their side,” his sister said.
“There’s the buggy they’ve lent us--Mr. Linton spent quite a long time
in pointing out to me how desirable it was for them that we should use
it, now that they have the car and don’t need it. And the horses that
apparently would have gone to rack and ruin from idleness if we hadn’t
come.”

“And the cows that don’t seem to have had any reason for existence
except to supply us with milk,” Bob said laughing; “and the farm
machinery that never was really appreciated until immigrants came
along--at least, you’d think so to hear Jim talk, only its condition
belies him. Oh, they’re bricks, all right. Only I don’t seem as if I
were standing squarely on my own feet.”

“I don’t think we could expect to, just yet,” said Tommy pondering. “And
if they have helped us, Bobby, you can see they have loved doing it. It
would be ungracious for us not to take such help--given as it has been.”

“Yes, of course,” Bob answered and squared his shoulders. “Well,
I’m going to work like fury. The only thing I can do now is not to
disappoint them. I feel an awful new-chum, Tommy, but I’ve got to make
good.”

“Why, of course you’re going to,” she said, slipping a hand through his
arm. “Jim wouldn’t let you make mistakes; and the land is good, and
even if we strike a bad season, there’s always the creek--we’ll never be
without water, Jim says. And we’re going to have the jolliest home--it’s
that now, and we’re going to make it better.”

“It’s certainly that now,” Bob said. “I just can’t believe it’s ours.
Come and prowl round, old girl.”

They prowled round in the dusk; up and down the garden paths by the
nodding daffodils, out round the sheds and the pigsties, and so down
to where the creek rippled and murmured in the gloom, flowing through
paddocks that, on either side, were their own. Memories of war and of
gloomy London fell away from them; only the bright present and a future
yet more bright filled them; and there was no loneliness, since all
the big new country had smiled to them and stretched out hands of
friendliness. They came back slowly to their house, arm in arm; two
young things, like shadows in the gloom, but certain in their own minds
that they could conquer Australia.

Bob lit the hanging lamp in the little sitting-room, and looked round
him proudly. A photograph caught his eye; a large group at his Surrey
Aerodrome, young officers clustered round a bi-plane that had just
landed.

“Poor chaps,” he said, and stared at them. “Most of ‘em don’t know yet
that there’s anything better in the world than flying.”

“But they’ve never met merino sheep,” said Tommy solemnly.



CHAPTER XIV

THE CUNJEE RACES


“Who’s going to the races?” demanded Jim.

He had ridden over to the creek alone, and Tommy had come to the garden
gate to greet him, since the young horse he was riding firmly declined
to be tied up. It was a very hot morning in Christmas week. Tommy was in
a blue print overall, and her face was flushed, her hair lying in little
damp rings on her forehead. Jim, provokingly cool in riding breeches and
white silk shirt, smiled down at her across the gate.

“Races!” said Tommy. “But what frivolity. Why, I’m bottling apricots.”

“No wonder you look warm, you poor little soul,” said Jim. “You oughtn’t
to choose a scorcher like this for bottling. Anyhow, the races aren’t
to-day, but New Year’s day--Cunjee Picnic meeting. We’re all going, so
you and Bob have got to come. Orders from Norah.”

“Oh, New Year’s day. I’d love to come,” Tommy said. “I’ve never seen
races.”

“Never seen races!” ejaculated young Australia in sheer amazement.
“Where were you dragged up?” They laughed at each other.

“Aunt Margaret wasn’t what you’d call a racing woman,” Tommy said. “I
don’t fancy Bob has seen any, either. Bill and Sarah, to say nothing of
the baby, are going. I offered to mind the baby, but Sarah didn’t seem
to think the picnic would be complete without her.”

“People have queer tastes,” Jim said. “I wouldn’t choose a long day
at races as the ideal thing for a baby; but Sarah seems to think
differently. Wonder what Bill thinks? Still, I’m glad she didn’t take
you at your word, because we’d have had to dispose of the baby somewhere
if she had. I suppose we could put it under the seat of the car!”

“Oh, do you?” Tommy regarded him with a glint in her eye. “No; we’d have
made you nurse her--she isn’t ‘it.’ She’s the nicest baby ever, and I
won’t have her insulted.”

“Bless you, I wouldn’t insult the baby for worlds,” grinned Jim. “I’ll
look forward to meeting her at the races--especially as you won’t be
minding her. Then it’s settled, is it, Tommy? We thought of riding; will
it be too far for you?”

“Not a bit,” Tommy said. “Bob and I rode in and out of Cunjee the other
day, and I wasn’t tired--and it was dreadfully hot.”

“Then you’ll be all right on New Year’s day, because the racecourse is
two miles this side of the township,” Jim said. “But Norah said I was to
tell you some of us could easily go in the car if you’d rather drive.”

“Oh, no, thanks; I know you always ride, and I should love it,” Tommy
answered. “Is Mr. Linton going?”

“Oh, yes. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the whole station’s going,” Jim
said. “All except Brownie, of course; she scorns races. She says she
can’t imagine why anyone should make anything run fast in the ‘eat if
they don’t want to.”

“Does Brownie ever leave Billabong?”

“Hardly ever,” Jim answered, laughing--“and it’s getting more and more
difficult to make her. I think in a year or two it will need a charge
of dynamite. Oh, but, Tommy, we got her out in the car the other
evening--had to do it almost by main force. It was a hot evening, and
we took her for a spin along the road. She trembled like a jelly when we
started, and all the time she gripped the side with one hand and Norah’s
knee with the other--quite unconsciously.”

“Do you think she enjoyed it at all?” Tommy smiled.

“No, I’m jolly well sure she didn’t,” Jim responded. “Brownie’s much too
well mannered to criticize anyone else’s property, but when she got
out she merely said, ‘You have great courage, my dear.’ And wild horses
wouldn’t get her into it again, unless we promised to ‘make it walk,’
like we did the day we brought her over to help at your working bee. The
funny part of it is that Norah believes she was just as frightened that
morning, only she had a job on, and so was too busy to think of it. But
as for going in a car for mere pleasure--not for Brownie!”

“Brownie’s a dear,” said Tommy irrelevantly. “Jim, can’t you put that
fierce animal in the stable or the horse paddock, or somewhere, and come
in for some tea? I simply must get back to my apricots.”

“And I’ve certainly no business to be keeping you standing here in the
heat,” Jim said. “No, I can’t stay, thanks, Tommy--I promised dad I’d
meet him at the Far Plain gate at eleven o’clock, and it’s nearly that
now. You run in to your apricots, and don’t kill your little self over
them; it’s no day for cooking if you can avoid it.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t,” Tommy answered. “They were just right for
bottling; the sun to-day would have made them a bit too soft. And it’s
better to get them done; to-morrow may be just as hot, or hotter.”

“That’s true enough,” Jim said. “Feeling the heat much, little Miss
Immigrant?”

“Oh, not enough to grumble at,” she answered, smiling. “And the
bathing-hole in the creek is a joy; it’s almost worth a hot day to get a
swim at the end of it. Bob has built me a bathing-box out of a tree, and
it’s a huge success; he’s very pleased with himself as an architect.”

“That’s good business,” approved Jim. “You two never grumble, no matter
what comes along.”

“Well, but nothing has come along but good luck,” Tommy said. “What have
we had to grumble at, I should like to know?”

“Oh, some people find cause for grousing, no matter how good their luck
is,” Jim answered. “I believe you and old Bob would decline to recognize
bad luck even if it did come your way.”

“It’s not coming,” Tommy said, laughing. “So don’t talk about it--I
don’t believe it exists.” She stood watching him for a moment as he
tried to mount; his big young thoroughbred resented the idea of anyone
on his back, and Jim had to hop beside him, with one foot in the
stirrup, while he danced round in a circle, trying to get away. Jim
seized an opportunity, and was in the saddle with a lithe swing;
whereupon the horse tried to get his head down to buck, and, being
checked in that ambition, progressed down the paddock in a succession of
short, staccato bounds.

“I think I should have to recognize bad luck coming if I had to ride him
instead of Jim,” remarked Tommy quaintly. She turned and ran in to her
neglected apricots.

New Year’s day broke clear and hot, like all the week before it. Norah,
arriving at the Creek about ten o’clock, looked a little anxiously at
her friend.

“We’re used to riding in the heat, Tommy, dear,” she said. “But you’re
not--are you sure you feel up to it?”

“Why, I’m going to love it,” Tommy said. She looked cool and
workman-like in a linen habit and white pith helmet--Norah’s Christmas
present. “I hadn’t these nice things to wear when Bob and I brought the
sheep out from Cunjee three weeks ago; and it was just as hot, and so
dusty. And that didn’t kill me. I liked it, only I never got so dirty in
my life.”

“Well, we shall only have a hot ride one way,” said Norah
philosophically. “There’s a concert in Cunjee, and the boys want to stay
for it. The concert won’t be much, but the ride home in the moonlight
will be lovely. You and Bob can stay, of course?”

“Oh, yes. Bill must bring Sarah and the baby home in good time, so he
will milk the cows,” Tommy answered. “He wanted them to stay for the
concert, but Sarah had an amazing attack of common sense, and said it
was no place for a baby. I didn’t think she considered any place unfit
for a baby, and certainly Bill doesn’t.”

“Bush people don’t,” said Norah, laughing. “If they did, they would
never go anywhere, because the babies must go too, no matter what
happens. And the babies get accustomed to it, and don’t cry nearly as
much as pampered ones that are always in the nursery.”

“Bush kiddies grow a stock of common sense quite early,” said Wally’s
voice from the door. “It leaves them in later life, and they stay
gossiping with immigrants in new riding-kit, leaving their unfortunate
fathers grilling in the sun. Which he says--” But at this point Norah
and Tommy brushed the orator from their path, and hastened out to the
horses--finding all the men comfortably smoking under a huge pepper
tree, and apparently in no hurry to start.

Bob bewailed his yellow paddocks as they rode down to the gate.

“They were so beautifully green a few weeks ago,” he said. “Now look at
them--why, they’re like a crop. The sun has burnt every bit of moisture
out of them.”

“Don’t let that worry you, my boy,” David Linton said. “The stock are
doing all right; as long as they have plenty of good water at this time
of the year they won’t ask you for green grass.” He gave a low chuckle.
“You wouldn’t think this was bad feed if you had seen the country in the
drought years--why, the paddocks were as bare as the palm of your hand.
Now you’ve grass, as you say yourself, like a crop.” He looked at it
critically. “I could wish you hadn’t as much; fires will be a bit of an
anxiety later on.”

“Grass fires?” queried Bob.

“Yes. There’s not enough timber here to have a real bush fire. But this
grass is dry enough now, and by February it will go like tinder if any
fool swagman drops a match carelessly. However, you’ll just have to keep
your eyes open. Luckily, your creek can’t burn--you’ll always have so
much safeguard, because your stock could take to it; and that row of
willows along the bank would check any grass fire.”

“My word, wouldn’t a fire race across the Billabong plains this year!”
 said Wally.

“Yes, it would certainly travel,” agreed Mr. Linton. “Well, we’ve
ploughed fire-breaks, and burned round the house, and we can only hope
for good luck. You’d better burn a break round your house soon, Bob.”

“Bill was saying so only this morning,” Bob answered. “I nearly chucked
the races and stayed at home to do it--only I was afraid it might get
away from me single-handed, and I couldn’t very well keep Bill at home.”

“Oh, time enough,” the squatter said lightly. “You’re not so dry as we
are, and we only burned last week.”

“We’ll come over and help you to-morrow, if you like,” Jim said. “Wally
wants work; he’s getting too fat. A little gentle exercise with a racing
fire on a hot day would be the very thing for him. We’ll come and burn
off with you, and then have a bathing party in the creek, and then you
and Tommy must come back to tea with us.” Which was a sample of the way
much of the work was done on the Creek Farm. It had never occurred to
the two Rainhams that life in Australia was lonely.

The road to Cunjee was usually bare of much traffic, but on the one
race day of the year an amazing number of vehicles were dotted along
it, light buggies, farm wagonettes, spring carts and the universal
two-wheeled jinker, all crammed with farmers and settlers and their
families. Wives, a little red-faced and anxious, resplendent in their
Sunday finery, kept a watchful eye on small boys and girls; the boys
in thick suits, the girls with white frocks, their well-crimped hair
bearing evidence of intense plaiting overnight. Hampers peeped from
under the seats, and in most cases a baby completed the outfit. Now and
then a motor whizzed by, leaving a long trail of dust-cloud in its wake,
and earning hearty remarks from every slower wayfarer. There were riders
everywhere, men and women--most of the latter with riding-skirts slipped
on over light dresses that would do duty that night at the concert and
the dance that was to follow. Sometimes a motor-cycle chugged along,
always with a girl perched on the carrier at the back, clinging
affectionately to her escort. As Cunjee drew nearer and the farms closer
together the crowd on the road increased, and the dust mounted in a
solid cloud.

The Billabong people drew to one side, as close as possible to the
fence, cantering over the short, dusty grass. It was with a sigh of
relief that Jim at last pointed out a paddock across which buggies and
horsemen were making their way.

“There’s the racecourse,” he said.

“Racecourse!” Tommy ejaculated. “But it just looks like an ordinary
paddock.”

“That’s all it is,” said Jim, laughing. “You didn’t expect a grand-stand
and a lawn, did you? Cunjee is very proud of itself for having a turf
club at all, and nobody minds anything as long as they get an occasional
glimpse of the horses.”

“But where do they run?”

“Oh, the track goes in and out among the trees. There’s some talk of
clearing it before the next meeting by means of a working bee. But
they won’t worry if it doesn’t get done--every one will come and have a
picnic just the same. You see, there are only two days in the year when
a bush place can really let itself go--Show day and Race day. Show
day is more serious and business-like, but Race day is a really
light-hearted affair, and the horses don’t matter to most of the
people.”

They turned into a gate where two men were busily collecting shillings
and keeping a wary eye lest foot passengers should dodge in through the
fence without paying. There were no buildings at all in the bush paddock
in which they found themselves. It lay before them, flat, save for
a rise towards the southern boundary, where already the crowd was
thickening, and sparsely timbered. As they cantered across it they came
to a rough track, marked out more or less effectively by pink calico
flags nailed to the trees.

“That’s the racing track,” Wally said. “Let’s ride round it, and we’ll
have a faint idea of what the horses are doing later on.”

They turned along the track, where the grass had been worn by horses
training for the races during the few weeks preceding the great day. The
trees had been cleared from it, so that it was good going. In shape it
was roughly circular, with an occasional dint or bulge where a big red
gum had been too tough a proposition to clear, and the track had had to
swing aside to avoid it--a practice which must, as Jim remarked, make
interesting moments in riding a race, if the field were larger than
usual and the pace at all hot. Presently they emerged from the timber
and came into the straight run that marked the finish--running along the
foot of the southern rise, so that, whatever happened in the mysterious
moments in the earlier parts of a race, the end was within full view of
the crowd. The winning-post was a sawed-off sapling, painted half-black
and half-white; opposite to it was the judge’s box, a huge log which
made a natural grand-stand, capable of accommodating the racing
committee as well. Behind, a rough wire fence enclosed a small
space known as the saddling paddock. The crowd picked out its own
accommodation--it was necessary to come early if you wanted a good
place on the rise. Already it was dotted with picnic parties, preparing
luncheon, and a procession of men and boys, bearing teapots and billies,
came and went about a huge copper, steaming over a fire, where the
racing club dispensed hot water free of charge, a generosity chiefly
intended to prevent the casual lighting of fires by the picnickers.
All over the paddock people were hastening through the business of the
midday meal; the men anxious to get it over before the real excitement
of the day began with the racing, the women equally keen to feed their
hungry belongings and then settle down to a comfortable gossip with
friends perhaps only seen once or twice in the twelve months. Children
tore about wildly, got in the way of buggies and motors, climbed trees
and clustered thickly round any horse suspected of taking part in
the racing. More than one candidate for a race appeared on the course
drawing a jinker; and, being released from the shafts, was being
vigorously groomed by his shirt-sleeved owner.

“There’s an awful lot to see!” ejaculated Tommy, gazing about her.

“That is if you’ve eyes,” Jim said. “But most of it can be seen on foot,
so I vote Wally and Bob and I take the horses and tie them up while
there’s still a decent patch of shade left for them to stand in--every
tree in the paddock will have horses tied to it before long. Do you know
where Evans was to leave the buggy, Dad?”

“Yes--it’s under a tree over there,” said his father, nodding towards a
bushy clump of wattles. “I told him to pick out a good shady place for
lunch. We’ll go on and get ready, boys. I’ll take the teapot for hot
water.”

“Not you!” said Jim. “We’ll be back in a few minutes and can easily get
it. Just help the girls with the things, Dad, and we’ll get lunch over;
I’m as hungry as a hawk.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Norah. “But I want, oh! gallons of tea.”

Tea seemed the main requirement of everybody. It was almost too hot to
eat, even in the deep shade of the wattles. The boys, taught by the war
to feed wherever and whenever possible, did some justice to Brownie’s
hamper; but Mr. Linton soon drew aside and lit his pipe at a little
distance, while Tommy and Norah nibbled tomato and lettuce sandwiches,
kept fresh and cool by being packed in huge nasturtium leaves, and drank
many cups of tea. Then they lay under the trees until a bell, ringing
from the saddling paddock, hinted that the first race was at hand. There
was a surge of people towards the rise.

“Come on,” Jim said, jumping up. “Help me to stow these things in the
buggy, Wally--we’ll want most of them for afternoon tea later on. Then
we might as well go and see the fun. You girls rested?”

They were, they declared; and presently they set off towards the rise.
Already the horses were appearing on the track, most of the jockeys
wearing silk jackets and caps, although a few were content with doffing
coat and waistcoat, and riding in blue and pink shirts--occasionally,
but not always, complete with collar and tie. The horses were a mixed
lot; some bore traces of birth and breeding, but the majority were just
grass-fed horses from the neighbouring farms and stations, groomed and
polished in a way that only happened to them once a year. The well-bred
performers were handicapped with heavy weights, while the others had
been let off lightly, so that all had a chance.

“Billabong has a horse running to-day--did you know?” Jim inquired.

“No!” Tommy looked up, dimpling with interest. “But how exciting, Jim.
Is it yours?”

“No.” Jim shook his head. “I won’t enter a horse if I can’t ride him
myself, and of course I’m too heavy. He belongs to the station, but he’s
always looked upon as Murty’s, and black Billy’s going to ride him. He’s
in the Hurdle Race.”

“Do you think he has any chance?”

“Well, he can gallop and jump all right,” Jim said. “But he hasn’t had
much training, and whether he’ll jump in company is open to doubt. But
I don’t think he’ll disgrace us. You’ve seen Murty riding him--a big
chestnut with a white blaze.”

“Oh, yes--he calls him Shannon, doesn’t he?” said Tommy. “I saw him jump
three fences on him last time we were out mustering with your people.
He’s a beauty, Jim.”

“Yes, he’s pretty good. Murty thinks he’s better than Garryowen, but I
don’t,” Jim observed.

“If the Archangel Gabriel turned into a horse you wouldn’t think he was
up to Garryowen!” said Wally.

“No, and he probably wouldn’t be,” said Jim, laughing. “If you begin
life as an archangel, how would you settle down to being a horse after?”

“I suppose it needs practice,” Wally admitted. “Look out--here they
come!”

The horses were coming down the straight in their preliminary canter,
and the crowd abandoned the business of picnicking and turned its
attention to the first race. The riders, mostly local boys, looked
desperately serious, and, as they pulled up after their canter, and
turning, trotted slowly back past the rise, shouts of warning and
encouragement and instruction came to them--from the owners of their
mounts--which had the effect of making the boys look yet more unhappy.
A bookmaker, the sole representative of his profession, yelled steadily
from under a lightwood tree; those who were venturesome enough to do
business with him were warned solemnly by more experienced men to keep a
sharp look-out that he did not get away with their money before the end
of the day.

“That happened in Cunjee some years ago,” said Mr. Linton. “A bookmaker
appeared from goodness knows where, and struck a very solid patch of bad
luck. All the district seemed to know how to pick winners that day,
and he lost solidly on every race. He plunged a bit on the fourth race,
hoping to get his money back; but that was worse still, and when he
saw the favourite winning, he knew he had no hope of settling up. So he
quietly collected his horse, which he had tied up in a convenient
place, in case it was wanted in a hurry, and made tracks before the race
finished.”

“What happened to him?” asked Bob.

Mr. Linton chuckled.

“Well, he added considerably to the excitement of the day. Some one
saw him going, and passed the word round, and every man to whom he owed
money--and they were many--ran for his horse and went after him. He had
a good start, and no one knew what road he would take, so it was quite
a cheery hunt. I think it was Dave Boone who tracked him at last, and he
paused at a cross-roads, and coo-eed steadily until he had a number
of followers. Then they set sail after the poor bookie, and caught
him about seven or eight miles away. They found he had practically no
money--not nearly enough to divide up; so they took what he had and
presented it to the Cunjee Hospital, and finished up the day happily by
tarring and feathering the bookie, and riding him on a fence rail round
Cunjee that night!”

“What do your police do in a case like that?” Bob asked.

“Well, there’s only one policeman in Cunjee, and, being a wise man, he
went to the concert, and probably enjoyed himself very much,” said Mr.
Linton, laughing.

“And what happened to the bookie?”

“Just what you might expect--the boys got sorry for him, made a
collection for him, bought him some cheap clothes--I believe they didn’t
err on the side of beauty!--and shipped him off to Melbourne by the
first train in the morning. I don’t think he’ll try his artful dodges
on this section of the bush again; and it has made all the boys very
watchful about betting, so it wasn’t a bad thing, on the whole. They
think they know all about the ways of the world now. Look, Tommy--the
horses are off! Watch through the trees, and you’ll get a glimpse
presently.”

The gay jackets flashed into view in a gap in the timber, and then were
lost again. Soon they came in sight once more and rounded the last
curve into the straight, amid shouts from the crowd. They came up the
straight, most of the jockeys flogging desperately, while everyone
rushed to get as near the winning-post as possible. Hats were flung in
the air and yells rose joyfully, as a Cunjee boy, riding a desperate
finish, got his horse’s nose in front in the last couple of lengths and
won cleverly.

“She’s excited!” said Wally, looking down at Tommy’s flushed face.

“I should think so,” said Tommy. “Why, it was dreadfully exciting. I’d
love to have been riding myself.” At which everyone laughed extremely,
and a tall young stockman from a neighbouring station, overhearing, was
so impressed that he hovered as near as possible to Tommy for the rest
of the day.

The next event was the Hurdle Race, and interest for the Linton party
centred in the candidate described on the race-card as Mr. M. O’Toole’s
Shannon. Nothing further could be done for Shannon--he was groomed until
the last hair on his tail gleamed; but black Billy, resplendent in a
bright green jacket and cap, the latter bearing an embroidered white
shamrock, became the object of advice and warning from every man from
Billabong, until anyone except Billy would probably have turned in wrath
upon the multitude of his counsellors. Billy, however, had one refuge
denied to most of his white brothers. He hardly ever spoke; and if some
reply was absolutely forced upon him, he merely murmured “Plenty!” in a
vague way, which, as Wally said, left you guessing as to his meaning.

“Yerra, lave off badgerin’ the boy,” said Murty at last, brushing aside
Dave Boone and Mick Shanahan, and the other Billabong enthusiasts.
“If he listens to the lot of ye anny longer he won’t know whether he’s
ridin’ a horse or an airyplane. There’s only wan insthruction to be
kapin’ in your head, Billy--get to the front an’ stay there. Ridin’ a
waitin’ race is all very well on the flat, but whin it comes to jumpin’,
anything that’s in front of ye is apt to turn a somersault an’ bring ye
down in a heap.”

“Plenty!” agreed Billy; and lit a cigarette.

“Shannon don’t like anny other horse in front of him at all,” went on
Murty. “He’s that full of pride he never tuk kindly to bein’ behind, not
since he was bruk in. He’ll gallop like a machine an’ lep like a deer if
he gets his head.”

“I don’t b’lieve you’ve much show, anyhow,” Dave Boone said. “There’s
that horse from the hotel at Mulgoa--Blazer, they call him. He’s done no
end of racin’, and won, too.”

“Well, an’ if he has, hasn’t he the great weight itself to be carryin’?”
 demanded Murty.

“Why, he’s top weight, of course; but you’re carryin’ ever so much over
weight,” responded Mr. Boone. “If you’d put up a boy instead of Billy,
you could be pounds lighter.”

“Ah, git away with your advisin’,” replied Murty. “Billy knows the
horse--an’ where’d a shlip of a boy be if Shannon cleared out with him?
I’d rather carry too much weight, an’ know I’d put a man up as could
hold the horse.” His anxious eye fell on the girls. “Miss Norah and Miss
Tommy!--come here an’ wish him luck without offerin’ me any advice, or
I’ll lose me life over the ould race! They have desthroyed me with all
the things they’re afther tellin’ me to do.”

“We won’t tell you a thing, Murty--except that he’s looking splendid,”
 Norah said, stroking Shannon’s nose, to which the horse responded by
nuzzling round her pocket in search of an apple. “No, I can’t give you
one, old man--I wouldn’t dare. But you shall have one after the race,
whether you win or not, can’t he, Murty?”

“He can so,” said Murty. “Wance he’s gone round that thrack he can live
on the fat of the land--an’ Billy, too. It’s a dale aisier to get the
condition off a horse than off Billy. No man on this earth ‘ud make a
black fellow see why he shouldn’t have a good blow-out whenever it came
his way. Only that Providence made him skinny by nature, he’d be fat
as a porpoise this day. I’ve been watchin’ over his meals like a mother
with a delicate baby these three weeks back; but what hope ‘ud I have
with Christmas comin’ in the way? He got away on me at Christmas dinner,
an’ what he didn’t ate in the way of turkey an puddin’ wouldn’t be worth
mentioning--an’ him booked to ride to-day! ‘Plenty’ always did be his
motter, an’ he lives up to it. So he’s pounds overweight, an’ no help
for it.”

“Never mind, Murty,” Jim said. “He knows the horse, and Shannon’s able
to stand a few pounds extra. He’ll give us a good run.”

“I believe ye, Masther Jim,” said Murty, beaming. “He’ll not disgrace
us, an’ if he don’t win itself, then he’ll not be far behind. There you
are, Billy--that’s the bell for weighin’. Hurry up now, and get over to
the scales.”

The black boy’s lean figure, saddle and bridle on arm, threaded its way
through the crowd round the weighing enclosure--a little space fenced
off by barbed wire. Presently they saw him coming back grinning.

“That pfeller sayin’ I plenty too much pounds,” he said in an unusual
burst of eloquence.

“Ah, don’t be rubbin’ it in--don’t I know it?” quoth Murty, taking the
saddle and slipping it deftly on Shannon’s back. “I dunno, did he think
he was givin’ me a pleasant surprise with the information by way of a
New Year’s gift. Does he think we’ve never a scales on Billabong, did
ye ask him? There now, he’s ready. Get on him, Billy, an’ shove out into
the track for a canter. I’ll get nothing but chat from every one as
long as you’re here. Take him for a look at some of the hurdles, the way
he’ll know all about them when he comes to jump.” He stood with a frown
on his good-humoured face as Shannon and his rider made off.

Norah laid a hand on his arm.

“There’s not a horse on the course better turned out, Murty,” she said.
“No one can say the Billabong representative doesn’t look fit.”

Murty turned on her, beaming again.

“Well, indeed, he’ll not be doin’ the station any discredit, Miss
Norah,” he said happily, “an’ if he don’t win, well, we can’t all be
winnin’, can we? Only we did win a race last year, whin none of ye
were here to be watchin’ us an’ make it worth while. I’d like to score
to-day, now that ye’re all here to see--an’ Miss Tommy too, that’s never
seen racin’.” He smiled down at the English girl’s pink face.

“I’m going to see you win to-day, Murty--I feel it in my bones,” said
Tommy promptly. “I’ve always loved Shannon, ever since I saw you jump
those big fences with him when we put up the hare out mustering.”

“Yerra, that one’d make a steeplechaser if he got the trainin’,”
 declared Murty, all his troubles forgotten. “Come a little higher up,
won’t ye, Miss Norah; we can see every jump from the top of the rise,
barrin’ the wan that’s in the timber.”

They followed him up the little hill until he declared himself satisfied
with his position; and he spent the time until the flag fell in pointing
out to Tommy the exact places where the hurdles were erected--pausing
only for a proud look when Shannon thundered past below them in his
preliminary canter, the green jacket bright in the sun, and every muscle
in the horse’s gleaming body rippling as he moved. He was reefing and
plunging in his gallop, trying to get his head; but Billy soon steadied
him, and presently brought him up the straight again at a quiet trot.
The other horses went out, one by one, until at length a field of eight
faced the starter; and presently they were off, and over the first jump
in a body. They came down the straight on the first time round, packed
closely, a glittering mass of shining horses and bright colours. One
dropped at the jump near the judge’s box, and as the other horses raced
away round the turn the riderless horse followed, while his jockey lay
still for a moment, a little scarlet blur upon the turf. Eager helpers
ran forward to pick him up, but he was on his feet before they could
reach him, and came limping up the hill, a little bruised and infinitely
disgusted.

“He’s all right,” Murty said. “Yerra, Mr. Jim, did ye see the ould horse
jump! He wint ahead at his fences like a deer!”

The horses were in the timber; they peered anxiously at the bright patch
of colour that showed from time to time, trying to see the familiar
green jacket. Then, as the field came into view Murty uttered an
irrepressible yell, for his horse shot ahead at the next jump and came
into the straight in the lead. Murty gripped at the nearest object,
which happened to be Norah’s shoulder, and clenched it tightly,
muttering, in his excitement, words in his native Irish. They thundered
up the straight, Billy crouching on Shannon’s neck, very still. Then
behind him the Mulgoa horse drew out from the ruck and came in chase.
Nearer and nearer he came, while the shouts from the crowd grew louder.
Up, up, till his nose was at Shannon’s quarter--at his girth--at his
shoulder, and the winning-post was very near. Then suddenly Billy lifted
his whip and brought it down once, and Shannon shot forward with a last
wild bound. Murty’s hat went up in the air--and Wally’s with it.

“He’s done it!” Murty babbled. “Yerra, what about Billabong now?” He
suddenly found himself gripping Norah’s shoulder wildly, and would have
apologized but that Norah herself was dancing with delight, and looking
for his hand to grasp. And the crowd was shouting “Shannon! Shannon!
Billabong!”--since all of these Cunjee folk loved Billabong and were
steadily jealous of Mulgoa. Jim and Wally were thumping Murty on the
back. Bob and Mr. Linton stood beaming at him. Below them Billy came
trotting back on his victorious steed, sitting with a grave face, as
expressionless as if he had not just accomplished his heart’s desire.
But his dark, mysterious eyes scanned the crowd as he turned from
weighing in, and only grew satisfied when he saw the Billabong party
hurrying to greet him. They shook his hand, and smote him on the back,
Dave Boone and Mick Shanahan prancing with joy. And Shannon, his glossy
coat dark with sweat, nuzzled again at Norah’s pocket for an apple--and
this time got it.

This glorious event over, interest became focused on a trotting race,
which brought out a queer assortment of competitors, ranging from
King Lightfoot, a horse well known in Melbourne, to Poddy, an animal
apparently more fitted to draw a hearse than to trot in a race--a lean,
raw-boned horse of a sad countenance and a long nose, with a shaggy
black coat which rather resembled that of a long-haired Irish goat.
There were other candidates, all fancied by their owners, but the public
support was only for King Lightfoot, who ran in elaborate leather and
rubber harness, and was clearly regarded by his rider as of infinite
condescension to be taking part in such a very mixed company.

It proved, however, not to be King Lightfoot’s lucky day. The horses
started at intervals, according to their performances or merit, Poddy
being the first to move, the Melbourne horse the last. King Lightfoot,
however, obstinately refused to trot, whereas Poddy revealed unexpected
powers, flinging his long legs abroad in a whirlwind fashion, and
pounding along doggedly, with his long nose outstretched as if hoping
to get it past the winning-post as soon as possible. No other horse came
near him; his initial lead was never lessened, and he plugged doggedly
to victory, while the crowd roared with laughter, and out in the timber
King Lightfoot’s rider wrestled with his steed in vain. Later, his
prejudice against trotting in the bush removed by stern measures, King
Lightfoot flashed up the track like a meteor, with his furious rider
determined to show something of what his steed could do. By that time
Poddy was once more unsaddled, and was standing under a tree with his
weary nose drooping earthwards, so that the crowd merely yelled with
laughter anew, while the stewards unfeelingly requested the Melbourne
man to get off the track.

“Oh, isn’t it hot!” Norah fanned herself with a bunch of gum leaves, and
cast an anxious look at Tommy.

It was breathlessly hot. Not a hint of air stirred among the trees or
moved the long dry grass that covered the paddock--now showing many
depressions, where tired people or horses had lain down to rest. The
horses stood about, drooping their heads, and swishing their tails
ceaselessly at the tormenting flies; men and women sought every
available patch of shade, while dogs stretched themselves under the
buggies, panting, with lolling tongues. Children alone ran about, as
though nothing could mar their enjoyment; but babies fretted wearily in
their mothers’ arms. Overhead the sun blazed fiercely in a sky of brass.
Now and then came a low growl of thunder, giving hope of a change at
night; but it was very far distant, although a dull bank of cloud lay to
the west. David Linton watched the cloud a little uneasily.

“I don’t quite like the look of it,” he muttered to himself. “I’ll go
and ask Murty what he thinks of it.” But Murty had been swallowed up
in a crowd anxious to congratulate him on Shannon’s success, and
his employer failed to find him at the moment. He came upon Sarah,
however--sitting under a tree, with her baby wailing dismally.

“To hot for her, Sarah,” David Linton said kindly.

“That’s right, sir--it’s too hot for anyone, let alone a little tiny
kid,” Sarah said wearily. “I’d get Bill to go home if I could, but I
can’t get on his tracks--and it’s too hot to take baby out in the sun
looking for him. If you come across him, sir, you might tell him I want
him.”

“All right,” said the squatter. “But you wouldn’t take that long drive
home yet, Sarah--better wait until the sun goes down.”

“Well, I’d go into Cunjee, to me sister-in-law’s,” said Sarah. “She’d
let me take baby’s things off an’ sponge her--an’ I’d give a dollar to
do it. No more races with kids for me in weather like this!” She crooned
to the fretting baby as Mr. Linton went off.

He found Tommy and Norah together under a tree near the track--hot, but
interested.

“Where are the boys?”

“They’re all holding ponies,” Norah said. “I don’t quite know why, but a
very hot and worried man collected them to help start the race. What is
it for, Dad, do you know?”

“Oh, I see!” David Linton laughed. “It’s--a distance handicap--the
ponies all start at the same moment, but from different points along the
track.”

“Yes, that must be it,” Norah said. “Jim’s away over near the timber
with a little rat of a pony, and Bob is shepherding another fifty yards
behind him, while Wally is quite near here with that big pony of the
blacksmith’s that has won ever so many races. She’ll have a lot of
ground to make up. But why must each one be shepherded, Dad?”

“Human nature,” said David Linton, smiling. “These youngsters who are
riding would sneak a yard or two if they weren’t closely watched, and
they would never start fair; the only way is to put each in charge of a
responsible man with a good watch, and let him start them. What time
is the race? Oh, four o’clock. Well, I never yet saw a pony race that
started on time; neither the ponies nor the boys are easy to handle, and
I see there are ten of them. Watch them; it’s after four, and they must
be nearly ready to start.”

The ponies were strung out round the course, each with a “shepherd”
 standing to attention near its bridle, watch in hand. They could see
Jim’s great form standing sentinel over a tiny animal, whose diminutive
rider was far too afraid of the huge Major to try to snatch even a yard
of ground; nearer, Wally kept a wary eye on the experienced jockey
on the blacksmith’s racing mare, who was afraid of nothing, but
nevertheless had a certain wholesome respect for the tall fellow who
lounged easily against a tree near him, but never for an instant shifted
his gaze. The shepherds were waiting for a signal from the official
starter.

It came presently, a long shrill whistle, and simultaneously each
guardian stepped back, and the released ponies went off like a
flash--all save Bob’s charge, who insisted on swinging round and bolting
in the wrong direction, while his jockey sawed at his mouth in vain.
Yawing across the track the rebel encountered the blacksmith’s pony,
who swerved violently in her swift course to avoid him, and lost so much
ground that any chance she had in the race was hopelessly lost, whereat
the blacksmith, who was standing on the hill, raved and tore his hair
unavailingly. A smart little bay pony fought out the finish with Jim’s
tiny charge, and was beaten by a short head, just as Wally, walking
quickly, came back to his party.

“That was a great race,” said Norah. “Wally, you shouldn’t walk so fast
on such a day. It makes one warm only to look at you.”

Wally answered with an absent air that was unlike his usual alertness.
The girls, watching the ponies come in, noticed nothing, and presently
he drew Mr. Linton aside.

“Did you notice that cloud, sir?” he asked, in a low voice. “I didn’t
until I was down on the track with the pony, looking in that direction.
But it’s twice the size it was when I went down.”

“I’ve been looking at it, and I don’t like it,” said Mr. Linton.
“It’s smoke, I’m positive, and too near Billabong and the Creek to be
comfortable. I think we’ll make tracks for home, Wally. Have you seen
Murty anywhere?”

As if in answer, Mr. O’Toole came running down the hill.

“I’ve been huntin’ ye’s everywhere,” he panted. “There’s a man just
kem out from Cunjee lookin’ for ye, sir--some one’s tallyphoned in
that there’s a big grass fire comin’ down on the Creek, an’ ‘twill be
a miracle if it misses Billabong! I’ve told the men--they’re off to get
the horses.”

Norah and Tommy had turned, with dismayed eyes.

“Will it be at our place, Murty?” Tommy asked.

“I dunno will it, Miss Tommy,” the Irishman answered. “But as like as
not ‘twill miss it--or anyhow, we’ll get there first, an’ stop it doing
much damage. Don’t you worry your little head, now.”

She looked up at him gratefully. Norah’s hand was thrust through her
arm.

“It may not be near the Creek at all, Tommy dear,” she said.

“Oh, I hope it isn’t--my poor old Bob!” Tommy said, under her breath.
“Can we hurry, Norah?”

“They’re bringing the horses,” Norah answered. “We’ll be off in a
minute--see, dad has gone to meet Bob.”

Wally had turned to Murty.

“Murty, do you mind if I ride Shannon and take him across country? I’m
on Marshal to-day, you know, and he can’t jump for nuts. But Shannon can
take every fence between here and the Creek, and I can cut the distance
in half if I go across. I’m about the lightest of us, I think.”

“So ye are--an’ the horse’ll take ye like a bird,” said Murty. “Don’t
shpare him, Mr. Wally, if ye think ye can do any good. He’s over there
under the big wattle.”

“Right-o!” said Wally. “Tell Mr. Jim, will you, Murty?” He turned and
ran down the hill with long strides.



CHAPTER XV

HOW WALLY RODE A RACE


Already the cloud was growing in the western sky--so high that it
threatened to obscure the sun that still blazed fiercely down. At first
a dull brown, there was a curious light behind it; at the edges it
trailed away into ragged wisps like floating mist. There was something
mysteriously threatening in its dense heaviness.

There were other men running for their horses, as Wally raced towards
Shannon. The news of a grass fire had spread quickly, and every man
wanted to be on his own property, for the whole countryside was covered
with long, dry grass, and no one could say where a fire might or might
not end. Boone and Shanahan passed Wally, leading several horses--his
own amongst them. They hailed him quickly.

“We’ve got Marshal, Mr. Wally.”

“Give him to Murty,” Wally answered as he ran. “I’m riding Shannon.” He
raced on.

“That means he’s going across country,” said Dave Boone. “For two pins
I’d go too.”

“Don’t you--you’d never get your horse over them fences,” Shanahan said.
“An’ it’ll take Mr. Wally all his time to get across them wired paddocks
of Maclennan’s. Hope he don’t break Shannon’s laigs.”

“Not he; Mr. Wally’s no fool,” said Boone. “Git up, y’ ol’ sardine!” He
kicked the horse he was leading, and they trotted up to Norah and Tommy.

Shannon, standing with drooping head, showed little interest as Wally
flung the saddle on his back. He had won his race handsomely, and it was
a scorching day; possibly the big chestnut felt that no more should be
required of him; in which case he was soon to be rudely awakened. Wally
swung into the saddle with a quick movement, and turned him, not towards
the gate, but in the opposite direction, which further puzzled Shannon.
But he was a stock horse first and a hurdle racer as an afterthought;
and a good stock horse knows his rider’s mind, if that rider is a good
man. He made one tentative movement towards his paddock mates, now
moving away towards the gate; then, feeling the touch of Wally’s hand
on the bit, and the light pressure of his knee, he decided that some new
game was on foot, and cantered easily away.

They crossed the racing track, going westward over the big paddock, away
from the buggies and the crowd. A belt of timber checked their swift
progress a moment; then they came out into clear ground in sight of
the boundary fence, a stiff three-railer. Wally peered at it anxiously,
unable, for an instant, to see if there were a wire on top; but it was
clear, and he shook up his horse, putting him straight at the middle of
a panel. Shannon pricked his ears and flew it daintily--this was work he
loved, and hot though the day might be, he was ready for any amount of
it. Also Wally was lighter than Murty, his usual rider; and although he
loved Murty, and respected him greatly, this new man had a seat like a
feather and a hand gentle as silk upon his tender mouth. Shannon broke
into the gallop that he felt sure his rider wanted.

They were in a wide paddock, bare, save for a few clumps of timber,
in the shade of which sheep were thickly clustered. It was good, sound
going, with a few little rises; and, knowing that he would have to
slacken speed presently, Wally let the chestnut have his head across the
clear grass. They took the next fence and the next before he drew rein.
He was in country he did not know--all big farms, with many stubble
fields with newly erected stacks, and with good homesteads, where now
and then a woman peered curiously from a verandah at him. There were
no men in sight; every man in the neighbourhood was at the races on New
Year’s day.

He found himself in a paddock where rough ground, thickly strewn with
fallen timber, sloped down abruptly to a creek. Checking Shannon, he
rode more steadily down to the water, and trotted along the bank for
a hundred yards, looking for a good place to ford--the banks shelved
abruptly down, and the water was unusually deep. But the only promising
fords were too thickly snagged to be tempting; and presently, with a
shrug, Wally gave up the quest, and choosing a place where the fall of
the bank was a shade less abrupt, he put the horse at it.

Shannon hesitated, drawing back. Water was the one thing to which he had
not been schooled on Billabong, and this place was mysterious and deep.
But Wally’s hand was firm, and he spoke sharply--so that the chestnut
repented of the error of his ways, and plunged obediently downwards.
The bank gave under them, and they slithered down among its remnants and
landed in the water with a profound splash, almost hidden for a moment
by the spray that drenched Wally’s thin silk coat and shirt. Shannon
floundered violently, and nearly lost his footing--and then, deciding
that this was an excellent entertainment on a hot day, he thrust his
thirsty nose into the water. Wally checked him after one mouthful.

“I’m sorry, old chap,” he said regretfully. “I’d like it as much as you.
But I can’t let you have a drink just now.”

He pressed him on across the muddy stream, floundering over sunken logs,
slipping into holes, dodging half-concealed snags; and so they came to a
bank which scarcely seemed a possible place, so steep was it. But Wally
looked at the smoke-cloud, and grew desperate, and for the first
time touched Shannon with the spur; and the chestnut answered gamely,
springing at the bank and climbing almost like a cat. Twice it broke
under him; the third time he made some footing, and Wally suddenly flung
himself from his back, scrambling up ahead of him, and hauling at the
bridle. Shannon followed, floundering and snorting; desperately relieved
to find himself on firm ground again. Wally swung into the saddle and
they galloped forward.

The next two fences were log ones, and the chestnut took them almost in
his stride. Then Wally’s lips tightened, for he saw a homestead that
he knew must be Maclennan’s, the most prosperous farmer about; and
Maclennan had strong views on the subject of inflammable fences in a
country so liable to grass fires, and all his property was wire-fenced.
The first fence stretched before him, taut and well-strung; he looked up
and down its length in search of a gate, but there was none in sight.

“I could put my coat on the top wire for you to jump if it was a thick
one, old chap,” he told Shannon. “But a scrap of wet silk wouldn’t be
much good to you. We’ll have to chance a post.”

He drew rein, trotting up to the fence, where he let the horse put his
nose over a post--and set his lips again when he saw that the top wire
was barbed.

“Just you remember to pick up all your toes well, old man,” he said.

He trotted back a little way, and, turning, came hard at the fence,
putting Shannon directly at the post. This also was new to the chestnut;
but once, when a foal, he had been badly pricked on barbed wire, and,
ever since, one glance at its hideous spikes had been enough for him.
Refusing was out of the question--Wally was leaning forward, keeping
him absolutely straight, lifting him at the post with a little shout of
encouragement. He flew over it as if it had been a hurdle. Wally patted
his neck with a big sigh of relief.

“Eh, but I was scared for your legs, old man!” he said.

They galloped across a wide stubble field, while Wally’s keen eyes
searched the fence for a gate. He caught sight of one presently, a
stiff, four-railed gate, considerably higher than the fence. High as it
was, Wally preferred it to barbed wire; and by this time he had a queer
feeling that no jump would prove too much for the big, honest chestnut,
who was doing so gamely everything that he was asked. Nor did Shannon
disappoint him; he rose at the gate cheerfully, and barely tipped it
with one hind foot as he cleared it. Wally fancied there was something
of apology in the little shake of his head as he galloped on.

“If I’d time to take you back over that you wouldn’t lay a toe on it
again, I believe. Never mind, there’s sure to be another.”

There was, and the chestnut flew it with never a touch. Maclennan’s
paddocks were wide and well cleared--such galloping ground as Wally
dared not waste--and he took full advantage of them, leaving one after
another behind swiftly, to the beat of Shannon’s sweeping stride. Fence
after fence the chestnut cleared, taking them cleanly, with his keen
ears pricked; never faltering or flagging as he galloped. Wally sat him
lightly, leaning forward to ease him, cheering him on with voice and
touch. Before him the cloud grew dense and yet more dense; he could feel
its hot breath now, although a bush-covered paddock ahead blocked the
fire itself from his immediate view. He had to choose between picking
his way through the trees or galloping round them; and chose the latter,
since Shannon showed no sign of fatigue. He put the last wire fence
behind him with a sigh of relief. A small farm with easy enough fences
remained to be crossed, and then he swung round the timber at top speed.
Once round it, he should come within view of the Rainhams’ house.

He came into the open country, and pulled up with a shout of dismay.
Before him was the long line of timber marking the creek, but between
lay nothing but a rolling cloud of smoke, lit with flashes of flame. A
hot gust of wind blew it aside for a moment, and through it he caught
a glimpse of Creek Cottage, burning fiercely. Wally uttered a smothered
groan, and thrust Shannon forward, over the last fence, and up a little
lane that led near the Rainhams’ back gate.

The paddock was nearly all on fire. It had started somewhere back in
the bush country, and had swept across like a wall, burning everything
before it. As Wally reached the gate, it was rolling away across the
paddocks, a sheet of flame, licking up the dry grass; leaving behind it
bare and blackened ground, with here and there a fence post, or a
tree burning, and, in the midst of its track, Creek Cottage wrapped in
flames.

The boy slipped from his saddle and flung Shannon’s bridle over the
gate-post. Then, as a thought struck him, he turned back and released
him, buckling the reins into one stirrup.

“I don’t dare to tie you up, old man,” he said. “The beastly fire might
swing round. Go home, if you like. I can’t take you across that hot
ground.” He gave the chestnut’s neck a hasty pat; then, putting one hand
on the gate, he vaulted it cleanly and ran across the burnt ground.

The grass was yet smouldering; it broke away under his feet, crackling
and falling into black powder. He ran desperately, not feeling the
burning breath of the fire, in blind hope of being able to save
something. The house itself, he knew, was doomed; no fire-brigade could
have checked the flames which had laid hold of the flimsy weatherboard.
The fire had divided round it, checked a little by Tommy’s
flower-garden, which was almost uninjured yet, and by Bob’s rows of
green vegetables which lay singed and ruined; then, unable to wait,
it had swept on its way through the long dry grass, which carried it
swiftly forward, leaving the burning cottage and the green garden in the
midst of a blackened waste.

The front verandah, and one side, were yet untouched, nor had the front
rooms caught. Wally raced through the garden and tried the front door.
It was locked. He sprang to the nearest window and smashed it with quick
blows from a hoe standing near; then, flinging up the sash, dived in.
The room was full of smoke, the heat stifling. It was Tommy’s room. He
gathered up her little personal belongings from the dressing-table and
flung them on the quilt, following them with armfuls of clothes hastily
swept from shelves. A trunk, covered with a bright Navajo blanket, stood
near the window. He thrust it through to the verandah, and scrambled
out after it with the quilt and blankets bundled round the things he had
saved. Dragging them across the lawn, he thrust them under some green
bushes, and returned for the trunk.

“I don’t believe you’ll catch there,” he said, choking. “Wonder if I can
try another room?”

He had opened the door from Tommy’s room into the hall, but the rush of
flame and smoke were so appalling that he had to shut it again quickly,
realizing that the draught only helped the fire. To break in by another
window was the only way. He smashed his way in to the other front
room, and hurriedly gathered up all he could. There was no time to save
anything heavy. His quick mind guided him to the things he knew Bob and
Tommy valued most--things that had been Aunt Margaret’s in the past,
that spoke of their old happy life in France. He spread an embroidered
cloth on the floor and pitched his treasure trove into it--working
feverishly, choking and gasping, until the flames began to crackle
through the wall, and the ceiling above him split across. Then he
plunged through the window, and staggered across the lawn with his
burden--falling beside it at last, spent and breathless, his throat
parched with smoke, and his eyes almost sightless. But he picked himself
up presently and went back. All the rooms were blazing now. The side
verandah had not yet caught, and on it he saw an old oaken chest that
did double duty as a seat and as a wardrobe for Bob’s spare clothes. The
sight brought fresh energy back to Wally.

“By Jove, there’s old Bob’s box!” he uttered. “I’ll have to get that.”

He dragged it across the verandah and on to the path. It was cruelly
heavy. He had to stop and rest again and again; but still he struggled
on, a few yards at a time, until it, too, was in comparative safety.
Then there was nothing else that he could do but sit on the grass and
watch the gay little home that they had all loved as it fell into ruins.
The flames made mercifully short work of it; they roared and crackled
and spat wreathing fiery tongues round the chimneys and up and down
the verandah posts; shooting out of the broken windows and turning the
white-painted iron of the roof into a twisted and blackened mass. It
fell in presently with a deafening roar, bringing one chimney with it;
and soon all that Wally had to look at was a smouldering heap of coals,
in the midst of which one chimney stood, tottering and solitary,
with the kitchen stove a glowing mass of red-hot iron, and strangely
contorted masses of metal that once were beds. The boy uttered a groan.

“And they were so proud of it,” he said. “Poor souls--how are they going
to stick it?”

He got up presently and made his way round to the back. All the sheds
and buildings were burned; he turned with a shudder from where Bob’s
beloved Kelpie had died at his post chained in helplessness. The metal
parts of the buggy, writhed into knots and tangles, lay in the ashes of
the big shed; beyond, the pigsty smouldered.

“They’ve gone, too, I suppose,” Wally said. “By George, where are all
his stock? They can’t all be burned, surely.”

There was nothing visible in the bare, black paddocks. He cast a wild
look round, and then made for the creek at a staggering run. The fire
had died away for lack of material as it neared the banks, for great
willows overhung them, a camping-ground for the stock all through the
summer heat, and the ground was always beaten hard and bare. Wally
uttered a shout of relief as he came to the trees. Below in the wide,
shallow pools, all the stock had taken refuge--carthorses and cows,
sheep and pigs, all huddled together, wild-eyed and panting, but safe.
They stared up at Wally, dumbly bewildered.

“Poor brutes,” said Wally. “Well, you chose a good spot, anyhow. I say,
what a jolly good thing Bob let his pigs out. Poor old chap--he’s
not broke yet.” He leaned against the gnarled trunk of a willow for a
moment. “Well, I suppose I’d better get up to the gate and tell them--it
won’t do for Tommy to come on the ruins all of a sudden.”

But he realized, as he made his slow way up from the creek, that he was
too late. There was a little knot of horses beside the garden gate. His
eye caught the light linen habit coats that Tommy and Norah wore. They
were looking silently at the blackened heap of ashes, with the tottering
chimney standing gaunt in its midst, Bob’s face grey under its coating
of smoky dust. Norah was holding Tommy’s hand tightly. They did not hear
Wally as he came slowly across the black powder that had been grass.

“I suppose the stock have gone, too,” Bob said heavily.

“No, they haven’t, old man,” Wally said. “I believe every head is safe;
they’re in the creek.”

They turned sharply, and cried out at the sight of him--blackened and
ragged, his eyes red-rimmed in his grimy face, his hands, cut by the
broken window glass, smeared with dried blood. His coat and shirt, burnt
in a score of places, hung in singed fragments round him. There were
great holes burnt in his panama hat, even in his riding breeches. Jim
flung himself from his horse, and ran to him.

“Wal, old man! Are you hurt?”

“Not me,” said Wally briefly. “Only a bit singed. I say, you two, you
don’t know how sorry I am. Tommy, I wish I could have got here in time.”

“You seem to have got here in time to try, anyhow,” said Tommy, and her
lip trembled. “Are you sure you’re not hurt, Wally?” She slipped from
her saddle, and came to him. “Were you in the fire?”

“No, I’m truly all right,” Wally assured her. He suddenly realized that
he had not known how tired he was; something in his head began to whirl
round, and a darkness came before his aching eyes. He felt Jim catch
him; and then he was sitting on the ground, propped against the fence,
and blinking up at them all, while indignantly assuring them that he had
never been better.

“Did you meet the fire? It was away from here before I got here.”

“It crossed the road in front of us,” Mr. Linton said. “There were a
good many men about by that time--we got it stopped before it reached
Elston’s.” His pitying eyes went back to the brother and sister. Anxiety
for Wally had drawn them from their own disaster for a moment; now they
had moved away together, and stood looking at the ashes of their home,
where so many hopes were ashes, too. David Linton went over to them, and
put a hand on a shoulder of each.

“You’re not to be down-hearted,” he said firmly. “It’s bad enough, and
bitter enough--but it might be worse. The stock are safe, and the land
is there--one good shower will turn the paddocks green again. Why,
there’s even most of your garden left, Tommy. And we’ll build the house
and sheds better than before.”

“You’re jolly good, Mr. Linton,” Bob said, with dry lips. “But we owe
you enough already.”

“If you talk that sort of nonsense, I’ll be really annoyed,” David
Linton said. “Why, hard luck comes to all of us--we got burned out
ourselves once, didn’t we, Norah?”

“Rather--and had to live in tents,” said Norah. “No, you’ll have to come
back to us at Billabong until we build up the cottage again--oh, and,
Tommy darling, I’ve been lonesome for you!” She put a hand on Bob’s arm.
“You won’t worry, Bob? One bit of bad luck isn’t going to beat you!”

“I suppose it won’t,” Bob said slowly. “There’s the insurance money,
anyhow. But it was the jolliest little home--and our very own. And I was
so jolly proud of being independent.”

“Well, you’re that still,” Jim said. “This is a country where everybody
helps everybody else--because you and Tommy come to stay with us, and
run your stock for a while on Billabong until your own grass grows, that
isn’t going to make you less independent. Wouldn’t you do the same for
us, if we were in the same box?”

“That goes without saying--and I’m as grateful as I can be,” Bob said.
“But the cases are different. I’m deep enough in your debt, as it is.
I--” His lip quivered, and he turned away, staring at the ruins.

“I don’t see any good arguing about it, at all events,” said Norah,
practically. “We’re all hot and tired, and I vote we just get home and
have tea. We’ll all feel better after a tub, and then we can begin to
make plans. Come on, Tommy dear, it’s just lovely to think we’re going
to have you.”

Bob stood with one hand on the scorched gate.

“I wish I could have got here in time to get out a few things,” he
muttered.

“Oh, I did that,” said Wally, brightening. “I forgot, in the shock of
finding all Noah’s Ark turned out in the creek. Come along, Tommy, and
see my little lot of salvage!”

He dragged himself up from the ground and seized Tommy’s hand. They
trooped across the lawn.

“I saved the cuckoo clock and that set of Swiss bears,” said Wally. “And
lots of oddments from goodness knows where--the sort of thing you can’t
buy in Cunjee. I expect I’ve hauled out all the things you wouldn’t have
saved, Tommy, but you’ll just have to let me down lightly--I’d have made
a shot for the beloved cake tins, only I hadn’t time.”

“Oh, Wally, you dear old idiot,” said Tommy. “And that’s how you nearly
killed yourself.” They came in sight of Wally’s heap of loot, and she
stopped in amazement.

“Bob--just look!”

“By Jupiter!” said Bob, “you saved my old box! You old brick. How did
you manage it? Why, it weighs a ton!”

Tommy was on her knees by the bundles. “Look!” she said. “Look, Bobby!
My silver things--and all Aunt Margaret’s, and my little jewel box. And
my clothes! How did you do it, Wally?” Suddenly her voice broke. She put
her head down on the bundle in a passion of sobs.

“That’s the best thing she could do,” said David Linton gently. He
turned to Norah. “Let her cry--and bring her along presently, and we’ll
take her home. Come along, boys, we’ll get the horses and go and see
Wally’s Noah’s Ark.”



CHAPTER XVI

BUILDING UP AGAIN


It was three months later, and Billabong lay in the peace of an
exquisite autumn evening. The orchard showed yellow and bronze against
the green of the pine trees; here and there oak and elm leaves fluttered
down lazily upon the lawn. The garden flamed with dahlias and asters,
amidst which Hogg worked contentedly. And there was utter content upon
the face of David Linton, as he stood on the broad stone steps of his
home, and looked towards the setting sun. Beyond the garden gleamed
the reed-fringed waters of the lagoon; further yet, the broad paddocks
stretched away, dotted with feeding Shorthorns. It was the view, of all
others, that he loved--his soul had longed for it during weary years of
exile and war. Now, it seemed that he could never tire of looking at it.

Brownie came up from the garden, a basket on her arm laden with splendid
mauve and pink asters. David Linton strolled across the gravel sweep to
meet her.

“What, Brownie--taking Miss Norah’s job, are you?”

“Well, it ain’t ‘ardly that, sir,” Brownie answered. “Miss Norah she
done the vases this morning, same as ushul, an’ Miss Tommy elpin’ her.
Only she wouldn’t pick these ‘ere astors, ‘cause they’re ‘Oggs best, an’
she didn’t like to ‘urt ‘im; you see she always remembers that onst they
go into the ‘ouse, ‘Ogg, ‘e don’t see ‘em no more. An’ she do love ‘em
in the vases. So I just put the matter sensible like to ‘Ogg, an’, of
course, ‘e saw reason and give me ‘alf; an’ I’ll ‘ave ‘em on the table
to-night. Only they’ve filled every vase in the house already, I believe
I’ll be druv to puttin’ ‘em in Mason jars!”

“Miss Norah will love them, no matter what they’re in,” said Mr. Linton.
“There’s no sign of them yet, Brownie--it’s nearly time they were home.”

“Well, they meant to ‘ave a long day’s work fixin’ the ‘ouse,” said
Brownie comfortably. “Mrs. Archdale druv me over to see them, an’ Sarah
gave us all afternoon tea--she an’ Bill are real toffs in their little
new cottage there. Sarah ain’t indulgin’ in any regrets over that fire!
And they were all busy as bees. Miss Tommy’s room’s fixed, an’ her
little sleep-out place off it, and so’s Mr. Bob’s, an’ they were workin’
at the drorin’-room; ‘omelike it looked with all their nice old things
in it again.”

“I’m sure it will,” David Linton agreed. “How do you like the new house,
Brownie?”

“Why, it’s lovely,” said Brownie. “An’ a fair treat to work, with all
them new improvements--no corners to the rooms, an’ no silly skirtin’
boards that’ll catch dust, an’ the water laid on everywhere, an’ the air
gas, an’ all them other patent fixings. An’ so comferable; better than
the old one, any way you look at it. Miss Tommy’s the lucky young lady
to be comin’ in for such a place.”

“Well, she deserves it, Brownie.”

“She do,” said Brownie heartily. “Ain’t it lovely to see Miss Norah an’
‘er so ‘appy together? Our blessed lamb never ‘ad a friend like that
before, and she needed one--every girl do.”

“Long may it last, that’s all I say,” agreed the squatter. “Norah needed
her badly, although she didn’t know it. And she and her brother are the
best type of immigrants, aren’t they?”

“They are that,” said Brownie, “always cheery, an’ workin’ ‘ard, an’
takin’ the ups and downs sensibly. Now, it was a real nasty knock to
find their nice little ‘ome burnt down on New Year’s day, but after the
first shock they never ‘ung their lip at all--just bucked in to make
good again.”

She went on her way with her asters, and David Linton walked slowly
across the lawn and stood looking over the gate, along the track where
his children would come riding home. Somehow, he found it difficult not
to think of them all as his children. Wally had made an attempt to go
away and set up a place for himself, but the idea had been received with
such amazed horror by the whole household that it had been temporarily
shelved. After all, Wally had more money than was good for him, the
result of having always been an orphan. He could establish himself in a
place at any time if he wished. And meanwhile, he was never idle. David
Linton had handed over most of the outside management of the big run
to Jim and his mate. They worked together as happily as they had played
together as boys. There was time for play now, as well; Mr. Linton saw
to that. The years that they had left on Flanders fields were not to rob
them of their boyhood.

There had also been time to help the Rainhams--and there again the
district had taken a hand. It was not to be imagined that the people
who had helped in the first working bee would sit calmly by when so
stupendous a piece of bad luck as the New Year fire overtook the just
established young immigrants; and so there had been several other bees,
to replace Bob’s burnt fencing, to clear away the ruins of the house and
sheds, and, finally, to rebuild for him. There had been long discussions
at Billabong over plans--the first Creek Cottage had taught them much
of what was desirable in the way of a house; so that the second Creek
Cottage, which rose from the ashes of the old one when kindly rains had
drawn a green mantle over all the blackened farm, was a very decided
improvement upon the old house, and contained so many modern ideas and
“dodges” that the wives and sisters of all the working bees, who helped
to build it, came miles to see it, and went home, in most cases, audibly
wishing that they could have a fire. It was illuminating, too, to the
working bees, to see how Bob and the Billabong men planned for the
comfort of the women who were to run the house, and for its easy
working; so that presently a wave of labour-saving devices swept through
the Cunjee district in imitation, and wives who had always carried
buckets of water found taps conveniently placed where they were
needed, and sinks and draining racks built to ease the dreary round
of dish-washing, and air-gas plants established to supersede the old
kerosene lamps. After which the district was very much astonished that
it had not done it before.

The cottage was finished now, and nearly ready for its occupants; Bill,
Sarah and the baby had been installed for some time in a neat little
two-roomed place with a side verandah, a short distance from the main
building. Home-made furniture, even more ambitious than the first built,
had been erected, and a fresh supply of household goods bought during
an exciting week in Melbourne, where Mr. Linton had taken them all--all,
that is, but Bob, who had steadfastly declined to go away and play when
other people were helping him. So Bob had remained at his post, giving
Tommy a free hand as to shopping; a freedom cautiously used by Tommy,
but supplemented by the others with many gifts, both useful and idiotic.
Tommy had an abiding affection for the idiotic efforts.

She had spent so much time in the saddle that she now rode like an old
hand; the brown-faced girl who came up the paddock presently with the
cheery band of workers was very different to the pink and white “little
Miss Immigrant” of eight months before. She rode Jim’s big favourite,
Garryowen, who, although years had added wisdom to him, was always
impatient when nearly home; he was reefing and pulling, as they swept
up at a hand gallop, but Tommy held him easily, and pulled up near Mr.
Linton, laughing. He looked at them with grave content.

“I began to think you meant me to have tea alone,” he said. “Have they
been doing any work, Bob, or couldn’t you keep them in hand at all?”

“Oh, they’ve been working,” Bob answered. “I told Sarah not to give them
any afternoon tea if they didn’t, and it acted like a charm.”

“You to talk!” said Norah, with tilted nose. “They said they’d sample
the new deck chairs, dad, and it took them about an hour to make sure if
they liked them--they just smoked while Tommy and I toiled.”

“Well, you’d only have been annoyed with us if we hadn’t done the
sampling properly, and had grumbled afterwards,” said Wally. “I’m always
trying to teach you to be thorough, Norah. Of course, they say they work
all the time, sir--but when they disappear into Tommy’s room there’s an
awful lot of talking.”

“There would be something wrong with them if there weren’t,” said the
squatter sagely. “And I have no doubt there yet remains much awaiting
their expert supervision in Tommy’s room.” Whereat Tommy and Norah
beamed at him, and commended him as a person of understanding, while
Wally remarked feelingly to Bob that there was no chance of justice
where those two females were concerned. At this point Jim observed that
the conversation showed signs of degenerating into a brawl, and that,
in any case, it was time the horses were let go. They trotted off to the
stables, a light-hearted body.

Tommy slipped her arm into Bob’s as they went upstairs to dress.

“Come into my room and talk for a moment.”

He came in and sat down in a low chair by the window.

“Your quarters at the new place won’t be as big as this, old girl.”

“They’ll be bigger, for it will all be ours,” rejoined Tommy promptly.
“Who wants a big room, anyway? I don’t. Bobby, I’d be hard to please if
I wanted more than I’ve got.”

“You’re always satisfied,” he said. “There never was anything easier
than pleasing you, old Tommy.”

“Life’s all so good, now,” she said. “No hideous anxiety about you--no
Lancaster Gate--no she-dragon. Only peace, and independence, and the
work we like. Aren’t you satisfied, Bob?”

“I’d like to be really independent,” he said slowly. “Our amount of
debt isn’t heavy, of course, and it doesn’t cause real anxiety, with Mr.
Linton guaranteeing us to the bank--”

“And as we had to build again, it was worth while to improve the house
and make it just what we wanted,” Tommy added. “We’ll pay the debt off,
Bob. Mr. Linton assures me that with ordinary seasons we should easily
do it.”

“I know, and I’m not anxious,” Bob said. “Only I’ll be glad when it’s
done; debt, even such an easy debt as this, gives me the creeps. And I
want to feel we stand on our own feet.”

“And not on the Lintons’!” said Tommy, laughing. “I quite agree--though
it’s amazing to see how little they seem to mind our weight. Was there
ever such luck as meeting them, Bob?”

“Never,” he agreed. “We’d have been wage-earners still, or struggling
little cocky farmers at the best, but for that letter of General
Harran’s--though, I think more was due to the way you butted into their
taxi!”

“I believe it was,” laughed Tommy. “It was the sort of thing to appeal
to the Lintons--it wouldn’t to everybody. But the letter was behind it,
saying what a worthy young man you were!”

“Well, when you start calling me such a thing as ‘worthy,’ it’s time I
left and got dressed for tea,” said her brother, rising slowly. “English
mail ought to be in, by the way; I’m wondering what old Mr. M’Clinton
will say when he hears we were burned out in our first season.”

“He’ll wish he’d sent us to the snows of Canada, where such things
don’t happen on New Year’s day,” Tommy said. “Still, he ought not to be
anxious about us--Mr. Linton wrote and told him our position was quite
sound.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll worry greatly,” said Bob. “I must hurry, old
girl, or I’ll be late--and I want a tub before tea.”

The boys came down in flannels, ready for a game of tennis after tea;
and Bob and Wally were just leaving the court after a stoutly-contested
set, when black Billy brought the mail-bag across the lawn to Mr.
Linton. The squatter unlocked it and sorted out the letters quickly.

“Nothing for you, Tommy; two for Norah; three for Bob, and bundles for
Wally and Jim. Papers beyond counting, and parcels you girls can deal
with.” He gathered up a package of his own letters. “Chiefly stock
and station documents--though, I see, there’s a letter from your aunt,
Norah; I expect she’s anxious to know when I’m going to cease bringing
you up like a boy, and send you to Melbourne to be a perfect lady.”

“Tell her, never,” said Norah lazily. “I don’t see any spare time
ahead--not enough to make me into a lady after Aunt Winifred’s pattern.
Cecil is much more lady-like than I am.”

“He always was,” Jim said. “Years ago we used to wonder that he didn’t
take to wool-work, and I expect he’ll do it yet. Even serving in the war
didn’t keep Cecil from manicuring his nails--he gets a polish on them
that beats anything I ever saw.”

“Never mind--he’s got a limp,” said Norah, in whose eyes that legacy of
the war covered a multitude of sins.

“Well, he has. But he even limps in a lady-like way,” grinned Jim. “And
he has no time for Wal and me. He told me that he was surprised that
five years of France and England hadn’t made us less Australian.”

“It’s a matter of regret to us all,” said Norah placidly. “We hoped for
great things when you came out--more attention to polite conversation,
and a passion for top-hats, and--” At which point further eloquence was
checked by a cushion placed gently, but firmly, by a brotherly hand on
her face, and so she subsided, with a gurgle of laughter, into the cool
depths of the buffalo grass where they were all lying.

“Oh, by Jove!” said Bob suddenly. He looked at them, and finally at
Tommy, his eyes dancing.

“What’s up, old man?” Jim asked. “Not your stepmother coming out?”

“England couldn’t spare her,” Bob said. “But the sky has fallen, for all
that. Just listen to old M’Clinton.

“‘. . . It was with deep regret that I learned from you and from Mr.
Linton of the calamity which had befallen you on New Year’s day. Such
disasters seem common in Australia, like blizzards in Canada, and I
presume every settler is liable to them. In your case your loss,
being partly covered by insurance, will not, Mr. Linton assures me,
be crushing, although it seems to me very severe. To have your initial
endeavours, too, handicapped by so calamitous an occurrence would have
excused despondency, but--’”

“Hasn’t he a lovely style?” chuckled Wally, as the reader paused to turn
over.

“‘But Mr. Linton assures me that you and your sister are facing the
situation with calmness and courage.’ Did you know you were calmly
courageous, Tommy?”

“I am not,” said Tommy. “I am courageously calm. Go on, Bobby--my
calmness will waver if you don’t get to the point. Where does the sky
fall?”

“Half a second. ‘Further, I am immensely interested to learn from Mr.
Linton, who appears to be the kindest of benefactors’--that’s you,
sir--‘that the people of the district, who have already helped you so
remarkably by a working bee, are so much in sympathy with you both that
they intend again lending you their assistance over rebuilding your
house. This shows me, even without Mr. Linton’s letter, that you have
earned their esteem and regard. Nevertheless, I estimate that you cannot
fail to be at some monetary embarrassment, and this I am luckily able
to ease for you. Certain rubber investments of your late aunt’s have
recently risen in value, after the long period of depression due to
the war; and I deemed it prudent to sell them while their price in the
market was high. The terms of your aunt’s will enable me to reinvest
this money, amounting to a little over nine hundred pounds, for you, or,
at my discretion, to hand it over to you; and such is the confidence
I repose in you, after Mr. Linton’s letter, that I feel justified in
remitting you the money, to use as you think best. I presume that will
be in the reduction of your liabilities. I should like to think you had
the benefit of Mr. Linton’s advice in the matter.’ Shall I, sir?”

“I never listened to such language,” returned the squatter. “I should
like it read three times a day, before meals. But if it’s my advice you
want, Bob, you can have it. Meanwhile, I’m very glad for you to have
such a windfall, my boy.”

Tommy and Norah had collapsed on each other’s shoulders, speechless.

“Joy never kills, they say,” said Wally, regarding them anxiously. “But
it’s been known to turn the brain, when the brain doesn’t happen to be
strong. Will we turn the hose on them, Jim?”

“Sit on him, Bob,” came faintly from Norah.

“I will--with the weight of nine hundred pounds!” said Bob--and did so.

“Get off, you bloated capitalist,” said Wally, struggling. He succeeded
in dislodging him, with a mighty effort. “You’re just purse-proud,
that’s what’s the matter with you. What’ll you do with it, Bobby--go
racing? Or buy an aeroplane?”

“Get out of debt,” said Bob, sitting up with rumpled hair and a face
like a happy child’s. “And there’ll be a bit over to play with. What
shall we put it into, Tommy? Want any pretty things?”

“Just merino sheep,” said Tommy.



THE END





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