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.
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?"
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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?"
"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.
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.
"Gone out," said the boy.
"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.
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.
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."