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!"
"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.
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!"
"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.
"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."
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'!"
"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."