BACK TO BILLABONG
By Mary Grant Bruce
"Beyond the distant sky-line (Now pansy-blue and clear), We know a land is waiting, A brown land, very dear: A land of open spaces, Gaunt forest, treeless plain: And if we once have loved it We must come back again."
I. LANCASTER GATE, LONDON, W
II. THE RAINHAMS
III. PLAYING TRUANT
IV. COMING HOME
V. THE TURN OF FORTUNE'S WHEEL
VI. SAILING ORDERS
VII. THE WATCH DOGS
VIII. HOW TOMMY BOARDED A STRANGE TAXI
IX. THE WELCOME OF AUSTRALIA
XI. COLONIAL EXPERIENCES
XII. ON INFLUENZA AND FURNITURE
XIII. THE HOME ON THE CREEK
XIV. THE CUNJEE RACES
XV. HOW WALLY RODE A RACE
XVI. BUILDING UP AGAIN
BACK TO BILLABONG
LANCASTER GATE, LONDON, W
"Do the beastly old map yourself, if you want it. I shan't, anyhow!"
"Aw, Wil-fred!" The boy at the end of the schoolroom table, red-haired, snub-nosed and defiant, mimicked the protesting tone. "I've done it once, and I'm blessed if I do it again."
"No one would dream that it was ever meant for Africa." The young teacher glanced at the scrawled and blotted map before her. "It—it doesn't look like anything earthly. You must do it again, Wilfred."
"Don't you, Wilf." Wilfred's sister leaned back in her chair, tilting it on its hind legs.
"You have nothing to do with Wilfred's work, Avice. Go on with your French."
"Done it, thanks," said Avice. "And I suppose I can speak to my own brother if I like."
"No, you can't—in lesson time," said the teacher.
"Who's going to stop me?"
Cecilia Rainham controlled herself with an effort.
"Bring me your work," she said.
She went over the untidy French exercise with a quick eye. When she had finished it resembled a stormy sky—a groundwork of blue-black, blotted writing, lit by innumerable dashes of red. Cecilia put down her red pencil.
"It's hopeless, Avice. You haven't tried a bit. And you know it isn't hard—you did a far more difficult piece of translation without a mistake last Friday."
"Yes, but the pantomime was coming off on Saturday," said Wilfred, with a grin. "Jolly little chance of tickets from Bob if she didn't!"
"You shut up!" said Avice.
"Be quiet, both of you," Cecilia ordered, a spot of red in each pale cheek. "Remember, there will be other Saturdays. Bob will do nothing for you if I can't give him a decent report of you." It was the threat she hated using, but without it she was helpless. And the red-haired pair before her knew to a fraction the extent of her helplessness.
For the moment the threat was effective. Avice went back to her seat, taking with her the excited-looking French exercise, while Wilfred sullenly recommenced a dispirited attack upon the African coastline. Cecilia leaned back in her chair, and took up a half-knitted sock—to drop it hastily, as a long-drawn howl came from a low chair by the window.
"Whatever is the matter, Queenie?"
"I per-ricked my finger," sobbed the youngest Miss Rainham. She stood up, tears raining down her plump cheeks. No one, Cecilia thought, ever cried so easily, so copiously, and so frequently as Queenie. As she stood holding out a very grubby forefinger, on which appeared a minute spot of blood, great tears fell in splashes on the dark green linoleum, while others ran down her face to join them, and others trembled on her lower eyelids, propelled from some artesian fount within.
"Oh, dry up, Queenie!" said Wilfred irritably. "Anyone 'ud think you'd cut your silly finger off!"
"Well—it'th bleed-in'!" wailed Queenie. She dabbed the injured member with the pillow case she was hemming, adding a scarlet touch in pleasant contrast to its prevailing grime.
"Well—you're too big a girl to cry for a prick," said Cecilia wearily. "People who are nearly seven really don't cry except for something awfully bad."
"There—I'll tell the mater you said awfully!" Avice jeered. "Who bites our heads off for using slang, I'd like to know?"
"You wouldn't have much head left if I bit for every slang word you use," retorted her half-sister. "Do get on with your French, Avice—it's nearly half-past twelve, and you know Eliza will want to lay the table presently. Come here, Queenie." She took the pillow case, and unpicked a few stitches, which clearly indicated that the needle had been taking giant strides. "Just hem that last inch or two again, and see if you can't make it look nice. I believe the needle only stuck into your finger because you were making it sew so badly. Have you got a handkerchief?—but, of course, you haven't." She polished the fat, tear-stained cheek with her own. "Now run and sit down again."
Queenie turned to go obediently enough—she was too young, and possibly too fat, to plan, as yet, the deliberate malice in which her brother and sister took their chief pleasure. Unfortunately, Wilfred arrived at the end of Africa at the wrong moment for her. He pushed the atlas away from him with a jerk that overturned the ink bottle, sending a stream of ink towards Avice—who, shoving her chair backwards to escape the deluge, cannoned into Queenie, and brought her headlong to the floor. Howls broke out anew, mingled with a crisp interchange of abuse between the elder pair, while Cecilia vainly sought to lessen the inky flood with a duster. Upon this pleasant scene the door opened sharply.
"A nice way you keep order at lessons," said Mrs. Mark Rainham acidly. "And the ink all over the cloth. Well, all I can say is, you'll pay for a new one, Cecilia."
"I did not knock it over," said Cecilia, in a low tone.
"It's your business to look after the children, and see that they do not destroy things," said her stepmother.
"The children will not obey me."
"Pouf!" said Mrs. Rainham. "A mere question of management. High-spirited children want tact in dealing with them, that is all. You never trouble to exercise any tact whatever." Her eyes dwelt fondly on her high-spirited son, whose red head was bent attentively over Africa while he traced a mighty mountain range along the course of the Nile. "Wilfred, have you nearly finished your work?"
"Nearly, Mater," said the industrious Wilfred, manufacturing mountains tirelessly. "Just got to stick in a few more things."
"Say 'put,' darling, not 'stick.' Cecilia, you might point out those little details—that is, if you took any interest in their English."
"Thethilia thaid 'awfully' jutht now," said Queenie, in a shrill pipe.
"I don't doubt it," said Mrs. Rainham, bitterly. "Of course, anyone brought up in Paris is too grand to trouble about English—but we think a good deal of these things in London." A little smile hovered on her thin lips, as Cecilia flushed, and Avice and her brother grinned broadly. The Mater could always make old Cecilia go as red as a beetroot, but it was fun to watch, especially when the sport beguiled the tedium of lessons.
A clatter of dishes on a tray heralded the approach of Eliza.
"It is time the table was clear," Mrs. Rainham said. "Wilfred, darling, I want you to post a letter. Put up your work and get your cap. Cecilia, you had better try to clean the cloth before lunch; it is ruined, of course, but do what you can with it. I will choose another the next time I am in London. And just make sure that the children's things are all in order for the dancing lesson this afternoon. Avice, did you put out your slippers to be cleaned?"
"Forgot all about it, Mater," said Avice cheerfully.
"Silly child—and it is Jackson's day off. Just brush them up for her, Cecilia. When the children have gone this afternoon, I want you to see to the drawing-room; some people are coming in to-night, and there are fresh flowers from Brown's to arrange."
Cecilia looked up, with a sudden flush of dismay. The children's dancing lesson gave her one free afternoon during the week.
"But—but I am going to meet Bob," she stammered.
"Oh, Bob will wait, no doubt; you need not keep him long, if you hasten yourself. Yes, Eliza, you can have the table." Mrs. Rainham left the room, with the children at her heels.
Cecilia whisked the lesson books hastily away; Eliza was waiting with a lowering brow, and Eliza was by no means a person to be offended. Maids were scarce enough in England in the months after the end of the war; and, even in easier times, there had been a dreary procession of arriving and departing servants in the Rainham household—the high-spirited characteristics of the children being apt to pall quickly upon anyone but their mother. In days when there happened to be no Eliza, it was Cecilia who naturally inherited the vacant place, adding the duties of house-maid to those of nurse, governess, companion and general factotum; all exacting posts, and all of them unpaid. As Mrs. Rainham gracefully remarked, when a girl was not earning her own living, as so many were, but was enjoying the comfort of home, the least she could do was to make herself useful.
"Half a minute, Eliza." She smiled at the slatternly girl. "Sorry to keep you waiting; there's a river of ink gone astray here." She placed the soaked cloth on the waste-paper basket and polished the top of the table vigorously.
"I'll bet it worn't you wot spilt it—but it's you wot 'as the cleanin' up," muttered Eliza. "Lemme rub that up now, Miss." She put down her tray and took the cloth from Cecilia's hand.
"Thanks, ever so, Eliza—but you've got plenty to do yourself."
"Well, if I 'ave, I ain't the on'y one wot 'as," said Eliza darkly. Her wizened little face suddenly flushed. "Lor, Miss," she said confidentially, "you doan't know wot a success that 'at you trimmed for me is. It's a fair scream. I wore it larst night, an' me young man—'im wot's in the Royal Irish—well, it fair knocked 'im! An' 'e wants me to go out wiv 'im next Benk 'Oliday—out to 'Ampstead 'Eath. 'E never got as far as arstin' me that before. I know it was that 'at wot done it."
"Not it, Eliza," Cecilia laughed. "It was just your hair under the hat. I told you how pretty it would be, if you would only brush it more."
"Well, I never 'ad no brush till you give me your old one," said Eliza practically. "I did brush it, though, a nundred times every night, till Cook reckoned I was fair cracked. But 'air's on'y 'air, an' anyone 'as it—it's not every one 'as an 'at like that." She clattered plates upon the table violently. "You goin' out this awfternoon, Miss?"
"As soon as I can, Eliza." Cecilia's face fell. "I must arrange flowers first."
"I'll 'ave the vawses all ready wiv clean water for you," said Eliza. "An' don't you worry about the drorin'-room—I'll see as it's nice."
"Oh, you can't, Eliza—you have no time. I know it's silver-cleaning afternoon."
"Aw, I'll squeeze it in some'ow." Eliza stopped suddenly, at a decided footstep in the passage, and began to rattle spoons and forks with a vigour born of long practice. Cecilia picked up the inky cloth, and went out.
Her stepmother was standing by the hall-stand, apparently intent on examining Wilfred's straw hat. She spoke in a low tone as the girl passed her.
"I wish you did not find so much pleasure in gossiping with servants, Cecilia. It is such a bad example for Avice. I have spoken about it to you before."
Cecilia did not answer. She went upstairs with flaming cheeks, and draped the cloth across the hand basin in the bathroom, turning the tap vengefully. A stream of water flowed through the wide stain.
"There's more real kindness in that poor little Cockney's finger than there is in your whole body!" Cecilia whispered, apparently addressing the unoffending cloth—which, having begun life as a dingy green and black, did not seem greatly the worse for its new decoration. "Hateful old thing!" A smile suddenly twitched the corners of her mouth. "Well, she can't stop the money for a new cloth out of this quarter's allowance, because I've just got it. That's luck, anyhow. I'll give it to Bob to keep, in case she goes through my desk again." She poured some ammonia upon the stain, and rubbed gingerly, surveying the result with a tilted nose. It was not successful. "Shall I try petrol? But petrol's an awful price, and I've only got the little bottle I use for my gloves. Anyhow, the horrible old cloth is so old and thin that it will fall to pieces if I rub it. Oh, it's no use bothering about it—nothing will make it better." She squeezed the water from the cloth and spread the stained area over a chair to dry, looking disgustedly at her own dyed finger-nails. "Now for Avice's shoes before I scrub my hands."
Avice's shoes proved a lengthy task, since the younger Miss Rainham had apparently discovered some clay to walk through in Regent's Park on her way home from the last dancing lesson; and well-hardened clay resists ordinary cleaning methods, and demands edged tools. The luncheon bell rang loudly before Cecilia had finished. She gave the shoes a final hurried rub, and then fell to cleansing her hands; arriving in the dining-room, pink and breathless, some minutes later, to find a dreary piece of tepid mutton rapidly congealing on her plate.
"I think you might manage to be down in time for meals, Cecilia," was Mrs. Rainham's chilly greeting.
Cecilia said nothing. She had long realized the uselessness of any excuses. To be answered merely gave her stepmother occasion for further fault-finding—you might, as Cecilia told Bob, have a flawless defence for the sin of the moment, but in that case Mrs. Rainham merely changed her ground, and waxed eloquent about the sin of yesterday, or of last Friday week, for which there might happen to be no defence at all. It was so difficult to avoid being a criminal in Mrs. Rainham's eyes that Cecilia had almost given up the attempt. She attacked her greasy mutton and sloppy cabbage in silence, unpleasantly conscious of her stepmother's freezing glance.
Mrs. Rainham was a short, stout woman, with colourless, rather pinched features, and a wealth of glorious red hair. Some one had once told her that her profile was classic, and she still rejoiced in believing it, was always photographed from a side view, and wore in the house loose and flowing garments of strange tints, calculated to bring out the colour of her glowing tresses. Cecilia, who worshipped colour with every bit of her artist soul, adored her stepmother's hair as thoroughly as she detested her dresses. Bob, who was blunt and inartistic, merely detested her from every point of view. "Don't see what you find to rave about in it," he said. "All the warmth of her disposition has simply gone to her head."
There was certainly little warmth in Mrs. Rainham's heart, where her stepdaughter was concerned. She disapproved very thoroughly of Cecilia in every detail—of her pretty face and delicate colouring, of the fair hair that rippled and curled and gleamed in a manner so light-hearted as to seem distinctly out of place in the dingy room, of the slender grace that was in vivid contrast to her own stoutness. She resented the very way Cecilia put on her clothes—simple clothes, but worn with an air that made her own elaborate dresses cheap and common by comparison. It was so easy for her to look well turned out; and it would never be easy to dress Avice, who bade fair to resemble her mother in build, and had already a passion for frills and trimmings, and a contempt for plain things. Mrs. Rainham had an uneasy conviction that the girl who bore all her scathing comments in silence actually dared to criticize her in her own mind—perhaps openly to Bob, whose blue eyes held many unspoken things as he looked at her. Once she had overheard him say to Cecilia: "She looks like an over-ornamented pie!" Cecilia had laughed, and Mrs. Rainham had passed on, unsuspected, her mind full of a wild surmise. They would never dare to mean her—and yet—that new dress of hers was plastered with queer little bits of purposeless trimmings. She never again wore it without that terrible sentence creeping into her mind. And she had been so pleased with it, too! An over-ornamented pie. If she could only have been sure they meant her!
She thought of it again as she sat looking at Cecilia. The new dress was lying on her bed, ready to be worn that afternoon; and Cecilia was going to meet Bob—Bob, who had uttered the horrible remark. Well, at least there should be no haste about the meeting. It would do Bob no harm to cool his heels for a little. She set her thin lips tightly together, as she helped the rice pudding.
The meal ended, amidst loud grumbles from Wilfred that the pudding was rice; and Cecilia hurried off to find the flowers and arrange them. The florist's box was near the vases left ready by the faithful Eliza; she cut the string with a happy exclamation of "Daffodils!" as she lifted the lid. Daffodils were always a joy; this afternoon they were doubly welcome, because easy to arrange. She sorted them into long-necked vases swiftly, carrying each vase, when filled, to the drawing-room—a painful apartment, crowded with knick-knacks until it resembled a bazaar stall, with knobby and unsteady bamboo furniture and much drapery of a would-be artistic nature. It was stuffy and airless. Cecilia wrinkled her pretty nose as she entered. Mrs. Rainham held pronounced views on the subject of what she termed the "fresh-air fad," and declined to let London air—a smoky commodity at best—attack her cherished carpets; with the result that Cecilia breathed freely only in her little attic, which had no carpet at all.
The lady of the house rustled in, in her flowing robe, as Cecilia put the last vase into position on the piano—finding room for it with difficulty amid a collection of photograph frames and china ornaments. She carried some music, and cast a critical eye round the room.
"This place looks as if it had not been properly dusted for a week," she remarked. "See to it before you go, Cecilia." She opened the piano. "Just come and try the accompaniment to this song—it's rather difficult, and I want to sing it to-night."
Cecilia sat down before the piano, with woe in her heart. Her stepmother's delusion that she could sing was one of the minor trials of her life. She had been thoroughly trained in Paris, under a master who had prophesied great things for her; now her hours at the Rainhams' tinkly piano, playing dreary accompaniments to sentimental songs with Mrs. Rainham's weak soprano wobbling and flattening on the high notes, were hours of real distress, from which she would escape feeling her teeth on edge. Her stepmother, however, had thoroughly enjoyed herself since the discovery that no accompaniment presented any difficulty to Cecilia. It saved her a world of trouble in practising; moreover, when standing, it was far easier to let herself go in the affecting passages, which always suffered from scantiness of breath when she was sitting down. Therefore she would stand beside Cecilia, pouring forth song after song, with her head slightly on one side, and one hand resting lightly on the piano—an attitude which, after experiment with a mirror, she had decided upon as especially becoming.
The song of the moment did make some demands upon her attention. It had a disconcerting way of changing from sharps to flats; trouble being caused by the singer failing to change also. Cecilia took her through it patiently, going over and over again the tricky passages, and devoutly wishing that Providence in supplying her stepmother with boundless energy, a tireless voice and an enormous stock of songs, had also equipped her with an ear for music. At length the lady desisted from her efforts.
"That's quite all right," she said, with satisfaction. "I'll sing it to-night. The Simons will be here, and they do like to hear what's new. Go on with your dusting; I'll just run through a few pieces, and you can tell me if I go wrong."
Cecilia hesitated, glancing at the clock.
"It is getting very late," she said. "Eliza told me she could dust the room."
"Eliza!" said Mrs. Rainham. "Why, it's her silver day; she had no business to tell you anything of the sort—and neither had you, to ask her to do it. Goodness knows it's hard enough to make the lazy thing do her own work. Just get your duster, and make sure as you come down that the children are properly dressed for the dancing class." She broke into a waltz.
Cecilia ran. Sounds of woe greeted her as she neared Avice's room, and she entered, to find that damsel plunged in despair over a missing button.
"It was on all right last time I wore the beastly dress," wailed she. "If you'd look after my clothes like Mater said you had to, I wouldn't be late. Whatever am I to do? I can't make the old dress shut with a safety pin."
"No, you certainly can't," said her half-sister. "Never mind; there are spare buttons for that frock, and I can sew one on." She accomplished the task with difficulty, since Avice appeared quite unable to stand still.
"Now, are you ready, Avice? Shoes, hat, gloves—where are your gloves? How do you ever manage to find anything in that drawer?" She rooted swiftly in a wild chaos, and finally unearthed the gloves. "Yes, you'll do. Now, where's Wilfred?" Search revealed Wilfred, who hated dancing, reading a "penny dreadful" in his room—ready to start, save for the trifling detail of having neglected to wash an extremely dirty face. Cecilia managed to make him repair the omission, after a struggle, and saw them off with a thankful heart—which sank anew as she heard a neighbouring clock strike three. Three—and already she should be meeting Bob in Hyde Park. She fled for a duster, and hurried to the drawing-room. Eliza encountered her on the way.
"Now, wotcher goin' to do wiv that duster, Miss?" she inquired. "I told yer I'd do it for yer."
"Mrs. Rainham is waiting for me to do it, Eliza. I'm sorry."
"Ow!" Eliza's expression and her tilted nose spoke volumes. "Suppose she finks I wouldn't clean 'er old silver proper. Silver, indeed!—'lectrer-plyte, an' common at that. Just you cut and run as soon as she's out of the 'ouse, Miss; I know she's goin', 'cause 'er green and yaller dress is a-airin' on 'er bed."
"It's not much good, Eliza. I ought to be in the Park now." Cecilia knew she should not allow the girl to speak of her mistress so contemptuously. But she was disheartened enough at the moment not to care.
"Lor!" said Eliza. "A bloomin' shyme, I calls it!"
Cecilia found her stepmother happily engaged upon a succession of wrong notes that made her wince. She dusted the room swiftly, aware all the time of a watchful eye. Occasionally came a crisp comment: "You didn't dust that window-sill." "Cecilia, that table has four legs—did you only notice two?"—the effort to speak while playing generally bringing the performer with vigour upon a wrong chord. The so-called music became almost a physical torment to the over-strained girl.
"If she would only stop—if she would only go away!" she found herself murmuring, over and over. Even the thought of Bob waiting in Hyde Park in the chill east wind became dim beside that horrible piano, banging and tinkling in her ear. She dusted mechanically, picking up one cheap ornament after another—leaving the collection upon the piano until the last, in the hope that by the time she reached it the thirst for music would have departed from the performer. But Mrs. Rainham's tea appointment was not yet; she was thoroughly enjoying herself, the charm of her own execution added to the knowledge that Cecilia was miserable, and Bob waiting somewhere, with what patience he might. She held on to the bitter end, while the girl dusted the piano's burden with a set face. Then she finished a long and painful run, and shut the piano with a bang.
"There—I've had quite a nice practice, and it isn't often the drawing-room gets really decently dusted," she remarked. "Nothing like the eye of the mistress; I think I must practise every day while you are dusting, Cecilia. Oh, and, Cecilia, give the legs of the piano a good rubbing. Dear me, I must go and dress."
Cecilia dragged herself upstairs a few minutes later. All the spring was gone out of her; it really did not seem to matter much now whether she met Bob or not; she was too tired to care. This was only a sample of many days; so it had been for two years—so it would be for two more, until she was twenty-one, and her own mistress. But it did not seem possible that she could endure through another two years.
She reached her own room, and was about to shut the door, when the harsh voice rasped upwards.
"Cecilia! Cecilia! Come here a minute."
The girl went down slowly. Mrs. Rainham was standing before her mirror.
"Just come and hook my dress, Cecilia. This new dressmaker has a knack of making everything hard to fasten. There—see that you start with the right hook and eye."
At the moment, physical contact with her stepmother was almost the last straw for the girl. She obeyed in silence, shrinking back as far as she could from the stout, over-scented body and the powdered face with the thin lips. Mrs. Rainham watched her with a little smile.
"Yes, that's all right," she said. "Now, my hat, Cecilia—it's in the bandbox under the bed. I can't stoop in this dress, that's the worst of it. And my gloves are in that box on the chest of drawers—the white pair. Hurry, Cecilia, my appointment is for four o'clock."
"Mine was for three o'clock," said the girl in a low voice.
"Oh, well, you should manage your work better. I always tell you that. Nothing like method in getting through every day. However, Bob is only your brother—it would be more serious if it was a young man you were meeting. Brothers don't matter much."
Cecilia flamed round upon her.
"Bob is more to me than anyone in the world," she cried. "And I would rather keep any other man waiting."
"Really? But I shouldn't think it very likely that you'll ever have to trouble about other young men, Cecilia; you're not the sort. Too thin and scraggy." Mrs. Rainham surveyed her own generous proportions in the glass, and gathered up her gloves with a pleased air. For the moment she could not possibly believe that anyone could have referred to her as "an over-ornamented pie." "Good-bye, Cecilia; don't be late for tea." She sailed down the stairs.
Even the bang of the hall door failed to convey any relief to Cecilia. For the second time she toiled upstairs, to the bare freshness of her little room. Generally, it had a tonic effect upon her; to-day it seemed that nothing could help her. She leaned her head against the window, a wave of homesick loneliness flooding all her soul. So deep were its waters that she did not hear the hall door open and close again, and presently swift feet pounding up the stairs. Someone battered on her door.
"Cecilia! Are you there?"
She ran to open the door. Bob stood there, a short, muscular fellow, in Air Force blue, with twinkling eyes. She put out her hands to him with a little pitiful gesture.
"Don't say that horrible name again," she whispered. "If anyone else calls me Cecilia I'll just go mad."
Bob came in, and flung a brotherly arm round her shoulders.
"Has it been so beastly?" he said. "Poor little Tommy. Oh, Tommy, I saw the over-ornamented pie sailing down the street, and I dived into a side alley until she'd gone out of range. I guessed from her proud and happy face that you'd been scarified."
"Scarified!" murmured Cecilia. But Bob was not listening. His face was radiant.
"I couldn't wait in the park any longer," he said. "I had to come and tell you. Tommy, old thing—I'm demobilized!"
It was one of Mrs. Mark Rainham's grievances that, comparatively late in her married life, she should suddenly find herself brought into association with the children of her husband's first marriage. They were problems that Fate had previously removed from her path; she found it extremely annoying—at first—that Fate should cease to be so tactful, casting upon her a burden long borne by other shoulders. It was not until she had accepted Mark Rainham, eleven years before, that she found out the very existence of Bob and Cecilia; she resented the manner of the discovery, even as she resented the children themselves. Not that she ever dreamed of breaking off her engagement on their account. She was a milliner in a Kensington shop, and to marry Mark Rainham, who was vaguely "something in the city," and belonged to a good club, and dressed well, was a distinct step in the social scale, and two unknown children were not going to make her draw back. But to mother them was quite another question.
Luckily, Fate had a compassionate eye upon the young Rainhams, and was quite willing to second their stepmother's resolve that they should come into her life as little as possible. Their father had never concerned himself greatly about them. A lazy and selfish man, he had always been willing to shelve the care of his small son and daughter—babies were not in his line, and the aunt who had brought up their mother was only too anxious to take Bob and Cecilia when that girl-mother had slipped away from life, leaving a week-old Cecilia and a sturdy, solemn Bob of three.
The arrangement suited Mark Rainham very well. Aunt Margaret's house at Twickenham was big enough for half a dozen babies; the children went there, with their nurse, and he was free to slip back into bachelor ways, living in comfortable chambers within easy reach of his club and not too far, with a good train service, from a golf links. The regular week-end visits to the babies suffered occasional interruptions, and gradually grew fewer and fewer, until he became to the children a vague and mysterious person named Papa, who dropped from the skies now and then, asked them a number of silly questions, talked with great politeness to Aunt Margaret—who, they instinctively felt, liked him no better than they did—and then disappeared, whereupon every one was immensely relieved. Even the fact that he generally brought them a packet of expensive sweets was as nothing beside the harrowing knowledge that they must kiss him, thereby having their faces brushed with a large and scrubby moustache. Aunt Margaret and nurse did not have to endure this infliction—which seemed to Bob and Cecilia obviously unfair. But the visits did not often happen—not enough to disturb seriously an existence crammed with interesting things like puppies and kittens, the pony cart, boats on the river that ran just beyond the lawn, occasional trips to London and the Zoo, and delirious fortnights at the seaside or on Devonshire moors. Cecilia had never known even Bobby's shadowy memories of their own mother. Aunt Margaret was everything that mattered, and the person called Papa was merely an unpleasant incident. Other little boys and girls whom they knew owned, in their houses, delightful people named Daddy and Mother; but Cecilia and Bob quite understood that every one could not have the same things, for possibly these fortunate children had no puppies or pony carts. Nurse had pointed out this, so that it was perfectly clear.
It was when Cecilia was eight and Bob eleven, that their father married again. To the children it meant nothing; to Aunt Margaret it was a bomb. If Mark Rainham had happened to die, or go to the North Pole, she would have borne the occurrence calmly; but that he should take a step which might mean separating her from her beloved babies shook her to her foundations. Even when she was assured that the new Mrs. Rainham disliked children, and had not the slightest intention of adding Bob and Cecilia to her household, Aunt Margaret remained uneasy. The red-haired person, as she mentally labelled her, might change her mind. Mark Rainham was wax in her hands, and would always do as he was told. Aunt Margaret, goaded by fear, became heroic. She let the beloved house at Twickenham while Mr. and Mrs. Rainham were still on their honeymoon; packed up the children, her maids, nurse, the parrot and most of the puppies; and kept all her plans a profound secret until she was safely established in Paris.
To the average Londoner, Paris is very far off. There are, of course, very many people who run across the Channel as easily as a Melbourne man may week-end in Gippsland or Bendigo, but the suburban section of London is not fond of voyaging across a strip of water with unpleasant possibilities in the way of choppiness, to a strange country where most of the inhabitants have the bad taste not to speak English. Neither Mark Rainham nor his new wife had ever been in France, and to them it seemed, as Aunt Margaret had shrewdly hoped it would, almost as though the Twickenham household had gone to the North Pole. A great relief fell upon them, since there could now be no question of assuming duties when those duties were suddenly beyond their reach. And Aunt Margaret's letter was convincing—such a good offer, suddenly, for the Twickenham house; such excellent educational opportunities for the children, in the shape of semi-English schools, where Bob and Cecilia might mix with English children and retain their nationality while acquiring Parisian French. If Mark Rainham felt any inward resentment at the summary disposal of his son and daughter, he did not show it; as of old, it was easier to let things slide. Aunt Margaret was given a free hand, save that at fourteen Bob returned to school in England; an arrangement that mattered little, since all his holidays were spent at the new home at Fontainebleau—a house which, even to the parrot, was highly reminiscent of Twickenham.
Bob and Cecilia found life extremely interesting. They were cheery, happy-go-lucky youngsters, with an immense capacity for enjoyment; and Aunt Margaret, while much too shrewd an old lady to spoil children, delighted in giving them a good time. They found plenty of friends in the little English community in Paris, as well as among their French neighbours. Paris itself was full of fascination; then there were wonderful excursions far afield—holidays in Brussels, in the South of France, even winter sporting in Switzerland. Aunt Margaret was determined that her nurselings should miss nothing that she could give them. The duty letters which she insisted on their writing, once a month, to their father told of happenings that seemed strangely remote from the humdrum life of London. "By Jove, the old lady gives those youngsters a good time!" Mark Rainham would comment, tossing them across the table to his wife. He did not guess at the dull rage that filled her as she read them—the unreasoning jealousy that these children should have opportunities so far beyond any that were likely to occur for her own, who squabbled angrily over their breakfast while she read.
"She seems to have any amount of money to spend on gadding about," she would say unpleasantly.
"Oh, pots of money. Wish to goodness I had some of it," her husband would answer. Money was always scarce in the Rainham household.
When the thunderbolt of war fell upon the world, Aunt Margaret, after the first pangs of panic, stiffened her back, and declined to leave France. England, she declared, was not much safer than anywhere else; and was it likely that she and Cecilia would run away when Bob was coming back? Bob, just eighteen, captain of his school training corps, stroke of its racing boat, and a mighty man of valour at football, slid naturally into khaki within a month of the outbreak of war, putting aside toys, with all the glad company of boys of the Empire, until such time as the Hun should be taught that he had no place among white men. Aunt Margaret and Cecilia, knitting frantically at socks and mufflers and Balaclava helmets, were desperately proud of him, and compared his photograph, in uniform, with all the pictures of Etienne and Henri and Armand, and other French boys who had played with him under the trees at Fontainebleau, and had now marched away to join him at the greater game. It was difficult to realize that they were not still little boys in blouses and knickerbockers—difficult even when they swooped down from time to time on short leave, filling the quiet houses with pranks and laughter that were wholly boyish. Even when Bob had two stars on his cuff, and wore the ribbon of the Military Cross, it would have astonished Aunt Margaret and Cecilia very much had anyone suggested that he was grown up.
Indeed, Aunt Margaret was never to think of him as anything but "one of the children." Illness, sudden and fierce, fell upon her after a long spell of duty at the hospital where she worked from the first few months of the war—working as cook, since she had no nursing experience, and was, she remarked, too old to learn a new trade. Brave as she was, there was no battling for her against the new foe; she faded out of life after a few days, holding Cecilia's hand very tightly until the end.
Bob, obtaining leave with much difficulty, arrived a few days later, to find a piteous Cecilia, white-faced, stunned and bewildered. She pleaded desperately against leaving France; amidst all the horror and chaos that had fallen upon her, it seemed unthinkable that she should put the sea between herself and Bob. But to remain was impossible. Aunt Margaret's English maids wanted to go back to their friends, and a girl of seventeen could scarcely stay alone in a country torn by two years of war. Besides, Aunt Margaret's affairs were queerly indefinite; there seemed very little money where there had formerly been plenty. There was no alternative for Cecilia but England—and England meant the Rainham household, and such welcome as it might choose to give her.
She was still bewildered when they made the brief journey across the Channel—a new Channel, peopled only with war-ships of every kind, from grim Dreadnoughts to submarines; with aircraft, bearing the red, white and blue circles of Britain, floating and circling overhead. Last time Cecilia had crossed, it had been with Aunt Margaret on a big turbine mail boat; they had reached Calais just as an excursion steamer from Margate came up, gay with flags and light dresses, with a band playing ragtime on the well-deck, and people dancing to a concertina at the stern. Now they zig-zagged across, sometimes at full speed, sometimes stopping dead or altering their course in obedience to the destroyer nosing ahead of them through the Channel mist; and she could see the face of the captain on the bridge, strained and anxious. There were so few civilians on board that Cecilia and the two old servants were greeted with curious stares; nearly all the passengers were in uniform, their boots caked with the mud of the trenches, their khaki soiled with the grime of war. It was all rather dream-like to Cecilia; and London itself was a very bad dream; darkened and silent, with the great beams of searchlights playing back and forth over the black skies in search of marauding Zeppelins. And then came her father's stiff greeting, and the silent drive to the tall, narrow house in Lancaster Gate, where Mrs. Rainham met her coldly. In after years Cecilia never could think without a shudder of that first meal in her father's house—the struggle to eat, the lagging talk round the table, with Avice and Wilfred, frankly hostile, staring at her in silence, and her stepmother's pale eyes appraising every detail of her dress. It was almost like happiness again to find herself alone, later; in a dingy little attic bedroom that smelt as though it had never known an open window—a sorry little hole, but still, out of the reach of those unblinking eyes.
For the first year Cecilia had struggled to get away to earn her own living. But a very few weeks served to show Mrs. Rainham that chance had sent her, in the person of the girl whose coming she had sullenly resented, a very useful buffer against any period of domestic stress. Aunt Margaret had trained Cecilia thoroughly in all housewifely virtues, and her half-French education had given her much that was lacking in the stodgy damsels of Mrs. Rainham's acquaintance. She was quick and courteous and willing; responding, moreover, to the lash of the tongue—after her first wide-eyed stare of utter amazement—exactly as a well-bred colt responds to a deftly-used whip. "I'll keep her," was Mrs. Rainham's inward resolve. "And she'll earn her keep too!"
There was no doubt that Cecilia did that. Wilfred and Avice saw to it, even had not their mother been fully capable of exacting the last ounce from the only helper she had ever had who had not the power to give her a week's notice. Cecilia's first requests to be allowed to take up work outside had been shelved vaguely. "We'll find some nice war-work for you presently". . . and meanwhile, the household was short-handed, Mrs. Rainham was overstrained—Cecilia found later that her stepmother was always "overstrained" whenever she spoke of leaving home—and duties multiplied about her and hemmed her in. Mrs. Rainham was clever; the net closed round the girl so gradually that she scarcely realized its meshes until they were drawn tightly. Even Bob helped. "You're awfully young to start work on your own account," he wrote. "Can't you stick it for a bit, if they are decent to you?" And, rather than cause him any extra worry, Cecilia decided that she must "stick it."
Of her father she saw little. He was, just as she remembered him in her far-back childhood at Twickenham, vague and colourless. Rather to her horror, she found that the ordeal of being kissed by his large and scrubby moustache was just as unpleasant as ever. Cecilia had no idea of how he earned his living—he ate his breakfast hurriedly, concealed behind the Daily Mail, and then disappeared, bound for some mysterious place in the city—the part of London that was always full of mystery to Cecilia. Golf was the one thing that roused him to any enthusiasm, and golf was even more of a mystery than the city. Cecilia knew that it was played with assorted weapons, kept in a bag, and used for smiting a small ball over great expanses of country, but beyond these facts her knowledge stopped. Mrs. Rainham had set her to clean the clubs one day, but her father, appearing unexpectedly, had taken them from her hands with something like roughness. "No, by Jove!" he said. "You do a good many odd jobs in this house, but I'm hanged if you shall clean my golf sticks." Cecilia did not realize that the assumed roughness covered something very like shame.
Money matters were rather confusing. A lawyer—also in the city—paid her a small sum quarterly—enough to dress on, and for minor expenses. Bob wrote that Aunt Margaret's affairs were in a beastly tangle. An annuity had died with her, and many of her investments had been hit by the war, and had ceased to pay dividends—had even, it seemed, ceased to be valuable at all. There was a small allowance for Bob also, and some day, if luck should turn, there might be a little more. Bob did not say that his own allowance was being hoarded for Cecilia, in case he "went west." He lived on his pay, and even managed to save something out of that, being a youth of simple tastes. His battalion had been practically wiped out of existence in the third year of the war, and after a peaceful month in a north country hospital, near an aerodrome, the call of the air was too much for him—he joined the cheerful band of flying men, and soon filled his letters to Cecilia with a bewildering mixture of technicalities and aviation slang that left her gasping. But he got his wings in a very short time, and she was prouder of him than ever—and more than ever desperately afraid for him.
The children's daily governess, a down-trodden person, left after Cecilia had been in England for a few months, and the girl stepped naturally into the vacant position until some one else should be found. She had no idea that Mrs. Rainham made no effort at all to discover any other successor to Miss Simpkins. Where, indeed, Mrs. Rainham demanded of herself, would she be likely to find anyone with such qualifications—young, docile, with every advantage of a modern education, speaking French like a native, and above and beyond all else, requiring no pay? It would be flying in the face of Providence to ignore such a chance. Wherefore Cecilia continued to lead her step-sisters and brother in the paths of learning, and life became a thing of utter weariness. For Mrs. Rainham, though shrewd enough to get what she wanted, in the main was not a far-sighted woman; and in her unreasoning dislike and jealousy of Cecilia she failed to see that she defeated her own ends by making her a drudge. Whatever benefit the girl might have given the children was lost in their contempt for her. She had no authority, no power to enforce a command, or to give a punishment, and the children quickly discovered that, so long as they gave her the merest show of obedience in their mother's presence, any shortcomings in education would be laid at Cecilia's door. Lesson time became a period of rare sport for the young Rainhams; it was so easy to bait the new sister with cheap taunts, to watch the quick blood mount to the very roots of her fair hair, to do just as little as possible, and then to see her blamed for the result. Mrs. Rainham's bitter tongue grew more and more uncontrolled as time went on and she felt the girl more fully in her power. And Cecilia lived through each day with tight-shut lips, conscious of one clear thing in her mist of unhappy bewilderment—that Bob must not know: Bob, who would probably leave his job of skimming through the air of her beloved France after the Hun, and snatch an hour to fly to England and annihilate the entire Rainham household, returning with Cecilia tucked away somewhere in his aeroplane. It was a pleasant dream, and served to carry her through more than one hard moment. But it did not always serve; and there were nights when Cecilia mounted to her attic with dragging footsteps, to sit by her window in the darkness, gripping her courage with both hands, afraid to let herself think of the dear, happy past; of Aunt Margaret, whose very voice was love; least of all of Bob, perhaps even now flying in the dark over the German lines. There was but one thing that she could hold to: she voiced it to herself, over and over with clenched hands, "It can't last for ever! It can't last for ever!"
And then, after the long years of clutching anxiety, came the Armistice, and Cecilia forgot all her troubles in its overwhelming relief. No one would shoot at Bob any longer; there were no more hideous, squat guns, with muzzles yawning skywards, ready to shell him as he skimmed high overhead, like a swallow in the blue. Therefore she sang as she went about her work, undismayed by the laboured witticisms of Avice and Wilfred, or by Mrs. Rainham's venom, which increased with the realization that her victim might possibly slip from her grasp, since Bob would come home, and Bob was a person to be reckoned with. Certainly Bob had scarcely any money; moreover, Cecilia was not of age, and, therefore, still under her father's control. But Mrs. Rainham felt vaguely uneasy, and visions floated before her of the old days when governesses and maids had departed with unpleasant frequency, leaving her to face all sorts of disagreeable consequences. She set her thin lips, vowing inwardly that Cecilia should remain.
Nevertheless it was a relief to her that early demobilization did not come for Bob. At the time of the Armistice he was attached to an Australian flying squadron, and for some months remained abroad; then he was sent back to England, and employed in training younger fliers at a Surrey aerodrome. This had its drawbacks in Mrs. Rainham's eyes, since he was often able to run up to London, and, to Bob, London merely meant Cecilia. It was only a question of time before he discovered something of what life at Lancaster Gate meant—his enlightenment beginning upon an afternoon when, arriving unexpectedly, and being left by Eliza to find Cecilia for himself, he had the good fortune to overhear Mrs. Rainham in one of her best efforts—a "wigging" to which Avice and Wilfred were listening delightedly, and which included not only Cecilia's sin of the moment, but her upbringing, her French education, her "foreign fashion of speaking," and her sinful extravagance in shoes. These, and other matters, were furnishing Mrs. Rainham with ample material for a bitter discourse when she became aware of another presence in the room, and her eloquence faltered at the sight of Bob's astonished anger.
Mrs. Rainham did not recall with any enjoyment the interview which followed—Cecilia and the children having been brushed out of the way by the indignant soldier. Things which had been puzzling to Bob were suddenly made clear—traces of distress which Cecilia had often explained away vaguely, the children's half-contemptuous manner towards her, even Eliza's tone in speaking of her—a queer blend of anger and pity. Mrs. Rainham held her ground to some extent, but the brother's questions were hard to parry, and some of his comments stung.
"Well, I'll take her away," he stormed at length. "It's evident that she does not give you satisfaction, and she certainly isn't happy. She had better come away with me to-day."
"Ah," said his stepmother freezingly, "and where will you take her?"
"There are plenty of places—" he began.
"Not for a young girl alone. Cecilia is very ignorant of England; you could not be with her. Your father would not hear of it. You must remember that Cecilia is under his control until she is twenty-one."
"My father has never bothered about either of us," Bob said bitterly. "He surely won't object if I take her off your hands."
"He will certainly not permit any such thing. Whatever arrangement he made during your aunt's lifetime was quite a different matter. If you attempt to take Cecilia from his control you commit an illegal action," said Mrs. Rainham—hoping she was on safe ground. To her relief Bob did not contradict her. English law and its mysteries were beyond him.
"I don't see that that matters," he began doubtfully. His stepmother cut him short.
"You would very soon find that it matters a good deal," she said coldly. "It would be quite simple for your father to get some kind of legal injunction, forbidding you to interfere with your sister. Home training is what she needs, and we are determined that she shall get it. You will only unsettle and injure her by trying to induce her to disobey us."
The hard voice fell like lead on the boy's ears. He felt very helpless; if he did indeed snatch his sister away from this extremely unpleasant home, and their father had only to stretch out a long, legal tentacle and claw her back, it was clear that her position would be harder than ever. He could only give in, at any rate, for the present, and in his anxiety for the little sister whom Aunt Margaret had always trained him to protect, he humbled himself to beg for better treatment for her. "No one ever was angry with her," he said. "She'll do anything for you if you're decent to her."
"She might give less cause for annoyance if she had had a little more severity," said Mrs. Rainham with an unspoken sneer at poor Aunt Margaret. "You had better advise her to do her best in return for the very comfortable home we give her." With which Bob had to endeavour to be content, for the present. He went off to find Cecilia, with a lowering brow, leaving his stepmother not nearly so easy in her mind as she seemed. For Bob had a square jaw, and was apt to talk little and do a good deal; and his affection for Cecilia was, in Mrs. Rainham's eyes, little short of ridiculous.
Thereafter, the brother and sister took counsel together and made great plans for the future, when once the Air Force should decide that it had no further wish to keep Captain Robert Rainham from earning his living on terra firma. What that future was to be for Bob was very difficult to plan. Aunt Margaret had intended him for a profession; but the time for that had gone by, even had the money been still available. "I'm half glad that it isn't," Bob said; "I don't see how a fellow could go back to swotting over books after being really alive for nearly five years." There seemed nothing but "the land" in some shape or form; they were not very clear about it, but Bob was strenuously "keeping his ears open"—like so many lads of his rank in the early months of 1919, when the future that had seemed so indefinite during the years of war suddenly loomed up, very large and menacing. Cecilia had less anxiety; she had a cheerful faith that Bob would manage something—a three-roomed cottage somewhere in the country, where he could look after sheep, or crops, or something of the kind, while she cooked and mended for him, and grew such flowers as had bloomed in the dear garden at Fontainebleau. Sheep and crops, she was convinced, grew themselves, in the main; a person of Bob's ability would surely find little difficulty in superintending the process. And, whatever happened, nothing could be worse than life in Lancaster Gate.
Neither of them ever thought of appealing to their father, either for advice or for help. He remained, as he had always been to them, utterly colourless; a kind of well-bred shadow of his wife, taking no part in her hard treatment of Cecilia, but lifting not a finger to save her. He did not look happy; indeed, he seldom spoke—it was not necessary, when Mrs. Rainham held the floor. He had a tiny den which he used as a smoking-room, and there he spent most of his time when at home, being blessed in the fact that his wife disliked the smell of smoke, and refused to allow it in her drawing-room. Nobody took much notice of him. The younger children treated him with cool indifference; Bob met him with a kind of strained and uncomfortable civility.
Curiously enough, it was only Eliza who divined in him a secret hankering after his eldest daughter—Cecilia, who would have been very much astonished had anyone hinted at such a thing to her. The sharp eyes of the little Cockney were not to be deceived in any matter concerning the only person in the house who treated her as if she were a human being and not a grate-cleaning automaton.
"You see 'im foller 'er wiv 'is eyes, that's all," said Eliza to Cook, in the privacy of their joint bedroom. "Fair 'ungry he looks, sometimes."
"No need for 'im to be 'ungry, if 'e 'ad the sperrit of a man," said Cook practically. "Ain't she 'is daughter?"
"Well, yes, in a manner of speakin'," said Eliza doubtfully. "But there ain't much of father an' daughter about them two. I'd ruther 'ave my ole man, down W'itechapel way; 'e can belt yer a fair terror, w'en 'e's drunk, but 'e'll allers tike yer out an' buy yer a kipper arterwards. Thet's on'y decent, fatherly feelin'."
"Well, Master don't belt 'er, does 'e?"
"No; but 'e don't buy 'er the kipper, neither. An' I'd ruther 'ave the beltin' from my ole man, even wivout no kipper, than 'ave us allers lookin' at each other as if we was wooden images. Even a beltin' shows as 'ow a man 'as some regard for 'is daughter."
"It do," said Cook. "Pity is, you ain't 'ad more of it, that's the only thing!"
"Demobilized! Oh, Bob—truly?"
"Truly and really," said Bob. "At least, I shall be in twenty-seven days. Got my orders. Show up for the last time on the fifteenth of next month. Get patted on the head, and told to run away and play. That's the programme, I believe, Tommy. The question is—What shall we play at?"
Cecilia brushed the hair from her brow.
"I don't know," she said vaguely. "It's too big to think of; and I can't think in this awful house, anyhow. Take me out, quick, please, Bobby."
"Sure," said Bob, regarding her with an understanding eye. "But you want to change or something, don't you, old girl?"
"Why, yes, I suppose I do," said Cecilia, with a watery smile, looking at her schoolroom overall. "I forgot clothes. I've had a somewhat packed morning."
"You look as if this had been your busy day," remarked Bob. "Right-oh, old girl; jump into your things, and I'll wait on the mat. Any chance of the she-dragon coming back?"
"No; she's gone out to tea."
"More power to her," said Bob cheerfully. "And the dragon puppies?"
"Oh, they're safely out of the way. I won't be five minutes, Bob. Don't shut the door tight—you might disappear before I opened it."
"Not much," said Bob, through the crack of the door. "I'm a fixture. Want any shoes cleaned?"
"No, thanks, Bobby dear. I have everything ready."
"From what the other fellows say about their sisters, I'm inclined to believe that you're an ornament to your sex," remarked Bob. "When you say five minutes, it really does mean not more than five and a half, as a rule; other girls seem to mean three-quarters of an hour."
"I get all my things ready the night before when I'm going to meet you," said Cecilia. "Catch me losing any time on my one day out. You can come back again—my coat's on the hanger there, Bobby." He put her into it deftly, and she leaned back against him. "If you knew how good it is to see you again—and you smell of clean fresh air and good tobacco and Russia leather, and all sorts of nice things."
"Good gracious, I'll excite attention in the street!" grinned Bob. "I didn't imagine I was a walking scent-factory!"
"Neither you are—but everything in this house smells of coal-smoke and cabbage-water and general fustiness, and you're a nice change, that's all," said Cecilia. They ran downstairs together light-heartedly, and let themselves out into the street.
"Do we catch a train or a 'bus?"
"Oh, can't we walk?" Cecilia said. "I think if I walked hard I might forget Mrs. Rainham."
"I'd hate you to remember her," Bob said. "Tell me what she has been doing, anyhow, and then we won't think of her any more."
"It doesn't sound much," Cecilia said. "There never is anything very much. Only it goes on all the time." She told him the story of her day, and managed to make herself laugh now and then over it. But Bob did not laugh. His good-humoured young face was set and angry.
"There isn't a whole lot in it, is there?" Cecilia finished. "And no one would think I was badly off—especially when the thing that hit me hardest of all was just dusting that awful drawing-room while she plays her awful tunes. Yes, I know I shouldn't say awful, and that no lady says it—that must be true because Mrs. Rainham frequently tells me so—but it's such a relief to say whatever I feel like."
"You can say what you jolly well please," said Bob wrathfully. "Who's she, I'd like to know, to tell us what to say? And she kept you there all the afternoon, when she knew you were due to meet me!—my hat, she is a venomous old bird! And now it's half-past four, and what time does she expect you back?"
"Oh—the usual thing; the children's tea-time at six. She told me not to be late."
Bob set his jaw.
"Well, you won't be late, because you won't be there," he said. "No going back to tea for you. We'll have dinner at the Petit Riche in Soho, and then we'll do a theatre, and then I'll take you home and we'll face the music. Are you game?"
"Game? Why, of course—but there will be awful scenes, Bobby."
"Well, what can she do to you?" asked Bob practically. "You're too big to beat, or she'd certainly do it; she can't stop your pay, because you don't get any; and as you have your meals with the youngsters, she can't dock your rations. That doesn't leave her much beside her tongue. Of course, she can do a good deal with that; do you think you can stand it?"
"Oh, yes," said Cecilia. "You see, I generally have it, so it really doesn't matter much. But if she forbids me to go out with you again, Bobby?"
"Well—you're nineteen," he said. "And the very first minute I can, I'm going to take you away from her altogether. If you were a kid I wouldn't let you defy her. But, hang it all, Tommy, I'm not going to let her punish you as though you were ten. If she forbids you to meet me—well, you must just take French leave, that's all."
"Oh, Bob, you are a satisfying person!" said Cecilia, with a sigh.
"Well, I don't know—it's you who will have to stand the racket," said Bob. "I only wish I could take my share, old girl. But, please goodness, it won't be for long."
"Bob," said Cecilia, and paused. "What about that statement of hers—that it would be illegal for you to take me away? Do you think it's true?"
"I've asked our Major, and he's a bit doubtful," said Bob. "All the other fellows say it's utter nonsense. But I'm going to ask the old lawyer chap who has charge of Aunt Margaret's money—he'll tell me. We won't bother about it, Tommy; if I can't get you politely, I'll steal you. Just forget the she-dragon and all her works."
"But have you thought about what you are going to do?"
"I don't think of much else, and that's the truth, Tommy," said her brother ruefully. "You see, there's mighty little in sight. I could get a clerkship, I suppose. I could certainly get work as a day labourer. But I don't see much in either of those possibilities towards a little home with you, which is what I want. I'm going to answer every advertisement I can find for fellows wanted on farms." He straightened his square shoulders. "Tommy, there must be plenty of work for any chap as strong as an ox, as I am."
"I'm sure there's work," said Cecilia. "But the men who want jobs don't generally advertise themselves as 'complete with sister.' I'm what's technically known as an encumbrance, Bob."
"You!" said Bob. "You're just part of the firm, so don't you forget it. Didn't we always arrange that we should stick together?"
"We did—but it may not be easy to manage," Cecilia said, doubtfully. "Perhaps we could get some job together; I could do inside work, or teach, or sew."
"No!" said Bob explosively. "If I can't earn enough for us both, I ought to be shot, Aunt Margaret didn't bring you up to work."
"But the world has turned upside down since Aunt Margaret died," said Cecilia. "And I have worked pretty hard for the last two years, Bob; and it hasn't hurt me."
"It has made you older—and you ought to be only a kid yet," said Bob wistfully. "You haven't had any of the fun girls naturally ought to have. I don't want you to slave all your time, Tommy."
"Bless you!" said his sister. "But I wouldn't care a bit, as long as it was near you—and not in Lancaster Gate."
They had turned across Hyde Park, where a big company of girl guides was drilling, watched by a crowd of curious on-lookers. Across a belt of grass some boy scouts were performing similar evolutions, marching with all the extra polish and swagger they could command, just to show the guides that girls were all very well in their way, but that no one with skirts could really hope to do credit to a uniform. Cecilia paused to watch them.
"Thank goodness, the children can come and drill in the park again!" she said. "I hated to come here before the armistice—soldiers, soldiers, drilling everywhere, and guns and searchlight fixings. Whenever I saw a squad drilling it made me think of you, and of course I felt sure you'd be killed!"
"I do like people who look on the bright side of life!" said Bob laughing. "And whenever you saw an aeroplane I suppose you made sure I was crashing somewhere?"
"Certainly I did," said his sister with dignity.
"Women are queer things," Bob remarked. "If you had these unpleasant beliefs, how did you manage to write as cheerfully as you did? Your letters were a scream—I used to read bits of 'em out to the fellows."
"You had no business to do any such thing," said Cecilia, blushing.
"Well, I did, anyhow. They used to make 'em yell. How did you manage them?"
"Well, it was no good assuring you you'd be killed," said Cecilia practically. "I thought it was more sensible to try to make you laugh."
"You certainly did that," said Bob. "I fancied from your letters that life with the she-dragon was one huge joke, and that Papa was nice and companionable, and the kids, sweet little darlings who ate from your hand. And all the time you were just the poor old toad under the harrow!"
"I'm not a toad!" rejoined his sister indignantly. "Don't you think you could find pleasanter things to compare me to?"
"Toads aren't bad," said Bob, laughing. "Ever seen the nice old fellow in the Zoo who shoots out a tongue a yard long and picks up a grub every time? He's quite interesting."
"I certainly never had any inclination to do any such thing," Cecilia laughed.
They had turned into Piccadilly and were walking down, watching the crowded motor traffic racing north and south. Suddenly Bob straightened up and saluted smartly, as a tall staff officer, wearing a general's badges, ran down the steps of a big club, and nearly cannoned into Cecilia.
"I beg your pardon!" he said—and then, noticing Bob—"How are you, Rainham?" He dived into a waiting taxi, and was whisked away.
"Did he bump you?" inquired Bob.
"No—though it would be almost a privilege to be bumped by anyone as splendid as that!" Cecilia answered. "He knows you, too!—who is he, Bobby?"
"That's General Harran, the Australian," said Bob proudly. "He's a great man. I've run into him occasionally since I've been with the Australians in France."
"He looks nice."
"He is nice," replied Bob. "Awful martinet about duty, but he treats every one under him jolly well. Never forgets a face or a name, and he's always got a decent word for everybody. He's had some quite long talks to me, when we were waiting for some 'plane or other to come back."
"Why wouldn't he?" asked Cecilia, who considered it a privilege for anyone to talk to her brother.
Bob regarded her in amazement.
"Good gracious!" he ejaculated. "Why, he's a major-general; I can tell you, most men of his rank haven't any use for small fry like me—to talk to, that is."
Cecilia had a flash of memory.
"Isn't he the general who was close by when you brought that German aeroplane down behind our lines? Didn't he say nice things to you about it?"
"Oh, that was only in the way of business," said Bob somewhat confused. "The whole thing was only a bit of luck—and, of course, it was luck, too, that he was there. But he is just as nice to fellows who haven't had a chance like that."
Out of the crowd two more figures in Air Force uniform came, charging at Bob with outstretched hands.
"By Jove, old chap! What luck to meet you!"
They shook hands tumultuously, and Bob made them known to Cecilia—comrades he had not seen for months, but with whom he had shared many strange experiences in the years of war. They fell into quick talk, full of the queer jargon of the air. The newcomers, it appeared, had been with the army of occupation in Germany; there seemed a thousand things they urgently desired to tell Bob within the next few minutes. One turned to Cecilia, presently, with a laughing interpretation of some highly technical bit of slang.
"Oh, you needn't bother to translate to Tommy," Bob said. "She knows all about it."
The other boys suddenly gave her all their attention.
"Are you Tommy? But we know you awfully well."
"Me?" Cecilia turned pink.
"Rather. We used to hear your letters."
The pink deepened to a fine scarlet.
"Bob!" said his sister reproachfully. "You really shouldn't."
"Oh, don't say that," said the taller boy, by name Harrison. "They were a godsend—there used to be jolly little to laugh about, pretty often, and your letters made us all yell. Didn't they, Billy?"
"They did," said Billy, who was small and curly-haired—and incidentally a captain, with a little row of medal ribbons. "Jolliest letters ever. We passed a vote of thanks to you in the mess, Miss Tommy, after old Bob here had gone. Some one was to write and tell him about it, but I don't believe anyone ever did. I say, you must have had a cheery time—all the funny things that ever happened seemed to come your way."
Cecilia stammered something, her scarlet confusion deepening. A rather grim vision of the war years swept across her mind—of the ceaseless quest in papers and journals, and wherever people talked, for "funny things" to tell Bob; and of how, when fact and rumour gave out, she used to sit by her attic window at night, deliberately inventing merry jests. It had closely resembled a job of hard work at the time; but apparently it had served its purpose well. She had made them laugh; and some one had told her that no greater service could be rendered to the boys who risked death, and worse than death, during every hour of the day and night. But it was extremely difficult to talk about it afterwards.
Bob took pity on her.
"I'll tell you just what sort of a cheery time she had, some time or other," he remarked. "What are you fellows doing this evening?"
"We were just going to ask you the same thing," declared Billy. "Can't we all go and play about somewhere? We've just landed, and we want to be looked after. Any theatres in this little town still?"
"Cheer-oh!" ejaculated Billy. "Let's all go and find out."
So they went, and managed very successfully to forget war and even stepmothers. They were all little more than children in enjoyment of simple pleasures still, since war had fallen upon them at the very threshold of life, cutting them off from all the cheery happenings that are the natural inheritance of all young things. The years that would ordinarily have seen them growing tired of play had been spent in grim tasks; now they were children again, clamouring for the playtime they had lost. They found enormous pleasure in the funny little French restaurant, where Madame, a lady whose sympathies were as boundless as her waist, welcomed them with wide smiles, delighting in the broken French of Billy and Harrison, and deftly tempting them to fresh excursions in her language. She put a question in infantile French to Bob presently, whereupon that guileless youth, with a childlike smile, answered her with a flood of idiomatic phrases, in an accent purer than her own—collapsing with helpless laughter at her amazed face. After which, Madame neglected her other patrons to hover about their table like a stout, presiding goddess, guiding them gently to the best dishes on the menu, and occasionally putting aside their own selection with a hasty, "Mon-non; you vill not like that one to-day." She patted Cecilia in a motherly fashion at parting, and their bill was only about half what it should have been.
They found a musical comedy, and laughed their way through it—Billy and Harrison had apparently no cares in the world, and Bob and Cecilia were caught up in the whirl of their high spirits, so that anything became a huge joke. The evening flew by on airy wings, when Billy insisted on taking them to supper after the theatre. Cecilia allowed herself a fleeting vision of Mrs. Rainham, and then, deciding that she might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, followed gaily. And supper was so cheery a meal that she forgot all about time—until, just at the end, she caught sight of the restaurant clock.
"Half-past eleven! Oh, Bobby!"
"Well, if it is—you poor little old Cinderella," said Bob.
But he hurried her away, for all that, amid a chorus of farewells and efforts, on the part of Billy and Harrison, to arrange further meetings. They ran to the nearest tube station, and dived into its depths; and, after being whisked underground for a few minutes, emerged into the cool night. Cecilia slipped her arm through her brother's as they hurried along the empty street.
"Now, you keep your nose in the air," Bobby told her. "You aren't exactly a kid now, and she can't really do anything to you. Oh, by Jove—I was thinking, in the theatre, she might interfere with our letters."
"She's quite equal to it," said Cecilia.
"Just what she'd revel in doing. Well, you can easily find out. I'll write to you to-morrow, and again the next day—just ordinary letters, with nothing particular in them except an arrangement to meet next Saturday. If you don't get them you'll know she's getting at the mail first."
"What shall I do, then?"
"Drop me a line—or, better still, wire to me," said Bob. "Just say, 'Address elsewhere.' Then I'll write to you at Mr. M'Clinton's; the old solicitor chap in Lincoln's Inn; and you'll have to go there and get the letters. You know his address, don't you?"
"Oh, yes. I have to write to him every quarter when he sends me my allowance. You'll explain to him, then, Bob, or he'll simply redirect your letters here."
"Oh, of course. I want to go and see the old chap, anyhow, to talk over Aunt Margaret's affairs. I might as well know a little more about them. Tommy, the she-dragon can't actually lock you up, can she?"
"No—it couldn't be done," said Cecilia. "Modern houses aren't built with dungeons and things. Moreover, if she tried to keep me in the house she would have to take the children out for their walks herself; and she simply hates walking."
"Then you can certainly post to me, and get my letters, and I'll be up again as soon as ever I can. Buck up, old girl—it can't be for long now."
They turned in at the Rainhams' front gate, and Cecilia glanced up apprehensively. All the windows were in darkness; the grey front of the house loomed forbiddingly in the faint moonlight.
"You're coming in, aren't you?" she asked, her hand tightening on his arm.
"Rather—we'll take the edge off her tongue together." Bob rang the bell. "Wonder if they have all gone to bed. The place looks pretty dark."
"She's probably in the little room at the back—the one she calls her boudoir."
"Horrible little den, full of bamboo and draperies and pampas grass—I know," nodded Bob. "Well, either she's asleep or she thinks it's fun to keep us on the mat. I'll try her again." He pressed the bell, and the sound of its whirring echoed through the silent house.
The bolt grated, as if grudgingly, and slowly the door opened as far as the limits of its chain would permit, and Mrs. Rainham's face appeared in the aperture. She glared at them for a minute without speaking.
"So you have come home?" she said at last. The chain fell, and the door opened. "I wonder you trouble to come home at all. May I ask where you have been?"
"She has been with me, Mrs. Rainham," Bob said cheerfully. "May I come in?"
Mrs. Rainham did not move. She held the door half open, blocking the way.
"It is far too late for me to ask you in," she answered frigidly. "Cecilia can explain her conduct, I presume."
"Oh, there's really nothing to explain," Bob answered. "It was so late when she got out this afternoon that I kept her—why, it was after half-past four before she was dressed."
"I told her to be in for tea."
"Yes; but I felt sure you couldn't realize how late she was in getting out," said Bob in a voice of honey.
"That was entirely her own mismanagement—" began the hard tones.
"Oh, no, Mrs. Rainham; really it wasn't," said Cecilia mildly. "Your accompaniments, you remember—your dress—your music," she stopped, in amazement at herself. It was rarely indeed that she answered any accusation of her stepmother's. But to be on the mat at midnight, with Bob in support, seemed to give her extraordinary courage.
"You see, Mrs. Rainham, there seems to have been quite a number of little details that Cecilia couldn't mismanage," said Bob, following up the advantage. It was happily evident that his stepmother's rage was preventing her from speaking, and, as he remarked later, there was no knowing when he would ever get such a chance again. "She really needed rest. I'm sure you'll agree that every one is entitled to some free time. Of course, you couldn't possibly have realized that it was a week since she had been off duty."
"It's her business to do what I tell her," said Mrs. Rainham, finding her voice, in an explosive fashion that made a passing policeman glance up curiously. "She knew I had company, and expected her help. I had to see to the children's tea myself. And how do I know where she's been?—gallivanting round to all sorts of places! I tell you, young lady, you needn't think you're going to walk in here at midnight as if nothing was the matter."
"I never expected to," said Cecilia cheerfully. "But it was worth it."
Bob regarded her in solemn admiration.
"I don't think we gallivanted at all reprehensibly," he said. "Just dinner and a theatre. I haven't made much claim to her time during the last four years, Mrs. Rainham; surely I'm entitled to a little of it now."
"You!" Mrs. Rainham's tone was vicious. "You don't give her a home, do you? And as long as I do, she'll do what I tell her."
"No; I don't give her a home—yet," said Bob very quietly. "But I very soon will, I assure you; and meanwhile, she earns a good deal more than her keep in her father's house. You can't treat her worse than your servants—"
Cecilia suddenly turned to him.
"Ah, don't, Bob darling. It doesn't matter—truly—not a bit." With the end of the long penance before her, it seemed beyond the power of the angry woman in the doorway to hurt her much. What she could not bear was that their happy evening should be spoiled by hard and cruel words at its close. Bob's face, that had been so merry, was sterner than she had ever seen it, all its boyishness gone. She put up her own face, and kissed him.
"Good night—you mustn't stay any longer. I'll be all right." She whispered a few quick words of French, begging him to go, and Bob, though unwillingly, gave in.
"All right," he said. "Go to bed, little 'un. I'll do as I promised about writing." He saluted Mrs. Rainham stiffly. "You'll remember, Mrs. Rainham, that she stayed out solely at my wish—I take full responsibility, and I'll be ready to tell my father so." The door closed behind Cecilia, and he strode away down the street, biting his lip. He felt abominably as though he had deserted the little sister—and yet, what else could he do? One could not remain for ever, brawling on a doorstep at midnight—and Tommy had begged him to go. Still—
"Hang it!" he said viciously. "If she were only a decent Hun to fight!"
In the grim house in Lancaster Gate Cecilia was facing the music alone. She listened unmoved, as she had listened many times before, to the catalogue of her sins and misdeeds—only she had never seen her stepmother quite so angry. Finally, a door above opened, and Mark Rainham looked out, his dull, colourless face weakly irritable.
"I wish you'd stop that noise, and let the girl go to bed," he said. "Come here, Cecilia."
She went to him hesitating, and he looked at her with a spark of compassion. Then he kissed her.
"Good night," he said, as though he had called her to him simply to say it, and not to separate her from the furious woman who stood looking at them. "Run off to bed, now—no more talking." Cecilia ran upstairs obediently. Behind her, as she neared her attic, she heard her stepmother's voice break out anew.
"Just fancy Papa!" she muttered. Any mother sensations were lost in wonder at her father's actually having intervened. The incredible thing had happened. For a moment she felt a wave of pity for him, left alone to face the shrill voice. Then she shrugged her shoulders.
"Ah, well—he married her," she said. "I suppose he has had it many a time. Perhaps he knows how to stop it—I don't!" She laughed, turning the key in the lock, and sitting down beside the open window. The glamour of her happy evening was still upon her; even the scene with her stepmother had not had power to chase it away. The scene was only to be expected; the laughter of the evening was worth so every-day a penalty. And the end of Mrs. Rainham's rule was nearly in sight. Not even to herself for a moment would she admit that there was any possibility of Bob failing to "make good" and take her away.
She went downstairs next morning to an atmosphere of sullen resentment. Her father gave her a brief, abstracted nod, in response to her greeting, and went on with his bacon and his Daily Mail; her stepmother's forbidding expression checked any attempt at conversation. The children stared at her with a kind of malevolent curiosity; they knew that a storm had been brewing for her the night before, and longed to know just how thoroughly she had "caught it." Eliza, bringing in singed and belated toast, looked at her with pity, tinged with admiration. Cook and she had been awakened at midnight by what was evidently, in the words of Cook, "a perfickly 'orrible bust-up," and knowing Cecilia to have been its object, Eliza looked at her as one may look who expects to see the scars of battle. Finding none, but receiving instead a cheerful smile, she returned to the kitchen, and reported to Cook that Miss Cecilia was "nuffink less than a neroine."
But as that day and the next wore on, Cecilia found it difficult to be cheerful. That she was in disgrace was very evident, Mrs. Rainham said no more about her sins of the night before; instead, she showed her displeasure by a kind of cold rudeness that gave a subtle insult to her smallest remark. The children were manifestly delighted. Cecilia was more or less in the position of a beetle on a pin, and theirs was the precious opportunity of seeing her wriggle. Wherefore they adopted their mother's tone, openly defied her, and turned school-hours into a pandemonium.
Cecilia at last gave up the attempt to keep order. She opened her desk and took out her knitting.
"Well, this is all very pleasant," she said, calmly. "You seem determined to do no work at all, so I can only hope that in time you will get tired of being idle. I can't attempt to teach you any more. I am quite ready, however, if you bring your lessons to me."
"You'll get into a nice row from the Mater," jeered Wilfred.
"Very possibly. She may even punish me by finding another governess," said Cecilia, with a twinkle. "However that may be, I do not feel compelled to talk to such rude little children as you any more. When you are able to speak politely you may come to me for anything you want; until then, I shall not answer you." She bent her attention to the mysteries of heel-turning.
The children were taken aback. To pinprick with rudeness a victim who answered back was entertaining; but there was small fun in baiting anybody who sat silently knitting with a half-smile of contempt at the corners of her mouth. They gave it up after a time, and considered the question of going out; a pleasant thing to do, only that their mother had laid upon them a special injunction not to leave Cecilia, and she was in a mood that made disobedience extremely dangerous. Cecilia quite understood that she was being watched. No letters had yet come from Bob, and she knew that her stepmother had been hovering near the letter-box whenever the postman had called. Mrs. Rainham had accompanied them on their walk the day before; a remark of Avice's revealed that she meant to do so again to-day.
"It's all so silly," the girl said to herself. "If I chose to dive into a tube station or board a motor-bus she couldn't stop me; and she can't go on watching me and intercepting my letters indefinitely. I suppose she will get tired of it after a while." But meanwhile she found the spying rather amusing. Avice popped up unexpectedly if she went near the front door; Wilfred's bullet head peeped in through the window whenever she fancied herself alone in the schoolroom. Only her attic was safe—since to spy upon it would have required an aeroplane.
The third day brought no letter from Bob. Cecilia asked for her mail when she went down to breakfast, and was met by a blank stare from her stepmother—"I suppose if there had been any letters for you they would be on your plate." She flushed a little under the girl's direct gaze, and turned her attention to Queenie's table manners, which were at all times peculiar; and Cecilia sat down with a faint smile. It was time to obey orders and telegraph to Bob.
She planned how to do it, during a long morning when the children actually did some work—since to be rude or idle meant that their teacher immediately retired into her shell of silence, and knitted, and life became too dull. To employ Eliza was her first thought—rejected, since it seemed unlikely that Eliza would be able to get time off to go out. If Mrs. Rainham's well-known dislike for walking proved too strong for her desire to watch her stepdaughter, it would be easy enough to do it during the afternoon; but this hope proved vain, for when she appeared in the hall with her charges at three o'clock the lady of the house sailed from the drawing-room, ready for the march. They moved off in procession; Mrs. Rainham leading the way, with Avice and Wilfred, while Cecilia brought up the rear, holding Queenie's podgy hand.