MARY GRANT BRUCE
WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED
LONDON AND MELBOURNE
MADE IN ENGLAND
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN
BY EBENEZER BAYLIS AND SON, LTD., THE
TRINITY PRESS, WORCESTER, AND LONDON
I John O'Neill's Legacy II The Home for Tired People III Of London and Other Matters IV Settling In V How the Cook-Lady Found her Level VI Kidnapping VII The Thatched Cottage VIII Assorted Guests IX Homewood Gets Busy X Australia in Surrey XI Cheero! XII Of Labour and Promotion XIII The End of a Perfect Day XIV Carrying On XV Prisoners and Captives XVI Through the Darkness XVII Lights Out XVIII The Watch on the Rhine XIX Reveille XX All Clear
JOHN O'NEILL'S LEGACY
"Queer, isn't it?" Jim said.
"Rather!" said Wally.
They were sitting on little green chairs in Hyde Park. Not far off swirled the traffic of Piccadilly; glancing across to Hyde Park Corner, they could see the great red motor-'buses, meeting, halting, and then rocking away in different directions, hooting as they fled. The roar of London was in their ears.
It was a sunny morning in September. The Park was dotted in every direction with shining perambulators, propelled by smart nurses in uniform, and tenanted by proud little people, fair-haired and rosy, and extremely cheerful. Wally liked the Park babies. He referred to them collectively as "young dukes."
"They all look so jolly well tubbed, don't they?" he remarked, straying from the subject in hand. "Might be soap advertisements. Look, there's a jolly little duke in that gorgeous white pram, and a bigger sized duke trotting alongside, with a Teddy-bear as big as himself. Awful nice kids." He smiled at the babies in the way that made it seem ridiculous that he should be grown-up and in uniform.
"They can't both be dukes," said Jim literally. "Can't grow more than one in a family; at least not at the same time, I believe."
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter—and anyhow, the one in the pram's a duchess," returned Wally. "I say, the duke's fallen in love with you, Jim."
"The duke," a curly-haired person in a white coat, hesitated on the footpath near the two subalterns, then mustering his courage, came close to Jim and gravely presented him with his Teddy-bear. Jim received the gift as gravely, and shook hands with the small boy, to his great delight.
"Thanks, awfully," he said. "It's a splendid Teddy, isn't it?"
The nurse, greatly scandalized, swooped down upon her charge, exhorting him to be ashamed, now, and not worry the gentleman. But the "duke" showed such distress when Jim attempted to return the Teddy-bear that the matter had to be adjusted by distracting his attention in the direction of some drilling soldiers, while Wally concealed the toy under the embroidered rug which protected the plump legs of the "duchess"—who submitted with delighted gurgles to being tickled under the chin. They withdrew reluctantly, urged by the still horrified nurse.
"See what it is to be beautiful and have the glad eye!" jeered Wally. "Dukes never give me Teddy-bears!"
"It's my look of benevolent age," Jim said, grinning. "Anyhow, young Wally, if you'll stop beguiling the infant peerage, and attend to business, I'll be glad. We'll have Norah and Dad here presently."
"I'm all attention," said his friend. "But there's nothing more to be said than that it is rum, is there? And we said that."
"Norah gave me a letter from poor old O'Neill to show you," Jim said. "I'll read it, if you like."
The merriment that was never very far from Wally Meadows' eyes died out as his chum unfolded a sheet of paper, closely written.
"He wrote it in the hotel in Carrignarone, I suppose?" he asked gently.
"Yes; just after dinner on the night of the fight. You see, he was certain he wasn't coming back. Anyhow, this is what he says:
"My Dear Norah,—
"If I am alive after to-night you will not get this letter: it is only to come to you if I shall have 'gone West.' And please don't worry if I do go West. You see, between you all you have managed almost to make me forget that I am just an apology for a man. I did not think it could be done, but you have done it. Still, now and then I remember, and I know that there will be long years after you have all gone back to that beloved Australia of yours when there will be nothing to keep me from realizing that I am crippled and a hunchback. To-night I have the one chance of my life of living up to the traditions of O'Neills who were fighting men; so if, by good luck, I manage to wing a German or two, and then get in the way of an odd bullet myself, you mustn't grudge my finishing so much more pleasantly than I had ever hoped to do.
"If I do fall, I am leaving you that place of mine in Surrey. I have hardly any one belonging to me, and they have all more money than is good for them. The family estates are entailed, but this is mine to do as I please with. I know you don't need it, but it will be a home for you and your father while Jim and Wally are fighting, if you care for it. And perhaps you will make some use of it that will interest you. I liked the place, as well as I could like any place outside Ireland; and if I can look back—and I am very sure that I shall be able to look back—I shall like to see you all there—you people who brought the sun and light and laughter of Australia into the grey shadows of my life—who never seemed to see that I was different from other men.
"Well, good-bye—and God keep you happy, little mate.
"Your friend, "John O'Neill."
Jim folded the letter and put it back in his pocket, and there was a long silence. Each boy was seeing again a strip of Irish beach where a brave man had died proudly.
"Different!" Wall said, at last, with a catch in his voice. "He wasn't different—at least, only in being a jolly sight better than most fellows."
"Well, he had his fight, and he did his bit, and, seeing how he felt about things, I'm glad for his sake that he went out," he said. "Only I'm sorry for us, because it was a pretty big thing to be friends with a man like that. Anyhow, we won't forget him. We wouldn't even without this astonishing legacy of Norah's."
"Have you any particulars about it?" Wally asked.
"Dad got a letter from O'Neill too—both were sent to his lawyers; he must have posted them himself that evening in Carrignarone. Dad's was only business. The place is really left to him, in trust for Norah, until she comes of age; that's so that there wouldn't be any legal bother about her taking possession of it at once if she wants to. Poor old Norah's just about bowled over. She felt O'Neill's death so awfully, and now this has brought it all back."
"Yes, it's rough on Norah," Wally said. "I expect she hates taking the place."
"She can't bear the idea of it. Dad and I don't much care about it either."
"May I see that letter again?" he asked presently.
Jim Linton took out the letter and handed it to his friend. He filled his pipe leisurely and lit it, while Wally knitted his brows over the sheet of cheap hotel paper. Presently he looked up, a flash of eagerness in his keen brown eyes.
"Well, I think O'Neill left that place to Norah with a purpose," he said. "I don't believe it's just an ordinary legacy. Of course, it's hers, all right; but don't you think he wanted something done with it?"
"Done with it?"
"Yes. Look here," Wally put a thin forefinger on the letter. "Look what he says—'Perhaps you will make some use of it that may interest you.' Don't you think that means something?"
"I believe it might," Jim said cautiously. "But what?"
"Well, he was just mad keen on the War," he said. "He was always planning what he could do to help, since he couldn't fight,—at least, since he thought he couldn't," the boy added with a sigh. "I wonder he hadn't used it himself for something in connexion with the War."
"He couldn't—it's let," Jim put in quickly. "The lawyers wrote about it to Dad. It's been let for a year, and the lease expires this month—they said O'Neill had refused to renew it. That rather looks as if he had meant to do something with it, doesn't it?"
Wally nodded vigorously.
"I'll bet he did. Now he's left it to Norah to carry on. You see, they told us his own relations weren't up to much. I expect he knew they wouldn't make any use of it except for themselves. Why, it's as clear as mud, Jim! O'Neill knew that Norah didn't actually need the place, and that she and your father wanted to be near you and still help the war themselves. They didn't like working in London—Norah's too much of a kid, and your father says himself he's not trained. Now they've got a perfectly ripping chance!"
"Oh, bless you, Wally!" said a thankful voice behind them.
The boys sprang to their feet. Behind them stood a tall girl with a sun-tanned face and straight grey eyes—eyes that bore marks of tears, of which Norah for once was unashamed. Her brown curls were tied back with a broad black ribbon. She was very slender—"skinny," Norah would have said—but, despite that she was at what is known as "the awkward age," no movement of Norah Linton's was ever awkward. She moved with something of the unconcerned grace of a deer. In her blue serge coat and skirt she presented the well-groomed look that was part and parcel of her. She smiled at the two boys, a little tremulously.
"Hallo!" said her brother. "We didn't hear you—where did you spring from?"
"Dad dropped me at the Corner—he had to go on to Harrods," Norah answered. "I came across the grass, and you two were so busy talking you didn't know I was there. I couldn't help hearing what you said, Wally."
"Well, I'm glad you did," Wally answered, "But what do you think yourself, Nor?"
"I was just miserable until I heard you," Norah said. "It seemed too awful to take Sir John's house—to profit by his death. I couldn't bear it. But of course you're right. I do think I was stupid—I read his letter a dozen times, but I never saw it that way."
"But you agree with Wally, now?" Jim asked.
"Why, of course—don't you? I suppose I might have had the sense to see his meaning in time, but I could only think of seeming to benefit by his death. However, as long as one member of the family has seen it, it's all right." She flashed a smile at Wally. "I'm just ever so much happier. It makes it all—different. We were such—" her voice trembled—"such good chums, and now it seems as if he had really trusted us to carry on for him."
"Of course he did," Wally said. "He knew jolly well you would make good use of it, and it would help you, too, when Jim was away."
"Jim?" said that gentleman. "Jim? What are you leaving yourself out for? Aren't you coming? Got a Staff job at home?"
"I'm ashamed of you, Wally," said Norah severely. "Of course, if you don't want to belong——!" Whereat Wally Meadows flushed and laughed, and muttered something unintelligible that nevertheless was quite sufficient for his friends.
It was not a thing of yesterday, that friendship. It went back to days of small-boyhood, when Wally, a lonely orphan from Queensland, had been Jim Linton's chum at the Melbourne Grammar School, and had fallen into a habit of spending his holidays at the Linton's big station in the north of Victoria, until it seemed that he was really one of the Billabong family. Years had knitted him and Jim and Norah into a firm triumvirate, mates in the work and play of an Australian cattle-run; watched over by the silent grey man whose existence centred in his motherless son and daughter—with a warm corner in his affections for the lithe, merry Queensland boy, whose loyalty to Billabong and its people had never wavered since his childhood.
Then, just as Jim had outgrown school and was becoming his father's right-hand man on the station, came the world-upheaval of the European War, which had whisked them all to England. Business had, at the moment, summoned Mr. Linton to London; to leave Norah behind was not to be thought of, and as both the boys were wild to enlist, and Wally was too young to be accepted in Australia—though not in England—it seemed that the simplest thing to do was to make the pilgrimage a general one, and let the chums enlist in London. They had joined a famous British regiment, obtaining commissions without difficulty, thanks to cadet training in Australia. But their first experience of war in Flanders had been a short one: they were amongst the first to suffer from the German poison-gas, and a long furlough had resulted.
Mr. Linton and Norah had taken them to Ireland as soon as they were fit to travel; and the bogs and moors of Donegal, coupled with trout-fishing, had gone far to effect a cure. But there, unexpected adventure had awaited them. They had made friends with Sir John O'Neill, the last of an old North of Ireland family: a half-crippled man, eating out his heart against the fate that held him back from an active part in the war. Together they had managed to stumble on an oil-base for German submarines, concealed on the rocky coast; and, luck and boldness favouring them, to trap a U-boat and her crew. It had been a short and triumphant campaign—skilfully engineered by O'Neill; and he alone had paid for the triumph with his life.
John O'Neill had died happily, rejoicing in for once having played the part of a fighting man; but to the Australians his death had been a blow that robbed their victory of all its joy. They mourned for him as for one of themselves, cherishing the memory of the high-souled man whose spirit had outstripped his weak body. Jim and Wally, from exposure on the night of the fight, had suffered a relapse, and throat-trouble had caused their sick-leave to be extended several times. Now, once more fit, they were back in London, expecting to rejoin their regiment immediately.
"So now," Jim said, "the only question is, what are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to think hard for a day," said Norah. "So can you two; and we'll ask Dad, of course."
"And then Dad will tell you what to do," said Jim, grinning.
"Yes of course he will. Dad always has splendid ideas," said Norah, laughing. "But we won't have any decision for a day, because it's a terribly big thing to think of. I wish I was grown up—it must be easier to settle big questions if you haven't got your hair down your back!"
"I don't quite see what your old curly mop has to do with it, but anyhow, you needn't be in a hurry to put it up," said her brother. "It's awful to be old and responsible, isn't it Wally?" To which Wally responded with feeling, "Beastly!" and endeavoured to look more than nineteen—failing signally.
"Let's go and look at the Row," Norah said.
"Dad will find us all right, I suppose?" Jim hesitated.
"Why, he couldn't miss you!" said Norah, laughing. "Come on."
Even when more than a year of War had made uniform a commonplace in London streets, you might have turned to look at Jim and Wally. Jim was immensely tall; his chum little less so; and both were lean and clean-shaven, tanned to a deep bronze, and stamped with a look of resolute keenness. In their eyes was the deep glint that comes to those who have habitually looked across great spaces. The type has become familiar enough in London now, but it generally exists under a slouch hat; and these lads were in British uniform, bearing the badges of a famous marching regiment. At first they had hankered after the cavalry, being much more accustomed to ride than to walk: but as the armies settled down into the Flanders mud it became increasingly apparent that this was not to be a horseman's war, and that therefore, as Wally put it, if they wanted to be in the fun, they had better make up their minds to paddle with the rest. The amount of "fun" had so far been a negligible quantity which caused them some bitterness of spirit. They earnestly hoped to increase it as speedily as might be, and to give the Hun as much inconvenience as they could manage in the process.
They strolled across the grass to the railings, and looked up and down the tan ribbon of Rotten Row. Small boys and girls, on smart ponies and woolly Shetlands, walked or trotted sedately; or occasionally galloped, followed by elderly grooms torn between pride and anxiety. Jim and Wally thought the famous Row an over-rated concern; failing to realize, from its war aspect, the Row of other days, crammed from fence to fence with beautiful horses and well-turned-out riders, and with half the world looking on from the railings. Nowadays the small boys and girls had it chiefly to themselves, and could stray from side to side at their own sweet will. A few ladies were riding, and there was a sprinkling of officers in khaki; obviously on Army horses and out for exercise. Now and then came a wounded man, slowly, on a reliable cob or sturdy pony—bandages visible, or one arm in a sling. A few people sat about, or leaned on the fences, watching; but there was nothing to attract a crowd. Every one looked business-like, purposeful; clothes were plain and useful, with little frippery. The old glitter and splendour of the Row was gone: the London that used to watch it was a London that had forgotten how to play.
Beyond the Row, carriages, drawn by beautiful pairs of horses, high-stepping, with harness flashing in the sunlight, drove up and down. Some contained old ladies and grey-haired men; but nearly all bore a load of wounded soldiers, with sometimes a tired-faced nurse.
"There's that nice old Lady Ellison—the one that used to take Jim and me out when we were in hospital," Wally said, indicating a carriage with a magnificent pair of bays. "She was an old dear. My word, I'd like to have the driving of those horses—in a good light buggy on the Billabong track!"
"So would I," Jim assented. "But I'd take those beastly bearing-reins off before I started."
"Yes," said Norah eagerly. "Poor darlings, how they must hate them! Jim, I wish we'd struck London when the coaches used to be seen."
"Rather!" said Jim. "Anstruther used to tell me about them. Coaches bigger than Cobb & Co.'s, and smart as paint, with teams of four so matched you could hardly tell which was which—and educated beyond anything Australians could dream about. There was one man—poor chap, Anstruther said he was drowned in the Lusitania—who had a team of four black cobs. I think Anstruther used to dream about them at night; he got poetical and incoherent when he tried to describe 'em."
"Fancy seeing a dozen or so of those coaches swinging down Piccadilly on a fine morning!" said Wally. "That would be something to tell black Billy about, Norah!"
"He'd only say Plenty!" said Norah, laughing. "Look—there's Dad!"
They turned to meet a tall grey man who came swinging across the grass with a step as light as his son's. David Linton greeted them with a smile.
"I knew I should find you as near as you could get to the horses," he said. "This place is almost a rest-cure after Harrod's; I never find myself in that amazing shop without wishing I had a bell on my neck, so that I couldn't get lost. And I always take the wrong lift and find myself among garden tools when all I want is collars."
"Well, they have lifts round every corner: you want a special lift-sense not to take the wrong one," Norah defended him.
"Yes, and when you ask your way anywhere in one of these fifty-acre London shops they say, 'Through the archway, sir,' and disappear: and you look round you frantically, and see about seventeen different archways, and there you are," Wally stated. "So you plunge into them all in turn, and get hopelessly lost. But it's rather fun."
"I'd like it better if they didn't call me 'Moddam,'" said Norah. "'Shoes, Moddam? Certainly, Moddam; first to the right, second to the left, lift Number fifteen, fifth floor and the attendant will direct you!' Then you stagger into space, wishing for a wet towel round your head!"
"I could almost believe," said her father, regarding her gravely, "that you would prefer Cunjee, with one street, one general store, one blacksmith's, and not much else at all."
"Why, of course I do," Norah laughed. "At least you can't get lost there, and you haven't got half a day's journey from the oatmeal place to the ribbon department: they'll sell you both at the same counter, and a frying-pan and a new song too! Think of the economy of time and boot-leather! And Mr. Wilkins knows all about you, and talks to you like a nice fat uncle while he wraps up your parcels. And if you're on a young horse you needn't get off at all—all you have to do is to coo-ee, and Mr. Wilkins comes out prepared to sell you all his shop on the footpath. If that isn't more convenient than seventeen archways and fifty-seven lifts, then I'd like to know what is!"
"Moddam always had a great turn of eloquence, hadn't she?" murmured Wally, eyeing her with respect. Whereat Norah reddened and laughed, and accused him of sentiments precisely similar to her own.
"I think we're all much the same," Jim said. "London's all very well for a visit. But just imagine what it would be if we didn't know we were going back to Billabong some day!"
"What a horrible idea!" Norah said. "But we are—when the old War's over, and the Kaiser has retired to St. Helena, and the Huns are busy building up Belgium and France. And you'll both be captains, if you aren't brigadiers, and all Billabong will expect to see you come back in uniform glittering with medals and things."
"I like their chance!" said Wally firmly.
"Anyhow, we'll all go back; and that's all that matters," said Norah. Her eyes dwelt wistfully on the two tall lads.
"And meanwhile," said Jim, "we'll all go down to Fuller's and have morning tea. One thing, young Norah, you won't find a Fuller's in Cunjee!"
"Why would I be trying?" Norah asked cheerfully. "Sure isn't there Brownie at Billabong?"
"Hear, hear!" agreed Wally. "When I think of Brownie's pikelets——"
"Or Brownie's scones," added Norah. "Or her sponge-cakes."
"Or Brownie's tea-pot, as large and as brown as herself," said Mr. Linton—"then London is a desert. But we'll make the best of it for the present. Come along to Fuller's."
THE HOME FOR TIRED PEOPLE
"To begin with," said Jim—"what's the place like?"
"Eighty acres, with improvements," answered his father. "And three farms—all let."
"Daddy, you're like an auctioneer's advertisement," Norah protested. "Tell us what it is like—the house, I mean."
"We'll run down and see it soon," said Mr. Linton. "Meanwhile, the lawyers tell me it's a good house, Queen Anne style——"
"What's that?" queried Jim.
"Oh, gables and things," said Wally airily. "Go on, sir, please."
"Standing in well-timbered park lands," said Mr. Linton, fishing a paper out of his pocket, and reading from it. "Sorry, Norah, but I can't remember all these thrills without the lawyers' letter. Lounge hall, four reception rooms——"
"Who are you going to receive, Nor?"
"Be quiet," said Norah, aiming a cushion at the offender. "Not you, if you're not extra polite!"
"Be quiet, all of you, or I will discontinue this penny reading," said Mr. Linton severely. "Billiard-room, thirteen bedrooms, three baths (h. and c.)——"
"Hydraulic and condensed," murmured Wally. Jim sat upon him with silent firmness, and the reading was unchecked.
"Excellent domestic offices, modern drainage, central heating, electric plant, Company's water——"
"What on earth——?" said Jim.
"I really don't know," said his father. "But I suppose it means you can turn taps without fear of a drought, or they wouldn't put it. Grounds including shady old-world gardens, walled kitchen garden, stone-flagged terrace, lily pond, excellent pasture. Squash racquet court."
"What's that?" asked Norah.
"You play it with pumpkins," came, muffled, from beneath Jim. "Let me up, Jimmy—I'll be good."
"That'll be something unusual," said Jim, rising. "Yes, Dad?"
"Stabling, heated garage, thatched cottage. Fine timber. Two of the farms let on long leases; one lease expires with lease of house. All in excellent order. I think that's about all. So there you are, Norah. And what are you going to do with it?"
It was the next morning, and the treacherous September sunshine had vanished, giving place to a cold, wet drizzle, which blurred the windows of the Lintons' flat in South Kensington. Looking down, nothing was to be seen but a few mackintoshed pedestrians, splashing dismally along the wet, grey street. Across the road the trees in a little, fenced square were already getting shabby, and a few leaves fluttered idly down. The brief, gay English summer had gone; already the grey heralds of the sky sounded the approach of winter, long and cold and gloomy.
"I've been thinking terribly hard," Norah said. "I don't think I ever lay awake so long in my life. But I can't make up my mind. Of course it must be some way of helping the War. But how? We couldn't make it a hospital, could we?"
"I think not," said her father. "The hospital idea occurred to me, but I don't think it would do. You see you'd need nurses and a big staff, and doctors; and already that kind of thing is organized. People well established might do it, but not lone Australians like you and me, Norah."
"How about a convalescent home?"
"Well, the same thing applies, in a less degree. I believe, too, that they are all under Government supervision, and I must admit I've no hankering after that. We wouldn't be able to call our souls our own; and we'd be perpetually irritated by Government under-strappers, interfering with us and giving orders—no, I don't think we could stand it. You and I have always run our own show, haven't we, Norah—that is, until Jim came back to boss us!" He smiled at his tall son.
There was a pause.
"Well, Dad—you always have ideas," said Norah, in the voice of one who waits patiently.
Mr. Linton hesitated.
"I don't know that I have anything very brilliant now," he said. "But I was thinking—do you remember Garrett, the fellow you boys used to tell us about? who never cared to get leave because he hadn't any home."
"Rather!" said the boys. "Fellow from Jamaica."
"He was an awfully sociable chap," Wally added, "and he didn't like cities. So London bored him stiff when he was alone. He said the trenches were much more homelike."
"Well, there must be plenty of people like that," said Mr. Linton. "Especially, of course, among the Australians. Fellows to whom leave can't mean what it should, for want of a home: and without any ties it's easy for them to get into all sorts of mischief. And they should get all they can out of leave, for the sake of the War, if for nothing else: they need a thorough mental re-fitting, to go back fresh and keen, so that they can give the very best of themselves when the work begins again."
"So you think of making Sir John's place into a Home for Tired people?" said Norah, excitedly. "Dad, it's a lovely plan!"
"What do you think, Jim?" asked Mr. Linton.
"Yes, I think it's a great idea," Jim said slowly. "Even the little bit of France we had showed us what I told you—that you've got to give your mind a spring-cleaning whenever you can, if you want to keep fit. I suppose if people are a bit older they can stick it better—some of them, at least. But when you're in the line for any time, you sometimes feel you've just got to forget things—smells and pain, and—things you see."
"Well, you'd forget pretty soon at a place like the one you've been reading about," said Wally. "Do you remember, Jim, how old poor old Garrett used to look? He was always cheery and ragging, and all that sort of thing, but often he used to look like his own grandfather, and his eyes gave you the creeps. And he couldn't sleep."
"'M!" said Jim. "I remember. If Garrett's still going, will you have him for your first patient, Nor? What will you call them, by the way—guests? patients? cases?"
"Inmates," grinned Wally.
"Sounds like a lunatic asylum," rejoined Jim. "How about lodgers? Or patrons?"
"They'll be neither, donkey," said Norah pleasantly. "Just Tired People, I think. Oh, Dad, I want to begin!"
"You shouldn't call your superiors names, especially when I have more ideas coming to me," said Jim severely. "Look here—I agree with Dad that you couldn't have a convalescent home, where you'd need nurses and doctors; but I do think you might ask fellows on final sick-leave, like us—who'd been discharged from hospitals, but were not quite fit yet. Chaps not really needing nursing, but not up to much travelling, or to the racket and fuss of an hotel."
"Yes," said Wally. "Or chaps who had lost a limb, and were trying to plan out how they were going to do without it." His young face looked suddenly grave; Norah remembered a saying of his once before—"I don't in the least mind getting killed, but I don't want Fritz to wing me." She moved a little nearer to him.
"That's a grand idea—yours too, Jimmy," she said. "Dad, do you think Sir John would be satisfied?"
"If we can carry out our plan as we hope, I think he would," Mr. Linton said. "We'll find difficulties, of course, and make mistakes, but we'll do our best, Norah. And if we can send back to the Front cheery men, rested and refreshed and keen—well, I think we'll be doing our bit. And after the War? What then?"
"I was thinking about that, too," said Norah. "And I got a clearer notion than about using it now, I think. Of course,"—she hesitated—"I don't know much about money matters, or if you think I ought to keep the place. You see, you always seem to have enough to give us everything we want, Dad. I won't need to keep it, will I? I don't want to, even if I haven't got much money."
"I'm not a millionaire," said David Linton, laughing. "But—no, you won't need an English income, Norah."
"I'm so glad," said Norah. "Then when we go back to Billabong, Dad, couldn't we turn it all into a place for partly-disabled soldiers,—where they could work a bit, just as much as they were able to, but they'd be sure of a home and wouldn't have any anxiety. I don't know if it could be made self—self—you know—earning its own living——"
"Self-supporting," assisted her father.
"Yes, self-supporting," said Norah gratefully. "Perhaps it could. But they'd all have their pensions to help them."
"Yes, and it could be put under a partly-disabled officer with a wife and kids that he couldn't support—some poor beggar feeling like committing suicide because he couldn't tell where little Johnny's next pair of boots was coming from!" added Jim. "That's the most ripping idea, Norah! What do you think, Dad?"
"Yes—excellent," said Mr. Linton. "The details would want a lot of working-out, of course: but there will be plenty of time for that. I would like to make it as nearly self-supporting as possible, so that there would be no idea of charity about it."
"A kind of colony," said Wally.
"Yes. It ought to be workable. The land is good, and with poultry-farming, and gardening, and intensive culture, it should pay well enough. We'll get all sorts of expert advice, Norah, and plan the thing thoroughly."
"And we'll call it 'The O'Neill Colony,' or something like that," said Norah, her eyes shining. "I'd like it to carry on Sir John's name, wouldn't you, Dad?"
"Indeed, yes," said David Linton. "It has some sort of quiet, inoffensive name already, by the way—yes, Homewood."
"Well, that sounds nice and restful," said Jim. "Sort of name you'd like to think of in the trenches. When do we go to see it, Dad?"
"The lawyers have written to ask the tenants what day will suit them," said his father. "They're an old Indian Army officer and his wife, I believe; General Somers. I don't suppose they will raise any objection to our seeing the house. By the way, there is another important thing: there's a motor and some vehicles and horses, and a few cows, that go with the place. O'Neill used to like to have it ready to go to at any time, no matter how unexpectedly. It was only when War work claimed him that he let it to these people. He was unusually well-off for an Irish landowner; it seems that his father made a heap of money on the Stock Exchange."
"Horses!" said Norah blissfully.
"And a motor."
"That will be handy for bringing the Tired People from the station," said she. "Horses that one could ride, I wonder, Daddy?"
"I shouldn't be surprised," said her father, laughing. "Anyhow, I daresay you will ride them."
"I'll try," said Norah modestly. "It sounds too good to be true. Can I run the fowls, Daddy? I'd like that job."
"Yes, you can be poultry-expert," said Mr. Linton. "As for me, I shall control the pigs."
"You won't be allowed to," said Wally. "You'll find a cold, proud steward, or bailiff, or head-keeper or something, who would die of apoplexy if either of you did anything so lowering. You may be allowed to ride, Norah, but it won't be an Australian scurry—you'll have to be awfully prim and proper, and have a groom trotting behind you. With a top-hat." He beamed upon her cheerfully.
"Me!" said Norah, aghast. "Wally, don't talk of such horrible things. It's rubbish, isn't it, Dad?"
"Grooms and top-hats don't seem to be included in the catalogue," said Mr. Linton, studying it.
"Bless you, that's not necessary," said Jim. "I mean, you needn't get too bucked because they're not. Public opinion will force you to get them. Probably Nor will have to ride in a top-hat, too."
"Never!" said Norah firmly. "Unless you promise to do it too, Jimmy."
"My King and Country have called me," said Jim, with unction. "Therefore I shall accompany you in uniform—and watch you trying to keep the top-hat on. It will be ever so cheery."
"You won't," said Norah. "You'll be in the mud in Flanders——" and then broke off, and changed the subject laboriously. There were few subjects that did not furnish more or less fun to the Linton family; but Norah never could manage to joke successfully about even the Flanders mud, which appeared to be a matter for humorous recollection to Jim and Wally. Whenever the thought of their return to that dim and terrible region that had swallowed up so many crossed her vision, something caught at her heart and made her breath come unevenly. She knew they must go: she would not have had it otherwise, even had it been certain that they would never come back to her. But that they should not—so alive, so splendid in their laughing strength—the agony of the thought haunted her dreams, no matter how she strove to put it from her by day.
Jim saw the shadow in her eyes and came to her rescue. There was never a moment when Jim and Norah failed to understand each other.
"You'll want a good deal of organization about that place, Dad," he said. "I suppose you'll try to grow things—vegetables and crops?"
"I've been trying to look ahead," said Mr. Linton. "This is only the second year of the War, and I've never thought it would be a short business. It doesn't seem to me that England realizes war at all, so far; everything goes on just the same—not only 'business as usual,' but other things too: pleasure, luxuries, eating, clothes; everything as usual. I reckon that conscription is bound to come, and before the Hun gets put in his place nearly every able-bodied man in these islands will be forced to help in the job."
"I think you're about right," Jim said.
"Well, then, other things will happen when the men go. Food will get scarcer—the enemy will sink more and more ships; everything that the shops and the farmers sell will get dearer and dearer, and many things will cease to exist altogether. You'll find that coal will run short; and live stock will get scarce because people won't be able to get imported food stuffs that they depend on now. Oh, it's my idea that there are tight times coming for the people of England. And that, of course, means a good deal of anxiety in planning a Home for Tired People. Tired People must be well fed and kept warm."
"Can't we do it, Daddy?" queried Norah, distressed.
"We're going to try, my girl. But I'm looking ahead. One farm comes in with the house, you know. I think we had better get a man to run that with us on the shares system, and we'll grow every bit of food for the house that we can. We'll have plenty of good cows, plenty of fowls, vegetables, fruit; we'll grow potatoes wherever we can put them in, and we'll make thorough provision for storing food that will keep."
"Eggs—in water glass," said Norah. "And I'll make tons of jam and bottle tons of fruit and vegetables."
"Yes. We'll find out how to preserve lots of things that we know nothing about now. I don't in the least imagine that if real shortage came private people would be allowed to store food; but a house run for a war purpose might be different. Anyhow, there's no shortage yet, so there's no harm in beginning as soon as we can. Of course we can't do very much before we grow things—and that won't be until next year."
"There's marmalade," said Norah wisely. "And apple jam—and we'll dry apples. And if the hens are good there may be eggs to save."
"Hens get discouraged in an English winter, and I'm sure I don't blame them," said Jim, laughing. "Never mind, Nor, they'll buck up in the spring."
"Then there's the question of labour," said Mr. Linton. "I'm inclined to employ only men who wouldn't be conscripted: partially-disabled soldiers or sailors who could still work, or men with other physical drawbacks. Lots of men whose hearts are too weak to go 'over the top' from the trenches could drive a plough quite well. Then, if conscription does come, we shall be safe."
"I'll like to do it, too," said Norah. "It would be jolly to help them."
"Of course, it will cut both ways," Mr. Linton said. "There should be no difficulty in getting men of the kind—poor lads, there are plenty of disabled ones. I'm inclined to think that the question of women servants will be more difficult."
"Well, I can cook a bit," said Norah—"thanks to Brownie."
"My dear child," said her father, slightly irritated—"you've no idea of what a fairly big English house means, apart from housekeeping and managing. We shall need a really good housekeeper as well as a cook; and goodness knows how many maids under her. You see the thing has got to be done very thoroughly. If it were just you and the boys and me you'd cook our eggs and bacon and keep us quite comfortable. But it will be quite another matter when we fill up all those rooms with Tired People."
"I suppose so," said Norah meekly. "But I can be useful, Daddy."
He patted her shoulder.
"Of course you can, mate. I'm only afraid you'll have too much to do. I must say I wish Brownie were here instead of in Australia."
"Dear old Brownie, wouldn't she love it all!" said Norah, her eyes tender at the thought of the old woman who had been nurse and mother, and mainspring of the Billabong house, since Norah's own mother had laid her baby in her kind arms and closed tired eyes so many years ago. "Wouldn't she love fixing the house! And how she'd hate cooking with coal instead of wood! Only nothing would make Brownie bad-tempered."
"Not even Wal and I," said Jim. "And I'll bet we were trying enough to damage a saint's patience. However, as we can't have Brownie, I suppose you'll advertise for some one else, Dad?"
"Oh, I suppose so—but sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," returned Mr. Linton. "I've thought of nothing but this inheritance of Norah's all day, and I'm arriving at the conclusion that it's going to be an inheritance of something very like hard work!"
"Well, that's all right, 'cause there shouldn't be any loafers in war-time," Norah said. She looked out of the window. "The rain is stopping; come along, everybody, and we'll go down Regent Street on a 'bus." To do which Norah always maintained was the finest thing in London.
They went down to see Norah's inheritance two days later. A quick train from London dropped them at a tiny station, where the stationmaster, a grizzled man apparently given over to the care of nasturtiums, directed them to Homewood. A walk of a mile along a wide white road brought them to big iron gates, standing open, beside a tiny lodge with diamond-paned windows set in lattice-work, under overhanging eaves; and all smothered with ivy out of which sparrows fluttered busily. The lodgekeeper, a neat woman, looked at the party curiously: no doubt the news of their coming had spread.
From the lodge the drive to the house wound through the park—a wide stretch of green, with noble trees, oak, beech and elm; not towering like Norah's native gum-trees, but flinging wide arms as though to embrace as much as possible of the beauty of the landscape. Bracken, beginning to turn gold, fringed the edge of the gravelled track. A few sheep and cows were to be seen, across the grass.
"Nice-looking sheep," said Mr. Linton.
"Yes, but you wouldn't call it over-stocked," was Jim's comment. Jim was not used to English parks. He was apt to think of any grass as "feed," in terms of so many head per acre.
The drive, well-gravelled and smoothly rolled, took them on, sauntering slowly, until it turned in a great sweep round a lawn, ending under a stone porch flung out from the front of the house. A wide porch, almost a verandah; to the delighted eyes of the Australians, who considered verandah-less houses a curious English custom, verging on lunacy. Near the house it was shut in with glass, and furnished with a few lounge chairs and a table or two.
"That's a jolly place!" Jim said quickly.
The house itself was long and rambling, and covered with ivy. There were big windows—it seemed planned to catch all the sunlight that could possibly be tempted into it. The lawn ended in a terrace with a stone balustrade, where one could sit and look across the park and to woods beyond it—now turning a little yellow in the sunlight, and soon to glow with orange and flame-colour and bronze, when the early frosts should have painted the dying leaves. From the lawn, to right and left, ran shrubberies and flower-beds, with winding grass walks.
"Why, it's lovely!" Norah breathed. She slipped a hand into her father's arm.
Jim rang the bell. A severe butler appeared, and explained that General and Mrs. Somers had gone out for the day, and had begged that Mr. Linton and his party would make themselves at home and explore the house and grounds thoroughly: an arrangement which considerably relieved the minds of the Australians, who had rather dreaded the prospect of "poking about" the house under the eyes of its tenants. The butler stiffened respectfully at the sight of the boys' uniforms. It appeared presently that he had been a mess-sergeant in days gone by, and now regarded himself as the personal property of the General.
"Very sorry they are to leave the 'ouse, too, sir," said the butler. "A nice place, but too big for them."
"Haven't they any children?" Norah asked.
"Only the Captain, miss, and he's in Mesopotamia, which is an 'orrible 'ole for any gentleman to be stuck in," said the butler with a fine contempt for Mesopotamia and all its works. "And the mistress is tired of 'ousekeeping, so they're going to live in one of them there family 'otels, as they call them." The butler sighed, and then, as if conscious of having lapsed from correct behaviour, stiffened to rigidity and became merely butler once more. "Will you see the 'ouse now, sir?"
They entered a wide hall in which was a fireplace that drew an exclamation from Norah, since she had not seen so large a one since she left Billabong. This was built to take logs four feet long, to hold which massive iron dogs stood in readiness. Big leather armchairs and couches and tables strewn with magazines and papers, together with a faint fragrance of tobacco in the air, gave to the hall a comforting sense of use. The drawing-room, on the other hand, was chillingly splendid and formal, and looked as though no one had ever sat in the brocaded chairs: and the great dining room was almost as forbidding. The butler intimated that the General and his wife preferred the morning-room, which proved to be a cheery place, facing south and west, with a great window-recess filled with flowering plants.
"This is jolly," Jim said. "But so would the other rooms be, if they weren't so awfully empty. They only want people in them."
"Tired people," Norah said.
"Yes," Wally put in. "I'm blessed if I think they would stay tired for long, here."
There was a long billiard-room, with a ghostly table shrouded in dust-sheets; and upstairs, a range of bedrooms of all shapes and sizes, but all bright and cheerful, and looking out upon different aspects of park and woodland. Nothing was out of order; everything was plain, but care and taste were evident in each detail. Then, down a back staircase, they penetrated to outer regions where the corner of Norah's soul that Brownie had made housewifely rejoiced over a big, bright kitchen with pantries and larders and sculleries of the most modern type. The cook, who looked severe, was reading the Daily Mail in the servants' hall; here and there they had glimpses of smart maids, irreproachably clad, who seemed of a race apart from either the cheery, friendly housemaids of Donegal, or Sarah and Mary of Billabong, who disliked caps, but had not the slightest objection to helping to put out a bush-fire or break in a young colt. Norah tried to picture the Homewood maids at either task, and failed signally.
From the house they wandered out to visit well-appointed stables with room for a dozen horses, and a garage where a big touring car stood—Norah found herself quite unable to realize that it belonged to her! But in the stables were living things that came and nuzzled softly in her hand with inquiring noses that were evidently accustomed to gifts of sugar and apples, and Norah felt suddenly, for the first time, at home. There were two good cobs, and a hunter with a beautiful lean head and splendid shoulders; a Welsh pony designed for a roomy tub-cart in the coach house; and a good old stager able for anything from carrying a nervous rider to drawing a light plough. The cobs, the groom explained, were equally good in saddle or harness; and there was another pony, temporarily on a visit to a vet., which Sir John had liked to ride. "But of course Killaloe was Sir John's favourite," he added, stroking the hunter's soft brown muzzle. "There wasn't no one could show them two the way in a big run."
They tore themselves with difficulty from the stables, and, still guided by the butler, who seemed to think he must not let them out of his sight, wandered through the grounds. Thatched cottage, orchard, and walled garden, rosery, with a pergola still covered with late blooms, lawns and shrubberies. There was nothing very grand, but all was exquisitely kept; and a kind of still peace brooded over the beauty of the whole, and made War and its shadows seem very far away. The farms, well-tilled and prosperous-looking, were at the western side of the park: Mr. Linton and Jim talked with the tenant whose lease was expiring while Norah and Wally sat on an old oak log and chatted to the butler, who told them tales of India, and asked questions about Australia, being quite unable to realize any difference between the natives of the two countries. "All niggers, I calls them," said the butler loftily.
"That seems a decent fellow," said Mr. Linton, as they walked back across the park. "Hawkins, the tenant-farmer, I mean. Has he made a success of his place, do you know?"
"'Awkins 'as an excellent name, sir," replied the butler. "A good, steady man, and a rare farmer. The General thinks 'ighly of 'im. 'E's sorry enough that 'is lease is up, 'Awkins is."
"I think of renewing it, under slightly different conditions," Mr. Linton observed. "I don't wish to turn the man out, if he will grow what I want."
"Well, that's good news," said the butler heartily. "I'm sure 'Awkins'll do anything you may ask 'im to, sir." A sudden dull flush came into his cheeks, and he looked for a moment half-eagerly at Mr. Linton, as if about to speak. He checked himself, however, and they returned to the house, where, by the General's orders, coffee and sandwiches awaited the visitors in the morning-room. The butler flitted about them, seeing to their comfort unobtrusively.
"If I may make so bold as to ask, sir," he said presently, "you'll be coming to live here shortly?"
"As soon as General Somers leaves," Mr. Linton answered.
The man dropped his voice, standing rigidly to attention.
"I suppose, sir," he said wistfully, "you would not be needing a butler?"
"A butler—why. I hadn't thought of such a thing," said Mr. Linton, laughing. "There are not very many of you in Australia, you know."
"But indeed, sir, you'll need one, in a place like this," said the ex-sergeant, growing bold. "Every one 'as them—and if you would be so kind as to consider if I'd do, sir? I know the place, and the General 'ud give me a good record. I've been under him these fifteen years, but he doesn't need me after he leaves here."
"Well——" said Mr. Linton thoughtfully. "But we shan't be a small family—we mean to fill this place up with officers needing rest. We're coming here to work, not to play."
"Officers!" said the ex-sergeant joyfully. "But where'd you get any one to 'elp you better, sir? Lookin' after officers 'as been my job this many a year. And I'd serve you faithful, sir."
Norah slipped her hand into her father's arm.
"We really would need him, I believe, Daddy," she whispered.
"You would, indeed, miss," said the butler gratefully. "I could valet the young gentlemen, and if there's any special attention needed, I could give it. I'd do my very utmost, miss. I'm old to go out looking for a new place at my time of life. And if you've once been in the Army, you like to stay as near it as you can."
"Well, we'll see," Mr. Linton said guardedly. "I'll probably write to General Somers about you." At which the butler, forgetting his butlerhood, came smartly to attention—and then became covered with confusion and concealed himself as well as he could behind a coffee-pot.
"You might do much worse," Jim remarked, on their way to the station. "He looks a smart man—and though this place is glorious, it's going to take a bit of running. Keep him for a bit, at any rate, Dad."
"I think it might be as well," Mr. Linton answered. He turned at a bend in the drive, to look back at Homewood, standing calm and peaceful in its clustering trees. "Well, Norah, what do you think of your property?"
"I'm quite unable to believe it's mine," said Norah, laughing. "But I suppose that will come in time. However, there's one thing quite certain, Dad—you and I will have to get very busy!"
OF LONDON AND OTHER MATTERS
Jim and Wally dropped lightly from the footboard of a swift motor-'bus, dodged through the traffic, and swung quickly down a quiet side-street. They stopped before a stone house, where, from a window above, Norah watched their eager faces as Jim fitted his latchkey and opened the door. She turned back into the room with a little sigh.
"There they are, Dad. And they're passed fit—I know."
David Linton looked up from the elbow-splint he was making.
"Well, it had to come, mate," he said.
"Yes, I know. But I hoped it wouldn't!" said poor Norah inconsistently.
"You wouldn't like them not to go," said her father. And then cheery footsteps clattered up the stairs, and the boys burst in.
"Passed!" shouted Jim. "Fit as fiddles!"
"When?" Norah asked.
"This day week. So we'll have nice time to settle you into Homewood and try those horses, won't we?"
"Yes, rather!" said Norah. "Were they quite satisfied with your arm, Wally?"
"Yes, they say it's a lovely arm," said that gentleman modestly. "I always knew it, but it's nice to have other people agreeing with me! And they say our lungs are beautiful too; not a trace of gas left. And—oh, you tell them, Jim!"
"And we're not to go out yet," said Jim, grinning widely. "Special Lewis-gun course at Aldershot first, and after that a bombing course. So there you are." He broke off, his utterance hindered by the fact that Norah had suddenly hugged him very hard, while David Linton, jumping up, caught Wally's hand.
"Not the Front, my dear boys!"
"Well, not yet," said Wally, pumping the hand, and finding Norah's searching for his free one. "It's pretty decent, isn't it? because every one knows there will be plenty of war at the Front yet."
"Plenty indeed," said Mr. Linton.
"I say, buck up, old chap," said Jim, patting Norah's shoulder very hard. "One would think we were booked for the trenches to-night!"
"I wouldn't have made an ass of myself if you had been," said Norah, shaking back her curls and mopping her eyes defiantly. "I was prepared for that, and then you struck me all of a heap! Oh, Jimmy, I am glad! I'd like to hug the War Office!"
"You're the first person I ever heard with such sentiments," returned her brother. "Most people want to heave bombs at it. However, they've treated us decently, and no mistake. You see, ever since June we've kept bothering them to go out, and then getting throat-trouble and having to cave in again; and now that we really are all right I suppose they think they'll make sure of us. So that's that."
"I would have been awfully wild if they hadn't passed us," Wally said. "But since they have, and they'll put us to work, I don't weep a bit at being kept back for awhile. Lots of chaps seem to think being at the Front is heavenly, but I'm blessed if I can see it that way. We didn't have very much time there, certainly, but there were only three ingredients in what we did have—mud, barbed wire, and gas."
"Yes, and it's not much of a mixture," said Jim. "All the same, it's got to be taken if necessary. Still, I'm not sorry it's postponed for a bit; there will be heaps of war yet, and meanwhile we're just learning the trade." He straightened his great shoulders. "I never felt so horribly young and ignorant as when I found grown-up men in my charge in France."
"Poor old Jimmy always did take his responsibilities heavily," said Wally, laughing.
Mr. Linton looked at his big son, remembering a certain letter from his commanding officer which had caused him and Norah to glow with pride; remembering, also, how the men on Billabong Station had worked under "Master Jim." But he knew that soldiering had always been a serious business to his boy. Personal danger had never entered into Jim's mind; but the danger of ignorant handling of his men had been a tremendous thing to him. Even without "mud, barbed-wire, and gas" Jim was never likely to enjoy war in the light-hearted way in which Wally would certainly take it under more pleasant conditions.
"Well—we've a week then, boys," he said cheerfully, "and no anxieties immediately before us except the new cook-ladies."
"Well, goodness knows they are enough," Norah said fervently.
"Anything more settled?" Jim asked.
"I have an ecstatic letter from Allenby." Allenby was the ex-sergeant. "He seems in a condition of trembling joy at the prospect of being our butler; and, what is more to the point, he says he has a niece whom he can recommend as a housemaid. So I have told him to instal her before we get to Homewood on Thursday. Hawkins has written a three-volume list of things he will require for the farm, but I haven't had time to study it yet. And Norah has had letters from nineteen registry-offices, all asking for a deposit!"
The boys roared.
"That makes seventy-one, doesn't it, Nor?" Wally asked.
"Something like it," Norah admitted ruefully. "And the beauty of it is, not one of them will guarantee so much as a kitchenmaid. They say sadly that 'in the present crisis' it's difficult to supply servants. They don't seem to think there's any difficulty about paying them deposit-fees."
"That phrase, 'in the present crisis,' is the backbone of business to-day," Mr. Linton said. "If a shop can't sell you anything, or if they mislay your property, or sell your purchase to some one else, or keep your repairs six months and then lose them, or send in your account with a lot of items you never ordered or received, they simply wave 'the present crisis' at you, and all is well."
"Yes, but they don't regard it as any excuse if you pay too little, or don't pay at all," Jim said.
"Of course not—that wouldn't be business, my son," said Wally, laughing. "The one department the Crisis doesn't hit is the one that sends out bills." He turned to Norah. "What about the cook-lady, Nor?"
"She's safe," said Norah, sighing with relief. "There's an awfully elegant letter from her, saying she'll come."
"Oh, that's good business!" Jim said. For a fortnight Norah had had the unforgettable experience of sitting in registry-offices, attempting to engage a staff for Homewood. She had always been escorted by one or more of her male belongings, and their extreme ignorance of how to conduct the business had been plain to the meanest intelligence. The ex-sergeant, whose spirit of meekness in proposing himself had been in extraordinary contrast to the condescending truculence of other candidates, had been thankfully retained. There had at times seemed a danger that instead of butler he might awake to find himself maid-of-all-work, since not one of the applicants came up to even Norah's limited standard. Finally, however, Mr. Linton had refused to enter any more registry-offices or to let Norah enter them, describing them, in good set terms as abominable holes; and judicious advertising had secured them a housekeeper who seemed promising, and a cook who insisted far more on the fact that she was a lady than on any ability to prepare meals. The family, while not enthusiastic, was hopeful.
"I hope she's all right," Norah said doubtfully. "I suppose we can't expect much—they all tell you that nearly every servant in England has 'gone into munitions,' which always sounds as though she'd get fired out of a trench-mortar presently."
"Some of those we saw might be benefited by the process," said Mr. Linton, shuddering at memories of registry-offices.
"Well, what about the rest?—haven't you got to get a kitchenmaid and some more housemaids or things?" queried Jim vaguely.
"I'm not going to try here," said Mr. Linton firmly. "Life is too short; I'd sooner be my own kitchenmaid than let Norah into one of those offices again. Allenby's niece will have to double a few parts at first, and I've written to Ireland—to Mrs. Moroney—to see if she can find us two or three nice country girls. I believe she'll be able to do it. Meanwhile we'll throw care to the winds. I've told Allenby to order in all necessary stores, so that we can be sure of getting something to eat when we go down; beyond that, I decline to worry, or let Norah worry, about anything."
"Then let's go out and play," cried Norah, jumping up.
"Right!" said the boys. "Where?"
"Oh, anywhere—we'll settle as we go!" said Norah airily. She fled for her hat and coat.
So they went to the Tower of London—a place little known to the English, but of which Australians never tire—and spent a blissful afternoon in the Armoury, examining every variety of weapons and armament, from Crusaders' chain-mail to twentieth-century rifles. There is no place so full of old stories and of history—history that suddenly becomes quite a different matter from something you learn by the half-page out of an extremely dull book at school. This is history alive, and the dim old Tower becomes peopled with gay and gallant figures clad in shining armour, bent on knightly adventures. There you see mail shirts of woven links that slip like silken mesh through the fingers, yet could withstand the deadliest thrust of a dagger; maces with spiked heads, that only a mighty man could swing; swords such as that with which Coeur-de-Lion could slice through such a mace as though it were no more than a carrot—sinuous blades that Saladin loved, that would sever a down cushion flung in the air. Daggers and poignards, too, of every age, needle-pointed yet viciously strong, with exquisitely inlaid hilts and fine-lined blades; long rapiers that brought visions of gallants with curls and lace stocks and silken hose, as ready to fight as to dance or to make a poem to a fair lady's eyebrow. Helmets of every age, with visors behind which the knights of old had looked grimly as they charged down the lists at "gentle and joyous passages of arms." Horse-armour of amazing weight—"I always pictured those old knights prancing out on a thirteen-stone hack, but you'd want a Suffolk Punch to carry that ironmongery!" said Wally. So through room after room, each full of brave ghosts of the past, looking benevolently at the tall boy-soldiers from the New World; until at length came closing-time, and they went out reluctantly, across the flagged yard where poor young Anne Boleyn laid her gentle head on the block; where the ravens hop and caw to-day as their ancestors did in the sixteenth century when she walked across from her grim prison that still bears on its wall a scrawled "Anne." A dull little prison-room, it must have been, after the glitter and pomp of castles and palaces—with only the rugged walls of the Tower Yard to look upon from the tiny window.
"And she must have had such a jolly good time at first," said Wally. "Old Henry VIII was very keen on her, wasn't he? And then she was only his second wife—by the time he'd had six they must have begun to feel themselves rather two-a-penny!"
They found a 'bus that took them by devious ways through the City; the part of London that many Londoners never see, since it is another world from the world of Bond Street and Oxford Street, with their newness and their glittering shops. But to the queer folk who come from overseas, it is the real London, and they wander in its narrow streets and link fingers with the past. Old names look down from the smoke-grimed walls: Black Friars and White Friars, Bread Street, St. Martin's Lane, Leadenhall Street, Temple Bar: the hurrying crowd of to-day fades, and instead come ghosts of armed men and of leather-jerkined 'prentices, less ready to work than to fight; of gallants with ruffs, and fierce sailor-men of the days of Queen Bess, home from the Spanish Main with ships laden with gold, swaggering up from the Docks to spend their prize-money as quickly as they earned it. Visions of dark nights, with link-boys running beside chair-bearers, carrying exquisite ladies to routs and masques: of foot-pads, slinking into dark alleys and doorways as the watch comes tramping down the street. Visions of the press-gang, hunting stout lads, into every tavern, whisking them from their hiding-places and off to the ships: to disappear with never a word of farewell until, years later, bronzed and tarred and strange of speech, they returned to astounded families who had long mourned them as dead. Visions of Queen Bess, with her haughty face and her red hair, riding through the City that adored her, her white palfrey stepping daintily through the cheering crowd: and great gentlemen beside her—Raleigh, Essex, Howard. They all wander together through the grey streets where the centuries-old buildings tower overhead: all blending together, a formless jumble of the Past, and yet very much alive: and it does not seem to matter in the least that you look down upon them from a rattling motor-'bus that leaves pools of oil where perchance lay the puddle over which Raleigh flung his cloak lest his queen's slipper should be soiled. Very soon we shall look down on the City from airships while conductors come and stamp our tickets with a bell-punch: but the old City will be unchanged, and it will be only we who look upon it who will pass like shadows from its face.
The Australians left their 'bus in Fleet Street, and dived down a narrow lane to a low doorway with the sign of the Cheshire Cheese—the old inn with sanded floor and bare oak benches and tables, where Dr. Johnson and his followers used to meet, to dine and afterwards to smoke long churchwarden pipes and talk, as Wally said, "such amazing fine language that it made you feel a little light-headed." It is to be feared that the Australians had not any great enthusiasm for Dr. Johnson. They had paid a visit of inspection to the room upstairs where the great man used to take his ease, but not one of them had felt any desire to sit in his big armchair.
"You don't understand what a chance you're scorning," Mr. Linton had said, laughing, as his family turned from the seat of honour. "Why, good Americans die happy if they can only say they have sat in Dr. Johnson's chair!"
"I think he was an ill-mannered old man!" quoth Norah, with her nose tilted. Which seemed to end the matter, so far as they were concerned.
But if the Billabong family took no interest in Dr. Johnson, they had a deep affection for the old inn itself. They loved its dim rooms with their blackened oak, and it was a never-ending delight to watch the medley of people who came there for meals: actors, artists, literary folk, famous and otherwise; Americans, foreigners, Colonials; politicians, fighting men of both Services, busy City men: for everybody comes, sooner or later, to the old Cheshire Cheese. Being people of plain tastes they liked the solid, honest meals—especially since increasing War-prices were already inducing hotels and restaurants everywhere to disguise a tablespoonful of hashed oddments under an elegant French name and sell it for as much money as a dinner for a hungry man. Norah used to fight shy of the famous "lark-pudding" until it was whispered to her that what was not good beef steaks in the dish was nothing more than pigeon or possibly even sparrow! after which she enjoyed it, and afterwards pilgrimaged to the kitchen to see the great blue bowls, as big as a wash-hand basin, in which the puddings have been made since Dr. Johnson's time, and the great copper in which they are boiled all night. Legend says that any one who can eat three helpings of lark-pudding is presented with all that remains: but no one has ever heard of a hero able to manage his third plateful!
Best of all the Billabong folk loved the great cellars under the inn, which were once the cloisters of an old monastery: where there are unexpected steps, and dim archways, and winding paths where it is very easy to imagine that you see bare-footed friars with brown habits and rope girdles pacing slowly along. There they bought quaint brown jars and mustard-pots of the kind that are used, and have always been used, on the tables above. But best of all were the great oaken beams above them, solid as England itself, but blackened and charred by the Great Fire of 1666. Norah used to touch the burned surface gently, wondering if it was not a dream—if the hand on the broken charcoal were really her own, more used to Bosun's bridle on the wide plains of Billabong!
There were not many people in the room as they came in this evening, for it was early; dinner, indeed, was scarcely ready, and a few customers sat about, reading evening papers and discussing the war news. In one corner were an officer and a lady; and at sight of the former Jim and Wally saluted and broke into joyful smiles. The officer jumped up and greeted them warmly.
"Hullo, boys!" he said. "I'm delighted to see you. Fit again?—you look it!"
"Dad, this is Major Hunt," Jim said, dragging his father forward. "You remember, of our regiment. And my sister, sir. I say, I'm awfully glad to see you!"
"Come and meet my wife," said Major Hunt. "Stella, here are the two young Australians that used to make my life a burden!"
Everybody shook hands indiscriminately, and presently they joined forces round a big table, while Jim and Wally poured out questions concerning the regiment and every one in it.
"Most of them are going strong," Major Hunt said—"we have a good few casualties, of course, but we haven't lost many officers—most of them have come back. I think all your immediate chums are still in France. But I've been out of it myself for two months—stopped a bit shrapnel with my hand, and it won't get better." He indicated a bandaged left hand as he spoke, and they realized that his face was worn, and deeply lined with pain. "It's stupid," he said, and laughed. "But when are you coming back? We've plenty of work for you."
They told him, eagerly.
"Well, you might just as well learn all you can before you go out," Major Hunt said. "The war's not going to finish this winter, or the next. Indeed, I wouldn't swear that my six-year-old son, who is drilling hard, won't have time to be in at the finish!" At which Mrs. Hunt shuddered and said, "Don't be so horrible, Douglas!" She was a slight, pretty woman, cheery and pleasant, and she made them all laugh by her stories of work in a canteen.
"All the soldiers used to look upon us as just part of the furniture," she said. "They used to rush in, in a break between parades, and give their orders in a terrible hurry. As for saying "Please—well——"
"You ought to have straightened them up," said Major Hunt, with a good-tempered growl.
"Ah, poor boys, they hadn't time! The Irish regiments were better, but then it isn't any trouble for an Irishman to be polite; it comes to him naturally. But those stolid English country lads can't say things easily." She laughed. "I remember a young lance-corporal who used often to come to our house to see my maid. He was terribly shy, and if I chanced to go into the kitchen he always bolted like a rabbit into the scullery. The really terrible thing was that sometimes I had to go on to the scullery myself, and run him to earth among the saucepans, when he would positively shake with terror. I used to wonder how he ever summoned up courage to speak to Susan, let alone to face the foe when he went to France!"
"That's the sort that gets the V.C. without thinking about it," said Major Hunt, laughing.
"I was very busy in the Canteen one morning—it was a cold, wet day, and the men rushed us for hot drinks whenever they had a moment. Presently a warrior dashed up to the counter, banged down his penny and said 'Coffee!' in a voice of thunder. I looked up and caught his eye as I was turning to run for the coffee—and it was my lance-corporal!"
"What did you do?"
"We just gibbered at each other across the counter for a moment, I believe—and I never saw a face so horror-stricken! Then he turned and fled, leaving his penny behind him. Poor boy—I gave it to Susan to return to him."
"Didn't you ever make friends with any of them, Mrs. Hunt?" Norah asked.
"Oh yes! when we had time, or when they had. But often one was on the rush for every minute of our four-hour shifts."
"Jolly good of you," said Jim.
"Good gracious, no! It was a very poor sort of war-work, but busy mothers with only one maid couldn't manage more. And I loved it, especially in Cork: the Irish boys were dears, and so keen. I had a great respect for those boys. The lads who enlisted in England had all their chums doing the same thing, and everybody patted them on the back and said how noble they were, and gave them parties and speeches and presents. But the Irish boys enlisted, very often, dead against the wishes of their own people, and against their priest—and you've got to live in Ireland to know what that means."
"The wonder to me was, always, the number of Irishmen who did enlist," said Major Hunt. "And aren't they fighters!"
"They must be great," Jim said. "You should hear our fellows talk about the Dublins and the Munsters in Gallipoli." His face clouded: it was a grievous matter to Jim that he had not been with those other Australian boys who had already made the name of Anzac ring through the world.
"Yes, you must be very proud of your country," Mrs. Hunt said, with her charming smile. "I tell my husband that we must emigrate there after the war. It must be a great place in which to bring up children, judging by all the Australians one sees."
"Possibly—but a man with a damaged hand isn't wanted there," Major Hunt said curtly.
"Oh, you'll be all right long before we want to go out," was his wife's cheerful response. But there was a shadow in her eyes.
Wally did not notice any shadow. He had hero-worshipped Major Hunt in his first days of soldiering, when that much-enduring officer, a Mons veteran with the D.S.O. to his credit, had been chiefly responsible for the training of newly-joined subalterns: and Major Hunt, in his turn, had liked the two Australian boys, who, whatever their faults of carelessness or ignorance, were never anything but keen. Now, in his delight at meeting his senior officer again, Wally chattered away like a magpie, asking questions, telling Irish fishing-stories, and other stories of adventures in Ireland, hazarding wild opinions about the war, and generally manifesting a cheerful disregard of the fact that the tired man opposite him was not a subaltern as irresponsible as himself. Somehow, the weariness died out of Major Hunt's eyes. He began to joke in his turn, and to tell queer yarns of the trenches: and presently, indeed, the whole party seemed to be infected by the same spirit, so that the old walls of the Cheshire Cheese echoed laughter that must have been exceedingly discouraging to the ghost of Dr. Johnson, if, as is said, that unamiable maker of dictionaries haunts his ancient tavern.
"Well, you've made us awfully cheerful," said Major Hunt, when dinner was over, and they were dawdling over coffee. "Stella and I were feeling rather down on our luck, I believe, when you appeared, and now we've forgotten all about it. Do you always behave like this, Miss Linton?"
"No, I have to be very sedate, or I'd never keep my big family in order," said Norah, laughing. "You've no idea what a responsibility they are."
"Haven't I?" said he. "You forget I have a houseful of my own."
"Tell me about them," Norah asked. "Do you keep them in order?"
"We say we do, for the sake of discipline, but I'm not too sure about it," said Mrs. Hunt. "As a matter of fact, I am very strict, but Douglas undoes all my good work. Is it really true that he is strict in the regiment, Mr. Jim?"
Jim and Wally shuddered.
"I'd find it easier to tell you if he wasn't here," Jim said. "There are awful memories, aren't there, Wal?"
"Rather!" said Wally feelingly. "Do you remember the day I didn't salute on parade?"
"I believe your mangled remains were carried off the barrack-square," said Jim, with a twinkle. "I expect I should have been one of the fatigue-part, only that was the day I was improperly dressed!"
"What, you didn't come on parade in a bath-towel, did you?" his father asked.
"No, but I had a shoulder-strap undone—it's nearly as bad, isn't it, sir?" Jim grinned at Major Hunt.
"If I could remember the barrack-square frown, at the moment, I would assume it," said that officer, laughing. "Never mind, I'll deal with you both when we all get back."
"You haven't told me about the family," Norah persisted. "The family you are strict with, I mean," she added kindly.
"You have no more respect for a field-officer than your brother has," said he.
"Whisper!" said Mrs. Hunt. "He was only a subaltern himself before the war!"
Her husband eyed her severely.
"You'll get put under arrest if you make statements liable to excite indiscipline among the troops!" he said. "Don't listen to her, Miss Linton, and I'll tell you about the family she spoils. There's Geoffrey, who is six, and Alison, who's five—at least I think she's five, isn't she, Stella?"
"Much you know of your babies!" said his wife, with a fine scorn. "Alison won't be five for two months."
"Hasn't she a passion for detail!" said her husband admiringly. "Well, five-ish, Miss Linton. And finally there's a two-year-old named Michael. And when they all get going together they make rather more noise than a regiment. But they're rather jolly, and I hope you'll come and see them."
"Oh, do," said Mrs. Hunt. "Geoff would just love to hear about Australia. He told me the other day that when he grows up he means to go out there and be a kangaroo!"
"I suppose you know you must never check a child's natural ambitions!" Mr. Linton told her gravely.
"Was that your plan?" she laughed.
"Oh, my pair hadn't any ambitions beyond sitting on horses perpetually and pursuing cattle!" said Mr. Linton. "That was very useful to me, so I certainly didn't check it."
"H'm!" said Jim, regarding him inquiringly. "I wonder how your theory would have lasted, Dad, if I'd grown my hair long and taken to painting?"
"That wouldn't have been a natural ambition at all, so I should have been able to deal with it with a clear conscience," said his father, laughing. "In any case, the matter could safely have been left to Norah—she would have been more than equal to it."
"I trust so," said Norah pleasantly. "You with long hair, Jimmy!"
"It's amazing—and painful—to see the number of fellows who take long hair into khaki with them," said Major Hunt. "The old Army custom was to get your hair cut over the comb for home service and under the comb for active service. Jolly good rule, too. But the subaltern of the New Army goes into the trenches with locks like a musician's. At least, too many of him does."
"Never could understand any one caring for the bother of long hair," said Jim, running his hand over his dark, close-cropped poll. "I say, isn't it time we made a move, if we're going to a show?" He looked half-shyly at Mrs. Hunt. "Won't you and the Major come with us? It's been so jolly meeting you."
"Good idea!" said Mr. Linton, cutting across Mrs. Hunt's protest. "Do come—I know Norah is longing to be asked to meet the family, and that will give you time to fix it up." He over-ruled any further objections by the simple process of ignoring them, whereupon the Hunts wisely gave up manufacturing any more: and presently they had discovered two taxis, Norah and her father taking Mrs. Hunt in the first, leaving the three soldiers to follow in the second. They slid off through the traffic of Fleet Street.
"We really shouldn't let you take possession of us like this," said Mrs. Hunt a little helplessly. "But it has been so lovely to see Douglas cheerful again. He has not laughed so much for months."
"You are anxious about his hand?" David Linton asked.
"Yes, very. He has had several kinds of treatment for it, but it doesn't seem to get better; and the pain is wearing. The doctors say his best chance is a thorough change, as well as treatment, but we can't manage it—the three babies are expensive atoms. Now there is a probability of another operation to his hand, and he has been so depressed about it, that I dragged him out to dinner in the hope of cheering him up. But I don't think I should have succeeded if we hadn't met you."
"It was great luck for us," Norah said. "The boys have always told us so much of Major Hunt. He was ever so good to them."
"He told me about them, too," said Mrs. Hunt. "He liked them because he said he never succeeded in boring them!"
"Why, you couldn't bore Jim and Wally!" said Norah, laughing. Then a great idea fell upon her, and she grew silent, leaving the conversation to her companions as the taxi whirred on its swift way through the crowded streets until they drew up before the theatre.
In the vestibule she found her father close to her and endeavoured to convey many things to him by squeezing his arm very hard among the crowd, succeeding in so much that Mr. Linton knew perfectly well that Norah was the victim of a new idea—and was quite content to wait to be told what it was. But there was no chance of that until the evening was over, and they had bade farewell to the Hunts, arranging to have tea with them next day: after which a taxi bore them to the Kensington flat, and they gathered in the sitting-room while Norah brewed coffee over a spirit-lamp.
"I'm jolly glad we met the Hunts," Jim said. "But isn't it cruel luck for a man like that to be kept back by a damaged hand!"
"Rough on Mrs. Hunt, too," Wally remarked. "She looked about as seedy as he did."
"Daddy——!" said Norah eagerly.
David Linton laughed.
"Yes, I knew you had one," he said, "Out with it—I'll listen."
"They're Tired People," said Norah: and waited.
"Yes, they're certainly tired enough," said her father. "But the children, Norah? I don't think we could possibly take in little children, considering the other weary inmates."
"No, I thought that too," Norah answered eagerly. "But don't you remember the cottage, Daddy? Why shouldn't they have it?"
"By Jove!" said Jim. "That jolly little thatched place?"
"Yes—it has several rooms. They could let their own house, and then they'd save heaps of money. It would get them right out of London; and Mrs. Hunt told me that London is the very worst place for him—the doctors said so."
"That is certainly an idea," Mr. Linton said. "It's near enough to London for Hunt to run up for his treatment. We could see that they were comfortable." He smiled at Norah, whose flushed face was dimly visible through the steam of the coffee. "I think it would be rather a good way to begin our job, Norah."
"It would be so nice that it doesn't feel like any sort of work!" said Norah.
"I think you may find a chance of work; they have three small children, and not much money," said her father prophetically.
"I say, I hope the Major would agree," Jim put in. "I know he's horribly proud."
"We'll kidnap the babies, and then they'll just have to come," Norah laughed.
"Picture Mr. Linton," said Wally happily, "carrying on the good work by stalking through London with three kids sticking out of his pockets—followed by Norah, armed with feeding-bottles!"
"Wounded officer and wife hard in pursuit armed with shot guns!" supplemented Jim. "I like your pacifist ideas of running a home for Tired People, I must say!"
"Why, they would forget that they had ever been tired!" said Norah. "I think it's rather a brilliant notion—there certainly wouldn't be another convalescent home in England run on the same lines. But you're not good on matters of detail—people don't have feeding-bottles for babies of that age."
"I'm not well up in babies," said Wally. "Nice people, but I like somebody else to manage 'em. I thought bottles were pretty safe until they were about seven!"
"Well, we'll talk it over with the Hunts to-morrow—the cottage, not the bottles," Mr. Linton said. "Meanwhile, it's bed-time, so good-night, everybody." He dispersed the assembly by the simple process of switching off the electric light—smiling to himself as Jim and Norah two-stepped, singing, down the tiny corridor in the darkness.
But the mid-day post brought a worried little note from Mrs. Hunt, putting off the party. Her husband had had a bad report on his hand that morning, and was going into hospital for an immediate operation. She hoped to fix a day later on—the note was a little incoherent. Norah had a sudden vision of the three small Hunts "who made rather more noise than a regiment" rampaging round the harassed mother as she tried to write.
"Perhaps it's as well—we'll study the cottage, and make sure that it's all right for them," said her father. "Then we'll kidnap them. Meanwhile we'll go and send them a big hamper of fruit, and put some sweets in for the babies." A plan which was so completely after Norah's heart that she quite forgot her disappointment.
They bade good-bye to the flat early next morning and went down to Homewood through a dense fog that rolled up almost to the carriage windows like masses of white wool. At the station the closed carriage waited for them, with the brown cobs pawing the ground impatiently. General Somers' chauffeur had gone with his master, and so far they had not succeeded in finding a substitute, but the groom and coachman, who were also gardeners in their spare time, considered themselves part and parcel of the place, and had no idea of changing their home.
"The cart for the luggage will be here presently, sir," Jones, the old coachman, told Mr. Linton. So they left a bewildering assortment of suit-cases and trunks piled up on the platform in the care of an ancient porter, and packed themselves into the carriage. Norah was wont to say that the only vehicle capable of accommodating her three long men-folk comfortably was an omnibus. The fog was lifting as they rolled smoothly up the long avenue; and just as they came within sight of the house a gleam of pale sunlight found its way through the misty clouds and lingered on the ivy-clad gables. The front door was flung wide to welcome them: on the steps hovered the ex-sergeant, wearing a discreet smile. Behind him fluttered a print dress and a white apron, presumably worn by his niece.
"I say, Norah, don't you feel like the Queen of Sheba entering her ancestral halls?" whispered Wally wickedly, as they mounted the steps.
"If she felt simply horrible, then I do!" returned Norah. "I suppose I'll get used to it in time, but at present I want a hollow log to crawl into!"
Allenby greeted them respectfully.
"We did not know what rooms you would like, sir," he said. "They are all practically ready, of course. My niece, miss, thought you might prefer the blue bedroom. Her name is Sarah, miss."
"We don't want the best rooms—the sunniest, I mean," Norah said. "They must be for the Tired People, mustn't they, Dad?"
"Well, there are no Tired People, except ourselves, at present," said her father, laughing. "So if you have a fancy for any room, you had better take it, don't you think?"
"Well, we'll tour round, and see," said Norah diplomatically, with mental visions of the sudden "turning-out" of rooms should weary guests arrive. "It might be better to settle down from the first as we mean to be."
"A lady has come, miss," said Allenby. "I understood her to say she was the cook, but perhaps I made a mistake?" He paused, questioningly, his face comically puzzled.
"Oh—Miss de Lisle?"
"Oh, yes, she's the cook," said Norah. "And the housekeeper—Mrs. Atkins?"
"No one else has arrived, miss."
"Well, I expect she'll come," said Norah. "At least she promised."
"Miss de Lisle, miss, asked for her kitchenmaid."
"There isn't one, at present," said Norah, feeling a little desperate.
"Oh!" said Allenby, looking blank. "I—I am afraid, miss, that the lady expects one."
"Well, she can't have one until one comes," said Mr. Linton. "Cheer up, Norah, I'll talk to Miss de Lisle."
"I'll be the kitchenmaid, if necessary," said Wally cheerfully. "What does one do?"
Allenby shuddered visibly.
"My niece, I am sure, will do all she can, sir," he said. His gaze dwelt on Wally's uniform; it was easy to see him quailing in spirit before the vision of an officer with a kitchen mop. "Perhaps, miss, if you would like to see the rooms?"
They trooped upstairs, the silent house suddenly waking to life with the quick footsteps and cheery voices. The big front bedrooms were at once put aside for future guests. Norah fell in love with, and promptly appropriated, a little room that appeared to have been tucked into a corner by the architect, as an afterthought. It was curiously shaped, with a quaint little nook for the bed, and had a big window furnished with a low cushioned seat, wide enough for any one to curl up with a book. Mr. Linton and the boys selected rooms principally remarkable for bareness. Jim had a lively hatred for furniture; they left him discussing with Allenby the question of removing a spindle-legged writing table. Mr. Linton and Norah went downstairs, with sinking hearts, to encounter Miss de Lisle.
On the way appeared Sarah; very clean and starched as to dress, very pink and shiny as to complexion. Her hair was strained back from her forehead so tightly it appeared to be pulling her eyes up.
"Oh, Sarah," said Mr. Linton, pausing.
"Yes, sir," said Sarah meekly.
"You may be required to help the cook for a few days until we—er—until the staff is complete," said her employer. "Your uncle tells me you will have no objection."
"It being understood, sir, as it is only tempory," said Sarah firmly.
"Oh, quite," said Mr. Linton hurriedly.
"And of course I will help you with the housework, Sarah," put in Norah.
Sarah looked more wooden than before.
"Thank you, miss, I'm sure," she returned.
They went on.
"Doesn't she make you feel a worm!" said Norah.
"This is a terrible business, Norah!" said Mr. Linton fervently. "I didn't guess what Brownie was saving me from, all these years."
They found Miss de Lisle in the kitchen, where an enormous range glowed like a fiery furnace, in which respect Miss de Lisle rather resembled it. She was a tall, stout woman, dressed in an overall several sizes too small for her. The overall was rose-coloured, and Miss de Lisle was many shades deeper in hue. She accepted their greetings without enthusiasm, and plunged at once into a catalogue of grievances.
"The butler tells me there is no kitchenmaid," she boomed wrathfully. "And I had not expected such an antiquated range. Nor could I possibly manage with these saucepans"—sweeping a scornful hand towards an array which seemed to the hapless Lintons to err only on the side of magnificence. "There will be a number of necessary items. And where am I to sit? You will hardly expect me to herd with the servants."
"It would be rough on them!" rose to Norah's lips. But she prudently kept the reflection to herself.
"To sit?" echoed Mr. Linton. "Why, I really hadn't thought of it." His brow cleared. "Oh—there is the housekeeper's room."
"And who is the housekeeper? Is she a lady?"
"She hasn't said so, yet," said Mr. Linton. It was evident that he considered this a point in the absent housekeeper's favour. Miss de Lisle flamed anew.
"I cannot sit with your housekeeper," she averred. "You must remember, Mr. Linton, that I told you when engaging with you, that I expected special treatment."
"And you must remember," said Mr. Linton, with sudden firmness, "that we ourselves have not been half an hour in the house, and that we must have time to make arrangements. As for what you require, we will see into that later."
Miss de Lisle sniffed.
"It's not what I am accustomed to," she said. "However, I will wait. And the kitchenmaid?"
"I can't make a kitchenmaid out of nothing," said Mr. Linton gloomily. "I hope to hear of one in a day or two; I have written to Ireland."
"To Ireland!" ejaculated Miss de Lisle in accents of horror. "My dear sir, do you know what Irish maids are like?"
"They're the nicest maids I know," said Norah, speaking for the first time. "And so kind and obliging."
"H'm," sniffed the cook-lady. "But you are not sure of obtaining even one of these treasures?"
"Well, we'll all help," said Norah. "Sarah will give you a hand until we get settled, and my brother and Mr. Meadows and I can do anything. There can't be such an awful lot of work!" She stopped. Miss de Lisle was regarding her with an eye in which horror and amazement were mingled.
"But we don't do such things in England!" she gasped. "Your brother! And the other officer! In my kitchen, may I ask?"
"Well, one moment you seem afraid of too much work, and the next, of too much help," said Norah, laughing. "You'd find them very useful."
"I trust that I have never been afraid of work," said Miss de Lisle severely. "But I have my position to consider. There are duties which belong to it, and other duties which do not. My province is cooking. Cooking. And nothing else. Who, I ask, is to keep my kitchen clean?"
"Me, if necessary," said a voice in which Allenby the butler was clearly merged in Allenby the sergeant. "Begging your pardon, sir." He was deferential again—save for the eye with which he glared upon Miss de Lisle. "I think, perhaps, between me and Sarah and—er—this lady, we can arrange matters for the present without troubling you or Miss Linton."
"Do," said his employer thankfully. He beat a retreat, followed by Norah—rather to Norah's disappointment. She was beginning to feel warlike, and hankered for the battle, with Allenby ranged on her side.
"I'm going to love Allenby," she said with conviction, as they gained the outer regions.
"He's a trump!" said her father. "But isn't that a terrible woman, Norah!"
"Here's another, anyhow," said Norah with a wild inclination to giggle.
A dismal cab halted at a side entrance, and the driver was struggling with a stout iron trunk. The passenger, a tall, angular woman, was standing in the doorway.
"The housekeeper!" breathed Mr. Linton faintly. "Do you feel equal to her, Norah?" He fled, with disgraceful weakness, to the billiard-room.
"Good morning," Norah said, advancing.
"Good morning," returned the newcomer, with severity. "I have rung three times."
"Oh—we're a little shorthanded," said Norah, and began to giggle hopelessly, to her own dismay. Her world seemed suddenly full of important upper servants, with no one to wait on them. It was rather terrible, but beyond doubt it was very funny—to an Australian mind.
The housekeeper gazed at her with a sort of cold anger.
"I'm afraid I don't know which is your room," Norah said, recovering under that fish-like glare. "You see, we've only just come. I'll send Allenby." She hurried off, meeting the butler in the passage.
"Oh, Allenby," she said; "it's the housekeeper. And her trunk. Allenby, what does a housekeeper do? She won't clean the kitchen for Miss de Lisle, will she?"
"I'm afraid not, miss," said Allenby. His manner grew confidential; had he not been so correct a butler, Norah felt that he might have patted her head. "Now look, miss," he said. "You just leave them women to me; I'll fix them. And don't you worry."
"Oh, thank you, Allenby," said Norah gratefully. She followed in her father's wake, leaving the butler to advance upon the wrathful figure that yet blocked the side doorway.
In the billiard-room all her men-folk were gathered, looking guilty.
"It's awful to see you all huddling together here out of the storm!" said Norah, laughing. "Isn't it all terrible! Do you think we'll ever settle down, Daddy?"
"Indeed, I wouldn't be too certain," responded Mr. Linton gloomily. "How did you get on, Norah? Was she anything like Miss de Lisle? That's an appalling woman! She ought to stand for Parliament!"
"She's not like Miss de Lisle, but I'm not sure that she's any nicer," said Norah. "She's very skinny and vinegarish. I say, Daddy, aren't we going to have a wild time!"
"Well, if she and the cook-lady get going the encounter should be worth seeing," remarked Jim. "Talk about the Kilkenny cats!"
"I only hope it will come off before we go," said Wally gleefully. "We haven't had much war yet, have we, Jim? I think we deserve to see a little."
"I should much prefer it in some one else's house," said Mr. Linton with haste. "But it's bound to come, I should think, and then I shall be called in as referee. Well, Australia was never like this. Still, there are compensations."
He went out, returning in a moment with a battered hat of soft grey felt.
"Now you'll be happy!" said Norah, laughing.
"I am," responded her father. He put on the hat with tender care. "I haven't been so comfortable since I was in Ireland. It's one of the horrors of war that David Linton of Billabong has worn a stiff bowler hat for nearly a year!"
"Never mind, no one in Australia would believe it unless they saw it photographed!" said Jim soothingly. "And it hasn't had to be a top-hat, so you really haven't had to bear the worst."
"That is certainly something," said his father. "In the dim future I suppose you and Norah may get married; but I warn you here and now that you needn't expect me to appear in a top-hat. However, there's no need to face these problems yet, thank goodness. Suppose we leave the kitchen to fight it out alone, and go and inspect the cottage?"
It nestled at the far side of a belt of shrubbery: a cheery, thatched place, with wide casement windows that looked out on a trim stretch of grass. At one side there was actually a little verandah! a sight so unusual in England that the Australians could scarcely believe their eyes. Certainly it was only a very tiny verandah.
Within, all was bright and cheery and simple. The cottage had been used as a "barracks" when the sons of a former owner had brought home boy friends. Two rooms were fitted with bunks built against the wall, as in a ship's cabin: there was a little dining-room, plainly furnished, and a big sitting-room that took up the whole width of the building, and had casement windows on three sides. There was a roomy kitchen, from which a ladder-like staircase ascended to big attics, one of which was fitted as a bedroom.