Mates at Billabong
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958).

Part 1 out of 4

This etext was produced by Col Choat

This etext was first created as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers through the combined work of: Carmen Baxter,
Brenda Lambey, Elizabeth Morton, Jessie Hudgins, Mary Crosson, Mary Nuzzo,
Nick Rezmerski, Patricia Heil, Patsy Edmonds, Steve Callis,
Tami Hutchinson, Velvet Van Bueren, and Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Author: Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958).





The grey old dwelling, rambling and wide,
With the homestead paddocks on either side,
And the deep verandahs and porches tall
Where the vine climbs high on the trellised wall.

Billabong homestead lay calm and peaceful in the slanting rays of the
sum that crept down the western sky. The red roofs were half hidden in
the surrounding trees--pine and box and mighty blue gums towering above
the tenderer green of the orchard, and the wide-flung tendrils of the
Virginia creeper that was pushing slender fingers over the old walls.
If you came nearer, you found how the garden rioted in colour under the
touch of early summer, from the crimson rambler round the eastern bay
window to the "Bonfire" salvia blazing in masses on the lawn; but from
the paddocks all that could be seen was the mass of green, and the
mellow red of the roof glimpsing through. Further back came a glance of
rippled silver, where the breeze caught the surface of the lagoon--too
lazy a breeze to do more than faintly stir the reed-fringed water.
Towards it a flight of black swans winged slowly, with outstretched
necks, across a sky of perfect blue. Their leader's note floated down,
as if in answer to the magpies that carolled in the pine trees by the
stables. The sound seemed to hang in the still air.

Beyond the tennis-court, in the farther recesses of the garden, a
hammock swung between two grevillea trees, whose orange flowers made a
gay canopy overhead; and in the hammock Norah swayed gently, and
knitted, and pondered. The shining needles flashed in and out of the
dark blue silk sock. Outsiders--mothers of prim daughters, whom Norah
pictured as finding their wildest excitement in "patting a doll"--were
wont to deplore that the only daughter of David Linton of Billabong was
brought up in an eccentric fashion, less girl than boy; but outsiders
are apt to cherish delusions, and Norah was not without her share of
gentle accomplishments. Knitting was one; the sock grew quickly in the
capable brown fingers that could grip a stock-whip as easily as they
handled the needles. All the while, she was listening.

About her the coo of invisible doves fell gently, mingling with the
happy droning of bees in the overhead blossoms. Somewhere, not far off,
a sheep bell tinkled monotonously, the only outside sound in the
afternoon stillness. It was very peaceful. To Norah, who knew that the
world held no place like Billabong, it only lacked one person for the
final seal of perfection.

"Wish Dad would come," she said aloud, puckering her brow over a knot
in the silk. "He's late--and it is jolly dull without him." The knot
came free, and the needles raced as though making up for lost time.

Two dogs lay on the grass: a big sleepy collie that only moved
occasionally to snap at a worrying fly; and an Irish terrier, plainly
showing by his restlessness that he despised a lazy life, and longed
for action. He caught his mistress's eye at last, and jumped up with a
little whine.

"If YOU had the heel of a sock to turn, Puck," said Norah, "you'd be
more steady. Lie down, old man."

Puck lay down again discontentedly, put his nose on his paws, and
feigned slumber, one restless eyelid betraying the hollowness of the
pretence. Presently he rolled over--and chancing to roll on a spiky
twig, rose with a wild yelp of annoyance. Across Norah's laugh came a
stock-whip crack; and the collie came to life suddenly, and sprang up,
as impatient as the terrier. Norah slipped out of the hammock.

"There's Dad!" she said. "Come along!"

She was tall for her fourteen years, and very slender--"scraggy," Jim
was wont to say, with the cheerful frankness of brothers. Norah bore
the epithet meekly--she held the view that it was better to be dead than
fat. There was something boyish in the straight, slim figure in the
blue linen frock--perhaps the quality was also to be found in a frank
manner that was the product of years of the Bush and open-air life. The
grey eyes were steady, and met those of others with a straight level
glance; the mouth was a little firm-set for her years, but the child
was revealed when it broke into smiles--and Norah was rarely grave. No
human power had yet been discovered to keep in order the brown curls.
Their distressed owner tied them back firmly with a wide ribbon each
morning; but the ribbon generally was missing early in the day, and
might be replaced with anything that came handy--possibly a fragment of
red tape from the office, or a bit of a New Zealand flax leaf, or haply
even a scrap of green hide. Anything, said Norah, decidedly, was better
than your hair all over your face. For the rest, a nondescript nose,
somewhat freckled, and a square chin, completed a face no one would
have dreamed of calling pretty. In his own mind her father referred to
it as something better. But then there was tremendous friendship
between the master of Billabong and his small daughter.

The stock-whip cracked again, nearer home this time; and Norah crammed
the blue silk sock hastily into a little work-bag, and raced away over
the lawn, her slim black legs making great time across the buffalo
grass. Beside her tore the collie and Puck, each a vision of embodied
delight. They flashed round the corner of the house, scattered the
gravel on the path leading to the back, and came out into the yard as a
big black horse pulled up at the gate, and the tall man on his back
swung himself lightly to the ground. From some unseen region a black
boy appeared silently and led the horse away. Norah, her father, and
the dogs arrived at the gate simultaneously.

"I thought you were never coming, Daddy," said the mistress of
Billabong, incoherently. "Did you have a good trip?--and how did Monarch
go?--and did you buy the cattle?--and have you had any dinner?" She
punctuated each query with a hug, and paused only for lack of breath.

"Steady!" said David Linton, laughing. "I'm not a ready reckoner! I've
bought the bullocks, and Monarch went quite remarkably well, and yes,
I've had dinner, thank you. And how have you been getting on, Norah?"

"Oh, all right," said his daughter. "It was pretty slow, of course--it
always is when you go away, Daddy. I worked, and pottered round with
Brownie, and went out for rides. And oh, Dad! ever so many letters--and
Jim's coming home next week!" She executed an irrepressible pirouette.
"And he's got the cup for the best average at the sports--best
all-around athlete that means, doesn't it? Isn't it lovely?"

"That's splendid!" Mr. Linton said, looking as pleased as his daughter.
"And any school prizes?"

"He didn't mention," Norah answered. "I don't suppose so, bless him!
But there's one thing pretty sickening--the boys can't come with him.
Wally may come later, but Harry has to go to Tasmania with his
father--isn't it unreasonable?"

"I'm sorry he can't come, but on the whole I've a fellow feeling for
the father," said Jim's parent. "A man wants to see something of his
son occasionally, I suppose. And any news from Mrs. Stephenson?"

"She's better," Norah answered, her face growing graver. "Dick wrote.
And there's a letter for you from Mrs. Stephenson, too. She says she's
brighter, and the sea-voyage was evidently the thing for her, 'cause
she's more like herself than at any time since--since my dear old Hermit
died." Norah's voice shook a little. "They expect to be in Wellington
all the summer, and perhaps longer."

"It was certainly a good prescription, that voyage." Mr. Linton said.
"I don't think she would have been long in following her husband--poor
old chap!--if they had remained here. But one misses them, Norah."

"Horrid," said Norah, with emphasis. "I miss her all the time--and it's
quite rum, Dad, but I do believe I miss lessons. Over five weeks since
I had any! Are you going to get me another tutor?"

"We'll see," said her father. They were in the big dining-room by this
time, and he was turning over the pile of letters that had come during
his three days' absence from the station. "Any chance of tea, Norah?"

"Well, rather!" said Norah. "You read your letters, and I'll go and
tell Sarah. And Brownie'll be wanting to see you. I won't be long,
Daddy." She vanished.

A few minutes later Mr. Linton looked up from a letter that had put a
crease into his brow. A firm, flat step sounded in the hall, and Mrs.
Brown came in--cook and housekeeper to the homestead, the guide,
philosopher and friend of everyone, and the special protector of the
little motherless girl about whom David Linton's life centred.
"Brownie" was not a person lightly to be reckoned with, and her master
was wont to turn to her whenever any question arose affecting Norah. He
greeted her warmly now.

"We're all glad to welkim you back, sirr," said Brownie. "As for that
blessed child, she's not like the same 'uman bein' when you're off the
place. Passed me jus' now in the passige, goin' full bat, an' turned
'ead over 'eels, she did--I didn't need to be told you'd got 'ome!" She
hesitated: "You heard from Mrs. Stephenson, sir?"

"Yes," said Mr. Linton, glancing at the letter in his hand. "As I
thought--she confirms our opinion. I'm afraid there's no help for it."

"I knew she would," said Mrs. Brown, heavily, a shadow falling onto her
broad. pleasant face. "Oh, I know there's no 'elp, sir--it has to be.
But--but--" She put her apron to her eyes.

"We're really very lucky, I suppose," Mr. Linton said, in tones
distinctly unappreciative, at the moment, of any luck. "Mrs. Stephenson
has been a second mother to Norah, these two years--between you and her
I can't see that the child needed anything; and with Dick as tutor she
has made remarkable progress. Personally, I'd have let the arrangement
go on indefinitely. Now that they've had to leave us, however--" He
paused, folding up the letter slowly.

"She couldn't stay 'ere, poor lady," Mrs. Brown said;" 'tain't in
reason she'd be able to after the old gentleman's death, with the place
full of memories an' all. An', of course, she'd want Mr. Dick along
with her. Anyway, the precious lamb's getting a big girl to be taught
only by a young gentleman--" and Brownie pursed up her lips, looking
such a model of all the proprieties that Mr. Linton smiled

"She's all right," he said shortly. "Of course, her aunt has been at me
for ever so long to send her to school."

"Beggin' your pardon, sir, Mrs. Geoffrey don't know everythink," said
Mrs. Brown, bridling. "Her not havin' any daughters of 'er own, 'ow can
it be expected that she'd understand? An' town ladies can't never
compre'end country children, any'ow. Our little maid's jus' grown up
like a bush flower, an' all the better she is for it."

"But the time comes for change, Brownie, old friend," said Mr. Linton.

"Yes," said Mrs. Brown, "it do. But what the station'll do is more'n I
can see just at present--an' as for you, sir--an' let alone me--" Her
comfortable, fat voice died away, and the apron was at her eyes again.
"What'll Billabong be, with its little girl at school?"

"At--WHERE?" asked Norah.

She had come in with the tea-tray in her hands--a little flushed from
the fire, and her brown face alight with all the hundred-and-one things
she had yet to tell Daddy. On the threshold she paused, struck
motionless by that amazing speech. She looked a little helplessly from
one face to the other; and the two who loved her felt the same
helplessness as they looked back. It was not an easy thing to pass
sentence of exile from Billabong on Norah.

"I--" said her father. "You see, dear--Dick having gone--you know, your
aunt--" He stopped, his tongue tied by the look in Norah's eyes.

Brownie slipped into the breach.

"You're so big now, dearie," she said, "so, big--and--and--" With this
lucid effort at enlightenment she put her apron fairly over her head
and turned away to the open window.

But Norah's eyes were on her father. Just for a moment the sick sense
of bewilderment and despair seemed to crush her altogether. She had
realized her sentence in a flash--that the home that meant all the world
to her, and from which Heaven only differed in that Mother was there,
was to be changed for a new, strange world that would be empty of all
that she knew and loved. Vaguely she had always known that the blow
hung over her--now that it had fallen, for a moment there was no room
for any other thought. Her look, wide with grief and appeal, met her

And then she realized slowly that he was suffering too--that he was
looking to her for the response that had never failed him yet. His
silence told her that this thing was unavoidable, and that he needed
her help. Mates such as they must stand by one another--that was part of
the creed that had grown up in Norah's heart. Daddy had always said
that no matter what happened he could rely upon her. She could not fail
him now.

So, just as the silence in the room became oppressive, Norah smiled
into her father's eyes, and carefully put the tea-tray upon the table.

"If you say it's got to be, well, that's all about it, Daddy," she
said. The voice was low, but it did not quiver. "Don't worry, darling;
it's all right. Sarah was out, and Mary goodness knows where, so I made
tea myself; I hope it's drinkable." She brought her father's cup to his
side and smiled at him again.

"My blessed lamb!" said Mrs. Brown, hastily--and fled from the room.

David Linton did not take the cup; instead he slipped his arm round the
childish body.

"You think we can stand it, then?" he asked. "It's not you alone,
little mate; your old Dad's under sentence too."

"I think that makes things a lot easier," said Norah, "'cause you and
I always do things together, don't we, Daddy? And--and--" Just for a
moment her lips trembled. "Must we, Dad?"

He tightened his arm.

"Yes, dear."

There was a pause.

"After Christmas?"

"Yes--in February."

"Then I've got nine weeks," said Norah, practically. "We won't talk
about it more than we can help, I think, don't you? Have your tea,
Daddy, or it'll be cold and horrid." She brought her own cup and sat
down on the arm of his chair. "How many bullocks did you buy?"



And you and I were faithful mates.

Afterwards--when the blow was a little less heavy as Norah grew
accustomed to it--they talked it over thoroughly.

Norah's education, in the strict sense of the term, had only been
carried on for about two years. In reality it had gone on all her life,
spent mostly at her father's side; but that was the kind of education
that does not live between the covers of books. Together, David Linton
and his daughter had worked, and played and talked--much more of the
former condition than of either of the latter. All that the bush could
teach her Norah knew, and in most of the work of the station--Billabong
was a noted cattle-run--she was as handy as any of the men. Her father's
constant mate, every day shared with him was a delight to her. They
rode together, fished, camped and explored together; it was the rarest
occurrence for Mr. Linton's movements not to include Norah as a matter
of course.

Yet there was something in the quiet man that had effectually prevented
any development of roughness in Norah. Boyish and offhand to a certain
extent, the solid foundation of womanliness in her nature was never far
below the surface. She was perfectly aware that while Daddy wanted a
mate he also wanted a daughter; and there was never any real danger of
her losing that gentler attribute--there was too much in her of the
little dead mother for that. Brownie, the ever watchful, had seen to it
that she did not lack housewifely accomplishments, and Mr. Linton was
wont to say proudly that Norah's scones were as light as her hand on
the horse's mouth. There was no doubt that the irregular side of her
education was highly practical.

Two years before Fate had taken a new interest in Norah's development,
bringing as inmates of the homestead an old friend of her father's,
with his wife and son. The latter acted as Norah's tutor, and found his
task an easy one, for the untrodden ground of the little girl's brain
yielded remarkable results. To Mrs. Stephenson fell the work of gently
moulding her to womanly ways--less easy this, for while Norah had no
desire to be a tomboy, she was firmly of the opinion that once lessons
were over, she had simply no time to stay inside the house and be
proper. Still, the gentle influence told, imperceptibly softening and
toning her character, and giving her a standard by which to adapt
herself; and Norah was nothing if not adaptable. Then, six months
previously, the old man they all loved had quietly faded out of life;
and after he had gone his widow could no longer remain in the place
where he had died. She pined slowly, until Dick Stephenson, the son,
had taken her almost forcibly away. The unspoken fear that the parting
was not merely temporary had merged into certainty. Billabong would
know them no more. The question remaining was what to do with Norah.

"I want you to have the school training," Mr. Linton said, when they
talked the matter over. "You must mix with other girls--learn to see
things from their point of view, and realize how many points of view
there are outside Billabong. Oh, I don't want you to think there are
any better "--he laughed at the vigorous shake of the brown curls--"but
the world has wider boundaries, and you must find them out. There are
other things, too"--vaguely--"dancing and deportment, and--er--the use of
the globes, and I think there's a thing called a blackboard, but I'm
not sure. Dick didn't know. In fact, there's a regulation mill, and I
suppose you must go through it--I don't feel afraid that they'll spoil
my little girl's individuality in the process."

"Is it a big school, Daddy?"

"Yes, I believe so. Several people I know send their girls there. And
it's a great place for sports, Norah. You'll like that. They're keen on
hockey and cricket and all sorts of things girls never dreamed about
when I was young. Possibly I may live to see you a slow bowler yet, and
playing in a match! Honestly, Norah, I believe you'll be very happy at

"And what'll you do, Daddy?"

"I don't know," he said, heavily. "I told you I was under sentence."

They sat awhile in silence. It was evening, and they were on the
verandah; Mr. Linton in a big basket chair, and Norah curled up at his
feet in the way she loved. She could not see his face--just then she did
not want to. She said nothing. The moon climbed up slowly, and the
frogs were merry in the lagoon. Far off the cry of a bittern boomed
across the flats.

"Well, at least we've got nine weeks," Norah said at length. "Nine
weeks to be mates--and Jim'll be home next week, and he'll be mates,
too. Don't let's get blue about it, Daddy. It'll be so horrid when the
time comes, that it's no good letting it spoil these nine weeks. Can't
we try to forget it?"

"We can try," said David Linton.

"Course, we won't do it," Norah said. "But don't let's talk about it.
I'm going to put it out of my head as much as ever I can, and have this
time for just Billabong and us. Will you, Daddy?"

"I'll do all I can, my girlie," said her father. "You mustn't start off
with any bad memories; we'll have the most crowded nine weeks of our
lives, and make a solemn resolve to 'buck up.' I'd like to plan
something for this week, but, upon my word, I'm too busy to play,
Norah. There's any amount to be done."

"But I don't want to play," Norah said. "Work's good enough for ME,
Daddy, if I can work with you. Can't I come, too?"

"I'll be exceedingly glad of your help," said her father--which was
exactly what Norah wanted him to say, and went far to cheer her. She
put the dismal future resolutely from her, and set out upon the present
with a heart as light as possible.

It was never dull at Billabong. Always there were pets of all kinds to
be seen to. Mr. Linton laid no restriction on pets if they were
properly tended, and Norah had a collection as wide as it was beloved.
Household duties there were, too; but these could be left if
necessary--two adoring housemaids were always ready to step into the
breach if "business on the run" claimed Norah's attention. And beyond
the range of the homestead altogether there lay an enchanted region
that only she and Daddy shared--the wide and stretching plains of
Billabong dotted with cattle, seamed with creeks and the river, and
merging at the boundary into a long low line of hills. Norah used to
gaze at them from her window--sometimes purple, sometimes blue, and
sometimes misty grey, but always beautiful to the child who loved them.
Others might know Billabong--visit it, ride over it, exclaim at its
beauties; but Norah always felt that there were only two who really
understood and cared--Daddy and herself.

Of course there was Jim--the big brother who was seventeen now, and just
about to leave school. Norah was immensely proud of him, and the
affection between them was a thing that never wavered. Jim loved
Billabong, too; but it was only to be expected that six years of school
in Melbourne would make something of a difference. He knew, in the
words of the old Roman, "There is a world elsewhere." But Norah knew no
world beyond Billabong.

For all that, Jim was distinctly desirable as a brother. He had always
made a tremendous chum of Norah, and the friends he brought home found
they were expected to do the same. This might cause them surprise at
first, but they very soon found that "the kiddie" was quite excellent
as a mate, and could put them up to a good deal more than they usually
knew about the Bush. Norah was invariably Jim's first thought. He was a
big, quiet fellow, very like his father; not over-brilliant at books,
but a first-rate sport, and without a trace of meanness in his generous
nature. At school he was worshipped by the boys--was not he captain of
the football team, stroke of the eight, and best all-round athlete?--and
liked by the masters, who found him inclined to be careless over work
but absolutely reliable in every other way. Such a fellow does not win
scholarships, but he is a tower of strength to his school.

For the week preceding Jim's return Norah and her father worked hard,
clearing up various odd jobs so that their time might be free when the
boy arrived. There was a quaint side to this, in that Jim would without
doubt have been delighted to help in any station work, which always
presented itself to him as "no end of a lark" after the strenuous life
at school. But it was a point of honour with those at home to leave
none of their work until the holidays and the last week was invariably
the scene of many labours.

Not that there were not plenty of hands on the station. It was a big
run, and gave employment in one way or another to quite a band of men.
But Mr. Linton preferred to keep a very close watch over everything,
and he had long realized that the best way of seeing that your business
is done is to take a hand yourself. The men said, "The boss was
everywhere," and they respected him the more in that he was no
kid-glove employer, but was willing to share in any work that was going
forward. Especially he insisted on working among the cattle, and--Norah
was nearly always with him on his rides--they had a more or less
accurate knowledge of every beast on the place. Outside the boundary
fences they went very seldom; the nearest township, seventeen miles
away, Norah regarded as merely a place where you called for the mail,
and save that it meant a ride or drive with her father, she had never
the slightest desire to go there.

Summer was very late that year, and "burning-off" operations on the
rougher parts of the run had been carried on much longer than was
generally possible. Norah always regarded "burning-off" as an immense
picnic, and used to beg her father to take her out. Night after night
found them down on the flats, getting rid of old dead trees, which up
to the present had refused obstinately to burn. It was picturesque
work, and Norah loved it, though she would have been somewhat
embarrassed had you hinted that the picturesqueness had anything to do
with its attractions.

One after another, they would light the stumps, some squat and solid,
others rising thirty or forty feet into the air. Once the fires were
lit, it was necessary to keep them going; moving backwards and forwards
among the trees, stoking, picking up fallen bits of burning timber and
adding them to the fires, coaxing sullen embers into a blaze, edging
the fire round a tree, so that the wind might do its utmost in helping
the work--there were no idle moments for the "burners-off." Sometimes it
would be necessary to enlarge a crack or hole in a tough stump, to gain
a hold for the fire. Norah always carried a light iron bar, specially
made for her at the station forge, which she called her poker, and
which answered half a dozen purposes equally well, and though not an
ideal weapon for killing a snake, being too stiff and straight, had
been known to act in that capacity also. Every scrap of loose timber on
the ground would be picked up and added to the flames. Some stumps were
very obstinate and resisted all blandishments to burn; but careful
handling generally ensured the fate of the majority.

There are few sights more weird, or more typically Australian, than a
paddock at night with burning-off in process. Low and high, the red
columns of fire stand in a darkness made blacker by their lurid glow.
Where the fire has taken hold fairly the flames are fierce, and showers
of sparks fall like streams of gold. Sometimes a dull crack gives
warning of the fall of a long-dead giant; and the burning mass leans
slowly over, and then comes down with a crash, while the curious
bullocks, which have poked as near as they dare to the strange scene,
fling round and lumber off in a heavy gallop, heads down and tails up.
From stump to stump flit the little black figures of the workers,
standing out clearly sometimes, by the light of a blaze so fierce that
to face it is scarcely possible; or half seen in the dull glow of a
smouldering tree poking vigorously--seeming as ants attacking living
monsters infinitely beyond their strength. Perhaps it is there that the
fascination of the work comes in--the triumph of conquering tons of
inanimate matter by efforts so small. At any rate it is always hard to
leave the scene of action, and certainly the first glance next morning
is to see "which are down."

Then there were days spent among the cattle--days that always meant the
high-water mark of bliss to Norah. She road astride, and her special
pony, Bobs, to whom years but added perfection, loved the work as much
as she did. They understood each other perfectly; if Norah carried a
hunting-crop, it was merely for assistance in opening gates, for Bobs
never felt its touch. A hint from her heel, or a quick word, conveyed
all the big bay pony ever needed to supplement his own common sense, of
which Mr. Linton used to say he possessed more than most men. The new
bullocks arrived, and had to be drafted and branded--during which latter
operation Norah retired dismally to the house and the socks that had to
be finished in time to be Jim's Christmas present. Then, after the
branding, came a most cheerful time, putting the cattle into their
various paddocks.

One day was spent in mustering sheep, an employment not at all to
Norah's taste. She was frankly glad that Billabong devoted most of its
energies to cattle, and only put up with the sheep work because, since
Daddy was there, it never occurred to her to do anything else but go.
But she hated the slow, dusty ride, and hailed with delight a gallop
that came in their way towards the end of the day, when a hare jumped
up under Bob's nose as they rode homewards from the yards. The dogs
promptly gave chase; and, almost without knowing it, Norah and Bobs
were in hot pursuit, with Monarch shaking the earth behind them. The
average sheep dog is no match for a hare, and the quarry easily escaped
into the next paddock, after a merry run. Norah pulled up, her eyes

"Don't you know it's useless to try to get a hare with those fellows?"
asked Mr. Linton, checking the reeking Monarch, and indicating with a
nod the dogs, which were highly aggrieved at their defeat.

"But I never wanted to get it," said his daughter, in surprise. "It's
perfectly awful to get a hare; they cry just like a baby, and it makes
you feel horrid."

"Then why did you go after it?"

"Why?" asked Norah, opening her eyes. "Well, I knew the dogs couldn't
catch it--and I believe you wanted a gallop nearly as much as I did,
Daddy!" They laughed at each other, and let the impatient horses have
their heads across the cleared paddock to the homestead.

There a letter awaited them.

Norah, coming in to dinner in a white frock, with her curls unusually
tidy, found her father looking anything but pleased over a closely
covered sheet of thin notepaper.

"I wish to goodness women would write legibly," he said, with some
heat. "No one on earth has any right to write on both sides of paper as
thin as this--and then across it! No one but your Aunt Eva would do
it--she always had a passion for small economies, together with one for
large extravagances. Amazing woman! Well, I can't read half of it, but
what she wants is unhappily clear."

"She isn't coming here, Daddy?"

"Saints forbid!" ejaculated Mr. Linton, who had a lively dread of his
sister--a lady of much social eminence, who disapproved strongly of his
upbringing of Norah. "No, she doesn't mention such an extreme course,
but there's something almost as alarming. She wants to send Cecil here
for Christmas."

"Cecil! Oh, Daddy!" Norah's tone was eloquent.

"Says he's been ill," said her father, glancing at the letter in a vain
effort to decipher a message written along one edge. "He's better, but
needs change, and she seems to think Billabong will prove a
sanatorium." He looked at Norah with an expression of dismay that was
comical. "I shouldn't have thought we'd agree with that young man a
bit, Norah!"

"I've never seen him, of course," Norah said unhappily, "but Jim says
he's pretty awful. And you didn't like him yourself, did you, Daddy?"

"On the rare occasions that I've had the pleasure of meeting my nephew
I've always thought him an unlicked cub," Mr. Linton answered. "Of
course it's eighteen months since I saw him; possibly he may have
changed for the better, but at that time his bumptiousness certainly
appeared to be on the increase. He had just left school then--he must be
nearly twenty now."

"Oh--quite old," said Norah. "What is he like?"

"Pretty!" said Mr. Linton, wrinkling his nose. "As pretty as his
name--Cecil--great Scott! I wonder if he'd let me call him Bill for
short! Bit of a whipper-snapper, he seemed; but I didn't take very much
notice of him--saw he was plainly bored by his uncle from the Bush, so I
didn't worry him. Well, now he's ours for a time your aunt doesn't
limit--more that that, if I can make a guess at these hieroglyphics,
I've got to send a telegram to say we'll have him on Saturday."

"And this is Wednesday--oh, Dad!" expostulated Norah.

"Can't be helped," her father said. "We've got to go through with it;
if the boy has been ill he must certainly have all the change we can
give him. But I'm doubtful. Eva says he's had a 'nervous breakdown,'
and I rather think it's a complaint I don't believe in for boys of

The dinner gong sounded. Amid its echoes Norah might have been heard
murmuring something about "nervous grandmother."

"H'm," said her father, laughing; "I don't think he'll find much
sympathy with his more fragile symptoms in Billabong--we must try to
brace him up, Norah. But whatever will Jim say, I wonder!"

"He'll be too disgusted for words," Norah answered. "Poor old Jimmy! I
wonder how they'll get on. D'you suppose Cecil ever played football?"

"From Cecil's appearance I should say he devoted his time to
wool-work," said Mr. Linton. "However, it may not turn out as badly as
we think, and it's no use meeting trouble halfway, is it? Also, we've
to remember that he'll be our guest."

"But that's the trouble," said Norah, laughing. "It wouldn't be half so
bad if you could laugh at him. I'll have to be so hugely polite!"

"You'll probably shock him considerably in any case," said her father.
"Cecil's accustomed to very prim young ladies, and it's not at all
unlikely that he'll try to reform you!"

"I wish him luck!" said Norah. But there was a glint in her eyes which
boded ill for Cecil's reformatory efforts



Quiet and shy, as the Bush girls are,
But ready-witted and plucky, too.

The telegram assuring a welcome to Cecil Linton was duly dispatched,
and the fact of his impending arrival broken to Mrs. Brown, who sniffed
portentously, and gave without enthusiasm directions for the
preparation of his room. "Mrs. Geoffrey" was rather a bugbear to
Brownie, who had unpleasant recollections of a visit in the past from
that majestic lady. During her stay of a week, she had attempted to
alter every existing arrangement at Billabong--and when she finally
departed, in a state of profound disapproval, the relief of the
homestead was immense. Brownie was unable to feel any delight at the
idea of entertaining her son.

Norah and her father made the utmost of their remaining time together.
Thursday was devoted to a great muster of calves, which meant unlimited
galloping and any amount of excitement; for the sturdy youngsters were
running with their mothers in one of the bush paddocks, and it was no
easy matter to cut them out and work them away from the friendly
shelter and refuge of the trees. A bush-reared calf is an irresponsible
being, with a great fund of energy and spirits--and, while Norah loved
her day, she was thoroughly tired as they rode home in the late
evening, the last straggler yarded in readiness for the branding next
day. Mr. Linton sent her to bed early, and she did not wake in the
morning until the dressing gong boomed its cheerful summons through the

Mr. Linton was already at breakfast when swift footsteps were heard in
the hall above; a momentary silence indicated that his daughter was
coming downstairs by way of the banisters, and the next moment she
arrived hastily.

"I'm so sorry, Dad," Norah said, greeting him. "But I DID sleep! Let
me pour out your coffee."

She brought the cup to him, investigated a dish of bacon, and slipped
into her place behind the tall silver coffee pot.

"What are we going to do to-day, Dad?"

"I really don't quite know," Mr. Linton said, smiling at her. "There
aren't any very pressing jobs on hand--we must cut out cattle to-morrow
for trucking, but to-day seems fairly free. Have you any ideas on the
subject of how you'd like to spend it? I've letters to write for a
couple of hours, but after that I'm at your disposal."

Norah wrinkled her brows.

"There are about fifty things I want to do," she said. "But most of
them ought to wait until Jim comes home." She thought for a moment. "I
don't want to miss any more time with Bobs than I have to--could we ride
over to the backwater, Dad, and muster up the cattle there? You know
you said you were going to do so, pretty soon."

"I'd nearly forgotten that I had to see them," Mr. Linton said,
hastily. "Glad you reminded me, Norah. We'll have lunch early, and go

Norah's morning was spent in helping Mrs. Brown to compound Christmas
cakes--large quantities of which were always made and stored well before
Christmas, with due reference to the appetites of Jim and his friends.
Then a somewhat heated and floury damsel donned a neat divided riding
skirt of dark-blue drill, with a white-linen coat, and the collar and
tie which Norah regarded as the only reasonable neck gear, and joined
her father in the office.

"Ready? That's right," said he, casting an approving glance at the trim
figure. "I've just finished writing, and the horses are in."

"So's lunch," Norah responded. "It's a perfectly beautiful day for a
ride, Daddy--hurry up!"

The day merited Norah's epithet, as they rode over the paddocks in the
afternoon. As yet the grass had not dried up, thanks to the late rains,
and everywhere a green sea rippled to the fences. Soon it would be dull
and yellow; but this day there was nothing to mar the perfection of the
carpet that gave softly under the horses' hoofs. The dogs raced wildly
before them, chasing swallows and ground-larks in the cheerfully
idiotic manner of dogs, with always a wary ear for Mr. Linton's
whistle: but as yet they were not on duty, and were allowed to run

An old log fence stretched before them. It was the only one on
Billabong, where all station details were strictly up-to-date. This one
had been left, partly because it was picturesque, and partly at the
request of Jim and Norah, because it gave such splendid opportunities
for jumping. There were not many places on that old fence that Bobs did
not know, and he began to reef and pull as they came nearer to it.

"I don't believe I'll be able to hold him in, Daddy!" said Norah, with
mock anxiety.

"Not afraid, I hope?" asked her father, laughing.

"Very--that you won't want to jump! I'd hate to disappoint him,
Daddy--may I?"

"Oh, go on!" said Mr. Linton. "If I said 'no' the savage animal would
probably bolt!" He held Monarch back as Norah gave the bay pony his
head, and they raced for the fence; watching with a smile in his eyes
the straight little form in the white coat, the firm seat in the
saddle, the steady hand on the rein. Bobs flew the big log like a bird,
and Norah twisted in her saddle to watch the black horse follow. Her
eyes were glowing as her father came up.

"I do think he loves it as much as I do!" she said, patting the pony's

"He's certainly as keen a pony as I ever saw," Mr. Linton said. "How
are you going to manage without him, Norah?"

Norah looked up, her eyes wide with astonishment.

"Do without BOBS!" she exclaimed. "But I simply couldn't--he's one of
the family." Then her face fell suddenly, and the life died out of her
voice. "Oh--school," she said.

The change was rather pitiful, and Mr. Linton mentally abused himself
for his question.

"He'll always be waiting for you when you come home, dear," he said.
"Plenty of holidays--and think how fit he'll be! We'll have great rides,

"I guess I'll want them," she said. Silence fell between them.

The scrub at the backwater was fairly thick, and the cattle had sought
its shade when the noonday sun struck hot. Well fed and sleek, they lay
about under the trees or on the little grassy flats formed by the bends
of the stream. Norah and her father separated, each taking a dog, and
beat through the bush, routing out stragglers as they went. The echoes
of the stock-whips rang along the water. Norah's was only a light whip,
half the length and weight of the one her father carried. It was
beautifully plaited--a special piece of work, out of a special hide;
while the handle was a triumph of the stockman's art. It had been a
gift to Norah from an old boundary rider whose whips were famous, and
she valued it more than most of her possessions, while long practice
and expert tuition had given her no little skill in its use,

She worked through the scrub, keeping her eyes in every direction, for
the cattle were lazy and did not stir readily, and it was easy to miss
a motionless beast hidden behind a clump of dogwood or Christmas
bush--the scrub tree that greets December with its exquisite white
blossoms. When at length she came to the end of her division and drove
her cattle out of the shelter she had quite a respectable little mob to
add to those with which her father was already waiting.

It was only to be a rough muster; rather, a general inspection to see
how the bullocks were doing, for the nearest stockyards were at the
homestead, and Mr. Linton did not desire to drive them far. He managed
to get a rough count along a fence--Norah in the rear, bringing the
bullocks along slowly, so that they strung out under their owner's eye.
Occasionally one would break out and try to race past him on the wrong
side. Bobs was as quick as his rider to watch for these vagrants, and
at the first hint of a breakaway he would be off in pursuit. It was
work the pair loved.

"Hundred and thirty," said Mr. Linton, as the last lumbering beast
trotted past him, and, finding the way clear, with no harrowing
creatures to annoy him and head him back to his mates, kicked up his
heels and made off across the paddock.

"Did any get behind me, Norah?"

"No, Daddy."

"That's a good girl. They look well, don't they?"

Norah assented. "Did you notice how that big poley bullock had come on,

"Yes, he's three parts fat," said Mr. Linton. "All very satisfactory,
and the count is only two short--not bad for a rough muster."

They turned homewards, cantering quickly over the paddocks; the going
was too good, Norah said, to waste on walking; and it was a delight to
feel the long, even stride under one, and the gentle wind blowing upon
one's cheeks. As he rode, Mr. Linton watched the eager, vivid little
face, alight with the joy of motion. If Bobs were keen, there was no
doubt that his mistress was even keener.

They crossed the log fence again by what Norah termed "the direct
route," traversed the home paddock, and drew up with a clatter of hoofs
at the stable yard. Billy, a black youth of some fame concerning
horses, came forward as they dismounted and took the bridles. But Norah
preferred to unsaddle Bobs herself and let him go; she held it only
civil after he had carried her well. She was leading him off when the
dusky retainer muttered something to her father.

"Oh, all right, Billy," said Mr. Linton. "Norah, those fellows from
Cunjee have come to see me about buying sheep. I expect I shall have to
take them out to the paddock I don't think you'd better come."

"All right, Dad." Sheep did not interest Norah very much. "I think I'll
go down to the lagoon."

"Very well, don't distinguish yourself by falling in," said her father,
with a laugh over his shoulder as he hurried away towards the house.

Left to herself, Norah paid a visit to Brownie in the kitchen, which
resulted in afternoon tea--there was never a bush home where tea did not
make its appearance on the smallest possible pretext. Then she slipped
off her linen jacket and brown leather leggings and, having beguiled
black Billy into digging her some worms, found some fishing tackle and
strolled down to the lagoon.

It was a broad sheet of water, at one end thickly fringed with trees,
while in the shallower parts a forest of green, feathery reeds bordered
it, swaying and rustling all day, no matter how soft the breeze. The
deeper end had been artificially hollowed out, and a bathing box had
been built, with a springboard jutting out over the water. Under the
raised floor of the bathing box a boat was moored. Norah pulled it out
and dropped down into it, stowing her tin of worms carefully in the
stern. Then she paddled slowly into the deepest part of the lagoon,
baited her line scientifically, and began to fish.

Only eels rewarded her efforts; and while eels are not bad fun to pull
out, Norah regarded them as great waste of time, since no one at
Billabong cared to eat them, and in any case she would not let them
come into the boat--for a good-sized eel can make a boat unpleasantly
slimy in a very short time. So each capture had to be carefully
released at the stern--not a very easy task. Before long Norah's white
blouse showed various marks of conflict; and being by nature a clean
person, she was rather disgusted with things in general. When at length
a large silver eel, on being pulled up, was found to have swallowed the
hook altogether, she fairly lost patience.

"Well, you'll have to keep it," she said, cutting her line; whereupon
the eel dropped back into the water thankfully, and made off as though
he had formed a habit of dining on hooks, and, in fact, preferred them
as an article of diet. "I'm sure you'll have shocking indigestion,"
Norah said, watching the swirl of bubbles.

The boat had drifted some way down the lagoon, and a rustle told Norah
that they were near one of the reedy islands dotted here and there in
the shallows. There was very little foothold on them, but they made
excellent nesting places for the ducks that came to the station each
year. The boat grounded its nose in the soft mud, and Norah jumped up
to push it off. Planting the blade of the oar among the reeds, she
leant her weight upon it and shoved steadily.

The next events happened swiftly. The mud gave way suddenly with a
suck, and the oar promptly slithered, burying itself for half its
length; and Norah, taken altogether by surprise, executed a graceful
header over the bow of the boat. The mud received her softly, and clung
to her with affection; and for a moment, face downward among the reeds,
Norah clawed for support, like a crab suddenly beached. Then, somehow,
she scrambled to a sitting position, up to her waist in mud and
water--and rocked with laughter. A little way off, the boat swayed
gently on the ruffled surface of the water.

"Well--of all the duffers!" Norah said. She tried to stand, and
forthwith went up to one knee in the mud. Then, seeing that there was
no help for it, she managed to slip into deeper water--not very easy,
for the mud showed a deep attachment to her--and swam to the boat. To
get into it proved beyond her, but, fortunately, the bank was not far
off, and, though her clothes hampered her badly--a riding skirt is the
most inconvenient of swimming suits--she was as much at home as a duck
in the water, and soon got ashore.

Then she inspected herself, standing on the grass, while a pool of
water rapidly widened round her. Alas, for the trim maiden of the
morning! soaked to the skin, her lank hair clinging round her face, her
collar a limp rag, the dye from her red silk tie spreading in artistic
patches on her white blouse! Over all was the rich black mud of the
lagoon, from brow to boot soles. Her hat, once white felt, was a sodden
black-streaked mass; even her hands and face were stiff with mud.

"Thank goodness, Daddy's out!" said the soaked one, returning knee-deep
in the water to try and cleanse herself as much as might be--which was
no great amount, for lagoon mud defies ordinary efforts. She waded out,
still laughing; cast an apprehensive glance at the quarter from which
her father might be expected to return, and set out on her journey to
the house, the water squelching dismally in her boots at every step.

In the garden at Billabong walked a slim youth in most correct attire.
His exquisitely tailored suit of palest grey flannel was set off by a
lavender-striped shirt, with a tie that matched the stripe. Patent
leather shoes with wide ribbon bows shod him; above them, and below the
turned-up trousers, lavender silk socks with purple circles made a very
glory of his ankles. On his sleek head he balanced a straw hat with an
infinitesimal brim, a crown tall enough to resemble a monument, and a
very wide hat band. His pale, well-featured face betrayed unuttered
depths of boredom.

The click of the gate made him turn. Coming up the path was a figure
that might have been plaintive but that Norah was so immensely amused
at herself; and the stranger opened his pale eyes widely, for such
apparitions had not come his way. She did not see him for a moment.
When she did, he was directly in her path, and Norah pulled up short.

"Oh !" she said weakly; and then--"I didn't know anyone was here."

The strange youth looked somewhat disgusted.

"I should think you'd--ah--better go round to the back," he said
condescendingly. "You'll find the housekeeper there."

This time it was Norah's turn to be open-eyed.

"Thanks," she said a little shortly. "Were you waiting to see anyone?"

The boy's eyebrows went up. "I am--ah--staying here."

"Oh, are you?" Norah said. "I didn't know. I'm Norah Linton."

"You!" said the stranger. There was such a world of expression in his
tone that Norah flushed scarlet, suddenly painfully conscious of her
extraordinary appearance. Then--it was unusual for her--she became angry.

"Did you never see anyone wet?" she asked, in trenchant tones. "And
didn't you ever learn to take your hat off?"

"By Jove!" said the boy, looking at the truculent and mud-streaked
figure. Then he did an unwise thing, for he burst out laughing.

"I don't know who you are," Norah said, looking at him steadily. "But I
think you're the rudest, worst-mannered boy that ever came here!"

She flashed past him with her head in the air. Cecil Linton, staring
after her with amazement, saw her cross the red-tiled verandah
hurriedly and disappear within a side door, a trail of wet marks behind

"By Jove!" he said again. "The bush cousin!"



And the loony bullock snorted when you first came into view,
Well, you know, it's not so often that he sees a swell like you.

Norah did not encounter the newcomer again until dinner-time.

She was in the drawing-room, waiting for the gong to sound, when Cecil
came in with her father. For a moment he did not recognize the soaked
waif of the garden whom he had recommended "to go round to the back."

A hot bath and a change of raiment had restored Norah to her usual
self; had helped her also to laugh at her meeting with her cousin,
although she was still ruffled at the memory of the sneer in his laugh.
Perhaps because of that she had dressed more carefully than usual.
Cecil might have been excused for failing to recognize the grave-faced
maiden, very dainty in her simple frock of soft white silk, with her
still-moist curls tied back with a broad white ribbon.

"As you two have already met, there's no need to introduce you," said
Mr. Linton, a twinkle in his eye. "Sorry your reception was so
informal, Cecil--you took us by surprise."

"I suppose the mater mixed things up, as usual," Cecil said, in a bored
way. "I certainly intended all along to get here to-day, but she's
fearfully vague, don't you know. I was lucky in getting a lift out."

"You certainly were," his uncle said, dryly. "However, I'm glad you
didn't have to wait in the township. You'd have found it slow."

"I'd probably have gone back," said Cecil.

"Ah--would you?" Mr. Linton looked for a moment very much as though he
wished he had done so. There was an uncomfortable pause, to which the
summons to dinner formed a welcome break.

Dinner was very different from the usual cheery meal. Cecil was not
shy, and supplied most of the conversation as a matter of course; and
his conversation was of a kind new to Norah. She remained unusually
silent, being, indeed, fully occupied in taking stock of this novel
variety of boy. She wondered were all city boys different from those
she knew. Jim was not like this; neither were the friends he was
accustomed to bring home with him. They were not a bit grown up, and
they talked of ordinary, wholesome things like cricket and football,
and horses, and dormitory "larks," and were altogether sensible and
companionable. But Cecil's talk was of theatres and bridge parties,
and--actually--clothes! Horses he only mentioned in connexion with
racing, and when Mr. Linton inquired mildly if he were fond of dances,
he was met by raised eyebrows and a bored disclaimer of caring to do
anything so energetic. Altogether this product of city culture was an
eye-opener to the simple folks of Billabong.

Of Norah, Cecil took very little notice. She was evidently a being
quite beneath his attention--he was secretly amused at the way in which
she presided at her end of the table, and decided in his own mind that
his mother's views had been correct, and that this small girl would be
all the better for a little judicious snubbing. So he ignored her in
his conversation, and if she made a remark contrived to infuse a faint
shade of patronage into his reply. It is possible that his amazement
would have been great had he known how profoundly his uncle longed to
kick him.

Dinner over, Norah fled to Brownie, and to that sympathetic soul
unburdened her woes. Mr. Linton and his nephew retired to the verandah,
where the former preferred to smoke in summer. He smiled a little at
the elaborate cigarette case Cecil drew out, but lit his pipe without
comment, reflecting inwardly that although cigarettes were scarcely the
treatment, though they might be the cause, of a pasty face and a
"nervous breakdown," it was none of his business to interfere with a
young gentleman who evidently considered himself a man of the world. So
they smoked and talked, and when, after a little while, Cecil confessed
himself tired, and went off to bed, he left behind him a completely
bored and rather annoyed squatter.

"Well, Norah, what do you think of him?"

Norah, sitting meekly knitting in the drawing-room, looked up and
laughed as her father came in.

"Think? Why, I don't think much, Daddy."

"No more do I," said Mr. Linton, casting his long form into an
armchair. "Of all the spoilt young cubs!--and that's all it is, I should
say: clearly a case of spoiling. The boy isn't bad at heart, but he's
never been checked in his life. Well, I'm told it's risky for a father
to bring up his daughter unaided, but I'm positive the result is worse
when an adoring mother rears a fatherless boy! Possibly I've made
rather a boy of you--but Cecil's neither one thing nor the other. Why
didn't you come out, my lass?"

"Felt too bad tempered!" said Norah; "he makes me mad when he speaks to
you in that condescending way of his, Daddy. I'll be calmer to-morrow."
She smiled up at her father. "Have a game of chess?"

"It would be soothing, I think," Mr. Linton answered. He laughed. "It's
really pathetic--our Darby and Joan existence to be ruffled like this!
Thank goodness, he's in bed, for to-night, at any rate!" They got out
the chessmen, and played very happily until Norah's bedtime.

"Do you ride, Cecil?" Mr. Linton asked next morning at breakfast.

"Ride? Oh, certainly," Cecil answered. "I suppose you're all very keen
on that sort of thing up here?"

"Well, that's how we earn our living," his uncle remarked. "Norah is my
right-hand man on the run."

"Ah, how nice! Do you find it hard to get labour here?"

"Oh, we get them," said Mr. Linton, his eyes twinkling. "But I prefer
to catch 'em young. We're cutting out cattle for trucking to-day. Would
you care to come out?"

"Delighted," said the nephew, glancing without enthusiasm at his
flannels. "But I didn't dress for riding."

"Oh, we're not absolute sticklers for costume here," Mr. Linton said,
laughing outright. "Wear what you like--in any case, we shan't start for
an hour."

It was more than that before they finally got away. The delay was due
to waiting for the visitor, whose toilet was a lengthy proceeding. When
at length he sauntered out, in blissful ignorance of the fact that he
had been keeping them waiting, no one could have found fault with his
clothes--a riding suit of very English cut, with immensely baggy
breeches, topped by an immaculately folded stock, and a smart tweed

"That feller plenty new," said black Billy, gazing at him with

Mr. Linton chuckled as he swung Norah to her saddle.

"Let's hope his horsemanship is equal to his attire!"

Norah smiled in answer. Bobs was dancing with impatience, and she
walked him round and round, keeping an eye on her cousin.

A steady brown mare had been saddled for Cecil--one of the "general
utility" horses to be found on every station. He cast a critical eye
over her as he approached, glancing from her to the horses of his uncle
and cousin. Brown Betty was a thoroughly good stamp of a stock horse,
with plenty of quality; while not, perhaps, of the class of Monarch and
Bobs, she was by no means a mount to be despised. That Cecil
disapproved of her, however, was evident. There was a distinct curl on
his lip as he gathered up the reins. However, he mounted without a
word, and they set off in pursuit of Murty O'Toole, the head stockman,
who was already halfway to the cutting-out paddock.

The Clover Paddock of Billabong was famous--a splendid stretch of
perfect green, where the cattle moved knee-deep in fragrant blossoming
clovers, with pink and white flowers starring the wide expanse. At one
end it was gently undulating plain, towards the other it came down in a
gradual slope to the river, where tall gums gave an evergreen shelter
from winter gales or summer heat. The cattle were under them as the
riders came up--great, splendid Shorthorns, the aristocracy of their
kind, their roan sides sleek, their coats in perfect condition, and a
sprinkling of smaller bullocks whose inferiority in size was
compensated by their amazing fatness. It was evident that this week
there would be no difficulty in making up the draft for the Melbourne

The cattle were mustered into one herd; no racing or hastening now, but
with the gentle consideration one should extend to the dignified and
portly. They moved lazily, as if conscious of their own value. Cecil,
hurrying a red-and-white bullock across a little flat, was met by a
glare from Murty O'Toole, and a muttered injunction to "go aisy wid
'em," followed by a remark that "clo'es like thim was only fit to go
mustherin' turkeykins in!" Luckily the latter part of the outbreak was
unheard by Cecil, who was quite sufficiently injured at the first, and
favoured Murty with a lofty stare that had the effect of throwing the
Irishman and black Billy into secret convulsions of mirth.

Norah rode not far from her father as they brought the cattle out into
the open and to the cutting-out camp--a spot where the beaten ground
showed that very often before such scenes had been enacted. The
bullocks knew it, and huddled there contentedly enough in a compact
body, while slowly Mr. Linton and Murty rode about them, singling out
the primest. Once marked down, O'Toole would slip between the bullock
and his mates and edge him away, where Billy took charge of him,
preventing his returning to the mob. With the first two or three this
was not quite easy: but once a few were together they gave little
trouble, feeding about calmly: and generally a bullock cut out from the
main body would trot quite readily across to the others.

Privately, Cecil Linton thought it remarkably dull work. All that he
had read of station life was unlike this. He had had visions of far
more exciting doings--mad gallops and wild cattle, thoroughbred horses,
kangaroo hunts and a score of other delights. Instead, all he had to do
was to tail after a lot of sleepy bullocks and then watch them sorted
out by some men whose easy-going ways were unlike anything he had
imagined. He had no small opinion of his riding, and he yearned for
distinction. The very sight of Norah, leaning a little forward,
keenness on every line of her face, was an offence to him. He could see
nothing whatever to be keen about. Yawning, he lit a cigarette.

Just then a bullock was cut out and pointed in the way he should go. He
lumbered easily past black Billy, apparently quite contented with his
fate; and Billy, seeing another following, gave a crack of his whip to
speed him on his way, and turned to deal with the newcomer. The first
bullock became immediately seized with a spirit of mischief. He
flourished his heels in the air, turned at right angles and made off
towards the river at a gallop.

Cecil, busy with his cigarette, saw Norah sit up suddenly and tighten
her hand on the bridle. Simultaneously Bobs was off like a shot--tearing
over the paddock a little wide of the fugitive. The race was a short
one. Passing the bullock, the bay pony and his rider swung in sharply
and the lash of Norah's whip shot out. The bullock stopped short,
shaking his head; then, as the whip spoke again, he wheeled and trotted
back meekly to the smaller mob. Behind him Norah cantered slowly. The
work of cutting out had not paused and no one seemed to notice the
incident. But Cecil saw his uncle smile across at the little girl, and
caught the look in Norah's eyes as she smiled back. She and Bobs took
up their station again, silently watchful.

Cecil was fired with ambition. Norah's small service had seemed to him
ridiculously easy; still, insignificant though everyone appeared to
regard it, it was better than doing nothing. He had not the faintest
doubt of his own ability, and the idea that riding in a decorous suburb
might not fit him for all equine emergencies he would have scouted. He
gathered up his reins, and waited anxiously for another beast to break

One obliged him presently; a big shorthorn that decided he had stayed
long enough in the mob, and suddenly made up his mind to seek another
scene. Norah had already started in pursuit when she saw her cousin
send his spurs home in Betty, and charge forward. So she pulled up the
indignant Bobs, who danced, and left the field to Cecil.

Betty took charge of affairs from the outset. There was no move in all
the cattle-game that she did not understand. Moreover, she was justly
indignant at the spur-thrust, which attention only came her way in
great emergencies; and the heavy hand on her mouth was gall and
wormwood to her. But ahead was a flying bullock, and she was a stock
horse, which was sufficient for Betty.

"That feller brown mare got it all her own way!" said Billy, in

She had. Cecil, bumping a little in the saddle, had no very clear idea
of how things were going. He had a moment of amazement that the quiet
mare he had despised could make such a pace. Once he tried to steady
her, but at that instant Betty was not to be steadied. She galloped on,
and Cecil, recovering some of his self-possession, began to think that
this was the thing whereof he had dreamed.

The bullock was fat and scant of breath. It did not take him very long
to conclude that he had had enough, especially when he heard the hoofs
behind him. It was sad, for close before him was the shade of the trees
and the murmur of the river; but discretion is ever the better part of
valour, particularly if one be not only valorous but fat. He pulled up
short. Betty propped without a second's hesitation, and swung round.

To Cecil it seemed that the world had dropped from under him--and then
risen to meet him. The brown mare turned, in the bush idiom, "on a
sixpence," but Cecil did not turn. He went on. The onlookers had a
vision of the mare chopping round, as duty bade her, to head off the
bullock, while at right-angles a graceful form in correct English
garments hurtled through the air in an elegant curve. When he came
down, which seemed to be not for some time, it was into a shady clump
of wild raspberries--and only those who know the Victorian wild
raspberry know how clinging and intrusive are its hooked thorns. Two
legs kicked wildly. There was no sound.

When the rescuing party extricated Cecil from his involuntary botanical
researches he was a sorry sight. His clothes were torn in many places,
and his face and hands badly scratched, while the red stains of the
raspberries had turned his light tweeds into something resembling an
impressionist sketch. It was perhaps excusable that he had altogether
lost his temper. He burst out in angry abuse of the mare, the bullock,
the raspberry clump, and the expedition in general--anger which the
scarcely concealed grins of the stockmen only served to intensify.
Norah, who had choked with laughter at first, but had become
sympathetic as soon as she saw the boy's face, extracted numerous
thorns from his person and clothing, and murmured words of regret,
which fell on unheeding ears. Finally his uncle lost patience.

"That'll do Cecil," he said. "Everyone comes to grief occasionally--take
your gruel like a man. Come on, Norah. Murty's waiting." Saying which,
he put Norah up, and they rode off, while Billy held the brown mare's
rein for Cecil, who mounted sulkily. Something in his uncle's face
forbade his replying. But in his heart came the beginning of a grudge
against the Bush, Billabong in general, and Norah in particular. Later
on, he promised himself, there might come a chance to work it off.

For the present, however, there was nothing to be done but nurse his
scratches and his grievance; so he sat sulkily on Betty, and took no
further active part in the morning's work, the consciousness of acting
like a spoilt child not tending to improve his temper. Nobody took any
notice of him. One by one the bullocks were cut out, until between
twenty and thirty were ready, and then the main mob was left to wander
slowly back to the river, while O'Toole and Billy started with the
others to the paddock at the end of the run, which was their first
stage in the seventeen-mile journey to the trucking yards at Cunjee.
They moved off peacefully through the blossoming clover.

"Luckily they don't be afther knowin' what's ahead av thim!" said
Murty. He lifted his battered felt hat to Norah, as he rode away.

"We'll go down and see how high the river is before we go home," said
Mr. Linton.

So they rode down to the river, commented on the unusual amount of
water for so late in the year, inspected the drinking places, paid a
visit to a beast in another paddock, which had been sick, but was now
apparently in rude health, and finally cantered home to lunch. Brownie
prudently refrained from comment on Cecil's scratched countenance,
further than to supply him with large quantities of hot water in his
room, together with a small pair of pliers, which she remarked were
'andy things for prickles. Under this varied treatment Cecil became
more like himself, and recovered his spirits, though a soreness yet
remained at the thought of the little girl who had done so easily what
he had failed so ignominiously in trying to do. He decided definitely
in his own mind that he did not like Norah.



You found the Bush was dismal, and a land of no delight--
Did you chance to hear a chorus in the shearers' nut at night?

"Dear Mater,--Arrived at Cunjee safely, and, thanks to the way you fixed
up things, found no one to meet me, as Uncle David thought I would not
arrive until next day. However, a friendly yokel gave me a lift out to
Billabong in a very dirty and springless buggy, so that the mistake was
not a fatal one, though it gave me a very uncomfortable drive.

"The place is certainly very nice, and the house comfortable, though,
of course, it is old-fashioned. I prefer more modern furniture; but
Uncle David seems to think his queer old chairs and table all that can
be desired, and did not appear interested when I told him where we got
our things. I have a large room, rather draughty, but otherwise
pleasant, with plenty of space for clothes, which is a comfort. I do
think it's intensely annoying to be expected to keep your clothes in
your trunk. The view is nice.

"Uncle David seemed quite prepared to treat me as a small boy, but I
fancy I have demonstrated to him that I know my way about--in fact, as
far as city life goes, I should say he knew exceedingly little. I can't
understand any man with money being content to live and die in a hole
like this out-of-the-way place: but I suppose, as you say, Aunt Helen's
death made a difference. Actually, they have not even one motor! and
when I spoke of it Uncle David seemed almost indignant, and said horses
were good enough for him. That is a specimen of the way they are
content to live. He seems quite idiotically devoted to the small child,
and she lives in his pocket. If she weren't so countrified in her ways
she wouldn't be bad looking; but, of course, she is quite the bush
youngster, and, I should think, would find her level pretty quickly
when she goes to school among a lot of smart Melbourne girls. I should
hope so, at any rate, for she is quite spoilt here. It is exactly as
you said--everyone treats her like a sort of tin god, and she evidently
thinks herself someone, and is inclined to regard those older than
herself quite as equals. When I first saw her she had just fallen into
some mud hole, and her appearance would have given you a fit. But what
can you expect?

"The fat old cook is still here, and asked after you. It's absolutely
ridiculous to see the way she is treated--quite considers herself the
mistress of the place, and when I told her one morning to let me have
my shaving water she was almost rude. I think if there's one thing
sillier than another it's the sort of superstition some people have
about old servants.

"So far I find it exceedingly dull, and don't feel very hopeful that
things will be much better when Jim comes home. Of course, he may be
improved, but he appeared to me a great overgrown animal when I last
saw him, without an idea in his head beyond cricket and football. I
don't feel that he will be any companion to me. He will probably suffer
badly from swelled head, too, as every one is making a fuss about his
return. So quaint, to see the sort of mutual admiration that goes on

"I have had some riding, being given a horse much inferior to either
Uncle David's or Norah's--the latter rides like a jockey, and, of
course, astride, which I consider very ungraceful. She turns out well,
however, and all her get-up is good--her habits come from a Melbourne
tailor. I think I will get some clothes in Melbourne on my way back;
they may not have newer ideas, but it may be useful for purposes of
comparison with the Sydney cut. My riding clothes were evidently a
source of much wonderment and admiration to the yokels. Unfortunately
they have become badly stained with some confounded raspberry juice,
and though I left them out for Mrs. Brown to clean, she has not done so

"Well, there is no news to be got in a place like this; we never go
out, except on the run, and there seems absolutely no society. The
local doctor came out yesterday, in a prehistoric motor, but I found
him very uninteresting. Of course, one has no ideas in common with
these Bush people. Where the 'Charm of the Bush' comes in is more than
I can see--I much prefer Town on a Saturday morning to all Billabong and
its bullocks. They wanted me to go out one night and--fancy!--help burn
down dead trees; but, really, I jibbed on that. There is no billiard
room. Uncle David intends building one when Jim comes home for good,
but that certainly won't be in my time here. I fancy a very few weeks
will see me back in town.

"No bridge played here, of course! Have you had any luck that way?

"Your affectionate son,


Cecil blotted the final sheet of his letter home, and sat back with a
sigh of satisfaction, as one who feels his duty nobly done. He stamped
it, strolled across the hall to deposit it in the post box which stood
on the great oak table, and then looked round for something to do.

It was afternoon, and all was very quiet. Mr. Linton had ridden off
with a buyer to inspect cattle, Norah ruefully declining to accompany

"I'm awfully sorry, Dad," she had said, "But I'm too busy."

"Busy, are you? What at?"

"Oh, cooking and things," Norah had answered. "Brownie's not very well,
and I said I'd help her--there's a lot to do just now, you know." She
stood on tiptoe to kiss her father. "Good-bye, Dad--don't be too long,
will you? And take care of yourself!"

Cecil also had declined to go out, giving "letters to write" as a
reason. The truth was that several rides had told on the town youth,
whose seat in the saddle was not easy enough to prevent his becoming
stiff and sore. Bush people are used to this peculiarity in city
visitors, and, while regarding the sufferers with sympathy, generally
prescribe a "hair of the dog that bit them"--more riding--as the quickest
cure; which Cecil would certainly have thought hard-hearted in the
extreme. However, nothing would have induced him to say that he had
felt the riding, since Cecil belonged to that class of boy that hates
to admit inferiority to others. So he suffered in silence, creaked
miserably at his uprising and down-sitting, and was happily unaware
that everyone in Billabong knew perfectly well what was the matter with

Cecil and his mother were very good friends in the cool, polite way
that was distinctive of them. They "fitted" together admirably, and as
a general rule held the same views, the one on which they were most in
accord being the belief in Cecil's own superior talents and
characteristics. He wrote to her just as he would have talked, certain
of her absolute agreement. When his letter was finished he felt much
relieved at having, as Jim said, "got it off his chest." Not that Cecil
would ever have said anything so inelegant.

Sarah crossed the hall at the moment, carrying a tray of silver to be
cleaned, and he called to her--

"Where is Norah?"

"Miss Norah's in the kitchen," said the girl shortly. The Billabong
maids were no less independent than modern maids generally are, but
they had their views about the city gentleman's manner to the daughter
of the house. "On'y a bit of a kid himself," Mary had said to Sarah,
indignantly, "but any one'd think he owned the earth, an' Miss Norah
was a bit of it." So they despised Cecil exceedingly, and refrained
from shaking up his mattress when they made his bed.

"Er--you may tell her I want to speak to her."

"Can't, I'm afraid," Sarah said. "Miss Norah's very busy, 'elpin' Mrs.
Brown. She don't care to be disturbed."

"Can't she spare me a moment?"

"Wouldn't ask her to." Sarah lifted her tray--and her nose--and marched
out. Cecil looked black.

"Gad! I wish the mater had to deal with those girls!" he said
viciously--Mrs. Geoffrey Linton was of the employers who "change their
maids" with every new moon. "She'd make them sit up, I'll wager.
Abominable impertinence!" He strolled to the door, and looked out
across the garden discontentedly. "What on earth is there for a man to
do? Well, I'll hunt up the important cousin."

At the moment, Norah was quite of importance. Mrs. Brown had succumbed
to a headache earlier in the day. Norah had found her, white-faced and
miserable, bending over a preserving pan full of jam, waiting for the
mystical moment when it should "jell." Ordered to rest, poor Brownie
had stoutly refused--was there not more baking to be done, impossible to
put off, to say nothing of the jam? A brisk engagement had ensued, from
which Norah had emerged victorious, the reins of government in her
hands for the day. Brownie, still protesting, had been put on her bed
with a handkerchief steeped in eau-de-Cologne on her throbbing
forehead, and Norah had returned to the kitchen to varied occupations.

The jam had behaved beautifully; had "jelled" in the most satisfactory
manner, just the right colour; now it stood in a neat array of jars on
a side table, waiting to be sealed and labelled when cold. Then, after
lunch, Norah had plunged into the mysteries of pastry, and was
considerably relieved when her mince pies turned out very closely akin
to those of Brownie, which were famous. Puddings for dinner had
followed, and were now cooling in the dairy. Finally, the joint being
in the oven, and vegetables prepared, the cook had compounded Jim's
favourite cake, which was now baking; during which delicate operation,
with a large dab of flour on her nose, the cook sat at the table, and
wrote a letter.

"DEAR OLD JIM,--This must be in pencil, 'cause I'm watching a cake
that's in the oven, and I'm awfully scared of it burning, so I don't
dare to go for the ink. Dad said I was to write and tell you we would
meet you on Wednesday, unless we heard from you again. We are all
awfully glad and excited about you coming. I'm sure Tait and Puck
understand, 'cause I told them to-day, and they barked like anything.
Your room is all right, and we've put in another cupboard. We're all so
sorry about Wally not coming, but we hope he will come later on. Do
make him.

"Dad and I aren't talking about me going to school. It can't be helped,
and it only makes you jolly blue to talk about it.

"Cecil's come, and he's the queerest specimen of a boy I ever saw. He's
awfully grown up, but he's small and terribly swagger. His riding
clothes are gorgeous, and you mustn't laugh at them. Dad did, but it
was into Bobs' mane. He came with us cutting-out, and Betty was too
good for him, swinging round, so he came a lovely cropper into some
wild raspberries. It was so funny no one could have helped laughing,
and he wasn't really hurt, only prickled and very wild. I am afraid he
isn't enjoying himself very much, but of course he will be all right
when you come. It's jolly hard to entertain him, 'cause he isn't a bit
keen about anything. He has a tremendous array of shaving tackle. And
he has a hand glass. Do you think he will lend it to you to see your
back hair?

"Bobs is just lovelier than ever. I never knew him go so well as he is
now, and he perfectly loves a jump. Dad has a new horse he calls
Monarch, and he is a beauty, he is black with a star. OF COURSE, don't
say anything about Cecil's spill to anybody, he could not help it. And
he had a much bigger laugh at me, 'cause I fell into the lagoon the day
he came. I will tell you all about it when you come.

"The place is looking lovely, and hasn't dried up a bit--"

An unfamiliar step came along the passage, and Norah sat up abruptly
from the labours of composition, and then with promptness concealed her
letter under a cookery book.

"Why Cecil! How did you find your way here?"

"Oh--looked about me. I had finished my writing, and there was nothing
to do."

"I'm so sorry," Norah said contritely. "You see, Brownie's sick, and
I'm on duty here."

"You!" said Cecil, with a laugh. "And what can YOU do in a kitchen?"

Norah blushed at the laugh more than at the words.

"Oh, you'll get some sort of a dinner," she said. "Don't be too
critical, that's all."

"What, you really can cook? Or do you play at it?"

"Well, there are mighty few girls in the Bush who can't cook a bit,"
Norah said. "Of course we're lucky, having Brownie--but you really never
can tell as a rule when you may have to turn to in the kitchen. Dad
says it's one of the beauties of Australia!"

"Can't say I like the idea of a lady in the kitchen," quoth Cecil

"Can't say I'd like to be one who was scared of it," Norah said. "And I
guess you'd get very bored if you had to go without your dinner!" She
seized a cloth and opened the oven door gingerly, and made highly
technical experiments with her cake, rising presently, somewhat
flushed. "Ten minutes more," she said, with an air of satisfaction.
"And, as Brownie would say, 'he's rose lovely.' Have some tea, Cecil?"

Cecil assented, and watched the small figure in the voluminous white
apron as she flitted about the kitchen.

"I like having tea here," Norah confided to him. "Then I use Brownie's
teapot, and don't you always think tea tastes miles better out of a
brown pot? You won't get the proper afternoon cups either--I hope you
don't mind?" She stopped short, with a sudden sense of talking a
language altogether foreign to this bored young man in correct attire;
and a rush of something like irritation to think how different Jim or
Wally would have been--she could almost see Wally sitting on the edge of
the table, with a huge cup of tea in one hand, a scone in the other,
and his thin, eager face alight with cheerfulness. Cecil was certainly
heavy in the hand. She sighed, but bent manfully to her task again.

"You take sugar, don't you? And cream? Yes, you ought to have cream,
'cause you've been ill." She dashed into the pantry, returning with a
small jug. "The cake's not mine, so I can recommend it; but if you're
not frightened you can have one of my mince pies."

"Thanks, I'd rather have cake," said Cecil., and again Norah flushed at
his tone, but she laughed.

"It's certainly safer," she agreed, "I'm sure Brownie thought it was a
hideous risk to leave the pies to me." She supplied her cousin with
cake, and retreated to the oven.

"Why don't you let one of the girls do this?" he asked.

"Sarah or Mary? Oh, they're as busy as ever they can be," explained
Norah. "We always do a lot of extra cleaning and rubbing up before
Christmas, and they haven't a moment. Of course they'd do it in a
minute, if I asked them, but I wouldn't--as it is, Sarah's going to dish
up for me. They're the nicest girls; I'm going to take them tea as soon
as I get my cake out!"

"You!" said Cecil. "You don't mean to say you're going to cart tea to
the servants?"

"I'd be a perfect pig if I didn't," Norah said, shortly. "I'm afraid
you don't understand the bush a bit, Cecil."

"Thank goodness I don't then," said Cecil, stiffly. "Who's that tray

"Brownie, of course." Norah was getting a little ruffled--criticism like
this had not come to her.

"Well, I think it's extraordinary--and so would my mother," Cecil said,
with an air of finality.

"I suppose a town is different," said Norah, striving after patience.
"We like to look after everyone here--and I think it's grand when
everyone's nice to everyone!" She paused; it was hard to be patient and
grammatical, too.

"School will teach you a number of things," said her cousin loftily. He
rose and put down his cup. "A lady shouldn't lower herself."

"Dad says a lady can't lower herself by work," retorted Norah. "Anyhow,
if taking tea to dear old Brownie's going to lower me, it'll have to,
that's all!"

"You don't understand," said Cecil. "A lady has her own place, and to
get on terms of familiarity with the lower classes is bad for both her
and them." He looked and felt instructive. "It isn't exactly the action
that counts--it's the spirit it fosters--er--the feeling--that is,
the--er, in short, it's a mistake to--"

"Oh, please be careful, Cecil, you're sitting in some dough!"

Norah sprang forward anxiously, and instructiveness fell from Cecil as
one sheds a garment. He had sat down on the edge of the table in the
flow of his eloquence; now he jumped up angrily, and, muttering
unpleasant things, endeavored to remove dough from his person. Norah
hovered round, deeply concerned. Pastry dough, however, is a clinging
and a greasy product, and finally the wrathful lecturer beat a retreat
towards the sanctuary of his own room, and the cook sat down and shook
with laughter.

"My cake!" she gasped, in the midst of her mirth. She flew to the oven
and rescued Jim's delicacy.

"Thank goodness, it's all right!" said she. Her mirth broke out afresh.

A shadow darkened the doorway.

"What--cooking and in hysterics?" said Mr. Linton. "May I have some tea?
And what's the matter?"

"Cecil's begun the reforming process," said his daughter, becoming
solemn with difficulty. "You've no idea how improved I am, Daddy! He
seems to be certain that I'm not a lady, and he's very doubtful if I'm
a cook, so could you tell me what I'm likely to be?"

"A better all-round man than Cecil, I should hope," said David Linton,
with a sound like a snort of wrath. "Give me some tea, mate, and don't
bother your head about the future. Your old Dad's not scared!"



The top of my desire
Is just to meet a mate o' mine.

It had suddenly become hot--"truly Christmas" weather, Norah called it,
as she stood waiting on the Cunjee platform for a train which, in
accordance with all railway traditions at Christmas, was already over
an hour late. Norah felt it hard that to-day, of all days in the year,
it should be so--when Jim was actually coming home for good! At the
thought of Jim's arrival she hopped cheerfully on one leg, completely
oblivious of onlookers, and looked up the shining line of rails for the
thousand-and-first time. Would the old train never come?

"Aren't you contriving to keep warm, with the mercury trying to break
the thermometer? Or do you dance merely because you feel like it?"
asked a friendly voice; and Norah turned with a little flush of
pleasure to greet the Cunjee doctor. She and Dr. Anderson respected
each other very highly.

"Because I feel like it, I expect," she said, laughing and shaking

"Which my wide professional experience leads me to diagnose as the fact
that you're probably waiting for Jim!" said the doctor, gravely.
"There's a certain hectic flush, an intermittent pulse, which convinces
me of your painful state, when coupled with the restlessness of the

"Which eye?" asked Norah anxiously.

"Both," said the doctor. "Don't be flippant with your medical man. So
he's really coming, Norah?"

"Yes," said Norah, "and I don't care if I am excited--so'd you be,
doctor. Billy's outside with the horses, and he's just as excited as I

"Billy!" said the doctor. "But he'd never say more than 'Plenty!' no
matter how excited he was."

"No, of course not, but then he finds it such a useful word," Norah
said a little vaguely. She was peering up the rails. Suddenly she spun
round, her face glowing. "There's the smoke--she's coming!"

Whatever additional remarks Dr. Anderson may have made fell on deaf
ears, for Norah had no further ideas from that moment. The train came
into view over the brow of the hill, and slid down the long slope into
the station, pulling up with a mighty grinding of brakes. Almost as it
stopped a door was flung open violently, and a very tall boy with the
Grammar School colours on his hat jumped out, cast a hurried glance
around, and then seized the small person in blue linen in an unashamed
bear's hug.

"Oh, Jim!" said Norah. "Oh, Jimmy--boy!"

"Well, old kiddie," said Jim. "You all right? My word, I am glad to see

"Me, too," said Norah. "It's been just ages, Jim."

"Hasn't it?" Jim said. He started. "Oh, by Jove! There's someone else

Norah wheeled round, and uttered a little cry of joy. Another boy with
the dark-blue hat band was grinning at her in most friendly fashion--a
thin, brown-faced boy, with especially merry dark eyes. Norah's hands
went out.

"Wally! But, how lovely! I thought you couldn't come."

"So did I," said Wally Meadows, pumping her hands vigorously. "I was
going home, but my aunt obligingly got measles. I'm awfully sorry for
Aunt. But it's an ill-wind that blows nowhere--old Jim took pity on me,
and here I am!"

"I should think so," Norah said. "We haven't felt a bit complete
without you. Dad was saying only this morning how sorry he was you
couldn't come. He'll get such a shock! Oh, it's so lovely to have you
two--and isn't it getting like Christmas! I'm so happy!" She jigged on
one foot, regardless of interested faces watching her from the train.

"You've grown about a foot," said Jim, patting her on the shoulder.
"Pretty thin, too--sure you're all right?"

Norah reassured him, laughing.

"Well, you look awfully fit, if you are thin," was Jim's comment.
"Doesn't she, Wally?"

"Never saw her look fitter," said Wally. "I'm glad as five bob Aunt got
the measles! Oh, what a beast I am--but, you know what I mean! Jim, this
train'll go on, and we've fifty million things in the carriage!"

"So we have!" Jim said, hurriedly, taking his hand from Norah's
shoulder and diving after his chum into the compartment they had
quitted. They emerged laden with suitcases, parcels, rackets, fishing
rods, golf sticks and other miscellaneous impedimenta.

"Catch!" Jim said, tossing a big box into Norah's hands.

"Chocolates!" said Norah blissfully. "Jim, you're an angel!"

"Always knew that," her brother replied, dropping his load on the
platform with a cheerful disregard of what might break. "Come on,
Wally, we'll get the heavy things out of the van. You watch those, Nor.
Who's in, by the way? And where's Dad?"

"Dad's in Cunjee; but he had business, and he couldn't wait at the
station, the train was so late. Cecil's with him--they're both riding.
I've got the light buggy with the ponies for you, and Billy's driving
the express for your luggage and heaps of things that Brownie wants for
the house." Norah spoke in one breath and finished with a gasp.

"Guess people must have thought you were a circus procession!" was
Jim's comment. "All right, we'll cart the things out to Billy."

Out at the bid express-wagon drawn by a pair of greys, Billy stood,
welcoming them with a smile on his dusky countenance that Wally likened
to a slit in a coconut. The luggage was piled in with special
injunctions to the black boy not to put the bags of flour on anything
that looked delicate--whereat Billy's smile widened to a grin, and he
murmured "Plenty!" delightedly.

"That's the lot," Jim said. "The buggy's at the hotel, I suppose,

"Yes--and we're to have lunch there with Dad. And you've got to be
awfully polite to Cecil!"

"Cecil!" said Jim, lifting his nose. "If Cecil's anything like what he
used to be--" He did not finish the sentence.

"Do we play with Cecil?" Wally asked, grinning.

"The question is, if Cecil will condescend to play with you," Norah
said. "He thinks ME too much of a kid to look at--"

"Oh, does he?" asked Jim resentfully.

"But you're both ever so much bigger than he is, so perhaps he'll let
you love him!" Norah finished.

"I'm relieved to my soul," said Wally, with gravity. "Visions of my
unrequited affection poured out on Cecil have been troubling my rest
for days. May I kiss him?"

"I'd wait a little while, I think," Norah answered. "He may be shy--not
that we've found it out yet. Indeed, he's the unshyest person I ever

"Is he very awful, Nor?"

"Oh, he's a bit of a drawback," Norah said. "Dad says he's not bad at
heart, only so spoilt--and he's just terribly bumptious, Jim, and thinks
he can do everything; and his clothes are lovely! He isn't caring for
me a bit to-day, 'cause he gave me a broad hint that he wanted to ride
Bobs, and I didn't take it."

"Ride Bobs!" exclaimed Jim, in amazement. "Well, I should think you

"Well, I felt rather a pig, considering he's our guest," Norah said, a
little contritely. "If it were you or Wally, now--but he's really got an
awful seat, Jim, and Murty says he's a hand like a ham on a horse's
mouth! I didn't feel I could let him have Bobs."

"Bobs is your very special property--no one but an ass would ask for
him, and I told Cecil last year you were the only person who ever rode
him," said Jim indignantly. "Surely there are enough horses on the
place without him wanting to collar your pony!"

"Well, he didn't get him," said Norah, tranquilly, "so that's all right
and you needn't worry, Jimmy. I do think, if only one could get him off
his high horse, he wouldn't be at all bad--perhaps he'll thaw now you
boys are here. I hope he will, for his own sake, 'cause he'd have such
a much better time."

"Well, if he's going to be patronizing--" Jim began.

"Ah, perhaps he won't--I don't believe he could try to patronize you!"
Norah glanced lovingly at her tall brother. "You're nearly as big as
Dad, Jimmy, aren't you? and Wally's going to be too."

"Ill weeds grow apace," quoted the latter gentleman solemnly. "Jim's a
splendid example of that proverb."

"M'f!" said Norah. "How about yourself?"

"I'm coming up as a flower!" Wally replied modestly. "A Christmas lily,
I should think!"--whereat Jim murmured something that sounded "More like
an artichoke!" His exact remark, however, was lost, for at that moment
they arrived at the hotel, just as Mr. Linton emerged from it, and Jim
quickened his pace, his face alight.


"Well, my boy!" They gripped hands, and David Linton's eye kindled as
it dwelt on the big fellow. "Glad to have you back, old son.

"Turned up like a bad penny, sir," said Wally, having his hand pumped
in turn. "Hope you'll forgive me--it's pretty cool to arrive without an

"As far as I know, you had invitations from all the family," said Mr.
Linton, laughing. "We regard you as one of the oldest inhabitants now,
you know. At any rate, I'm delighted to see you; the mistress of
Billabong must answer for herself, but she doesn't look cast down!"

"She's been fairly polite," Wally said. "On the whole I don't feel as
shy as I was afraid of feeling! I was horribly scared of having
Christmas with my aunt--but she's chosen measles instead, so I expect
she was just as scared as I was!"

"It's probable," said his host, laughing.

"You haven't grown up a bit, Wally, and it's such a comfort!" Norah

"I'm getting old and reverend," said Wally severely, "and it's up to
you to treat me with respect, young Norah. Sixteen's an awful age to
support with any cheerfulness." His brown face at the moment gave the
impression of never having been serious during the sixteen years he
lamented. "As for this ancient mariner"--indicating Jim--"you can see the
signs of senile decay quite plainly!"

"Ass!" said Jim affectionately. He broke off. "How are you, Cecil?"

Cecil, coming out of the hotel, a dapper figure beside the two tall
schoolboys, gave languid greetings. He cast at Jim a glance of
something like envy. Height was the one thing he longed for, and it
seemed to him hard that this seventeen-year-old youngster should be
rapidly approaching six feet, while he, three years older, had stopped
short six inches under that measurement. However, generally speaking,
Cecil was uncommonly well satisfied with himself, and not even the
contemplation of Jim's superior inches could worry him for long. He
asked polite questions about the journey, and laughed at the freely
expressed opinion that the day was hot "You should go to Sydney if you
want to know what heat is," he said, with the superiority of the
travelled man; "Victoria really has no heat to talk about!"

"Well, I'm a Queenslander," said Wally bluntly, "and we're supposed to
know about heat there. And I do think to-day is beastly hot--look at my
collar, it's like a concertina! Sydney heat is hot, and Brisbane heat
is hotter, but Victorian heat has a hotness all of its own!" Whereat
everybody laughed, and the discussion was adjourned for lunch.

It was a merry meal; and if the fare was no better than that of most
township hotels, the spirits of the party were too high to trouble
about such trifles as tough meat, watery puddings, and weary butter
that bore out Wally's remarks about the heat by threatening to float
away on a sea of its own oil. Everything was rose colour in Norah's
estimation that day. She sat by Jim and beamed across the table at her
father and Wally. Even Cecil found himself at times included in the
beam, and took it meekly, for the happy face was infectious, while the
frank delight of the boys in having her with them again was to a
certain extent educational to the outsider. There was no lack of
manliness in Jim's strong, handsome face. If he found it worth his
while, Cecil reflected, to make such a fuss over a child, it might be
possible that she was not altogether a person to be snubbed. So he was
unusually affable to his small cousin, and lunch passed off very

Afterwards there was shopping to be done. A long list of groceries had
been made out by Mrs. Brown, who professed herself far too busy with
Christmas preparations to come in person, and had laid the
responsibility on Norah, not without misgivings. It was, perhaps,
fortunate that the storekeepers were able to rise to the contents of
the list unaided, for Norah was scarcely in a condition to grapple with
problems relating to anything so ordinary as groceries, and found it
indeed difficult to read out her list coherently, with Jim standing
sentinel in the doorway and Wally wandering about the shop sampling all
he could find, from biscuits to brooms. On one occasion, when making a
special effort to preserve her dignity, she came to the item "flaked
oatmeal," and asked the shopman in rather frigid tones for "floked
atemeal," which had a paralysing effect on the unoffending storekeeper,
while Wally retired to the shelter of a pile of saucepans, and
shrieked. Thus the business of necessary purchases passed off


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