Mates at Billabong
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958).
Part 2 out of 4
cheerfully; and then what Norah termed the more interesting
shops--saddlers' and stationers'--were visited, with a view to Christmas.
Finally Jim brought the buggy from the hotel, and they picked up their
"Surely that's all?" Jim inquired, as Norah and Wally came out of the
fruiterer's laden with bags of assorted sizes, which they dumped
thankfully into the buggy, with the immediate result that a bag of
peaches burst, and had to be rescued from all over the floor. "Nor.,
you'll not have a penny left, and we'll all be violently ill if we eat
half you've bought. Come on home."
"Brownie's laid in large stocks of medicine, she says," Norah answered,
tranquilly, climbing into the buggy. "So you needn't worry, need you?
But we've truly finished now, Jim, I think. Ready, Wally?"
"Quite," said Wally cheerfully. "I've put these peaches in with the
neatsfoot oil, and it seems a beautiful arrangement!" He hopped up
nimbly. "Right oh, J immy, and pray remember I am nervous!"
"I will," Jim grinned. He laid the whip on the ponies' backs, and they
shot forward with a bound, unused to such liberties. They went down the
main street of Cunjee in a whirl of dust, and turned over the bridge
spanning the river, where the ponies promptly rose on their hind legs
at the sight of Dr. Anderson's motor, and betrayed a rooted
disinclination to come down from that unusual altitude. Jim handled
them steadily, and presently they were induced to face the snorting
horror, wherein the doctor sat, waving his hand and calling cheery
Christmas greetings as they shot past, to which the three responded
enthusiastically. Cunjee sank into the distance behind them.
The miles flew past. On the metalled road the rubbered tyres spun
silently, and only the flying hoofs clattered and soon they had left
the made road and turned on to the hard-beaten track that led to
Billabong, where progress was even smoother. The tongues flew almost as
swiftly as the wheels. The hot sun sank gradually, and the evening
breeze sprang up. It was a time for quick questions and answers. Norah
wanted details of the term just over, the sports, the prize-giving, and
had to laugh over messages from those of Jim's boy friends whom she
knew; and Jim had a hundred things to ask about home--the cattle, the
fishing, his horses, his dogs, "Brownie," and the prospects of fun
ahead. They roared over her ducking and subsequent encounter with
Cecil, and chaffed her unmercifully.
"Such a mud-lark!" said Wally, with glee. "And that prim young man! Oh,
Norah, you are a dream! I'd have given something to see your face."
"I was altogether worth seeing," Norah remarked modestly. "When I
caught sight of myself in a glass I really didn't wonder at Cecil." But
Jim glowered and referred to the absent Cecil as a "silly ass."
They turned in at last at the homestead gate, and the ponies fairly
flew up the long paddock, something in the spirits of their drivers
communicating itself to them. The house was not visible until the track
had passed through a thick belt of trees, and as they came to this Jim
fell silent, looking keenly ahead. Then the red roof came into view and
the boy drew a long breath.
"There's the old place," he said. "My word, I am glad to be home!"
Under the dust-rug Norah slipped her hand on to his knee.
"It's just lovely to have you--both of you." she added. "You're glad,
too, aren't you, Wally?"
"I could sing!" said Wally.
"Once," said Jim, "you could. But for some years--"
"Beast!" said Wally. "If you weren't driving--"
"And you weren't nervous--!" grinned his chum.
"There'd be wigs on the green," finished Norah, cheerfully. "I'll
drive, if it would be any convenience to either of you."
"We'll postpone it," said Jim. "There's Brownie at the gate, bless her
They shot up the last furlong of the drive. At the big gate of the
yard--very few people, not even bishops, go to the front gate of a Bush
homestead--Brownie stood, her broad face beaming. As they pulled up,
Murty O'Toole came forward to take the horses--a marked compliment from
Murty, who, like most head stockmen, was a free and independent soul.
Jim went over the wheel with a bound, and seized Brownie's hand.
"How are you, Brownie, dear?"
"The size of him!" said she. "The shoulders. No wonder they 'ad you for
captin of the football eleven, then, my dear!" The boys grinned widely.
"If not eleven, then it's four," said Brownie placidly. "Strange, I
can't never remember which, an' it don't sinnerfy, any'ow. Welkim
'ome--an' you too, Master Wally."
"How are you, Murty?" Jim shook hands with the stockman, while Wally
bowed low over Brownie's hand.
"I've lived for this moment," he said, fervently. "Brownie, you grow
younger every time I go away!"
"Naturally!" said Norah from the buggy.
"Be silent, minx!" said Wally, over his shoulder. "Who are you to break
in on a heart-to-heart talk, anyhow? At this present moment, Mrs.
Brown, you look seventeen!"
"Get along with you, now, do!" said the delighted Brownie. "You're no
better than you was, I'm afraid, Master Wally--alwuz ready for your
"Joke!" exclaimed he, indignantly. "Any one who'd make a joke of you,
Brownie, would rob a church. Jim might, but I--"
"Perish the idea!" said Jim, tipping the orator's hat over his eyes.
"Come and take things out of the buggy."
Across the yard came Mr. Linton, surrounded by a mixed assemblage of
dogs. Puck and the collie had already hurled themselves upon Jim in a
delirium of joy. Cecil strolled after his uncle, looking slightly
amused at the scene by the gate.
"We're quite a family," Mr. Linton said. "I begin to feel like Mr.
Pickwick at a Christmas gathering! Do you think Billabong will stand
the crowd, Mrs. Brown?"
"It looks to me, sir," said Mrs. Brown contentedly, "as if Billabong's
goin' to 'ave the time of its life!"
Were made for boys to holler!
Jim's room was a rather vast place, with two long windows opening upon
the balcony, two exceedingly plain iron bedsteads in different corners,
and in the midst a wide, vacant space, where a punching-ball was fixed
whenever the owner was at home. There was a very shabby old leather
armchair by one window, and near the other an even shabbier leather
couch, very wide and solid. Jim used to declare that they were the most
comfortable in the house, and nothing would have induced him to have
them altered in any way.
One wall held a medley of various articles: Jim's rifle, the sporting
gun his father had given him when he was fifteen, a revolver that had
been through two wars, and a cavalry sword his grandfather had carried,
together with an assortment of native weapons from various
countries--assegais, spears, boomerangs, throwing sticks, sjamboks and
South Sea Island clubs and shields. A special nail held Jim's own
stockwhip, to which Norah always attended after he had gone away, lest
the supple thong should become harsh through disuse. Then there were
weapons of peace--hockey sticks, rackets, cricket-bats--the latter an
assortment of all Jim had used, from the tiny one he had begun with at
the age of eight to the full sized beauty that had split honourably in
an inter-State school match the preceding summer.
All over the other walls were plainly framed photographs. Mr. Linton
and Norah were there, in many positions, with and without horses; then
there were pictures of all the favourite horses and ponies and dogs on
the place, and a big enlargement of Billabong house itself. The others
were school photographs, mostly football and cricket teams, tennis
fours, the school crew, and some large groups at the yearly sports. In
nearly all you could find Jim himself--if you looked closely enough. Jim
loathed being photographed, and always retired as far out of sight in a
group as his inches would permit.
The room held many of Jim's own manufactured ideas--his "contraptions,"
Brownie used to call them. There was a telephone he had rigged up when
he was twelve, communicating with Norah's room by the balcony; and
outside was a sort of fire escape, by which he could--and generally
did--descend without using the stairs. There were various pieces of bush
carpentry--a table, a candlestick and a book-case of his own
construction, which in Norah's eyes were better than beautiful. There
was an arrangement by which he could open his door or his windows
without getting out of bed--which was ingenious, but quaint, since Jim
was never known to shut his windows, and very rarely his door.
Altogether it was an interesting room, and very typical of Jim.
At present it resembled a maelstrom, for Wally and Jim were unpacking.
Brownie, putting in her head, described it as "a perfick shambles," and
affected great horror at the havoc occasioned by having boys in the
house--beaming all the while in a manner calculated to destroy the
effect of any lecture. Norah, perched on the end of the sofa, which was
the only free spot in the room, looked on at the operations with deep
interest. Occasionally, when some special parcel was unearthed, one of
the boys diverted her attention laboriously, since it was near
Christmas-time, which is ever a season of mysteries. The parcel stowed
away hastily in a cupboard, Norah was permitted to gaze once more,
"What's that, Jim?" she asked, catching a glimpse of silver in the
recesses of a suitcase.
"I believe it's your cup," said his sister excitedly. "Do make him show
"The mug it is!" said Wally, diving in under Jim's nose, and snatching
the article in question. "Don't be an ass, Jimmy--d'you expect to keep
it always in your boot-bag?"
"Very nice place for it," Jim was understood to mutter.
"Ripping--but you'll want it for your boots. Catch, Norah!"
The big silver cup flew across the room, and was deftly fielded by the
lady on the end of the sofa.
"Oh, isn't it a beauty!" she said delightedly. "Jimmy, I'm so proud to
"You ought to have seen him going up to get it," Wally said. "Lovely
sight--he blushed so prettily!"
"Blush be hanged!" said the victim.
"Don't be ashamed, my child; it's a very nice thing to be able to
blush," Wally grinned. "No one would ever dream you could, either, so
it's a happy surprise as well!"
"There's not a blush about you, that's one thing," said Jim, from the
depths of his big box.
"Wore out all my powers that way blushing over you!" was Wally's prompt
reply. "Norah, will you use that thing for cocoa, or what?"
"Don't be disrespectful--I'm admiring it," Norah answered, turning the
cup round. "Dad will like it awfully."
"Has he shown you his prizes?"
"Prizes!" Norah exclaimed, falling off the arm of the sofa in
amazement. "Jim, you horrid boy, you never told us. Show me at once!"
"Never thought about 'em," said the unhappy Jim, un-earthing two
resplendent books. "Here you are, anyhow--and Wally needn't talk; he's
"I'm faint in the presence of so much learning!" Norah said, sitting
down on a golf bag. "Who'd ever have suspected you? French and
Prefect's Prize--oh, l'm so glad you got that one, Jim, dear." Her quick
ear caught a step, and she called her father excitedly.
Mr. Linton entered, to be greeted by incoherent tidings of his son's
success, to the meaning of which the two books lent aid.
"That's especially good news, old chap," he said quietly, whereat Jim
grinned happily, blushed with fervour, and muttered something entirely
inaudible. "The cup, too! that's a beauty, and no mistake!" He looked
round the "perfick shambles," and laughed a little. "I don't think
they're very safe here," he said. "With your permission, I'll take
charge of them." He left the room, carrying the books and the cup with
At the door he paused.
"Don't forget Cecil," he said quietly, and was gone.
The trio looked blank.
"Cecil!" said Wally.
"Hang Cecil!" from Jim disgustedly.
"Oh, he's such a bore!" Norah said. "And he'd simply hate to be in
here--he wouldn't see any fun in it. I--I really think I've had an
overdose of Cecil."
"Poor old kid!" said Jim. "Well, we'll hurry up unpacking and then find
him." They dismissed the "bit of a drawback" airily from their minds,
and proceeded with the business in hand, hampered slightly by much
energetic conversation. Jim's boxes were full of interesting things,
the result of his six years at school; his packing, he said, with
pained recollection, had been a "corker."
"Lucky I had that extra chest of drawers put in here," remarked Norah,
stowing away numerous small articles. "Jim, how many boys gave you
knives as farewell gifts?"
"Sorra a one of me knows," said her brother. "I lost count--and lost
some of the knives, too. I've an idea Bill Beresford picked up one I
dropped--the one Lance Western gave me; it's got a tortoise-shell
handle, and a nick out of the big blade--and gave it to me for himself."
"It sounds the sort of economical thing Bill would do," Wally remarked.
"Then there are five magnifying glasses, seven pencil cases, and six
pens," said Norah. "All tokens of affection, Jim? I'll put them in the
"What on earth I'm going to do with 'em all," said their harassed
owner, "I'm sure I don't know. Does any one chap use five magnifiers in
his life? Never used one yet! I wish the fellows hadn't been so kind--it
was awfully brickish of them, though, wasn't it? And the Doctor gave me
this." He held up a large and solemn--looking book.
"What is it?"
"'Self Help,' by a chap named Smiles. Shouldn't have thought there were
many smiles about a book looking like that, but it shows you can't tell
everything by the cover. And Mrs. Doctor gave me this tie--knitted it
herself. It was jolly decent of her, wasn't it? She's always been
awfully kind to me," said the big fellow, who had no idea of what "Mrs.
Doctor" thought of his cheerful habit of picking up two or three of her
babies and treating them to a wild ride round the school grounds on his
back; and who had on one occasion sat up all night with a sick
three-year-old who had cried unreasonably for "Yinton" to come and
carry him. The boy had recovered, somewhat against expectations, and
Jim had thought no more of the matter, except to drop gently and firmly
into a gorse bush a fellow who had chaffed him for being a nursemaid.
He had been amazed, and greatly embarrassed, by the tears in little
"Mrs. Doctor's" eyes as she bade him good-bye. Nothing on earth would
have induced him to mention them.
"If the Doctor ever gives me anything barring the length of his tongue,
I'll have apoplexy!" remarked Wally. "We don't twin-soul a bit better
than we did. He caught me beautifully the other day. Three or four of
us were going to have a supper. I'd been into town to the dentist, and
was bringing home a lobster. Coming out, that idiot Bob Greenfield was
next me on the train, and he amused himself by rubbing the lobster
gently until the thin brown paper they wrap 'em in had worn through in
places. I was talking cricket for all I was worth, and never noticed
him. I'd bought an evening paper, and given him my lobster to hold
while I looked up some scores."
"Yes?" said Norah, happily.
"Well, we came to the school, and off I jumped, and just inside the
gate I ran into the Doctor. He was very affable, and we walked up
together, and he asked me quite affectionately how I'd got on with the
dentist, and altogether he might have been my long lost uncle!
Presently he glanced down at my parcel, and said, 'Been getting a boot
mended, Meadows?' I didn't know what to say for a moment. And while I
was floundering in my mind the string broke, and down went my parcel
with a clatter on the asphalt!"
"Why do I miss these things?" asked Jim, plaintively.
"I wish I'd missed it instead of you!" said his chum. "I picked it up
in a hurry, and the paper had burst pretty well all over-and-well, you
know, there's no disguising the colour of a lobster! I just held it,
and looked a fool, and the Doctor put up his eyeglass and looked it and
me all over. Then he said, 'Curious colour for a boot, Meadows'--and I
promptly turned the same shade as the lobster."
"Did you get into a row?" Norah asked.
"No; I will say for the old chap that he was a perfect brick," Wally
said. "He just grinned, and walked off, remarking that there was no
need to push investigations too far. And I fled, and the lobster was
tip-top, thank you."
"I don't see why you've any cause to grumble at the Doctor," was
"That's you, feminine ignorance," returned Wally. "He made me feel
"Well, if I get a head mistress as easy-going--" said Norah, dolefully.
"Don't you get the idea into your mind that our revered Head's
easy-going!" Wally retorted. "He thinks nothing of skinning a fellow on
occasion--only he didn't happen to think a lobster was occasion--that
night, anyhow. You see, it was near the end of term, and even Heads get
"Lots of em," said Jim; "look at your own!" He dodged a hairbrush
neatly. "Have a little sense, young Wally; don't you see I'm busy?
Norah, old chap, did you see my blazer?"
"I hung it in your wardrobe," said Norah promptly "Also your overcoat,
also your straw hat, also your cadet uniform--what are you going to do
with that, by the way, Jim?"
"Get photographed in it," said Wally, wickedly.
"I'm likely to!" Jim said, with fine scorn. "Goodness only knows--I may
find some fellow it'll fit. It certainly wouldn't fit me much longer."
"It's been the anxiety of the whole battalion," said Wally. "It creaked
and began to split whenever he drilled in it, and for the last six
parades we've always taken out a blanket in case we should need to
drape his tattered form on the way home! It's an uncommonly good thing
he's left. Most demoralizing for a young corps to see its corpulent
lieutenant bursting out of his uniform!"
"He's not corpulent," said Norah indignantly, whereat Jim, who
personified leanness with breadth of shoulder, grinned even more widely
than Wally, and patted her on the head as he passed with an armful of
clothes, which he stowed into his wardrobe much as he might have dumped
sacks of potatoes into a barn. Even Norah's wide and free views on the
subject of garments were not proof against the sight.
"Are those your good suits, Jim?"
"Yes," said her brother, cheerfully. "They're used to it. Chuck me that
Wally complied, and the coat--which happened to be the one belonging to
its owner's evening suit--was added to the heap in the wardrobe.
"I'll sort 'em out some time or other," said Jim. "I'm so jolly sick of
unpacking. Wally, you animal, you're not finished, are you?"
"Ages ago," said his chum. "Hadn't anything like your quantity, you
see. My clothes are neat and trim, and my pyjamas have blue ribbon in
them and I have put out my lace pin cushion and my tulle slippers, and
all is well! Now I feel I can go and play with Cecil with a quiet
"I really don't know why I brought a lunatic home with me," Jim said,
patiently. "Sorry, Nor.; but we'll take him out in the scrub and lose
him. Meanwhile--" He closed the last drawer with a bang, and advanced
with slow deliberation upon the hapless Mr. Meadows.
For the next few minutes the air in the room was murky with pillows,
other missiles and ejaculations. Out of the turmoil came yelps, much
energetic abuse, and shrieks to Norah for aid to which that maiden, who
was enjoying herself hugely, lent a deaf ear. Finally, the combat
restricted itself principally to Wally's bed, from which the bedclothes
gradually disappeared, until they formed a tight bundle on the floor,
with Wally in the centre. Jim piled the mattress on top, and retreated
to the door.
"Beast!" said Wally, disentangling himself with difficulty, until he
sat on the pile, considerably dishevelled, and wearing a broad grin.
"It's only your vile brute force--some day I'll get even with you!" He
rose, hurled the mattress upon the bed, and looked inquiringly at his
blankets. "How do you imagine I'm going to sleep there to-night?"
"Oh, we'll fix it up when we come to bed," laughed Jim. "Come on--we
ought to go down to Cecil."
"Hold on till I brush my hair," said Wally, attacking his disturbed
locks, and settling his tie. "All right; lead on, Macduff!"
"I'm going to my room for something," she said. "I'll be after you in a
few minutes, boys."
She disappeared within her room, and the boys clattered downstairs.
When they had gone, Norah slipped back noiselessly to Jim's apartment,
which gave the impression of having recently been the scene of a
cyclone. She laughed a little, looking at it from the doorway.
"It certainly is a 'perfick shambles'," she said. "Poor old chaps--and
they'll be so tired when they come up to bed!"
Moving quietly, she sorted out the tangled bedclothes and made up the
bed, and reduced to order some of the chaos in thc room. Then she
opened the wardrobe and took out the mass of clothes, sorting out the
suits and putting them away carefully, with a shake to the coats to
remove creases. The dress suit she laid in a drawer, running to her own
room for a tiny lavender bag to keep away the moths. She was closing
the drawer when she started at a step, and Jim came in.
"What on earth are you up to?" was his question. His eye travelled
round the room, taking in the open door of the wardrobe, and the dress
coat in the drawer, where stood his small sister, rather flushed.
"Well!" he said, and paused. "Weren't we beasts?"
"No, you weren't," said Norah indignantly.
"H'm," said Jim. "It's a jolly good thing when a fellow has a sister,
anyhow." He came over to her and put his arm round her shoulders. "Dear
old chap!" he said. They went down the stairs together.
The Bush hath moods and changes, as the seasons rise and fall,
And the men who love the Bushland--they are loyal thro' it all.
A. B. PATERSON.
"The day after to-morrow is the date of the men's dance," Mr. Linton
said. "Norah mustn't go in for any wild exertion on that day, as she'll
probably want to dance several hundred miles at night. So if you boys
want to plan anything, you had better make your arrangements for
"I don't know that I've energy enough to plan anything," said Jim,
lazily. He was lying full length on the lawn, his head on Norah. Wally
was close by, and Cecil and Mr. Linton occupied basket chairs. Peace
would have reigned supreme had not the mosquitoes kept every one busy.
"Any wishes, Cecil?"
"None whatever," said Cecil. "There are no people to go and see, I
think you said, Uncle David?"
"No one that would interest you," Mr. Linton said; and Wally and Jim,
who had groaned internally with fear of being taken "calling," felt
their spirits return.
"My brain's not equal to planning, as I remarked," Jim said. "But if I
go anywhere, I'd like to do so on a horse. I want to feel a horse under
"Hear, hear," from Wally, softly.
"Well, I can't go out to-morrow," said the squatter. "I've letters to
see to, and Anderson may be out; so you must look after
yourselves--which I believe you to be entirely capable of doing. Norah,
haven't you any ideas?"
"Loads," said Norah, promptly, "but they're all connected with
mosquitoes!" She aimed a vicious blow into space as she spoke, and
sighed, before rubbing the bite. "Well, suppose we ride out and boil
the billy somewhere along the river? Cecil, would you care for that?"
"Very much," said Cecil, in the tones that always gave the impression
that he despised the particular subject under discussion. Norah had
quite withdrawn the opinion formed in the first five minutes of their
acquaintance, that he was ill mannered--now she bewailed the fact that
he was so uniformly and painfully polite.
"Well, if you would--" she said, hesitatingly. "What do you boys think?"
"Grand idea," responded Wally. Norah loved Wally's way; he was always
so pleased and interested over any plan that might be formed. Jim was
wont to remark that if you arranged to clean out a pigsty, Wally would
probably regard it as a gigantic picnic, and enjoy his day hugely. She
smiled at him gratefully in the darkness.
"You too, Jim?"
"Rather--anything you like," said her brother. "What horse can I have,
Jim had no special horse of his own. His two ponies, Sirdar and Mick,
he had outgrown, although they were still up to anything of a lighter
weight--the former only inferior to Norah's beloved Bobs. His absences
from home were so long that it had not seemed worth while to procure
him a special horse, and for several holidays he had been accustomed to
ride any of the station mounts. Privately, Jim was not altogether
satisfied with the arrangement, although quite admitting its common
sense. Now that he had left school he intended to ask his father if he
could buy a horse.
"You can try my new purchase, Monarch, if you like," Mr. Linton
answered. "He's quite a decent mover--I think you'll like him."
Cecil bit his lip, under cover of the darkness. He coveted a ride on
both Bobs and Monarch, and had given hints on the subject, but neither
had been taken. Now Jim, nearly three years his junior, was lent
Monarch without even having asked for him; while he was still, he
presumed, to ride the steady-going Brown Betty, whom he thoroughly
despised, in spite of the fact that she had once got rid of him. He
registered another notch in his general grudge against Billabong.
Mr. Linton was absolutely ignorant of what passed in his nephew's mind.
To give the city boy, with his uncertain seat and heavy hands, anything
but a steady horse, never occurred to him; he would have regarded it as
little short of inviting disaster to put him on Monarch, thoroughbred
and newly broken in as he was; and, of course, no one but Norah ever
"That's all right," he said, as Jim expressed his pleasure. "And what
about you, Wally? You're too long now for Mick, I think."
"Oh, anything you like, sir," said Wally, easily. "I haven't met any
bad 'uns on Billabong. Warder, or Brown Betty, or Nan--have you got them
"They're all here," the squatter said. "Cecil generally rides Betty,
and I believe Burton's using old Warder just now. But you can have Nan,
if you like."
"Thanks very much," said Wally. "I'll take the shine out of you, young
"I'd like to see you," returned Norah. Monarch might beat Bobs or yes,
perhaps one other horse she knew of, in a small tree-grown paddock; at
the thought of which she smiled happily to herself. But no other horse
on Billabong could see the way Bobs went when he was in earnest.
"Well, that's all settled," Mr. Linton said. "I hope you'll have a good
day--you're bound to have it hot, so I should advise you to get an early
start. If you go as far as the Swamp Paddock, Norah, you might ride
round the cattle there, and see if they're settling down--I put the new
bullocks there, you know."
"All right, Dad, we'll do it. I like having an object for a ride."
"Same here," said Jim sleepily. "Picnics are asinine things!"
"I don't believe you know much about anything--you're three parts
asleep!" said Wally, flinging a cushion at his chum, which Jim caught
thankfully, and, remarking that Norah was uncommonly scraggy, adjusted
under his head. The result was a vigorous upheaval by the indignant
Norah, who declined to be a head-rest for such ingratitude any longer.
At this point Mr. Linton discovered that it was time for supper; and
the boys, tired after their long journey, were not long in saying
Jim came up with Norah, and switched on her light. His eye travelled
round the pretty room.
"I don't know what part of home's HOMIEST," he said--"but I always
reckon your room runs pretty near it! Blest if I know what it will be
like when you're not here, little chap."
Norah rubbed her face against his coat sleeve.
"We don't talk of it," she said. "If we did, I'd--I'd be a horrid
coward, Jimmy--boy, and you wouldn't like me a bit!"
"Wouldn't I?" Jim said. "Well, I can't imagine you a coward, anyhow."
He bent and kissed her. "Good-night, old kiddie."
They set out in good time next morning, for the sun gave promise of a
Billy had the horses ready under the shade of a huge pepper-tree; even
there the flies were bad enough to set Monarch and Bobs fretting with
irritation, while the two stock horses lashed unceasingly with their
tails and stamped in the dust. Nan was a long, handsome brown mare,
with two white feet--an old friend of Wally's, who came and patted her
and let her rub her worried head against his coat. Cecil mounted Betty
and looked on sourly, while Jim walked round Monarch and admired the
"He ought to carry you like a bird, Dad."
"He does; a bit green yet, but he'll mend of that," his father
answered. "Now, get away, all of you." He put Norah up and watched,
with a silent look of approval, the way Jim handled his impatient
steed, taking him quietly, as one treats a fractious baby, and mounting
gently. Then he stood under the tree to see them ride down the paddock,
valises containing necessaries for the "asinine picnic" strapped on Nan
and Betty's saddles. Norah, as the lady of the party, was exempt from
carrying burdens, and Monarch brooked no load but his rider.
They made good time across the shadeless paddocks, anxious for the
pleasanter conditions along the river bank, where a cattle track wound
in and out under the gum trees. It was one of Norah and Jim's favourite
rides; they never failed to take it when holidays brought the boy back
to Billabong. They pushed along it for some time, eventually finding
the slip rails, through which they got into the Swamp Paddock--so called
because of a wide marsh in one corner, where black duck and snipe used
to come freely. The new cattle had taken to the paddock like old hands.
Satisfied with their inspection, Norah and Jim led the way back to the
river, where presently they came to an ideal place to camp; a bend
thickly shaded, with the river bank shelving down to a sandy beach,
where it was easy to get good water.
Wally volunteered to boil the billy, which he accomplished after much
vigorous fanning with his hat at the fire. The job took some little
time, and if the tea was eventually brewed with water that had not
quite reached boiling point, that was a matter between Wally and his
conscience--certainly the other members of the party were far too
thirsty to be critical! Lunch was lazily discussed close to the water,
after which they lay about on the bank and talked of many things.
Nobody was inclined to move, for the heat, even at the river, was very
great; a still, thunderous day, on which no shade could keep out the
moist heat, that seemed, as Wally put it, "to get into your very bones
and make them lazy."
At length Jim rolled over.
"Well, I'm off for a bathe," he said. "Coming, Cecil?"
"Oh, yes," Cecil answered, a little doubtfully; while Wally jumped up
as a matter of course.
"Ugh!" groaned Norah. "Pigs! Why was I born a girl?"
"So's we could lay ourselves at your feet!" said Wally solemnly,
suiting the action to the word, and placing his forehead forcefully in
the dust before her.
"M'f!" Norah wrinkled her nose. "It's very nice of you, but I don't
quite see what use it would be. Anyhow, I'd far rather go bathing." She
huddled on the ground, and looked tragic. "Go--leave me!"
"Sorry, old girl," grinned Jim. "We won't be long."
"Be as long as you like," said the victim of circumstances, cheerfully.
"I'm going to sleep."
The three boys disappeared along the bank, finding, apparently, some
difficulty in discovering a suitable bathing place, for it was some
time before shouts and laughter from a good way off told Norah that
they were in the water. She sighed, looking ruefully at the river
flowing beneath her, and half decided to go in herself; but her father
did not care for her bathing in the open alone, and she gave up the
idea and shut her eyes so that she would not see temptation rippling
down below. Presently she fell asleep.
She did not know how long it was before she woke. Then she jumped up
with a start, thinking, for a moment, that it was dark. The sun had
disappeared behind a huge bank of deep-purple cloud that had crept up,
blotting out everything. It was breathlessly hot and quite still--not a
leaf stirred on a tree, and the birds were quiet.
"Whew!" said Norah. "We're going to have a storm--and a big one!"
She listened. From far up faint calls and laughter still met her ears.
It was evident that the boys were finding the water very much to their
"Duffers!" Norah ejaculated. "We'll have the loveliest soaking--and
Dad'll be anxious."
She coo-ee'd several times, but no response came. Finally she rose,
with a little wrinkle in her brow.
"I guess I'd better saddle up," she said.
The horses were tied up in a clump of trees not far off, the saddles
out of reach of their restless feet. Norah saddled Bobs first, and then
the two stock horses--which was easy. To get Monarch ready, however, was
not such a simple matter: the youngster was uneasy and sweating, and
would not keep still for a moment; to get the saddle on and adjust
breastplate and rings was a fairly stiff task with a sixteen-hands
horse and a groom of fourteen years, hampered by a divided riding
skirt. At length the last buckle went home, and Norah gave a relieved
"Bother you, Monarch!" she said. "You've taken me an awful time. Come
Leaving the other horses tied up, she mounted and cantered down the
bank, calling again and again. An answer came sooner than she had
expected, and the three boys, somewhat hastily arrayed, came running
through the trees.
"Jimmy, have you seen the weather?" asked his sister, indicating the
"Only a few minutes ago," Jim said, visibly annoyed with himself. "We
were diving in a hole with the trees meeting overhead, and the scrub
thick all around us--hadn't an idea it was working up for this. Why
didn't you call us, you old duffer?"
"I did--but I couldn't make you hear," said Norah, somewhat injured.
"Hurry--I've saddled up."
"You have? You didn't saddle Monarch?" asked Jim quickly.
"Yes, he's all ready, and the valises are on. We're in for a ducking,
anyway, don't you think, Jim?"
"I think you hadn't any business to saddle Monarch," Jim said, soberly.
"I wish you wouldn't do those things, Norah."
"Oh, it was all right." She smiled down at him. "He was only a bit
fidgety; I believe he's frightened of the weather, Jim." She looked
across at Cecil, seeing that young gentleman, wonderful to relate, with
his stock folded awry, and his hair in wild confusion. "Do you mind
"I--don't care for them much," Cecil panted. Running evidently did not
agree with him, and he was finding his tweed riding suit very unfitted
for the heat of the day. Jim, jogging easily, clad in white silk shirt,
cord breeches and leggings, looked at him pityingly.
"Carry your coat, Cecil?" he sang out.
"No, thank you. I'd rather wear it," said Cecil, who disapproved of
being coatless at any time, and had looked with marked disfavour at Jim
and Wally as they set off in the morning.
"Stupid donkey!" Jim muttered, under his breath. "Ah, there are the
He made for Betty at once, and tossed the breathless Cecil into her
saddle, advising him to ride on quickly.
Wally was up in a twinkling; but to mount Monarch was no such easy
matter, for the black horse was dancing with restlessness, and a low
growl of thunder far to the west evidently terrified him. Finally, with
a quick movement, Jim was in the saddle, whereat Monarch promptly
reared. He came down, and tried to get his head between his legs, but
the boy was too quick for him, and presently steadied him sufficiently
to move away in the wake of the others.
"Go on!" Jim shouted. "Don't lose a minute!"
They went down the river bank at a hand gallop, chafing now and then at
the necessity of striking away from the track to find gates or
slip-rails, as one paddock followed another. At first Monarch gave Jim
all he knew to hold him, and at the gates Wally and Norah had to do all
the work, for the black thoroughbred was too impatient to stand an
instant, and threatened to buck a score of times. Jim watched the sky
anxiously, very disgusted with himself. He knew they had no chance of
getting home dry, but at least they must be out of the timber before
the storm broke. It was coming very near now--the thunder was more
frequent, and jagged lightning tore rents in the inky curtain that
covered the sky. He took Monarch by the head, and sent him tearing
along the track, passing the boys--Wally riding hard on Nan, and Cecil
sitting back on Betty with a pale face. Before him Bobs was galloping
freely, Norah riding with her hands well down, and on her face a smile
that was like a child's laugh of sheer happiness. Norah loved
thunderstorms; they seemed to call to something in her nature that
never failed to respond. She glanced up at Jim merrily as he passed
"Grand, isn't it?" she said. Then her face changed. "He isn't getting
away with you, Jim?"
"Not he!" said her brother, grinning. "But we've got to get out of this
jolly soon--hurry your old crock, Norah!" Norah's indignant heel smote
Bobs, and they raced neck and neck for a moment.
They swung out of the trees just in time, the plain clear for home
before them. Almost simultaneously, the storm broke. There was a mad
flash of lightning across the gloom, and then a rattling peal of
thunder that rang round the sky and finished with a tremendous crack
overhead. The black horse stopped suddenly, wild with terror. Then his
head went down, and he bucked.
Norah and Wally pulled up, regardless of the rain beginning to fall in
torrents. Monarch was swaying to and fro in mad paroxysms, trying to
get his head between his knees, his back humped in an arch, all his
being centred in the effort to get rid of the weight on his back, and
the iron in his mouth, and the control that kept him near that terrible
convulsion of nature going on overhead. Jim was motionless, each hand
like iron on the rein--yet with gentleness, for he knew the great black
brute was only a baby after all, and a badly frightened baby at that.
Cecil, coming by on Betty, his face white, looked aghast at the
struggle between horse and rider, and fled on homewards. The thunder
pealed, and the lightning lit the sky in forked darts.
Possibly the rain steadied Monarch, or sense came back to him through
Jim's voice. He stopped suddenly, planting all four feet wide apart on
the ground. Jim patted his neck, and spoke to him, and the tension went
out of the big horse. He stood trembling a little.
"Slip along," nodded Jim to Norah.
Bobs and Nan went off together. Behind them, Monarch broke into a
canter, obedient once more.
Five minutes later they were at the stables, Billy out in the wet to
take the horses. The storm was raging still, but there were coolness
and refreshment in the air. Billy grinned at the three soaked riders as
they slipped to the ground, and then at Brown Betty, trotting down the
hill in the rain. There was no sign of Cecil, who had fled indoors.
"Him plenty 'fraid," said the black retainer, his grin widening. "Him
run like emu!" His eagle gaze dwelt on Monarch, who was still trembling
"Been buck?" he asked, his eyes round.
"Plenty!" Jim laughed. "All right, Billy, I'll let him go myself."
THE BILLABONG DANCE
The slope beyond is green and still,
And in my dreams I dream,
The hill is like an Irish hill
Beside an Irish stream.
"Don't dress to-night, if you don't mind, Cecil," said Jim, putting his
head into his cousin's room.
"Not dress?" Evening clothes were part of Cecil's training, and he kept
to them rigidly, putting on each night for dinner what Murty O'Toole,
having seen in wonder, referred to as "a quare little
cobbed-shwaller-tail jacket." He regarded with fine scorn the cheerful
carelessness of the boys where clothes were concerned. To Jim and Wally
who were generally immensely occupied until dinner-time, and more often
than not had further plans for the time following, putting on
regulation evening dress seemed a proceeding little short of lunatic;
but since Cecil "liked that sort of thing," they let him alone.
To-night, however, was different, and when Cecil repeated his query
half impatiently, Jim nodded.
"No. Didn't we tell you? It's the dance in the loft."
"Oh--don't you people ever dress for dances then?"
"Not for these dances," Jim answered. "It's the men's spree--all the
hands and their friends; and you can be jolly well certain they won't
run to dress clothes. So we make a point of not putting 'em on. Father
did one year, and felt very sorry he had."
"I don't know that I'm keen on going, anyway," said Cecil.
"Oh, I think you'd better. Dad likes us to go, and it's really rather
fun," Jim responded, patiently. "Norah's quite excited about it."
"Norah's young and enthusiastic," said Cecil.
"Oh, well, you're hardly hoary-headed yourself yet!" Jim grinned.
"Might as well be cheerful while you're alive, Cecil, 'cause you'll be
a long time dead!" He withdrew his head, shut the door with an
unconcerned bang, and his whistle died away up the corridor.
"Hang it!" said Cecil, disgustedly, looking at his forbidden garments.
"Who wants to go to a beastly servants' ball, anyhow?" He donned a dark
suit reluctantly, a little consoled in that its very recent cut would
certainly be an eye-opener to Billabong, and went down to dinner,
meeting on the way Norah, in a muslin frock, with her hair flying and
her eyes sparkling.
"Oh! I'm so glad you haven't dressed up!" said she. "It's such fun,
Cecil!--we've been helping to decorate the loft, and really you'd hardly
know it was a loft, it looks so decent. And it's so funny to see the
men; they pretend they don't care a bit, but I do believe they're quite
excited. Murty came in with a trememdous lot of ferns, and he's been
nailing them all on the wall in streaks, and he and Mick Shanahan
nearly had a fight 'cause Mick leaned against one of them and the
erection came down, and the nail tore Mick's coat. Still, it was Murty
who seemed most aggrieved! And the musicians have come out from Cunjee,
and they've been practising--they can play, too!" She paused for lack of
"What sort of music does Cunjee supply?"
"Violin and flute and a funny little piano," said Norah. "They had
quite an exciting time getting the piano up into the loft with the
block and pulley. But the music sounds very well up there. The only
trouble is old Andy Ferguson, the fencer--he's always been accustomed to
fiddle for them, and he's very crushed because we've got out these men.
Dad says he'd never have got them if he'd dreamed how disappointed old
Andy would be."
Cecil had seen Andy, who struck him as a peculiarly uninteresting old
man. That such consideration should be shown to his wishes and feelings
was a thing beyond him, and he merely stared.
"However, he's going to play the supper dances and some others," said
Norah, not noticing his silence, "so he's a bit consoled." They entered
the drawing-room at the moment, finding Jim and Wally in armchairs,
tweed clad and unusually tidy, and chafing miserably against the
tyranny of white shirts after days of soft variety. "And a big buggy
load of girls has come out from Cunjee already; and Brownie says
there's a tremendous demand for hot water for shaving from the men's
quarters, and Dave Boone came in for some mutton fat for his hair, but
she wouldn't give it to him. Now she's half sorry she didn't, 'cause
she believes he'll use the black fat they keep in the harness room;
he's so dark no one would be able to tell--from the look! Who are you
going to dance with, Cecil?"
"You, if I may," drawled Cecil.
"Why, of course, if you want to," Norah said, laughing. "But we always
dance with every one on these occasions. It's one of the sights of
one's life to see Wally leading Brownie out!"
"And am I expected to dance with Mrs. Brown?"
"Very possibly she won't have a dance to spare you," said Wally
serenely. "Brownie's no end popular, you see. Thank goodness. I've
booked mine with her already!"
Cecil's stare spoke volumes.
"And who are your partners, Norah?"
"Any one who asks me," said that maiden promptly.
"And your father allows it?"
"Certainly he does," said Jim. "Don't get tragic, Cecil. The men on the
place are an awfully decent lot, and most of them have been here ever
so long--besides, it's their one night in the year, and they never
overstep their limits. Dad always plans this spree himself specially.
Of course, if you don't like--"
Jim stopped short, and bit his tongue. It had suddenly occurred to him
that he was host--and he had nearly said something rude. So he whistled
vaguely, and asked Wally if he were going to dance with Lee Wing, who
was the Chinese gardener.
"Wish I could get the chance," said Wally, his eyes twinkling. "Think
of piloting fat old Lee Wing through a polka--he'd get so beautifully
puffed, and his pigtail would wave in the breeze, and he'd be such an
"Do you mean to say that Chow comes, too?" queried Cecil.
"No; he's shy," Wally answered. "We've tried to get him, but in vain;
he prefers to go to bed and dream of China. And Billy hangs about like
a black ghost, but he won't come in. So we lose a lot of international
enjoyment; but, even so, what's left is pretty good, itsn't it, Norah?"
"I love it," said Norah.
"And you don't get any of your own friends to come? It seems to me the
queerest arrangement," said Cecil.
"It's the men's dance, don't you see? There wouldn't be much fun for
them if the place were filled up with our friends."
"Well, I should think a few of your own sort would be better. Aren't
there any girls or boys within reach that you know? I suppose you've a
juvenile sweetheart or two in the district?"
Norah looked at him blankly. Wally gave an expressive wriggle in his
chair, and Jim sat up suddenly, with a flush on his brown face.
"We never talk that sort of rot here," he said angrily. "Norah's not a
town girl, and her head isn't full of idiotic, silly bosh. I'll thank
Mr. Linton came in at the moment, and the point on which Jim intended
to express his gratitude remained unuttered. Cecil had reddened
wrathfully, and the general atmosphere was electric. Mr. Linton took,
apparently, no notice. He pulled Norah's hair gently as he passed her.
"You're all remarkably spruce," he commented. "Can any one tell me why
almost every maid I have met in my house this day turns and flees as
though I were the plague? Sarah is the only one who doesn't shun me,
and her mind appears to be taken up with affairs of State, for I asked
her twice if she had seen my tobacco pouch, and she brought me in
response a jug of shaving water, for which I have had no use for some
time!" He laughed, stroking his iron-grey beard. "Can you explain the
"It's easy," said his daughter. "Sarah's hair has a natural friz, so
she's the only girl in the house without curling pins concealed--more or
less--in her front hair. Brownie gave permission for the pins to-day; I
guess she thinks it would give Sarah an unfair start if she didn't!"
"But the shaving water?"
"Ah, well, I expect Fred Anderson wanted that. She's engaged to him,
you know," said Norah, simply.
"Well, I hardly see why she should give me his shaving water, either
from Anderson's point of view or mine; but I suppose it's all right,"
said Mr. Linton. "The whole place is upset. I really wanted some work
done, but the men who should have been sinking a well were tacking up
ferns, and those whose mission in life is--or ought to be--hoeing out
ragwort were putting French chalk on the floor of my loft! Judging from
my brief inspection, it seemed to me that the latter occupation was far
more strenuous than the ragwort job; but they seemed much happier than
usual, and were working overtime without a struggle!"
"To hear you talk so patiently," quoth Norah, "no one would imagine
that you'd bought the French chalk yourself!" She perched on the arm of
his chair, and looked at him severely, while the boys laughed.
"The men are like a lot of kids to-day," Jim said. "Did you hear about
old Lee Wing, Dad? He was standing under the block and pulley after
they'd hoisted up the piano, and I expect the sight of the hook on the
end of the dangling rope was too much for the men, for they slipped it
through Wing's leather belt and hauled him up too! You should have seen
him, with his pigtail dangling, kicking at the end of the rope like the
spider in 'Little Miss Muffet!' They landed him in the loft, and Fred
Anderson insisted on waltzing with him, while one of the musicians
hammered out The Merry Widow on the piano. Poor old Wing was very wild
at first, but they got him laughing finally."
"Why that long-suffering Chinaman stays here is always a mystery to
me," said his father, laughing. "He's the butt of the whole place; but
he fattens on it."
"There's the dinner gong!" said Norah, jumping up. "Come on, gentlemen,
we've to hurry to-night, so that the girls can get free early."
The loft over the stables, which had been built with a view to such
occasions, was quite transformed when the house party entered it a
couple of hours later. The electric light--Billabong had its own plant
for lighting--had been extended to the loft, and gleamed down on a
perfect bower of green--bracken and coral ferns, the tender foliage of
young sapling tops, Christmas bush, clematis and tall reeds from the
lagoon--the latter gathered by Jim and Wally during their morning bathe.
Rough steps had been improvised to lead from outside up to the main
door of the loft, over which still dangled from the block and pulley
the rope that had suspended the irate Lee Wing earlier in the day. It
was also possible to enter by the usual method--a trapdoor in the floor
over a ladder leading from the floor below; but this was considered by
the men scarcely suitable for their partners. All traces of its usual
contents had, of course, been removed from the big room, and the floor
gleamed in the light, mute evidence of the ardour with which Mr.
Linton's French chalk had been applied. At one end, near the railing
guarding the trapdoor, the Cunjee musicians were stationed, and close
to them a queer old figure hovered--old Andy Ferguson, gnarled and
knotted and withered; Irish, for all his Scotch name, and with his old
blue eyes full of Irish fire at the thought of "a spree." He held his
old fiddle tenderly as he might hold a child; it, too, was the worse
for wear, and showed in more than one place traces of repair; but when
Andy wielded the bow its tones were just as mellow to him as the finest
instrument on earth. He kept a jealous eye on the Cunjee men; they
might oust him for most of the night, but at least his was to be the
old privilege of opening the ball. "The Boss" had said so.
The homestead men had lined up near the door to receive their
guests--to-night they were hosts to Mr. Linton and his children, as to
every one else. They were a fine lot of fellows--Murty O'Toole, and Mick
Shanahan, the horse breaker, and Willis and Blake and Burton--all long
and lean and hard, with deep-set, keen eyes and brown, thin faces;
Evans, who was supposed to be over-seer, and important enough to arrive
late; younger fellows, like Fred Anderson and David Boone (the latter's
hair suspiciously smooth and shiny); Hogg, the dour old man who ruled
the flower garden and every one but Norah; and a sprinkling of odd
rouseabouts and boys, very sleek and well brushed, in garments of
varying make, low collars, and the tie the bushman loves "for
best"--pale blue satin, with what Wally termed "jiggly patterns" on it.
Of the same type were the guests--men from other stations, cocky farmers
and a very small sprinkling of township men.
The ladies kept rigidly on arrival to the other side of the loft. There
was Mrs. Brown, resplendent in a puce silk dress that Norah remembered
from her earliest childhood, with a lace cap of monumental structure
topped by a coquettish bow of pale pink ribbon. Her kind old face
beamed on every one. Close to her, very meek under her sheltering wing,
were Sarah and Mary, the housemaids--very gay in papery silks, pink and
green, with much adornment of wide yellow lace. Norah had helped to
dress them both, and she smiled delightedly at them as she came in.
There was Mrs. Willis, who ruled over the men's hut, and was reckoned,
as a cook, only inferior to Mrs. Brown; and Joe Burton's pretty wife,
in a simple white muslin--with no doubt in big Joe's heart, as he looked
at her, as to who was the belle of the ball. Then, girls and women from
that vague region the bush calls "about," in mixed attire--from flannel
blouses and serge skirts, to a lady who hurt the eye it looked at, and
made the lights seem pale, in her gorgeous gown of mustard-coloured
velveteen, trimmed with knots of cherry-coloured ribbon. They came
early, with every intention of staying late, and cheerfully certain of
a good time. The Billabong ball was an event for which an invitation
was much coveted.
Norah kept close to her father's wing, as they entered, shaking hands
gravely with the men by the door, and with Mrs. Brown--which latter
proceeding she privately considered a joke. The boys followed; Jim
quiet and pleasant; Wally favouring Murty O'Toole with a solemn wink,
and Cecil plainly bored by the little ceremony. He let his fingers lie
in each man's hand languidly--and would probably have been injured had
he seen Murty wipe his hand carefully on the side of his trousers after
he had passed on. The men had no love for the city boy.
"S'lect y'r partners!" It was Dave Boone, most noted "M.C."--in demand
at every ball in the district. Dave knew what he was about, and saw
that other people understood the fact; no shirking when he was in
command, no infringement of rules, no slip-shod dancing. Even as he
kept his eagle eye on the throng, he "selected" one of the prettiest
girls himself, and bore her to the head of the room. There was never
any doubt of Dave's generalship.
Cecil turned to Norah.
"May I have this?"
"Sorry," Norah said, "I always dance with Jim first."
"P'f!" said Cecil, lightly. "That old brother-and-sister idea is
"Not with Jimmy and me," Norah answered. "Why don't you ask Mary? She
can dance awfully well."
"No, thank you," said Cecil, with elevated nose. "I'll watch."
Wally had approached Mrs. Brown, and bowed low.
"Ours, I think?"
"Now, Master Wally, me dancin' days are over," said Brownie. "Go an'
get one of the girls, now, dearie, do!"
"A girl!--when I can get you?" Wally ejaculated. "Not much I" He tucked
her hand into his arm and led her off in triumph.
"Promen-ayde y'r partners!"
Dave turned and nodded to Andy Ferguson, who, with fiddle tucked
lovingly under his chin, was waiting for his signal. He broke into a
march--the time a little shaky, the tune a little old, for the hand that
held the bow was old and shaky, too; but still a march, with a swing to
it that set the feet going at once. The dancers promenaded round the
room in a long procession, led proudly by Wally and Mrs. Brown. At one
end a few men, disappointed in obtaining partners, clustered by the
wall; near them stood Mr. Linton, watching in his grave, pleasant way
that was so like Jim's, with Cecil at his elbow, his delicate face dull
and expressionless. Round and round marched the couples.
"Circular waltz, please!"
The music swung into a waltz without a break, and simultaneously the
march broke into the dance as every man seized his partner by the waist
and began to revolve solemnly and silently. Cecil gaped.
"What on earth is a circular waltz?"
"Blest if I know for certain," replied his uncle, laughing. "Much like
any other waltz--but you mustn't use the middle of the floor. Watch
Dave was keeping an eagle eye on the dancers. For the most part they
were content to gyrate near the wall; but should any more daring couple
approach the unoccupied space in the middle of the room, they were
instantly detected and commanded to return. As Cecil looked, Wally, who
was dancing with a broad grin of sheer happiness on his face, swung his
ponderous partner right across the centre--and was greeted by the
vigilant M.C. with the stern injunction--"Keep circle!" Quite oblivious
that this outbreak had anything to do with him, while Mrs. Brown,
feeling the most miserable of sinners, was far too breathless to
explain, Wally presently repeated his offence, whereupon Boone pulled
him up gravely, and pointed out his enormity to him. The culprit
grinned the more widely, promised amendment, nodded vigorously, and
danced off, Mrs. Brown remaining speechless throughout. Mr. Linton
smothered a laugh in his beard.
Presently the music came to an end. Old Andy put his fiddle down and
looked along the loft with a happy little smile. The dancers stopped,
and Mr. Boone's voice rose sonorously.
At this, each man rushed with his partner to the side of the loft
previously tenanted by the ladies, and deposited her on the long forms
ranged there. Then the men retreated hastily to the other side.
There was no conversation, nor had there been any through the dance. It
seemed that the poetry of motion must suffice for enjoyment.
Norah and Jim, who had been dancing vigorously, pulled up near the
"Did you see me get hauled over the coals?" asked Wally gleefully. He
had placed Mrs. Brown on a seat, and followed the example of his sex in
"Rather--we were in fits, behind you!" said Jim. "Was Dave cross?"
"Oh, quite mild; took my assurance that I didn't know I was sinning,
and forgave me like a man and a brother. And why shouldn't a fellow
cross that floor?"
"Goodness knows; but it's a rule. They dance very strictly, and in many
ways more correctly than we do."
"There are two lovely couples," said Wally, gleefully. "They hold each
other firmly round the neck, and they revolve on the space of a
threepenny bit. It's beautiful. May I try that way with you, Norah?"
"No, you mayn't," laughed Norah; "at least, not here. They might think
we were imitating them."
"Curious penetration on their parts!" rejoined Wally. "Well, can you
tell me why lots of the men hold one arm behind their backs?"
"In my young days that was quite ordinary," Mr. Linton put in. "I
always danced that way--and I was remarkably run after," he added,
modestly. Whereat Wally meekly assured him that he thought the practice
a highly desirable one, and had serious thoughts of adopting it
"I've been looking at the programme nailed up for the musicians," said
Cecil. "There are some dances I never saw--Varsoviana, Circassian
Circle, and Caledonians."
"In the Varsoviana," said Mr. Linton, retrospectively, "I used to
"Well, they beat US," said his son. "We can't dance 'em; but we look
on. The first two are round dances, and the Caledonians is a square. I
suppose they'd be all right, only they're not taught now."
"And there are no two-steps," said Cecil, in a tone of personal injury.
Jim laughed outright.
"It'd be so much simpler for you if you'd remember you're at what's
commonly known as 'a bush hop'," he said. "You can't expect the last
adornments of a city spree. Anyway, they get more honest fun out of
this than most people do at a Melbourne or Sydney ball."
Cecil looked patient.
"May I have the next dance, Norah?"
"I'm sorry, truly, Cecil, but I've promised it to Murty."
"Oh!" said Cecil. "The next?"
"That's Mick Shanahan's," said Norah, laughing. "But you may have the
one after that if you like."
"I must be thankful for small mercies, I suppose," said he,
"Won't you dance with any one else?"
"No, thanks, I don't care to." The tone was final.
"Well, I'm going to collar Sarah or die!" said Wally, manfully. "I'll
probably die, anyway, 'cause Fred has his eye on her. Still, here
The musicians gave a preliminary blast, on which followed a shout from
"Select y'r partners for the lancers!"
At the word there was a general stampede. Youths who had been timid
before, grown bolder now, dashed towards the long row of girls. Where
more than one arrived simultaneously, there was no argument; the man
who failed to speak first shot off to find another damsel. In a moment
every available fair one had been secured firmly, and the dancers
awaited further commands.
Wally had not waited for permission from Mr. Boone. At the first sound
of the music he had darted towards Sarah, arriving beside the lady with
"the natural friz" a yard in front of Fred Anderson.
It was not etiquette to refuse to dance, and the fact that he was "the
Boss's" guest, if only a boy, carried weight. Sarah rose, with a rueful
glance at her disappointed swain. The two disconsolate faces moved
Wally to compassion.
"I say--I'm awfully sorry," he said. "'Fraid I got ahead of you
unfairly, Fred--perhaps you'll excuse me this time, Sarah? You don't
mind? Well, you'll give me the next, won't you? Thanks, awfully." He
relinquished her to the beaming Fred, and returned, partnerless, to Mr.
Linton and Cecil.
Then it was a marvellous sight to behold young Dave Boone! With Mrs.
Brown on his arm, he "took the floor" at the head of the room, seeing
that the dancers were correctly sorted out in sets; and thence
proceeded to dance and instruct the room simultaneously, in a manner
truly amazing. With what agility did he "set to partner" and "swing
corner," with his eagle eye all the time scanning the sets to make sure
no one mixed up the commands!--how ably bear his part in "First lady and
second gent.," not even put out of step by the necessity of telling the
further end of the room that it was going wrong!--how splendidly issue
the edict to "chassee-crossee" and "gent. solo," finding time, even in
the press of his double occupation, to propel his panting partner in
the way she should go! His voice rang out over the room, indicating
each figure as it came--there was no excuse for making any mistake in a
square dance when Mr. Boone was in command. And all the while he danced
with a wholehearted energy and a face of absolute gravity. No one,
watching him, could have possibly imagined that this was a pastime.
"I've seen Boone looking infinitely more cheerful when fighting a bush
fire!" said Mr. Linton.
"Talk about a conjurer!" was Cecil's astonished comment. "I never saw
one man do so many things at once!"
The music ceased at last, and the "Seats, please!" marked the temporary
termination of the labours of the M.C. Murty brought Norah back to her
father, thanked her gravely, and made off.
"What happened to you, Wally?" queried Jim, restoring a blushing damsel
in blue to her form and rejoining his relations. "Did Sarah turn you
"I resigned gracefully in favour of Fred," Wally said. "He looked
murderous, and Sarah looked woe-begone, so it seemed the best plan. But
she's mine for the next--and ill befall the caitiff that disputes my
"No one'd dare!" said Jim, hastily. "I'm after Brownie, myself."
"Ah, Jim, be steady with her," said Norah. "It's a polka!"
"I'll be steady as old Time," Jim told her, smiling. True to his
promise, when the music began he danced mildly and moderately, and
Brownie emerged from the ordeal in far better order than might have
After that the evening flew. Dance after dance went by in rapid
succession--for the guests were out to dance, and where no time is
wasted in talking much may be done with a few hours. Cecil steadfastly
declined any partner but Norah, and as that maiden had no mind to spare
him more than two, his evening was dull, since his sense of humour was
not equal to finding any fun in the entertainment. He was the object of
considerable curiosity among the visitors, and was generally voted
"stuck-up," and "too big for his boots." As for Jim and Wally, they
flung themselves cheerfully into the business of the night, and even
succeeded in making most of their partners talk, albeit this was a
daring proceeding, and not looked upon with favour by the M.C. They
were too popular, however, to come in for any real criticism, and being
regarded by the majority of the men as "just kids," were allowed to do
very much as they liked.
Supper was a majestic meal, spread on long tables in a big tent. Mr.
Linton led the way to it with Mrs. Brown, followed by Mick Shanahan,
who conveyed Norah much in the way he danced with her--as if she were a
piece of eggshell china, and apt to crack with careless handling. There
was no "head of the table"; every one sat in the place that seemed
good, and tongues flew as fast as the knives and forks. At the end Mr.
Linton made a little speech.
"My friends," he said, "it's a great pleasure to Billabong to see you
all here. I hope you'll keep it up till morning, and come again next
year; you're always welcome. However, it is time my daughter went to
bed." (Dissent, and cries of "Not her!") "Before she goes, though, I
would like to see one more dance. I move that our old friend Andy
Ferguson play the 'Royal Irish.'"
There was frantic applause, and supper adjourned hastily, while every
one hurried back to the loft; in the midst old Andy, his quavering
voice a little raised in excitement, his fiddle held firmly in one
hand. "Too old to work," some called him, wondering why David Linton
kept the old fencer, when younger men were always wanting work on
Billabong; and now, as he faced the long room with his faded blue eyes
a little misty, Andy looked an old man indeed. But the pride of work
was in him, and his master knew it--knew how the gnarled hands ceased to
tremble when they grasped the adze and mattock, just as there was now
no quiver in them as he raised the brown fiddle and cuddled it under
his chin. Age would seize on Andy only when he could work and play no
more. The light came back into his eyes as he saw the boys and girls
waiting for the music--his music.
He drew the bow lovingly across the strings, and swung into the Irish
dance the old, common tune with the little gay lilt to it that grips
the heart and makes the feet beat time, and has the power to wake old
memories across the years. There were no memories to wake in the happy
young hearts in the loft at Billabong that night. But Andy looked over
the heads of the dancers at his master, meeting his eyes as man to man,
and each knew that the mind of the other had gone back to days long
The long floor echoed under the dancers' feet--up and down, swing in the
centre, hands across; the pace was always a good one when Andy Ferguson
played the "Royal Irish." One foot tapped out the time, and his grey
head nodded in sympathy with it. They called to him now and again,
"Bravo, Andy! Good man, Andy! Keep it going!" and he smiled at the
friendly voices, watching them with the keenness of the Irishman for a
light foot in a dance.
Just before him, Mrs. Brown, dancing with Jim, was footing it in and
out of the figures like a girl, holding her skirts quaintly on either
side as she advanced and retired, and came back to sweep a curtsey that
shamed the quick bow of the younger generation, while the tall lad she
had nursed waited for her with a grave gentleness that sat prettily on
his broad shoulders. Near, too, the old man's eyes dwelt lovingly on
Norah, whose eyes were dancing in time with her feet as Wally pranced
her madly up and down, his own brown face glowing.... just for a moment
Andy saw "the little mistress" who had known her baby for so brief a
time fourteen years before; her face looked at him through her child's
grey eyes. He looked across at his master again, a little wistfully.
The tune broke into "St. Patrick's Day," and Murty O'Toole gave a
sudden involuntary shout, his hand above his head, Mick Shanahan echoed
it; the Irish music was in their blood, and the old man with the brown
fiddle had power to make them boys again. He, too, had gone back on the
lilt of the tune; back to his own green country, where the man with the
fiddle has his kingdom always, and the lads and lasses are his
subjects. There was a girl with blue Irish eyes, coming to meet him on
St. Patrick's morning... the tune wavered ever so little then, as his
heart cried out to her. Then the dream passed, and he knew that he was
a boy no more, but old Andy Ferguson, playing for the boys and girls in
the loft at Billabong. The bow moved faster and faster yet--only a good
pair could see him right through the "Royal Irish." They were panting
when he dropped his hand at last and stood looking at them a little
vaguely. Then they crowded round him, thanking him. Even the Cunjee
musicians were saying that he could beat them all, and Miss Norah had
put her hand into his, and was patting his arm. There was a mist before
him--he could not see them all, though he knew his triumph.
"'Tis wid the kindness of all of y'," he murmured. "So good to me y'
David Linton's hand was on his shoulder.
"Come on, old friend," he said, gently; "we're getting old and we're
tired, you and I." He led him away, Norah still holding his hand.
Behind them the music broke out again, cheerily, and the flying feet
made the loft echo until the dawn.
O mellow air! O sunny light!
O Hope and Youth that pass away,
Print thou in letters of delight
Upon each heart one glorious day!
G. ESSEX EVANS.
Norah woke up early.
Close outside her open windows a magpie in the magnolia tree was
carolling as though he knew it was a special morning, and that he had a
special message to deliver. The linen blinds were rolled tight up, and
she could see him near one of the great creamy blossoms, each big
enough for his bath; his black and white coat very spruce and smart,
his head thrown back in utter enjoyment of his own song. Norah smiled
at him sleepily from her pillow.
"Nice old chap!" she said; and then she remembered.
"Oh!--Christmas." She gave a little happy laugh, for to-day was going to
be such a very good day. There was something that had taxed all her
patience; it was so hard to keep the secret until Christmas. Norah was
not a very patient person by nature, and she was glad that the need for
it was almost over.
She turned over lazily, and then burst out laughing as something caught
her eye at the foot of the bed--a huge football stocking, assuming
extraordinary shapes by reason of strange packages within it, while
from the top a monkey on a stick grinned at her. Norah jumped up and
brought the stocking back to bed for examination, weak with laughter
when she had finished. A big box of chocolates; a scarlet Christmas
cracker; a very flowery mug of thickest china, with "Love the Giver" on
it, and tied to the handle a label with "For a Good Little Girl" in the
best handwriting of Wally, who evidently considered it not sufficiently
adorned by nature; a live frog in a glass-covered box; a huge bundle,
which took her many minutes to unwrap, and was finally found to contain
a tiny pig of Connemara marble; a Christmas pudding the size of a golf
ball; and finally, in the very toe, a minute bottle labelled "Castor
Oil; Seasonable at Any Time."
"Oh, you NICE donkeys!" said the recipient of these varied gifts, lying
back and investigating the chocolates. A sound at the window made her
look up, and Jim's laughing face peeped round the curtain.
"They're lovely," said Norah, fervently. "Come in, Jimmy, you old
duffer. Merry Christmas!"
Jim came in, immensely tall and lean in his pyjamas, and sat down on
"Merry Christmas, old kid!" he said, and kissed her. "Taken your oil?"
"Pudding first--and chocolates," said Norah, solemnly, indicating the
box. "Take lots, Jim, they're beauties. How did you get that thing into
"Waited until I could hear your cheerful snores, and then sneaked in by
the window," said her brother, dodging a chocolate. "My best stocking;
I think I was jolly good to lend it to you--you'll kindly notice that
the frog's box tore a hole in it, and take steps accordingly! It's a
ripping morning--but it's going to be hot. Do you know what time it is?"
"I don't," said Norah.
"Five o'clock," said Jim; "isn't it ridiculous!--and you wide awake and
playing with pigs and frogs! I'm off to bed again for a bit--besides,
young Wally's bursting to know how you liked your sock. Go to sleep
again, old chap."
"I'll try," said Norah, obediently, snuggling down, "Take some
chocolates to Wally--and the castor oil!"
At the moment Norah was quite convinced that sleep was the last thing
possible for her, and merely laid down to please Jim, just as she would
cheerfully have endeavoured to jump over the moon had he expressed any
wish in that direction. Thus she was considerably surprised on waking
up two hours later to hear the dressing gong pealing through the house.
Further off came the cheerful voices of Jim and Wally on their way to
the lagoon. Cecil preferred the bath in the house, saying that he
considered it cleaner, which remark had incensed Norah at the time. But
they were learning not to worry about Cecil's remarks, but to regard
him with a kind of mild toleration, as one who "could not help it."
Norah tore in haste to the bath, and returning made a speedy toilet;
breakfast was to be half an hour later than usual, but still there was
much to do. Her gifts to the men's quarters had gone over the night
before, in charge of Mrs. Willis; still there were parcels for the
girls in the house, together with the envelopes containing cheques for
them, which Mr. Linton always gave into Norah's care, and of course
Brownie's gifts, besides the nearer and dearer excitement of the
breakfast table. To the latter she attended first, scattering parcels
at each plate before any one else arrived on the scene. Then she raced
off, just escaping in the hall Jim, who immediately put his hands
behind him and began to whistle with great carelessness. Jim was a man
Mrs. Brown, narrowly watching some fried potatoes, heard flying
footsteps, and turned to receive Norah bodily.
"Merry Christmas, Brownie, dear!" said the breathless one. She hung
over the stout shoulders a tiny shawl of softest white wool.
"It's only a shawl-let," Norah explained, "just for when you feel the
summer evenings get cool, you know."
"An' you made it, my precious!"
"Why, of course," said Norah, lifting her brows; "do you think I'd buy
it, when you taught me to knit? Ah, Brownie, I'm having such a good
"Look at me!" said Mrs. Brown, sitting down in rapture, and forgetting
her frying pan entirely. "This lovely shawl--an' your Pa's cheque--and
here's even Master Wally brung me down a cap, an' Master Jim--don't 'e
always think!--a frame with the photer 'e took of you an' your Pa, an'
it's sollud silver, no less, if you'll believe me, an' then it's none
too good for the photer, but the dear lamb knew wot I'd like more than
anything on earth! Of all the loving--kindest children--" At this point
Brownie's feelings overcame her, and she sniffed and, inhaling a threat
of burnt potato, rushed to conceal her emotions over the stove.
Sarah and Mary felt delighted with the pretty collars Mrs. Stephenson
had chosen for Norah in Melbourne; the daughter of the house
encountered Jim returning from the back regions, with a broad smile on
his brown face. Jim's invariable gift to Lee Wing was a felt hat, and
as the Celestial still wore the one first given, eight Christmases
before, it was popularly supposed that the intermediate half-dozen went
to support his starving relatives in China! Lee Wing had never
mentioned the existence of any starving relatives, but Wally said it
was well known that all Chinese gardeners had them--speaking, as Norah
remarked, as though it was a new complaint, like measles or mumps!
"You didn't give Wing another hat, Jim?" queried his sister.
"I did, though," returned Jim, firmly. "Asked him at midwinter what
he'd have, and he grinned and said, 'Allee same hat!' So he got it--a
lovely green one!"
"Jim!--not green! For Lee Wing!"
"There weren't any other colours left," said Jim; "next year it would
have had to be pale blue! He took it with a heavenly smile, and looked
at it all over inside and out; then he looked down at his feet, and I
beheld his toe sticking out of his boot. He didn't say 'Thank you' at
all. What he did say was 'Nex'-Clis'mas-socks,' all in one word, and
you couldn't have widened his smile without shifting his ears further
"Merry Christmas, Norah, asthore!" said a cheerful voice, and Norah
turned to greet Wally. So Wally had to hear the story of Lee Wing all
over again, and they were laughing over it when Mr. Linton came out on
the verandah, pausing in the doorway a moment to look at the slender
figure in the blue frock, with white collar and tie, and the tall lads
in white flannels beside her.
Three greetings flashed at him simultaneously as he came into view.
"Merry Christmas, every one!" he said, one hand on his small daughter's
shoulder. "Going to be a hot Christmas, too, I believe. Where's Cecil?"
"Coming," said that gentleman, exchanging good wishes with a languid
air. "Sorry to be late, but I couldn't open the bathroom door."
"Good gracious, was it you in there?" he asked anxiously. "I thought it
was Norah--and we wanted her out of the way at the moment, so I
barricaded the door! Then I saw her afterwards, so I reckoned she'd got
out all right, and I never bothered to take down the barricade. I'm
Every one laughed but Cecil, who saw nothing humorous in having been
obliged to climb through the bathroom window, and said so with point.
"I'm a fearful ass, truly," said Wally, with contrition. "Norah, you've
no need to laugh like a hyena--you ought to have been there, if you
"That's why I laugh," Norah explained kindly. "Never mind, it's
Christmas--and there's breakfast!"
It was the gong, but not breakfast. Mrs. Brown knew better than to send
in the porridge with the gong on Christmas morning. Instead, the table
was heaped with parcels, a goodly pile by every plate.
"What an abominable litter!" said Mr. Linton, affecting displeasure.
"Norah, kindly oblige me by getting those things out of your way. How
are you going to eat breakfast?"
"You're as bad as I am, Daddy!"
"Dear me!" said her father. "I seem to be. Well, yours is decidedly the
most untidy, so you had better begin."
They watched the eager face as Norah turned to her bundles. Books from
Cecil and his mother; warm slippers made by Brownie; a halter
exquisitely plaited from finest strips of hide by Murty O'Toole, the
sight of which brought the whole gathering to Norah's side; from Wally
a quaint little bronze inkstand, and from Jim the daintiest horse rug
that Melbourne could produce, made to fit Bobs, with a big scarlet B in
one corner, and Norah's monogram in the other. "Not that he needs it
just now," Jim explained, as Norah hugged him--"but a store's no sore,
as Brownie'd say!" Last, a tiny velvet case, which concealed a brooch--a
thin bar of gold with one beautiful pearl. Norah did not need the slip
of paper under it to know it came from Dad.
Then things became merry, and even Cecil warmed at the gifts on his
plate, while the boys were exclaiming in delight over Norah's knitting,
and Wally was shaking hands with Mr. Linton and looking
half-shamefacedly at the plain gold sleeve links from him and the
silver watch chain from Jim; and Mr. Linton's face was alight with
pleasure at the waistcoat Norah had made for him, and the little oak
bookshelf for his bedside that was the work of Jim's spare hours.
Finally all the bundles were unwrapped, and there was a lull, though
Norah's eyes were still dancing, and she exchanged glances with her
"There's a string under my plate," said he, faintly puzzled. "At least,
there's one end."
"Strings always have two ends," said Wally, wisely. "Where's the
"I'm blessed if I know," said Jim. "It goes down to the floor."
Wally came round, investigating.
"Seems to me it goes out of the window," he said. "Guess you'd better
follow it, Jimmy."
Jim looked round, a little doubtful. Then he saw Norah's face, and knew
that there was something he did not understand. He laughed a little.
"Some one pulling my leg?" he asked, good-humouredly. "Oh, well, I'll
The string went somewhere--that was evident. Outside it was at the
height of Jim's hand, and ran along the wall, so that it was easy to
follow. They trooped after him as he went along, Norah completely
unable to walk steadily, but progressing principally on one foot, while
David Linton's eyes were twinkling. The chase was not a long one; the
string suddenly cut across to the door in the high fence dividing the
front and back gardens, and there disappeared.
"What next?" said Jim.
"If it was me," said Wally, with a fine disregard of grammar, "I should
open the door."
"Good for you, Wally," grinned Jim. "Here goes!" He flung the door
open, and then stood as if rooted to the spot.
The string went on. It ended, however, just through the door, where its
end was spliced to a halter, held by black Billy, whose smile disclosed
every tooth in his head. Fidgeting in the halter was a big bay horse,
showing all Monarch's quality, and all his good looks; a show ring
horse, picked by a keen judge, and built for speed as well as strength.
He looked at Jim with a kind eye, set well in his beautiful head. There
was no flaw in him; from his heels to his fine, straight forelock he
Jim had no words. He did not need to be told anything--Norah's face had
been enough; but he could not speak. He took refuge with the big bay,
moving forward and putting out a hand, to which the horse responded
instantly, rubbing his head against him in friendly fashion. Then,
across the arched neck, Jim's eyes met his father's, and the colour
flooded into his brown face.
"Well, old son--will he do?"
"Do!" said Jim, weakly. "Dad!--by Jove, I--I--" He stopped helplessly;
then his hand went out and took his father's in a grip that made David
Linton realize that this big son of his was nearly a man.
"Oh, Jimmy, I'm so glad--and isn't he lovely?"
"Why, he's perfect," Jim said, stepping back and running his eye over
his Christmas box. "My word, Dad, he'll jump!"
"Yes, he'll jump all right," said David Linton. "Gallop, too, I should
"Plenty!" said Billy, with unexpected emphasis, whereat every one
"Billy and Norah have had this little joke plotted for some time," Mr.
Linton said--"and the experiences they have undergone in keeping strings
and steed out of your way this morning have, I believe, whitened the
hair of both!"
Jim looked gratefully round.
"You're all bricks," he said. "Has he got a name, Dad?"
"'A tearin' foine wan,' Murty says," responded his father; "since it's
Irish: Garryowen, unless you'd like to change it."
"Not me!" said Jim. "I like it." He looked round as the sound of the
gong came across the garden. "I say, don't mind me," he said--"go into
breakfast. I don't want any this morning." His eye went back to the
"Rubbish!" said his father--"he'll be alive after breakfast! Come
along," and reluctantly Jim saw Billy lead his horse away to the
stable. He discovered, however, on reaching the breakfast room, that he
was remarkably hungry, and distinguished himself greatly with his knife
Afterwards it was necessary to try the bay's paces without delay, and
they all watched Jim take him round the home paddock. Garryowen moved
beautifully; and when Jim finally put him at the highest part of the
old log fence, and brought him back again, he flew it with a foot to
spare. The boy's face was aglow as he rode up.
"Well, he's perfect!" he said. "I never was on such a horse." He came
close to his father. "Dad," he said in a low tone--"are you sure you
wouldn't like him instead of Monarch? He's far more finished."
"Not for anything, thanks, old chap--I prefer my pupil," said his
father, his look answering more than his words. "You see he never bucks
with me, Jim!"
Jim laughed, dismounting. "Like to try him, Cecil?"
"Thanks," said Cecil, scrambling up and setting off down the paddock,
while Jim watched him and writhed to think of possible damage to his
horse's back and mouth. Billy, who was near, said reflectively, "Plenty
bump!" and Murty O'Toole roundly rebuked Jim for "puttin' up an insult
like that on a good horse!" They breathed more freely when Cecil came
back, albeit the way in which he sawed at the bay's mouth was
calculated to strike woe to the heart of any owner. Then Wally tried
Garryowen, and finally Norah, having flown to the house for a riding
skirt, had a ride also, and sailed over the log fence in a manner fully
equal to Jim's. She came back charged with high compliment.
"He's nearly as good as Bobs, Jim!"
"Bobs!" said Jim, loftily. "We don't compare ponies with horses, my
"Then he's not to be compared with Bobs!" Norah retorted sturdily, and,
the laugh being on her side, retired quickly to dress for dinner.
Dinner was typical of Billabong, and an Australian Christmas--one with
the thermometer striving to reach the hundred mark. Everything was
cold, from the mammoth turkey, with which Mr. Linton wrestled, to the
iced peaches that topped off what the boys declared "a corking feed."
There was plum pudding, certainly, but it was cold, too. Wally found in
his piece no fewer than four buttons; and, deeply aggrieved, went
afterwards to remonstrate with Mrs. Brown, who was amazed, declaring
she had put in but one, which to her certain knowledge had fallen to
the unhappy lot of Sarah. Further inquiries revealed the fact that Jim
had come to the table well supplied with buttons, with which he had
contrived to enrich Wally's portion as it travelled past him--which led
to a battle on the lawn, until both combatants, too well fed and weak
with mirth to fight, collapsed, and slept peacefully under a pine tree.
Later on the horses were saddled, and every one rode out to the river,
where Brownie and the maids had already been driven by Fred Anderson,
and where they picnicked for tea. Afterwards they lay on the soft
grass, with the water murmuring past them, and Mr. Linton told them
stories--for Christmas was ever, and will ever be, the time for stories.
Simple, straightforward tales, like the man himself: old Christmases
overseas, and others in many parts of Australia--some that brought a
sadder note into the speaker's voice, and made Norah draw herself along
the grass until she came within touch of his hand. Words were never
really needed between them--being mates.
So they stayed until the golden western sky had grown rose colour, and
the rose glow faded into night, that brought with it a little cool
breeze. Then the horses were saddled, and they rode home by the longest
possible way, singing every imaginable chorus, from Good Old Jeff to
the latest medley of pantomime ditties, and ending with a wild scurry
across the paddock home. They all trooped into the house, waking its
quietness to youth and laughter.
But David Linton called to Norah.
"Come on," he said, "we'll finish up with the real Christmas songs."
So they all gathered round the piano while Norah played, and joined in
the old Christmas hymns and carols--none the less hearty in that they
sang of frost and snow with all around them the yellowing plain, dried
up by the scorching sun, and, beyond that, the unbroken line of the
little trodden Bush. The young voices rang out cheerily, David Linton
listening in his armchair, his hand over his eyes.
Norah was in bed when her father looked in, in passing, to say
good-night. She put up her face to him sleepily.
"It's been a beautiful Christmas, Daddy dear!" she said.
"LO, THE POOR INDIAN!"
I mind the time when first I came
A stranger to the land.
The house was unusually quiet. It was New Year's Day, and every man on
the place, and most of the maids, had gone off to a bush race meeting,
ten miles away. Even Mrs. Brown had allowed herself to be persuaded to
go and, arrayed in her best silk gown, had climbed laboriously into the
high double buggy, driven by Dave Boone, and departed, waving to Norah
a stout reticule that looked, Wally said, as though it contained
sausages! Only Mary, the housemaid, remained. Mary was a prim soul, and
did not care for race meetings. She had remarked that she would stay at
home and "crocher"!
Mr. Linton and the boys had ridden away after lunch. A valuable bull
had slipped down the side of a steep gully and injured himself, and
bush surgery was required. David Linton was rather notable in this
direction, and he had seen to it that Jim had had a thorough course of
veterinary training in Melbourne. Together they made, the squatter
remarked, a very respectable firm of practitioners! Cecil and Wally
were ready to perform unskilled labour as required, and it was quite
possible that their help might be needed, since no men were available.
So the picnic planned for the afternoon had had to be abandoned, and
Norah was left somewhat desolate, since she could not take part in the
"Hard on you, old girl," Jim had said; "but it can't be helped."
"No, of course it can't," Norah replied. She was well trained in the
emergencies of the country, and would probably have been perfectly
cheerful had this particular one only been something that would not
have excluded her. As it was, however, it was certainly disappointing,
and she felt somewhat "at a loose end" as she watched the four ride
off. There seemed nothing for her to do. It was beyond doubt that being
a girl had its drawbacks.
Within, the silence of the house was depressing, and the rooms seemed
much too large. Norah saw to one or two odd jobs, fed some chickens,
talked for a while to Fudge, the parrot, who was a companionable bird,
with a great flow of eloquence on occasions, wrote a couple of
letters--always a laborious proceeding for the maid of the bush--and
finally arrived at the decision that there was nothing to do. In the
kitchen Mary sat and "crochered" placidly at a fearful and wonderful
set of table mats. Norah watched her for a while, with a great scorn
for the gentle art that could produce such monstrosities. Then she
practised for half an hour, and at length, taking a book, sauntered off
to read by the creek.
Meanwhile Mary worked on contentedly, unconscious of outer things,
dreaming, perhaps, such dreams as may come to any one who makes
crocheted table mats of green and yellow. Now and then she rose to
replenish the fire, returning to her needle in the far-away corner of
the great kitchen, where Mrs. Brown's cane armchair always stood. She
glanced up in surprise after a while, when a shadow fell across the
doorway. Then, for Mary was a girl with "nerves," she jumped up with a
An Indian hawker stood there--a big, black-bearded fellow, in dusty
clothes that had once been white, and on his head a turban of faded
pink. His heavy pack hung from his shoulder, but as the girl looked, he
slipped it to the ground, and stood erect, with a grunt of relief. Then
he grinned faintly at Mary, who had promptly put the table between
them, and asked the hawker's universal question:
"Anything to-day, Meesis?"
The Hindu hawker is still a figure to be met frequently in the
Bush--where he is, indeed, something of an institution. "Remote from
towns he runs" a race that no poetical licence can stretch to complete
the quotation by calling "godly." He carries a queer mixture of goods--a
kind of condensed bazaar-stall from his native land, with silks and
cottons, soaps, scents, boot laces and cheap jewellery, all packed into
a marvellously small space; and so he tramps his way through Australia.
No life can be lonelier. His stock of English is generally barely
enough to enable him to complete his deals; the free and independent
Australian regards him as "a nigger," and despises him accordingly;
while the Hindu, in his turn, has in his inmost soul a scorn far deeper
for his scorners--the pride of tradition and of caste. It is the caste
that keeps him rigidly to himself, since, as a rule, he can touch no
food that others have handled. He sits apart, over his own tiny fire,
baking his unappetising little cakes; and in many cases even the shadow
of a passer-by falling across his cookery is held to defile it beyond
possibility of his eating it. As a rule he has but one idea in life--to
make enough money to carry him back to end his days in comfort by the
waters of the Ganges.
There are certain well recognized hawkers in many districts--men who
have kept for a long time to a particular beat, and may be regarded as
fairly regular, and likely to turn up at each place at their route
three or four times a year. Such men have generally arrived at the
dignity of a pack-horse--no unmixed benefit in the eyes of people
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