Read CHAPTER V - THE TURN OF FORTUNE’S WHEEL of Back To Billabong, free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on

“Is Mr. M’Clinton in?”

The clerk, in a species of rabbit hutch, glanced out curiously at the young flying officer.

“Yes; but he’s very busy. Have you an appointment?”

“No I got leave unexpectedly. Just take him my card, will you?”

The clerk handed the card to another clerk, who passed it to an office-boy, who disappeared with it behind a heavy oaken door. He came back presently.

“Mr. M’Clinton will see you in ten minutes, if you can wait, sir.”

“I’ll wait,” said Bob, sitting down upon a high stool. “Got a paper?”

“To-day’s Times is here, sir.” He whisked off, to return in a moment with the paper, neatly folded.

“You’ll find a more comfortable seat behind the screen, sir.”

“Thanks,” said Bob, regarding him with interest he was so dapper, so alert, so all that an office-boy in a staid lawyer’s establishment ought to be. “How old might you be?”

“Fourteen, sir.”

“And are you going to grow into a lawyer?”

“I’m afraid I’ll never do that, sir,” said the office-boy gravely. “I may be head clerk, perhaps. But ” he stopped, confused.

“But what?”

“I’d rather fly, sir, than anything in the world!” He looked worshippingly at Bob’s uniform. “If the war had only not stopped before I was old enough, I might have had a chance!”

“Oh, you’ll have plenty of chances,” Bob told him consolingly. “In five years’ time you’ll be taking Mr. M’Clinton’s confidential papers across to Paris in an aeroplane and bringing him back a reply before lunch!”

“Do you think so, sir?” The office-boy’s eyes danced. Suddenly he resumed his professional gravity.

“I must get back to my work, sir.” He disappeared behind another partition; the office seemed to Bob to be divided into water-tight compartments, in each of which he imagined that a budding lawyer or head clerk was being brought up by hand. It was all rather grim and solid and forbidding. To Bob the law had always been full of mystery; this grey, silent office, in the heart of the city, was a fitting place for it. He felt a little chill at his heart, a foreboding that no comfort could come of his mission there.

The inner door opened, after a little while, and a woman in black came out. She passed hurriedly through the outer office, pulling down her veil over a face that showed traces of tears. Bob looked after her compassionately.

“Poor soul!” he thought. “She’s had her gruel, evidently. Now I suppose I’ll get mine.”

A bell whirred sharply. The alert office-boy sprang to the summons, returning immediately.

“Mr. M’Clinton can see you now, sir.”

Bob followed him through the oaken door, and along a narrow passage to a room where a spare, grizzled man sat at a huge roll-top desk. He rose as the boy shut the door behind his visitor.

“Well, Captain Rainham. How do you do?”

Bob gripped the lean hand offered him it felt like a claw in his great palm. Then he sat down and looked uncomfortably at the lawyer.

“I had thought to have seen you here before, Captain.”

“I suppose I should have shown up,” said Bob concealing the fact that the idea had never occurred to him. “But I’ve been very busy since I’ve been back to England.”

“And what brings you now?”

“I’m all but demobilized,” Bob told him, “and I’m trying to get employment.”

“What in this office?”

“Heavens, no!” ejaculated Bob, and at once turned a fine red. “That is I beg your pardon, sir; but I’m afraid I’m not cut out for an office. I want to get something to do in the country, where I can support my sister.”

“Your sister? But does not your father support her? She is an inmate of his house, is she not?”

“Very much so,” said Bob bitterly. “She’s governess, and lady-help, and a good many other things. You couldn’t call it a home. Besides, we have always been together. I want to take her away.”

“And what does your father say?”

“He says she mustn’t go. At least, that’s what my stepmother says, so my father will certainly say it too.”

“Your sister is under age, I think?”

“She’s just nineteen I’m over twenty-two. Can my father prevent her going with me, sir?”

“Mph,” said the lawyer, pondering. “Do I gather that the young lady is unhappy?”

“If she isn’t, it’s because she has pluck enough for six people, and because she always hopes to get away.”

“And do you consider that you could support her?”

“I don’t know,” said Bob unhappily. “I would certainly have thought I could, but there seems mighty little chance for a fellow whose only qualification is that he’s been fighting Huns for nearly five years. I’ve answered advertisements and interviewed people until my brain reels; but there’s nothing in it, and I can’t leave Tommy there.”

“Tommy?” queried the lawyer blankly.

Bob laughed.

“My sister, I mean, sir. Her name’s Cecilia, but, of course, we’ve never called her that. Even Aunt Margaret called her Tommy.”

Mr. M’Clinton made no reply. He thought deeply for a few moments. Then he looked up, and there was a glint of kindness in his hard grey eyes.

“I think you had better tell me all about it, Captain Rainham. Would it assist you to smoke?”

“Thanks awfully, sir,” said Bob, accepting the proffered cigarette. He plunged into his story; and if at times it was a trifle incoherent, principally from honest wrath, yet on the whole Cecilia’s case lost nothing in the telling. The lawyer nodded from time to time, comprehendingly.

“Aye,” he said at last, when Bob paused. “Just so, just so. And why did you come to me, Captain?”

“I want your advice, sir,” Bob answered. “And I should like to know something about my aunt’s property if I can hope for any help from that source. I should have more chance of success if I had a little capital to start with. But I understand that most of it was lost. My father seemed very disappointed over the small amount she left.” He hesitated. “But apart from money, I should like to know if I am within the law in taking my sister away.”

Mr. M’Clinton thought deeply before replying.

“I had better speak frankly to you, Captain Rainham,” he said. “Your aunt, as you probably know, did not like your father. I am not sure that she actually distrusted him. But she considered him weak and indolent, and she recognized that he was completely under the thumb of his second wife. Your late aunt, my old friend, had an abhorrence for that lady that was quaint, considering that she had scarcely ever seen her.” He permitted himself the ghost of a smile. “She was deeply afraid of any of her property coming under the control of your father and through him, of his wife. And so she tied up her money very carefully. She left direct to you and your sister certain assets. The rest of her property she left, in trust, to me.”

“To you, sir?”

“Aye. Very carefully tied up, too,” said Mr. M’Clinton, with a twinkle. “I can’t make ducks and drakes of it, no matter how much I may wish to. It is tied up until your sister comes of age. Then my trust ceases.”

“By Jove!” Bob stared at him. “Then do we get something?”

“Certainly. Unfortunately, many of your aunt’s investments were very hard hit through the war. Certain stocks which paid large dividends ceased to pay altogether; others fell to very little. The sum left to you and your sister for immediate use should have been very much larger, but all that is left of it is the small allowance paid to you both. I imagine that a smart young officer like yourself found it scarcely sufficient for tobacco.”

“I’ve saved it all,” said Bob simply. “A bit more, too.”

“Saved it!” said the lawyer in blank amazement. “Do you tell me, now? You lived on your pay?”

“Flying pay’s pretty good,” said Bob. “And there was always Tommy to think of, you know, sir. I had to put something away for her, in case I crashed.”

“Dear me,” said Mr. M’Clinton. “Your aunt had great confidence in you as a boy, and it seems she was justified. I’m very glad to hear this, Captain, for it enables me to do with a clear conscience something which I have the power to do. There is a discretionary clause in your aunt’s will, which gives me power to realize a certain sum of money, should you need it. I could hand you over about three thousand pounds.”

“Three thousand!” Bob stared at him blankly.

“Aye. And I see no reason why I should not do it provided I am satisfied as to the use you will make of it. As a matter of form I should like a letter from your commanding officer, testifying to your general character.”

“That’s easy enough,” said Bob. “But three thousand! My hat, what a difference it will make to Tommy and me! Poor old Aunt Margaret I might have known she’d look after us.”

“She loved you very dearly. And now, Captain, about your sister.”

“She’s the big thing,” said Bob. “Can I kidnap her?”

“It’s rather difficult to say just how your father might act. Left to himself, I do not believe he would do anything. But urged by your stepmother, he might make trouble. And the good lady is more likely to make trouble if she suspects that there is any money coming to your sister.”

“That’s very certain,” Bob remarked. “I wish to goodness I could get her right out of England, sir. How about Canada?”

The lawyer pondered.

“Do you know any one there?”

“Not a soul. But I suppose one could get introductions. And one can always get Government expert advice there, I believe, to prevent one chucking away one’s money foolishly.”

Mr. M’Clinton nodded approvingly.

“I don’t know, but you might do worse,” he said. “I believe in these new countries for young people; the old ones are getting overcrowded and worn out. And your relations are likely to give trouble if you are within their reach. A terrible woman, that stepmother of yours; a terrible woman. She came to see me with your father; he said nothing, but she talked like a mill-race. Miss Tommy has my full sympathy. A brawling woman in a wide house, as the Scripture says. I reproach myself, Captain, that I did not inquire personally into Miss Tommy’s well-being. She told you nothing of her trials, you say, during the war?”

“Not a word. Wrote as if life were a howling joke always. I only found out for myself by accident a few months ago.”

“A brave lassie. Well, I’ll do what I can to help you, Captain. I’ll keep a lookout for a likely land investment for your money, and endeavour to prepare a good legal statement to frighten Mrs. Rainham if she objects to your taking your sister away. Much may be done by bluffing, especially if you do it very solemnly and quietly. So keep a good heart, and come and see me next time you’re in London. Miss Tommy will be in any day, I presume, after the telegram you told me about?”

“Sure to be,” said Bob. “She’ll be anxious for her letters. I’m leaving one for her, if you don’t mind, and I’ll write to her again to-night.” He got up, holding out his hand. “Good-bye and I don’t know how to thank you, sir.”

“Bless the boy you’ve nothing to thank me for,” said the lawyer. “Just send me that letter from your commanding officer, and remember that there’s no wild hurry about plans Miss Tommy can stand for a few weeks longer what she has borne for two years.”

“I suppose she can but I don’t want her to,” Bob said.

The brisk office-boy showed him out, and he marched down the grey streets near Lincoln’s Inn with his chin well up. Life had taken a sudden and magical turn for the better. Three thousand pounds! surely that meant no roughing it for Tommy, but a comfortable home and a chance of success in life. It seemed a sum of enormous possibilities. Everything was very vague still, but at least the money was certain it seemed like fairy gold. He felt a sudden desire to get away somewhere, with Tommy, away from crowded England to a country where a man could breathe; his heart rejoiced at the idea, just as he had often exulted when his aeroplane had lifted him away from the crowded, buzzing camp, into the wide, free places of the air. Canada called to him temptingly. His brain was seething with plans to go there when, waiting for a chance to cross a crowded thoroughfare, he heard his own name.

“Asleep, Rainham?”

Bob looked up with a start. General Harran, the Australian, was beside him, also waiting for a break in the crawling string of motor-buses and taxi-cabs. He was smiling under his close-clipped moustache.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” stammered the boy, coming to the salute stiffly. “I was in a brown study, I believe.”

“You looked it. I spoke to you twice before you heard me. What is it? demobilization problems?”

“Just that, sir,” said Bob, grinning. “Most of us have got them, I suppose fellows of my age, anyhow. It’s a bit difficult to come down to earth again, after years spent in the air.”

“Very difficult,” Harran agreed gravely. He glanced down with interest at the alert face and square-built figure of the boy beside him. There were so many of them, these boys who had played with Death for years. They have saved their country from horror and ruin, and now it seemed very doubtful if their country wanted them. They were in every town in England, looking for work; their pitiful, plucky advertisements greeted the eye in every newspaper. The problem of their future interested General Harran keenly. He liked his boys; their freshness and pluck and unspoiled enthusiasm had been a tonic to him during the long years of war. Now it hurt him that they should be looking for the right to live.

“I’m just going to lunch, Rainham,” he said. “Would you care to come with me?”

Bob lifted a quaintly astonished face.

“Thanks, awfully, sir,” he stammered.

“Then jump on this ’bus, and we’ll go to my club,” said the General, swinging his lean, athletic body up the stairs of a passing motor-’bus as he spoke. Bob followed, and they sped, rocking, through the packed traffic until the General, who had sat in silence, jumped up, threaded his way downstairs, and dropped to the ground again from the footboard of the hurrying ’bus with a brief shake of the head to the conductor, who was prepared to check the speed of his craft to accommodate a passenger with such distinguished badges of rank. Bob was on the ground almost as quickly, and they turned out of the crowded street into a quieter one that presently led them into a silent square, where dignified grey houses looked out upon green trees, and the only traffic was that of gliding motors. General Harran led the way into one of the grey houses, up the steps of which officers were constantly coming and going. A grizzled porter in uniform, with the Crimean medal on his tunic, swung the door open and came smartly to attention as they passed through. The General greeted him kindly.

“How are you, O’Shea? The rheumatism better?”

“It is, sir, thank you.” They passed on, through a great hall lined with oil-paintings of famous soldiers, and trophies of big game from all over the world; for this was a Service club, bearing a proud record of soldier and sailor members for a hundred years. Presently they were in the dining-room, already crowded. The waiter found them a little table in a quiet corner.

There was a sprinkling of men whom Bob already knew; he caught several friendly nods of recognition us he glanced round. Then General Harran pointed out others to him Generals, whose names were household words in England a notable Admiral, and a Captain with the V.C. ribbon earned at Zeebrugge. He seemed to know every one, and once or twice he left his seat to speak to a friend during which absence Bob’s friends shot him amazed glances, with eyebrows raised in astonishment that he should be lunching with a real Major-General. Bob was somewhat tongue-tied with bewilderment over the fact himself. But when their cold beef came, General Harran soon put him at his ease, leading him to talk of himself and his plans with quiet tact. Before Bob fairly realized it he had unfolded all his little story even to Tommy and her hardships. The General listened with interest.

“And was it Tommy I saw you with on Saturday?”

“Yes, sir. She was awfully interested because it was you,” blurted Bob. “You see, she and I have always been pals. I’m jolly keen to get some place to take her to.”

“And you think of Canada. Why?”

“Well I really don’t know, except that it would be out of reach of England and unpleasantness,” Bob answered. “And my money would go a lot further there than here, wouldn’t it, sir? Three thousand won’t buy much of a place in England not to make one’s living by, I mean.”

“That’s true. I advise every youngster to get out to one of the new countries, and, of course, a man with a little capital has a far greater chance. But why Canada? Why not Australia?”

“There’s no reason why not,” said Bob laughing. “Only it seems further away. I don’t know more of one country than the other except the sort of vague idea we all have that Canada is all cold and Australia all heat!”

General Harran laughed.

“Yes the average Englishman’s ideas about the new countries are pretty sketchy,” he said. “People always talk to me about the fearfully hot climate of Australia, and seem mildly surprised if I remark that we have about a dozen different climates, and that we have snow and ice, and very decent winter sports, in Victoria. I don’t think they believe me, either. But seriously, Rainham, if you have no more leaning towards one country than the other, why not think of Australia? I could help you there, if you like.”

“You, sir!” Bob stammered.

“Well, I can pull strings. I dare say I could manage a passage out for you and your sister you see, you were serving with the Australians, and you’re both desirable immigrants young and energetic people with a little capital. That would be all right, I think, especially now that the first rush is over. And I could give you plenty of introductions in Australia to the right sort of people. You ought to see something of the country, and what the life and work are, before investing your money. It would be easy enough to get you on to a station or big farm you to learn the business, and your sister to teach or help in the house. She wouldn’t mind that for about a year, with nice people, would she?”

“Not she!” said Bob. “It was her own idea, in fact; only I didn’t want to let her work. But I can see that it might be best. Only I don’t know how to thank you, sir I never imagined ”

General Harran cut him short.

“Don’t worry about that. If I can help you, or any of the flying boys, out of a difficulty, and at the same time get the right type of settlers for Australia she needs them badly then I’m doing a double-barrelled job that I like. But see here do I understand that what you really want to do is to take your sister without giving your father warning? To kidnap her, in short?”

“I don’t see anything else to do, sir. I spoke to him a while ago about taking her away, and he only hummed and hawed and said he’d consult Mrs. Rainham. And my stepmother will never let her go as long as she can keep her as a drudge. We owe them nothing he’s never been a father to us, and as for my stepmother well, she should owe Tommy for two years’ hard work. But honestly, to all intents and purposes, they are strangers to us it seems absolutely ridiculous that we should be controlled by them.”

“You say your aunt’s family lawyer approves?”

“Yes, or he wouldn’t let me have the money. I could get him to see you, sir, if you like; though I don’t see why you should be bothered about us,” said Bob flushing.

“Give me his address I’ll look in on him next time I’m in Lincoln’s Inn,” said the General. “Your own, too. Now, if I get you and your sister passages on a troopship, can you start at short notice say forty-eight hours?”

Bob gasped, but recovered himself. After all, his training in the air had taught him to make swift decisions.

“Any time after the fifteenth, sir. I’ll be demobilized then, and a free agent. I’ll get my kit beforehand.”

“Don’t get much,” counselled the General. “You can travel in uniform take flannels for the tropics; everything you need in Australia you can get just as well, or better, out there. Most fellows who go out take tons of unnecessary stuff. Come into the smoking-room and give me a few more details.”

They came out upon the steps of the club a little later. Bob’s head was whirling. He tried to stammer out more thanks and was cut short, kindly but decisively.

“That’s all right, my boy. I’ll send you letters of introduction to various people who will help you, and a bit of advice about where to go when you land. Tell your sister not to be nervous she isn’t going to a wild country, and the people there are much the same as anywhere else. Now, good-bye, and good luck”; and Bob found himself walking across the Square in a kind of solemn amazement.

“This morning I was thinking of getting taken on as a farm hand in Devonshire, with Tommy somewhere handy in a labourer’s cottage,” he pondered. “And now I’m a bloated capitalist, and Tommy and I are going across the world to Australia as calmly as if we were off to Margate for the day! Well, I suppose it’s only a dream, and I’ll wake up soon. I guess I’d better go back and tell Mr. M’Clinton; and I’ve got to see Tommy somehow.” He bent his brows over the problem as he turned towards Lincoln’s Inn.