Read CHAPTER XVI - BUILDING UP AGAIN of Back To Billabong, free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on ReadCentral.com.

It was three months later, and Billabong lay in the peace of an exquisite autumn evening. The orchard showed yellow and bronze against the green of the pine trees; here and there oak and elm leaves fluttered down lazily upon the lawn. The garden flamed with dahlias and asters, amidst which Hogg worked contentedly. And there was utter content upon the face of David Linton, as he stood on the broad stone steps of his home, and looked towards the setting sun. Beyond the garden gleamed the reed-fringed waters of the lagoon; further yet, the broad paddocks stretched away, dotted with feeding Shorthorns. It was the view, of all others, that he loved his soul had longed for it during weary years of exile and war. Now, it seemed that he could never tire of looking at it.

Brownie came up from the garden, a basket on her arm laden with splendid mauve and pink asters. David Linton strolled across the gravel sweep to meet her.

“What, Brownie taking Miss Norah’s job, are you?”

“Well, it ain’t ’ardly that, sir,” Brownie answered. “Miss Norah she done the vases this morning, same as ushul, an’ Miss Tommy elpin’ her. Only she wouldn’t pick these ’ere astors, ’cause they’re ‘Oggs best, an’ she didn’t like to ’urt ’im; you see she always remembers that onst they go into the ’ouse, ’Ogg, ’e don’t see ’em no more. An’ she do love ’em in the vases. So I just put the matter sensible like to ‘Ogg, an’, of course, ’e saw reason and give me ‘alf; an’ I’ll ’ave ’em on the table to-night. Only they’ve filled every vase in the house already, I believe I’ll be druv to puttin’ ’em in Mason jars!”

“Miss Norah will love them, no matter what they’re in,” said Mr. Linton. “There’s no sign of them yet, Brownie it’s nearly time they were home.”

“Well, they meant to ‘ave a long day’s work fixin’ the ’ouse,” said Brownie comfortably. “Mrs. Archdale druv me over to see them, an’ Sarah gave us all afternoon tea she an’ Bill are real toffs in their little new cottage there. Sarah ain’t indulgin’ in any regrets over that fire! And they were all busy as bees. Miss Tommy’s room’s fixed, an’ her little sleep-out place off it, and so’s Mr. Bob’s, an’ they were workin’ at the drorin’-room; ’omelike it looked with all their nice old things in it again.”

“I’m sure it will,” David Linton agreed. “How do you like the new house, Brownie?”

“Why, it’s lovely,” said Brownie. “An’ a fair treat to work, with all them new improvements no corners to the rooms, an’ no silly skirtin’ boards that’ll catch dust, an’ the water laid on everywhere, an’ the air gas, an’ all them other patent fixings. An’ so comferable; better than the old one, any way you look at it. Miss Tommy’s the lucky young lady to be comin’ in for such a place.”

“Well, she deserves it, Brownie.”

“She do,” said Brownie heartily. “Ain’t it lovely to see Miss Norah an’ ’er so ’appy together? Our blessed lamb never ’ad a friend like that before, and she needed one every girl do.”

“Long may it last, that’s all I say,” agreed the squatter. “Norah needed her badly, although she didn’t know it. And she and her brother are the best type of immigrants, aren’t they?”

“They are that,” said Brownie, “always cheery, an’ workin’ ‘ard, an’ takin’ the ups and downs sensibly. Now, it was a real nasty knock to find their nice little ’ome burnt down on New Year’s day, but after the first shock they never ’ung their lip at all just bucked in to make good again.”

She went on her way with her asters, and David Linton walked slowly across the lawn and stood looking over the gate, along the track where his children would come riding home. Somehow, he found it difficult not to think of them all as his children. Wally had made an attempt to go away and set up a place for himself, but the idea had been received with such amazed horror by the whole household that it had been temporarily shelved. After all, Wally had more money than was good for him, the result of having always been an orphan. He could establish himself in a place at any time if he wished. And meanwhile, he was never idle. David Linton had handed over most of the outside management of the big run to Jim and his mate. They worked together as happily as they had played together as boys. There was time for play now, as well; Mr. Linton saw to that. The years that they had left on Flanders fields were not to rob them of their boyhood.

There had also been time to help the Rainhams and there again the district had taken a hand. It was not to be imagined that the people who had helped in the first working bee would sit calmly by when so stupendous a piece of bad luck as the New Year fire overtook the just established young immigrants; and so there had been several other bees, to replace Bob’s burnt fencing, to clear away the ruins of the house and sheds, and, finally, to rebuild for him. There had been long discussions at Billabong over plans the first Creek Cottage had taught them much of what was desirable in the way of a house; so that the second Creek Cottage, which rose from the ashes of the old one when kindly rains had drawn a green mantle over all the blackened farm, was a very decided improvement upon the old house, and contained so many modern ideas and “dodges” that the wives and sisters of all the working bees, who helped to build it, came miles to see it, and went home, in most cases, audibly wishing that they could have a fire. It was illuminating, too, to the working bees, to see how Bob and the Billabong men planned for the comfort of the women who were to run the house, and for its easy working; so that presently a wave of labour-saving devices swept through the Cunjee district in imitation, and wives who had always carried buckets of water found taps conveniently placed where they were needed, and sinks and draining racks built to ease the dreary round of dish-washing, and air-gas plants established to supersede the old kerosene lamps. After which the district was very much astonished that it had not done it before.

The cottage was finished now, and nearly ready for its occupants; Bill, Sarah and the baby had been installed for some time in a neat little two-roomed place with a side verandah, a short distance from the main building. Home-made furniture, even more ambitious than the first built, had been erected, and a fresh supply of household goods bought during an exciting week in Melbourne, where Mr. Linton had taken them all all, that is, but Bob, who had steadfastly declined to go away and play when other people were helping him. So Bob had remained at his post, giving Tommy a free hand as to shopping; a freedom cautiously used by Tommy, but supplemented by the others with many gifts, both useful and idiotic. Tommy had an abiding affection for the idiotic efforts.

She had spent so much time in the saddle that she now rode like an old hand; the brown-faced girl who came up the paddock presently with the cheery band of workers was very different to the pink and white “little Miss Immigrant” of eight months before. She rode Jim’s big favourite, Garryowen, who, although years had added wisdom to him, was always impatient when nearly home; he was reefing and pulling, as they swept up at a hand gallop, but Tommy held him easily, and pulled up near Mr. Linton, laughing. He looked at them with grave content.

“I began to think you meant me to have tea alone,” he said. “Have they been doing any work, Bob, or couldn’t you keep them in hand at all?”

“Oh, they’ve been working,” Bob answered. “I told Sarah not to give them any afternoon tea if they didn’t, and it acted like a charm.”

“You to talk!” said Norah, with tilted nose. “They said they’d sample the new deck chairs, dad, and it took them about an hour to make sure if they liked them they just smoked while Tommy and I toiled.”

“Well, you’d only have been annoyed with us if we hadn’t done the sampling properly, and had grumbled afterwards,” said Wally. “I’m always trying to teach you to be thorough, Norah. Of course, they say they work all the time, sir but when they disappear into Tommy’s room there’s an awful lot of talking.”

“There would be something wrong with them if there weren’t,” said the squatter sagely. “And I have no doubt there yet remains much awaiting their expert supervision in Tommy’s room.” Whereat Tommy and Norah beamed at him, and commended him as a person of understanding, while Wally remarked feelingly to Bob that there was no chance of justice where those two females were concerned. At this point Jim observed that the conversation showed signs of degenerating into a brawl, and that, in any case, it was time the horses were let go. They trotted off to the stables, a light-hearted body.

Tommy slipped her arm into Bob’s as they went upstairs to dress.

“Come into my room and talk for a moment.”

He came in and sat down in a low chair by the window.

“Your quarters at the new place won’t be as big as this, old girl.”

“They’ll be bigger, for it will all be ours,” rejoined Tommy promptly.
“Who wants a big room, anyway? I don’t. Bobby, I’d be hard to please if
I wanted more than I’ve got.”

“You’re always satisfied,” he said. “There never was anything easier than pleasing you, old Tommy.”

“Life’s all so good, now,” she said. “No hideous anxiety about you no Lancaster Gate no she-dragon. Only peace, and independence, and the work we like. Aren’t you satisfied, Bob?”

“I’d like to be really independent,” he said slowly. “Our amount of debt isn’t heavy, of course, and it doesn’t cause real anxiety, with Mr. Linton guaranteeing us to the bank ”

“And as we had to build again, it was worth while to improve the house and make it just what we wanted,” Tommy added. “We’ll pay the debt off, Bob. Mr. Linton assures me that with ordinary seasons we should easily do it.”

“I know, and I’m not anxious,” Bob said. “Only I’ll be glad when it’s done; debt, even such an easy debt as this, gives me the creeps. And I want to feel we stand on our own feet.”

“And not on the Lintons’!” said Tommy, laughing. “I quite agree though it’s amazing to see how little they seem to mind our weight. Was there ever such luck as meeting them, Bob?”

“Never,” he agreed. “We’d have been wage-earners still, or struggling little cocky farmers at the best, but for that letter of General Harran’s though, I think more was due to the way you butted into their taxi!”

“I believe it was,” laughed Tommy. “It was the sort of thing to appeal to the Lintons it wouldn’t to everybody. But the letter was behind it, saying what a worthy young man you were!”

“Well, when you start calling me such a thing as ‘worthy,’ it’s time I left and got dressed for tea,” said her brother, rising slowly. “English mail ought to be in, by the way; I’m wondering what old Mr. M’Clinton will say when he hears we were burned out in our first season.”

“He’ll wish he’d sent us to the snows of Canada, where such things don’t happen on New Year’s day,” Tommy said. “Still, he ought not to be anxious about us Mr. Linton wrote and told him our position was quite sound.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’ll worry greatly,” said Bob. “I must hurry, old girl, or I’ll be late and I want a tub before tea.”

The boys came down in flannels, ready for a game of tennis after tea; and Bob and Wally were just leaving the court after a stoutly-contested set, when black Billy brought the mail-bag across the lawn to Mr. Linton. The squatter unlocked it and sorted out the letters quickly.

“Nothing for you, Tommy; two for Norah; three for Bob, and bundles for Wally and Jim. Papers beyond counting, and parcels you girls can deal with.” He gathered up a package of his own letters. “Chiefly stock and station documents though, I see, there’s a letter from your aunt, Norah; I expect she’s anxious to know when I’m going to cease bringing you up like a boy, and send you to Melbourne to be a perfect lady.”

“Tell her, never,” said Norah lazily. “I don’t see any spare time ahead not enough to make me into a lady after Aunt Winifred’s pattern. Cecil is much more lady-like than I am.”

“He always was,” Jim said. “Years ago we used to wonder that he didn’t take to wool-work, and I expect he’ll do it yet. Even serving in the war didn’t keep Cecil from manicuring his nails he gets a polish on them that beats anything I ever saw.”

“Never mind he’s got a limp,” said Norah, in whose eyes that legacy of the war covered a multitude of sins.

“Well, he has. But he even limps in a lady-like way,” grinned Jim. “And he has no time for Wal and me. He told me that he was surprised that five years of France and England hadn’t made us less Australian.”

“It’s a matter of regret to us all,” said Norah placidly. “We hoped for great things when you came out more attention to polite conversation, and a passion for top-hats, and ” At which point further eloquence was checked by a cushion placed gently, but firmly, by a brotherly hand on her face, and so she subsided, with a gurgle of laughter, into the cool depths of the buffalo grass where they were all lying.

“Oh, by Jove!” said Bob suddenly. He looked at them, and finally at Tommy, his eyes dancing.

“What’s up, old man?” Jim asked. “Not your stepmother coming out?”

“England couldn’t spare her,” Bob said. “But the sky has fallen, for all that. Just listen to old M’Clinton.

“’. . . It was with deep regret that I learned from you and from Mr. Linton of the calamity which had befallen you on New Year’s day. Such disasters seem common in Australia, like blizzards in Canada, and I presume every settler is liable to them. In your case your loss, being partly covered by insurance, will not, Mr. Linton assures me, be crushing, although it seems to me very severe. To have your initial endeavours, too, handicapped by so calamitous an occurrence would have excused despondency, but ’”

“Hasn’t he a lovely style?” chuckled Wally, as the reader paused to turn over.

“’But Mr. Linton assures me that you and your sister are facing the situation with calmness and courage.’ Did you know you were calmly courageous, Tommy?”

“I am not,” said Tommy. “I am courageously calm. Go on, Bobby my calmness will waver if you don’t get to the point. Where does the sky fall?”

“Half a second. ’Further, I am immensely interested to learn from Mr. Linton, who appears to be the kindest of benefactors’ that’s you, sir ’that the people of the district, who have already helped you so remarkably by a working bee, are so much in sympathy with you both that they intend again lending you their assistance over rebuilding your house. This shows me, even without Mr. Linton’s letter, that you have earned their esteem and regard. Nevertheless, I estimate that you cannot fail to be at some monetary embarrassment, and this I am luckily able to ease for you. Certain rubber investments of your late aunt’s have recently risen in value, after the long period of depression due to the war; and I deemed it prudent to sell them while their price in the market was high. The terms of your aunt’s will enable me to reinvest this money, amounting to a little over nine hundred pounds, for you, or, at my discretion, to hand it over to you; and such is the confidence I repose in you, after Mr. Linton’s letter, that I feel justified in remitting you the money, to use as you think best. I presume that will be in the reduction of your liabilities. I should like to think you had the benefit of Mr. Linton’s advice in the matter.’ Shall I, sir?”

“I never listened to such language,” returned the squatter. “I should like it read three times a day, before meals. But if it’s my advice you want, Bob, you can have it. Meanwhile, I’m very glad for you to have such a windfall, my boy.”

Tommy and Norah had collapsed on each other’s shoulders, speechless.

“Joy never kills, they say,” said Wally, regarding them anxiously. “But it’s been known to turn the brain, when the brain doesn’t happen to be strong. Will we turn the hose on them, Jim?”

“Sit on him, Bob,” came faintly from Norah.

“I will with the weight of nine hundred pounds!” said Bob and did so.

“Get off, you bloated capitalist,” said Wally, struggling. He succeeded in dislodging him, with a mighty effort. “You’re just purse-proud, that’s what’s the matter with you. What’ll you do with it, Bobby go racing? Or buy an aeroplane?”

“Get out of debt,” said Bob, sitting up with rumpled hair and a face like a happy child’s. “And there’ll be a bit over to play with. What shall we put it into, Tommy? Want any pretty things?”

“Just merino sheep,” said Tommy.