Read CHAPTER X - AUSTRALIA IN SURREY of Captain Jim , free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on ReadCentral.com.

The three Australians came that afternoon; and, like many Australians in the wilds of London with a vague idea of distances, having given themselves good time to catch their train, managed to catch the one before it; and so arrived at Homewood unheralded and unsung. Norah and Captain Hardress, who had been knocking golf-balls about, were crossing the terrace on their way to tea when the three slouched hats caught Norah’s eye through the trees of the avenue. She gasped, dropped her clubs, and fled to meet them. Hardress stared: then, perceiving the newcomers, smiled a little and went on slowly.

“I’d like to see her doing a hundred yards!” he said.

The three soldiers jumped as the flying figure came upon them, round a bend in the drive. Then one of them sprang forward.

“Harry!” said Norah.

“My word, I am glad to see you!” said Harry Trevor, pumping her hand. “I say, Norah, you haven’t changed a bit. You’re just the same as when you were twelve only that you’ve grown several feet.”

“Did you expect to find me bald and fat?” Norah laughed. “Oh, Harry, we are glad to see you!”

“Well, you might have aged a little,” said he. “Goodness knows I have! Norah, where’s old Jim?”

“He’s at Aldershot but you can be certain that he’ll be here as soon as he possibly can and Wally too.”

“That’s good business.” He suddenly remembered his friends, who were affecting great interest in the botanical features of a beech-tree. “Come here, you chaps; Norah, this is Jack Blake and Dick Harrison. They’re awfully glad to see you, too!”

“Well, you might have let us say it for ourselves, digger,” said the two, shaking hands. “We were just going to.”

“It’s lovely to have you all,” said Norah. She looked over the tree all tall fellows, lean and bronzed, with quiet faces and deep-set eyes, Blake bore a sergeant’s stripes; Dick Harrison’s sleeve modestly proclaimed him a lance-corporal.

“We’ve been wandering in that funny old London like lost sheep,” Blake said. “My word, that’s a lonesome place, if you don’t happen to know any one in it. And people look at you as if you were something out of a Zoo.”

“They’re not used to you yet,” said Norah. “It’s the hat, as much as anything.”

“I don’t know about that,” Harry said. “No, I think they’d know we came out of a different mob, even if we weren’t branded.”

“Perhaps they would and you certainly do,” Norah answered. “But come on to the house. Dad is just as anxious to see you as any one.”

Indeed, as they came in sight of the house, David Linton was seen coming with long strides to meet them.

“Hardress told me you had suddenly turned into a Marathon runner at the sight of three big hats!” he said. “How are you, Harry? It’s an age since we saw you.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” Harry shook hands warmly, and introduced his friends. “You haven’t changed either, Mr. Linton.”

“I ought to be aging only Norah won’t hear of it,” said Mr. Linton, laughing. “She bullies me more hopelessly than ever, Harry.”

“She always did,” Trevor agreed. “Oh, I want to talk about Billabong for an hour! How’s Brownie, Nor? and Murty O’Toole? and Black Billy? How do you manage to live away from them?”

“It isn’t easy,” Norah answered. “They’re all very fit, only they want us back. We can’t allow ourselves to think of the day that we’ll get home, or we all grow light-headed.”

“It will be no end of a day for all of us,” said Harrison. “Think of marching down Collins Street again, with the crowd cheering us keeping an eye out for the people one knew! It was fairly beastly marching up it for the last time.”

“It’s not Collins Street I want, but a bit of the Gippsland track,” said Jack Blake. “You know, Dick, we took cattle there last year. Over the Haunted Hills aren’t they jolly in the spring! and down through the scrub to Morwell and Traralgon. I’d give something to see that bit of country again.”

“Ah, it’s all good country,” David Linton said. Then they were at the house, and a buzz of conversation floated out to them from the hall, where tea was in progress.

“Your father simply made me promise to go on without you,” said Mrs. West, as Norah made her apologies. “I said it was dreadful, but he wouldn’t listen to me. And there are your friends! Dear me, how large they are, and so brown! Do introduce them to me: I’m planning to hear all about Australia. And a sergeant and lance-corporal! Isn’t it romantic to see them among us, and quite at their ease. Don’t tell them I’m a Colonel’s wife, my dear; I would hate them to feel embarrassed!”

“I don’t think you need worry,” said Norah, smiling to herself. She brought up the three newcomers and introduced them. They subsided upon a sofa, and listened solemnly while Mrs. West opened all her conversational batteries upon them. Norah heard the opening “I’ve read such a lot about your charming country!” and felt a throb of pity for the three wanderers from afar.

Hardress came towards her with a cup of tea, his limb a little more evident.

“You’re tired,” she said, taking it from him. “Sure you haven’t done too much?”

“Not a bit,” he said. “I’m a little tired, but it’s the best day I have had for many a month. I don’t know when I enjoyed anything as much as my motor-lesson this morning.”

“Con says you’ll be able to drive in Piccadilly in no time,” said Norah.

“He’s hopeful,” Hardress said, laughing. “Particularly as we never started the car at all he made me learn everything I could about it first. And did he tell you I rode Brecon?”

“No! How did you get on?” asked Norah delightedly.

“Well, I literally got on very badly at first. The shop leg didn’t seem to understand what was wanted of it at all, and any steed but Brecon would have strongly resented me. But he stood in a pensive attitude while I tried all sorts of experiments. In fact, I think he went to sleep!”

“I told you you could rely on Brecon,” Norah smiled. “What happened then?”

“Oh I got used to myself, and found out the knack of getting on. It’s not hard, with a steady horse, once you find out how. But I think Brecon will do me very well for awhile.”

“Oh, we’ll soon get you on to Brunette,” Norah said. “You’d enjoy her.”

“Is that the black pony?”

“Yes and she’s a lovely hack. I’m going to hunt her in the winter: she jumps like a deer.”

“She looked a beauty, in the stable,” Hardress said. “She ought to make a good polo-pony.” He sighed. “I wonder if I’ll really ever play polo again.”

“Of course you will,” Norah told him. “This morning you didn’t think you would ever get on a horse again.”

“No, I certainly didn’t. You have put an extraordinary amount of hope into me: I feel a different being.” He stopped, and a smile crept into his eyes. “Listen aren’t your friends having a time!”

“Life must be so exciting on your great cattle ranches,” Mrs. West was saying. “And the dear little woolly lambs on the farms such pets!”

“We understood you people over here prefer them frozen,” Blake said gently. “So we send ’em that way.”

Norah choked over her tea. She became aware that Colonel West was speaking to her, and tried to command her wits hearing, as she turned, Mrs. West’s shrill pipe “And what is a wheat-belt? Is it something you wear?” Norah would have given much to hear Blake’s reply.

“Delightful place you have here!” barked the Colonel. “Your father and I have been spending an agricultural afternoon; planning all the things he means to do on that farm Hawkins’, isn’t it? But I suppose you don’t take much interest in that sort of thing? Dances and frocks more in your line and chocolates, eh, what?”

“Then you’ve changed her in England,” said Harry Trevor suddenly. “Is it dances now, Norah? No more quick things over the grass after a cross-grained bullock? Don’t say you’ve forgotten how to use a stockwhip!”

“It’s hung up at Billabong,” Norah said laughing. “But you wait until I get back to it, that’s all!”

“Dear me!” said Mrs. West. “And you do these wonderful things too! I always longed to do them as a girl to ride over long leagues of plain on a fiery mustang, among your lovely eucalyptus trees. And do you really go out with the cowboys, and use a lasso?”

“She does,” said Harry, happily.

“Your wild animals, too,” said Mrs. West. “It’s kangaroos you ride down with spears, is it not? And wallabies. We live in dear, quiet little England, but we read all about your wonderful life, and are oh! so interested.”

“What a life!” said Dick Harrison, under his breath.

“Quite. You know, I had a great friend who went out as A.D.C. to one of your Governors. He had to return after a month, because his father died and he came into the baronetcy, but some day he means to write a book on Australia. That is why I have always, as it were, kept in touch with your great country. I seem to know it so well, though I have never seen it.”

“You do, indeed,” said Blake gravely. “I wish we knew half as much about yours.”

“Ah, but you must let us show it to you. Is it not yours, too? Outposts of Empire: that is what I call you: outposts of Empire. Is it not that that brought you to fight under our flag?”

“Oh, rather,” said Blake vaguely. “But a lot of us just wanted a look in at the fun!”

“Well you got a good deal for a start,” said Garrett.

“Yes Abdul gave us all we wanted on his little peninsula. But he’s not a bad fighting-man, old Abdul; we don’t mind how often we take tea with him. He’s a better man to fight than Fritz.”

“He could pretty easily be that,” Garrett said. “It’s one of the worst grudges we owe Fritz that he’s taken all the decency out of war. It used to be a man’s game, but the Boche made it one according to his own ideas and everybody knows what they are.”

“Yes,” said Hardress. “I suppose the Boche will do a good deal of crawling to get back among decent people after the war; but he’ll never live down his poison-gas and flame-throwers.”

“And wouldn’t it have been a gorgeous old war if he’d only fought clean!” said Garrett longingly. They drew together and talked as fighting men will veterans in the ways of war, though the eldest was not much over one-and-twenty.

The sudden hoot of a motor came from the drive, far-off; and then another, and another.

“Some one’s joy-riding,” said Harry Trevor.

The hooting increased, and with it the hum of a racing car. The gravel outside the porch crunched as it drew up; and then came cheery voices, and two long figures in great coats dashed in: Jim and Wally, eager-eyed.

“Dad! Norah! Where’s old Harry?”

But Harry was grasping a hand of each, and submitting to mighty pats on the back from their other hands.

“By Jove, it’s great to see you! Where did you come from, you old reprobate? Finished Johnny Turk?”

Gradually the boys became aware that there were other people in the hall, and made apologies interrupted by another burst of joy at discovering Garrett.

“You must think us bears,” said Jim, with his disarming smile, to Mrs. West. “But we hadn’t seen Trevor for years, and he’s a very old chum. It would have been exciting to meet him in Australia; but in England well!”

“However did you manage to come?” Norah asked, beaming.

“Oh, we got leave. We’ve been good boys at least, Wally was until we got your message this morning. Since then he has been wandering about like a lost fowl, murmuring, ‘Harry! My Harry!’”

“Is it me?” returned Wally. “Don’t believe him, Nor it was all I could do to keep him from slapping the C.O. on the back and borrowing his car to come over.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Norah laughed. “Whose car did you borrow, by the way?”

“Oh, we hired one. It was extravagant, but we agreed that it wasn’t every day we kill a pig!”

“Thank you,” said Harry. “Years haven’t altered your power of putting a thing nicely!” He smote Wally affectionately. “I say, you were a kid when I saw you last: a kid in knickerbockers. And look at you now!”

“Well, you were much the same,” Wally retorted. “And now you’re a hardened old warrior I’ve only played at it so far.”

“But you were gassed, weren’t you?”

“Yes but we hadn’t had much war before they gassed us. That was the annoying part.”

“Well, didn’t you have a little private war in Ireland? What about that German submarine?”

“Oh, that was sheer luck,” said Wally joyfully. “Such a lark only for one thing. But we don’t consider we’ve earned our keep yet.”

“Oh, well, you’ve got lots of time,” Harry said. “I wonder if they’ll send any of us to France it would be rather fun if we got somewhere in your part of the line.”

“Yes, wouldn’t it?” Then Jack Blake, who had been at school with the boys, came up with Dick Harrison, and England ceased to exist for the five Australians. They talked of their own country old days at school; hard-fought battles on the Melbourne Cricket Ground; boat-racing on the Yarra; Billabong and other stations; bush-fires and cattle-yarding; long days on the road with cattle, and nights spent watching them under the stars. All the grim business of life that had been theirs since those care-free days seemed but to make their own land dearer by comparison. Not that they said so, in words. But they lingered over their talk with an unspoken delight in being at home again even in memory.

Norah slipped away, regretfully enough, after a time: her responsibilities as housekeeper weighed upon her, and she sought Miss de Lisle in the kitchen.

“What, your brother and Mr. Wally? How delightful!” ejaculated the cook-lady. “That’s what I call really jolly. Their rooms are always ready, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes,” Norah said. “I’ve told Bride to put sheets on the beds.”

“Then that’s all right. Dinner? My dear, you need never worry about a couple extra for dinner in a household of this size. Just tell the maids to lay the table accordingly, and let me know that is all you need do.”

“Mrs. Atkins had destroyed my nerve!” said Norah, laughing. “I came down to tell you with the same scared feeling that I had when I used to go to her room. My very knees were shaking!”

“Then you’re a very bad child, if you are my employer!” returned Miss de Lisle. “However, I’ll forgive you: but some time I want you to make a list for me of the things those big boys of yours like most: I might just as well cook them as not, when they come. And of course, when they go out to France, we shall have to send them splendid hampers.”

“That will be a tremendous comfort,” Norah said. “You’re a brick, Miss de Lisle. We used to send them hampers before, of course, but it seemed so unsatisfactory just to order them at the Stores: it will be ever so much nicer to cook them things. You will let me cook, won’t you?”

“Indeed I will,” said Miss de Lisle. “We’ll shut ourselves up here for a day, now and then, and have awful bouts of cookery. How did you like the potato cakes at tea, by the way?”

“They were perfect,” Norah said. “I never tasted better, even in Ireland.” At which Katty, who had just entered with a saucepan, blushed hotly, and cast an ecstatic glance at Miss de Lisle.

“I don’t suppose you did,” remarked that lady. “You see, Katty made them.”

“Wasn’t she good, now, to let me, Miss Norah?” Katty asked. “There’s them at home that towld me I’d get no chance at all of learning under a grand cook here. ’Tis little the likes of them ’ud give you to do in the kitchen: if you asked them for a job, barring it was to wash the floor, they’d pitch you to the Sivin Divils. ’Isn’t the scullery good enough for you?’ they’d say. ‘Cock you up with the cooking!’ But Miss de Lisle isn’t one of them and the cakes to go up to the drawing-room itself!”

“Well, every one liked them, Katty,” Norah said.

“Yerra, hadn’t I Bridie watching behind the big screen with the crack in it?” said the handmaid. “She come back to me, and she says, ‘They’re all ate,’ says she: ‘’tis the way ye had not enough made,’ she says. I didn’t know if ’twas on me head or me heels I was!” She bent a look of adoration upon Miss de Lisle, who laughed.

“Oh, I’ll make a cook of you yet, Katty,” she said. “Meanwhile you’d better put some coal on the fire, or the oven won’t be hot enough for my pastry. Is it early breakfast for your brother and Mr. Wally, Miss Linton?”

“I’m afraid so,” Norah said. “Jim said they must leave at eight o’clock.”

“Then that means breakfast at seven-thirty. Will you have yours with them?”

“Oh yes, please if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Nothing’s a trouble certainly not an early breakfast,” said Miss de Lisle. “Now don’t worry about anything.”

Norah went back to the hall to find it deserted. A buzz of voices came from the billiard-room; she peeped in to find all the soldiers talking with her father listening happily in a big chair. No one saw her: she withdrew, and went in search of Mrs. West, but failed to find her. Bride, encountered in her evening tour with cans of hot water, reported that ’twas lying down she was, and not wishful for talk: her resht was more to her.

“Then I may as well go and dress,” Norah said.

She had just finished when a quick step came along the corridor, and stopped at her door. Jim’s fingers beat the tattoo that was always their signal.

“Come in, Jimmy,” Norah cried.

He came in, looming huge in the dainty little room.

“Good business you’re dressed,” he said. “Can I come and yarn?”

“Rather,” said Norah, beaming. “Come and sit down in my armchair. This electric heater isn’t as jolly to yarn by as a good old log fire, but still, it’s something.” She pulled her chair forward.

“Can’t you wait for me to do that bad kid!” said Jim. He sat down, and Norah subsided on the rug near him.

“Now tell me all about everything,” he said. “How are things going?”

“Quite well especially Mrs. Atkins,” said Norah. “In fact she’s gone!”

Jim sat up.

“Gone! But how?”

Norah told him the story, and he listened with joyful ejaculations.

“Well, she was always the black spot in the house,” he remarked. “It gave one the creeps to look at her sour face, and I’m certain she was more bother to you than she was worth.”

“Oh, I feel twenty years younger since she went!” Norah said. “And it’s going to be great fun to housekeep with Miss de Lisle. I shall learn ever so much.”

“So will she, I imagine,” said Jim, laughing. “Put her up to all the Australian ways, and see if we can’t make a good emigrant of her when we go back.”

“I might,” Norah said. “But she would be a shock to Brownie if she suggested putting her soul into a pudding!”

“Rather!” said Jim, twinkling. “I say, tell me about Hardress. Do you like him?”

“Oh, yes, ever so much.” She told him of her morning’s work indeed, by the time the gong boomed out its summons from the hall, there was very little in the daily life of Homewood that Jim had not managed to hear.

“We’re always wondering how you are getting on,” he said. “It’s jolly over there the work is quite interesting, and there’s a very nice lot of fellows: but I’d like to look in at you two and see how this show was running.” He hesitated. “It won’t be long before we go out, Nor, old chap.”

“Won’t it, Jimmy?” She put up a hand and caught his. “Do you know how long?”

“A week or two not more. But you’re not to worry. You’ve just got to think of the day when we’ll get our first leave and then you’ll have to leave all your Tired People and come and paint London red.” He gave a queer laugh. “Oh, I don’t know, though. It seems to be considered the right thing to do. But I expect we’ll just amble along here and ask you for a job in the house!”

“Why, you’ll be Tired People yourselves,” said Norah. “We’ll have to look after you and give you nourishment at short intervals.”

“We’ll take that, if it’s Miss de Lisle’s cooking. Now don’t think about this business too much. I thought I’d better tell you, but nothing is definite yet. Perhaps I’d better not tell Dad.”

“No, don’t; he’s so happy.”

“I wish I didn’t have to make either of you less happy,” Jim said in a troubled voice. “But it can’t be helped.”

“No, I know it can’t, Jimmy. Don’t you worry.”

“Dear old chap,” said Jim, and stood up. “I had better go and make myself presentable before the second gong goes.” He paused. “You’re all ready aren’t you? Then you might go down. Wally will be wandering round everywhere, looking for you.”