The chapel attached to Beresford House was an old one, built at a time when the school was much smaller, and was hardly large enough to accommodate the school when it was in entire attendance. On Sundays, however, when the chief attendees were merely the boarding students, along with a few sundry members of the public, it seemed a much nicer size, and was indeed a very pleasant chapel for worship.
Norah Linton did not often appreciate the good aspects of the Beresford chapel. This was because she sang in the choir, which sat towards the front of the church, in rows at right angles to the rest of the congregation. The arrangement was one that Norah detested with all her soul. It meant she sat in full view of dozens of people every Sunday, making it difficult to avoid notice, and avoiding notice was a thing Norah heartily desired at all times. So morning church was usually something of a trial to her.
There was one advantage, however. The choir seats had an excellent view of the back doors, also of anybody coming and going—the result being that one Sunday morning in May, as Norah glanced up from her hymnbook just after the service started, she caught a very good glimpse of the tall boy who slipped into the back pew.
Norah forgot all her manners, and stared. The boy was untroubled. He grinned back cheerfully, before schooling his face to a religious absorption.
It does not seem likely Norah paid much attention to the sermon that day—later on, the only thing she could remember about it was that it seemed a good deal longer than ordinarily—and she could barely restrain herself from flying out into the aisle the moment the final prayers were over. The boy, sitting at the back, was able to slip out easily, but the choir had to wait for everybody else to leave, and Norah had to contain her impatience as best she could, which wasn't very well.
He was standing in a corner when Norah finally made her way free, seemingly trying without much success to look less than his six feet, and with even less success attempting to dodge the frankly curious glances of the girls that passed. He caught Norah’s eye with relief as she emerged, his dark face breaking into a smile. “Hallo, Nor.”
“Wally!—how lovely! What are you doing here?” A thought occurred to her, and she asked in a hurry of sudden dread: “You haven’t heard anything from Billabong?”
“Good grief, no!” Wally said, now contrite. “You haven’t been worrying over that all through church, I hope? I didn’t want you to see me at all until after, really. I tried to be less noticeable, but I’ve gotten too long for easy camouflage.”
“You’ve always been too long for that,” Norah said, looking him over fondly. “Though perhaps you’ve grown a bit more since last I saw you. But you haven’t told me yet why you’re here.”
He made her a low deferential bow, to the great interest of three girls standing nearby. “To see you, of course.”
“Not really?” Norah asked, delightedly.
“It’s a great compliment. I do not,” Wally said with dignity, “come to girls’ schools to visit just anybody. I got your letter yesterday about how Jean’s people had come to visit from New Zealand and were taking her away for the weekend. So I thought I would come and prevent you from being dull on your birthday. You might say you’re pleased, Norah!”
“Don’t I look it?” Norah demanded, and indeed nobody could mistake her dancing eyes and bright face for any other emotion. “Oh, Wally, you’re a brick to remember.”
“My sixteenth birthday,” Wally said reminiscently, “was the day of my last Latin exam for the term, and I rather think the master handicapped me for it. Oh well! We’ll try to make yours better.”
“It already is: this is the most beautiful surprise that ever happened. What now?”
“Get permission, I suppose,” Wally said, eyeing a person who looked housemistress-like. “There’s a lady with a fierce eye over there who looks like she suspects me of intending to murder you the first moment I get. You might disabuse her of the notion before I spirit you away. I say,” he said suddenly, “will there be trouble about you coming with me, do you think? If I were Jim it would be all right, but people could get obstructive when they realise I’m not a brother.”
“Bother people!” Norah said eloquently, but disappeared to Miss Winter to make her petition.
Obtaining permission was not, after all, as difficult a matter as Wally had envisaged. Miss Winter remembered his face from school breakup before Christmas the year before, as well as the excellent manners that had gone with it, and moreover Mr Linton had mentioned Wally almost as often as his own son in his occasional conversations with the housemistress. She judged it unlikely that he would have refused his daughter leave to spend her birthday in Wally’s company (and in this judgment was quite correct), and therefore gave hers. The only stipulation she made was that Norah must be back before tea, which, as this was the same injunction under which Wally was operating, was one to which Norah could agree without any difficulty.
“All right then?” Wally asked as Norah came flying back. “Good-oh! Now,” he said, looking her over critically, “I don’t mean to dictate what you wear, but it seems to me that our activities could be somewhat limited if you stay as you are. Not that you don’t look nice,” he added, “but that frock looks rather like it would tear if you took a wrong step.”
“Oh, I’ll change, of course,” Norah said, laughing. “I’ll just run up to the House now, it won’t take me a minute. It is pretty, though, isn’t it? It’s odd, Wally,” she added confidentially, “I used to think that I could never care about dresses a bit, but I’m growing to like them. If only they weren’t so uncomfortable! Now we’re at the gate—just you stay here and I’ll be back in a minute.”
She joined Wally again a very short time later, evidencing an impressive turn of speed in the way of changing, now clad in a linen shirt and skirt, a coat over her arm. They were plain clothes, but well cut—Norah had a figure that was easy to clothe—and on the whole she looked a only little less well turned out than in her Sunday clothes. Wally nodded approvingly at her.
“You look more like you,” he said with a grin. “Well, Miss Sixteen, I am at your complete disposal today. What would you like to do?”
“I don’t know,” Norah said, laughing.
“I thought so,” Wally said sagely. “I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect you to have ideas when you haven’t had time to think of them, but I thought I would give you the chance. Now, it seems the ordinary thing to do for birthdays in Melbourne is to go to the theatre. We could probably catch a matinee before tea. I haven’t the least idea what’s on, but say the word and we’ll investigate the matter. However, it seems to me a frightful waste of a glorious day like this to spend it in a dark theatre—”
“—and so if you will permit yourself to be guided by me, I suggest we find a shop that will sell us things for a picnic, and stroll down to the Botanical Gardens instead. I suspect we won’t be the only people with the idea, but that’s all right, we will just blend into the crowd until we find a spot that isn’t quite thronging.”
“Grand idea!” Norah pronounced, and the thing was settled.
There was little difficulty in finding a shop to supply them with picnic materials—even when accommodating Wally’s views on picnic lunches, which were informed by his own appetite and as such were expansive ones. They were fairly laden with such large amounts of buns, fruit, potted meats, cheese and so forth by the time they were finished, to the point where Norah began to make a faint protest.
“Would you have a growing boy starve, Nor?” Wally demanded, after which Norah subsided.
Wally paid for their purchases, including something in a box that he refused Norah to peep at. He took charge of all the bags (barring the lightest, which he graciously permitted Norah to carry), and together they set off for the Gardens.
They found a nice shaded spot amongst a copse of firs, not too busy with other picnickers, and set out their feast. It was prodigious. The box Wally had guarded so jealously turned out to contain an enormous chocolate cake, liberally iced, at which Norah gave a squeak of delight first, and then averred that they couldn’t possibly eat it all.
Young appetites, however, particularly those sharpened by daily sport as Norah’s and Wally’s were, are often underestimated, even by their possessors. There was very little of the lunch left by the time they had finished with it, and the cake was only a few sorry crumbs at the base of its box. Wally bundled the rest of the rubbish on top of the remains, and then flung himself onto his back to stare up at the sky, replete.
“Well,” he said comfortably, “it isn’t Billabong, but it will do as a substitute.” He looked across at Norah, who was wishing propriety would allow her to lie flat too. “All right, Nor?”
She smiled at him. “It’s lovely. And not a bit expected, which makes it even better. How did you come to think of it, Wally?”
“Well,” Wally said, now sounding a little abashed. “It did occur to me a few times even last year that Beresford wasn’t so far from the Grammar School. Only—”
“Only—Jim had just left,” he said. “And—well, I wasn’t sure if you would want to see me without him.”
Norah stared at him incredulously. “Wally!”
“Well, you never had before,” Wally pointed out, more abashed than ever. “Seen me without Jim, I mean.” He sounded profoundly awkward, and not at all like his ordinary cheerful self. “I know Jim’s fond of me, goodness knows why, but I didn’t want to push in here when I mightn’t be wanted.”
Norah gaped for a moment. “That,” she said when she had recovered speech, speaking sternly, “is the silliest thing I have ever heard.” She poked him in the shoulder with a sharp finger. “What have I ever done to make you believe such a thing? Aren’t we friends?”
“Well, I think so,” Wally said in some confusion. “But—oh, hang it, Nor, you know how I feel about not really belonging anywhere.”
Norah watched him for a moment in silence. It was something that she never failed to find incredible, that somebody as kind and fun and likeable as Wally could sometimes feel so unwanted. It had taken her a little while to discover it, but feelings ran deep with him, even though he made a good show of pretending not to, and a lonely childhood had hurt him more than perhaps even he knew. Norah was glad that Jim had rescued him, glad that they had become such friends, glad that Wally came to visit them every holidays. But, somehow, Wally still seemed to miss seeing it.
“This is your last year at school, isn’it it?” she asked at last.
Norah understood a little better now. The end of school meant the end of school holidays, and the end of convenient reasons to spend long weeks at Billabong. After this, in all likelihood, Wally would have to go back to Queensland to his eldest brother’s station that he part-owned, and start growing up there. If the thought made Norah feel a little hollow, she could only imagine what it meant to Wally.
“Well,” she said finally, the solution out of her reach at present, “we needn’t think about unpleasant things now. There’s still winter break, and the summer, and then—well, who knows? Brownie would tell you not to borrow trouble.”
The corners of Wally’s mouth turned up into his easy grin at the mention of Brownie. He rolled over onto his stomach and propped himself up on his forearms to look at Norah. “She would,” he acknowledged, the unhappy note in his voice lightening. “I’m sorry for grumbling, Nor, and on your birthday too! I haven’t any manners.”
“None in the least,” she agreed, well pleased to see the twinkle back in his eye. “Not that I mind the grumbling, it’s better than you keeping it all locked up inside. Only I wish you could see how absolutely silly it is. Now, what about trying to walk off some of that wretched lunch?”
The best time to walk in the Botanical Gardens is generally accepted to be spring, when the roses are budding and the trees lush and green. But there is something to be said for an autumn stroll, too. Certainly Norah enjoyed every moment of it—walking through bowers of red-and-yellow trees whose leaves drifted gently down overhead, the grass soft and fresh under her shoes. Wally, his brief dark mood utterly vanished, chattered volubly about anything that came to mind—stories of school capers, memories of Billabong, and when those gave out, giving his own invention a free rein—and Norah laughed until she had to beg him to stop, and enjoyed herself hugely.
Presently they came in sight of the big ornamental lake, where it seemed some sort of boating event was being organised. A row of canoes, with a number of unused ones hoisted up on the bank, were lined along one end of the lake, while rowers of clearly varying experience got themselves ready for battle.
“Is it a race?” Norah asked.
“Looks it,” Wally said. “Not a serious one, I should imagine—look at that chap, he’s never touched an oar before in his life, I’ll wager! Open to all comers, I’d say, and there’s any amount of spare boats.” He looked at her, grinning. “What do you think?”
“I know what you think,” she returned, amused. “Very well—we’ve got gruesome amounts of that cake to work off still!”
They ran down to the bank together and discovered no difficulty in borrowing a canoe for the event, which, as Wally had predicted, was not a formal one. The vessel they had been assigned was built for sturdiness rather than speed, but such was the nature of most the other competitors’, and did not put them at much disadvantage. Wally sat at the forward position, by mutual agreement, while Norah settled herself behind.
“Now pray be advised I am an amateur at this sport,” Wally warned her as they readied themselves. “Contain your disappointment if I can’t live up to your Beresford champions and remember it isn’t seemly to cry in public!”
Norah was saved the trouble of answering by the sound of the starting whistle, and she and Wally jolted into motion. They had rowed together a little on the lagoon at Billabong, although not often and never competitively, but Norah saw instantly that their strokes were a good natural match, and it did not take much for them to fall into a steady, swift rhythm, pulling ahead. Their chief competition was a pair of boys about her age, and the two canoes were neck-and-neck for most of the final stretch.
“Jove, I know them!” Wally gasped suddenly when there was barely five lengths to go. “Paddle, Nor!” And thus spurred on Norah dug her paddle with renewed vigour. They touched the bank a hair ahead of the second canoe, which exploded into groans of defeat while Wally whooped.
“Thought for a moment we had you, Meadows!” called the taller of the two boys in the other canoe. "Ought to have known it was too good a thing to be true!"
Wally was grinning across, out of breath but very cheerful. “This chap’s McAllister,” he introduced Norah. “Runs track for Xavier awfully well—we’re always in meets together on Sports Days.”
“Yes, and Meadows never fails to show me up,” McAllister said ruefully. “I say,” to Norah, “you’re frightfully good too. You Meadows’ sister?”
“Yes,” Norah said, shaking hands and smiling at Wally. “Something like that.”
Wally helped her out of the canoe and smiled back. “The list of things Norah is frightfully good at would knock you over,” he said with conviction, pulling the canoe up onto the bank. “Where do we chuck these now that we’re done with them?—here? All right. Jolly good to see you, McAllister, we’ll probably run into each other soon. How are you feeling, Nor?”
“Like my arms will fall off presently, but it’s passing,” Norah said, rubbing her shoulders. “We did row well together, didn’t we?”
“Jolly well,” Wally agreed. “I’d like to try us against the firsts—we wouldn’t win, but I fancy it would be close.” He glanced at his watch and started. “Goodness! It’s a quarter past four, and tea at five! Time gets away from you when you’re living a life of leisure. Norah, we’ll have to walk like the dickens—I’d say run, only I don’t know how well you do that in skirts, and I’d rather be late for tea than have you break your neck on my watch. Are you up to it after that paddle?”
“We’ll run,” Norah said decidedly. “Because if you’re late back, they might stop you from coming again, and that would be too awful. I shan’t break my neck.”
They were both breathless and wind-blown by the time they reached the Beresford House gates. Norah straightened her skirt and settled her collar by way of attempting to reduce the damage caused by the brisk run before going into tea—her hair, she knew with a calm despair, was beyond the hope of anything short of a good brushing.
Wally grinned at her. “I beg your pardon about the skirt; that was quick work. You look all right, Nor.”
“I know I don’t, but thanks,” she said. “It’s been such a nice birthday, Wally. You’re a brick to have come.”
He put out his hand to shake hers, but Norah surprised herself—and Wally—by giving him a quick, hard hug by way of goodbye instead. “Come again if you can,” she told him when she let him go. “But if not, I’ll see you at Billabong over winter. There, you have an invitation even if Jim forgets—which he won’t.”
Wally’s eyes were very warm as he looked at her. “Happy birthday, Nor.”
She watched him set off into the gathering dusk at a run, disappearing around the corner on quicksilver feet. Then she turned to head up the drive, smiling all the way.