By ANDRE NORTON
Author of The Prince Commands
ILLUSTRATED BY JAMES REID
D. APPLETON-CENTURY COMPANY INCORPORATED NEW YORK 1938 LONDON
Copyright, 1938, by D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, must not be reproduced in any form without permission of the publisher.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
D. B. N.
In return for many miles of proof so diligently read
I. THE RALESTONES COME HOME
II. THE LUCK OF THE LORDS OF LORNE
III. THE RALESTONES ENTERTAIN AN UNOBTRUSIVE VISITOR
IV. PISTOLS FOR TWO—COFFEE FOR ONE
V. THEIR TENANT DISCOVERS THE RALESTONES
VI. SATAN GOES A-HUNTING AND FINDS WORK FOR IDLE HANDS
VII. BY OUR LUCK!
VIII. GREAT-UNCLE RICK WALKS THE HALL
IX. PORTRAIT OF A LADY AND A GENTLEMAN
X. INTO THE SWAMP
XI. RALESTONES TO THE RESCUE!
XII. THE RALESTONES BRING HOME A RELUCTANT GUEST
XIII. ON SUCH A NIGHT AS THIS—
XIV. PIRATE WAYS ARE HIDDEN WAYS
XV. PIECES OF EIGHT—RALESTONES' FATE!
XVI. RALESTONES STAND TOGETHER
XVII. THE RETURN OF RICK RALESTONE
XVIII. RUPERT BRINGS HOME HIS MARCHIONESS
"How hold ye Lorne?" Rupert's softly spoken question brought the well-remembered answer to Val's lips: "By the oak leaf, by the sea wave, by the broadsword blade, thus hold we Lorne!"
"I'se Lucy," she stated, thoroughly at her ease. "An' dis is Letty-Lou"
Ricky lifted off the cover. Val stared at the canvas
"It's a genuine Audubon," Charity said
Zzzzzrupp! Satan was industriously ripping the remnants of lining from its interior
The canoe floated almost of its own volition into a dead and distorted strip of country
At the bayou at last, they wriggled Jeems awkwardly into the boat
Then came a tree burdened with a small 'coon which stared at the boy piteously, its eyes green in the light
Ricky held aloft a great war sword. There could be no doubt in any of them—the Luck of Lorne had returned
How hold ye Lorne?
By the oak leaf, By the sea wave, By the broadsword blade, Thus hold we Lorne!
The oak leaf is dust, The sea wave is gone, The broadsword is rust, How now hold ye Lorne?
By our Luck, thus hold we Lorne!
THE RALESTONES COME HOME
"Once upon a time two brave princes and a beautiful princess set out to make their fortunes—" began the dark-haired, dark-eyed boy by the roadster.
"Royalty is out of fashion," corrected Ricky Ralestone somewhat indifferently. "Can't you do better than that?" She gave her small, pert hat an exasperated tweak which brought the unoffending bowl-shaped bit of white felt into its proper position over her right eyebrow. "How long does it take Rupert to ask a single simple question?"
Her brother Val watched the gas gage on the instrument board of the roadster fluctuate wildly as the attendant of the station shook the hose to speed the flow of the last few drops. Five gallons—a dollar ten. Did he have that much? He began to assemble various small hoards of change from different pockets.
"Do you think we're going to like this?" Ricky waved her hand vaguely in a gesture which included a dilapidated hot-dog stand and a stretch of road white-hot under the steady baking of the sun.
"Well, I think that Pirate's Haven is slightly different from our present surroundings. Where's your proper pride? Not everyone can be classed among the New Poor," Val observed judiciously.
"Nobility in the bread line." His sister sniffed with what she fondly believed was the air of a Van Astor dowager.
"We never relinquished the title, did we? Rupert's still the Marquess of Lorne."
"After some two hundred years in America I am afraid that we would find ourselves strangers in England. And Lorne crumbled to dust long ago."
"But he's still Marquess of Lorne," she persisted.
"All right. And what does that make you?"
"Lady Richanda, of course, silly. Can't you remember the wording of the old charter? And you're Viscount—"
"Wrong there," Val corrected her. "I'm only a lord, by courtesy, unless we can bash Rupert on the head some dark night and chuck him into the bayou."
"Lord Valerius." She rolled it upon her tongue. "Marquess, Lady, and Lord Val, out to seek their fortunes. Pity we can't do it in the traditional family way."
"But we can't, you know," he protested laughingly. "I believe that piracy is no longer looked upon with favor by the more solid members of any community. Though plank-walking is an idea to keep in mind when the bill collectors start to draw in upon us."
"Here comes Rupert at last. Rupert," she raised her voice as their elder brother opened the door by the driver's seat, "shall we all go and be pirates? Val has some lovely gory ideas."
"Not just yet anyway—we still have a roof over our heads," he answered as he slid in behind the wheel. "We should have taken the right turn a mile back."
"Bother!" Ricky surveyed as much of her face as she could see in the postage-stamp mirror of her compact. "I don't think I'm going to like Louisiana."
"Maybe Louisiana won't care for you either," Val offered slyly. "After all, we dyed-in-the-wool Yanks coming to live in the deep South—"
"Speak for yourself, Val Ralestone." She applied a puff carefully to the tip of her upturned nose. "Since we've got this barn of a place on our hands, we might as well live in it. Too bad you couldn't have persuaded our artist tenant to sign another lease, Rupert."
"He's gone to spend a year in Italy. The place is in fairly good condition though. LeFleur said that as long as we don't use the left wing and close off the state bedrooms, we can manage nicely."
"State bedrooms—" Val drew a deep breath which was meant to be one of reverence but which turned into a sneeze as the roadster's wheels raised the dust. "How does it feel to own such magnificence, Rupert?"
"Not so good," he replied honestly. "A house as big as Pirate's Haven is a burden if you don't have the cash to keep it up properly. Though this artist chap did make a lot of improvements on his own."
"But think of the Long Hall—" began Ricky, rolling her eyes heavenward.
"And just what do you know about the Long Hall?" demanded Rupert.
"Why, that's where dear Great-great-uncle Rick's ghost is supposed to walk, isn't it?" she asked innocently. "I hope that our late tenant didn't scare him away. It gives one such a blue-blooded feeling to think of having an active ghost on the premises. A member of one's own family, too!"
"Sure. Teach him—or it—some parlor tricks and we'll show it—or him—off every afternoon between three and four. We might even be able to charge admission and recoup the family fortune," Val suggested brightly.
"Have you no reverence?" demanded his sister. "And besides, ghosts only walk at night."
"Now that's something we'll have to investigate," Val interrupted her. "Do ghosts have union rules? I mean, I wouldn't want Great-great-uncle Rick to march up and down the carriage drive with a sign reading, 'The Ralestones are unfair to ghosts,' or anything like that."
"We'll have to use the Long Hall, of course," cut in Rupert, as usual ignoring their nonsense. "And the old summer drawing-room. But we can shut up the dining-room and the ball-room. We'll eat in the kitchen, and that and a bedroom apiece—"
"I suppose there are bathrooms, or at least a bathroom," his brother interrupted. "Because I don't care to rush down to the bayou for a good brisk plunge every time I get my face dirty."
"Harrison put in a bathroom at his own expense last fall."
"For which blessed be the name of Harrison. If he hadn't gone to Italy, he would have rebuilt the house. How soon do we get there? This touring is not what I thought it might be—"
The crease which had appeared so recently between Rupert's eyes deepened.
"Leg hurt, Val?" he asked quietly, glancing at the slim figure sharing his seat.
"No. I'm expressing curiosity this time, old man, not just a whine. But if we're going to be this far off the main highway—"
"Oh, it's not far from the city road. We ought to be seeing the gate-posts any moment now."
"Prophet!" Ricky leaned forward between them. "See there!"
Two gray stone posts, as firmly planted by time as the avenue of live-oaks they headed, showed clearly in the afternoon light. And from the nearest, deep carven in the stone, a jagged-toothed skull, crowned and grinning, stared blankly at the three in the shabby car. Beneath it ran the insolent motto of an ancient and disreputable clan, "What I want—I take!"
"This is the place all right—I recognize Joe there." Val pointed to the crest. "Good old Joe, always laughing."
Ricky made a face. "Horrid old thing. I don't see why we couldn't have had a swan or something nice to swank about."
"But then the Lords of Lorne were hardly a nice lot in their prime," Val reminded her. "Well, Rupert, let's see the rest."
The car followed a graveled drive between tall bushes which would have been the better for a pruning. Then the road made a sudden curve and they came out upon a crescent of lawn bordering upon a stone-paved terrace three steps above. And on the terrace stood the home a Ralestone had not set foot in for over fifty years—Pirate's Haven.
"It looks—" Ricky stared up, "why, it looks just like the picture Mr. Harrison painted!"
"Which proves why he is now in Italy," Val returned. "But he did capture it on canvas."
"Gray stone—and those diamond-paned windows—and that squatty tower. But it isn't like a Southern home at all! It's some old, old place out of England."
"Because it was built by an exile," said Rupert softly. "An exile who loved his home so well that he labored five years in the wilderness to build its duplicate. Those little diamond-paned windows were once protected with shutters an inch thick, and the place was a fort in Indian times. But it is strange to this country. That's why it's one of the show places. LeFleur asked me if we would be willing to keep up the custom of throwing the state rooms open to the public one day a month."
"And shall we?" asked Ricky.
"We'll see. Well, don't you want to see the inside as well as the out?"
"Of course! Val, you lazy thing, get out!"
"Certainly, m'lady." He swung open the door and climbed out stiffly. Although he wouldn't have confessed it for any reason, his leg had been aching dully for hours.
"Do you know," Ricky hesitated on the first terrace step, bending down to put aside a trail of morning-glory vine which clutched at her ankle, "I've just remembered!"
"What?" Rupert looked up from the grid where he was unstrapping their luggage.
"That we are the very first Ralestones to—to come home since Grandfather Miles rode away in 1867."
"And why the sudden dip into ancient history?" Val inquired as he limped around to help Rupert.
"I don't know," her eyes were fast upon moss-greened wall and ponderous door hewn of a single slab of oak, "except—well, we are coming home at last. I wonder if—if they know. All those others. Rick and Miles, the first Rupert and Richard and—"
"That spitfire, the Lady Richanda?" Rupert smiled. "Perhaps they do. No, leave the bags here, Val. Let's see the house first."
Together the Ralestones crossed the terrace and came to stand by the front door which still bore faint scars left by Indian hatchets. But Rupert stooped to insert a very modern key into a very modern lock. There was a click and the door swung inward before his push.
"The Long Hall!" They stood in something of a hesitant huddle at the end of a long stone-floored room. Half-way down its length a wooden staircase led up to the second floor, and directly opposite that a great fireplace yawned mightily, black and bare.
A leather-covered lounge was directly before this, flanked by two square chairs. And by the stairs was an oaken marriage chest. Save for two skin rugs, these were all the furnishings.
But Ricky had crossed hesitatingly to that cavernous fireplace and was standing there looking up as her brothers joined her.
"There's where it was," she said softly and pointed to a deep niche cut into the surface of the stone overmantel. That niche was empty and had been so for more than a hundred years—to their hurt. "That was where the Luck—"
"How hold ye Lorne?" Rupert's softly spoken question brought the well-remembered answer to Val's lips:
"By the oak leaf, by the sea wave, by the broadsword blade, thus hold we Lorne!"
"The oak leaf is dust," murmured Ricky, "the sea wave is gone, the broadsword is rust, how now hold ye Lorne?"
Her brothers answered her together:
"By our Luck, thus hold we Lorne!"
"And we've got to get it back," she said. "We've just got to! When the Luck hangs there again, we—"
"Won't have anything left to worry about," Val finished for her. "But that's a very big order, m'lady. Short of catching Rick's ghost and forcing him to disclose the place where he hid it, I don't see how we're going to do it."
"But we are going to," she answered confidently. "I know we are!"
"A good thing," Rupert broke in, a hint of soberness beneath the lightness of his tone as he looked about the almost bare room and then at the strained pallor of Val's thin face. "The Ralestones have been luckless too long. And now suppose we take possession of this commodious mansion. I suggest that we get settled as soon as possible. I don't like the looks of the western sky. We're probably going to have a storm."
"What about the car?" Val asked as his brother turned to go.
"Harrison used the old carriage house as a garage. I'll run it in there. You and Ricky better do a spot of exploring and see about beds and food. I don't know how you feel," he went on grimly, "but after last night I want something softer than a dozen rocks to sleep on."
"I told you not to stop at that tourist place," began Ricky smugly. "I said—"
"You said that a house painted that shade of green made you slightly ill. But you didn't say anything about beds," Val reminded her as he shed his coat and hung it on the newel-post. "And since the Ralestone family have definitely gone off the gold or any other monetary standard, it's tourist rests or the poorhouse for us."
"Probably the poorhouse." Rupert sounded resigned. "Now upstairs with you and get out some bedding. LeFleur said in his letter that the place was all ready for occupancy. And he stocked up with canned stuff."
"I know—beans! Just too, too divine. Well, let's know the worst." Ricky started up the stairs. "I suppose there are electric lights?"
"Got to throw the main switch first, and I haven't time to do that now. Here, Val." Rupert tossed him his tiny pocket torch as he turned to go. The door closed behind him and Ricky looked over her shoulder.
"This—this is rather a darkish place, isn't it?"
"Not so bad." Val considered the hall below, which seemed suddenly peopled by an overabundance of oddly shaped shadows.
"No," her voice grew stronger, "not so bad. We're together anyway, Val. Last year I thought I'd die, shut up in that awful school, and then coming home to hear—"
"About me making my first and last flight. Yes, not exactly a rest cure for any of us, was it? But it's all over now. The Ralestones may be down but they're not out, yet, in spite of Mosile Oil and those coal-mines. D'you know, we might use some of that nice gilt-edged stock for wall-paper. There's enough to cover a closet at least. Here we are, Rupert from beating about the globe trying to be a newspaper man, you straight from N'York's finest finishing-school, and me—well, out of the plainest hospital bed I ever saw. We've got this house and what Rupert managed to clear from the wreck. Something will turn up. In the meantime—"
"Yes?" she prompted.
"In the meantime," he went on, leaning against the banister for a moment's rest, "we can be looking for the Luck. As Rupert says, we need it badly enough. Here's the upper hall. Which way now?"
"Over to the left wing. These in front are what Rupert refers to as 'state bedrooms.'"
"Yes?" He opened the nearest door and whistled softly. "Not so bad. About the size of a small union station and provided with all the comforts of a tomb. Decidedly not what we want."
"Wait, here's a plaque set in the wall. Look!" She ran her finger over a glass-covered square.
"Regulations for guests, or a floor plan to show how to reach the dining-room in the quickest way," her brother suggested.
"No." She read aloud slowly:
"'This Room Was Occupied by General Andrew Jackson, the Victor of the Battle of New Orleans, upon the Tenth Day after the Battle.'"
"Whew! 'Old Hickory' here! But I thought that the Ralestones were more or less under a cloud at that time," commented Val.
"In the making. Quite so. Now may I suggest that we find some slumber rooms slightly more modern? Rupert is apt to become annoyed at undue delay in such matters."
They went down the hall and turned into a short cross corridor. From a round window at the far end a ray of sun still swept in, but it was a sickly, faded ray. The storm Rupert had spoken of could not be far off.
"This is the right way. Mr. Harrison had these little numbers put on the doors for his guests," Ricky pointed out. "I'll take 'three'; that was marked on the plan he sent us as a lady's room. You take that one across the hall and let Rupert have the one next to you."
The rooms they explored were not as imposing as the one which had sheltered Andrew Jackson for a night. Furnished with chintz-covered chairs, solid mahogany bedsteads and highboys, they were pleasant enough even if they weren't chambers to make an antique dealer "Oh!" and "Ah!" Val discovered with approval some stiff prints of mathematically correct clippers hung in exact patterns on his walls, while Ricky's room held one treasure, a dainty dressing-table.
A small door near the end of the hall gave upon a linen closet. And Ricky, throwing her short white jacket and hat upon the chair in her room, set about making beds, having given Val strict orders to return to the lower hall and sort out the luggage before bringing it up.
As he reached the wide landing he stopped a moment. Since that winter night, almost a year in the past, when a passenger plane had decided—in spite of its pilot—to make a landing on a mountainside, he had learned to hobble where he had once run. The accident having made his right leg a rather accurate barometer, that crooked bone was announcing the arrival of the coming storm with a sharp pain or two which shot unexpectedly from knee to ankle. One such caught him as he was about to take a step and threw him suddenly off balance.
He clutched at a dim tapestry which hung across the wall and tumbled through a slit in the fabric—which smelled of dust and moth balls—into a tiny alcove flanking a broad, well-cushioned window-seat under tall windows. Below him in a riot of bushes and hedges run wild, lay the garden. Somewhere beyond must lie Bayou Mercier leading directly to Lake Borgne and so to the sea, the thoroughfare used by their pirate ancestors when they brought home their spoil.
The green of the rank growth below, thought Val, seemed intensified by the strange yellowish light. A moss-grown path led straight into the heart of a jungle where sweet olive, banana trees, and palms grew in a matted mass. Harrison might have done wonders for the house but he had allowed the garden to lapse into a wilderness.
"Coming!" he shouted and pushed back through the curtain. He could hear Rupert moving about the lower hall.
"Just made it in time," he said as the younger Ralestone limped down to join him. "Hear that?"
A steady pattering outside was growing into a wild dash of wind-driven rain. It was dark and Rupert himself was but a blur moving across the hall.
"Do you still have the flash? Might as well descend into the lower regions and put on the lights."
They crossed the Long Hall, passing through another large chamber where furniture huddled under dust covers, and then into a small cupboard-lined passage. This gave upon a dark cavern where Val's hand scraped a table top only too painfully as he went. Then Rupert found the door leading to the cellar, and they went down and down into inky blackness upon which their thread of torch-light made little impression.
The damp, unpleasant scent of mold and wet grew stronger as they descended, and their fingers brushed slime-touched walls.
"Phew! Not very comfy down here," Val protested as Rupert threw the torch beam along the nearest wall. With a grunt of relief he stepped forward to pull open the door of a small black box. "That does it," he said as he threw the switch. "Now for the topside again and some supper."
They negotiated the steps and found the button which controlled the kitchen lights. The glare showed them a room on the mammoth scale suggested by the Long Hall. A giant fireplace still equipped with three-legged pots, toasting irons, and spits was at one side, its brick oven beside it. But a very modern range and sink faced it.
In the center of the room was a large table, while along the far wall were closed cupboards. Save for its size and the novelty of the fireplace, it was an ordinary kitchen, complete to red-checked curtains at the windows. Pleasant and homey, Val thought rather wistfully. But that was before the coming of that night when Ricky walked in the garden and he heard something stir in the Long Hall—which should have been empty—
"Val! Rupert!" A cry which started valiantly became a wail as it echoed through empty rooms. "Where are yo-o-ou!"
"Here, in the kitchen," Val shouted back.
A moment later Ricky stood in the doorway, her face flushed and her usually correct curls all on end.
"Mean, selfish, utterly selfish pigs!" she burst out. "Leaving me all alone in the dark! And it's so dark!"
"We just went down to turn on the lights," Val began.
"So I see." With a sniff she looked about her. "It took two of you to do that. But it only required one of me to make three beds. Well, this is a warning to me. Next time—" she did not finish her threat. "I suppose you want some supper?"
Rupert was already at the cupboards. "That," he agreed, "is the general idea."
"Beans or—" Ricky's hand closed upon Val's arm with a nipper-like grip. "What," her voice was a thin thread of sound, "was that?"
Above the steady beat of the rain they heard a noise which was half scratch, half thud. Under Rupert's hand the latch of the cupboard clicked.
"Back door," he said laconically.
"Well, why don't you open it?" Ricky's fingers bit tighter so that Val longed to twist out of her grip.
The key grated in the lock and then Rupert shot back the accompanying bolt.
"Something's there," breathed Ricky.
"Probably nothing but a branch blown against the door by the wind," Val assured her, remembering the tangled state of the garden.
The door came back, letting in a douche of cold rain and a black shadow which leaped for the security of the center of the room.
"Look!" Ricky laughed unsteadily and released Val's arm.
In the center of the neat kitchen, spitting angrily at the wet, stood a ruffled and oversized black tom-cat.
THE LUCK OF THE LORDS OF LORNE
"Nice of you to drop in, old man," commented Rupert dryly as he shut the door. "But didn't anyone ever mention to you that gentlemen wipe their feet before entering strange houses?" He surveyed a line of wet paw prints across the brick floor.
"Did he get all wet, the poor little—" Ricky was on her knees, stretching out her hand and positively cooing. The cat put down the paw he had been licking and regarded her calmly out of round, yellow eyes. Then he returned to his washing. Val laughed.
"Evidently he is used to the strong, silent type of human, Ricky. I wonder where he belongs."
"He belongs to us now. Yes him does, doesn't him?" She attempted to touch the visitor's head. His ears went back and he showed sharp teeth in no uncertain manner.
"Better let him alone," advised Rupert. "He doesn't seem to be the kind you can cuddle."
"So I see." Ricky arose to her feet with an offended air. "One would think that I resembled the more repulsive members of my race."
"In the meantime," Rupert again sought the cupboard, "let's eat."
Half an hour later, fed and well content (even Satan, as the Ralestones had named their visitor because of his temperament, having condescended to accept some of the better-done bits of bacon), they sat about the table staring at the dishes. Now it is a very well-known fact that dishes do not obligingly leap from a table into a pan of well-soaped water, slosh themselves around a few times, and jump out to do a spot of brisk rubbing down. But how nice it would be if they did, thought Val.
"The dishes—" began Ricky in a faint sort of way.
"Must be done. We gather that. How utterly nasty bacon grease looks when it's congealed." Her younger brother surveyed the platter before him with mournful interest.
"And the question before the house is, I presume, who's going to wash them?" Rupert grinned. "This seems to be as good a time as any to put some sort of a working plan in force. There is a certain amount of so-called housework which has to be done. And there are three of us to do it. It's up to us to apportion it fairly. Shall we say, let everyone care for his or her own room—"
"There are also the little matters of washing, and ironing, and cleaning," Ricky broke in to remind him.
"And we're down to fifty a month in hard cash. But the tenant farmer on the other side of the bayou is to supply us with fresh fruit and vegetables. And our wardrobes are fairly intact. So I think that we can afford to hire the washing done. We'll take turns cooking—"
"Who's elected to do the poisoning first?" Val inquired with interest. "I trust we possess a good cook-book?"
"Well, I'll take breakfast tomorrow morning," Rupert volunteered. "Anyone can boil coffee and toast bread. As for dishes, we'll all pitch in together. And suppose we start right now."
When the dishes were back again in their neat piles on the cupboard shelves, Ricky vanished upstairs, to come trailing down again in a house-coat which she fondly imagined made her look like one of the better-known screen sirens. The family gathered in an aimless way before the empty fireplace of the Long Hall. Rupert was filling a black pipe which allowed him to resemble—in very slight degree, decided Val—an explorer in an English tobacco advertisement. Val himself was stretched full length on the couch with about ten pounds of cat attempting to rest on his center section in spite of his firm refusal to allow the same.
"Br-r-r!" Ricky shivered. "It's cold in here."
"Probably just Uncle Rick passing through—not the weather. No, cat, you may not sit on that stomach. It's just as full of bacon as yours is and it wants a nice long rest." Val swept Satan off to the floor and he resignedly went to roost by the boy's feet in spite of the beguiling noises Ricky made to attract his attention.
"These stone houses are cold." Rupert scratched a match on the sole of his shoe. "We ought to have flooring put down over this stone paving. I saw some wood stacked up in an outhouse when I put the car away. We'll have it in tomorrow and see what we can do about a fire in the evening."
"And I thought the South was always warm." Ricky examined her hands. "Whoever," she remarked pleasantly, "took my hand lotion better return it. The consequences might not be very attractive."
"Are you sure you packed it this morning?" Val asked.
"But of—" Her fingers went to her mouth. "I wonder if I did? I've just got to have some. We'll drive to town tomorrow and get a bottle."
"Thirty miles or so for a ten-cent bottle of gooey stuff," Val protested.
"Good idea." Rupert stood with his back to the fireplace as if there really were a flame or two within its black emptiness. "I've some papers that LeFleur wants to see. Then there're our boxes at the freight station to arrange transportation for, and we'll have to see about getting a newspaper and—"
"Make a list," murmured his brother.
Rupert dropped down upon the wide arm of Ricky's chair and with her only too willing aid set to work. Val eyed them drowsily. Rupert and Ricky—or to give her her very formal name in full—Richanda Anne, were "Red" Ralestones, possessing the thin, three-cornered faces, the dark mahogany hair, the sharply defined cheek-bones which had been the mark of the family as far back in history as portraits or written descriptions existed. The "Red" Ralestones were marked also by height and a suppleness of body and movement. The men had been fine swordsmen, the ladies noted beauties. But they were also cursed, Val remembered vividly, with uncertain tempers.
Rupert had schooled himself to the point where his emotions were mastered by his will. But Val had seen Ricky enjoy full tantrums, and the last occasion was not so long ago that the scene had become misty in his memory. Generous to the point of self-beggary, loyal to a fault, and incurably romantic, that was a "Red" Ralestone.
Val himself was a "Black" Ralestone, which was a very different thing. They were a new growth on the family tree, a growth which appeared after the Ralestones had been exiled to colonial America. His black hair, his long, dark face of no particular beauty marked with straight, black brows set in a perpetual frown—that was the sign of a "Black" Ralestone. They were as strong-willed as the "Reds," but their anger could be controlled to icy rage.
"Now that you have spent the monthly income," Val suggested as Rupert added up a long column of minute figures scrawled across the first page of his pocket note-book, "let's really get away from economics for one evening. The surroundings suggest something more romantic than dollars and cents. After all, when did a pirate ever show a saving disposition? Would the first Roderick—"
"The Roderick who brought home the Luck?" Ricky laughed. "But he brought home a fortune, too, didn't he, Rupert?"
Her brother relit his pipe. "Yes, but a great many lords came home from the Crusades with their pockets filled. Sir Roderick de la Stone thought the Luck worth his entire estate even after he was made Baron Ralestone."
Ricky shivered delicately. "Not altogether nice people, those ancestors of ours," she observed.
"No," Val grinned. "By rights this room should be full of ghosts instead of the beat of just one. How many Ralestones died violently? Seven or eight, wasn't it?"
"But the ones who died in England should haunt Lorne," argued Ricky, half seriously.
"Well then, that sort of confines us to the crews of the ships our great-great-great-grandfather scuttled," her brother replied.
"Rupert," Ricky turned and asked impulsively, "do you really believe in the Luck?"
Rupert looked up at the empty niche. "I don't know—No, I don't. Not the way that Roderick and Richard and all the rest did. But something that has seven hundred years of history behind it—that means a lot."
"'Then did he take up ye sword fashioned by ye devilish art of ye East from two fine blades found in ye tomb,'" Val quoted from the record of Brother Anselm, the friar who had accompanied Sir Roderick on his crusading. "Do you suppose that that part's true? Could the Luck have been made from two other swords found in an old tomb?"
"Not impossible. The Saracens were master metal workers. Look at the Damascus blades."
"It all sounds like a fairy-tale," commented Ricky. "A sword with magic powers beaten out of two other swords found in a tomb. And the whole thing done under the direction of an Arab astrologer."
"You've got to admit," broke in Val, "that Sir Roderick had luck after it was given to him. He came home a wealthy man and he died a Baron. And his descendants even survived the Wars of the Roses when four-fifths of the great English families were wiped out."
"'And fortune continued to smile,'" Rupert took up the story, "'until a certain wild Miles Ralestone staked the Luck of his house on the turn of a card—and lost.'"
"O-o-oh!" Ricky squirmed forward in her chair. "Now comes the pirate. Tell us that, Rupert."
"You know the story by heart now," he objected.
"We never heard it here, where some of it really happened. Tell it, please, Rupert!"
"In your second childhood?" he asked.
"Not out of my first yet," she answered promptly. "Pretty please, Rupert."
"Miles Ralestone, Marquess of Lorne," he began, "rode with Prince Rupert of the Rhine. He was a notorious gambler, a loose liver, and a cynic. And he even threw the family Luck across the gaming table."
"'The Luck went from him who did it no honor,'" Val repeated slowly. "I read that in that old letter among your papers, Rupert."
"Yes, the Luck went from him. He survived Marston Moor; he survived the death of his royal master, Charles the First, on the scaffold. He lived long enough to witness the return of the Stuarts to England. But the Luck was gone, and with it the good fortune of his line. Rupert, his son, was but a penniless hanger-on at the royal court; the manor of Lorne a fire-gutted wreckage.
"Rupert followed James Stuart from England when that monarch became a fugitive to escape the wrath of his subjects. And the Marquess of Lorne sank to the role of pot-house bully in the back lanes of Paris."
"And then?" prompted Val.
"And then a miracle occurred. Rupert was employed by his master on a secret mission to London, and there the Luck came again into his hands. Perhaps by murder. But he died miserably enough of a heavy cold got by lying in a ditch to escape Dutch William's soldiers."
"'So is this perilous Luck come again into our hands. Then did I persevere to mend the fortunes of my house.' That's what Rupert's son Richard wrote about the Luck," Ricky recalled. "Richard, the first pirate."
"He did a good job of fortune mending," commented Val dryly. "Married one of the wealthiest of the French king's wards and sailed for the French West Indies all in a fortnight. Turned pirate with the approval of the French and took to lifting the cargoes of other pirates."
"I'll bet that most of his success was due to the Lady Richanda," observed Ricky. "She sailed with him dressed in man's clothes. Remember that miniature of her that we saw in New York, the one in the museum? All the 'Black' Ralestones are supposed to look like her. Hear that, Val?"
"At least it was the Lady Richanda who persuaded her husband to settle ashore," said Rupert. "She was personally acquainted with Bienville and Iberville who were proposing to rule the Mississippi valley for France by building a city near the mouth of the river. And 'Black Dick,' the pirate, obtained a grant of land lying along Lake Borgne and this bayou. Although the city was not begun until 1724, this house was started in 1710 by workmen imported from England.
"The house of an exile," Rupert continued slowly. "Richard Ralestone was born in England, but he left there in his tenth year. In spite of the price on his head, he crept back to Devon in 1709 to see Lorne for the last time. And it was from the rude sketches he made of ruined Lorne that Pirate's Haven was planned."
"Why, we saw those sketches!" Ricky's eyes shone with excitement. "Do you remember, Val?"
Her brother nodded. "Must have cost him plenty to do it," he replied. "Richard had an immense personal fortune of his own gained from piracy, and he spared no expense in building. The larger part of the stone in these walls was brought straight from Europe, just as they later brought the paving blocks for the streets of New Orleans. When he had done—and the place was five years a-building because of Indian troubles and other disturbances—he settled down to live in feudal state. Some of his former seamen rallied around him as a guard, and he imported blacks from the islands to work his indigo fields.
"The family continued to prosper through both French and Spanish domination until the time of American rule."
"Now for Uncle Rick." Ricky settled herself with a wriggle. "This is even more exciting than Pirate Dick."
"In the year 1788, the time of the great fire which destroyed over half of New Orleans, twin boys were born at Pirate's Haven. They came into their heritage early, for their parents died of yellow fever when the twins were still small children.
"Those were restless times. New Orleans was full of refugees. From Haiti, where the revolting blacks were holding a reign of terror, and from France, where to be a noble was to be a dead one, came hundreds. Even members of the royal house, the Duc d'Orleans and his brother, the Duc de Montpensier, came for a space in 1798.
"The city had always been more or less lawless and intolerant of control. Like the New Englanders of the eighteenth century, many respected merchants were also smugglers."
"And pirates," suggested Val.
"The king of smugglers was Jean Lafitte. His forge—where his slaves shaped the wrought-iron which was one of the wonders of the city—was a fashionable meeting-place for the young bloods. He was the height of wit and fashion—daring openly to placard the walls of the town with his notices of smugglers' sales.
"And Roderick Ralestone, the younger of the twins, became one of Lafitte's men. In spite of the remonstrances of his brother Richard, young Rick withdrew to Barataria with Dominque You and the rest of the outlawed captains.
"In the winter of 1814 matters came to a head. Richard wanted to marry an American girl, the daughter of one of Governor Claiborne's friends. Her father told him very pointedly that since the owners of Pirate's Haven seemed to be indulging in law breaking, such a marriage was out of the question. Aroused, Richard made a secret inspection of certain underground storehouses which had been built by his pirate great-grandfather and discovered that Rick had put them in use again for the very same purpose for which they had been first intended—the storing of loot.
"He waited there for his brother, determined to have it decided once and for all. They quarreled bitterly. Both were young, both had bad tempers, and each saw his side as the right of the matter—"
"Regular Ralestones, weren't they?" commented Val slyly.
"Undoubtedly," agreed Rupert. "Well, at last Richard started for the house, his brother in pursuit.
"Then they fought, here in this very hall. And not with words this time, but with the rapiers Richard had brought back from France. A slave named Falesse, who had been the twins' childhood nurse, was the only witness to the end of that duel. Richard lay face down across the hearth-stone as she came screaming down the stairs."
Ricky was studying the gray stone.
"By rights," Val agreed with her unspoken thought, "there ought to be a stain there. Unfortunately for romance, there isn't."
"Rick was standing by the door," Rupert continued. "When Falesse reached his brother, he laughed unsteadily and half raised his sword in a duelist's salute. Then he was gone. But there were two swords on the floor. And that niche was empty.
"When he fled into the night storm with his brother's blood staining his hands, Rick Ralestone took the Luck of his house with him.
"After almost a year of invalidism, Richard recovered. He never married his American beauty. But in 1819 he took a wife, a young Creole lady widowed by the Battle of New Orleans. Of Rick nothing was heard again, although his brother searched diligently for more than thirty years."
"How," Val grinned at his brother, "did Richard explain the little matter of the ghost which is supposed to walk at night?"
"I don't know. But when the Civil War broke out, Richard's son Miles was the master of Pirate's Haven. The once-great fortune of the family had shrunk. Business losses in the city, floods, a disaster at sea, had emptied the family purse—"
"The Luck getting in its dirty work by remote control," supplied the irrepressible Val.
"Perhaps. Young Miles had married in his teens, and the call to the Confederate colors brought both his twin sons under arms as well as their father.
"Miles, the father, fell in the First Battle of Bull Run. But Miles, the son and elder of the twins, a lieutenant of cavalry, came out of the war the only surviving male of his family.
"His brother Richard had been wounded and was home on sick leave when the Northerners occupied New Orleans. Betrayed by one of his former slaves, a mulatto who bore a grudge against the family, he was murdered by a gang of bullies and cutthroats who had followed the invading army.
"Richard had been warned of their raid and had managed to hide the family valuables in a secret place—somewhere within this very hall, according to tradition."
Val and Ricky sat up and looked about with wondering interest.
"But Richard was shot down in cold blood when he refused to reveal the hiding-place. His brother and some scouts, operating south without orders, arrived just in time to witness the last act. Miles Ralestone and his men summarily shot the murderers. But where Richard had so carefully concealed the last of the family treasure was never discovered.
"The war beggared the Ralestones. Miles went north in search of better luck, and this place was allowed to molder until it was leased in 1879 to a sugar baron. In 1895 it was turned over to a family distantly connected with ours. And since then it has been leased. We have had in all four tenants."
"But," Ricky broke in, "since the Luck went we have not prospered. And until it returns—"
Rupert tapped out his pipe against one of the fire irons. "It's nothing but a folk-tale," he told her.
"It isn't!" Ricky contradicted him vehemently. "And we've made a good beginning anyway. We've come back."
"If Rick took the Luck with him, I don't see how we have an earthly chance of finding it again," Val commented.
"It came back once before after it had gone from us," reminded his sister. "And I think that it will again. At least I'll hope so."
"Outside of the superstition, it would be well worth having. The names of the heads and heirs of the house are all engraved along the blade, from Sir Roderick on down. Seven hundred years of history scratched on steel." Rupert stretched and then glanced at his wrist-watch. "Ten to ten, and we've had a long day. Who's for bed?"
"I am, for one." Val swung his feet down from the couch, disturbing Satan who opened one yellow eye lazily.
Ricky stood by the fireplace fingering the wreath of stiff flowers carved in the stone. Val took her by the arm.
"No use wondering which one you push to reveal the treasure," he told her.
She looked up startled. "How did you know what I was thinking about?" she demanded.
"My lady, your thoughts, like little white birds—"
"Oh, go to bed, Val. When you get poetical I know you need sleep. Just the same," she hesitated with one foot on the first tread of the stair, "I wonder."
THE RALESTONES ENTERTAIN AN UNOBTRUSIVE VISITOR
Val lay trapped in an underground cavern, chained to the floor. An unseen monster was creeping up his prostrate body. He could feel its hot breath on his cheek. With a mighty effort he broke his bonds and threw out his arms in an attempt to fight off his tormentor.
The morning sun was warm across his pillow, making him blink. On his chest stood Satan, kneading the bedclothes with his front paws and purring gently. From the open window came a fresh, rain-washed breeze.
Having aroused the sleeper, Satan deserted his post to hang half-way out the window, intent upon the housekeeping arrangements of several birds who had built in the hedges below. A moment later Val elbowed him aside to look out upon the morning.
It was a fine one. Wisps of mist from the bayou still hung about the lower garden, but the sun had already dried the brick-paved paths. A bee blundered past Val's nose, and he realized that it might be well to close the screen hanging shutter-like outside.
From the direction of the hidden water came the faint putt-putt of a motor-boat, but inside Pirate's Haven there was utter silence. As yet the rest of the family were not abroad. Val dropped his pajamas in a huddle by the bed and dressed leisurely, feeling very much at peace with this new world. Perhaps that was the last time he was to feel so for many days to come. He stole cautiously out of his room and tiptoed down halls and dark stairs, wanting to be alone while he discovered Pirate's Haven for himself.
The Long Hall looked chilly and bleak, even though patches of sunlight were fighting the usual gloom. On the hearth-stone lay a scrap of white, doubtless Ricky's handkerchief. Val flung open the front door and stepped out on the terrace, drawing deep lungfuls of the morning air. The blossoms on the morning-glory vines which wreathed the edge of the terrace were open to the sun, and the birds sang in the bushes below. Satan streaked by and disappeared into the tangle. It was suddenly very good to be alive. The boy stretched luxuriously and started to explore, choosing the nearest of the crazy, wandering paths which began at the circle of the old carriage drive.
Here was evidence of last night's storm. Wisps of Spanish moss, torn from the great live-oaks of the avenue and looking like tufts of coarse gray horsehair, lay in water-logged mats here and there. And in the open places, the grass, beaten flat, was just beginning to rise again.
A rabbit scuttled across the path as it went down four steps of broken stone into a sort of glen. Here some early owner of the plantation had made an irregular pool of stone to be fed by the trickle of a tiny spring. Frogs the size of postage-stamps leaped panic-stricken for the water when Val's shadow fell across its rim. A leaden statue of the boy Pan danced joyously on a pedestal above. Ricky would love this, thought her brother as he dabbled his fingers in the chill water trying to catch the stem of the single lily bud.
Out of nowhere came a turtle to slide into the depths of the pool. The sun was very warm across Val's bowed shoulders. He liked the garden, liked the plantation, even liked the circumstances which had brought them there. Lazily he arose and turned.
By the steps down which he had come stood a slight figure in a faded flannel shirt and mud-streaked overalls. His bare brown feet gripped the stones as if to get purchase for instant flight.
"Hello," Val said questioningly.
The new-comer eyed young Ralestone warily and then his gaze shifted to the bushes beyond.
"I'm Val Ralestone." Val held out his hand. To his astonishment the stranger's mobile lips twisted in a snarl and he edged crabwise toward the bushes bordering the glen.
"Who are you?" Val demanded sharply.
"Ah has got as much right heah as yo' all," the boy answered angrily. And with that he turned and slipped into a path at the far end of the glen.
Aroused, Val hurried after him to reach the bayou levee. The quarry was already in midstream, wielding an efficient canoe paddle. On impulse Val shouted after him, but he never turned. A rifle lay across his knees and there were some rusty traps in the bottom of the flimsy canoe. Then Val remembered that Pirate's Haven lay upon the fringe of the muskrat swamps where Cajun and American squatters still carried on the fur trade of their ancestors.
But as Val stood speeding the departure of the uninvited guest, another canoe put off from the opposite shore of the bayou and came swinging across toward the rough wooden landing which served the plantation. A round brown face grinned up at Val as a powerful negro clambered ashore.
"Is dey up at de big house now?" he asked cheerily as he came up.
"If you mean the Ralestones, why, we got here last night," Val answered.
"Yo'all is Mistuh Ralestone, suh?" He took off his wide-brimmed straw hat and twisted it in his oversized hands.
"I'm Valerius Ralestone. My brother Rupert is the owner."
"Well, Mistuh Ralestone, suh, I'se yo'all's fahmah from 'cross wata. Mistuh LeFleah, he says dat yo'all is come to live heah agin. So mah woman, she says dat Ah should see if yo'all is heah yet and does yo'all want anythin'. Lucy, she's bin a-livin' heah, dat is, her mammy and pappy and her pappy's mammy and pappy has bin heah since befo' old Massa Ralestone done gone 'way. So Lucy, she jest nachely am oneasy 'bout yo'all not gettin' things comfo'ble."
"That is kind of her," Val answered heartily. "My brother said something last night about wanting to see you today, so if you'll come up to the house—"
"I'se Sam, Mistuh Ralestone, suh. Ah done work heah quite a spell now."
"By the way," Val asked as they went up toward the house, "did you see that boy in the canoe going downstream as you crossed? I found him in the garden and the only answer he would give to my questions was that he had as much right there as I had. Who is he?"
The wide smile faded from Sam's face. "Mistuh Ralestone, suh, effen dat no-'count trash comes 'round heah agin, yo'all bettah jest call de policemans. Dey's nothin' but poah white trash livin' down in de swamp places an' dey steals whatevah dey kin lay han' on. Was dis boy big like yo'all, wi' black hair an' a thin face?"
"Dat's de Jeems boy. He ain't got no mammy nor pappy. He lives jest like de wil' man wi' a li'l huntin' an' a big lot stealin'. He talk big. Say he belongs in de big house, not wi' swamp folks. But jest yo'all pay no 'tenshun to him nohow."
"Val! Val Ralestone! Where are you?" Ricky's voice sounded clear through the morning air.
"Coming!" he shouted back.
"Well, make it snappy!" she shrilled. "The toast has been burnt twice and—" But what further catastrophe had occurred her brother could not hear.
"Yo'all wants to git to de back do', Mistuh Ralestone, suh? Dere's a sho't-cut 'cross dis-a-way." Sam turned into a side path and Val followed.
Ricky was at the stove gingerly shifting a coffee-pot as her brother stepped into the kitchen. "Well," she snapped as he entered, "it's about time you were showing up. I've simply cracked my voice trying to call you, and Rupert's been talking about having the bayou dragged or something of the kind. Where have you been, anyway?"
"Getting acquainted with our neighbors. Ricky," he called her attention to the smiling face just outside the door, "this is Sam. He runs the home farm for us. And his wife is a descendant of the Ralestone house folks."
"Yassuh, dat's right. We's Ralestone folks, Miss 'Chanda. Mah Lucy done sen' me ovah to fin' out what yo'all is a-needin' done 'bout de place. She was in yisteday afo' yo'all come an' seed to de dustin' an' sich—"
"So that's why everything was so clean! That was nice of her—"
"Yo'all is Ralestones, Miss 'Chanda. An' Lucy say dat de Ralestones am a-goin' to fin' dis place jest ready for dem when dey come." He beamed upon them proudly. "Lucy, she am a-goin' be heah jest as soon as she gits de chillens set for de day. I'se come fust so's Ah kin see wat Mistuh Ralestone done wan' done wi dem rivah fiel's—"
"Where is Rupert?" Val broke in.
"Went out to see about the car. The storm last night wrecked the door of the carriage house—"
"Zat so?" Sam's eyes went round. "Den Ah bettah be a-gittin' out an' see 'bout it. 'Scuse me, suh. 'Scuse me, Miss 'Chanda." With a jerk of his head he left them. Val turned to Ricky.
"We seem to have fallen into good hands."
"It's my guess that his Lucy is a manager. He just does what she tells him to. I wonder how he knew my name?"
"LeFleur probably told them all about us."
"Isn't it odd—" she turned off the gas, "'Ralestone folks.'"
"Loyalty to the Big House," her brother answered slowly. "I never thought that it really existed out of books."
"It makes me feel positively feudal. Val, I was born about a hundred years too late. I'd like to have been the mistress here when I could have ridden out in a victoria behind two matched bays, with a coachman and a footman up in front and my maid on the little seat facing me."
"And with a Dalmatian coach-hound running behind and at least three-fourths of the young bloods of the neighborhood as a mounted escort. I know. But those days are gone forever. Which leads me to another subject. What are we going to do today?"
"The dishes, for one thing," Ricky began ticking the items off on her fingers, "and then the beds. This afternoon Rupert wants us—that is, you and me—to drive to town and do some errands."
"Oh, yes, the list you two made out last night. Well, now that that's all settled, suppose we have some breakfast. Has Rupert been fed or is he thinking of going on a diet?"
"He'll be in—"
"Said she with perfect faith. All of which does not satisfy the pangs of hunger."
"If you are using that sickening name to refer to Satan—he's out—hunting, probably. The last I saw of him he was shooting head first for a sort of bird apartment house over to the left of the front door. Here's Rupert. Now maybe we may eat."
"I've got something to tell you," hissed Ricky as the missing member of the clan banged the screen door behind him. Having so aroused Val's curiosity, she demurely went around the table to pour the coffee.
"How's the carriage house?" Val asked.
"Sam thinks he can fix it with some of that lumber piled out back of the old smoke-house." Rupert reached for a piece of toast. "What do you think of our family retainer?"
"Seems a good chap."
"LeFleur says one of the best. Possesses a spark of ambition and is really trying to make a go of the farm, which is more than most of them do around here. His wife, by all accounts, is a wonder. Used to be the cook-housekeeper here when the Rafaels had the place. LeFleur still talks about the two meals he ate here then. Sam tells me that she is planning to take us in hand."
"But we can't afford—" began Ricky.
"I gathered that money does not come into the question. The lady is rather strong-willed. So, Ricky," he laughed, "we'll leave you two to fight it out. But Lucy may be able to find us a laundress."
"Which reminds me," Ricky took a crumpled piece of white cloth from her pocket, "if this is yours, Rupert, you deserve to do your own washing. I don't know what you've got on it; looks like oil."
He took it from her and straightened out a handkerchief.
"Not guilty this time. Ask little brother here." He passed over the dirty linen square. It was plain white—or it had been white before three large black splotches had colored it—without an initial or colored edge.
"I think he's prevaricating, Ricky," Val protested. "This isn't mine. I'm down to one thin dozen and those are the ones you gave me last Christmas. They have my initials on."
Ricky took back the disputed square. "That's funny. It certainly isn't mine. I'm sure one of you must be mistaken."
"Why?" asked Rupert.
"Because I found it on the hearth-stone in the hall this morning. It wasn't there last night or one of us would have seen it and picked it up, 'cause it was right there in plain sight."
"Sure it isn't yours, Val?"
He shook his head. "Positive."
"Queer," murmured Rupert and reached for it again. "It's a good quality of linen and it's almost new." He held it to his nose. "That's oil on it. But how—?"
"I wonder—" Val mused.
"What do you know?" asked Ricky.
"Well—Oh, it isn't possible. He wouldn't carry a handkerchief," her brother said half to himself.
"Who wouldn't?" asked Rupert. Then Val told them of his meeting with the boy Jeems and what Sam had had to say of him.
"Don't know whether I exactly like this." Rupert folded the mysterious square of stained linen. "As you say, Val, a boy like that would hardly carry a handkerchief. Also, you met him in the garden, while—"
"The person who left that was in this house last night!" finished Ricky. "And I don't like that!"
"The door was locked and bolted when I came down this morning," Val observed.
Rupert nodded. "Yes, I distinctly remember doing that before I went up to bed last night. But when I was going around the house this morning I discovered that there are French doors opening from the old ball-room to the terrace, and I didn't inspect their fastening last night."
"But who would want to come in here? There are no valuables left except furniture. And it would take three or four men and a truck to collect that. I don't see what he was after," puzzled Ricky.
Rupert arose from the table. "We have, it seems, a mystery on our hands. If you want to amuse yourselves, my children, here's the first clue. I've got to get back to the carriage house and my labors there."
He dropped the handkerchief on the table and left. Ricky reached for the "clue." "Awfully casual about it, isn't he?" she said. "Just the same, I believe that this is a clue and I know what our visitor was after, too," she finished triumphantly.
"The treasure Richard Ralestone hid when the Yankee raiders came."
"Well, if our unknown visitor has as little in the way of clues as we have, he'll be a long time finding it."
"And we're going to beat him to it! It's somewhere in the Hall, and the secret—"
"See here," Val interrupted her, "what were you about to tell me when Rupert came in?"
She put the handkerchief in the breast pocket of her sport dress, buttoning the flap over it.
"Rupert's got a secret."
"It has to do with those two brief-cases of his. You know, the ones he was so particular about all the way down here?"
Val nodded. Those bulging brief-cases had apparently contained the dearest of his roving brother's possessions, judging from the way Rupert had fussed if they were a second out of his sight.
"This morning when I came downstairs," Ricky continued, "he was sneaking them into that little side room off the dining-room corridor, the one which used to be the old plantation office. And when he came out and saw me standing there, he deliberately turned around and locked the door!"
"Whew!" Val commented.
"Yes, I felt that way too. So I simply asked him what he was doing and he made some silly remark about Bluebeard's chamber. He means to keep his old secret, too, 'cause he put the key on his key-ring when he didn't know I was watching him."
"This is not the place for a rest cure," her brother observed as he started to scrape and stack the dishes. "First someone unknown leaves his handkerchief for a calling card and then Rupert goes Fu Manchu on us. To say nothing of the rugged and unfriendly son of the soil whom I found bumping around the garden where he had no business to be."
"What was he like anyway?" asked his sister as she dipped soap flakes into the dish-water with a liberal hand.
"Oh, thin, and awfully brown. But not bad looking if it weren't for his mouth and that scowl of his. And he very distinctly doesn't like us. About my build, but quicker on his feet, tough looking. I wouldn't care to try to stop him doing anything he wanted to do."
"My dear, are you describing Clark Gable or someone you met in our garden this morning?" she demanded sweetly.
"Very well," Val retorted huffily into the depths of the oatmeal pan he was wiping, "you catch him next time."
"I will," was her serene answer as she wrung out the dish-cloth.
They went on to the upstairs work and Val received his first lesson in the art of bed-making under his sister's extremely critical tuition. It seemed that corners must be square and that dreadful things were likely to happen when wrinkles were not smoothed out. This exercise led them naturally to unpacking the remainder of the hand baggage and putting things away. It was after ten before Val came downstairs crab-fashion, wiping off each step behind him as he came with one of Ricky's three dust-cloths.
He paused on the landing to pull back the tapestry curtain and open the windows above the alcove seat, letting in the freshness of the morning to rout some of the dank chill of the hall. Kneeling there, he watched Rupert come around the house. Rupert had shed his coat and his sleeves were rolled up almost to his shoulders. There was a streak of black across his cheek and a large rip almost separated the collar from his shirt. Although he looked hot, cross, and tired, more like a day-laborer than a gentleman plantation owner whose ancestors had always "planted from the saddle," his stride had a certain buoyancy which it had lacked the day before.
With an idea of escaping Ricky by joining his brother, Val hurried downstairs and headed kitchenward. But his sister was there before him looking over a collection of knives of various lengths.
"Preparing for a little murder or two?" Val asked casually.
She jumped and dropped a paring knife.
"Val, don't do that! I wish you'd whistle or something while you're walking around in those tennis shoes. I can't hear you move. I'm looking for something to cut flowers with. There don't seem to be any scissors except mine and I'm not going to use those."
"Take dat, Miss 'Chanda." A fat black hand motioned toward the paring knife.
Just within the kitchen door stood a wide, a very wide, Negro woman. Her neat print dress was stiff with starch from a recent washing, and round gold hoops swung proudly from her ears. Her black hair, straightened by main force of arm, had been set again in stiff, corrugated waves of extreme fashion, but her broad placid face was both kind and serene.
"I'se Lucy," she stated, thoroughly at her ease. "An' dis," she reached an arm behind her, pulling forth a girl at least ten shades lighter and thirty-five shades thinner, "is mah sistah's onliest gal-chil', Letty-Lou. Mak' yo' mannahs, Letty. Does yo' wan' Miss 'Chanda to think yo' is a know-nothin' outa de swamp?"
Thus sternly admonished, Letty-Lou ducked her head shyly and murmured something in a die-away voice.
"Letty-Lou," announced her aunt, "is com' to do fo' yo'all, Miss 'Chanda. I'se larn'd her good how to do fo' ladies. She is good at scrubbin' an' cleanin' an sich. Ah done train'd her mahse'f."
Letty-Lou looked at the floor and twisted her thin hands behind her back.
"But," protested Ricky, "we're not planning to have anyone do for us, Lucy."
"Dat's all right, Miss 'Chanda. Yo'all's not gittin' a know-nothin'. Letty-Lou, she knows her work. She kin cook right good."
"We can't take her," Val backed up Ricky. "You must understand, Lucy, that we don't have much money and we can't pay for—"
"Pay fo'!" Lucy's indignant sniff reduced him to his extremely unimportant place. "We's not talkin' 'bout pay workin', Mistuh Ralestone. Letty-Lou don' git no pay but her eatments. 'Co'se, effen Miss 'Chanda wanna give her some ole clo's now an' den, she kin tak' dem. Letty-Lou, she don' hav' to git her a pay-work job, her pappy mak's him a good livin'. But Miss 'Chanda ain' a-goin' to tak' keer dis big hous' all by herself wit' her lil' han's dere. We's Ralestone folks. Letty-Lou, yo' gits on youah ap'on an' gits to work."
"But we can't let her," Ricky raised her last protest.
"Miss 'Chanda, we's Ralestone folks. Mah gran' pappy Bob was own man to Massa Miles Ralestone. He fit in de wah longside o' Massa Miles. An' wen de wah was done finish'd, dem two com' home to-gethah. Den Massa Miles, he call mah gran'pappy in an' say, 'Bob, yo'all is free an' I'se a ruinated man. Heah is fiv' dollahs gol' money an' yo' kin hav' youah hoss.' An' Bob, he say, 'Cap'n Miles, dese heah Yankees done said I'se free but dey ain't done said dat I ain't a Ralestone man. W'at time does yo'all wan' breakfas' in de mornin'?' An' wen Massa Miles wen' no'th to mak' his fo'tune, he told Bob, 'Bob, I'se leavin' dis heah hous' in youah keer.' An', Miss 'Chanda, we done look aftah Pirate's Haven evah since, mah gran'pappy, mah pappy, Sam an' me."
Ricky held out her hand. "I'm sorry, Lucy. You see, we don't understand very well, we've been away so long."
Lucy touched Ricky's hand and then, for all her weight, bobbed a curtsy. "Dat's all right, Miss 'Chanda, yo' is ouah folks."
PISTOLS FOR TWO—COFFEE FOR ONE
Val braced himself against the back of the roadster's seat and struggled to hold the car to a road which was hardly more than a cart track. Twice since Ricky and he had left Pirate's Haven they had narrowly escaped being bogged in the mud which had worked up through the thin crust of gravel on the surface.
To the south lay the old cypress swamps, dark glens of rotting wood and sprawling vines. A spur of this unsavory no-man's land ran close along the road, and looking into it one could almost believe, fancied Val, in the legends told by the early French explorers concerning the giant monsters who were supposed to haunt the swamps and wild lands at the mouth of the Mississippi. He would not have been surprised to see a brontosaurus peeking coyly down at him from twenty feet or so of neck. It was just the sort of place any self-respecting brontosaurus would have wallowed in.
But at last they won free from that place of cold and dank odors. Passing through Chalmette, they struck the main highway. From then on it was simple enough. St. Bernard Highway led into St. Claude Avenue and that melted into North Rampart street, one of the boundaries of the old French city.
"Can't we go slower?" complained Ricky. "I'd like to see some of the city without getting a crick in my neck from looking over my shoulder. Watch out for St. Anne Street. That's one corner of Beauregarde Square, the old Congo Square—"
"Where the slaves used to dance on Sundays before the war. I know; I've read just as many guide-books as you have. But there is such a thing as obstructing traffic. Also we have about a million and one things to do this afternoon. We can explore later. Here we are; Bienville Avenue. No, I will not stop so that you can see that antique store. Six blocks to the right," Val reminded himself.
"Val, that was the Absinthe House we just passed!"
"Yes? Well, it would have been better for a certain ancestor of ours if he had passed it, too. That was Jean Lafitte's headquarters at one time. Exchange Street—the next is ours."
They turned into Chartres Street and pulled up in the next block at the corner of Iberville. A four-story house coated with grayish plaster, its windows framed with faded green shutters and its door painted the same misty color, confronted them. There was a tiny shop on the first floor.
A weathered sign over the door announced that Bonfils et Cie. did business within, behind the streaked and bluish glass of the small curved window-panes. But what business Bonfils and Company conducted was left entirely to the imagination of the passer-by. Val locked the roadster and took from Ricky the long legal-looking envelope which Rupert had given them to deliver to Mr. LeFleur.
Ricky was staring in a puzzled manner at the shop when her brother took her by the arm. "Are you sure that you have the right place? This doesn't look like an office to me."
"We have to go around to the courtyard entrance. LeFleur occupies the second floor."
A small wooden door, reinforced with hinges of hand-wrought iron, opened before them, making them free of a courtyard paved with flagstones. In the center a tall tree shaded the flower bed at its foot and threw shadows upon the first of the steps leading to the upper floors. The Ralestones frankly stared about them. This was the first house of the French Quarter they had seen, although their name might have admitted them to several closely guarded Creole strongholds. LeFleur's house followed a pattern common to the old city. The lower floor fronting on the street was in use only as a shop or store-room. In the early days each shopkeeper lived above his place of business and rented the third and fourth floors to aristocrats in from their plantations for the fashionable season.
A long, narrow ell ran back from the main part of the house to form one side of the courtyard. The ground floor of this contained the old slave quarters and kitchens, while the second was cut into bedrooms which had housed the young men of the family so that they could come and go at will without disturbing the more sedate members of the household. These small rooms were now in use as the offices of Mr. LeFleur. From the balcony, running along the ell, onto which each room opened, one could look down into the courtyard. It was on this balcony that the lawyer met them with outstretched hands after they had given their names to his dark, languid young clerk.
"But this is good of you!" Rene LeFleur beamed on them impartially. He was a small, plumpish, round-faced man in his early forties, who spoke in perpetual italics. His eyebrows, arched over-generously by Nature, gave him a look of never-ending astonishment at the world and all its works. But his genial smile was kindness itself. Unaccustomed as Val was to sudden enthusiasms, he found himself liking Rene LeFleur almost before his hand gripped Val's.
"Miss Ralestone, it is a pleasure, a very great pleasure, to see you here! And this," he turned to Val, "this must be that brother Valerius both you and Mr. Ralestone spoke so much of during our meeting in New York. You have safely recovered from that most unfortunate accident, Mr. Ralestone? But of course, your presence here is my answer. And how do you like Louisiana, Miss Ralestone?" His eyes behind his gold-rimmed eyeglasses sparkled as he tilted his head a fraction toward Ricky as if to hear the clearer.
"Well enough. Though we've seen very little of it yet, Mr. LeFleur."
"When you have seen Pirate's Haven," he replied, "you have seen much of Louisiana."
"But we're forgetting our manners!" exclaimed the girl. "We want to thank you for everything you've done for us. Rupert said to tell you that while he doesn't care for beans as a rule, the beans we found in our cupboard were very superior beans."
Mr. LeFleur hooted with laughter like a small boy. "He is droll, is that brother of yours. And has Sam been to see you?"
"Sam and—Lucy," answered Ricky with emphasis. "Lucy has decided to take us in hand. She has installed Letty-Lou over our protests."
The little lawyer nodded complacently. "Yes, Lucy will take care of you. She is a master housekeeper and cook—ah!" His eyes rolled upward. "And Mr. Ralestone, how is he?"
"All right. He's going over the farm with Sam this afternoon. We were sent in his place to give you the papers he spoke to you about."
At Ricky's answer, Val held out the envelope he had carried. To their joint surprise, LeFleur pounced upon it and withdrew to the window of the room into which he had conducted them. There he spread out the four sheets of yellowed paper which the envelope had contained.
"What were we carrying?" whispered Ricky. "Part of Rupert's deep, dark secret?"
"No," her brother hissed back, "those are the plans of the Patagonian fort which were stolen from the Russian Embassy last Thursday by the beautiful woman spy disguised with a long green beard. You know, the proper first chapter of an international espionage thriller. You are the dumb but beautiful newspaper reporter on the scent, and I—"
"The even dumber G-man who spends most of his time running three steps ahead of Fu Chew Chow and his gang of oriental demons. In the second chapter—"
But a glance at Mr. LeFleur's face as he turned away from the window put an end to their nonsense. Gone was his smile, his beaming good-will toward the world. He seemed a little tired, a trifle stooped. "Not here then," he said slowly to himself as he slipped the papers back into the envelope.
"Mr. Valerius," he looked up at the boy very seriously, "the LeFleurs have served the Ralestones, acting as their men of business, for over a hundred years. We owe your family a great debt. When young Denys LeFleur was shipped over here to New Orleans under false accusation of his enemies, the first Richard Ralestone became his patron. He helped the boy salvage something from the wreck of the LeFleur fortunes in France to start anew in a decent profession under tolerable surroundings, when others of his kind died miserably as beggars on the mud flats. Twice before have we been forced to be the bearers of ill news, but—" he shrugged, "that was in the past. This lies in the future."
"What does?" asked Ricky.
"It is such a tangle," he said, running his hand through his short, gray-streaked hair. "A tangle such as lawyers are supposed to delight in. But they don't, I assure you that they don't, Miss Ralestone. Not if they have their client's interest at heart. You know, of course, of the missing Ralestone—Roderick?"
Ricky and Val both nodded. Mr. LeFleur spread out his plump hands in a queer little gesture as if he were pushing something away. "This whole unfortunate business begins with him. As far as we know today, he and his brother were co-owners of Pirate's Haven. When young Roderick disappeared, he was still part owner. Although he was presumed dead, he was never lawfully declared so. Pirate's Haven was simply assumed to be the property of your branch of the family."
"Our branch of the family?" Val echoed him. "Do you mean that some descendant of Roderick has appeared to put in a claim?"
"That is the problem. Three days ago a man came to my office. He said that he is the direct descendant of Roderick Ralestone and that he can produce proof of that fact."
"And he wants his share of the estate?" asked Ricky shrewdly.
"He can keep on wanting," Val said shortly. "We've nothing to give."
"There's Pirate's Haven," pointed out Mr. LeFleur.
"But he can't—" Ricky's hand closed about her brother's wrist.
"Naturally he can't take it," Val assured her hotly. "Pirate's Haven is ours. This looks to me like blackmail. He'll threaten to stir up a lot of trouble unless we buy him off."
Mr. LeFleur nodded. "That is perhaps the motive behind it all."
"Well," Val forced a laugh, "then he loses. We haven't the money to buy him off."
"Neither have you the money to fight a case through the courts, Mr. Valerius," answered the lawyer soberly.
"But there is some chance, there must be!" urged Ricky.
"I submitted the full case to Mr. John Stanton yesterday—Mr. Stanton is our local authority on cases of this type. He has informed me that there is a single ray of hope. Frankly, I find this claimant a dubious person, but a shrewd one. He knows that he has the advantage now, but should we gain the upper hand, we could, I believe, rid ourselves of him. Our chance lies in the past. This was first a French and then a Spanish colony. Under both rules the law of primogeniture sometimes held force. That is, an estate passed to the eldest son of a family. Your estate was such a one. In fact, we possess in this very office old charters and papers which state that the property was entailed after the European custom. If that were so, the courts might declare that the elder of the twins born in 1788 was the sole owner of Pirate's Haven.
"But which of the twin brothers was the elder? You will say at once, Richard. But your rival will say Roderick. And there is no proof. For in the spring, two months after the birth of the boys, most of the family papers were destroyed in the great fire which almost wiped out the city and burned the Ralestone town house. There is no birth record in existence. I appealed to your brother to return to me these papers which Miles Ralestone took north with him after the war. You returned them today but there was nothing in them of any value to this case.
"However, if you can find such proof, that Richard Ralestone was the elder and thus the legal heir under the laws of Spain, then we shall have a solid fact upon which to base our fight."
"There is such a proof," began Ricky slowly.
"What? Where?" demanded Mr. LeFleur.
"Don't you remember, Val," she turned to him, "what Rupert said about the Luck last night—that the names of the heirs were engraved upon its blade? We'll have to find the Luck! We'll just have to!"
"But Roderick took the Luck with him. And if it's still in existence, this rival will have it now," her brother reminded her.
"Yes, of course, I was forgetting—" her voice trailed off into silence and Val stared at her with a dropped jaw. Such a quick change of manner was totally unlike Ricky. "Yes," she repeated slowly and distinctly, "I guess we're the losers—"
"For Pete's sake—" he began hotly and then he saw her hand making furious motions in his direction from behind the screen of her large purse. "Well, I suppose we are in a hole." He managed to mend his tone a fraction. "Rupert will probably be in to see you tomorrow, Mr. LeFleur."
"It would be well for him to become acquainted with the whole matter as quickly as possible," agreed the unhappy Creole. "You may tell Mr. Ralestone that I am, of course, having this claimant thoroughly investigated. We shall have to wait and see. Time is a big factor," he murmured as if to himself.
Ricky smiled brightly. There was a sort of eagerness about her, as if she were wild to be off. "Then we'll say good-bye for the present, Mr. LeFleur. And may I mention again how much we have appreciated your thoughtfulness?"
Rene LeFleur aroused himself. "But it was a pleasure, a very great pleasure, Miss Ralestone. You are returning to Pirate's Haven now?"
"Well—" she hesitated. Mystified at what lay behind her unexplainable actions, Val could only stand and listen. "We did have some errands. Of course, this news—"
LeFleur gestured widely. "But it will come all right. It must. There are papers somewhere."
Firmly Ricky broke away from more protracted farewells. As the Ralestones turned out of the courtyard into which their host had conducted them, Val matched his step with hers.
"Well? What's the matter?" he demanded.
"We had an eavesdropper."
Val stopped short. "What do you mean?"
"I was facing the door to the balcony. There was the shadow of a head on the floor. When you spoke about Rick having the sword, it went away—the shadow, I mean. But someone had been listening and now he knows about the Luck and what it means to us."
Aiming a kick at the nearest tire of the roadster, Val regarded the mud-stained rubber moodily. "Fine mess!"
"Yes, isn't it? And there seems to be no loose end to the thing," Ricky protested. "It's like holding a big tangle of wool and being told to have it all straightened out before night—the plot of a fairy-tale. We have so many odd sections but no ends. There's that boy in the garden this morning who said that he has as much right at Pirate's Haven as we have, and then there's that handkerchief, and now this man who claims half the estate—"
"And our mysterious listener," finished her brother. "What shall we do now? Go home?"
"No. We might as well do the errands." She seated herself in the car. "Val—"
"I know one thing." She leaned toward him and her eyes shone green as they did when she was excited or greatly troubled. "We aren't going to let go of our tangle until we do find an end. We are the Ralestones of Pirate's Haven and we are going to continue to be the Ralestones of Pirate's Haven."
"In spite of the enemy? I agree." Val stepped on the starter. "You know, a hundred years ago there would have been a very simple remedy for this rival-claimant business."
"Pistols for two—coffee for one. Rupert or I would have met him out at the dueling oaks and that would have been the end of him."
"Or you. But dueling—here!"
"Very common. The finest fencing masters on the North American continent plied their trade here. Why, one, Pepe Llula, the most famous duelist of his time, became the guardian of a cemetery just so, as gossip rumored, he could have some place to bury his opponents.
"Then on the other hand, if dueling were too risky, we might have had him voodooed, had we lived back in the good old days. Paid that voodoo queen—what was her name? Marie something or other—to put a curse on him so he'd just wither away."
"And serve him right, too." Ricky stared straight before her. "I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm not going to give up Pirate's Haven without a fight. It's—it's the first real home we've ever had. Rupert's older; he's spent his time traveling and seeing the world; it may not mean so much to him. But you and I, Val—You know what it's been like! Schools, and spending the holidays with aunts or in those frightful camps, never getting a chance to be together. We can't—we just can't have this only to lose it again. We can't!" her voice broke.
"So we won't."
"Val, when you say things like that, I can almost believe them. If—if we do lose, let's stick together this time. Promise?" her voice lifted in an effort toward lightness.
"I promise. After this it will be the two of us together. Do you know, I've never really had a chance to get acquainted with my very good-looking sister."
She laughed. "I can't very well curtsy while sitting down in here, but 'thank yuh for them purty words, stranger.' And now for the express station. Then you are to stop at the Southeastern News Association headquarters for something of Rupert's and—"
The afternoon went quickly enough. They despatched the rest of their possessions from the express station to Pirate's Haven, went on a round of miscellaneous shopping, picked up a weighty box at the News Association, and ended up at five o'clock by visiting that institution of New Orleans, a coffee-house. Ricky was earnestly peeking into one of her ten or so small bags. They had parked the car and Val complained that he had become a sort of packhorse, and anything but patient one.
"What if your feet do hurt," his sister said wearily as she closed the bag and reached for another. "So do mine. These sidewalks feel like red-hot iron. I'll bet I could do one of those fakir tricks where you're supposed to walk over red-hot plowshares."
"Not only my feet but also my backbone is protesting. Whether you have reached the end of that Anthony Adverse of a shopping list or not, we're going home! And what are you looking for? You've opened all those bags at least twice and dropped no less than three on the floor each time," he snapped irritably.
"My pralines. I'm sure I gave them to you to carry. I've heard of New Orleans pralines all my life, so I got some today and now they've disappeared."
"They were probably included in that last arm-load of parcels I stowed in the car. Are you through?"
Ricky looked into her coffee-cup. "It's empty, so I guess I am. Where is the car? I'm so lost I don't know where we are now."
"We left it about three blocks away on the sunny side of the street," Val informed her with the relish of one who is thoroughly tired of his present existence. "If this is your usual behavior on a shopping trip, Rupert may bring you in the next time. Half an hour to choose a toothbrush-mug in the ten-cent store!"
"For a person who spends a good fifteen minutes matching a tie and a handkerchief," sniffed Ricky as she rose, "you're in a hurry to criticize others."
"Come on!" her brother almost howled as he scooped up the packages.
"Anyway, we won't have to get supper or wash the dishes or anything." She pulled off her hat as she settled herself in the car. "It's so beastly hot, but it'll be cooler at home. Do you suppose we could go swimming in the bayou?"
"I don't see why not." Val guided the roadster into a side street. "Where's that map of the city? We've got to see how to get back on to North Rampart from here."
"I'll look." Ricky bent her head and so she did not see the two figures walking close together and so rapt in conversation that the one on the curb side brushed against a lamp-post.
Now just what, considered Val, was the slim young clerk from Mr. LeFleur's office telling that red-faced man in the too-snug suit? He would have liked to have overheard a word or two. Perhaps he had become unduly suspicious but—he had his doubts.
"We turn left at the next corner," said Ricky.
Val changed gears and drove on.
THEIR TENANT DISCOVERS THE RALESTONES
Val stood on the small ornamental bridge pitching twigs down into the tiny garden brook. A moody frown creased his forehead. Under his feet lay a pair of pruning-shears he had borrowed from Sam with the intention of doing something about the jungle which surrounded Pirate's Haven on three sides. That is, he had intended doing something, but now—
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Lady," he answered dismally without turning around, "you can have a bushel of them for less than that."
"There is a neat expression which describes you beautifully at this moment," commented Ricky as she came up beside her brother. "Have you ever heard of a 'sour puss?"
"Several times. Oh, what's the use!" Val kicked at a long twig. A warm wind brought in its hold the heavy scent of flowering bushes and trees. His shirt clung to his shoulders damply. It was hot even in the shade of the oaks. Rupert had gone to town to see LeFleur and hear the worst, so that Pirate's Haven, save for themselves and Letty-Lou, was deserted.
"Come on," Ricky's arm slid through his, "let's explore. Think of it—we've been here two whole days and we don't know yet what our back yard looks like. Rupert says that our land runs clear down into the swamp. Let's go see."
"But I was going to—" He made a feeble beginning toward stooping for the pruning-shears.
"Val Ralestone, nobody can work outdoors in this heat, and you know it. Now come on. Bring those with you and we'll leave them in the carriage house as we pass it. You know," she continued as they went along the path, "the trouble with us is that we haven't enough to do. What we need is a good old-fashioned job."
"I thought we were going to be treasure hunters," he protested laughingly.
"That's merely a side-line. I'm talking about the real thing, something which will pay us cash money on Saturday nights or thereabout."
"Well, we can both use a typewriter fairly satisfactorily," Val offered. "But as you are the world's worst speller and I am apt to become entangled in my commas, I can't see us the shining lights of any efficient office. And while we've had expensive educations, we haven't had practical ones. So what do we do now?"
"We sit down and think of one thing we're really good at doing and then—Val, what is that?" She pointed dramatically at a mound of brick overgrown with vines. To their right and left stretched a row of tumble-down cabins, some with the roofs totally gone and the doors fallen from the hinges.
"The old plantation bake oven, I should say. This must be what's left of the slave quarters. But where's the carriage house?"
"It must be around the other side of the big house. Let's try that direction anyway. But I think you'd better go first and do some chopping. This dress may be a poor thing but it's my own and likely to be for some time to come. And short of doing a sort of snake act, I don't see how we're going to get through there."
Val applied the shears ruthlessly to vine and bush alike, glad to find something to attack. The weight of his depression was still upon him. It was all very well for Ricky to talk so lightly of getting a job, but talk would never put butter on their bread—if they could afford bread.
"You certainly have done a fine job of ruining that!"
Val surpassed Ricky's jump by a good inch. By the old bake oven stood a woman. A disreputable straw hat with a raveled brim was pulled down over her untidy honey-colored hair and she was rolling up the sleeves of a stained smock to bare round brown arms.
"It's very plain to the eye that you're no gardener," she continued pleasantly. "And may I ask who you are and what you are doing here? This place is not open to trespassers, you know."
"We did think we would explore," answered Ricky meekly. "You see, this all belongs to my brother." She swept her hand about in a wide circle.
"And just who is he?"
"Rupert Ralestone of Pirate's Haven."
"Good—!" Their questioner's hand flew to cover her mouth, and at the comic look of dismay which appeared on her face, Ricky's laugh sounded. A moment later the stranger joined in her mirth.
"And here I thought that I was being oh so helpful to an absent landlord," she chuckled. "And this brother of yours is my landlord!"
"How—? Why, we didn't know that."
"I've rented your old overseer's house and am using it for my studio. By the way, introductions are in order, I believe. I am Charity Biglow, from Boston as you might guess. Only beans and the Bunker Hill Monument are more Boston than the Biglows."
"I'm Richanda Ralestone and this is my brother Valerius."
Miss Biglow grinned cheerfully at Val. "That won't do, you know; too romantic by far. I once read a sword-and-cloak romance in which the hero answered to the name of Valerius."
"I haven't a cloak nor a sword and my friends generally call me Val, so I hope I'm acceptable," he grinned back at her.
"Indeed you are—both of you. And what are you doing now?"
"Trying to find a building known as the carriage house. I'm beginning to believe that its existence is wholly mythical," Val replied.
"It's over there, simply yards from the direction in which you're heading. But suppose you come and visit me instead. Really, as part landlords, you should be looking into the condition of your rentable property."
She turned briskly to the left down the lane on which were located the slave cabins and guided the Ralestones along a brick-paved path into a clearing where stood a small house of typical plantation style. The lower story was of stone with steep steps leading to a balcony which ran completely around the second floor of the house.
As they reached the balcony she pulled off her hat and threw it in the general direction of a cane settee. Without that wreck of a hat, with the curls of her long bob flowing free, she looked years younger.
"Make yourselves thoroughly at home. After all, this is your house, you know."
"But we didn't," protested Ricky. "Mr. LeFleur didn't tell us a thing about you."
"Perhaps he didn't know." Charity Biglow was pinning back her curls. "I rented from Harrison."
"Like the bathroom," Val murmured and looked up to find them staring at him. "Oh, I just meant that you were another improvement that he had installed," he stammered. Miss Biglow nodded in a satisfied sort of way. "Spoken like a true southern gentleman, though I don't think in the old days that bathrooms would have crept into a compliment paid to a lady. Now I did have some lemonade—if you will excuse me," and she was gone into the house.
Ricky smiled. "I like our tenant," she said softly.
"You don't expect me to disagree with that, do you?" her brother had just time enough to ask before their hostess appeared again complete with tray, glasses, and a filled pitcher which gave forth the refreshing sound of clinking ice. And after her paraded an old friend of theirs, tail proudly erect. "There's our cat!" cried Ricky.
Val snapped his fingers. "Here, Satan."
After staring round-eyed at both of them, the cat crossed casually to the settee and proceeded to sharpen his claws.
"Well, I like that! After I shared my bed with the brute, even though I didn't know it until the next morning," Val exploded.
"Why, where did you meet Cinders?" asked Miss Biglow as she put down the tray.
"He came to us the first night we were at Pirate's Haven," explained Ricky. "I thought he was a ghost or something when he scratched at the back door."
"So that's where he was. He used to go over to the Harrisons' for meals a lot. When I'm working I don't keep very regular hours and he doesn't like to be neglected. Come here, Cinders, and make your manners."
Replying to her invitation with an insolent flirt of his tail, Cinders, whom Val continued obstinately to regard as "Satan," disappeared around the corner of the balcony. Charity Biglow looked at them solemnly. "So obedient," she observed; "just like a child."