THE LOST VALLEY
By J. M. WALSH
The C. J. DeGARIS PUBLISHING HOUSE MELBOURNE
THE POSTHUMOUS PUZZLE OF MR. BRYCE
I.—The Adventure on the Sands
II.—An Old Friend
III.—The Strange Behaviour of Mr. Bryce
IV.—The Thief in the Night
VI.—I Tell a Lie
VII.—Introducing Mr. Albert Cumshaw
THE ADVENTURES OF MR. ABEL CUMSHAW
III.—The Hidden Valley
IV.—When Thieves Fall Out
VI.—The Hegira of Mr. Abel Cumshaw
VII.—The Gathering of the Eagles
THE FINDING OF THE LOST VALLEY
II.—Over the Hills and Far Away
III.—The Promised Land
IV.—We Enter the Valley
VII.—The Adventure Closes
THE POSTHUMOUS PUZZLE OF MR. BRYCE.
THE ADVENTURE ON THE SANDS.
I came upon the place quite unexpectedly. Centuries of wind and wave had carved a little nook out of the foot of the cliff and fashioned it so cunningly that I did not see it until I was right on top of it. After the warmth of the open beach and the glare of the white road I had recently travelled its shade looked so inviting that I limped in under the overhang of the cliff and dropped joyfully on to the cool patch of sand. It was the first moment of contentment I had known for many weary months, and, needless to say, I set myself out to make the most of it. I was absolutely sick of tramping about. My left boot had burst and, by the feel of it, there wasn't too much left of my right sole. I had been crawling along the road since daylight—and for many days before for that matter—searching for a job that failed to materialise.
Jobs, it appeared, were just about as scarce as cool spots in Hades. They had been very kind to me at the last farmhouse. The good lady had given me an excellent breakfast and an extra glass of milk, had loaded my bedraggled pockets with food and had finally put me on the road to the sea. Work, she said, they could not give me. They had put off two men the previous day. I might find something to do in the next town. She did tell me what it was called, but my thoughts were on my own poor prospects and I didn't quite catch what she said. On the principle that a rose by any other name would still have its thorns, I didn't ask her to repeat it. I just said, "Thank you, ma'am," in my best tramp manner and set off down the road to the sea. On the way my left boot burst and a pebble worked in through the opening and set me limping. To make matters worse the day was perhaps the hottest of all that memorable summer, and the glare from the white grit of the road played the devil with my eyes. I was very pleased when at length I reached the low sand dunes and dropped between them on to the wet sand of the beach. I walked along this aimlessly for a mile or so until the big hump of the bluff rose up over me. Then, as I have already related, I came across that heaven-sent cave and threw my weary length on its damp flooring of sand, determined to snatch as much peace and repose as I could before I continued my search for work.
I can't say for the life of me how long it was before I first sat up and took notice of the fat little man. He was bobbing up and down in the surf for all the world like some ungainly porpoise, and every time he moved he shot sunlit streams of water off his gross body. I've seen fat men in my time, but this one was just about the limit. He was all up and down and then across. I know that doesn't quite explain what he looked like, but it's about the only way I can describe him. He was short and tubby; if he had been any shorter he would have been a human Humpty-Dumpty. He was so obviously enjoying himself and getting the best out of his gambols in the water that my heart went out to him. He was ducking and splashing about, rolling and wallowing in a way that reminded me of a hippopotamus I had once shot at—and missed—in happier if not more spacious days spent on the lower Nile. "The Hippo" I christened him, and then chuckled to myself at the singular appropriateness of the name.
Even his bathing dress seemed designed expressly to add to his rotundity. It was one of those queer garments bearing a faint resemblance to a convict's uniform, and the wide stripes of it went round and round his figure like hoops on a barrel. It was so funny that I chuckled again and forgot all about my burning feet and my burst boot.
Presently he stopped his antics and looked over my way. He gave one glance at me, and then started to run inshore with short, jumpy little steps. Something seemed to have struck him all of a sudden, and I was just beginning to wonder what the deuce it could be when, out of the corner of my eyes, I caught sight of a pile of neatly folded clothes thrust into the cleft of the rock a little above my head. I began to understand then. I looked more disreputable than I really was; my suit was in the last stages of ruinous decay, while his brand-new clothes just above me would have been a gift from the gods to a man with less conscience and more figure than I possessed. He evidently presumed on the strength of my proximity that I had evil designs on his clothes, but he needn't have troubled himself. If I could judge anything from his own figure I would have been completely lost in them. I didn't like to confirm his suspicions by running away now that I found I was observed, so I just sat there and waited for him. There was a piece of something that looked very like driftwood protruding from the sand close to me, and I kicked idly at it as he came pounding up the beach. It was set loosely in the sand, and a more accurate kick than usual knocked it out of its resting-place. Something queer about it caught my eye, and I bent over to pick it up.
"Whatever else it is, it isn't driftwood," I said to myself. "I'll bet——," and then I stopped short, for I remembered that my sole worldly wealth at the moment consisted of exactly three pennies. All the same I was right about it. Driftwood doesn't get the dry rot, nor does it come ashore covered with rich black loam.
"Somebody's planted it here," was my next thought, and my mind strayed to the panting bulk of a man who was thundering down on top of me.
"It's his, I suppose," I said, and looked up at him. At that precise instant he tripped and fell full length on the sand. I've seen a good many lucky escapes in my day—a man who has travelled the out-of-the-way places of the world from the Yukon and the White Nile down to the headwaters of the Fly River in the snow-mountains of Dutch New Guinea does see a bit of life—but the way that fat chap upset himself into the sand was the most wonderful piece of good fortune I ever came across. He must have missed death by a fraction of an inch. I saw him fall, heard the shot ring out and watched the sand spurt up all in the one crowded second. The next moment I was running towards him, my hand moving instinctively to my empty pistol-pocket. But my mind readjusted itself in a flash, and I recollected that I wasn't dodging cannibals in the upper reaches of the Mambare, but was living in a civilised country where a man who carries a revolver, and gets caught at it, is fined more money than I'd seen in the last twelve months.
The other chap seemed to divine instinctively that I was a friend, for he yelled at me even while he was hauling himself up from the sand.
"There's one in my pocket," he shouted and gesticulated back towards his clothes.
I didn't waste a moment, but sped over the intervening yards like a man possessed. As luck would have it his coat was the first thing I grabbed, and the weight of it told me at once in which pocket to look. I plunged my hand in and drew out the sweetest little automatic it has ever been my lot to handle. As a rule I prefer a Colt—in my experience it never jams—but I rather fancied my present weapon would do all that was required, so I slipped back the safety catch with my thumb and whirled round on my heel to face whatever was coming.
The overture was already over and the invisible marksman had settled down to steady firing. The fat man was now almost on top of me, and I saw instantly that that brought me right into the line of fire. It takes a long time in the telling, but, as I figured it out afterwards, from the instant the first shot missed the old chap down to the moment I pulled the trigger, more than half a minute could not have elapsed.
There was only one place in sight where a man could take cover, and that was a bunch of rocks just a little to the left of my position. I let off a fancy shot in that direction, and a second later the reply rang out. The cliff overhead shed a shower of dust on top of the pair of us, and the fat man crouched into the corner. I knew now where my man was, so I waited until he exposed himself, as I saw he must do when he fired again.
"Gimme the gun!" the fat man demanded in the interval.
"Shut up!" I said, without turning my head. "I'm a better shot than you, I reckon, and, anyway, it's just as much my funeral now as yours. He's had a shot at me, and that's a thing I don't forgive in a hurry."
"Well, of all the——," I heard him say, and then the rest of his remark was drowned in the report of my weapon. I had spotted a white wrist back of a gleam of polished metal and, taking a sporting chance, I let drive. The other man's gun dropped to the sand, and a yell told me that I had made no mistake.
"Here's where I come in," I said, and, forgetting the condition of my feet, I sprinted towards the rocks. But the other fellow had decided that the place was getting too hot for him, and he made off along the sand as fast as his legs could carry him. He must have been in excellent trim, for he shot along the heavy track as if he was running on the cinder-path, and I saw before I had gone fifty yards that I hadn't a chance in the world of catching him. Also there were half a dozen black specks of men a mile or so along the beach, and my reason told me that homicide before witnesses wasn't likely to prove a healthy pastime. So I swallowed my pride and, consoling myself with the thought that some day we might meet again, I wheeled about and made back to the nook.
The fat chap had shed his bathing suit and was climbing into his clothes when I arrived. He beamed at me and his whole face crinkled into smiles. I was so afraid that he was going to make a silly speech that I pushed his automatic into his hands and said, "You'd better take this, old man. The other party's in swift retreat and, from the condition of his wrist, I don't fancy you'll receive another billet-doux for some time to come."
"Well, I'm hanged if you're not the coolest chap I've ever laid eyes on," the fat man said admiringly.
"You were nearer being shot," I hinted, "and, if you don't mind me saying so, the sooner you struggle into those clothes of yours and get home to mother, the safer you'll be. I don't object to fighting for you once in a while, but I'll see you further before I make a habit of it."
"Um!" said the fat man, "I'm sorry. I'd hoped to persuade you to take it on permanently."
I thought at first that he was joking, but the way he looked at me showed that he was in deadly earnest. For all his flippancy there was something back of his eyes, a trace of fear that kept peeping out every now and then, that told me he went in danger of his life. I hated to have to refuse him, but I had very good reasons, which I intended to keep to myself, too, for not putting my life into danger too often. So I told him point-blank that if he wanted to hire a bodyguard he'd have to go somewhere else. He wasn't as put out at my reply as I would have expected. Instead he smiled up at me—for all his bulk I towered over him—and there was a touch of gameness in that smile that I rather liked. I couldn't help telling him just what I thought.
"I don't think you want anyone to look after you," I said. "You're as game as they make 'em. I'm pretty used to reading men—I've been in places where my life depended on my ability in that direction—and when I see a fellow smile like you're smiling now, you can take it from me that he's grit all through."
"They'll get me yet," he said with a sigh. "I'm handicapped, you see. I couldn't have sprinted along the beach the way you did. I'd have wheezed. Bellows gone and all that, you know. Too much fat, the doctor says."
"Now, you're just about right there. I don't like to be personal, but now you mention it, you don't seem to have the cut of an athlete."
"And you have," he said, as he insinuated himself into his collar. It was a trifle too small for his neck, and he had to coax it a lot before he got both ends to meet. "You're the type of man I take to instantly, Mr. ——."
He asked me a question with his eyes.
"Well," I said in answer, "if it's any use to you my name's Carstairs, Jimmy Carstairs at that, and I'm an explorer by inclination, gentleman by instinct, and the rolling-stone-that-gathers-no-moss by sheer force of unlovely circumstance. Now you know all that I intend to tell you about myself."
"Um!" he said again. "I had better introduce myself, I suppose. I fancy my card-case's in my coat pocket."
"Don't trouble about a card," I said airily. "I'm not at all fussy. I'm quite willing to take your word for it."
There was a twinkle in his eye, as he replied, that showed he rather appreciated my cheap wit. "Bryce is my name," he said. "You may have heard of it?"
"Can't say I have," I told him, "though I'm pretty certain to see it often if you make a practice of keeping up this guerilla warfare."
It wasn't a nice thing to say, but then I'm never very particular, and if my listeners don't like my remarks they're always welcome to change the subject. When all's said and done there was more in that last jab of mine than met the ear. I wanted very much to know why that sharpshooter should be so extremely anxious to put him out of action. Also he had said "they." There had only been one man behind the rocks, and I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that there wasn't another human being—with the sole exception of the men a mile or so along the beach—within coo-ee at the time. "You've been there before, my friend," I thought. "This isn't the first time you've flushed a chap with a bit of hardware." From what I could see Bryce hadn't the slightest intention of making me as wise as himself and even the broad hint I gave him didn't seem to move him in the least. He surveyed me steadily for the scrag-end of a minute and then his left eyelid flickered. I knew right enough what that wink meant. It said as plainly as could be that dead men tell no tales and wise men follow their example.
"Now, Mr. Bryce," I said, "I like your company and it pains me to leave you, but I can't stop here for ever. I've got an important engagement at the next town and the sooner I get there the better. Under the circumstances you'll have to excuse me."
He didn't tell me that I was a liar but he went pretty close to it. "The next town's Geelong," he said, "and it's a good fourteen miles away. You might have sprinted along that sand in record time when somebody's life was trembling in the balance, but that doesn't say you can walk fourteen miles on a rotten road on a broiling hot day. And if I wished to be as personal as you are I'd point out that a burst boot doesn't help make the way any easier."
"Bowled out first shot," I told him. "What's your little game?"
"To use your own inimitable phraseology, my little game amounts to this. I've taken a violent fancy to you, Carstairs, and I want to keep you by me. I don't think your luck's been too good lately, but between us I fancy we can mend it. If you want to go into Geelong all you've got to do is wait and come with me. I'm going back shortly, and I'm sure you'd feel much better riding in a motor than travelling on foot."
"Now you mention it," I said, "I can't see why I shouldn't. The only trouble is that some of your excitable friends might see me in your company and include me in the sudden-death stakes."
"Quite likely," Bryce said, with a smile. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if they hid behind a convenient hedge and potted us as we passed. But you needn't come if that's what you're afraid of."
"I'll forgive you this time," I rattled on, "just because you've had such an exciting experience, but don't ever hint anything like that again. I don't know what fear's like."
"Self-praise," said Bryce, "is sometimes the highest form of recommendation. At any rate it shows you've overcome fear, if only the fear of criticism. But to be serious, Carstairs, there's trouble ahead of both of us. My pursuers are getting very game, tackling me in front of a third person, and I've got a funny sort of feeling that they'll catch me napping one of these days. No matter what you say or do, you can't alter the fact that you've identified yourself with me, and that means that you're running just the same amount of danger that I am. You don't look too prosperous yourself. What about joining forces with me and sharing the plunder? Of course I can make it worth your while."
"Plunder," I said. "What do you mean! Are you running up against the law?"
"If it's any relief to you to know it, I'm not. I rather fancy I've got the law on my side."
"I was merely enquiring what inducements you had to offer. What do you call 'making it worth my while?'"
When I turned down his first tentative offer I had quite made up my mind that he wanted to engage me as a sort of super-butler with sudden death included amongst the risks of service, and I had no intention of mixing up in other people's quarrels on such terms. When I questioned him directly about it I got a pleasant surprise.
"Well, my idea of making it worth your while is something like L100 for three months. That's about as long as I'll require you. After that you can 'go to hell or to Connaught,' whichever you prefer."
"That's nice hearing," I told him. "And, I suppose, any time I take an extra risk I get something pour boire?"
He nodded cheerfully.
"That's my offer, Carstairs," he said. "What do you say to it?"
"It's so damned alluring," I answered, "that I'm frightened to look at it too close. I don't mind admitting that I'm about as hard up as I can be. As a matter of fact I've not the least idea where I'm going to get my next meal. All of which makes your offer doubly inviting. But I don't want to jump at it in hot blood. I want time to think it over. I want to stand off and wave my hat at it and say, 'Scat, you brute!' and see if it'll shoo off. I'm frightened that it's not real, and that I'll take it on and then wake up. Will you give me time to wake up?"
"If you'll drive in with me the two of us can dine together," Bryce suggested. "That ought to give you time to wake up."
"I can't ask anything fairer than that," I agreed. "When do we start?"
"No time like the present. I've got the car paddocked down near the reserve. It's only a matter of walking around the bluff. Come on."
I went along with him without comment, though I noticed that the last thing he did was to bend down and pick up the piece of wood which had so excited my curiosity earlier in the proceedings. It was small enough to slip into his pocket, and this he did without a word either of apology or explanation.
"It's a mighty innocent piece of wood," I thought, "but I'll bet all Australia to an albatross that it's mixed up in the plot."
As we moved around the foot of the bluff I couldn't help turning the situation over in my mind. Half an hour before I had been a wanderer on the face of the earth, a man with no special abilities and no outstanding vices. In that short space of time I had saved one man's life, nearly taken that of another, and seemed in a fair way to make money out of my twin attributes of steady nerves and good shooting. I was still thinking in this strain when we rounded the bluff and commenced to crawl across the intervening stretch of spinifex grass. I say "crawl" advisedly. Bryce was far too heavy to do more than lumber along and my feet were steadily getting worse. The spinifex grew knee-high and its roots extended in all directions. They were hard, knobby things that protruded through the loose sand, and every time I took my attention off the ground for an instant I stubbed my toe against one or the other of them. Bryce panted and puffed and wheezed and seemed more like an hippopotamus than ever. Whatever might be the gain as far as decency was concerned, his clothes, from a spectacular point of view, made him look worse than ever. His collar was tight, and that made his face the color of a scraped carrot, and his coat and trousers clung to him in the most unexpected places—just where they shouldn't.
To make a long story short, we came at last to the edge of the spinifex, and thence dropped steadily down into the hollow that contained the reserve. I picked out Bryce's car right off. It was painted a battleship grey, and if cars can have a personality, this had such another as its owner. It wasn't slim—there was nothing of the racer about it. It was squatly built and had just the same heavy and humorous look as Bryce himself. It stood out from the other cars like a hunch-back amongst a line of athletes.
"That's my car," said Bryce proudly. "She's not much to look at, but she's just the sweetest runner you've seen."
I nodded. I was quite open to conviction.
AN OLD FRIEND.
Hitherto events had moved so swiftly that I hadn't had time to look calmly at the situation, but once we settled down in the car and Barwon Heads dropped into the dust behind us, I began to think rather seriously. It was perfectly obvious, even to a more clouded intelligence than mine, that there was something mysterious, if not shady, about my prospective employer. Despite his assurance that the law was on his side, I had grave doubts. If everything was perfectly square and above board why the deuce didn't he report the affair to the police and give them the task of looking after him, instead of hiring me at an exorbitant wage? He seemed anxious to fight shy of publicity in any shape or form and, though he had been very cordial, even familiar with me, his very apparent frankness and joviality had awakened my suspicions. There was something fishy going on, and that something, whatever it was, centred round the piece of wood that I had so casually kicked out of the sand. It struck me all of a heap that nothing had really begun to happen until I had unearthed it. As soon as Bryce had seen where I was sitting, he had started to run inshore, the other man had stationed himself behind the rocks, the curtain had been rung up and the play had begun. Now the question was what part did the piece of wood play in the game? Bryce, I felt sure, could clear the mystery up with a word, but I was certain that it would be long before he would say that word.
The car was all and more than he had said. It had speed, it was comfortable, and its mechanism was far less complicated than any I had yet seen. We ate up distance in fine style. Bryce seemed to have no nerves at all, for more than once he tore round corners on two wheels while I clung to the side of the car and swore at him. He grinned cheerfully over his shoulder at me and asked me if I were nervous.
I laughed back at him with as much sang-froid as I could muster. I had no objection to risking my life once in a while when there was good pay at the end of it, but I couldn't see the sense of tempting Providence just for the sheer fun of the thing. Of course, if we did spill, it would be all right with Bryce—he was so fat that he'd just bounce—but I was slimmer, and I knew from experience that I had very brittle bones. Once in the Solomons, when a wild boar charged me, I lay for weeks in a trader's hut waiting for an obdurate fracture to knit up again. Some idea of the furious pace at which Bryce pushed the car along can be guessed from the fact that we did the fourteen miles in something over twenty minutes. It had been quite half-past eleven when we left the Heads, and the clock in the car wanted a few minutes to twelve when we sailed over the bridge and up Moorabool-street. We cleared a stationary tram by inches, twisted in an S curve to avoid a farmer's waggon and then, with a heart-rending grind, Bryce threw over his clutch and slowed down to a snail-like crawl of ten miles an hour.
"This asphalt paving makes a great motor track," Bryce said to me, "but there's speed-laws in existence here. That's the trouble of it. When a man has a nice track he's interfered with, and when there isn't anyone to meddle with him it's ten to one that he's crawling over something like a corduroy road."
"Corduroy!" I said, and sat up and looked at him. I knew what he meant. Any man who has ever travelled the heart-breaking log-roads of the interior New Guinea goldfields does not need to be told what 'corduroy' is. It is an ever-present memory, an astonishment and a nightmare. Bryce did not speak from hearsay—the note in his voice told me that—but was talking from experience garnered at great cost, both of money and energy.
"Corduroy," he repeated after me. "Doesn't that sound familiar to you, Carstairs?"
"It does," I said with emphasis. "But how the deuce——?" And then I stopped dead. Bryce? Bryce? What was familiar about that name? Bryce and New Guinea and——. I had it. And Walter Carstairs.
"Ever heard of Walter Carstairs?" I questioned.
"The minute I heard your name I knew you," Bryce said. "Ever heard of Walter Carstairs? Why, he was the best friend I ever had. He saved my life in the early days of the Woodlarks."
"According to the Dad," I said, looking him straight in the face, "it was the other way about."
He laughed happily. "Jimmy, I'm losing my memory if that's so. But whatever happened to him? I lost sight of him the last ten years or so."
"You would," I answered. "He stuck to the Islands. He had a life's work planned out, but he got cut-off in the Solomons before he had reached finality. I carried it on after that, came all the way from the Klondyke to take it up. I got through but it took every penny I had, and that's why this morning when I came across you I only had a boot and a half to my feet."
"Well, well," he said kindly, "that's all changed now."
"I don't know so much about it," I told him. "You might have been the best friend the Dad ever had, but that doesn't say you're going to keep me. What I get I work for. I'll take charity from no man living."
Again he laughed, and his fat face crinkled up into little rolls of flesh until he looked as if he had double chins all the way up to his eyes. I knew now why he had been so familiar with me earlier in the day. He was a sunny-natured old chap always, even in the hard, toilsome New Guinea days, and I suppose his heart went out to me as the son of an old comrade in arms, doubly so—perhaps because I had saved his life. On the whole I rather wished I hadn't. It complicated matters so. It made me feel bound to give him a hand, whether his enterprise was shady or not.
If he had turned to me then and said, "I suppose I can count on you all right?" I would have been torn between duty and inclination. He did nothing of the sort. He made no reference to his offer of service, in fact he seemed to have completely forgotten it, and I thought it just as well to say nothing. The way he forebore from seizing a perfectly obvious advantage sent him up fifty per cent. in my estimation, and by the time we had reached the heart of the city I was quite willing to do anything he asked me.
"I'll park the car," he said, "and then we'll go off and have some dinner."
"Will we?" I said and eyed my tattered raiment ruefully. "I don't fancy I'm dressed for dinner."
"Um!" he said. "You're not. I'd quite overlooked that. That bars a public dinner. I don't fancy you'll be able to make much of one if you come down to my place. The cook's away. I didn't expect to be back so soon."
"Cook or no cook," I told him, "if you've got anything eatable in the house I'll guarantee to turn it up right. Give me the run of the kitchen and put me next to the meat-safe, and you'll see wonders. I don't know how you feel, but I'm so hungry that I'd make a meal off a pair of kid boots."
"In that case, Carstairs, I think I'd better take you home and see what sort of a culinary expert you are."
With that he twisted the car about and headed out for the eastern suburbs. The place was unfamiliar to me at the time—I hadn't the faintest idea of the street the man lived in—and in the face of what happened later I made no enquiries. As a matter of fact the rush of events crowded all such petty details out of my mind.
"Can you drive a car?" he asked abruptly.
"I can drive anything but an Andean mule," I told him. "I tried once in the Chilian foot-hills, but after the animal dislocated my shoulder I sort of lost heart."
"I gather from the retiring modesty of your last remark," he smiled, "that you consider yourself an expert as regards all other forms of animal and mechanical traction."
"Quite so. I can always do anything on principle, and I've yet to meet the job that I'm unwilling to tackle!"
He glanced sideways at me. I didn't like the look he gave me. There was too much of appraisement in it, something that was alien to the nature of the man, a sort of cold, calculating shrewdness that made me wonder again if I had not been mistaken in my estimate of him and the extent of his good-nature.
"If you keep on admiring me instead of looking where you're going," I hinted, "you'll end up in a funeral. That motor-bus isn't the sort of thing I'd care to hit."
He twisted the wheel over a fraction and edged out beyond the motor-bus before he replied. "Life is full of thrills," he remarked when at last we reached the comparative security of open space. There was a challenge in his voice that I thought it well to ignore.
"It is," I agreed. "Too much so."
For all the lightness of his speech and the careless ease with which he took unnecessary and avoidable risks I had a feeling that there was deep design under everything he did. Though I couldn't have proved it if I'd been asked, I felt sure that he was trying my nerve. After all there's no better test of that than the crowded traffic of a big city. I've met men who'd cheerfully face a crowd of howling cannibals and yet would develop a very bad case of jumps if asked to cross a street roaring and humming with traffic. Yes, clearly he was testing me.
With a jerk that nearly shot me out of my seat the car pulled up. I stared about me. We had stopped outside a substantial red-tiled house, built in the bungalow fashion. There was a well-kept lawn in front of it, with here and there a trim flower-bed to relieve the monotony of the expanse of grass.
"This is the place," Bryce said. "Just slip down and open that gate, will you?"
He gesticulated towards a six-foot gate at the side of the house. From my position in the car I could see that it opened on a path that ran round the side of the building and almost certainly led to the garage. Accordingly I slipped out on the road, walked up to the gate and found that, by standing on tip-toe, I could just reach the catch at the top. I swung it back, pushed with my weight against the erection and the gate came open.
As I turned to come back to the car I caught sight of a man standing on the opposite corner. He was engaged in lighting a cigarette in the cup of his hands. He seemed to be taking an undue time over it, and that and something that I could not put a name to in his attitude convinced me that he was watching us. His hands were so cupped that they hid his face, but I received an impression, that was almost a certainty, that he was watching Bryce and myself through his fingers. Perhaps my prolonged stare convinced him that I was fully aware of his presence and its meaning. At any rate he twisted on his heel so that his back was turned to us, dropped the match he had been playing with and ostentatiously struck another.
"That gentleman across the road, the one with his back to us, is keeping your house under surveillance," I said to Bryce. "I suppose he's afraid the place'll run away."
"Afraid I'll run away, more likely," Bryce answered. "Evidently he doesn't want to be identified next time we meet. But he needn't worry over that; I wouldn't know him from a bar of soap. We'll leave him alone for the time being, Carstairs, and get this machine in. I don't see any reason why we should let this gentleman delay our dinner."
"No more do I. Let her out."
I stood on the step of the car until it had passed the entrance in safety, then I went back and made the gate fast. But before doing so I just couldn't resist taking a peep at the Roman sentry figure of a man opposite. He was staring straight at the gate—as if that was going to help him in any way—but he was pretty alert. The moment he sighted me he wheeled about and walked off in another direction. But, quick and all as he was, I caught a passing glimpse of him. He had on a blue serge suit, a rather cheap affair as well as I could judge at that distance, and a black felt hat. Somehow I got the impression, though I was too far away to say anything with certainty, that he was not so much sallow as sunburnt. It was more than likely that he had not got a good look at me—in that case he would not know me again, as I flattered myself that there was nothing very distinctive about me. Still, as that marksman behind the rocks must have been taking stock of me for some considerable while, I realised that no definite advantage would accrue from the fact that one of the gang might not be able to identify me. I had no means of ascertaining how many there were in the organisation, and something warned me not to display too much interest in Bryce's presence. When I walked down the path and discovered him backing the car into his garage I made no comment on the situation beyond telling him that the spy had gone temporarily out of business and was at present taking a constitutional down the street.
"All we can do then," Bryce said, "is to let him depart in peace and trust that nothing happens. I wouldn't like any of that bunch to be cut off in the midst of their sins. I've got another end mapped out for them."
"If you figure me in on that, you're mighty mistaken," I said to myself. "I'm the first line of defence, but I'll be hanged if I'm going to carry the war into the enemy's country."
I needn't have been so cocksure about it, for as will shortly be related that was just exactly what I did do.
THE STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF MR. BRYCE.
I made an excellent dinner. Bryce's kitchen and the meat-safes attached proved on investigation to contain enough food for a family. First of all I had a wash, and then when I felt a little more presentable, I dug up a frying-pan, asked Bryce if he liked sausages and, being told that he did, thanked Heaven that his tastes were similar to mine and set about cooking them. Now I like my sausages fried nice and crisp, but I have yet to find the lodging-house keeper this side of Gehenna who can fry anything without burning it to a cinder. Though I don't wish to crack up my own work, I'll say this for it—that, if I do like things done any particular way, I can always be sure of pleasing myself if I do the cooking.
I cooked with one eye on the gas-stove and the other on Bryce. I had scarcely set to work before he wandered into the kitchen, found the nail-brush or whatever it was that the cook used for cleaning the pots, washed the black loam off the piece of wood which had so excited my curiosity earlier in the day, and then commenced to scrub it. He used up an inordinate amount of soap and quite a lot of elbow-grease, but when he had finished the wood looked as if it had just been newly cut and trimmed. What took my attention about it was that it was covered from end to end with queer little marks or scratches. These seemed to interest Bryce very much, for he pored over them like an antiquary who has discovered a new kind of hieroglyphics. He got so interested in them that he forgot my presence altogether. Once when I asked him some simple question about the dinner he jumped as if he were shot, colored up and then said, "Oh, I beg your pardon. What did you say?"
I repeated my question and he answered me as if his thoughts were miles away. He was wide-awake enough when I walked over to the kitchen sink on some errand or another to slip the wood into his pocket and face me with a look in his eye that said as plainly as so many words, "You're not going to steal a march on me, my lad. That's for my eyes alone." Only once during the dinner-hour did he say anything that stuck in my memory. On this occasion he turned to me and asked, "Can you use a typewriter?"
"Now, he's going to make a private secretary of me," I thought. "I won't bite." So I looked him straight in the eye and unblushingly answered that I couldn't use one if I tried and hoped he didn't want me to learn, as I was sure I'd only make a mess of it. He seemed rather relieved at that and later in the afternoon, when I heard the "tick-tack" of his machine drifting out from the room in which he had locked himself, I began to wonder just what he had been driving at.
He drifted out to the kitchen later on and asked me to light the fire for him. I did so and he watched it blaze up, and as soon as he was sure that it was well alight he drew that inevitable piece of wood from his pocket, soaked it in kerosene and dropped it into the heart of the fire. I'm hanged if he didn't sit there and watch it until it had burnt into a charred heap of ashes. While he had been attending to it he had left a sheet of typewritten paper down on the table and as he turned to get it it fluttered to the floor. I was the nearer to it so I picked it up and handed it to him. As I did so I caught a glimpse of the characters that covered most of it. I got just the one look at them, but one line I noticed ran somehow like this—
—31/41/2743 1/23:3; "335 "49—5@3 31/41/2534; 3; L
He looked at me queerly as he took the paper. "Have you ever done any timber measurements?" he asked.
"None at all," I answered promptly, and this time I told the truth.
"You wouldn't understand this then," he ran on, indicating the paper, though he was careful not to let me have another look at it.
"I saw some of it," I said off-handedly, as if it were no affair of mine, "and it looked to me like the sort of thing a mathematician would see if he ever got the willies."
"You have a most expressive way of putting things, Carstairs," he said with a smile. There was more than humor in that smile; there was something in it that looked remarkably like relief.
"I can't stand figures of any sort," I volunteered with a fervent hope in my heart that I wasn't over-doing my part. "A sheet of them'd just about give me the D.Ts."
He laughed out loud at that and then, expressing a hope that I would make myself at home, he padded out of the room. It was astonishing how quietly he could walk when he was moving about the house. For all his gross bulk there was something furtive and cat-like about him that told me just how insistent must be the menace of a sudden death. He moved so silently that I never knew he was there until I looked up and saw him. He glided from room to room like some obese ghost. At first it got on my nerves, but pretty soon I settled down to it, and in a day or so got quite used to seeing a silent bulk sliding noiselessly about the house, appearing at all sorts of odd times in all sorts of queer places.
The cook returned about 5 o'clock and seemed rather inclined to take up a high-handed attitude with me, until a few well-chosen words from her master quietened her down a little. She was not slow to show me in other ways that she regarded me as an intruder in the house, and if any one thing about me was more preferable than another it was my room rather than my company. Still as I kept out of her way as much as possible, and as my sole duties consisted in keeping an eye on all strangers that approached the place and in listening for any unaccountable sounds, I came into conflict with her very seldom.
Matters progressed so quietly for the next couple of days that I began to wonder whether I had not fallen into a sinecure after all. Bryce had procured me a decent outfit so that I was now my own man again, ready to argue the right-of-way with all comers. Added to that my feet were well on the mend and my general health was keeping pretty near to the top-notch mark, so I wasn't finding life such a bad thing after all. Bryce worried me but little. At times I went odd messages for him, but all my trips were so arranged that I was never away from the house more than half an hour at a time. The more I thought over the mystery surrounding him the deeper and more inexplicable it became. I knew of whom he was afraid, but I had no more idea of the reason of his fear than I had of the name of the man in the moon. My occupation was more reminiscent of revolutionary South America than of a civilised country, and the thought of it set me wondering whether Bryce had ever lived amongst the volatile Latins on the other side of the Pacific. Come to think of it the one man I had seen closely had been a dark type. It was just barely possible that Bryce had somehow tangled himself in something of the kind. But then that cipher business—I was fully convinced by now that it was some original kind of cryptogram—rather pointed the other way. One of the things I had noticed had been a L sign, and anything dealing with any of the Latin Republics would almost assuredly have been written with a $ sign. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I had been barking up the wrong tree.
I jotted down the figures that I remembered, but I must have had some of the signs down wrong, for, try as I would, I could make nothing out of them. As a matter of fact the solution was so simple that in the end I only stumbled on it by accident.
Bryce had a bad habit of locking himself in his room for hours at a time, and it occurred to me that such a course wasn't in his own interest any more than mine, so I tackled him about it at the first opportunity.
"Here you are," I said, "paying me for being a mixture of Swiss Guard and watch-dog, but for all the looking-after you get I might as well be miles away. I don't want to be hanging on to your skirts every ten minutes or so, but doesn't it strike you as a reasonable man that you're inviting trouble by locking yourself in so securely?"
"I do that so I won't be disturbed," he urged.
"That's a reason that cuts both ways," I said. "Suppose somebody happened to be in the room when you arrived. Don't you see that he could do all he wanted to do without being disturbed either."
"But you'd hear any uncommon noise," Bryce objected.
"Maybe I would and then maybe I wouldn't. I'm not infallible, you know, and anyway it's quite possible that any visitor you had wouldn't make a row at all. And while I'm on it, wouldn't it be just as well to give me a sketch of the plot? I'm working in the dark as it is, but, if I had some idea of what's at the back of all this, I might be able to look after you better."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said slowly, and for the first time since we had met he eyed me with suspicion. There was doubt in his glance, the sort of doubt that a man does not care to see in the eyes of a friend. I saw that I had made a radical mistake in even hinting that I wished to know his secret, and I hastened to make what amends I could.
"I'm sorry," I said, "if you look at it in that way. I was only doing it for your own good. You're paying what's an enormous sum to me, and I'm trying to justify your expenditure. If I know your enemies and all about them, I can certainly plan level and, maybe, occasionally outguess them. That's the only thing I had in mind when I spoke, and if I gave you any other impression I'm sorry I said what I did."
He moved his shoulders in a kind of half-shrug. It was at once a gesture of relief and of dismissal, so without more ado I said, "If there's nothing further you want, I'll make off now. If you want me any time I'll be pottering around the house somewhere."
"Well, there is something I'd like you to do, Jim," he said. "I want half-a-dozen parish maps. Here's the list of them"—he handed me a piece of paper with a few names scribbled on the back—"and here's the money. Go down to the Lands Department and they'll fix you up. Mind that they are large scale maps, the largest they've got. You'd better take the car, and don't be any longer than you can help."
"It's a twenty minutes' run at the outside," I said. "I won't waste any time."
He nodded quite cheerfully to me and went into his room. I heard the key grate in the lock as I walked down the passage and I remember saying to myself, "That habit's going to get him into trouble yet."
I reached the office in record time. They had some trouble in finding the maps I wanted—most of them were of parishes situated around the foot of the Grampians—but in the end they produced some that I fancied would suit my man. My twenty minutes' limit had almost expired and, as it is a matter of pride with me to be punctual, I let the car out a little. That, I suppose, was my undoing, for just as I crossed over the busiest street a motor-lorry swerved out and nearly collided with me. I did some very neat wheel-work, but my new course took me right across to the gutter, and before I had quite realised what had happened I had speared my tyre with a jagged piece of glass. The tyre popped off with a report like that of a small revolver, and the next second I was bumping on the frame. I pulled up as quickly as I could, but the mischief was done and the tyre was just one great rip from end to end. Luckily I carried a spare wheel, but I am an unhandy man at the merely mechanical part of the work, and I took twice as long over it as a professional would have. By the time I was ready to start again my twenty minutes had lengthened into an hour, and somehow the knowledge of that worried me.
I packed my tools anyhow, hopped back into the car and threw over my clutch. The car started with a little jerk that I didn't quite relish, and on looking over the side I saw that the new wheel was wobbling, not very much indeed, but just enough to show me that I had bungled my work. I immediately cut down my speed and proceeded for the rest of the journey at something closely approaching a snail's pace.
"Now," I said to myself, "if this was in a novel I'd say that the lorry cut across my path deliberately. But as this is in real life and the lorry belongs to a firm of respectable grocers it can't be anything else but just my own darned bad luck."
I dismissed the incident at that and turned my attention to my driving. I had no intention of mixing myself up in another such accident if I could possibly avoid it, and now that I had definitely taken service with Bryce I felt I owed it to him to exercise all reasonable care. After my first few spasmodic attempts at resistance I had succumbed rather quickly to his enticing offer. After all, I thought, I wouldn't be putting myself in any greater danger than I had been in for the past four years. I had faced sudden death in many shapes and forms during my sojourn in the strange wild lands about the Line, so much so that, once I had taken into account the money Bryce was giving me, the present adventure rather degenerated into a pleasant little game of hide-and-seek.
I was still turning this over in that portion of my mind which wasn't occupied with the sheerly mechanical side of my work when I reached the house. More from force of habit than from any other cause I cast my eyes along the road, much as if it had been a forest trail that held secrets only a woodsman could read. Plainly marked in the dust of the roadway were the tracks of a vehicle that I instinctively knew to be a cab. It had veered right in towards the kerb, and a moment's study convinced me that it had stopped at Bryce's house. Now that meant that somebody had arrived during my absence, and, as Bryce had said nothing to me about expecting a visitor, I decided that the sooner I entered the house and investigated the better for the safety of all concerned. I drove the car into the garage in record time and darted into the house as if the devil were at my heels. There wasn't a sound to be heard; even the eternal clatter of the typewriter had ceased. With a caution born of experience I tip-toed up the passage, all my senses instinctively on the alert. The door of Bryce's room was still locked and everything, to all outward seeming, was just as I had left it. I don't know what I had expected to find in the passage, but the very apparent quietness of the place sobered me considerably, and I realised abruptly on what a slender foundation I had based my fears. If anything had happened during my absence it was almost certain that I would have found some trace of it in the hall, a rug disarranged, or a mat kicked away from the door. All the odds were on Bryce working quietly behind the locked door. Yet of all the foolish things in the world for me to think of the idea that entered my mind just then was that something that concerned me very intimately was being worked out in the room across the passage.
I made one step forward and then I stopped abruptly. Some one else than Bryce was in the room. Out of the silence came a voice, a woman's voice. It was smooth and well-modulated, and there was the faintest touch of music in it. In some curious way it touched a stray chord in my memory. I knew at once that I had heard it before, but how or where I could no more say than I could fly. Perhaps that was because its full notes were muffled by the door that intervened.
"I'd do anything," the woman said in the quietest tones imaginable, "anything but that. You don't understand. If you knew all the circumstances, if you knew just how and why we parted you wouldn't ask me. I'm sorry for it all now, more sorry than you could believe, but you can't expect me to take up things just where they left off—as if nothing had happened."
"Bryce's got a little romance tucked away up his sleeve," I thought. "This sort of complicates matters. Wonder who the lady is?"
"My dear girl," came the reply in Bryce's tones, softer and more persuasive than I had ever heard them, "I know more perhaps than you think. I'm doing this out of the fullness of my knowledge in the hope that when I'm gone...."
"Don't!" the woman interrupted sharply. "Don't talk like that!"
"It's one of the things we've got to face," Bryce said gently. "I won't live for ever anyway, and you know as well as I do just what chance I run of having a period put to me ... any time now." The last three words were spoken very slowly and distinctly, as if Bryce wished them to sink into the mind of his companion. "You're the only person in the world that I care a hang about," he continued with a note of indescribable pathos in his voice, "and I'm doing all this for you ... and him."
"But I tell you," the girl said with a little flash of anger, "I tell you I won't have anything to do with him. If you bring him to the house I'll cut him dead."
"And put yourself doubly in the wrong and make it all the harder for everybody," Bryce told her.
There was a dogged note in the girl's voice as she replied. "I know I was wrong, but I just can't do what you want. I can't say more than that."
"I'm sorry you look at things that way," Bryce said. "I had hoped...." I did not catch the nature of his hope, for his voice dropped an octave or so and his sentence ended in whispers.
"Jimmy Carstairs," I said to myself, "you've been eavesdropping and you know it. You mustn't be caught doing those kind of things. Get out of the way as fast as you can," and at that I twisted round on my heel and went back down the hall. I hadn't any desire to be caught listening to conversations that were obviously not intended for me and that anyway weren't of the least interest. So you can be sure that when I did return up the hall I walked fairly heavily and coughed discreetly as soon as I was within hearing distance of Bryce's room.
The key turned in the lock of a sudden and the door was flung wide open. The girl stood in her own light so that the shadows masked her face, but the sun fell full on mine and my features must have been clearly visible to her.
"You!" she said, with a little catch in her voice.
"Shut the door, please," I said, in the most matter-of-fact tones I could muster. "Shut the door and come out here."
I knew her now. God! Could I ever forget her? In a flash my mind flew back through four years—or was it five?—to that evening when she had caused my little world to rock and tremble, and then to fall in pieces at my feet. I had loved her then—I thought I loved her more than anything or anyone in this world—but a dying father's wish had come between us. The poor old Dad had made a life study of the Islands—how monumental a study it was let his three volumes of Solomon Island Ethnology bear witness—yet he died before he had quite completed his notes. Though he had said nothing to me I knew the wish that lay nearest his heart, and I made his dying hour almost the happiest of his life by promising to carry on his work.
I remember the night I came out to tell her. The sky was streaked with dead gold and cerise and warm-tinted clouds trailed across the heavens like the ends of a scarf streaming from the neck of a hurrying woman. All the world was gay that evening and I whistled as I went. She was waiting at the gate as always she had waited for me. She greeted me with a smile and some bright little remark that I forgot practically the instant it was uttered.
"I want to talk to you," I said; "I want to talk seriously."
She smiled up at me, a trusting little smile as I thought. She had no idea what was coming, but she always gave me my head in the things that do not matter much.
"What is it, Jim?" she asked.
"It's this," I said, and then I told what I had promised.
"But that," she protested, "means burying yourself in New Guinea and the Solomons for four whole years."
"It does," I said. "There is no other way."
I had not been looking at her face—there had been no need, for I was quite convinced that she would see things in a proper light—but now I turned on her. To my surprise there was just the least little touch of annoyance in her face.
"You don't quite relish the idea," I said.
"It's a very foolish idea," she said quite frankly. "I don't know what you could have been thinking of."
"I was thinking of my father," I told her. "I was making his last hour happy, and he died in the knowledge that I would carry his work on to the conclusion he had planned."
"Are you going to see it through?" The abruptness of the question took me aback.
"Of course," I said. "What else could I do?"
"Four years!" she said. "What is to become of me?"
"The time will soon go by," I answered, "and then I'll come back to you and everything will be right."
"You seem to think of everyone but me," she said hotly. "You promised so that your father would die easy, and that's the end of it. If you are going to be bound by such a thing as that you're nothing more than an impractical idealist."
"I passed my word and a Carstairs never breaks a promise."
"You mean that, Jim? You mean that you are going away to ... carry out that absurd promise?"
"It's not absurd," I declared.
"I think it is," she said wilfully. "If you go, you need never come back."
"I am going," I said steadily. "As an honorable man there is no other course open to me. I'm sorry that you look at it this way, but I can't do anything else."
"At last I know how much you think of me," she said with that little touch of anger with which a woman always defends the indefensible. "You never did care for me."
"I do, I do," I protested. "Can't you see it?"
"I can't see anything," she said stubbornly, "except that you'd do this rather than listen to me. It shows all you think of me. Oh, I hate you! I never, never want to see you again!"
"Is that your last word?" I demanded.
"Absolutely my last," she answered firmly.
"Well," I said, "here's my last too. I'm going to carry out my promise, and if a man had spoken to me about it as you have spoken to me to-night I would have pulped his face."
"I really believe you would," she said exasperatingly. "You see, Jim, you were always something of a savage. That, I suppose, is why you are so anxious to go to the Islands ... where the savages are."
That was the very last word she had said to me, for the next moment the gate was banged behind her and shut me out of her life. I was hurt, badly hurt in my self-esteem, but my rising anger, burning hot within me, kept me from feeling as bad as I might have felt. In two months' time I landed at Tulagi on Florida Island, and for the next four years or so the civilised world knew me not. I reached finality, but I spent my fortune and came back to Australia to all intents and purposes a pauper. Four years...! Here she was facing me at last—just as if nothing had ever come between us.
"Yes, it's me," I said ungrammatically. "Why?"
She raised her hand to her throat with a queer little gesture. "I didn't quite expect to see you ... yet," she said.
"It's the unexpected that happens," I remarked. "I've come back at last, though in slightly different circumstances."
"I know, Jim. I've heard."
"He told you," I suggested, and nodded towards the door she had just closed.
"How do you know that?" she asked quickly.
"It is my business to know things," I told her. "I'm a professional caretaker of secrets now."
She looked at me blankly and I saw that he had not told her everything. It behoved me to play the game warily until I was sure of my ground.
"What are you doing here, Moira?" I asked her point-blank.
"That's a question I could ask you," she countered. "But I am here, not from any desire to meet you—I didn't know you were here—but because he sent for me."
"And why should he send for you?" I persisted.
There was just the faintest flicker of a smile moving about her lips now; she had turned a little and the light was playing on her face.
"For just the simplest reason in the world. He wanted me."
"Why should he want you?" I demanded.
She looked at me a moment as if astonished that I should ask such a question. But there was that in my eyes which told her that my ignorance was anything but assumed.
"You really mean to say you don't know?" she asked incredulously.
"If I did know I wouldn't question you about it," I said shortly. "What is the reason?"
"Well, you see," she answered lightly, with just a slight uplift of her eyebrows—an old theatrical trick that I used to admire in the days gone by—"he happens to be my uncle."
"That puts another complexion on matters," I said half to myself. But her quick ear caught the drift of my remark and she was down on me like the wolf on the fold.
"You're in with him, are you?" she questioned, with that devouring flame I knew so well flaring up in her golden-brown eyes. "You're in with him ... in this?"
In a way I wasn't. As a matter-of-fact I suspected from her last words that she knew more about everything than I did, but I was perfectly sure that she wouldn't believe me if I denied it, so I said instead, "Yes, I am."
"I might have known it," she said with a little shake of her head. I didn't quite follow her logic, but I judged it best to let it pass. One would think from the way she spoke that there was something reprehensible in being mixed up in anything conducted by her venerable relative. I wondered why.
"Yes, you might have known it," I said, falling in with her own humor. "I have a habit of doing things I shouldn't."
I knew she understood my veiled allusion, for I saw her bite her lip and again the lambent flame leaped up in her eyes. But it died as suddenly as it had come, and in another instant the old tantalising smile was playing about the corners of her mouth. In the smoky interminable depths of the Solomon Island jungle I had crushed that smile out of my life, for ever I had thought. I had deliberately erased it from my memory, and at night beside the smudge fire, when my eyes closed for an instant and that beautiful imperious face peeped at me from out of the mazes of recollection, I would open my eyes and stared fixedly at the misshapen headhunters who were my sole companions in that wilderness. "These," I would say, "are the kindred of us both. Their women smile as she smiles, and the men respond to it as I used to respond." And with that thought in my head I would fall asleep and not dream.
"Jim," she said with abrupt irrelevance, "you've changed. You usen't to be like that before. You're different somehow ... cynical, I think."
"That's more than likely," I agreed. "I'm learning to hit back. And now if you'll excuse me," I ran on before she had time to answer, "I'll just drop in with this parcel."
Then without more ado I turned on my heel and knocked at Bryce's door.
THE THIEF IN THE NIGHT.
"I've got those maps you wanted," I remarked as Bryce opened the door, "and I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long."
"You haven't," he said with a smile. "As a matter-of-fact I've been otherwise occupied. I've had a visitor."
"A visitor?" I said guardedly, though what on earth there was to guard against was more than I could have said just then. Some cross-grained streak in my nature made me both cantankerous and suspicious, and while the mood was on me I would have contradicted or queried the word of an archangel.
"Yes," Bryce replied. "The lady you met in the passage. I gather that she knows you."
"We knew each other years ago," I said shortly. In a flash the meaning of the conversation I had overheard burst on me. I began to perceive that her presence in the house was due in part at least to me. Well, if he fancied he was going to patch up our old love affair he had undertaken a bigger job than he thought. For two pins I would have told him, had he uttered another word, that there was one matter in which I would brook no man's interference, and that even the ties that bound him to my father were not strong enough to allow him to settle what was nobody's affair but mine. But, with even greater tact than I believed he possessed, he switched the conversation on to quite another subject and talked to me for the better part of half-an-hour about the maps I had brought.
He had the formation of the country and its industries at his fingers' ends, and he spoke like a man who had gained his information at first-hand. I listened attentively, for I guessed in some queer fashion of my own that the maps and that foolish cryptogram, the shooting on the beach and the piece of driftwood were all somehow connected. But either I must have missed some very obvious point or else he picked his words so carefully that he misled me.
I used my eyes for all they were worth, which wasn't much. The typewriter stood on the table in its old position, and the table itself was littered with sheets of typed figures. "More timber measurements," I said to myself. Somehow the sight of those sheets troubled me. They were innocent-looking enough in all conscience, and I couldn't for the life of me understand why they should have this peculiar effect on me. I felt as if a cold gust of wind, the icy breath of Death himself, had passed and touched me in the passing. I flatter myself that I have pretty strong nerves—the Lord knows they've been tested often enough—but there was something in the atmosphere of that room, something in the sight of those littered sheets of paper, that sent a cold shiver through me, that made me want to rush from the place into the golden sunshine out of doors. It was a presentiment, but one that could not be localised. It did not appear to be one that could be shared either, for Bryce still talked on in his own quaint way, apparently unaffected by the strange influence which so troubled me.
At last he rose and proceeded to gather up the disordered papers on the table. I rose too, and with a careless "So long," was making for the door when he stopped me with a question.
"I suppose," he asked, "that you haven't seen anything lately of our inquisitive friends?"
"The Roman sentry and the gentleman with the hardware and the smashed wrist?" I answered his question with one of mine.
He smiled at my description and the laughter-lines about his mouth creased into a myriad wrinkles. "You have them exactly," he remarked.
"No, I haven't seen them," I said. "They seem to have disappeared into nothingness."
Curiously enough the news, instead of pleasing, seemed to disappoint him. "They evidently mean business," he said in a semi-undertone. It seemed almost as if he was speaking his thoughts out aloud.
He glanced up at me with brooding eyes and brows drawn close together. "We'll hear from them presently," he murmured, "and then the end won't be far away."
"Cheer up," I said hastily, "They've got a long way to go yet, and I don't think they'll find me altogether pleasant to deal with."
"If you knew all about it," he said, and then he hesitated. For just the fraction of a second he trembled on the point of divulging everything, and then his old cautiousness re-asserted itself and the impulse died away.
"That'll be all," he said briskly. "Just keep your eyes and your ears open, Jim, and, as you say, we'll beat them yet."
But I rather fancied from his tone that he meant that last sentence the other way about.
* * * * *
I came awake instantly. The noise that had awakened me still echoed in my ears and, though I could not put a name to it, I could have sworn that it came from the room where Bryce did his typing. It was a very faint noise, not the kind to bring a heavy sleeper instantly awake. But my nerves work like a hair-trigger, and the almost noiseless pad of a cat across the room at night is sufficient to rouse me. What I had heard had been so faint that a less matter-of-fact man might have imagined that he had dreamt it. But I knew better. I don't dream.
The obvious thing was to slip out of bed at once and investigate. I didn't. I knew a trick worth two of that. I sat up and listened. It might be a wandering tabby that had blundered into a piece of furniture; perhaps the window had creaked; it might be any one of half a hundred things. If there was an intruder in the house I felt certain that presently I would hear something more. No man, no matter how careful he be, can move with a complete absence of sound.
Five minutes passed, ten, a quarter of an hour. Nothing happened. And then, just as I was beginning to despair, I heard it again. It was a little plainer this time. Somebody had scraped a chair across the floor and it had creaked slightly.
That was more than enough for me. I slipped out of bed, but I did not hurry. Many a man with the prize almost within his grasp has lost it simply because he has rushed at it with his eyes shut. I didn't dawdle, but I said to myself, "The more haste the less speed, Jim," and accordingly I took my time. Of course if I had fancied that there was one chance in a hundred of the man getting away, I would have been on the spot like a shot, but I guessed from what I had heard that the visitor was in no hurry, and certainly hadn't the faintest suspicion that anyone in the house was aware of his presence. I got my clothes on somehow and took a grip of my long Colt by the barrel end. I didn't want to shoot unless there was no other way out of it, and anyway a revolver-shot kicks up such an infernal racket inside a house and brings on the scene quite a number of people who'd be better at home and in bed.
I slunk down the passage like a shadow, walking as if I were treading on eggs. Very softly I tried the door. To my disgust it was locked. Now the only time Bryce ever locked it was when he was at work inside, so I knew that my man was still within reach. As if to make assurance doubly sure I caught, as I stepped back, the faint gleam of a pencil of light from under the doorway.
The position as I summed it up was this:—The intruder had entered through the door and had quietly locked it behind him. That would have been the first noise I had heard. Then he had hunted about for whatever he wanted and, once it had been found, he had drawn the chair up to the table and settled down to a prolonged study of the matter. That would explain the two sounds. Now as my man had come in through the door he was almost certain to go out the same way and, in the interests of peace and quiet, the proper course to take was to sit down and wait until he decided to come out.
I can't say how long I waited there. It seemed like hours, but of course at the outside it could not have been many minutes. I would dearly have liked to smoke, but I rather fancied that the other man's nose would be sure to scent me out. Also a scrape of a match in a still house at the dead of night sounds like a bomb-explosion. So I just squatted down on my heels and cursed my man under my breath. I was in deadly fear most of the time that he would make a noise of some kind and bring the other inhabitants down about my ears. He was my meat, and I meant to eat him myself.
At length the pencil of light went out. Somebody moved stealthily across the room and the key turned softly in the lock. I balanced the gun in my hand and got ready to swing. It was pitch-dark in the hall and I could not see an inch in front of me, but I had my fingers right up against the jamb of the door and I could feel it opening. The man was breathing with a barely perceptible wheeze and, if I had not been listening for something of the kind, I might have missed it altogether. But it was quite loud enough for me to position the fellow, and the next instant I flopped out of the darkness on to him. He gave a surprised little gasp, a sort of sizzling like the air escaping out of a punctured tyre, and went down on the mat underneath me. I had taken him so completely off his guard that there was no need for me to use my gun. I got one hand on his throat in the most approved style of the garrotte and just pressed. He wriggled a little at first, but I kept up the same even pressure, and presently he went limp. I knew then that he was harmless for the next ten minutes, so I released my hold, slipped my useless Colt into my pocket, and made to stand up. But at that precise moment the electric light in the hall went on, and a silvery voice said, "Hands up, please!"
In the astonishment of the moment I shot my hands heavenwards and turned round to view the new arrival. It was just as I thought. Moira had blundered into my little surprise party, and she was doing her level best to annex all the honors for herself. She was standing with one hand on the light switch and the other held Bryce's automatic. Her face was very pale, and the hand that held the revolver wasn't quite as steady as I could have wished. She blinked a little at me—her eyes seemed blinded by the sudden radiance—and I don't think she recognised me for the moment, so much do one's ordinary clothes make the man.
It was clearly up to me to disillusion her and persuade her either to put down the revolver or hold it in a way less calculated to alarm the peaceful public.
"You'd better put down that infernal thing, Moira," I said calmly, "or you'll be doing someone damage. The mere sight of you makes me nervous, Diana."
There was a studied insult in the last word, but I think somehow she must have missed it in the excitement of the moment, for she lowered her gun and ran towards me.
"Oh, it's you!" she cried surprisedly.
"It's me," I said dourly, and I dropped my hands into a more convenient position. "In fact it's so much me that I'd be obliged if you'd keep quiet for a while and help me look after this gentleman on the floor. I want to examine him, and I don't think I'll be able to do it in comfort if you wake the rest of the family."
"Who is he?" she asked, showing by the subdued note of her voice that she had taken my warning to heart.
"That's more than I can say," I answered. "I discovered him in the room there, and when he came out I promptly sat on him."
"But what did he want?"
"If one can judge anything from his present attitude, he came to study the pattern of the carpet, Moira."
"Be serious, Jim, please."
"I couldn't if I tried," I said, rising to my feet. "It's too much like hard work. But let's look at the captive, Diana."
This time the shot went home, and in a way I was glad. I had four years' arrears to make up yet. It was not a very manly thing to do, I know—it certainly wasn't at all gentlemanly—but it gave me a deuce of a lot of satisfaction, and that's about all I can say in defence. She looked up at me with both hurt and contempt in her eyes, but I was far too engrossed in the business in hand to give her more than passing notice. When I came to think it over in calmer moments I realised that, despite all that had happened, the girl was just as much in love with me as ever she had been.
The fellow was young, at the most he could not have been more than twenty-four or five, and I saw instantly that he was the man I had called the Roman sentry—the chap who had been spying on the house the day Bryce had driven me home from the Heads. The life wasn't crushed out of him by any means; even as I examined him he stirred a little and his eyes opened. They were nice black eyes, the sort that brim over with humor, yet way at the back of them I caught a glimpse of something else. It was a queer mixture of anger and determination, and I saw just sufficient of it to warn me to take no unnecessary risks. Save for that first spasmodic movement he lay perfectly still, those black eyes of his laughing up at me and challenging. Somehow they filled me with a curious sense of unrest, a feeling as if everything that made life safe and secure was slipping away from me. I did not speak a word, however, but gave him back look for look, striving with my eyes to beat down the challenge I read in his. They said as plainly as so many words, "I'm the better man, and I'll beat you yet. Try and see if I don't."
"What are you doing here?" I demanded at length, seeing that one of us must speak, and he seemed the less likely.
"If I told you I was a somnambulist you wouldn't believe me, would you?" he replied.
"I wouldn't," I said tersely.
"I'm not, anyway," he continued, with those infernally self-possessed eyes daring me ... daring me what?
"You've got to explain what you were doing in that room," I threatened. "The sooner you tell me the better it'll be for you."
"It's no use talking like that, my friend," he said. "You won't get a word more out of me than I wish, and while I think of it you'd better call in the police at once and have done with it."
It was the first time that the idea of the police had occurred to me, and, now I came to think of it, it wasn't too acceptable. Without knowing much about it, I surmised that the less Bryce had to do with the police the better he'd be pleased, that is if I could base anything on the way he had behaved that morning on the beach. As it was Moira seemed to have much the same idea as myself, or perhaps she spoke from superior knowledge.
"Don't call the police in, Jim," she said in a quick whisper. "You mustn't do that. It'd be better to let him go."
I shook my head. "I don't want to let him go," I said, "but if you don't want to make an example of him, I don't see what else there is for it. I'll have a word with him first, at any rate, and see what I can make out of him."
"Be careful, Jim," she whispered, all the strain and anger occasioned by my ill-timed insult disappearing in her anxiety for my welfare.
I ignored her admonition, more because I could think of no suitable reply than for any other reason, and addressed myself to the captive.
"Get up," I said. "You and I are going to have a little heart-to-heart talk."
He made no effort to rise, so I leaned over and hauled him up by the collar. By the feel of him he was some forty pounds lighter than I, and I made a mental note of that in case we had a scrimmage on the way. Weight counts a good deal in a rough-and-tumble. I got a good neck-hold on him, and then I turned to Moira. "You'd better get back to bed and forget," I said. "I'll deal with this smart Alec here."
I did not wait to see if she took my advice, but I prodded my captive with my free hand. "Jog along, Eliza," I said. "Straight down the hall, and don't try any monkey tricks."
He went quietly enough; if I had had my wits about me I would have had my suspicions aroused by that same fact. I was flushed with victory, and, what was even more pleasant, I was acting to an impressionable audience. I was sure that Moira could not fail to appreciate the neatness with which I had conducted the whole affair, and, though I kept telling myself that I did not care a hang for her, I hadn't the faintest objection to showing off before her. On the contrary. That, in part at least, was the cause of my undoing.
The hall ended in a big French window that opened out on to the back verandah. It was very seldom used, indeed I had never seen it opened, but there it was with glass all the way to the floor. When I marched my prisoner down the hall I had some vague idea of taking him out on to the verandah and inducing him to tell me what he had come for. But the man had other plans maturing, and when we were just about six or seven feet away from the window he gave a little twist and a wriggle and slipped out of my hands as if he had been an eel. Then, before I had quite recovered sufficiently to make a grab at the empty air, he hurled himself against the window. It was one of those foolhardy things that succeed just because of the sheer, daring recklessness of the man who carries them through. He swept through the glass with a splintering crash that must have been audible for half-a-block away, and then, while the falling pieces still tinkled on the floor, he placed his hand on the verandah rail and vaulted to the ground. I drew my revolver at once—I had been pulling it out of my pocket even as I ran down the hall—and took a flying shot at him. But in the hurry of the moment I missed, and I padded out on to the verandah through the splintered window just in time to see him scaling the back fence with the practised ease of the family tabby.
I did not attempt to follow him. I knew the uselessness of such a proceeding. Just for the fraction of a second his hurrying silhouette had shown on the top of the fence, and then it had melted into the surrounding shadows of the dawn with a silence and celerity which, more than anything else, told me how difficult it would be to trace him.
I turned on my heel, only to find that the lights were blazing up in practically every room, and Moira, Bryce and the servants were gathered in a huddled, indecisive group just inside the window. Most of them looked startled. Bryce had been a little shaken, but his self-possession was rapidly returning. Moira, indeed, was the only one who faced me with anything like calmness in her face.
"You'd better all get back to bed," I said, seeing that someone had to take the initiative. "It's nothing very much, nothing to worry you at any rate."
"Yes, you'd better go back," Bryce said, seconding my remarks. "There's nothing doing."
The servants moved away one by one, leaving the three of us together. For quite a minute Bryce eyed the revolver that I still held in my hand, then his glance travelled to the shattered window, and, completing the circle, came to rest on me again.
"Well?" he queried, with intense interest in his voice. I knew what that monosyllable meant. It was a request for a detailed account of the events of that night. Seeing that there was nothing to be gained by withholding anything, I plunged into the tale and related everything just as it had happened.
"So he got away from you?" he remarked when I had finished.
"He did," I said emphatically.
"That's about the best thing he could have done," Bryce ran on. "I don't know what we could have done with him if we had kept him."
"'He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day,'" I reminded him.
"That other day is a matter for the future," he answered. "We'd better see what he took though. Come on."
He turned on his heel and led the way to his study just as the first rays of the rising sun crept up over the distant hills.
The room was much as we had left it the evening before. The typed papers had disappeared, but a sheet which I recognised as the one I had picked up from the kitchen floor the day of my arrival lay on the table in full view. Beside it was the clean blotting pad that I had never yet seen used. Bryce took no notice of the sheet of figures, but lifted the pad up, and, drawing a magnifying glass from his pocket, ran his eyes over the rough white surface. Moira and I watched him with unfeigned interest. At last he looked up.
"Just as I thought," he remarked. "Have a look yourself, Jim." He handed both glass and pad to me. I studied the latter for some seconds before I quite dropped to what he meant. Gradually I made out figures impressed on the rough surface. Our midnight visitor had made a copy of that single sheet, had made it hurriedly in pencil, and the impression had gone through on to the receptive softness of the blotting paper. My scrutiny over, I handed the materials to Moira.
"You understand?" Bryce queried, with little laughter-wrinkles about his eyes.
"I do," I said admiringly. "I don't know what the man was after, but he didn't get it. He got a fake instead."
Bryce nodded. "He's up a gum-tree instead of under one," he said enigmatically.
I made no answer to that, chiefly because it struck me that it was the sort of remark that meant a good deal more than appeared on the surface. I tucked it away in my memory, quite confident that sooner or later the march of events would make it clear to me. As a matter of fact, if I hadn't taken so much notice of that simple sentence, this story would never have been written, for the key to everything was contained in that casual remark.
"Nothing else has been disturbed," Bryce announced, and included the whole room in one comprehensive gesture. "I'm going back to bed for a couple of hours. You young people can do just what you like."
He hustled us out of the room, shut the door carefully behind us, and went off to his room. Moira made no attempt to follow his example, but stood in the passage with her deep golden-brown eyes fixed on me. There was a look in them that I could not quite fathom; it whirled me back through five years of sorrow and stress, brought me back to the days when——. No, I wasn't going to think about it at all. It didn't bring me back to anything; it brought nothing back to me. Yet I could not help remarking that her eyes held solicitude for me and something that was more than that.
"Aren't you going back to rest?" I asked, and was surprised to note that there was both interest and defiance in my voice.
"I want to talk to you," she said, answering my question by inference. "I want to talk seriously to you."
So it was coming at last. She intended putting Bryce's advice into execution. Perhaps she thought it was merely a matter of telling me that she was sorry for what had occurred, and then everything would begin again just where it had left off. If she thought so she was radically mistaken. My love had been rejected and I had been wounded in my pride. Through four long years of repression the knowledge had rankled in my mind till now the very sight of her standing there and beseeching me with her eyes was more than I could bear. I would not have been human had I not felt the old wound pricking me again, and I certainly would not have been a Carstairs had the mere sight of her apparent contrition moved me to forgive her on the spot. I was quite willing to be friendly, I told myself, but by nothing short of a miracle could we regain the old footing. The worst of it was that something moved me to take her in my arms then and there and kiss away the tears that were very near her eyes.
"I don't know what to say to you, Jim," she said tentatively.
"There's no need to say anything, Moira." I tried to speak as kindly as possible, but somehow I think I failed. "I happened to overhear you and your uncle yesterday, and I know just what you mean. But, Moira, I don't see how things can ever be the same again. It isn't as if it were something I could forget. It isn't. It goes right down to the fundamentals. If our love wouldn't stand the strain I put on it, it wasn't worth having. I hate to have to speak to you like this, but, when all's said and done, it's just as well to be frank first as last."
She nodded with tight-closed lips. I saw that she was trying her hardest to keep control of herself, and for a moment it was touch and go with me. I very seldom set my mind to anything that I don't carry through, and in this instance I had a very clear and definite plan outlined in my mind. So I just set my teeth and carried it off as if nothing really mattered very much.
"You heard us yesterday then?" she said at length. She spoke so slowly that she almost drawled her words.
"That's what you were doing then when I came out of the room?"
"Exactly," I said. I fancied it would only make matters worse if I explained everything in detail.
"I was wrong, Jim, and I apologise," she said. There was a little gleam of flame in her eyes that made me hang on her words. "I was wrong," she repeated. "I said yesterday that you had changed, but I don't think you have. You're just the same old Jim, a bit of a savage and just as primitive as ever."
"Thank you, Moira," I said. "I didn't expect it from you, but now I know what to look for."
"It is war then?" she said, with a little sparkle in her eyes.
"War it is," I answered; "as the Spaniards say, 'Guerra al cuchillo.'"
"Please translate," she requested. "I do not speak Spanish."
"War to the knife," I said briskly.
She half turned, then spoke to me over her shoulder. "I had hoped that we would be allies," she said softly, and was gone before I could ask her why.
As was only to be expected, things were very quiet during the next few days. Bryce went about his own affairs more openly than hitherto. With the passing of our midnight visitor all fear of attack seemed to have disappeared. He did not say as much to me, but in many little ways he showed that he was much easier in his mind. I found that I had next to nothing to do. He did not go out of his way now to find something to keep me occupied. As a matter of fact, I saw very little of him and practically nothing at all of Moira.
I spent most of my time thinking. I went over everything that had happened from the moment I sat down on the beach right down to the visit of that interesting and entertaining gentleman who had made his exit from the house in so unorthodox a manner. There was logic running right through the piece; every little incident seemed to dovetail into the others, yet, because I did not have the key, I could not read the riddle. Why did the man on the beach fire at Bryce? I could not say. Then just for amusement's sake I got a piece of paper and a pencil and dotted down the items that wanted explaining. They ran somehow like this:—
1. Why was Bryce shot at?
2. Why was he being watched?
3. What was the meaning of those figures I had seen?
4. Why was Bryce so anxious to avoid publicity?
5. Why did everybody seem satisfied when the burglar got away?
6. What was the burglar after, and why was he apparently satisfied even when he got the wrong figures?
7. What did the piece of driftwood have to do with it, and what connection was there between the wood and the typed figures?
And, lastly, what was it all about, anyhow?
Some of the items taken singly were quite susceptible of explanation, but I could not put forward any solution that covered them in toto. So eventually I gave it up, deciding that it wasn't my affair, and the less I worried myself about what didn't concern me, the better.
* * * * *
The tragedy, coming as it did like a bolt out of a clear sky, so upset everything that I really cannot say whether it was a week or ten days later that it happened. But I do remember, with that accuracy of detail that a man sometimes retains even when he is doubtful of essentials, the various events of that evening.
Immediately after tea Bryce rose from the table with the expressed intention of going to his study. I recall that he remarked to Moira as he passed her that everything was going along swimmingly, and that if he had no further word during the next couple of days he would consider that it was quite safe to try his luck. I didn't understand what he meant, though he seemed to be referring in a general way to the late burglary, if burglary it could be called. Moira was quite aware of the drift of his remarks, for she asked him wouldn't it be better to let the week elapse before he did anything.
"We've waited too long," he said. "We should have got to work long before. Too much time has been wasted already." Then he turned to me and said casually, "Drop in and see me later on, Jim. I'll be working till about ten."
I told him that I'd be along very shortly, and then I went hunting for a book to read. I found one at length, and I got so interested in it that I did not notice time passing. I was brought back to reality by a quick step in the passage, and I turned my head to view the newcomer. It was only Moira on her way to the study. She went by me with her head in the air, as if I did not exist. I recall taking out my watch and noting that it was just a quarter-past-nine, and high time I went in and saw Bryce. However, as Moira had got in ahead of me, and her business was probably of a private nature, I decided to wait until I heard her come out again.
I turned back to my book, but had scarcely found my place when I caught the tinkle of breaking glass on woodwork, and practically at the same instant there was a sharp "pop," as if someone had drawn a cork from a bottle of some gaseous liquid. On the heels of that had come the single whip-like crack of a revolver. I swung to my feet in an instant, and the book dropped unheeded to the floor. During the last few days I had got out of the habit of carrying my revolver, but for all that I made straight for the study, and without the slightest ceremony turned the handle. The door was not locked; it opened at my touch. I doubt if it was even latched.