The Rider of Waroona
By Firth Scott
Author of "The Track of Midnight," "The Last Lemurian," "Romance of Polar Exploration," etc.
London John Long, Limited Norris Street, Haymarket
All rights reserved
First Published in 1912
SOME PRESS OPINIONS OF THE AUTHOR'S WORKS
Daily Chronicle:—"Mr. Scott knows the colonial, native born, to the bones and the marrow."
Westminster Gazette:—"To say that each of them is a gem is not saying too much."
Globe:—"Mr. Firth Scott writes a straightforward, vigorous style, and has a keen eye for effective incident."
World:—"Deserves grateful recognition by lovers of tales well told."
Morning Post:—"The story of Australian settlement is of enthralling interest."
Saturday Review:—"This interesting and instructive book is very pleasant reading."
Literary World:—"Mr. Firth Scott's stories are, alternately imbued with rare glamour and realism. In either atmosphere he is entertaining, and in both convincing."
AT ALL LIBRARIES AND BOOKSELLERS
I. CROTCHETY DUDGEON 9 II. THE RIDDLE 21 III. DISAPPEARED 34 IV. DURHAM'S SURMISE 44 V. MRS. BURKE'S PRESENTIMENT 58 VI. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW 79 VII. SNARED 93 VIII. THE NOTE THAT FAILED 103 IX. DUDGEON'S HOSPITALITY 118 X. "FOOLED" 133 XI. MRS. BURKE'S REBUFF 156 XII. AS THROUGH A MIST 173 XIII. REVENGE IS SWEET 191 XIV. THE LAST STRAW 211 XV. THE RIDER'S SCORN 227 XVI. LOVE'S CONQUEST 244 XVII. DUDGEON PROPOSES 265 XVIII. UNMASKED 286 XIX. THE ASHES OF SILENCE 307
In an old, rackety, single-horse buggy, a vehicle which, to judge by the antiquity of its build and appearance and the rattle of its loose worn bolts, might have done duty since the days of the first pioneers, Dudgeon drove from his homestead to the bank.
He was a man who never discarded any article of use or clothing until it was hopelessly beyond repair. With a huge fortune stowed away in gilt-edged securities and metropolitan house property, he grudged even a coat of paint for the vehicle he had driven for nearly forty years. The local wheelwright had long since declined to attempt to repair it, so the old man fell back on fencing-wire and his own skill whenever the final collapse seemed imminent.
There was a legend circulating among the older residents of the district as to the reason for his peculiarities. To the younger generation it was merely an out-of-date story, for young Australia has scant heed for everything which does not come within his own personal range of experience or knowledge. But the legend, as extant, gave some significance to the seemingly unreasonable actions of the eccentric old man.
In the early days, when railways were not and the land was open and free for the bold young bloods to conquer, Dudgeon had come out from the coastal cities of the south. He had health and strength, and a heart which knew not fear; but whatever of wealth he had had was left in the hands of gambling sharks in the cities whence he came. He arrived at the township on foot, a rare occurrence in those days when no man journeyed half a mile except in the saddle. But the fact that he had walked "looking for work," as he said, drew so much attention to him that offers were made from all sides to hire his services. He accepted the best, and went to Waroona Downs with the then owner, one Henry Lambton, who, with his wife and daughter, resided at the house beyond the range.
Another was there also, a young man about Dudgeon's age, an Irishman named O'Guire, a dashing, reckless fellow who made up in sharpness of wit and trickery what he lacked in moral stability and scruples. Indirectly, he was the pivot on which the course of Dudgeon's life turned from the normal.
The direct cause was Kitty Lambton.
In a community where men predominate, every woman ranks as a belle; but throughout Waroona and the districts for hundreds of miles round, Kitty was queen, acknowledged even by her sister rivals. Before her charms young Dudgeon fell prostrate in adoration, and she, jealous of her sway over all with whom she came in contact, trifled and philandered with him until neither earth nor heaven held anything more adorable for him than herself. He was her slave, devoting himself to her with such abandon that her vanity was gratified to the extent of influencing her, when others began to remark upon the manly attractions of her admirer, to allow him the privilege of believing that she would marry him.
But she was only trifling with him, callously and not too gently, for the edification of herself and her real lover, O'Guire. The truth leaked out when one day O'Guire vanished from the district and with him vanished Kitty.
Thereafter Dudgeon was a changed man. Filled with an insensate belief that Lambton and his wife were mainly, if not entirely, responsible for an ill which brought them almost as much suffering as it brought him, he went from the place, hugging schemes of deep vengeance to his breast. It was in the days of the early gold finds, and Fortune showered on Dudgeon her compensation for the injury of Love. All that came to him he took and treasured, until he had enough for his purpose. Then he returned to Waroona, and set about exacting the full measure of his revenge upon the Lambtons.
He drove them from Waroona Downs, following them from the district when they went, following them until he found them living with Kitty and her husband in one of the southern cities, struggling fiercely for a bare existence. The slings and arrows of misfortune had not brought out the better side of O'Guire's nature and, at the time Dudgeon pounced down upon them, he had only just emerged from prison. Detail was lacking in the current legend as to what immediately happened thereafter, for when Dudgeon came back to Waroona Downs he was silent on the subject, and only rumours filtered through of Lambton and his wife going down, each heart-broken, to a pauper's grave, while O'Guire and his wife barely eluded the final act of vengeance by escaping over sea.
Under Dudgeon's ownership Waroona Downs flourished, and later he acquired the largest station in the district. The success he enjoyed at Waroona Downs followed him. His ownership of Taloona alone made him the richest man in the community.
But no amount of money could bring back to him the nature which had been his before the bitterness of betrayal changed him to a misanthropical cynic. His hatred of women was not appeased by the revenge he had on the Lambtons and O'Guires. He would not employ a woman; he would not employ a man who was married; he would not tolerate the presence of a woman on any of his properties. However valuable a man might be to him as an employee, instant dismissal was inevitable directly that man announced his intention of marrying.
In one instance the effect of this rule recoiled almost entirely on his own head, but that did not deter Dudgeon from adhering to it.
He employed a man, first as overseer, then as manager, and finally as confidential factotum. Unknown to him, Dudgeon set numberless traps and pitfalls to test his reliability, and when, on every occasion, the man came through the tests unscathed, he received so much consideration from the taciturn old misanthrope, that he was currently regarded in the light of the heir to the Dudgeon millions.
Perhaps something of the current belief crept into his own mind, for there came a time when he cast his eyes upon the sister of a neighbour and, braving the risk of Dudgeon's anger, sought her hand in marriage. Unfortunately for him she accepted him, and the news, travelling apace, reached the ears of Dudgeon before the happy lover had a chance to impart it personally. The old man rode direct to the station.
"I'll have no women folk on my property," he blurted out as soon as he was face to face with his factotum. "Nor any man who has dealings with them. Clear out."
It was vain to argue. All appeals to years of bygone service, all reference to business transactions then pending which would be jeopardised by the removal of the man who had the negotiations in hand, were curtly brushed aside. Dudgeon had spoken, and no power on earth would change him from his purpose. The would-be Benedick had chosen, and by that choice he had to abide.
From that arose a quarrel with the bank, for the sudden dismissal led to an important transaction failing for the want of a simple act. The bank officials, knowing the man with whom they were dealing waited for the instructions which never came. Had they acted without them he would probably have repudiated their action, but as they did not act, he blamed them for his loss, accused them of dishonesty and removed his account, vowing never to have dealings with them again if he could avoid it, and always putting them to the greatest inconvenience when he was compelled to deal with or through them.
Now, by an irony of fate, he was forced to have dealings with them again, dealings which he resented for more reasons than his antagonism to the institution, and dealings, moreover, which he was prepared to leave no stone unturned to bring to naught.
He had placed Waroona Downs in the hands of Gale, the local auctioneer, for sale. The one condition he had imposed was that the purchaser should be a resident of the district, a condition he had considered ample to prevent the property passing into the possession of one of the opposite—and hated—sex. Yet that condition had failed. A purchaser had been found, a purchaser for whom the bank was acting, and a purchaser who, while being a resident in the district, was also a woman.
Dudgeon—"Crotchety Dudgeon" as he was termed by his neighbours, who, despite his wealth, usually regarded him as being of no account in the general scheme of Nature—had done his best to repudiate the bargain; had blustered and fumed, threatening actions and penalties against all and sundry, but in vain. The bank officials were polite, listening to all he had to say in silence and only speaking in cold, precise, formal phrases to reiterate the intention of the purchaser to hold to her bargain, and the readiness of the bank to complete, on her behalf, the transaction.
He refused to meet or see her, but he could not help hearing of her, and what he heard only served to stimulate his resentment, for her name, Nora Burke, recalled memories of his Irish rival O'Guire, while the bitterness of his surrender to the charms of Kitty Lambton was revived when he understood that Mrs. Burke also belonged to the fascinating type of woman.
She had, he learned, the coal-black hair of the Western Irish, and grey-blue eyes which flickered and flashed behind thick dark lashes. What her other features were he did not hear, for her wealth of hair and the charm of her eyes carried all before them. But, as a matter of fact, no other feature was conspicuously beautiful, and it was difficult to realise where the charm of her face rested until the full force of the dark-lashed eyes was recognised. Within them lay the secret of the power she wielded.
Although not above the average height, a graceful and well-proportioned figure gave the impression of a greater stature. One of the most accomplished horsewomen who ever sat a side-saddle, her appearance on horseback would alone have sufficed, in a community like Waroona, to have won for her the admiration and homage of the public. But there were yet other reasons for the popularity she acquired within an hour of her arrival.
Forty miles from a railway, the township was the centre of a district divided into a series of sheep stations. When the season came for shearing the wool and despatching it to the markets in the cities on the coast hundreds of miles away, the population was fairly respectable in point of numbers, though with the riff-raff which formed the army of camp followers moving in the track of the shearers and teamsters, respectability was not otherwise manifest. But at other periods of the year, there were few men and fewer women scattered over the area marked on the map as Waroona, and including as many square miles as some English counties possess acres. Wherefore the arrival of any new-comer was an event; but when that new-comer was a woman, and one, moreover, of the many personal charms and accomplishments of Mrs. Burke, it was inevitable that her advent should form the subject of something more than passing interest.
Her frank manner of speech also helped her, for there is nothing more objectionable to the average Colonial than the person who is reserved on the subject of his or her private and personal concerns.
There was no such reserve with Mrs. Burke. She had not been twenty-four hours in Waroona before it was known that she was a young widow left with a stepson to bring up and educate on the rents from an impoverished Irish estate. Year by year it became more and more difficult, she said, to collect those rents from tenants to whom politics were more attractive than commercial obligations. Therefore, when a chance occurred for her to sell the estate, she did not hesitate to entertain it. But, in order that her stepson might still derive as much benefit as possible from the wreck of his ancestors' wealth, she determined, before selling, to seek in Australia a new heritage for the last of the Burkes.
Waroona Downs was suggested to her as the very place to suit her, and Gale at once offered it to her. The negotiations were rapidly completed, and the community was collectively rejoicing at the good fortune of having so desirable an acquisition as the handsome Irishwoman added to it when a miniature thunder-bolt fell in the form of the emphatic refusal of the owner to sell the property to a woman.
Following the advice of her many friends and admirers, Mrs. Burke took up her residence at the place so that she might claim the nine points of the law possession is said to give, while she handed to the bank the deeds of her Irish property, and against them the bank agreed to complete the purchase.
Popular opinion was entirely with the young widow, and popular opinion was strong enough to force Dudgeon back to the last resource. This was a demand that the purchase price of the station should be paid in gold.
The price was twenty-five thousand pounds and, as Dudgeon well knew, there was not such a quantity of coin to be found in the district, where it was the almost invariable practice to pay everything by cheque or order. He had preferred his demand formally; had waited for a reply that the bank was prepared to meet it and, as no such reply had reached him, was about to declare the matter at an end.
He drew up at the bank. Eustace, the manager, was speaking to his assistant as the old man entered.
"I've come for the money," he said abruptly, and stood by the counter, holding out his gnarled, bony hands.
"You mean the purchase money for Waroona Downs, Mr. Dudgeon?" Eustace replied suavely. "You are rather early, are you not?"
"I gave you notice three days ago. You'll pay over or the deal's off. Which is it?"
Harding, the assistant, passed a document to Eustace.
"These are the terms of the sale, Mr. Dudgeon," Eustace said in the same smooth tone. "The completion of the purchase is to be performed one month from the date on which the agreement to buy was made. Mrs. Burke agreed on the 20th of last month. To-day is the 17th. She has therefore three days before you can make your final demand."
Dudgeon grabbed the document and read it through. The wording was as Eustace had said. He had played his card too soon.
"I'll beat you yet," he cried as he flung the paper across the counter. "No matter what it costs, I'll never have a woman owning one of my properties. You're a lot of scheming scoundrels, but I'll beat you yet."
He bounced out and flogged his horse to a gallop as he drove away.
"If the head office had sent off the gold at once when I wired, it would have been here by now," Eustace said to his assistant.
"Then everyone would have known it was here, and there is no saying what might have happened," Harding jestingly answered. "Anyway, it is due to-night."
Later, when the bank had closed for the day, a light waggon drew up at the door with a couple of men in it.
"We've some books and boxes of stationery for you from the Wyalla branch," one of the men called out as Eustace opened the door and looked out.
A bushman slouching past with his roll of blankets slung across his back, glanced round at the waggon and continued his way to the hotel. Eustace and Harding both helped to carry the bundles and boxes into the bank. When they were all inside Eustace turned to the men.
"You'll have some dinner with us before you go back?" he asked.
"Can't, old chap. Head office orders. Don't know what sort of people the general manager thinks you've got in this part, but the strictest secrecy in everything were our instructions, so Ted and I are teamsters and nothing but teamsters till we get back to our own branch. So long, old chap."
"It does seem a lot of rot," Harding remarked when the waggon was away again.
"You haven't been here long enough to know old Dudgeon, Harding. Let us get the gold into the safe—we'll put it in the reserve recess. I only hope the old man comes in again to-morrow morning, so that we can pay it over and get clear of it and his business."
But the next day passed without any sign of Dudgeon, and after a last look round to see that all was right Eustace and Harding bade one another good night with the hope that on the morrow Dudgeon would come for his gold, though there was still another day before he could legally demand it.
At five minutes to ten the following morning Eustace awakened to find the sunlight streaming into his room, the bank in absolute silence, and his head so light and dizzy he could scarcely stand when he sprang out of bed.
He glanced at the alarm clock on the mantelpiece. The alarm was set for six, the hour at which Eustace almost invariably awakened. He had no recollection of hearing it ring that morning, yet only a touch was required to show that it had gone off at the proper time.
His wife still lay in deepest slumber.
"Jess! Jess!" he cried, as he shook her. "Wake up, Jess! It's nearly ten o'clock. Wake up! Wake up!"
She stirred heavily, uneasily, drowsily.
"Wake up! Wake up!" he repeated. "Look what time it is."
She sat up with a gasp, pressing her hands to her head.
"Oh, what is it?" she exclaimed. "My head! How it throbs!"
"It's nearly ten o'clock," Eustace cried. "I don't hear anyone moving. The bank must be open in five minutes."
He hurried across the landing to his assistant's room and unceremoniously opened the door.
His assistant was in bed in a heavy sleep.
"Harding! Fred! Wake up, man! Do you know what time it is?" he said, as he grabbed the sleeper's arm and shook him so vigorously that he pulled him half out of bed.
Sleepily Harding's eyelids lifted to reveal glazed and lack-lustre eyes.
"What's up?" he mumbled. "What's the matter now?"
"Look at the time," Eustace cried excitedly.
Harding pushed his hand under his pillow, raised himself on his arm and flung the pillow over.
"Where's my watch?" he exclaimed. "Where has it gone?"
"Don't you hear me say it is nearly ten o'clock? What on earth do you mean by sleeping to this hour when the bank ought to be open?"
Harding blinked at his pyjama-clad manager.
"You don't seem to have been up so very long," he grumbled. "But where's my jolly watch gone? I'll swear I put it under my pillow last night. Are you having a joke? Have you hidden it?"
"I have not touched your watch. I tell you it's ten o'clock and the bank——"
"Then someone has stolen it," Harding exclaimed as he sat up.
The pupils of Eustace's eyes contracted to pinpoints. With an inarticulate cry he dashed from the room and rushed to the stairs. He heard his wife call from the servant's room but paid no heed to the words.
Down the stairs he plunged, springing across the passage to the door leading from the residential portion of the building to the banking chamber.
The door was locked.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed. "I was afraid it had been broken into."
He ran upstairs again, meeting his wife at the top.
"I can't wake that girl, Charlie. What shall I do?" she said.
"Shy cold water over her," he answered abruptly as he went on to his room, where he seized his clothes and fumbled nervously for his keys.
They were in the pocket where he always kept them.
The discovery reassured him. Whatever else had happened, the bank was safe, for without the keys no one would be able to get at the cash. It was curious how everyone in the house had overslept themselves, but that was a detail to be unravelled subsequently. For the moment he must race into his clothes and be downstairs in time to have the bank's doors open to the public by ten.
He was nearly dressed when Mrs. Eustace returned to the room.
"Charlie, whatever has happened? Bessie can hardly stand. She's exactly as if she had been drinking."
"Oh, don't bother me about Bessie," he said petulantly. "It's ten o'clock, and the bank is not open."
He pushed past her and sped down the stairs. Despite his efforts to recover his confidence, his hand still trembled as he unlocked the door leading to the bank and entered the office.
One quick glance round set his mind at ease. The place was in the same state of neatness and order as when he and Harding locked up the night before.
He crossed to the street door, unlocked and unbolted it and pulled it open. As he did so, Harding came in through the private entrance.
"I say, Eustace, hang it, what have you done with that watch?" he asked. "It's not in my room. Where have you put it?"
"I have not seen your watch. Make haste and get the safes open and the books out. Look at the time," Eustace replied sharply.
The keys of the big safe, or strong-room, as they termed it, were kept in a smaller one, to which there were two keys, Eustace and Harding each holding one. The last vestige of fear passed from Eustace's mind as the keys of the strong-room were found lying in their usual place. He sighed with relief as Harding picked them up, unlocked the heavy door and, swinging the handles, threw the strong-room open.
The tray on which the cash had been placed after balancing the previous evening was in a small upper compartment resting on the books. It was the usual practice for Harding to remove it and hand it over to Eustace, who checked the contents while the books and documents necessary for the day's work were being arranged.
But Eustace was too impatient to wait for the ordinary methods. As Harding pushed back the safe doors and bent down to remove the keys, he reached over him and caught hold of the tray.
Instead of being heavy, as it should have been with all the gold, silver and copper coins, it came away in his hands light—and empty!
His face went livid. He reeled back against the counter, letting the tray fall to the floor.
"Gone!" he cried. "The money's gone!"
Harding started up and stood staring, first at Eustace, then at the tray lying on the floor.
"Gone?" he echoed. "Gone? How can it have gone?"
"It has—the tray is empty," Eustace gasped in reply.
Harding looked from the tray to the open safe. His glance rested on the drawer where the bank-notes were kept. He took hold of the handle and pulled the drawer out.
It was empty.
In an inner recess, guarded by second-locked doors, the gold reserve was kept. The night before the bags of gold had filled it to the doors.
Harding tried the handles. They held. The locks had not been forced.
"Have you the keys of the reserve?" he asked.
With shaking hands Eustace produced them and stood watching, as the doors were unlocked and swung open.
The recess was as empty as the cash tray.
Dumbfounded, Harding turned to Eustace who, with his face ashen, stared blankly at the empty recess. Then a wild light leapt in his eyes and he seized the handle of a drawer in the counter where a loaded revolver was kept lest at any moment an attempt was made to rob the bank during office hours.
Harding sprang to his side and gripped his arm.
"Not that," he cried hoarsely. "Hang it, man, pull yourself together. Think of your wife!"
"It's ruin—ruin for me. Better finish it," Eustace muttered.
Holding him back with one hand, Harding pulled the drawer open with the other to take the revolver away. But the drawer was also empty.
"That has gone as well," he cried, letting go his hold of Eustace as he stooped to peer into the drawer.
Eustace sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
"Oh, this is terrible—terrible," he moaned. "Terrible, terrible."
The door leading to the house was flung open and Mrs. Eustace faced them.
"Charlie!" she exclaimed. "My rings and jewellery have vanished. The cases are all empty. I am certain—why, what is the matter?" she broke off to ask as she caught sight of her husband.
She glanced from him to Harding.
"What has happened?" she said wonderingly, as she advanced further into the office.
Opposite the open doors of the strong-room she saw the empty cash tray lying on the floor, the note drawer pulled out, the vacant space of the reserve recess.
Her voice went to a shriek as the truth flashed upon her.
She rushed past Harding and flung herself on her knees beside her husband, her arms around him, her face upturned to his.
"Oh, Charlie, Charlie! Whatever are we to do?" she cried.
"Shall I go over to the police-station? We had better report it at once," Harding said quietly.
Eustace raised his wife from her kneeling position.
"You must not come in here now, Jess," he said. "Go and learn, as nearly as you can, what has been taken from the house. Harding and I must send word to the head office."
He led her from the room and closed the door after her.
"We shall have to use the code, I suppose," Harding said, as he returned. "If you will read out the words, I will write them."
Eustace sank into his chair again and sat staring blankly in front of him.
"Come, come, old chap," Harding exclaimed, as he laid his hand on his manager's shoulder. "Don't give way. There's a mystery in all this. We shall want all our wits to clear it up as it is; don't make it worse."
Eustace raised his head.
"But who can have done it, Harding? Who can have done it? Every place locked up and yet the money has gone! No one knew all that gold was here."
"You and I knew it."
"My God! You don't mean——" Eustace cried as he sprang out of his chair. "You don't——"
"Steady, old man, steady. Keep your head. There's nothing to be gained by getting excited. You and I knew it was here and someone at the head office knew, as well as the fellows at Wyalla. Some word may have leaked out while it was on the road. There's no saying off-hand; what we've got to do is to keep cool and go slow if we're to clear ourselves. I'm as much concerned in this matter as you are."
Eustace shook his head.
"No, Harding. I'm manager, and all the responsibility is on my shoulders. Whatever comes to light, I'm ruined. The bank will fire me out directly they hear of it—and this was my first branch too."
"I would not look at it like that," Harding replied. "No game is lost till it's won. I'll send Brennan over as I pass the station. He may be able to throw some light on it. Come. Let us draft the report for the head office."
But Eustace was too unnerved to render any assistance, and it was Harding who, single-handed, drafted and coded a brief message reporting what had been discovered. Not until this message was handed to him did Eustace move.
"That's my death warrant," he said gloomily as he signed it.
Harding took the message and left the office. The township boasted only one street, the bank being at one end, the post office at the other. Midway between the two was the police-station, where the one constable responsible for the maintenance of law and order within the district resided.
"Get over to the bank, will you, Brennan?" Harding said as he entered the station. "You'll have your hands full this time. There's been a robbery during the night, and all the cash cleared out."
"What's that, Mr. Harding? The bank robbed? You don't mean it!"
"Go and ask Eustace; he'll give you all the details. It's floored him. Hurry over, there's a good chap. I'm on my way to the post office to wire to the head office; I can't stay now."
Ten minutes later the news was known from one end of the township to the other, and was travelling in every direction through the bush to the outlying stations and selections.
The farther it travelled the more astounding it became, and yet the form in which Brennan telegraphed it to his Inspector showed it to be sufficiently startling and mysterious.
When the reports had been wired away, Eustace recalled an incident he had forgotten in the excitement of the initial discovery.
During the evening, soon after sunset, a stranger called at the bank. He came to the private entrance where he was seen by Eustace, who described him as a well-built man of medium height, with sandy hair and beard and, by appearance, an ordinary bushman. He said he had come in from a distant station with a cheque he wanted to cash, but as the bank was closed for the day, Eustace told him he would have to come again in the morning. He had gone, mounting his horse and riding away in the direction of the hotel where stockmen usually congregated.
Brennan went to the hotel in search of him, but no one knew anything about him there, nor had anyone else seen him either in or out of the township.
"But he must have been seen," Eustace exclaimed impatiently, when Brennan returned to the bank with the news. "He must have been seen. He could not have vanished."
"Did anyone else see him besides you when he called?" Brennan asked.
"No, I was passing the front door at the moment he came. No one else saw him, so far as I know. But he must have been seen in the township. He must have gone to the hotel."
They were standing in the bank office, Brennan on one side of the counter, Harding and Eustace on the other.
"You didn't see him?" Brennan asked, looking at Harding.
"No, I didn't see him," Harding answered.
"But you heard me speak to someone—I came into the dining-room and told you it was a man who wanted a cheque cashed," Eustace exclaimed.
"That's right," Harding said quietly, "I was going to say so when you interrupted me."
There was a hum of voices outside and half a dozen men came into the office—Allnut, the largest storekeeper in the town; Soden, the hotelkeeper; Gale, the local auctioneer; Johnson, the postmaster, and two men who were strangers.
"Here, Soden," Eustace cried, as soon as he caught sight of the hotelkeeper. "Do you mean to say that the man I told Brennan about never came to your house last night?"
Soden, a slow-witted, heavy-built man, shook his head.
"Not a sign of him, Mr. Eustace," he answered. "But these two men came in just now. They've got something to say," he added, turning to Brennan.
One of the two men stepped forward.
"We didn't think much of it in a general way," he said, "leastways not until we heard at the pub about the robbery. You see, me and my mate camped last night about five miles out on the road. As near as we can say, it was somewhere about midnight when Bill—my mate," he added as he waved his hand towards his companion, "looked out of the tent. 'Hullo, Jim,' he says, 'what's this? Here, come and look, quick.' You see, from where our camp was we could get a view half a mile down the road. Well, when I looked out I saw, coming along the road at racing speed, a pair-horse buggy with two men in it. The chap who was driving had the horses at full gallop as they passed the camp, but it wasn't him so much that I noticed as the horses. You see, they were both white—white as milk. The moon was up and they showed real pretty."
"White?" Brennan exclaimed.
"White as milk," the man replied. "That's what made Bill call out. We didn't know there was a white horse in the whole of Waroona, let alone two of them."
"Was that on the main road?" Brennan asked.
"On the main road—just about five miles out."
"I know every horse in the district, and there's not a white one among them," Gale said.
"These were white—white as milk," the man repeated. "It was what made us look."
"If the horses were galloping the tracks would still show in the road," Gale said to Brennan. "Shall I ride out and have a look?"
"If you've got a buggy, me and my mate will come too and show them to you," Jim exclaimed resentfully.
"That would be better," Brennan said.
"Come along then," Gale exclaimed, and left the bank with the two men.
As soon as they were gone Brennan turned to Johnson.
"Two white horses can't go far in this district without being noticed. Will you wire round to the different telegraph offices and ask if anything of the kind has been seen or heard of?"
"They cannot have gone more than a hundred miles since midnight, can they?" Johnson asked.
"A hundred? No, not fifty," Allnut exclaimed.
"Well, we'll say a hundred. I'll wire to every telegraph office within a hundred miles. I'll send or bring you word within half an hour."
"Supposing there is any truth in the yarn," Soden remarked slowly, "how is it going to help? I brought the men along, not because I believed their yarn, but because it seemed to me they might know more about the robbery than they would care to have known."
"There's no harm in sending off those telegrams, anyway. I'll get away and put them through," Johnson said as he went to the door.
He stood for a moment looking out along the road.
"I fancy that's Mrs. Burke coming," he called back over his shoulder to Eustace.
Soden, Allnut, and Brennan, at the mention of the name, moved towards the door, and Harding came round the counter to join them.
"You had better see her, Harding," Eustace said under his breath. "Tell her everything will be all right so far as she is concerned. We cannot say more until we hear from head office."
The other three men were already out on the footpath in front of the bank entrance. Eustace slipped into the little ante-room that served as the manager's private office, as the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside the bank reached him.
"Oh, never mind," Mrs. Burke exclaimed as Brennan went to the horse's head and took hold of the reins. "Sure I'm only stopping for a moment—I won't get out. It's just to see Mr. Eustace I've come."
The men on the footpath looked at one another and then at her.
In the doorway Harding stood hesitating whether to go out or to wait until Mrs. Burke alighted from the buggy.
"You've heard the news, haven't you?" Allnut asked as he stepped to her side. "Ill news travels apace, they say. Hasn't word got out as far as the Downs?"
Mrs. Burke turned the full battery of her dark-fringed eyes on the storekeeper.
"News? What news?" she exclaimed. "I've only just come in. Has anything happened?"
She glanced at Harding where he stood in the doorway.
"To Mr. Eustace? Nothing has happened to Mr. Eustace, has there?" she added, as she leaned towards Allnut.
"Well, I don't know," he replied in an uncertain voice. "It affects him more or less, I suppose, seeing he is the manager. The bank has been robbed, you know."
It was well Brennan was at the horse's head, for the shriek with which Mrs. Burke greeted the information was heard at the post office the other end of the town and made the horse plunge and rear. Although Brennan managed to hold it from bolting, it forced the buggy back on the footpath and almost turned it over. But Mrs. Burke was out long before then, for with a bound she sprang from the vehicle, sending Allnut staggering as she blundered against him in her rush for the bank.
Harding, having heard Allnut's words, stepped forward to meet her.
"You need not be alarmed, Mrs. Burke," he said, as she dashed up. "So far as you are concerned——"
"Where's that villain? Where's that wretch? He's stolen my deeds! I know it, I know it! I'm ruined! Brennan, come and arrest him."
Her words, shouted at the top of her voice, rang through the place and out on the roadway, where Brennan was still struggling with her rearing horse, and Soden and Allnut stood by as sympathetic onlookers.
"If you will come in, the manager will explain the matter to you," Harding said.
"Don't talk to me about explaining," she shouted in answer. "Where are my deeds? Where are the deeds of my Irish property? If you've stolen them——"
"Pray speak quietly, Mrs. Burke," Harding said. "There are others who can hear you, and the bank——"
"Others? Others hear me? I'll let them hear me. I want them to hear me. I've nothing to hide, and I'll not shelter any scoundrel who will rob and cheat a lonely widow. Maybe others will not stand by and see an unfortunate poor weak woman robbed and swindled——"
"If you will come inside, Mrs. Burke——"
"I'll not come inside. I want my deeds back. I'll have nothing more to do with your wretched bank. Sure I'm distracted. Have you those deeds?"
"Mr. Eustace," Harding began, when she flung round and leaped away from the door.
"Brennan!" she cried. "Brennan! Come here, Brennan. They've robbed me of my deeds, the deeds of my Irish property. They insisted I should leave them here, and now they tell me they're stolen. Who's stolen them if it isn't that scoundrel in there? Come and arrest him. Come and help me recover my just rights."
She shouted out the words despite the fact that Brennan was still careering round in the roadway trying to pacify her plunging horse.
Harding glanced over his shoulder towards Eustace's room as she left the doorway. He saw Eustace slip from the room and make for the door leading into the private portion of the house. At the door he turned.
"Get her to come in here," he said impatiently.
As he was speaking Mrs. Burke flounced round again and caught sight of him.
"Oh, there you are," she cried, as she stepped inside. "Now, what have you to say?"
Eustace closed the door after him as she was speaking.
Mrs. Burke rushed out again into the road.
"Mr. Allnut! Mr. Soden! I can trust you. Will you stay here and see that villain does not slip out and escape? He's gone into the house. I'll go to the front door."
She ran towards the private entrance, but stopped opposite Brennan, who had at last succeeded in getting the horse under control.
"They've robbed me, Brennan," she cried. "I left all the deeds of my Irish property with them. They've stolen them and say the place has been broken into as a blind. I don't believe it. It's Eustace. I never believed in him. Sure, if it hadn't been for Mr. Gale I'd never have listened to him. But now what am I to do? Where's Mr. Gale? Why isn't he here to help me? Why don't you tell him to come at once?"
"Mr. Gale has gone along the road with two men we want to know something about, Mrs. Burke. He'll return shortly. You had better see Mr. Eustace. It's only money which has been taken, I believe. Mr. Eustace will be able to tell you all about it."
"But he is trying to escape," she said in a whisper. "I saw him go out of the other door. He'll get away. Come and arrest him."
"Never fear," Brennan answered, as he smiled. "I'll see he doesn't get away. I'll watch here till you come out."
"Will you please come this way, Mrs. Burke? Mr. Eustace is waiting to see you," Harding called out from the bank entrance.
"I'll go," she said to Brennan. "But mind! I rely on you—thank God your father and mother were Irish even if you were born out here."
"Mr. Eustace asks if you will mind going into the dining-room," Harding said.
She shot a resentful glance at him as she swept by and passed through into the house. Eustace met her and led her into the dining-room, closing the door after him. As Harding shut the door leading from the bank, Johnson, the postmaster, came in.
"Here is a message just come through—I brought it down at once as I thought you'd be anxious," he said.
"Half a minute," Harding said, as he took the telegram. "Eustace is seeing Mrs. Burke in the house. I'll take it to him in case there is a reply."
He went through to the dining-room, knocked at the door and opened it. Mrs. Burke, her eyes flashing and her cheeks flushed, was standing facing Eustace, who sat by the table with his head resting on his hand.
"Here's a telegram—Johnson is waiting to see if there is any reply," Harding said, as he held out the message.
Eustace took the telegram mechanically, opened and read it and handed it, open, to Harding.
"Read it," he said. "There's no answer. I'll join you presently."
Harding left the room, glancing at the message as he crossed the passage. It required no answer, as Eustace had said. It was very brief.
"Inspector Wallace will take charge."
Harding whistled. Wallace was the senior inspector of the service, and his special faculty was the unravelling of tangled accounts and the detection of defaulting managers and cashiers. Leaving the ordinary inspection of branches to his juniors, Wallace only journeyed from the head office to take charge when grave suspicions were entertained as to the integrity of a branch staff. The telegram was tantamount to an intimation that the authorities of the bank did not regard the robbery as the work of an outsider.
As he re-entered the office, Brennan was standing at the entrance with Johnson.
"No answer," Harding said quietly, and Johnson nodded and went off. Brennan turned and crossed to the counter.
"Is Mr. Eustace about?" he asked.
"He is talking to Mrs. Burke in the dining-room. She's rather excited, and he took her in there because she would shout so. He'll be back in a few minutes, unless you want to tell him something particularly at once," Harding answered.
Brennan glanced at a telegram he held in his hand.
"It will do when he comes out," he answered slowly. "Have you had any word?" he added, as he leant over the counter.
"The head office wires that Inspector Wallace—our bank inspector, that is, not one of your police inspectors—is coming up."
"Is that all?"
Harding gave a short laugh.
"All? It's quite enough, Brennan. Between you and me it means that Eustace and I are suspected—one of us or both."
"Yes, that's right," Brennan said quietly. "One or both."
As he spoke he held out a message for Harding to read.
"Keep manager under close surveillance till I arrive. "DURHAM."
"You know who Durham is?" Brennan asked.
"Never heard of him," Harding answered.
"He's the finest man who ever put on a uniform," Brennan exclaimed. "He is the sub-inspector in charge of this district—he's only been appointed a couple of months. I reckon it's only a temporary thing for him, just until there's room to make him an inspector. It's a good thing for your bank he is coming up. If anyone on earth can unravel a mystery, my sub-inspector is the man. He won't be long before he has the matter cleared up."
"If he can get to the bottom of this business, I'll agree with you," Harding replied. "But I don't think very much of his first idea; I don't think he is right if he suspects Eustace. When do you expect him?"
"I should say he will be here some time during the day. He wired from Wyalla, and I expect he'll ride across country—it will be quicker than waiting for a train at the junction. Ah, there's Mr. Gale back," he exclaimed, as a buggy drove past the bank. "If you'll let me know when Mr. Eustace is free, I'll just step out and hear what he has discovered about the yarn the men told us."
"All right. I'll call you as soon as Eustace comes in," Harding said, and Brennan left the office.
Soon after he had gone Harding heard the dining-room door open and Mrs. Burke's voice ring through the house.
"I don't believe a word of it. It's false; it's untrue. It's all a blind. I'll see whether there is not justice in the land for an unfortunate widow robbed of her all."
Then the door was slammed and the front door opened and slammed also.
Harding sat waiting for Eustace to come back to the office. He heard Mrs. Burke's voice sounding shrill outside, but not clear enough for him to distinguish what she was saying. Then the buggy started and drove rapidly away.
A gentle tap came at the door leading to the house, and Mrs. Eustace opened it and looked in.
"Has that dreadful woman gone?" she asked in an agitated voice. "Is Charlie here?"
Harding rose and went over to her.
"No. He has not come back yet. He is in the dining-room. Shall I tell him you want him?"
"Oh, no, perhaps it will be better to leave him alone till he comes out. Did you hear what she said? She has been making such a scene in there. Poor Charlie, as if he had not enough to worry him as it is, without her saying such terrible things."
Brennan, with Gale and Johnson, appeared at the entrance, and Mrs. Eustace went back into the house, closing the door after her.
"Mrs. Burke has gone," Brennan said, as he came over to the counter. "Is Mr. Eustace in the office?"
"He has not come out of the dining-room yet. Shall I tell him?" Harding replied.
"I'll go through," Brennan said.
Harding opened the door and stood holding it, with Gale and Johnson behind him, as Brennan went to the dining-room door and knocked.
Receiving no answer, he opened the door.
"There is no one in there," he called out.
With one accord the three moved forward. Brennan was half-way across the room when they reached the door. He went to the window and looked at the fastening.
"He did not get out this way," he cried. "He must be in the house somewhere."
Mrs. Eustace appeared on the stairs, and came down.
"Where is your husband, Mrs. Eustace?" Brennan exclaimed directly he saw her.
"He was in there—isn't he in there now?" she said, as she passed into the room.
"He is not here, Mrs. Eustace, though Mrs. Burke left him here when she came out a few minutes ago. Where is he?"
With widely open eyes Mrs. Eustace stared from one to the other.
"Oh, what is it?" she cried. "What is it? Tell me—is it——"
For a moment she stood with her eyes fixed on Brennan.
"Oh, my God!" she cried as she flung up her arms and fell headlong to the floor.
Eustace had disappeared as completely and mysteriously as the gold which had been in his keeping.
Every corner of the building from the roof to the basement was examined. Even the cupboards were inspected and the made-up beds pulled to pieces, lest he should have succeeded in secreting himself amongst the jam-pots or inside the covering of a pillow; but no trace of him could be found.
His hats hung on their accustomed pegs, so that if he had gone from the house he must have gone bareheaded. But the question which none could answer was how he had managed to go from the house at all.
At the time Mrs. Burke left the dining-room, Brennan was standing talking to Gale and Johnson in front of the private entrance. In the office Harding was waiting for his manager to come from the house. Thus two out of the three ordinary means of exit could not have been used without Eustace being seen. The third was the back door opening from the scullery, which, in turn, opened from the kitchen. Bessie was in the kitchen when the slamming of the dining-room door announced the departure of Mrs. Burke.
Both she and her mistress were insistent that Eustace did not pass through the kitchen. Each told the same story when interrogated. As soon as the signal of Mrs. Burke's departure was heard, Mrs. Eustace went to the door leading from the kitchen to the passage and stood waiting for her husband to appear. When he did not do so, she went to the door of the office, knocked, and asked Harding if Eustace were there. She maintained that the door of the dining-room had not been opened after Mrs. Burke flounced out. Harding, who was listening in the office, also maintained it had not been opened.
The mystery of Eustace's disappearance was still agitating everyone when Sub-Inspector Durham rode up to the bank. Listening, without comment, to all Brennan had to report, he went through the premises with Harding and Brennan, saying nothing till he came to the back door.
Situated as it was, with only the bush behind and beyond it, the bank was thus free from being overlooked. A block of ground at the back was surrounded by a three-rail fence, but the cultivation was limited, a score of fowls occupying the far end and the remainder of the area consisting of a grass patch and a few indigenous shrubs left when the ground was fenced in from the bush.
Standing there, he waved his arm comprehensively towards the unoccupied land at the side and back of the building.
"Once outside, who was to see him clamber over that fence and make for the shelter of the bush?" he asked. "While you were loitering at the front door, Brennan, your man was walking out at the back."
Brennan gnawed his moustache in chagrin.
"But—how did he get out of the dining-room?" Harding exclaimed.
Durham turned slowly and looked steadily into Harding's eyes.
"He walked out, Mr. Harding, walked out through the door."
"The door was shut."
"When you saw it. It was probably closed as noiselessly as it was opened—his wife saw to that. Then, as soon as he had slipped out this way, she came to your office and threw dust in your eyes by asking where her husband was. Just the sort of thing a woman would do. What did he do with his keys—the bank keys, I mean?"
"He had them with him."
"Oh, no, Mr. Harding. They would be no further use to him. He must have left them behind him. We shall find them somewhere. Let me have a look at the safes which were robbed."
"Shall I send off a description of the man to the police in the neighbourhood, sir?" Brennan asked.
"Did you not do so at once?" Durham asked, swinging round sharply.
"I was preparing it when you arrived, sir."
"We will look at the safes," Durham said.
Harding had pushed-to the doors of the big safe As he pulled them open Durham pointed.
"What keys are those?" he asked.
In the lock of the reserve recess the keys Eustace gave Harding in the morning were still hanging. Harding took them out.
"They are the manager's keys," he said. "In the excitement of the discovery that all the gold had gone, I must have forgotten to return them. I had no idea they were here when you asked me what Eustace had done with the keys. I entirely forgot them."
"But he did not, Mr. Harding. Do you know where he kept his private papers?"
"That was his private office," Harding replied, pointing to the little ante-room.
"When do you expect the relieving officer to arrive?"
"I can hardly say. He may come by train to the junction, in which case he should be here about noon to-morrow."
"Then you will be in charge until he arrives?"
"I have telegraphed to the head office reporting that Eustace has disappeared and asking for instructions. Until they come, of course, I am in charge."
"Then you will come with me while I examine his desk, though I do not suppose it contains anything but official papers—now. In the meantime, Brennan, send away your description to all the neighbouring police-stations and also to head-quarters for general distribution. When you have done that you can come back here. I shall be waiting for you."
He followed Harding into the little room.
"You had better go through the papers, Mr. Harding. They will probably all relate to the bank's business. I only want to see those which do not."
"It was in this drawer he kept his own papers," Harding said, as he touched the knob of one of the side drawers.
"Is it locked?"
"No," Harding replied, as he pulled it out. "But it is empty," he added.
"Quite so," Durham replied in an unconcerned voice. "As I expected."
Harding stared at him in perplexity.
"But—but——" he stammered. "I don't understand it. I cannot—I cannot believe it of him."
Durham stood silent.
"Only a madman would have done such a thing, and Eustace is no more mad than I am," Harding added.
Still Durham said nothing.
"But if he had done such a thing, why did he remain here? Why not get away at the same time as he got the gold away? Surely——"
"Would you mind looking through the remainder of the drawers?" Durham interrupted.
Harding opened them one after the other, examined the papers they contained, and replaced them without making any further remark. The search was unavailing so far as private papers were concerned—all were connected with the bank. As Harding examined them, Durham stood beside the table without a word or a glance at the papers. When the last drawer had been opened, gone through, and closed, Harding turned to him.
"There is nothing here except what concerns the bank," he said.
"You are sure he kept all his own papers here?"
"Quite sure. The first drawer I opened was full of them yesterday. He had it out after the bank closed last night when I came in to give him the cash balance."
"I will see Mrs. Eustace," Durham said shortly. "In the interests of the bank I should like you to be present. Will you ask her to come in here?"
"Perhaps she would rather see you in the house."
"As she pleases—if you will ask her."
Harding found her sitting disconsolately in the dining-room and gave her Durham's message.
"Very well, I'll see him—here—if you stay."
She spoke without moving her eyes.
"I will be here," he said as he left the room to call Durham.
In the office he found a telegram had just arrived. It was an answer to his wire to the head office.
"Close office. Do all to assist the police. Wallace should arrive noon to-morrow."
He handed the message to Durham, who just glanced at it.
"Is she coming in here or not?" Durham asked.
"She is in the dining-room, and will see you there," Harding answered.
Mrs. Eustace was standing staring out of the window when they entered the room.
"I can tell you nothing. I know nothing more than I have already said," she exclaimed as she turned to meet them.
"If you will kindly answer my questions I will be obliged," Durham replied. "Can you tell me where your husband kept his private papers?"
"Yes, in his office—that is, as a rule."
"And when he did not keep them there, where were they?"
"Oh, he always kept them there, but sometimes he had some in his pocket. Last night——"
"Yes? Last night——?" Durham said as she stopped.
"Oh, it's nothing. Merely that he had some papers in his pocket and discovered they were there when he was upstairs."
"Do you know what he did with them?"
"Of course I do. He left them on the dressing-table. They are there now."
"Will you show them to me?"
"Mr. Harding, will you take him upstairs? The papers are by the looking-glass."
Durham followed Harding upstairs without a word. On the dressing-table a small packet of folded documents was pushed half under the mirror. Durham picked them up and glanced at them.
"Thank you," he said. "Now we will go down again."
"These are the papers you referred to?" he asked, as soon as they were in the dining-room.
"Yes," Mrs. Eustace answered.
Durham laid them on the table in front of him.
"Can you tell me anything about your husband's private affairs?" he asked, looking steadily at her.
"I don't quite understand what you mean," she replied slowly.
"In regard to his mining speculations."
Harding saw the momentary start, quickly recovered, that she gave at the question.
"Do you know he speculated?"
She sat silent with averted face.
"Do you know he speculated both in shares and horse-racing?"
Still there was no reply, and Durham added, "Speculated and lost—heavily?"
"Not heavily," she exclaimed, flashing round upon him. "He did not lose heavily. He may have——"
She checked her words suddenly, closing her lips and turning her face away.
"Will you please finish your sentence, Mrs. Eustace?"
"He may have lost—sometimes; but he won as well. He had those shares—they may yet bring him in a fortune," she said, pointing to the papers on the table.
"Do you know if there was ever any official reference to his speculations?"
Harding could barely hear the words as, with bowed head, Mrs. Eustace replied.
"I did not quite catch your answer," Durham said quietly.
"I said yes, there was—once."
"Did he tell you what was said?"
"I don't know," she said after a few moments' silence. "You had better ask the bank. I don't know anything about it."
"Perhaps you know why your husband was appointed to this branch?"
"I don't know anything about it," she replied in a low tone.
"It may save time if I tell you at once, Mrs. Eustace, that the general manager of the bank has put me in possession of all information regarding your husband—you will not improve the situation by denying what I know you thoroughly understand."
Mrs. Eustace looked up and met a glance which gave her the uncomfortable sensation of being looked through and through. She lowered her eyes more quickly than she had raised them, paled and then flushed blood-red.
"Your husband did not escape through the kitchen," Durham said in his even tone of voice.
"I have already said so," Mrs. Eustace replied, scarcely above a whisper.
"He left this room by the window."
The blood left her cheeks as she started. Harding saw her hands clasp tightly.
"And you secured the window on the inside after he had gone."
The monosyllable escaped her lips like the yap of a dog at bay.
"You secured the window on the inside after he had gone," Durham repeated in cold, unruffled tones.
Mrs. Eustace sprang to her feet and faced him.
"It's a lie," she cried. "The room was empty when I came to it."
"The room was empty, quite so. And the window was open. You closed and secured it."
"I tell you I did not."
"You have already said that you only stood at the kitchen door until you went to the office to ask whether your husband was there. Now you say the room was empty when you came to it. Which statement do you expect me to believe?"
"I don't care what you believe," she cried. "You have no right to ask me these questions. I will not answer you. Mr. Harding, I appeal to you. If you have no regard for the honour of an absent friend, at least you might protect the wife of your friend from insult."
Durham's eyes never wavered as he watched her.
"No insult is offered or intended, Mrs. Eustace," he said quietly. "Mr. Harding, in the interests of the bank, as well as in the interests of your husband, is desirous, as we all are, of knowing the truth. I will ask you one more question: Where were you when Mrs. Burke left the dining-room and crossed the passage to the front door?"
Mrs. Eustace, with close-set lips, stood defiantly silent.
"Will you answer that question?" Durham said.
"No, I will not. I will tolerate this no longer."
With a quick, angry gesture she turned to the door.
Durham was on his feet and in front of her before she could take two steps.
"Until I have seen your servant, Mrs. Eustace, you will remain here," he said. "Will you kindly come with me, Mr. Harding?"
He held the door open while Harding passed out, following him without another word.
But there was little to be ascertained from Bessie more than she had already told. She heard the door slam and her mistress go to the kitchen door, but whether she went on to the dining-room or not, Bessie "didn't notice."
"Could you see out of the window at the time?" Durham asked.
"No, sir, I was in the scullery washing up," the girl replied.
Mrs. Eustace, much to Harding's surprise, was still in the dining-room on their return. The papers Durham had placed on the table were untouched.
"I am sorry to have had to detain you, Mrs. Eustace. For the present I have nothing further to ask you. These papers you had better take—I have no doubt they were left for you."
"What do you mean—left for me?" she exclaimed.
"A woman of your quick intelligence, Mrs. Eustace, scarcely needs to be told," he answered, adding, as he turned to Harding, "I would like a few moments with you in the office."
In the little ante-room that Eustace had used as his private office, Durham turned the searchlight of his questions upon Harding.
"Have you known Mr. Eustace for very long?"
"I have only known him personally since I came to this branch a few weeks ago."
"Did you apply to be sent here?"
"No. I knew nothing about it until I received instructions to come."
"Did you know Mrs. Eustace before you came here?"
"Not as Mrs. Eustace."
"You knew her before she was married?"
"Am I right in saying that you knew her very well?"
"Yes, I did know her very well."
"Don't think I am attempting to pry into your private affairs, Mr. Harding. In a case of this kind, the clues that lead to the unravelling of the mystery often lie on the surface in some trifling circumstance that seemingly has nothing whatever to do with the main question. You have already realised, I take it, that we are concerned with something quite distinct from the ordinary class of crime. Perhaps you have not had sufficient experience with the criminal class to recognise what was apparent to me from the beginning, that in this matter we are following the work of one who is a master of his craft."
"So far as that goes, I am absolutely dazed," Harding exclaimed. "The more I hear, the more hopelessly confused I grow."
"I am not surprised. You are following the work of someone who is, I am quite satisfied, no ordinary criminal, but one of the most astute, clever and unscrupulous individuals who ever adopted dishonesty as a profession. If I ask you questions which appear to you to be irrelevant and possibly impertinent, will you give me credit for being actuated only by my sense of duty, and answer those questions as fully and as accurately as you can?"
"Certainly," Harding replied.
"Thank you. Now, will you tell me this—Were you ever engaged to Mrs. Eustace before she married her present husband?"
"Did she break it off, or did you?"
"She married Eustace, while she was practically engaged to you?"
"While she was actually engaged to me."
"Then he must have known of your existence?"
"I assume so, but—well, nothing was ever said about it between us. I will tell you exactly what happened. The letters I had written to her, the presents I had given her, and her engagement ring, were returned to me in a packet through the post with a piece of wedding-cake. Until I came here and met her, I did not know to whom she was married. Whether Eustace knew we had once been engaged I do not know. I never referred to it."
"You never knew that, in applying for an assistant, he named you personally to the general manager of the bank and gave as a reason a long-standing friendship?"
The look of astonishment which showed on Harding's face was sufficient answer.
"Yet it is what happened—I have the information from your general manager."
MRS. BURKE'S PRESENTIMENT
Waroona Downs was fifteen miles from Waroona township by the road, and ten as the crow flies, the intrusion of a rocky and precipitous range making it impossible to take the shorter and more direct route. One had perforce to use the road, and the road turned and twisted where the level plains were broken by the range, passing, at one stage, through a narrow gorge hemmed in by steep, rock-strewn heights, on which a growth of stunted gums flourished sufficiently to hide the jagged boulders from the road below.
Half-way through the gorge a stream, having its source in a series of springs hidden among the tumbled rocks, swept across the track in a shallow ford. The road dipped to it on both sides, the constant flow of water having stripped away the soil and left a barrier of naked rock which dammed back the stream to form a wide pool sheltered among the hills and fringed by a more luxurious growth of vegetation than clothed the heights above.
The last gleam of the setting sun shed a ruddy tinge on the topmost branches of the trees as Durham reached where the road dipped to the stream. The subdued light in the pass made the distances elusive and turned the shadows into subtle mysteries of purpling greys. The air was full of the scent from the thickly growing vegetation, but, save for the rippling swish of the water trickling across the track, the silence was unbroken.
Durham reined in his horse and sat loosely in his saddle as his glance swept over the tangled masses of undergrowth, the tumbled boulders peeping here and there from amid the shadows, the precipitous sides of the pass, and the broken ruggedness of the ground beyond. But it was not an appreciation of the picturesque, nor a recognition of the poetry in landscape which held him. He saw in the place only such a spot as the men concerned in the robbery of the bank would select for hiding their booty. Within that maze of rock and tree and mountain, how many nooks there must be to serve the purpose.
Had he been occupied only with the matter of the robbery, he would have started there and then to satisfy himself whether his surmise was correct, and whether the missing thousands were not lying perhaps a few yards away, hidden among the undergrowth and boulders. But there was more than the robbery in his mind; it was not alone to make inquiries on the subject that he had ridden away on a journey Brennan could have accomplished equally well. There was a much more personal note in the affair.
Durham was in love, and with a woman he had only met once, and of whom he knew nothing more than her name.
Travelling one day by coach, he had, for a fellow-passenger, a woman. A dozen signs showed him that she was a new arrival in the country, unused to colonial ways, unversed in colonial methods. It was natural for him, at such places as they stopped for meals, to extend to her a share of the attention his official position secured for him. It was also natural for him to drift into conversation with her.
The companion of his coaching experience was named Burke—Nora Burke—she had told him. Nora Burke was one of the victims of the bank robbery, and, apparently, the last person who had had anything to say to the vanished bank manager. It was more to ascertain whether the heroine of the coach journey were the same as the owner of Waroona Downs, than to learn what Eustace had or had not said, that Durham determined to ride out to the station.
Even as his glance wandered over the picturesque scene before him, he was impatient to press on—five miles had yet to be covered before he reached Waroona Downs. He pulled the bridle with a jerk and rode steadily until he was clear of the range. Then he put his horse at a gallop and kept the pace till he saw the gleam of a light from the window of a house set back from the road. In the dusk he could not make out all the detail of the place, but Brennan told him the homestead was the first house he would come to after clearing the range.
He swung on to the side track leading to the house. As he came up to it he saw the figure of a woman silhouetted against the light.
"Is this Mrs. Burke's?" he called out.
"And if it is, what might you want?"
His heart leaped as he heard the answer—despite the sharp ring, sharp almost to harshness, he recognised the voice. It was that of the companion of his coach journey.
A low verandah, about three feet from the ground, ran along the front of the house. It was on the verandah the woman stood. Durham sprang from the saddle, slipped his bridle over a post, and stepped up the short flight of stairs.
The woman had drawn back into the shadow beyond the window. As he advanced, the light from the lamp within fell upon him, revealing to her the uniform he wore.
With a soft, melodious laugh she came forward.
"Why didn't you say you were a trooper?" she said. "I thought——"
"I am Sub-Inspector Durham," he said quickly.
"Oh, indeed," she replied.
She met his glance without a suggestion of recognition in her own.
"I have ridden out to ask you one or two questions in regard to the robbery at the bank, of which I understand you have heard," he said.
"Ask me questions? And pray what have I to do with the robbery, save that I am an unfortunate victim of the dishonesty of men you and the rest of the police ought to be chasing at this very moment? Ask me questions? It's me who has need to ask them of you. Where are my stolen papers? Where——"
"If you will give me your assistance by answering the few questions I wish to ask you, I have no doubt that your papers, and all the rest of the stolen property, will very soon be recovered," Durham said. "I understand you saw Mr. Eustace this forenoon. Will you tell me——"
"Ask Mr. Eustace himself," she retorted. "He can tell you what I said."
She stood in front of him, with her hands hanging down hidden in the folds of her dress.
"I will not detain you long. I have been travelling since early to-day and have to ride back to the township to-night."
"Travelling all day? Sure you must be tired!" she exclaimed. "Come inside and rest—this affair has so upset me I'm forgetting that Irish hospitality ought to be the first rule for Irish folk wherever they may happen to be. Come in, come in."
She led the way into the room where the lamp was burning. As she stepped in through the long open window Durham saw she was carrying a heavy revolver in the half-hidden hand.
"You were evidently prepared for emergencies," he said.
She laughed as she laid the weapon on the table.
"After what happened to-day, Mr. Durham, I'm all nerves. When I heard you riding to the house I was frightened lest it should be some more of the scoundrels coming to see what else they could rob from me. You see, I'm all alone here except for poor old Patsy Malone—he's just a poor half-witted fool who was with my husband and my husband's father before him, and he thinks, poor old creature, that wherever I go he has to go too. I had to bring him out here with me to save the scandal he would have made. Sure, he's harmless enough anywhere, but what could he do if some of those thieving scoundrels rode up here and robbed me of the last few papers and things those bank rascals have not yet had the chance of stealing? But sit down, Mr. Durham, sit down. I'll tell the old fool to get you some tea—a cup won't harm you after your long ride. And maybe you'll take just a bit of something? You'll be hungry."
She was out of the room before Durham could answer, but he heard her calling for her ancient retainer and giving him instructions with the same volubility that she had shown when speaking to him.
"It won't be a minute, Mr. Durham. Luckily the fire was still in, for Patsy was only finished washing the dishes scarcely five minutes ago. And what is the news from the township? Have they caught the robbers yet? Or do you think they have very far to look for them if they really want the man who did it? Now there's a foolish thing for me to say! I forgot. Of course, it's yourself that has come up to catch him. You'll forgive me, Mr. Durham, but I can assure you I never had so great a shock to my nerves as I had to-day. What's to become of me now that all those documents are gone? You see, when I came away my solicitor in Dublin—you see, he was my husband's solicitor and his father's solicitor before him, so, as you may judge, he is an old man, though not so old as old Patsy out there—but, as I was saying, he said——"
She commenced speaking as she entered the room, continued as she walked to the table and sat down, and appeared to Durham as though she were going on indefinitely.
"Will you pardon me one moment," he said. "I left my horse at——"
"Of course, of course," she cried, starting up. "Sure the poor beast will be tired, too, and hungry. Wait, wait, Mr. Durham, I'll send old Patsy——"
"Oh, no, don't trouble. I'll just take the saddle off and turn him into the yard. It's Brennan's horse and had a feed before we started."
He was out on the verandah before she could leave the room.
When he returned, Mrs. Burke was watching a bent and decrepit-looking old man laying the cloth. He gave a furtive glance at Durham as he entered the room.
"Go on with your work, Patsy, go on, and don't dawdle. Don't I tell you Mr. Durham is both tired and hungry? Never mind looking at folk. Go on now."
Patsy mumbled an inaudible reply as he stooped over the table.
"You must bear with him, Mr. Durham," she said as soon as the old man had left the room. "He's been so long with the Burke family he feels he's entitled to know everyone who comes into the place. You see what a fragile old creature he is—and he's all I've got in the place if some of those scoundrels come and attack us."
She jumped out of her seat and paced from one end of the room to the other.
"Sure I was a fool," she exclaimed. "I ought to have asked Brennan to come out. He's half Irish, leastways he's Irish born in Australia, and he'd have understood."
"I don't think you need be afraid, Mrs. Burke," Durham said quietly. "You're not likely to be troubled."
"Oh, you don't know. You're a great strong man and able to fight a dozen maybe. But a lonely woman—haven't they got my papers, and won't they think that there's a lot more in the house and money too, maybe, and jewels? And what is there to keep them from robbing the place and burning it down over our heads, with only that poor old fool out there and a poor weak woman like myself to face?"
He looked at her as she paced to and fro, her handsome figure moving with the grace of a Delilah and her wonderful eyes flashing a greater eloquence than her tongue, as her glance from time to time caught his.
"You need not be afraid," he repeated. "Those responsible for the robbery of the bank will not be anxious to appear anywhere in public for some time."
She stood in the centre of the room where the full glare of the lamp fell upon her.
"Oh, I don't know," she said, "I don't know. I would not trust them. Besides——"
"Well, I was thinking that nobody knows who they are for certain, and what difference would it make to them, or to any of us, if they rode down the main street of Waroona under the very noses of yourself and all the troopers in Australia?"
"That is scarcely likely, Mrs. Burke."
"I don't know," she repeated. "You don't know who they are, or you would have them inside the walls of the lock-up. Now tell me, have you any idea?"
"I cannot tell you that, Mrs. Burke. What I can tell you is to put out of your mind entirely any fear that they will pay you a visit."
She shook her head and resumed her walk to and fro.
"Suppose they come?" she exclaimed, halting at the table opposite to him. "Suppose they come at dead of night? I might be murdered in my bed while I was asleep and only know it when I woke up to find myself killed."
"It's true, and you know it, Mr. Durham. Sure I never was so shaken and nervous as I am to-night! Could you send Brennan out when you return to the township?"
"I am afraid that is impossible," he said.
"But why? Sure the fellow has nothing to do but sleep, and he may as well sleep here as in his own quarters."
"He is on duty to-night."
"On duty? Now that the bank's robbed, I suppose he's guarding it? The horse is stolen, so you lock the door of the empty stable, Mr. Durham; but where there's a chance of another horse being stolen you let it look after itself as best it may. And that's what you call doing your duty and earning the money we poor unfortunate taxpayers have to provide for you!"
"I am afraid I cannot discuss that matter with you, Mrs. Burke," he said coldly.
"No!" she retorted hotly. "No, you can't. All you can do is to put the only constable in the place to guard an empty bank——"
"There is a reason why Brennan should remain in the township to-night. It is therefore quite impossible for him to come out here—as well as being unnecessary."
She flounced round and resumed her rapid striding until old Patsy appeared with the tea.
"Make haste, now, Patsy, make haste!" she exclaimed. "Sure you are the slowest old fool ever set on the earth to delay and keep people waiting."
The old man, mumbling to himself, set the meal and left the room.
"Now, Mr. Durham, just make yourself at home with such scant hospitality as I can show you. If it was in Ireland, sure I'd give you a meal worth the eating, but here, with me not knowing whether I'm to own this place or not, and without a soul about it save useless old Patsy to do a hand's turn, you'll understand it's only a poor pot-luck sort of spread at the best I can offer. But such as it is, it is offered with a free heart, though you are going to leave me to be murdered by the scoundrels whenever they like to come."
"You will laugh at your fears to-morrow," Durham said as he drew up to the table.
"They are not fears, Mr. Durham. You don't know; you're not Irish, and so don't understand, but Brennan would. It's not fear. It's what we term presentiment. Not all the Irish have it, but only some of them. It's my misfortune to be one of them. I have it. Sure I was tortured the whole of last night, what with anxiety and sleeplessness and worry, and all through that wretched bank affair. It was presentiment. I tried to laugh myself out of it, but as soon as I got into the township this very morning, what did I hear? Of course, you know. Well, now I have just the same feeling that to-night there's to be more dirty work by those thieving scoundrels, and it's here they're coming this time, here—and I'm to be left to their mercy, just one poor weak, defenceless woman and an old half-witted fool of a man. It makes me just——"
She left her sentence uncompleted as she turned away, with a break in her voice, and stood by the open window leading out on to the verandah. As Durham glanced at her he saw her shoulders heave and her hands convulsively clasp.
Through the chill of her forgetfulness the love impulse surged.
"If you are really so distressed about the matter," he said quickly, "if you really fear you will be attacked to-night, I will stay here till the morning."
With a magnificent gesture she faced round from the window and came swiftly towards him, her eyes sparkling, her lips wreathed in a happy smile.
"Oh, what a weight of care you have taken from my mind!" she cried. "I can rest now in peace and comfort without thinking that every moment may be my last on earth."
"But if they come they may kill me. What then?" Durham asked, with a smile which had more than amusement in it.
She flashed her brilliant glance at him, raising her eyes quickly to his and drooping them slowly behind the shelter of the dark, heavy lashes.
"No," she said softly. "You are too brave a man—they will not dare to come while you are here."
"And so your presentiment passes into thin air?" he said.
"It's relieved," she said. "Maybe I'm too timid—that affair has upset me so much. Now tell me, do you really think you know who the thieves are?"
She sat down at the table opposite to him and leaned her chin on her hands, her loose sleeves falling away from her arms and revealing, to the best advantage, their rounded whiteness. Into her eyes there came the flicker of a challenge, the sparkle of mischief which gave a new character to her face, a different expression to all he had hitherto seen. There was flippant raillery in her voice as she repeated her question.
"Do you really think you will find out who the thieves are?" she exclaimed.
"One I already know," he replied, fixing his eyes on her as his square jaws set firm in his effort to refrain from allowing his features to relax into the smile which was hovering so near.
For a moment the lines round her eyes hardened, and the sparkle became a flash before it melted again as a rippling laugh came from her lips.
"How terribly stern you look!" she cried in a mocking voice. "Do you ever think of anything but your work, Mr. Durham?"
"Not when I have anything at all difficult on hand," he replied.
"Then this does puzzle you?"
"It has its difficulties; but, for all that, it is a problem I shall solve."
Again the rippling laugh rang through the room.
"Why, of course! Was there ever a case the police had in hand where they did not have a clue at the very beginning?"
"Several," he answered. "A clever, resourceful criminal, Mrs. Burke, always has the advantage. Where they fail ultimately is in becoming too sure of themselves and too forgetful of the network of snares laid to entrap them and always waiting to trip them."
"I suppose that is so," she said slowly. "I suppose that is so. Poor things—I can't help pitying them, Mr. Durham. One never knows what lies behind their wickedness—what it was which first sent them rolling down the slope that ends—often—on the gallows."
She shuddered as she spoke, averting her face from him.
"This is a dismal subject," he exclaimed. "Let us change it. Will you answer the questions I want to ask you about the bank affair?"
"Ask them. Oh! ask the wretched things and let me get it over. Sure I begin to hate the mention of it," she exclaimed as she shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
Without apparently heeding her objection, he asked her to say whether anyone was in the passage as she passed from the dining-room to the entrance of the bank.
"Of course there was. Didn't I tell Brennan at once?" she said.
"Who was it?"
"Brennan's! No! The bank manager's; she was just outside the door—listening, I'll be bound."
"You are sure of that?"
"Sure that she was listening? Well, isn't she a woman? What else would she be doing?"
"That is all I want to ask you," he said quietly.
She looked at him wonderingly.
"All?" she asked. "You rode out from Waroona merely to ask me that bit of a question?"
"Well, then," she exclaimed, "if that's how you're going to catch the thieves it's good-bye to my papers."
The eyes which met his told of anger and indignation.
"You expected a rigid cross-examination?" he asked, with a smile.
"I expected questions which would have some bearing on the affair," she retorted.
"Your experience in this sort of thing is somewhat limited, Mrs. Burke. A tangled skein is unravelled by following a mere thread, not by tearing at the entire mass. I have hold of a thread, and I am following it."
"And where will it lead you?"
"Where? It does not matter where so long as the tangle is made straight."
"While my papers and my——"
"You need not be uneasy," he interrupted. "They are just as safe as though you held them in your hand."
"Safe for those who stole them," she retorted, with a short, satirical laugh.
"Safe for you," he answered. "You have not been long enough in the country to realise how complete a system of detection we have here. I have never felt more certain of securing both the culprits and the stolen property than I am in this case."
Again she gave a short, satirical laugh.
"Oh, yes," she said. "Of course. You know exactly where the thieves are and where they have hidden what was taken and also where they are hiding. You can put your hands on them whenever you like. One does not need to come to Australia to hear that sort of romance, Mr. Durham; I hoped rather that one would not hear it in Australia, but you police are as capable at blundering and bungling and bluffing here as elsewhere."
"I am neither bungling nor bluffing," he answered quietly.
"You are doing both," she replied warmly. "What are you doing here now? Why have you come bothering me with ridiculous questions? What can I tell you more than the bank people themselves? Or is it that you think I am the thief? Why don't you say at once you suspect me—old Patsy and myself? Sure it would be in keeping with the rest of it—wasting your time and mine by coming out to ask who was in the passage when I left the dining-room! What has that to do with my loss? Do you think I care whether Mrs. Eustace heard what I told her husband? I'd say it to her face if she likes, just as I said it to his. I told him he ought to be arrested, and I say so to you. I'd arrest him and his wife and his assistant and his servant—everyone in the place if I had my way."
He was watching the light flashing in her eyes, watching and admiring. The full rich tones of her voice vibrated with the heat of her words, her bosom rose and fell as in her indignation wave after wave of expression swept across her face, each one intensifying the charm she had for him.
"I suppose you include me in your list of suspects," she blurted out as he did not speak. "Why don't you say so at once? Your questions certainly suggest it."
"Do they?" he asked, with a smile which irritated her.
"Yes, they do. What else do they suggest? It would be quite in keeping with the rest of the business—you riding out here to ask me pointless questions while the people most likely to have been concerned in the robbery are left alone. They are known, I suppose you will say, where I am a stranger, someone you have never seen before——"
"You are wrong," he interrupted, still smiling; "I have seen you before."
Her eyes concentrated on his with keen intensity.
"When? Where?" she asked sharply.
"We were fellow-passengers by a coach four or five months back. You have forgotten me, but I"—now that the personal note had been struck, the note he wished so much to sound and yet shrank from, he was almost carried away by it; by an effort he checked himself, and instead of telling her all that the meeting had meant for him, he added, "I rarely forget a face when I have once seen it."
She flashed a swift glance at him, reading in his eyes, in his face, in his attitude, the confirmation of what she knew from the tone of his voice.
"But you—you do not—remember me," he said slowly as she did not reply. He saw the glance, saw the fleeting questioning light in her eyes, and with the fatuity bred of love-blindness, misread it.
"I do remember—distinctly," she answered softly. "I recognised you as you came on to the verandah. I thought it was you who had forgotten—or did not wish to remember."
As she spoke the last words softly, demurely, she raised her eyes to his and looked steadily at him with no sign on her face of her recent indignation.
"I not wish to remember? I not wish to remember you?" he exclaimed in a ringing tone. "Why—it was because I have never ceased to remember that I came here to-night. Your name was mentioned at Waroona—it was the only clue you gave me when we parted, the only clue I had to follow when I tried to find you, tried to trace you every day since then. I have never ceased to seek for you, never ceased to think of you, nor to remember the day I met you. Had you not been here to-night, had I found it was someone else with a similar name, I should not have forgotten you—I shall never do that—never."
She sat back in her chair, her eyes downcast, a slight frown puckering her brows. He saw the frown as she spoke and it checked his words, but he continued to watch her steadily, noting the graceful, yet seemingly unstudied way in which the wavy mass of her luxuriant hair was coiled on her head, the clear whiteness of her skin, the heavy fringe of her drooping lashes. Even as he watched she raised her eyes to his.
For one brief moment she allowed them to rest, filled with an earnestness and depth of softness that made his pulses leap again.
Impulsively he stretched out his hand to her across the table.
She lowered her glance, and a faint smile flickered round her lips.
"I must away," she said softly, as she arose. "You will need a good night's rest after your long and wearying ride."
He pushed away his chair, as he started abruptly to his feet. The warmth of his impulse went cold.
"I shall start with the dawn or before it," he said, keeping his eyes averted from the glamour of her face. "I have a riding-cloak. I will take this hammock-chair on to the verandah. Don't let me disturb you."
"But you cannot go in the morning without a bite," she replied.
"I shall require nothing," he said brusquely. "I shall be away before you are awake. I am merely staying to set your mind at rest on the question of the house being visited and robbed. Don't let me disturb you—or detain you."
She bent her head slowly and gracefully.
"As you will," she replied in a gentle voice. "Good night, Mr. Durham."
Without waiting for a reply she turned and went from the room, closing the door quietly after her.
He stood where she had left him, staring fixedly at the closed door.
"I was a fool to come, a greater fool to speak," he muttered savagely. "What satisfaction is there in knowing who she is, when——"
He swung round petulantly, diving his hand into his pocket for a pipe. When it was filled and lighted, he dragged his chair out on to the verandah, lowered the lamp flame to a glimmer, pushed-to the window, and lay back in the chair, blowing furious clouds of smoke out upon the night and staring, with unseeing eyes, into the dark.
But always before him there floated the vision of the speaking grey-blue eyes looking at him from the shelter of their dark-fringed lashes; always in his brain he heard the gentle melody of her voice as she had last spoken to him, and always there came to taunt and goad him the jarring memory of the half-mocking way in which she had pushed back upon himself the frank revelation he had made. But though it jarred, it had no power to lessen the fascination she exercised over him. Despite her rebuff, despite the seeming hopelessness of his infatuation, it held him. The more he tried to force it back, the stronger it grew; the greater, the more beautiful and more lovable did Mrs. Burke appear to be.
The jarring note passed from his memory. Under the soothing quiet of the night and the stillness of the bush, looming dark and mysterious against the sky, scarcely less sombre with only the light of the stars to illumine it, his fancy was filled with the image he had carried in his mind for so many months. The weariness of an arduous day added its softening influence, and he drifted out upon the sea of dreams and thence into a deep slumber, while yet his pipe was unfinished.
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
While Harding sat talking to Brennan in the office, Bessie came to him with a note.
"Mrs. Eustace asked me to give you this, sir," the girl said, as she handed it to him at the door.
He tore open the envelope. A single sheet of paper was enclosed, on which was written, "For the sake of the bygone days, come to me."