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Title: Shadowed Gold Author: Alice Fox Parry * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402561h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2014 Most recent update: September 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and "Romander" Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—"THE TEAM TAKE COUNSEL."
CHAPTER II.—ENTER AUGUSTUS.
CHAPTER III.—"THE FIRST SHADOW."
CHAPTER V.—"THE TEAM MAKES A FRIEND."
CHAPTER VI.—PORTRAIT OF A LADY.
CHAPTER VII.—"TIME OFF."
CHAPTER VIII.—"THE TEAM CONSPIRE."
CHAPTER IX.—"SHADOWS ACROSS THE SUN."
CHAPTER XII.—"AUGUSTUS TAKES A BATH."
CHAPTER XIII.—"CLAUDE DELAMERE."
CHAPTER XIV.—"GARDINER WINS A WAGER."
CHAPTER XV.—"VALERIE IS AFRAID."
CHAPTER XVI.—"A PROMISE IS KEPT."
CHAPTER XVII.—"GERALD TO THE RESCUE."
CHAPTER XVIII.—"INTO SUNSHINE."
CHAPTER XIX.—"AUGUSTUS SCORES AGAIN."
The team were in conference and unusually serious. Seated around the dining table in the living loom of their little flat in St. Kilda, they presented a united front to a new and perplexing problem, and considered it in all its bearings.
There were four of them—Katherine Starr and her brother, Gerald; Allan Linton and his stepsister, Valerie Raymond.
Katherine took the head of the table, by virtue of an authority which none dreamed of disputing. She was tall and slender, with brown eyes that were often merry, and sensitive curving lips. More than one ambitious artist had sought to paint Katherine Starr, but here was a mysterious and illusive beauty, of which she herself seemed most unconscious. Her brother, two years her junior, was still very much of a boy in spite of his 23 years, with a boyish face, surmounted by unruly dark hair, but his usually bright face was clouded, and he stared miserably at the table.
Opposite Katherine her cousin Allan lounged awkwardly in his big chair, and regarded his empty pipe thoughtfully, while Valerie, the youngest of the group, looked from one to the other with eager hazel eyes. She was a tiny, slender person, dainty in every movement, her crowning beauty the mass of red-gold hair that framed the small pale face. She was no relation of the Starr's, nor yet of Allan, for his father's second wife had been a widow with one small girl when she married George Linton, but when the motoring tragedy had robbed them all of parents, the other three had unhesitatingly adopted her into their family circle.
It was Allan who had christened the "Team," and the name had stuck. They did things together, and shared them—holidays, friends, jokes and troubles. Katherine and Valerie's many admirers had learnt that it was hopeless to attempt to break into the magic circle, and it was certain that no girl existed who had, for the boys, half their attraction, though on occasion Gerald and Valerie were prone to impulsive friendships, and once they had nearly lost Katherine.
So after the crash they had taken up the threads of their lives, and, moving to the little flat, had faced the world together with easy comradeship, and found it very fair. Now, after two years, had come the testing time, when the Team was faced with the prospect of dissolution. Therefore they were serious.
Katherine turned to her brother. "Let's have it, Ger."
"Buck up, old chap!" said Allan, encouragingly. "You're not dead yet, and with four of us to face it together we'll soon have you right again."
Katherine flashed an approving smile at him, and they all waited for Gerald, whose unusually pale face flushed painfully.
"Stark just backs up the other chap's verdict. With fresh air and nourishment I'll be quite all right in a year or so."
"You mean you'll have to go away?"
"It's more than a holiday, Kath. It means living in the country and working there, and throwing up my job at Lang's."
"And if you don't?"
"He says it's only a question of time. The lungs aren't affected much now, but this damned cold I've had all the winter has pulled me right down."
"You are thin," Katherine frowned.
"You'll have to go then." Allan began to fill his pipe deliberately. "But it will hurt like the deuce breaking up the gang."
"Yes, I suppose I'll have to try for a job on a farm somewhere," answered Gerald dispiritedly.
"But you can't," Katherine looked at her brother anxiously. "You're not strong enough yet, and you need someone to look after you."
"Why shouldn't we all go?"
"Valerie!" Three pairs of eyes regarded the hitherto silent girl with amazement. A swift, warm flood of colour glowed in her cheeks, and her hazel eyes were very bright.
"Gerald can't go alone," she said. "He'll get wet feet and smoke too much, and do a hundred things he shouldn't, and be worse than ever."
"Thanks!" said Gerald shortly.
"You're quite right, Val," corroborated his sister. "Men simply cannot be trusted to look after themselves, but what can we do?"
"I—I only thought—Allan has always wanted to go on the land, and if Gerald has to——"
"By Jove, you've hit it!" Allan's large fist crashed down upon the table. "Let's be farmers."
"You're quite mad." Katherine looked from one to the other despairingly, but there was a gleam of hope in her heart. She and Gerald had never been parted before, and the prospect of seeing the boy go to strangers, particularly in a weakened state of health, was worrying her more than she had owned.
"Not it all," retorted Allan. "As Val has pointed out—Gerald must go. I've always been keen on it. Office work never did appeal to me. I only took it on to oblige dear old dad, so in any case, I'll go with him. It rests with you girls. It means roughing it, perhaps. Can you face it?"
"What a question!" Katherine's proud head went up. "But its so overwhelming, and you talk about it as if you were planning to run down to Cowes for the weekend."
"I can't let you do it," broke in Gerald excitedly. "It means giving up all you're used to just for me."
"Don't delude yourself." Valerie's eyes were dancing. "It's too thrilling for words. Of course, if you don't want us, Ger——"
"Want you?" The boy broke out feverishly. "Why——" he paused, as if at a loss for words to express his need.
"Then that's settled," said Valerie placidly. "Shall we keep pigs?"
"Why pigs?" asked Allan curiously.
"They're such darlings, I mean the little ones are, and I do like bacon for breakfast."
Katherine still stared about her with startled eyes. "Allan, do you think we can?"
"I don't see why not," he replied. "But it must be your decision. As Gerald says, it will be a case of doing without a lot of things you regard as essentials."
"Hot water service, electric light, gas, theatres, dances, young men at your beck and call——-"
"And a hundred other harmless and unnecessary appliances."
"An you and Ger won't have to give up anything, I suppose?"
"Stiff collars, tight boots, and the alarm clock at 7.30."
"I wish you wouldn't joke." She wrinkled her brows. "I'd give up anything to be with Ger, and if you and Val could come too, it would be just heavenly, but there are lots of things to be considered—money for instance."
"Well, we've all got some. Not that I'd propose putting it all into this, because we're very ignorant, and farmers fail like everyone else. I would propose we all adventure, say, £500 each, and borrow more if we need it, which will leave us with a margin. We don't want a big place."
"I'm glad of that."
"No sarcasm, please. I think fruit would be the best, up in the north-east somewhere, in the mountains."
"You seem to have thought it all out."
"I did a few years back, when I wanted to go myself. If Ger has got to work out of doors it would be much better for him to be his own master."
"I shall keep poultry," announced Valerie. "White ones, and have lots of baby chickens and a dog."
"Queer combination," grinned Gerald, and then became serious again. "It's splendid of you all to take it like this, but suppose the whole thing's a failure, what do you think I'll feel like?"
"Nonsense!" interrupted Allan, pushing back his chair to stretch his legs more comfortably. "It's pure selfishness. Flats like this were not built for men of my size." He stood six feet three in his stockings and was built in proportion. "Why, whenever I have a bath here I've got to stick my feet out of the window."
"Do farms run to bathrooms at all?" queried Valerie.
"Well, there's always the pump," he returned calmly. "Katherine, fair lady, not convinced yet?"
"It's such a plunge in the dark," she said. "It's not money I'm thinking about. We're all young and can earn more, but—oh! It all seems so absurd—Allan, who is an accountant in a city warehouse——"
"The accounts of the new venture will be scientifically kept, Madame."
"Gerald, who has just qualified as an architect——"
"His talent will be fittingly employed on the erection of henhouses and—I think you said pigsties, Valerie?"
"Val," continued Katherine remorselessly, "whose knowledge of poultry begins and ends with her breakfast egg and Sunday fowl, who simply hates housework."
"Unless you all get married," said Valerie defensively. "Then I'll start a creche for——" she dodged a cushion neatly. "I'm serious, Ger."
"Something unusual." Gerald's cheerfulness was fast returning.
"And what about yourself, Kath?" asked Allan. "We know it's harder on you than any of us. You manage the flat rippingly, but it's a different proposition being 10 miles from the nearest store."
"Those are mere trifles," returned his cousin loftily.
"Will we have to give up the car?" asked Gerald.
"I shouldn't think so. We'll need something of the sort." Allen straightened. "Look here, chaps, we've had all the disadvantages. Kath has proved to us that we're a group of incapables. It means adventuring £2,000; it means giving up most of the pleasures that make life bearable and going into doubtful exile. Now, on the other hand Gerald's got to go, and though we love you, cousin, we know you're quite incapable of taking care of yourself, and it breaks into the Team. Besides," he hesitated, "isn't this rather a testing time? Since we came together we've had smooth running. This is the first hurdle. Are we going to clear it?"
Katherine's dark eyes smiled into his. "You've put things awfully well, Allan. It's not that I'm afraid, but I just wanted to be convinced."
"And you are?"
"In the essentials. I expect we're bound to quarrel over details."
"Hooray," cried Gerald excitedly, and then was seized with a fit of coughing that made them look at him anxiously.
"Well, when do we start?" asked Valerie when the paroxysm had somewhat subsided.
"Steady, my child," Allan picked up the newspaper. "We've got to catch our farm first. I'll go and see young Leighton. He's in the stock and station line, and may be able to put us on to something."
"Were sure to be had," said Katherine lugubriously. "Never mind. Will there be horses?"
"Possibly. We'll need one for ploughing. That will be about your form." Her look of indignation failed to move him. "And we'll get a mount for Val, too. What do you say to a nice, quiet donkey?"
"We have one already that is neither nice nor quiet," she returned witheringly. "Kath, I shall get my hair cut before I go."
"Don't you dare!" cried three voices at once. Valerie's golden glory was, like all other assets, considered a family possession.
"I shall, and I'm going to get breeches—nice khaki ones, and a wide hat." She surveyed herself in a mirror somewhat complacently.
"I suppose you will wear that rig when you clean the pigsty?" inquired Gerald, with interest.
"I shall superintend the cleaning," she returned airily. "O—o—oh!"
"What's the matter?'"
"We won't have cows, will we? You know they terrify me."
"Of course," said Allan firmly. "Large cows—with spots," he added gravely.
"N—not red ones."
"Certainly, bright red ones."
She sighed heavily. "I suppose I must bear it. Who is going to milk? I warn you every time I set eyes on them I shall run."
"Kath will do the milking," said Gerald.
"Thank you." Katherine was regarding her slender white hands a little ruefully. "My province will be the house. I hope there's a decent stove."
Gerald rose to his feet, his eyes shining. "You three are the rippingest pals a chap could have," he said. "I don't mind telling you that I felt like chucking up the sponge when I heard what Stark said to-day. I hated the thought of going away, and now you all calmly toss everything overboard and come, too. I don't care if my metaphors are mixed. I want you to know I appreciate it."
"Don't worry about that," said Allan calmly. "You're not the reason, merely the excuse. We've been getting into rather a groove lately, and I, for one, have been wondering when something would happen to get us out. It took Val's brain to find the solution."
Valerie's small face grew suddenly grave. "I haven't forgotten how you adopted an orphan who had no relations in the world," she said softly. "Why, I'd go adventuring with you to the world's end."
Katherine slipped an arm about her. "That's a forbidden subject," she said softly. "We owe no gratitude, any of us, because we're one family. Now I can't see how we could have thought of letting Gerald go alone. While we keep together I don't feel as if anything very bad can happen."
"We are four adventurers," supplemented Gerald. "As Allan said, this was the testing time. I know I'm going to get well."
It was not such a simple procedure as they had imagined. There were certainly plenty of farms but these were either too small or too large, too remote from civilisation, or too expensive.
At last, however, they succeeded in finding something which they thought would fit their needs. Situated in a fruit-growing district in the heart of mountainous country about 120 miles from Melbourne, the property had come on the market owing to the death of the owner, whose heir was disinclined to continue working the place, and was prepared to lease it with an option to purchase at the end of six months.
They made hurried preparations for departure. Furniture had to be sold, suitable clothing bought and numerous articles for kitchen and household use, which had not been necessary in a flat, but which they considered would be essential for the country. The boys proved but broken reeds. Their heads in the clouds, their pockets stuffed with literature supplied by a benevolent if somewhat indiscriminate Government bureau.
Their heavy baggage had been sent on in advance, and they had decided to motor up in the Austin car which they had jointly acquired about a year previously. It was a clear autumn day when Allan brought the car to the door of the flat and sounded the horn impatiently. A moment later Gerald came downstairs with a suitcase in each hand. These he roped, carefully to the sides of the car and returned for a third when Katherine, radiantly pretty in a warm red motoring coat appealed on the threshold.
"Allan, isn't Val with you?"
"No; I haven't seen her this morning."
"Neither have I. I was sure she had gone with you to the garage."
"I bet she's in mischief." Gerald thoughtfully tested the ropes that bound the cases. "I wonder just what?"
"I wouldn't venture to prophesy; but now you come to mention it, I have noticed a certain—er—gleam in her eye, which, being correctly interpreted means——-"
"Oh dear!" sighed Katherine. "I wonder when she'll be back. I particularly wanted to start early. There'll be such a lot to do when we get there."
"Well that's all the luggage." Her brother surveyed his handiwork proudly.
"Looks like a battle-ship goin' into action." Allan was fond of the car. "However, I don't suppose it would be worse. Talk about knights of the road—Kath, haven't you a frying pan or two to stick into that bundle or a billy to hang over the back? I like to be thorough, you know."
"Do it yourself, then," retorted Gerald. "It's Kath's fault. Quite a lot of this dunnage could have gone up in the big cases.
"Supposing they don't arrive—the cases, I mean?"
"Isn't that like a woman? Have you no confidence in that inestimable servant of the public—the Railways department?"
"Not much. As it is, against my better judgment, I let all the linen go and went to the hotel for the night."
A taxi swerved suddenly round the corner and came to an abrupt halt at the kerb, not 10 yards distant. The driver, with a broad grin on his face, got down and opened the door, whereupon there emerged something in the nature of an avalanche. A large reddish dog leapt out. He was about the size of a young calf and not altogether dissimilar to that animal in his ungainly and awkward movements. The three were regarding his evolutions with interested amusement when, to their amazement, Valerie's small figure appeared in the doorway of the taxi.
"Good lord Val, what is it?" cried Allan anxiously.
"A dog of course. Pay the taxi-man for me Ger, please. I haven't got a free hand. Do lie down, Augustus. I'm sorry I'm so late, but Augustus got sort of excited and I had an awful bother finding a taxi-driver who would be sport enough to take us."
"I don't blame the taxi-drivers," observed Gerald, eyeing the animal with extreme disfavour. "Where on earth did you find it?"
"At the Lost Dogs' Home, of course," returned Val triumphantly. "It's an Irish setter."
"Having it, what do you propose to do with it?" Allan asked.
The other two remained expectantly silent, fearing the worst. It came.
"Why, take him with us, of course," was the reply, with just that air of innocent surprise which made Valerie so attractive. "I bought him for the farm."
Gerald choked, "Val, you don't mean to say you were inveigled into paying money for that animal?"
"If he goes, I don't," said Katherine decisively, who entrenched in the comparative safety of the car, was regarding the woebegone Augustus with suspicion.
"Val, it's impossible, you know that," Allan said sedately. "Where do you suppose the animal shall travel?"
"In the back with Ger and me. He likes motoring. He was awfully good in the taxi."
"But the thing's a mongrel——"
"Hush!" pleaded Valerie, "you might hurt his feelings. I—I know he isn't very beautiful, but really he has an awfully kind heart."
The animal under discussion returned to the group round the car, sat down upon his haunches, and gazed upward into their faces with liquid brown eyes, as if inquiring with gentle melancholy just how this condition of affairs had come about.
"You see," pursued Valerie, quick to follow up her advantage. "He's so big that he looked quite out of place among the little dogs there, and you can just imagine him bounding over the green fields, chasing rabbits. He loves chasing things."
"But, Val——" Allan was beginning, acutely conscious that the prolonged altercation was causing some comment, when the dog, evidently an animal with a sensitive disposition, flung back his head, opened his huge mouth, and gave vent to a mournful howl, which he followed up by a second, and a third, each rising in cadence until the quiet street resounded.
"Great Scott, we'll have the police here next," cried Gerald, while Allan, flushing darkly, opened the door of the car, saying forcibly. "Here, get in Val, and the brute too. Be quick. I've had as much of this as I can stand."
And so it befell that the "team" received a new recruit, and Augustus was formally, if not willingly, adopted into the band.
For the first hour things went smoothly enough. They left Melbourne behind them, and bowled swiftly and easily along the country road until, according to the road map, they had a full 13 miles to go before they reached the town where they proposed to lunch, when trouble came upon them in the simplest form—a puncture.
Gerald sighed wearily. "What a bore! I hate to see you working, Allan."
Allan took out a cigarette and lit it with deliberation, "So do I," he replied, "that's why you're going to change that tyre."
Gerald raised his eyes to the heavens. "However, as I was always brow-beaten, I suppose there's no reason why I should expect kindlier treatment, even in my infirmity."
"If you're reciting something, I'd advise you to stop. If you're merely trying to delay us, you'll suffer most, having the largest appetite," said Allan.
Gerald shook his fist at his cousin, whereupon Augustus, who had slept very soundly during the journey, opened his eyes and, perceiving Gerald's gestures, decided that a game was in progress, and leapt upon him so suddenly that he overbalanced and slipped to the floor of the car, while the delighted Augustus obtained possession of his cap and proceeded to worry it with every appearance of excited amusement, resolutely declining to return it to its owner, who cast wild looks about him.
"Call him off, Val, do you hear? He's ruining it. I may never get another. Here, you beast, drop it."
"I'm going for a walk." Valerie, who could never sit still for more than two consecutive minutes, sprang up, and called Augustus, who shambled toward them, laying a tattered remnant at Gerald's feet and wagged his tail, evidently expecting applause.
"Thanks," said Gerald shortly to the animal, "your kindness exceeds your good looks by I can't say how much. Are you sure you can spare it?"
"Come, Gussie dear." Valerie laid a hand on his collar. "I'm off up the road. It looks interesting. When you're ready, come on slowly and toot loudly. I shan't be far away."
She turned at the comer to wave her hand to the three. Then, with a smile that was wholly carefree, she tramped forward briskly, Augustus gambolling in her wake, making little runs at the bushes, as if expecting to unearth a stray rabbit, and then returning to his companion with every symptom of happy enjoyment. Then at last a real rabbit presented itself, and he was off, crashing through the bushes with ungainly strides, leaving Valerie helpless with laughter beside the road. Breathless she sank down upon the low bank that bordered it, and was beginning to expect the others when she became aware that she was not alone.
An exceedingly ill-looking tramp was gazing down upon her with the air of having suddenly materialised out of nowhere. He was a tall fellow, with a lank, unshaven face, and bloodshot, protruding eyes. His ragged suit was soiled and travel-stained, his swag a mere bundle and untidy. Valerie regarded him with a quiet, unwavering glance. It never occurred to her to feel frightened. His shifty stare fell before her inquiring eyes.
"G'd mornin', miss."
"Good morning." She regarded him with interest. "Where did you come from?"
"Me? I were just takin' a sleep in the bushes when an animal like a calf bolted clean over me.'"
"That," said Valerie calmly, "was Augustus."
"Who?" He looked pained. "See 'ere, miss. If it's your'n it shouldn't be allowed off the chain. It near killed me—a 'ard-workin' man can't even lie down for a nap."
"You don't look as if you worked hard." Val's dispassionate scrutiny had a singularly irritating effect.
"Ho! Don't I? That's all you know about it." He spat vigorously, and scientifically at a tree stump, and then, emboldened by Valerie's quiescence, came a step nearer.
"Ain't you got nothin' to give a poor man that's out of a job?" he whined. "You wouldn't like to 'ave to 'oof it through these 'ere 'ills."
"I think I would," she replied calmly. "You don't appreciate the joys of the road," she added severely.
"Joys be——" he growled. "You're talkin' through your hat. Look 'ere, I'm a poor man, and you wouldn't miss a bob now, would you?"
"I left my purse in the car," replied the girl, suddenly realising that he had drawn very much nearer.
"That watch'll do." He indicated a dainty gold wristlet on a narrow band of ribbon that had been the team's gift to her on her last birthday.
"Why, I couldn't give you that," she exclaimed. "Go away at once."
"Then I guess I'll take it." The large grimy paw closed suddenly on the slender white wrist, and Valerie screamed, struggling vigorously. Although very small, she was wiry and strong, and had no thought of submission, but the fellow laughed an ugly laugh, and caught her other hand.
"I'll teach'yer——" he began hoarsely, when there was a sound of rending bushes behind him. With an oath he released her, and Valerie eagerly hailed her rescuer.
"Augustus, good dog! Go for him!"
Augustus, however, was perfectly indiscriminating, and he sprang upon the tramp with every expression of demonstrative affection.
"Get off—curse yer!" The fellow wrestled vainly, and Valerie, with a little cry, turned and fled blindly into the bushes.
For some minutes she stumbled on heedless of direction, an unreasoning terror in her heart. She did not even stop to listen for pursuit, but when at last, with bursting lungs and trembling gait, she leaned against a gum tree for support, she could hear nothing.
The noon-day silence of the bush encircled her. All was still, and yet through the stillness small sounds came to her with startling completeness. Unable to go farther she flung herself on the dry sward, and lay face downwards. In the distance a motor horn sounded very faintly, but she did not hear.
Half an hour later she sat up and looked about her, then at her torn coat and stockings, and her bruised wrists, where the mark of cruel fingers showed blue and angry. Worst of all came the realisation that she was utterly and completely lost. She had no notion where the road lay. She pictured her companions' anxiety, and frowned with annoyance.
"This," she observed to herself, "is the limit. If only Augustus were here. Anyhow, he did save my life in his own way. Ugh!"
She stepped out lightly but steadily in the direction she had chosen, quietly confident that she would arrive somewhere, some time. But it was more than an hour later before she emerged upon a narrow country road, deeply grooved by wheel tracks, rough and overgrown, but nevertheless a road, and so a path to civilisation.
For several minutes she hesitated. It was now long past noon, and the afternoon sun was very warm. She was thirsty and almost unbearably tired. She had lost the heel of one of her shoes, and her stockings were in ribbons. Altogether, she looked as forlorn a maiden as any wandering knight errant would wish to meet.
The silence unnerved her. The road seemed endless, and in addition to her other troubles a strange weakness came upon her. She had gone past the stage of expecting help, and therefore it was with a stare of almost incredulity that she greeted the sight of a small grey single seater roadster, drawn up beside the bank. Then relief gave her added strength, and she hurried towards it.
It was a very complete little car, shining with newness, and with much bright nickel about it, well polished. She regarded it with interest and approval, noting its points with an almost professional eye. Then, having made a thorough inspection, she began to wonder where the owner was.
"Cars don't grow like mushrooms," she told herself. "I suppose he's somewhere about, but I wish he would hurry."
After a moment's hesitation, she got in and sat down. The car was drawn up in the shade, and soon a comfortable drowsiness fell upon her. So it happened that the car's owner, a tall young man, returning after a protracted search for water, received such a surprise that he felt constrained to express it rather forcibly. It is not given to everyone to abandon temporarily an empty car, and to return to find a small red-haired girl, looking decidedly the worse for wear, soundly asleep therein, so he had every excuse for staring. His involuntary exclamation, however, awakened Valerie, who became suddenly conscious of a pair of interesting masculine eyes, and also of her somewhat dishevelled appearance. Her hands went to her hair instinctively, and as the young man remained silent, possibly from amazement, she said very calmly:
"You've been gone an awfully long time."
He gravely consulted his wristlet watch before replying in a matter-of-fact tone: "Yes, I believe I have, nearly an hour. I was looking for water."
"Did you say water?" Her eyes fixed themselves on the can he was carrying.
"Yes, would you——"
"Please! I want a drink more than anything else on earth."
"But this is a petrol tin and——"
"That doesn't matter. I've never been so thirsty."
"If that's the case," he returned, "we can do better than this."
She watched him eagerly, as he went to the back and extracted a thermos flask. He poured its contents into a cup and handed it to her.
"Iced coffee," he said. "I'm glad I didn't drink it all at lunch time. It's better than water from a petrol tin. Are you hungry too, by any chance?"
He laid the remains of his lunch on the seat beside her, and she attacked it with enthusiasm. When she had finished she smiled, and Valerie's smile was as a ray of sunshine. "I suppose," she said wistfully, "you haven't got such a thing as a mirror and a comb, have you, and some hairpins?"
"I've a comb, and there's the driving mirror. I'm awfully sorry about the hairpins. Of course, if I'd known I was going to meet you—— Hold on though, I've a better mirror than that in my suitcase."
She stopped him with a gesture. "It doesn't matter. I'd probably never survive the shock if I saw myself just at present. Am I very awful?"
He eyed her thoughtfully. "We—el. You apparently have been in the wars, but with the exception of taking that curl out of your left eye, I can suggest no improvement."
She hastily tucked in the offending curl, and did mysterious but skilful things with her few remaining hairpins.
"That better?" she asked guilelessly.
"If possible," he replied readily. "That's what I should have said, isn't it?"
She babbled over with ready laughter. "Ye—es. Rather. You know the rules awfully well, don't you?"
"And now——" he removed the remains of Valerie's impromptu meal. "Where can I drive your ladyship?"
"I don't know," she frowned.
"You've got me this time," he replied, as he took his seat beside her. "I don't know what comes next."
"You see, I'm lost," Valerie explained.
"But at least you know where you came from?"
She sighed. "I don't. That's the difficulty. It was a road between Melbourne and Rockwood, and we were to lunch somewhere. I've forgotten the name of the place."
"You're not exactly explicit, are you?" He leaned back and regarded her with amused eyes.
"I've put it quite clearly," she replied with dignify. "You see, when I met the tramp—but I've told you all about that."
"Which is precisely what you have not done. Suppose you begin at the beginning."
"Well, I met the tramp. Augustus loved him, but I—-by the way, I wonder where Augustus is."
"Do you mind," he queried meekly, "telling me who Augustus is or was?"
"My dog, of course. He loved the tramp, but I ran away, and Allan and Kath and Gerald will be in an awful state. We must go and find them at once."
"Well, that's something to go on." He let in the clutch. "I gather that you were on your way from Melbourne to Rockwood, and owing to some mysterious agency remotely connected with the tramp and Augustus you became separated from your party. Am I correct?"
"Of course, I've just told you that." Valerie's tone was innocence itself.
"You probably were intending to lunch at Cortelyon."
"That's the place. I remember Gerald showing it to me on the map."
"Then the best thing we can do is to get on the main road as soon as possible, and make for there. Your friends will probably be looking for you along that road."
"Yes. It's very likely they will. I don't suppose they'll worry much. You see, they're used to my doing stupid things, and they're rather patient, considering."
"I see. Look, I'm not inquisitive usually, but I would like to know how you got in this mess."
"But I've told you. Allan had a puncture, and he made Gerald mend it. Gerald always takes ages, so I went for a walk with Augustus, and I met the tramp. He tried to steal my watch, so I ran away."
"Now, we have it at last. I suppose you wouldn't tell me your name as well?"
"I seem to have been telling you lots of things, don't I? But, as it's your car, I suppose I'd better. It's Valerie Raymond. I live with my step-brother, Allan Linton, and his cousins, Katherine and Gerald Starr."
"Linton and Starr!" To her amazement he leaned back and laughed softly, but sobered somewhat under her inquiring glance. "It's just the long arm of coincidence, Miss Raymond. Mr. Linton has leased one of the properties that my uncle left me. My name is Kenneth Gardiner. I am your landlord."
They made a sweeping turn onto the main road, and Valerie screamed and clutched her companion's arm so violently that he swerved and almost ran into the bank. Fifty yards farther up the road the Austin was standing at rest by the roadside, and grouped around it were Gerald, and two uniformed policemen, all arguing vehemently. Gardiner took in the situation at a glance, and brought his car to rest not five yards away. Lying back in his seat, an expectant gleam in his eyes he awaited developments.
Gerald noticed them first and uttered a loud yell. "I might have known it," he said. "Here have we been tearing about the country half-distracted, and she turns up alive and unworried. I told you there was no need for all this fuss."
The boy's strained face belied his words, but Allan also spoke seriously. "Where have you been, Val? It isn't a joke, you know. We've been terribly anxious."
Gardiner became aware that there were tears trembling beneath her dark lashes, and that the tiny figure beside him was strangely rigid. He guessed that the nervous strain of the past hours was beginning to tell, so he interposed swiftly.
"Miss Raymond had an unfortunate experience with a tramp, and in escaping lost herself. I found her hungry and tired not an hour ago, and was bringing her to you."
"Val, dear!" Allan opened the car door, Gerald close behind him. "You poor kid. I'm so sorry I was cross." He put an affectionate arm about her, and she wept unashamedly on his shoulder.
"You—you shouldn't have thought I'd do it on purpose," she wailed. "I——-"
"Of course not."
"But Ger said——"
"Gerald's been nearly out of his mind, and Kath's at the hotel Cortelyon worrying terribly. We thought you might turn up there. You see, we found Augustus," he talked on gently and soothingly giving the girl time to recover her self-possession. Then—-"We must get back to Kath at once," and he said to Gardiner. "I can't tell you how grateful we are to you."
"You're welcome." The two men regarded each other frankly. "But I'm making for Cortelyon, too. Won't you let Miss Raymond stay where she is?"
"You're very kind." Allan glanced at the two policemen who were regarding the scene with some curiosity. "Perhaps it would be best. I'll have to satisfy the constables with some sort of an explanation. We don't want to be held up at Cortelyon while they hunt for tramps. Cheer up, Val, dear. It's all over now." With a reassuring pat on her shoulder he strode over to the other car.
Gerald lingered for a moment, his eager eyes noting her torn stockings and soiled frock. Then he swore quietly to himself under his breath, and followed his cousin.
Half an hour later the two cars arrived at Cortelyon, and drew up before the hotel where quite a crowd had collected to witness their arrival. Acutely conscious of the curious gaze of these onlookers, Val hurried indoors closely followed by the man, and on the staircase she met Katherine, white and anxious, her arms outstretched. Val gave a little sob and ran straight into them.
Kenneth Gardiner, entering a moment later, paused on the threshold, a sudden light of recognition in his eyes. He moved forward towards Katherine as if he would have spoken, but at that moment something in the nature of an avalanche seemed to strike him as Augustus, in a state of wild personal excitement, burst into the hall and flung himself bodily upon the two girls. By the time Gardiner had recovered his balance and his self-possession they were gone.
"And so," murmured Katherine meditatively, "you are our landlord?"
The Team were seated round the breakfast table, and with their usual cheerful hospitality had admitted Kenneth Gardiner into their circle, where he had every appearance of being quite content. He gazed at her thoughtfully before replying with an air of placid satisfaction.
"I suppose that's the case, but I'd much rather you didn't think of me in such a connection."
"Seventeen," said Gerald suddenly, and Katherine became very red.
"I beg your pardon."
"Oh, nothing," replied Gerald airily, "just a little mental arithmetic." Gardiner saw that Valerie's eyes were dancing in sympathy.
"I make it eighteen," she announced.
Katherine rose with dignity. "If we are really going to start to-day we had better do so," she observed. "We will be ready in 10 minutes, Allan. Perhaps we had better say good-bye now, Mr. Gardiner, and we are more than grateful to you for your kindness to Valerie."
"It's not good-bye," he resumed easily. "I am to be your neighbour, you know. Willaura, my home, is not seven miles from your property, quite a short distance in the country, I assure you."
"You're very kind," replied Katherine rather coldly. "But I'm afraid that for a while we'll be too busy settling in to see much of our neighbours."
"Well, my stepmother will be calling in any case," he answered, with no less assurance. "What is it you have named the place?"
"Valinstar; rather nice, isn't it? It's Val's suggestion, and includes us all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go."
The boys lingered a while longer, endeavouring to atone for Katherine's unusual abruptness. Allan felt that here was a man likely to be of some assistance to them in affairs agricultural, besides which he had developed quite a liking for this quiet yet self-assured young man, with the steady eyes and imperturbable manner. Then they, too, moved away to prepare for departure, leaving him alone in the somewhat stuffy hotel dining-room. He was about to light the inevitable cigarette when he noticed a brown handbag lying on the floor near the chair in which Valerie had been sitting. He picked it up, and hesitated, but at that moment a light footstep announced her return in search of her property. Placing it behind him on the table he turned and faced her, a slow light of amusement in his eyes.
"Have you seen my bag?" she asked. "I'm sure I had it in here."
"Yes, I've got it." He revealed the missing article, but made no move to hand it over. "You're exceedingly careless."
She looked at him tranquilly. "I am. It's the one thing I'm consistent about."
"I see. But sometimes you must have to pay the penalty."
"I don't understand you."
"It's customary to offer a reward for lost property. I'm no exception to the general run of those who find. I'll hand this over in exchange for——" he paused tantalisingly.
"What?" There was a sudden defensiveness in her manner which made him smile.
"A little piece of information."
"Oh!" Her face cleared suddenly. "In other words, this is blackmail."
"Not at all. Just an ordinary business transaction. Far be it from me to interfere at all with the secrets of such an exclusive clan, but there were certain cryptic remarks made by you and Mr. Starr a few minutes ago which seemed to a mere outsider to demand a little explanation, especially as I rather guess they concerned myself."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Do your cousins ever shake you?"
"I surrender. You're incorrigible, but I won't be side-tracked. I refer to certain numerical calculations."
"Oh!" she remarked in a tone of enlightenment, "I suppose you mean scalps."
"Kath's scalps. She makes a collection, at least she doesn't but we do. Kath is so beautiful that men just naturally fall in love with her, but she's not like the other girls; she rather hates it, and to tease her we keep count of them."
"So you think I have fallen in live with your cousin?"
She looked at him critically. "Well, you've got all the symptoms, or most of them, and you'd be hardly human if you hadn't."
"And suppose I have. Would such a proceeding meet with your approval?"
"It wouldn't matter what I thought because she's the one to approve, and she takes it all for granted in a truly wonderful way. I remember Grant Merrivale, the writer, saying, 'A queen is never without courtiers.' No it was Claude Delamere, the painter who said that. He painted her portrait and it was hung in Paris."
"Yes, I——-," he paused. "Well, here's your bag Miss Raymond. Thank you for warning me."
She looked at him quickly. "Now just what do you mean by that?"
"What do you think I meant?" he asked teasingly; "I think I hear your cousin calling you."
"Yes. They're waiting in the car," she replied. "My goodness, I must run."
He crossed to the window and stood looking out on the departing travellers, but Katherine was occupied in adjusting her hat, and Valerie and Gerald between them were endeavouring to subdue the transports of Augustus, who, having been chained up all night, was feeling surprisingly full of energy, so none of the party were aware of the watching figure, and at that moment he was called to the telephone and learnt news that drove all lighter thoughts from his mind.
It soon became evident that the drive was not going to be a pleasant one. As the morning advanced the weather grew more cold and boisterous and the wind increased in fury, whistling along the narrow funnel-shaped valley where the road wound a tortuous way through the heavily wooded hills. It became necessary for them to stop and raise the hood, a proceeding which meant the entire repacking of their goods, while the girls waited shivering, casting anxious looks at Gerald, the erstwhile invalid.
"This trip has a hoodoo on it," observed Allan as they reseated themselves.
"I don't believe we're ever going to get there," Gerald grumbled.
"Hush! This is a poor beginning to our adventure, if we're going to give in at the first tough weather." Katherine, her cheeks glowing with the keen air, smiled. "Think of home, a cosy fire, and a good dinner. It can't be more than two hours away at most."
"Well, jump in, and don't let's waste any further time."
"Just a minute." Valerie looked anxiously up the track. "Augustus has gone after a rabbit."
"Dash Augustus," said Gerald forcibly. "That hound will be the death of some of us."
"I wonder where he is." Valerie plunged into the blush that bordered the roadside and disappeared, whereat Gerald murmured something about yesterday and departed in pursuit. Katherine and Allan patiently resigned themselves to awaiting the return of the wanderers.
"Travelling with Val is not without incident," Allan laughed easily. "It's lucky none of us attempt to run to a time-table."
"Yes. We're only 24 hours late." Katherine consulted her watch. "I sometimes wonder, Allan, if we've been taking the world too easily these last two years, and whether we aren't beginning to encounter the rocks that lie in every passage."
"Oh, I don't know," he replied vaguely. "We've had a good time, that's all."
"Ye—es. But don't you think its been almost too good. I feel rather as if a cloud has been hanging over us, and is just going to burst."
"So it is. In just five minutes," he answered literally. "I wish those kids would hurry. Cheer up, Kath. It's not like you to be so gloomy."
"You forget I'm Irish." Katherine looked at him gravely. "And I've a sense of destiny denied to you mere Anglo-Saxons."
"Thanks." He grinned. "If a sense of what you call it makes you talk like a revised version of Hunt's weather prophecies I'm rather thankful I'm denied that privilege."
"You—Allan, there's Val. She's been running. There's something wrong, I'm sure."
Allan was out of the car before she had finished speaking, and had placed an arm about a white-faced, tearful Valerie. For a moment she could not speak, and her breath came quickly. Then she gasped.
"The man—back there. Augustus found him. Ger stayed. He's ill or dead. I don't know."
"I'd better go and see, I suppose." Allan refused to meet Katherine's eyes. "Some wandering swaggie, I suppose. Straight ahead, you said, Val? I'll find it. You stay here with Katherine."
After a few moments' rest Valerie was able to speak more coherently, but she had little to add to her story. They had followed the dog through the bush until they came to a narrow track in the timber, and it was here that Augustus had paused before some bushes, barking furiously. Closer investigation had shown them a man lying on his back, at which stage Gerald had sent the frightened Valerie back for Allan.
The rain returned at this moment, a stinging shower, and the girls cowered miserably in the back of the car, until at last they would no longer bear their loneliness.
Five minutes brought them to the scene, and showed them a tragic picture. In the lee of a bush where the boys had carried him to shelter from the rain, lay the stranger, his head pillowed on Allan's arm, while Gerald, white-faced and anxious, knelt beside him. The girls, fascinated yet afraid, approached so silently that they were unobserved, for Allan and Gerald were concentrating their attention on the feeble words that came falteringly from the dying man, for it was obvious that death was very near.
"You wish us to report your death as an accident?" Allan repeated quietly.
"Yes." There was a pause, and he half-raised himself and fumbled with his coat. "I—I haven't got long now. In the lining—paper. I tricked them all right. You must keep it—not—to show—it—to any-one. Promise."
"But——" Allan hesitated, and the man caught at his hands a pitiful feverish grip. "It's important. Promise," he reiterated.
"You're to take it. I haven't a chance—to tell you now, but hide it. Others will want it if they know you have it. They—must not—know. Promise."
"I shall take what is in your coat, and hide it. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes. You've been white to me. Remember—it was an accident."
The head dropped, the eyes closed, and the restless hands fell limp and nerveless. He was dead. Valerie uttered a faint cry, and Allan, looking up, saw them there.
"This is no place for you," he said hastily. "Get back to the car. We'll be with you as soon as we can."
Fifteen minutes later the pair emerged from the bushes solemn and quiet-eyed.
Katherine went to meet them.
"You didn't bring—him?" she questioned.
"No. We thought it better not. We can tell the police where to go. We've marked the spot." Allan took her cold hands in his. "My dear, you're frozen. Get in quickly."
They obeyed readily enough. Even Augustus for once proved quite amenable, and for a long time there was silence, very unlike the usual cheerful demeanour of the Team when on the road. Then Valerie said softly.
"Did Allan take the thing from his pocket?"
"What was it?"
"I don't know."
"He didn't look at it. Probably the poor chap was raving."
"But there was something there?"
"Yes. There was something there, and Allan has it. That's all I know."
"You needn't be cross," Valerie pouted.
"You don't understand," was the reply. "Do you realise what this means. We've got to report the matter to the police, and there will be all kinds of trouble."
"Police?" Valerie looked faintly scared
"Yes, and all sorts of inquiries will be made."
She stroked Augustus's left ear thoughtfully, whereupon the animal responded in his usually effusive manner. When he had somewhat subsided, Gerald said irritably, "If you hadn't brought that wretched mongrel it wouldn't have happened."
"An if you hadn't had pneumonia——" began Valerie with flashing eyes, when the car stopped with a jerk, which threw her into Gerald's arms, who received her with marked unwillingness. Augustus immediately sprang into the fray, and when at last they freed themselves, somewhat ruffled but infinitely more cheerful, both Katherine and Allan were regarding them with expressions of marked severity, which they were quick to interpret correctly.
"It's all right," averred Valerie as she adjusted her hat somewhat over her left eye, and hurriedly fumbled for her mirror. "We were only pulling your leg."
"I'd like to spank you," said Katherine severely.
"Which of us?" Gerald was applying a handkerchief to his eye, which was watering freely owing to an unexpected encounter with Augustus's front paw.
"Both of you." She surveyed them scornfully, with an involuntary twitch of amusement at the corners of her mouth. "You're a pair of quarrelsome infants. Fortunately, Augustus seems quite capable of dealing with you both."
"Augustus——" began Gerald hotly. "Here, get down you brute," as that sagacious animal, on hearing his name, showed signs of renewing the assault.
"Augustus might be likened to the apple of discord, but he has his good points," said Allan grimly. "Is it necessary to separate you two, or shall we proceed?"
"Go on, please, we'll be good." The dazzling smile Valerie lavished on him was entirely wasted, but, as she often declared, it was excellent practice.
They proceeded with further incident until at last they came in sight of Rockwood, and swung gratefully along the smooth stretch of metal that betokened it a town. Soon they rounded a corner and became immersed in traffic. It was market day, and there were signs of it everywhere.
As they drew abreast of the hotel a loquacious individual aided by two vicious black dogs and a long whip, escorted a drove of sheep from the gateway of a neighbouring yard. Urged on from behind in no uncertain voice, they poured pell-mell into the roadway, rushing blindly this way and that, and almost swamping the car, whose occupants found themselves, much to their embarrassment, the centre of public gaze. The animals surrounded them on all sides, their heaving grey shoulders resembling the surging waves upon the seashore. The air was filled with their bleats of protest. Allan sounded his horn vigorously. The owner swore and kicked right and left with hearty good will, at the same time proclaiming in a definite brogue that "shape were mischancy creatures—the devil's own. Ah! Would ye, ye misbemannered son of a——-"
The occupants of the car were far beyond speech. Valerie, her nose buried in a lace handkerchief, was tearfully vowing that she would never eat mutton again, while Katherine, her cheeks flaming, was endeavouring to appear dignified and unconscious, and failing signally. The boys, having yelled themselves hoarse, had now become convinced of their impotence, though Gerald at times made feeble efforts to quell the vociferous Augustus, and at length, with with an air of desperation, opened the door of the car, on which he was leaning, and precipitated him into the heaving mass below.
Valerie screamed faintly, and followed her favourite's progress with straining eyes, and parted lips, but she need not have feared. Augustus rallied gamely, and swam "doggedly" to solid ground. At this stage a puffing constable reached the footpath, and having comprehended the situation he bellowed at the top of his voice.
"Drive on there! You're obstructin' the traffic."
There was a howl of mirth from the on lookers, while Allan buried his face in his hands, but deliverance came from an unexpected quarter. A couple of young men appeared on horseback, and with uncanny skill unravelled the tangled skein, and removed the flock up the street, whence they returned to receive the profuse thanks of the perspiring driver, whom they rated soundly as a clumsy idiot, and then proceeded to accost the team.
"I hope there's no damage done," the elder said pleasantly. He was tall, suntanned and blue-eyed, and seemed amazingly part of the horse he rode. Valerie's hands stole unconsciously to her hat and hair.
"I don't thinks so," Allan retorted weakly. "I think we are more overwhelmed than hurt."
The young man laughed. "I'm glad. I'm awfully sorry you had such a rough spin, though. You see, they're Dad's sheep, so I feel partly responsible."
"Thank you. I think we'd better remove ourselves from the public eye." Allan threw in the clutch. "I'm not used to such a limelight."
As he spoke there arose a snapping and snarling of great fierceness, and even as the car began to move, Valerie flung open the door and fled along the street to where Augustus and the biggest sheepdog were locked in mortal combat. Finding words of no avail, she seized Augustus by the collar, and tugged with all her might, narrowly escaping being jerked off her feet, but suddenly she was thrust aside by a masterful hand, as their previous rescuer flung himself from his horse, and was using an argument more potent than words—a hunting crop. The combatants parted.
"Don't you know," demanded the newcomer sternly, "that it's dangerous to get mixed up in a dog fight."
Valerie looked up earnestly. "But he was nearly killing Augustus," she said simply.
"Who? Oh, your dog. Why our Scott was only half his size. All the same," he relented under the gaze of a pair of serious eyes, "I'm awfully sorry they got mixed up."
"It was your dog's fault," said Valerie vehemently. "Augustus is as meek as a lamb. He's got a lovely nature."
"I'm sure he has," said the young man hastily. "Does he—does he often make a noise like that?"
The injured Augustus, deprived alike of his foe and of human sympathy, was giving his celebrated imitation of a steam siren in full blast.
"Augustus, stop it," she commanded, whereupon Augustus obediently stopped for the space of half a minute.
"You don't thing he's hurt, do you?" she asked anxiously.
"We had better make sure." Gravely he approached the dog, who received him with every demonstration of affection. Augustus had a large heart and no reserve.
"I say, steady on!" He unsuccessfully countered an attempt to lick his right ear. "There doesn't seem very much the matter, does there?"
"No," Valerie smiled gratefully, and an insistent horn awoke her to the exigencies of the situation. "I must go now. Thanks ever so much," she paused, "for everything."
"That's all right. I say, are you staying here?"
"At Valinstar. Yes, Allan, I'm coming. Augustus!"
Jim Gardiner stood for a moment gazing after her, and then he became aware of a small brown glove lying on the roadway, almost at his feet. He picked it up, and made a step forward, then with a light laugh thrust it deep into his pocket. He remounted his horse and rode back to receive the caustic comments of his younger brother, whose witticisms left him entirely unmoved.
"Bill," he asked, "have you ever heard of a place called Valinstar about here?"
"No, I can't say I have," was the reply. "Rum name. What was it? Something 'star.' A chap named Starr has leased that place Uncle John left to Kenneth."
Jim's face cleared. "That must be it, then."
"Going to call, are you?" The boy grinned. "I'd watch my step, if I were you. They've just been taken in charge."
"Old Peters, the bobbie, was talkin' to the big fair chap at the wheel for five minutes, an' then I heard him say, 'You'll have to come round to the station!' 'Right'o' says the other chap, as cool as you like. Reckon he's a tough customer. Then he blew his horn for the girl you were making sheep's eyes at, and that's where they went."
"Nonsense!" Jim hesitated and then swung his horse round. "You and Mike can take the sheep home, Bill. I've got some business to do."
"Just thought of it?" questioned Bill innocently. "A'right. So long."
Jim sighed with relief as he saw his sharp-eyed junior disappearing in a cloud of dust, and then he turned again into the main street where he learned upon the best authority that the occupants of the car were under arrest (a) for obstructing the traffic and driving to the public danger; (b) for being in possession of a stolen car; and (c) as escaped criminals from the great city. At which information he uttered a snort of disgust and departed for the police station, which he found deserted. Both the occupants of the car and the police force having vanished, at which stage he called himself a fool in good round terms and headed for home.
But the day was not yet over for the team. After losing themselves twice in a maze of cross roads, at last they reached their destination, and surveyed it with dissatisfied eyes. It was not at all what their fancy had pictured. The house faced the road, square and uncompromising, built of hard stone that somehow emphasised the corners, so that the front seemed quite unrelieved by the small tin-roofed verandah, which stood sadly in need of a coat of paint, as did the roof and the square window-frames, from which uncurtained windows stared at them unblinkingly with a certain hostility that daunted the beholder. There was a semblance of a garden in front, where a few wilted geraniums had alone successfully defied the summer heat.
"Frightful!" wailed Valerie and Katherine in one breath. "Appalling!"
"Perhaps it's better round the back," suggested Allan, who was always an optimist.
The back of the dwelling proved equally as uninviting as the front, presenting the same square outline, set off, in this instance, by a couple of galvanised iron water tanks, which flanked the doorway like a pair of sentinels. From here the orchard was plainly visible—row on row of fruit trees with that subtle air of desolation upon them that precedes the falling of the leaf, while on one side in a paddock of tangled weed and grass a couple of horses and a cow grazed contentedly.
An old man with a hoarse voice made his appearance from a shed. "You Mr. Linton?"
Allan nodded briefly as the girls climbed out of the car, thankful to come to the end of such an adventurous journey, even though that end was not particularly inviting.
"I'm Jones, Mr. Gardiner's man. I've been expectin' yer since yesterday."
"We were delayed on the road," said Allan, "have you the key?"
"Of the house, of course."
"I never 'eard of no key. Old Jack never used to lock up nothin'."
"Well, reckon I'll be gettin' along."
"But——" began Katherine.
Allan laid a hand on Katherine's arm. "He can't help us Kath. It's nearly 5, and we can't do much to-night."
"I milked the cow," offered Jones, with the air of one trying to be helpful. "Milk's on the kitchen table."
They watched him go in silence, and Katherine sighed wearily. "It's lucky we had lunch in Rockwood, for we've got our work cut out here."
"Let's explore," demanded Valerie, and led the way to the door, which refused to yield to her efforts. "It is locked," she declared viciously. Then———
"Let me try," suggested Allan. A twist and several jerks failed to move the refractory panel of wood, which stood firm.
"We must try a window," said Gerald, while Allan still wrestled to such good purpose that at last the doorknob came away in his hand, amid shouts of unsympathetic laughter.
"I wonder if there's an axe in the woodshed," suggested Gerald. "Which would be cheaper, destroying a door or a window?"
"We'll have a shot at Val's kitchen window." Allan was surveying a split thumbnail with interest. "First blood to me."
"If we get it open Val will have to get through," said Gerald.
"Rather!" assented Valerie eagerly. "Mercy, what's that?"
From the rear of the house came a loud squawking sound and much confusion. At the corner they were met my Augustus, bearing proudly in his mouth a large dead rooster which he laid at Valerie's feet with simple confidence.
"First blood to Augustus I think," Katherine surveyed the scene critically. "Gerald, will you kindly tie that brute up? Yes, I know he'll howl, but he must be taught that such proceedings are capital crimes."
When Gerald returned, having administered due chastisement, he found the three contemplating the kitchen window, which was just too high for even Allan to manipulate with ease. At last Gerald, mounted on Allan's bended back, succeeded in pushing back the catch.
"Come on, Val," groaned Allan. "If we don't get in soon I'll be a mangled corpse."
Valerie scrambled through the aperture with the agility of a cat, and there was for a moment silence. "O-oh! It's dark," came her voice a little uncertainly.
"Hurry up with the door," they urged her.
Then their blood was curdled by a succession of piercing shrieks in Valerie's best vein. "O—o—oh. Let me out! Let me out! O-o-oh." And there was a sound of small hands fumbling desperately at the door.
"Val darling, what is it?" cried Katherine anxiously.
Allan and Gerald strained themselves to catch a glimpse of the interior, but the small window merely opened into a cupboard-like place. They raced round to the door where they could hear her sobbing, frightened cries. At last it yielded and she fled into Allan's arms sobbing weakly.
"Val, child, whatever is the matter?"
Katherine, white and shaken, clutched her brother for support.
"C—-c—cockroaches," she wailed tremulously.
The boys' shout of laughter betokened their relief, but to their amazement Katherine remained serious.
"How positively awful," she gasped. "I couldn't go in there."
"What rubbish!" said Gerald, scornfully, and pushed the door wide open, letting a flood of daylight into the darkened house. On the threshold the girls halted nervously and Katherine sniffed.
"I don't believe this place has ever been opened. None of the windows has, anyway."
The room in which they were was certainly not inviting. It was a kitchen, and its sole window was covered by a piece of sacking, rendering the room unduly dark.
After a stupefied silence Katherine took her courage in her own hands. "We'd better see the rest," she said. "It can't be worse."
She was not so sure. Adjoining the kitchen was a large pantry, whose shelves contained many rusty tins, some of which displayed most interesting varieties of mould. Two bedrooms opened off the narrow dark passage that led to the front door. The furnishings were mainly home-made. Rusty wire stretchers were piled with doubtful bedding, while the large room in the front was empty of furniture of any description.
In silence they returned to the kitchen, but after one expressive glance Katherine led the way to the car, which had a comfortable and home-like aspect.
"I'm afraid," said Allan after a moment's silence, broken only by the wailings of the imprisoned Augustus, "that we had better return to the hotel."
"Which looked several degrees worse than this—to judge by the condition of the lunch-table," returned Katherine crushingly.
"Well?" he threw up his hands helplessly.
"Men have no initiative," retorted his sister, "we'll camp out. Yes, I know it's cold, but I'd rather freeze to death than spend the night in that chamber of horrors. We'll sleep in the car, and you—well, there's the stable."
"Or the pigsty," assented Allan. "We don't count, of course, but you don't propose that we starve, do you Kath?"
"Certainly not. I bought bread and butter and eggs, thank goodness. One of you boys can light the stove and I'll unpack the kettle, but I'm not going in there again until daylight, and then it will be armed with several mops and loads of kerosene."
"It's an outrage," said Allan hotly. "Wait till I see Gardiner."
"I expect Jones was sent to clean up," suggested Valerie. "Probably he never got any further than the stables. Let's go and see."
Her prophesy was correct. The stable and adjoining shed were in a fair state of cleanliness. Apparently Mr. Jones's energies had failed him before he got as far as the house. A pile of fresh straw in the shed suggested admirable material for beds, and then, spurred on by the approach of night, they made hasty preparations for their unconventional meal.
"Thank the Lord it isn't raining," was Gerald's somewhat unusual form of grace, and hearty appetites soon gave evidence that youth can rise triumphant over the most discouraging circumstances.
"We are—adventurers." Valerie rolled the word round her tongue as if she liked it, and stretched her arms luxuriously. "It doesn't seem like only two days since we left Melbourne. Think of all that's happened."
"Mainly unpleasant, too." Allan lit a cigarette. "Val's escapade, which nearly drove us frantic; the finding of that chap; then we are made the laughing stock of Rockwood, and finally are denied entrance to our own home by a tribe of cockroaches and—er—other insects."
"I suppose we'll have to call at the police station again tomorrow," Gerald lowered his voice a little.
"Yes. They were very decent, but I felt rather awkward. The circumstances were so strange. He was so insistent that it was an accident."
"Then you think it wasn't."
"We—-ll. He was shot, and I saw no gun about."
"Did you tell the police that?" asked Katherine.
"I gave them the facts, nothing more. It's the safest way when dealing with the police force."
"Experience speaks. Is this the third or fourth conviction?"
"Allan." Valerie moved a little nearer to him, "you've not shown us the thing—he gave you."
"I had forgotten. To tell you the truth, I haven't had time to look at it myself. Fetch the torch this way, Ger." He took out his pocket-book and looked round the attentive group. "I've a kind of feeling that I ought to hand this over to the police, but———"
"But he made you give that promise."
"Yes. I'd hate to break it. I've only once before promised a dying man anything." His eyes rested on the dim outline of Valerie's eager face, "and there's something rather sacred about it."
"I don't like it," Katherine moved uneasily. "He told you to hide it, didn't he? It sounded as if there was something not quite right about it."
"An adventure." Valerie wriggled excitedly. "Open it quick, Allan."
He smiled tolerantly and took from his wallet a folded scrap of paper. It was quite small and tattered and frayed. Four eager heads bent over it, as by the light of Gerald's torch they endeavoured to decipher the writing thereon. To their disappointment, however, it was in a foreign tongue, and one quite unknown to them. There were barely half a dozen lines scrawled in a somewhat uncultured hand, and at the bottom a rough sketch map, drawn with big bold strokes.
"Why I don't understand a word of it," said Katherine.
"Nor could anyone else, I expect," said her brother sceptically. "The poor chap was probably crazed."
"Nonsense." Valerie thrilled. "It's hidden treasure, of course."
Her remark was greeted with subdued laughter. "You will read penny dreadfuls, Val, and this is what comes of it," said Gerald.
"What are you going to do with it, Allan?" asked Katherine, regarding it dubiously as if it were a piece of high explosive about to explode.
"Oh, I don't know. Put it in here, I suppose." He made a movement to replace it in his wallet, but Valerie intervened.
"He told you hide it and if you won't, I will."
"Here you are then, Baby," he laughed good-naturedly, and tossed it over to her, but she did not smile. "I've a feeling it's going to make our fortunes," she declared. "I shall put it where none of you will ever dream of looking."
"And you'll forget where, so here endeth——. Children it's high time we went to bed. Tomorrow we must work as we've never worked before." Katherine rose gracefully and insisted on seeing that Gerald was snugly disposed of amid the straw before taking up a somewhat restricted position on the back seat of the car.
"Why am I so tall?" she murmured. "Val, you seem just to fit."
Valerie curled up like a kitten in front, yawned. "I'm going to dream," she prophesied, "buried treasure."
"Rubbish! You'll be lucky if you sleep at all. I know I shan't."
Silence reigned at length, broken only by the soft stir of the trees and the belated cry of a bird.
The noise of the farmyard heralding the sunrise aroused the girls next morning.
"Goodness! I am stiff." Katherine stretched herself cautiously. "I can hardly move."
"Ye—es." Valerie's eyes were still upon that age-old miracle in the east. "I don't ever remember having seen a sunrise before."
"Let's hurry up and get breakfast before the boys wake," suggested Katherine practically. "We've got a tremendous amount to do to-day, and it would be lovely to get an early start."
"Also won't we crow if we're up first." With characteristic energy Valerie was already out of the car. "Fancy sleeping on such a glorious morning as this. Kath, do let me wake them."
"I'll let Augustus do it." She looked at the recumbent form, stretched in ungainly length against a tree, and proceeded to rouse him, dodging his caresses as best she could, and admonishing him in whispers, "Down 'Gustus, down! This way, old chap." She reached the door of the shed and opened it gently. "Fetch em out, old man," she concluded, and retired tactfully to the car.
The boys emerged five minutes later with much straw in their hair and the light of battle in their eyes, to find Katherine busily preparing breakfast, and Valerie, with her most innocent expression, plaiting her long hair in front of a mirror propped up on the car bonnet.
"Who let that brute in?" demanded Gerald. "He kicked me in the eye, sat on Allan's chest, and chewed half his hair." There was a suspicious silence, and Valerie looked round for an avenue of escape.
"It was Val.," declared Allan. "This time, young lady, you've gone too far, and you 're' going to get what's coming to you."
She fled swiftly round the side of the house, the boys in pursuit. Punishment, she knew, was inevitable, but she would give them as much trouble as possible.
She rounded a corner by a clump of trees. Gerald hard on her heels, and ran almost under a horse's feet. Gasping for breath she nearly fell when she found herself seized by a strong arm, and looked up into the eyes of the tall young man who had come to their assistance in Rockwood on the previous day.
"Save me!" she murmured imploringly, as her pursuers came in sight, breathless and dishevelled.
For a brief moment Jim Gardiner stood bewildered. The girl still clung to his arm. The boys paused, baffled, glaring with undisguised ferocity at their quarry. Then Augustus bounded round the corner in joyous pursuit, and Gardiner's horse shied violently at the apparition, catching his unsuspecting owner on the side of the head and knocked him down. Then it bolted along the road.
Instantly the tableau changed, and Jim found himself assisted to his feet by the two boys, while a very contrite Valerie looked on with unaffected concern.
"Sure you're not hurt?" queried Allan, as he lent a friendly hand. "By Jove, it's you, is it?"
"I'm all right, thanks." Gardiner gazed reflectively at the distant cloud of dust, which betokened his departing steed. "It's just a colt I'm breaking," he explained, a trifle apologetically.
"It's that confounded beast again." Gerald glared at the innocent Augustus. "You've got Valerie to thank for this. She inflicted this nightmare upon us, and we've never had a moment's peace since."
Valerie smiled, "I'm ever so sorry."
"Not at all." Gardiner looked inquiringly at Allan and surprised a fierce frown on Gerald's face.
"Rather." The former seconded the invitation heartily. "We live just round the corner, you know."
Jim did know. The direction of his morning ride had not been altogether accidental, but he made no mention of the fact.
They retraced their steps in silence until Katherine came into view. "I was getting nervous," she began. "I thought——-" Then she stopped short at the visitor.
"We picked up a stray," announced Valerie calmly. "That's twice he's rescued me from a violent death. There's bound to be a third time."
"Do you mind telling me—or—the meaning of this—er——?" Jim glanced from one to the other. "Is it your usual form of morning exercise?"
"You interrupted an act of justice," said Gerald solemnly. "Now we'll have to postpone it."
"Don't mind me," begged the visitor cordially.
"You really mean that?" Gerald inquired. "You're not merely being polite. Right'o then. We carry on."
He suddenly seized Valerie from behind and swung her off her feet. "Coming Allan?" he asked.
"I'll leave it to you," Allan laughed.
Valerie allowed herself to be borne round the corner of the house with surprising meekness. Then her voice could be heard calling loudly upon the name of Augustus, who rushed to the rescue.
"Aren't they children?" Katherine's air of amused tolerance was very charming. "But she really does deserve it."
Allan fingered a scratch on his cheek thoughtfully. "I hope Ger——" he began, then turned to their guest. "We're not all mad," he explained gently. "Augustus frightened our friend's horse, which——-"
"Threw him rather on your hands," concluded Gardiner with a disarming smile.
They entered the battered garden as they spoke, and from the back came sounds of mirth.
"Peace is restored apparently," said Allan, as they quickened their footsteps. "I wonder what's happened now."
In the centre of the yard, placidly oblivious of the fact that one forefoot was planted in the middle of Kath's impromptu breakfast table, was a large red cow, with wild eyes and wicked horns, which, with head well down, was surveying Augustus in no very friendly manner. From the shelter of the car Gerald and Valerie shouted encouragement as the dog circled warily about his quarry.
"Don't be frightened," said Gardiner quickly. He spoke authoritative words, and the intruder, quick to recognise a command, moved at his bidding.
"It's milking time, and she knows it," he observed.
"Milking?" The four looked blankly at one another.
"Yes, milking. You know you milk cows, don't you?" He looked at them amusedly.
"We'd gathered that," returned Allan drily. "But the manner of the operation is, I confess, somewhat beyond us."
"I'll earn my breakfast, then, by giving you a lesson," he offered. "It's quite easy."
His quick eyes took in the deserted house and untidy yard. "You don't mean to say you slept here?"
"Where else? You just take a look inside and you'll know why. When we encounter our landlord there's going to be trouble." Valerie's menacing air made them all laugh, but they observed that their new friend was looking most annoyed.
"It's the limit," he said forcibly. "I can't understand——" He broke off and strode in the direction of the milking-shed, the boys accompanying him.
When they returned from the demonstration, they found the table relaid, the tea made, and Valerie and Katherine awaiting them, the former now more completely attired, and her hair once more under control. During breakfast Gardiner listened while they talked with cheerful candour of their plans and prospects, and also they regaled him with an account of their adventures on the road.
"And we met our landlord," finished Valerie. "A useless looking individual in a plutocratic car."
"You——" Their guest paused awkwardly. "I—I'm sorry. I've never told you my name. It's Jim Gardiner."
There was a constrained pause, until he continued hurriedly. "Of course, we'd no idea the place had been left like that. Dad told one of the men to come down and clear up. I'm most frightfully sorry. You must come up to the homestead and stay until things are fixed up."
"I—we simply couldn't think of it, thank you." Katherine's head was at a dangerous angle.
"It's very good of you, but we're really rather enjoying ourselves," said Allan hastily. "We had to grumble to keep up appearances, but we can manage quite well."
"You probably can, but you're not going to." He rose to his feet. "I'm going to borrow your horse if I may, and get things moving."
"There's not a van in Rockwood to carry your stuff, so I'll send a couple of the chaps from the place with the wagon, and they can bring out any stores you want."
There was a masterful air about him, which defied contradiction, and in a very short time he had saddled the pony, and after hearty thanks for the meal disappeared down the road.
"Apparently we have entertained an angel unawares," Gerald yawned. "He seems so darned set on doing the job, I propose we turn in again and have a couple of hours' sleep. I'm not used to rising with the lark."
It was soon evident, however, that Mr. James Gardiner's intentions did not outrun performance, for barely an hour later a covered wagon drew up at the gate, depositing that gentleman himself, and a burly looking Irishwoman, together with sundry mops and buckets.
"They're going straight to town," he said. "Have you your list ready?"
They had not, and he proved a valuable assistant in the compilation of it, suggesting items which would never have occurred to such inexperienced housekeepers, who had never lived more than five minutes from a shopping centre in their lives.
The first load of furniture arrived, and the waggon was sent back for the second before lunch, when, to their surprise, a hamper arrived.
"Mother said you wouldn't want to come up to the house in the middle of spring cleaning," explained Jim, "so she sent this instead."
They certainly found no fault with its contents, and after the meal the four were obliged to motor into Rockwood to attend the inquest on the unfortunate man whom they had found, and Jim Gardiner accompanied them, leaving the place in charge of the Irishwoman, who seemed both sensible and capable.
On their arrival at the police station they found that the unknown had been identified as a labourer named Smith, who had worked for some months on a neighbouring farm, but of whom little else was known, and after Allan's evidence the coroner was evidently quite satisfied to record the happening as death by misadventure, and the proceedings were soon over, much to the relief of the team.
"I remember that chap, you know," Jim said, as they re-entered the car. "But Ken would know him better. He employed him for a while after Uncle John died to look after that place you've taken."
"How queer that we should have been the ones to find him," said Katherine thoughtfully, "and that he should be connected with your brother."
"Yes, isn't it? And talking of——here he is now."
The smart little car pulled up beside them, and the owner, courteous as ever, got out and came to them, exhibiting no surprise at the sight of his brother.
"How are you all?" he asked. "Hullo, Jim!" He questioned them about the rest of their trip, and Jim treated him to an indignant description of the state of affairs which had greeted their arrival. He appeared genuinely sorry, and apologised profusely. "I'm glad Jim came in handy," he concluded, "but what are you doing here! You haven't become embroiled with the police already, have you?"
Allan told him briefly, but was unprepared for the look of consternation and alarm that overspread Gardiner's features, though he recovered himself quickly after ejaculating, "You found him?" and changed the subject, but not before he had aroused suspicions in four keen young minds.
"Are you coming home, Jim?" he asked. "I'm going straight away."
Jim shook his head. "Rather not. I'm going back to Valinstar to dinner. I'm to be allowed to cook the chops."
Kenneth Gardiner frowned a little as if at some unpleasant thought. "Well, I'll say good-bye then," he said abruptly. "I'll be seeing you again, I expect. I'd like to know more of this man Smith. I was interested in him."
"I wonder," said Valerie thoughtfully, as she brushed her hair that evening in a rejuvenated bedroom. "Why Kenneth Gardiner doesn't like you, Kath."
Katherine turned surprisedly. "So you've noticed it too," she said. "I thought perhaps it was my imagination."
"I don't think so. At first," remarked Valerie candidly, "I thought it was just another 'case,' but he must be a woman hater, or blind. He's got a jolly nice brother." Valerie smiled into the mirror, as she remembered that Jim had forgotten to return her glove.
"This!" said Allan contentedly, "is something like it." He looked around the transformed kitchen with an air of placid satisfaction. Dainty curtains now adorned the ugly windows, the floor from which no amount of scrubbing could remove the stains, had been covered with a dark linoleum.
"Yes," Katherine smiled back at him, "I didn't think it was going to be much of a home for us, but somehow it seems as if we quite belong here now."
"I'm so glad. To tell you the truth, when we first saw the place, I felt like turning and going straight back to town. It was unfit for you."
"Nonsense! I'm quite as capable of bearing little hardships as anyone else."
"I'm not so sure that you should though. You were made for a life of ease and laughter—-Italian gondolas and Spanish moonlight should be more in your line."
"Allan, you're beginning to talk like Claude Delamere," she reproved him. "I thought better of you."
"Have you heard from him lately?" he asked idly.
She turned defensively. "No, why should I?"
"Oh, I don't know. You were rather good pals with him once." He looked out the window to where Valerie and Gerald were playing tennis on an improvised court on an improvised net. "Val has a ripping back-hand," he observed irrelevantly.
Katherine came across to him, laying a cool, firm hand on his shoulder. "I don't know what I've done that you should remind me of some of my most foolish moments. Allan, are you so anxious to get rid of me?"
"Need you ask, my lady?"
"But tell me seriously, what put Claude Delamere into your head? I've been thinking about him lately too."
"I don't know, unless it was hearing young Gardiner mention him."
"Young Jim Delamere stayed with him last year. He is a friend of Kenneth."
"Oh is he?" She stood for a moment looking out of the window at the laughing players. "That might explain——"
He looked at her interrogatively as she came to a sudden resolution.
"I—Allan, you've always been a kind of big brother to me. Ger is such a child in lots of ways. I'd like to tell you about him—Claude."
He made a movement of protest. "Don't if you'd rather not."
"But I want to. I was so glad when we came up here, because I thought I would get away from his memory completely, but seems I can't—not even here."
He rose and paced the room restlessly. "I can't see that any good can come of raking all this up again."
"To the best of my knowledge it never has been raked up," she replied resentfully. "I know you all thought I treated him badly, but because you were all bricks you never even mentioned him. The truth is that he fascinated me and I loved him. I'm not sure that I don't still."
"It's true. While he was painting that picture it went to my head, and, well, I gave him the impression that——Anyway, after the glamour had gone I refused to marry him."
"Well, he's not the first."
"He took it differently from the others. His pride was hurt, and he vowed he would make me sorry. He almost frightened me, for he seemed to go quite out of his mind."
"The cad! Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was my own fault. Besides, he's a genius, and they always behave abnormally. He went abroad soon afterwards, and his picture—my picture—was hung in Paris."
"And that's the end of the story," he returned with cheerful common sense.
"No," she replied swiftly. "I've a feeling that it is but the beginning."
"If he dared come near you now he'd have me to reckon with."
"I know. That's why I told you, I think; at least it was one of the reasons. I think it is because he's so un-English that he worries me. There is a foreign streak somewhere that makes him different—and interesting."
"If that isn't just like a woman," Allan laughed easily.
"Oh men never understand," she answered impatiently. "I don't know why I told you at all."
"I'd like to think it," he began, when they were interrupted by the arrival of Gerald and Valerie.
"I expect there are courts in Rockwood. I shall ask Jim." Valerie perched herself on the table and swung her legs easily—they were slender limbs, with quite the nicest things in ankles, and Valerie was pardonably vain about them.
"So it's 'Jim' now is it?" Katherine looked at her reprovingly.
"Of course, you can't go on calling a man Mister when he's saved your life. I reserve that title for his high and mighty brother."
"I won't hush," she retorted rebelliously. "I quite expect he'll pat me on the head one of these days. He's so condescending. He'll get a shock it he does, though."
They all laughed.
"There's something queer about him," she continued reflectively. "He was decent enough to me, I admit. I've a kind of feeling, though, that he's more interested in that poor man we found than he owns to. Allan, promise me you'll never tell tell him about that paper."
"He's not likely to want to know."
"Isn't he?" she said darkly.
"He's the white-haired boy of the family," Gerald contributed. "He never has to work on the farm like the others. His mother left him money. The other boys are just stepbrothers, and then his uncle did, too."
"Val," queried Allan suddenly, "where did you put that paper?"
Valerie laughed. "I thought you had no interest in it whatever; I'm not going to tell you. I'll get it for you if you want it, but to tell you would spoil everything."
"Just like a girl," Gerald remarked with a superior air. "Makes a mystery out of every little trifle."
"Well why not? Life without romance would be the strawberry without the cream."
"That's very typical of you."
They all started in surprise, and, looking up, found that the subject of their previous conversation was standing in the open doorway.
"I did knock but you didn't hear me," he apologised courteously to Katherine.
"I'm awfully sorry," Allan indicated a chair; "do come in. We're just teasing Val about her incurably romantic view of life."
Valerie looked at him with a warning glance, as Gardiner complied. She was wondering just how long he had been outside the door.
"Jim is with me," the visitor remarked, "but he stopped outside to talk to old McIntyre, who was passing. I brought the big car, thinking you might like to come for a spin."
"What! All of us?"
"Why not? The car will easily hold six. I'll show you a bit of the country before dark, and we'll go back home for supper. My stepmother would have called, but she is confined to the house with a stiff ankle, so please don't be formal."
"It's very kind of you." Katherine was beginning to wonder if her imagination had led her astray.
"Not a bit of it. I feel I owe you something for the unpleasant experiences you had on arrival." He looked around the room with undisguised approval. "It is quite a transformation."
"Would you like to go?" Katherine looked doubtfully at her family.
"Rather," Valerie smiled upon Gardiner with great geniality. "I think its ripping of you, but we must hurry if we're going to see anything before it really gets dark."
A few minutes later they were comfortably settled in the huge car. Allan and Katherine in front with the driver, while Valerie, ensconced between Gerald and Jim, was preparing to enjoy herself as only she knew how.
The road was a good one, and the car travelled well, so that before darkness came they had covered a great deal of country—open paddocks freshly planted with Lucerne, orchards, whose long rows of trees stretched away into the shadows like a ghostly army, and farmhouses, built for the most part of hard stone or unpainted weatherboard, and presenting that peculiarly uncared-for appearance which is typical of the Australian countryside.
An hour later they drew up in front of a long, low rambling house, half-covered by creepers, from the windows of which lights gleamed a cheerful welcome. The door was hospitably open, and Kenneth led the way to the drawing-room, a spacious room, comfortably furnished with deep easy chairs in dark serviceable shades, evidently a room used more by men than women, and such had been Mrs. Gardiner's plan, for she liked to have her sons about her.
She give them a hearty welcome, and they responded instantly, recognising in this stout, rather plain woman, with the twinkling eyes and ready smile, something of a kindred spirit. Her husband, a bluff straightforward man, was all attention, and he and Valerie became speedily engrossed in a profound discussion on dogs, he having heard from his sons of the exploits of Augustus. Gerald discovered that Jim and Bill had played cricket for his own school's deadliest rival, and Allan devoted himself to Mrs. Gardiner, who had taken an instant liking to this tall young man with the steady eyes, and she was quite willing to leave Katherine to be entertained by Kenneth. After a few minutes' desultory conversation, he rose.
"Come with me for a moment," he said gravely. "I've something to show you."
She hesitated, with a glance at her hostess.
"Oh, mother won't mind," he declared easily. "I'm going to show Miss Starr my pictures."
"Don't be long then, for supper will be on. Kenneth is quite mad about pictures and once he gets going——" She dismissed them with a smile, and Katherine followed him somewhat unwillingly along a wide passage, into a room furnished in marked contrast to the rest of this house. It was severely plain, but there was quality in every line. On the walls were hanging several fine pictures, but what caught her eye almost immediately was one standing on an easel at the far end of the room. She advanced towards it swiftly with a cry of surprise.
"Why, you've got my picture," she exclaimed. "I never saw it finished."
"I bought it in Paris last year," said Gardiner smoothly. "You see, I never thought I'd have the good fortune to meet the original."
She glanced at him keenly, but his eyes met hers steadily, and she turned quickly to the picture. "I heard about Claude's success," she replied, "but I'm sure he has flattered me."
She paused again in contemplation of the pictured face, so like her own, with its huge serious eyes, and stately grace. "Queen Katherine," the artist had often called her, and he had painted her with just that serene unconsciousness of bearing becoming true royalty. Yet the longer she looked the more she became aware that it was not like her. He had missed something essential. Katherine was no stately aloof ice-maiden, but a sentient vivid human being, and she turned away with a queer feeling of distaste that was almost fear.
"I don't think I altogether like it," she said, "it's not the real me at all."
"It created a great sensation in Paris," Gardiner said, "it made Delamere's name. He's a pal of mine, you know—a distant cousin of mother's. She came of an old Hungarian family, and Claude has streaks of about four nations in his composition."
"Yes I've often wondered about him," she said absently, "he could paint, but——"
"He takes knowing." Gardiner moved to the easel, and covered the picture deftly. "Please don't think I keep this on show, Miss Starr. It's for private view only, but I thought you might like to see it."
"Thank you, it has been interesting," she replied, "but I don't think I'd like the others to see it. There's something about it—rather inhuman." She looked at him challengingly.
"I think you're imagining things," he said lightly, "but you can talk it over with Claude when he comes in the spring. In the meantime mother will scold me if I keep you here am longer."
Katherine rejoined the party with a queer feeling of uneasiness, which she managed, however, to conceal so successfully that in that confidential time when lights are out she could reply quite easily to Valerie's question as to what Kenneth Gardiner had shown her. "Oh, just pictures," and Valerie, acutely sensitive where those she loved were concerned found no fault with the answer.
Days passed swiftly enough at Valinstar, but for the most part they were happy ones. The team made mistakes with indomitable good humour and enjoyed their mishaps thoroughly. Nothing further was heard of the stranger who had met his death in the hills, and they had almost put the matter out of their minds when it was brought before them again with surprising suddenness.
They had decided that they had earned some relaxation, and determined to attend a dance that was being held in the local hall. Jim had invited Valerie to go with him, and had been rather disconcerted by her careless acquiescence.
"Yes, the others are coming, so you can come, too, if you want to."
He had laughed and accepted, having discovered that the team was rather a hard combination to break into, and that he would do well to be thankful for small favours, but he had not laughed when he found that by the time Gerald and Allan had claimed their dances there were few left for him.
"But I always dance with Gerald first," Valerie's wide-eyed innocence suddenly changed into keen interest as she dismissed the subject as beneath notice. "I've always heard that country dances were fun, but I never guessed they were like this."
She drew back against the rough wooden wall and surveyed the scene with sparkling eyes and parted lips. It had no novelty for him, so be looked at the girl instead, a dainty picture in her soft green frock, the lights glimmering in the red gold of her shining hair.
The hall was just a plain, unlined room, with rough benches on three sides. At the end was a raised platform where a languid young man was seated at a piano smoking a cigarette, apparently awaiting the signal to commence operations. The room was brightly lit with kerosene lamps, but it was the people who attracted most of Valerie's attention.
They were a motley band—not all of them young. Mothers were there, who had put their babies to sleep in the room adjoining—rather pathetic figures, the girl thought them, with tired faces and roughened toil-worn hands. Obviously proud of their finery, girls passed her, with loud laughter. It was all new and rather exciting, she thought, but her eyes strayed appreciatively to Gerald and Allan, with a satisfied feeling of possession. They were quite the best-looking men in the room, and wore their quiet tweed suits with an air of distinction.
"Well?" asked Jim interrogatively at this stage.
"It's a bit bewildering, isn't it?—-but fun. Look, there's old Mr. McIntyre, who buys milk from us. You don't mean to say he dances."
"Old Mac? I should say he did. He'd beat the boys to a standstill. You wait till he asks you for a circular waltz."
"I hope he does. I'm a great pal of his. He's the only one I know, who really appreciates Augustus. You see he hates cats. So does Augustus."
The old farmer came across to them. "Eh, but ye're real bonny this nicht. Ye'll be turnin' all the laddies' heads, I'm afeared, and ye'll no have a dance to spare for an auld man like meself."
Valerie beamed on him. "Only you'll have to teach me how; I don't know these country dances yet."
"I'll teach ye. Y'r brother's here to-night, Jim?
"Who? Ken? You wouldn't get him here for a fortune. He regards us as barbarians."
"Oh does he?" Valerie seemed about to say more but checked herself.
"Well, he's here the noo."
"By Jove, so he is. Wonders will never cease. No need to ask what the attraction is either."
Kenneth Gardiner, quietly aloof as ever, had entered the hall, even as they were speaking of him, and after a quick glance round him made straight for the corner where Katherine was sitting.
Jim and Valerie stood for a moment in converse until Gerald sauntered across.
"What a beastly crowd," he drawled. "But I'm the victim; always was. Come on, Val."
"If you say any more——" she began, and laughed as he swung her into the circle of dancers.
Jim disregarded the inviting eyes of several partnerless damsels, as he watched Valerie and Gerald, and he learned for the first time what dancing was. Gerald had discarded his pose of indolence, and was enjoying it as keenly as the girl, who swayed as lightly as thistle-down to the wind. But others were interested besides himself, for he heard someone say behind him.
"That's one of them—the red-haired girl in green; and one of the boys is dancing with her."
Jim turned quickly to get a view of the speaker, and met his brother's eyes. Kenneth was in the act of lighting a cigarette, and nodded to Jim.
"Hullo," he drawled. "Why aren't you dancing?"
"For the same reason as you," retorted Jim. "The girl I wanted wouldn't have me."
He chuckled amusedly, as Kenneth appeared offended, and turned on his heel and walked away. Kenneth Gardiner was not used to being ranked second by any girl.
The dance came to an end, and Jim joined the team.
"Jim," asked Katherine, "who is the dark man over in the corner? That's the third time I've caught him staring at us."
"Where? Oh that chap. Haven't any idea—a commercial traveller, or something, I expect. But, bless you Katherine, everyone is staring at you to-night. You are the latest sensation, as well as being the most beautiful."
"Hush!" She laughed her reproof.
"Well, all the boys are just longing to know you."
"I suppose you don't know any nice girls pining to be introduced to me, do you?" grinned Gerald.
"I'm sure they all are, but they're much too shy to ask. Take you choice, and I'll do my best."
Gerald looked about him critically, passing by many flaunting beauties, before his eyes lighted on a slight little girl he had noticed sitting out the last dance. She did not appear to be more than 16 or 17, and was much too pale for the shabby black frock she wore. Her two long braids of brown hair seemed too heavy for the frail little figure, with its pinched white face and wistful eyes.
"That little girl looks as if she could dance," he said carelessly.
Jim stared. "Why that's only little Mollie Pattison, who works at the store. Old Brown got her up from town to help them when his wife was ill, and she stayed on."
"She'll do me," said Gerald stubbornly. "Are you going to introduce me, or do I do it myself."
He had her on her feet before she had time to be self-conscious, and after a few faltering steps she gained confidence from his easy flow of chatter.
"Gerald has picked a winner, as usual!" Valerie remarked to Jim. "That little kid can dance, also she was feeling out of things. Gerald's a great scout."
"He is," agreed Jim, a little shamefacedly, as he looked at Mollie's happy face. "I suppose we have left her out a bit. She's new, and very quiet and reserved, and she didn't look as if she could dance."
After his dance Gerald introduced Mollie to Valerie, saying, "We've just discovered we're twin souls. She doesn't like pigs, and has a wholesome horror of cows. Also, she saw us arrive, and considers it an epic occasion."
"It's the only thing that has happened since I've been here," she turned eagerly to Valerie, "and that lovely dog!"
She had found her way to Valerie's heart. "Move up Ger, I'm going to sit here," she said briskly. "And I'm going to call you Mollie. Augustus is the pride of my heart. Why he——"
"She's off," Gerald groaned. "Jim, let's go and have a smoke. I'm sorry for you, Miss Pattison, but you've brought it on yourself. The next dance is mine, Val."
"And perhaps you'll take pity on me, Mollie." Jim was rewarded by a flash of approval from Valerie's eloquent eyes, as she set to work to dispel the other girl's shyness in her own inimitable way. She succeeded so well that by the time the two boys returned she had discovered that Mollie Pattison was an orphan, who had been thrown on the world at the age of 16. Also Valerie had discovered that Mollie, for all her shabbiness, had as gentle instincts as she herself, and had promptly decided to adopt her.
The evening flew past, and the fun grew fast and furious. One section became distinctly noisy, and several times Katherine looked questioningly at Allan.
"The kids are enjoying themselves," he said easily. "And Valerie is quite safe with Ger and Jim. Would you like to walk home? Its only about a mile, and it's a fine night."
"I'd love it—anything to get out of here," she replied. "My head is beginning to ache dreadfully. Are you sure you don't mind Allan?"
"You know my views on dances," he laughed. "Get your coat then, and I'll tell Gerald."
He strolled across to where Gerald was standing with Mollie. "Kath's fed up, so we're going to walk home," he said. "Tell Valerie, will you? You know where she is, I suppose."
"No. I thought she was with you."
"She was dancing with old McIntyre when I saw her last. She'll be safe enough with him." The music started again, and he laid a hand on Mollie's arm. "We can't miss this," he said lightly. "Au'voir."
Allan found Katherine waiting for him, and they made their way quickly through the crowd of men who were smoking at the doorway. Several spoke good-naturedly enough, but it was evident that drink had been circulating rather freely. At the gate Allan paused.
"I've half a mind to go back for Valerie and Ger," he said doubtfully. "These things can get rather rough towards the end."
"Ye—es, perhaps we ought," Katherine hesitated. "But Gerald hates to be treated like a child and it is early."
"Right'o." He drew her hand through his arm, and they stepped out on to the rough road. It was a clear, cold night, and very dark, although the stars were shining.
They had gone some fifty yards when they heard the sound of flying feet in front of them, and to their amazement Valerie emerged from the darkness and flung herself upon them, panting and trembling.
"Val, wherever have you been?" cried Katherine, reproachfully.
"For a walk." Valerie was swiftly regaining her breath. "It's all right, Kath. I've only had a bit of a fright. Where's Ger?"
"He waited for you. Now we're going back to get the car, and you're coming home," said Allan sternly.
"All right." Valerie's meekness was disarming. "But I was right about things when I told you we hadn't heard the last of the man who died in the mountains."
"What ever do you mean?"
"There's a sequel," she replied mysteriously. "And we haven't much time. Let's get the car and go home at once. I'll explain as we go."
Valerie's impatience appeared to communicate itself to the others, for Allan firmly detached Gerald from Mollie, and brought him out in record time, and very soon they were on then way back to Valinstar. Then, and then only did she volunteer an explanation, bending forward so that Allan and Katherine, who were in the front seat, could hear her. Gerald, who was inclined to be sulky, leaned back with a bored expression.
"After I'd danced with Mr. McIntyre," she began hurriedly, "I went into the cloakroom to do my hair. He's an awfully strenuous dancer, and you know there's another door, opening out into the yard. I was so hot I thought I'd go for a walk."
"You must never do such a thing again," said Katherine, severely.
"All right, I won't, but do listen! And drive a little slower, Allan. We don't want to get there too soon. Well, I was walking round the side of the hall when I ran into several boys and I heard beer bottles, so I sheered off and went across to the road. There was a car drawn up not far down, and I was just thinking I'd go back when my shoe came unbuttoned, and I heard another car coming. I darted to the side of the road just behind the stationary car and stooped down to do it up. I thought it was empty, but it wasn't. There were men in it, and one of them said something like this: 'They're safe to be at the dance for another two hours; you can have a good look round, but I doubt if you'll find anything that way.' And the other said, 'No, but I'll swear they know something. You see, they were with him when he died.' Then they said something else about his giving the show away and someone keeping something to themselves for what they could get out of it. Then I heard one say, 'Look out for the dog, then.' And I realised he was getting out, and I fled."
Allan brought the car to a standstill. Valinstar was just over the hill. Gerald had forgotten his pique, and was almost as excited as Valerie.
"We'll catch them red-handed," he cried.
"No," Allan paused. "We don't want any police proceedings, but we do want to find out who it is and give him a wholesome scare."
"Let's set Augustus on to him," suggested Valerie.
"Kill him with kindness, eh? No, my proposition is that we rip up his tyres and then drive up as if we suspect nothing, and give him about a half-mile run."
"But supposing he's armed?" objected Katherine.
"I don't think they're out for blood yet. Anyway, you girls are to stay in the car. No happy hunting for you, Valerie. Understand?"
"But it's my fault," wailed Valerie.
Allan ignored her, and the car crept quietly up the hill without lights.
"Red Indians on the warpath." Gerald took out his pocket knife. "Give me three minutes' start, Allan, and then pick me up at the gate."
"We do have adventures, don't we?" chortled Valerie.
Allan waited the required time, and then switched on the headlights and moved forward. There was another car drawn up beside the road. Gerald leapt on the running board as they passed through the gate, which they had recently opened by the process of removing it bodily from its hinges. They came to a standstill in the front garden, and the boys alighted. The house seemed dark and quiet enough, but somewhere in the vicinity there lurked an intruder, who had come for no good purpose. They hesitated. It was a disquieting thought, even for Valerie. Then Allan raised his voice and spoke casually.
"Wonder who owns that car?" he said. "It appears that we have visitors."
Even as he spoke they heard they heard in the distance the sound of another car approaching.
"Popular road to-night," murmured Gerald, as this, too, drew up beside the fence and its occupants descended.
"Boys, I'm afraid," Katherine bent forward anxiously, drawing a breath of relief when she saw that the newcomers were Kenneth Gardiner and his brother Jim.
"We were afraid that someone was ill or something. You left in such a hurry," explained the latter. "So Ken suggested that we pass this way and see if everything was all right.
"Kath was tired. That was all," said Allan. "We were just wondering who our visitors were." He indicated the other car.
"Why, that's Wilton's car," said Kenneth in surprise. "He left about half an hour ago. I expect he had a puncture or engine trouble and has gone off on foot."
"Puncture I should say," said Gerald gravely. "That back wheel's right down."
At this moment a dark form appeared round the corner of the house and approached them readily enough.
"Good evening," he said pleasantly. "I expect you've been wondering who the burglar was, but I'm—oh, hullo, Mr. Gardiner! This is lucky! You can give me a good character."
"Engine trouble as usual, I suppose, Wilton?" responded Gardiner. "Miss Starr, this is Mr. Wilton, a mining engineer, who is sometimes found in these parts. Miss Raymond and——"
By the time he had completed the introduction the team had identified the newcomer as the dark man who had been so interested in them at the dance.
"Had a bit of bad luck really," he was explaining. "Radiator leaks, and it went dry. I went prospecting for some water and a bucket. That is why I didn't show up when you arrived. I was hunting for a bucket."
The explanation sounded so plausible that three of the four looked at each other guiltily, but Valerie smiled.
"How awfully queer," she purred. "That you should be so long, I mean. There's always a bucket on the tank stand, just beside the door."
"It was confoundedly dark round there," he replied. "But if you'll lead me to the tank-stand I'll give my lady a little drink and be moving."
"Come in and have some supper," said Gerald hospitably. "It's not much after 12, and I'm as hungry as a hunter."
"Yes, do." Katherine descended from the car. "You can't refuse. As Gerald says, it's not late. Besides we have a genius for meals at odd hours."
"You have a genius for most things unusual and attractive," said Jim, as he wrestled with Valerie's refractory shoe button, which was again giving trouble. At this moment a long-dawn howl rent the stillness of the night.
"Augustus is awake," explained Valerie unnecessarily, as the visitors started and assumed pained expressions. "Poor darling, I must go and untie him. No, you needn't come, Jim."
She sped away on her errand while the others repaired to the house, but it was nearly five minutes later that she introduced an excited Augustus "just to liven things up," as she explained afterwards. Jim attempted to withstand the dog's boisterous onslaught and fell heavily into a chair, to the detriment of the chair.
Allan expelled the animal and assisted Jim to rise. "Don't worry about the chair," he said, "it's one of our pet abominations, as is also that dog."
"He done a dreadful thing," Valerie looked worried. "I——I hardly like telling you."
"What is it this time—another hen?"
"Valerie, you don't mean to say he's got the cat at last?"
"Do be quiet! No, it's Mr. Wilton's car."
"What on earth——"
"He hates being chained up so much that he loses his head when he is let off, and he bolted right round the side and just threw himself into Mr. Wilton's car. I expect he thought it was ours, because we usually leave it there, and I couldn't stop him."
"Oh, well, that wouldn't do much damage," Wilton smiled reassuringly at the small troubled face.
"But——" Valerie's eyes were tragic. "He found this on the seat." She held up at tattered remnant of what had once been a leathern wallet and some scraps of torn paper.
"Good heavens," Wilton started, and snatched it from her in obvious perturbation.
"——I hope it wasn't awfully important," she faltered. "He—he just chewed it up."
"That beast ought to be shot," said Allan forcibly. "I'm——"
"It's quite all right," Wilton was trying to smile. "There was nothing very important, just a few notes and sketches; but I'd put a muzzle on him if I were you."
"But I've never known——" Katherine was beginning, when Valerie created a diversion by exclaiming that the coffee was boiling over. Supper passed off amicably enough, though the team held their breath whenever they thought of Wilton's back tyre. The man was pleasant company. He had evidently travelled a good deal and told good stories. The boys soon began to wonder if their suspicions had been entirely unfounded. He had just finished telling them of an interesting experience in the Andes when when Kenneth Gardiner looked at his watch.
"It's after 1," he exclaimed. "We must be moving, Miss Starr; you'll be demoralising us with these late hours."
The team accompanied their guests to the waiting cars, Mr. Wilton pausing to gather up the fragments of his wallet.
"I'm afraid half the scraps are all over the yard," murmured Valerie. "I had such a time getting it away from him."
"Don't mention it." Wilton's good humour was apparently unruffled, and he took his place at the wheel.
"Why, what about your radiator?" Valerie asked innocently. "You've forgotten all about it."
"By Jove, yes. So I had," he started guiltily, and sprang out again.
"Your back tyre is down, too," observed Jim. "You better leave your 'bus and come home with us," said Kenneth easily. "I'm sure the ladies are anxious to get to bed and you'll be a long time. You can come back for the car in the morning. Come along, man. Where's Jim?"
Jim and Valerie had withdrawn to a little distance and were conversing in low tones. Jim reproachful, she elusive, and at Gardiner's words she turned eagerly.
"It's time for you to go now, and if you're going to be silly I'll——"
"Set Augustus on to you. Goodnight Mr. Wilton. I'm so glad to have met you."
Back in the house the four faced each other, a trifle uneasily.
"There's something queer somewhere," Allan said. "I don't like that chap."
"Nor I," said Katherine decidedly.
"But you were all over him?" Thus said Gerald, with brotherly frankness.
"I wasn't; only it seemed wise to see him again—without Kenneth Gardiner."
"So you think he's mixed up in it?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Mightn't the whole thing be imagination? I mean," Allan had the average man's distrust of the abnormal or unusual.
"It might be," Valerie spoke for the first time. "But in that case, then, this is mere coincidence." She drew a folded paper from the bosom of her frock.
"What is it?"
"Before Augustus so unfortunately got hold of Mr. Wilton's wallet I managed to get this," she paused.
"Valerie!" Katherine was shocked, but the two boys applauded.
"C'est la guerre, Kath. You little imp! I wondered why Augustus had broken out so badly at this particular moment. Show us it quickly."
She laid it on the table and watched them bend over it eagerly. They looked up with with an exclamation of disgust.
"It's in the same language as the other."
"Yes," replied Valerie complacently; "and if I'm not mistaken you'll find it's an identical copy of the same document. Doesn't that prove what I've always said, that we've stumbled into something remarkably interesting."
"Rather upsetting really," Allan paused. "I wish to goodness I'd handed it over to the police. I've a good mind to do so now."
"You forget," said Valerie, "you gave it to me."
"Then I propose we carry on as we have done. Be as innocent as possible and give Wilton and Gardiner all the rope they want. I suppose the thing is safely hidden, Val?"
"I'll vouch for that," she smiled. "You wouldn't find it in a hundred years."
"We've begun well by appearing entirely unsuspecting. Then let us continue so—on the surface—and let things happen." He looked at Allan.
"Yes," he agreed. "There can't be any harm in that, as long as they don't become too aggressive, but I'd like to have a clue to that language."
"I know," Katherine leaned forward eagerly. "Couldn't we send a line or two to Derry Stanfield? He's a student of modern languages, and he'd know, if anyone would."
"That's a great idea," exclaimed Gerald; "and then get hold of a grammar and a dictionary. We'd soon be able to make sense out of it."
"The ease with which the family takes to crime is rather terrifying." Allan picked up the clock. "By the way I wonder if Jim's in this."
"I'm sure he's not," Valerie replied with such swift intensity that the three stared. "There's nothing underhand about Jim," she continued defiantly, and then, as they continued to stare, she seized her candle and departed, banging the door after her.
"Oh dear!" Katherine and Allan glanced at Gerald, but he had lost interest and was whistling softly as he prepared to follow Valerie's example.
"Mollie Pattison is a nice kiddie, Kath," he said, a trifle too casually. "She has had rather a rough time, too, I gather. We must have her out here some time."
"Why, of course, old chap," Katherine replied with equal carelessness. "Good night."
Then she turned to Allan with a gesture of despair. "Val and Gerald are off again," she said.
"Cheer up, Kath! They're only children, and when you come to think of it, it's rather a coincidence, isn't it, that they always do it together?"
"Why, do you mean——?"
"We've done enough conspiring for one night, Kath. Don't worry your beautiful head about them, that's all."
"Well, I won't." Her smile was very sweet. "But I don't know what we'd do without you, Allan."
"Nonsense, be off with you." He laughed easily, and she bade him good night, but he showed no inclination to follow her example, and sat for some time by the fire thinking deeply, and in spite of the mysteries which appeared to be shadowing them his thoughts were happy ones.
The four rose late, in spite of the alarm, and felt a strange disinclination to set about their daily tasks. They were tired, but they were also unsettled. The atmosphere of mystery which surrounded them made them feel that the everyday world was very flat and commonplace, and the talk at the breakfast table centred on "it" with purposeless intensity, until everyone's nerves were on edge, and Valerie and Gerald began to quarrel.
Katherine took charge. "We're all talking nonsense and wasting time. You know we agreed last night that we were just going to carry on as though nothing had happened, and now we're behaving like a lot of silly children."
"You're right, as usual, Kath," agreed Allan, "Come on kids, stop fighting and get to work. There's a lot to be done."
"I'll write to Derry to-day," Katherine continued. "You can take it into town yourselves, as there are several things I want."
"Good-o," Gerald agreed with suspicious eagerness. "Will you come, Val?"
"Rather," declared Valerie promptly; "I want to see Mollie again, and Jim will be there, as it's market day. They're bringing in a crowd of calves or something. He told me last night."
"Hurry up then, kid, or well be late."
"Kid yourself." Valerie seized a pail and started in the direction of the poultry yard, whence she was heard a moment later calling upon Gerald to assist her in detaching Augustus from a terrified rooster.
Katherine attacked the breakfast dishes, and Allan, shouldering a rake and hoe, set out for the orchard.
For a while Katherine was busy, and the time passed swiftly enough. When she had finished she sighed thankfully and took a book out to the front verandah, where she subsided into a deck chair in the fresh spring sunshine and began to read. She alone of the team had not fitted well into her new environment.
She had told Allan often that her happiness lay with the Team, and she fully believed it, but sometimes as she looked ahead to never-ending days of uninteresting housework and drudgery, she wondered if she could stand it.
Her book was interesting and she speedily became absorbed in it, so that she did not notice a car draw up for a moment, and the mining engineer open the gate and come towards her. He was quite close before she raised her eyes with a start, and, having greeted her courteously, he sat down on a step at her feet, showing no immediate disposition to repair the damage to his car.
"This is a bit of luck—finding you alone, I mean," he said. "I've been wanting to talk to you."
"Indeed?" she replied rather coldly, but he refused to be snubbed.
"I saw you last night at the dance," he continued.
"Yes. I noticed you—staring."
"Bad as that was it? I say, I'm sorry. I'm a rough sort of chap. I've knocked round a lot, and I expect I've knocked the edges off my manners, but, look here, can't we be friends?"
His directness startled her. "Friends? But how can we be? You're leaving here to-day, aren't you?"
"Oh, I'm not going far. I've got a job in the hills, just across the ranges."
"Yes, it's a wild spot, miles from everywhere, but some people I know want a survey of it, and beggars can't be choosers."
"How interesting!" She had an idea that he was watching her keenly.
"Oh, not so very. There's one queer thing about it, though. One of the men I had engaged for the chain gang was found dead."
Katherine started. "You mean the man we found?"
"Yes. I didn't know it until last night—your part of it, I mean. As a matter of fact," he seemed to be weighing his words carefully, "the whole thing seems rather mysterious, and has worried me quite a lot. He had some plans I was using with him, and the loss of them has upset my calculations."
"But wouldn't the police give them to you?" she asked, with apparent indifference.
"They didn't have them. I wondered if perhaps your brothers——"
Katherine became a great lady. "I am sure that Mr. Linton would have no reason to conceal anything from the police, or from you. You had better speak to him yourself."
"I'm sorry. I seem——"
She rose to her feet. "If you will excuse me I have work to do, and you came to repair your car. Good morning."
The engineer's expression, as he watched her retreating form, was not exactly a pleasant one but he merely shrugged his shoulders and set about changing his tyre. Some minutes later he rounded the house, and almost ran into Valerie, who, in picturesque gardening attire, including an old felt hat of Gerald's, was industriously weeding the vegetable garden. He handed her a letter from Jim, and then departed hurriedly.
Jim's letter was short and to the point.
There is something on hand just now that I do not understand, and I think I had better have a talk to you about it. If I do not see you in town to-day could you meet me to-night about 8 o'clock at the bridge? I would rather you did not mention this to the others until after I have seen you. Then you can use your discretion.
At lunch Katherine repeated to the Team the substance of her conversation with Wilton.
"Mining engineers don't go surveying," declared Allan. "Depend upon it, the clue to the mystery is to be found in the hills."
"There are parts of them quite inaccessible and unexplored," said Gerald. "I remember some of the chaps passing through them last spring on a walking trip. They said it was very rough going."
"Buried treasure," announced Valerie suddenly.
"Rubbish!" Everyone laughed.
"You've laughed at me all along so far, but everything I've said has been right," she replied indignantly. "And I can't help feeling that the worst is yet to come."
"Nonsense, girl. You're letter your imagination run away with you," Gerald laughed. "I'll admit it is a little bit mysterious, but there's probably a very simple explanation. Now are you ready to come to town?"
"I am. Shall we take Augustus?"
"Over my dead body. Good-bye, Kath. Sure you've remembered everything?"
As a rule the little township had few attractions for the Team. It was the word in dullness. Even market days had ceased to be novelties, and they knew by heart every shop window, and had a nodding acquaintance with even the lugubrious hotel barman.
They first collected their mail. Then they went to the store, and Mollie, with a pale face and tired eyes, flushed prettily as she saw them.
As they waited until she was free, they were seized upon by a stout lady, brilliantly arrayed, whom they recognised to be the wife of the local doctor and an eminent social figure in the little community.
"You are Miss Raymond, aren't you, and this is your brother?" The Team were used to the relationships being mixed, so Valerie smiled vaguely, and did not trouble to contradict. "I am Mrs. McDonald. I have been away, otherwise I would have been out to see you. We were wondering if you would join our hospital committee, Miss Raymond. I have also planned for your cousin to take an interest in our dramatic circle."
"That sounds more thrilling than the hospital committee," declared Valerie with deplorable frankness. "And Kath will be a help, I'm sure. She has done a good bit of that sort of thing, and so has Gerald."
"Ah!" She looked at him speculatively but disapprovingly. He had wandered to the counter, and was exchanging pleasantries with Mollie Pattison. Mrs. McDonald checked a remark that was quivering on her lips, and smiled diplomatically. "Yes, I'm sure he could help," she said. "We are having a meeting on Thursday night at my house. Now, don't forget Thursday, will you? I'm depending on you." She swept out importantly before Valerie had time to reply, and left her gasping for breath.
"Gerald, your fate is sealed," she announced dramatically. "You are billed to appear as Romeo to Mrs. McDonald's Juliet."
"What nonsense are you talking now?"
"The truth. We're to join the dramatic club presided over by the respectable lady whom you wouldn't stay to be introduced to. And I'm to be a hospital visitor, or something equally poisonous. Apparently I don't reach the required standard for drama."
"Lord help the patients!" Gerald grinned and yawned. "I'm beginning to realise I'm tired. Miss Pattison here looks as if dancing all night agreed with her."
"I've never enjoyed a dance so much," she smiled at them tremulously. "You made me feel at home somehow."
"I'm glad," replied Valerie with swift sympathy. "Won't you come and see us some time, one Sunday? Gerald could come for you in the car, and we could go picnicking somewhere in the hills."
"Please do," said Gerald eagerly. "We could ask Jim Gardiner, too, Val, and with Kath and Allan have a nice little party. What about next Sunday?"
"The day after tomorrow? Splendid! Of course I'd love to come."
They made their purchases and emerged into the main street with their arms full of parcels, where they almost collided with old Mr. McIntyre, who beamed at Valerie.
"It's gran' to see ye, lassie." He took some parcels from her and helped in stowing them away in the car, chatting amiably on various topics until they were ready to go. Then he paused and looked carefully round.
"Ye'll be mindin' the man ye found on the road?"
"Yes." Valerie felt a queer touch of foreboding.
"I've been having dinner with my brother-in-law, who is in charge at the police station, and he's been telling me there's going to be trouble."
"Trouble?" queried Gerald.
"It's said by the authorities in Melbourne they are not too satisfied as to how he died. They're sending someone up to investigate."
"Why? I—we——" Valerie looked at Gerald anxiously.
"It's nothing to fash your little head about," the old man reassured her, "but it's a queer thing whatever." He hesitated. "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything, and I'll be obliged if you'll not mention it, as I wouldn't get Peter into trouble, but you'd be sure to know soon."
"We won't tell a soul, except, of course Allan and Kath," replied Valerie breathlessly. "But what do you think has happened?"
"Men don't die accidentally in such places," answered the old man seriously. "I thought that at the time. It might a been murder."
"No! He said it was an accident," Gerald protested quickly. "I'm sorry for the girls' sake this has to be raked up again, but we have nothing to fear in the matter. Have you done all your shopping, Val? Then, if you'll excuse us, sir? We can't give you a lift, I suppose?"
Gerald was silent for a moment. "Now what," he said, "exactly does that mean?"
"I'm—I'm frightened, Ger.," Valerie said in a small voice. "It looks queer, somehow. Do you suppose it was murder?"
"I'm afraid I've never thought about it much," he answered gravely, "though I did think the police took a great deal for granted. Still a man doesn't usually lie when he's dying."
"No," she agreed. Then——"Gerald, I wish we'd never come here. Everything has gone wrong. Kath's unhappy. Yes, I know she is! I can tell better than you, and though excitement is fun after a fashion——"
Gerald stopped the car suddenly to stare at her. "Val, are you sickening for anything, measles or the croup? You're usually gamer than Ned Kelly."
"Of course not, and I'm game now," she flashed back, "only I hate the thought of this inquiry.
"Guilty conscience, I suppose," he laughed relievedly. "Val, I've been wondering if you and Kath don't need a holiday in town. A few days there would buck you both up."
"You don't get rid of us that way, Ger. Whatever happens I'm going to be in it—well in," she added, with an emphatic turn of her head, little guessing how true her prophecy was to be.
They did not speak for a moment, each troubled with a vague sense of foreboding. Then Gerald said half to himself, "After all, we can always give it up. We don't know the value of what we own and it doesn't belong to us anyhow."
"And I'm equally sure it doesn't belong to Kenneth Gardiner and his gang," retorted Valerie with all her old fire, "or he wouldn't send persons like Wilton crawling round with tales that any ass could see through."
"Poor little girl! Never mind, when the troubles blown over we'll have a week in town, just you and I and do everything."
"Ye-es." There was a strange lack of enthusiasm in her voice that he was quick to resent.
"Of course if you really want to," he added stiffly.
"If you do, of course," she answered.
"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't," he retorted, ill-pleased, and threw in the clutch with a jerk. Arrived at the house, Valerie gathered up her parcels and turned with a smile.
"Sorry Ger!" she said. "Don't be cross. We'll make it a fortnight."
"Right'o," he answered cheerily enough, but there was a cloud on his good-looking face as he put the car in the garage. For the first time during their association he was wondering if he fully understood Valerie.
Valerie was very quiet during tea, so much so that the other three commented on this quietness with much vigour. As a matter of fact she was wondering how best she could elude the others and slip away to meet Jim Gardiner. Such clandestine meetings were not to her taste, but she liked Jim well enough to believe that he must have a very good reason for suggesting it, and she had a queer feeling that it was to be an important link in the chain of circumstances surrounding them. Her confusion was heightened by Katherine suggesting bridge, and she looked wildly round for escape.
"I'm sorry; I've got a headache," she stammered and saw or thought she saw disbelief in Gerald's face.
"You with a headache!" Katherine's amazement was justified, for Valerie was the healthiest of mortals.
"Not a very bad one, but bridge might make it worse. I think I'll go outside for a walk."
"It will be too cold. You had better go straight to bed and have a sleep."
"All right," replied Valerie with surprising docility, "but don't come in for an hour or so will you? If I get an uninterrupted sleep for a couple of hours I'll probably be all right."
"Oh we'll be quiet. Goodnight, dear. I hope you're not going to be ill."
"Of course not." It seemed to her that everyone must realise she was lying and she almost blurted out the truth, retiring in disorder. Once in her bedroom, however, she acted swiftly, donning a dark coat and small felt hat. Then after a reasonable time had elapsed she extinguished the light, and feeling more conspiratorial than ever, she climbed through the open window and sped lightly along the load toward the bridge which spanned the river not a hundred yards from Valinstar.
She was early and was glad to lean against the wooden rails and regain her breath. It was very cold and though Valerie was by nature courageous, she felt strangely lonely, and afraid, so that the noise of a horse's hoofs approaching came as a welcome sound. Jim dismounted before he reached the bridge, and came forward whistling softly.
"By Jove, it was ripping of you to come. It's beastly cold. Let's get off the road a bit, shall we? We don't want to advertise the fact to the neighbourhood. People will talk." He led the way down a steep, stony path to the river bank, where he tethered his horse to a tree. "Now," he said, "I'm going to get in first. I know you are cross with me for wanting you to come, and that I've an awful cheek, but——" he paused awkwardly.
"I certainly think you must have a very good reason, Jim," she answered quietly. "At least—I hope you have."
"It's a conflict of loyalties," he told her. "There's Ken, but I don't owe much to him. He's a born adventurer, and why he hangs round home at all bothers me. Then there's you and the rest of the team——my friends."
She caught her breath. "I'm beginning to see. Jim, you know something?"
"Not much," he replied, "but I don't like what I know. Ken has got mixed up with some queer people now and again. I don't like that chap Wilton."
"Neither do I," admitted Valerie.
"It's Ken's half-foreign blood," went on Jim apologetically. "He doesn't look it, I know, but it's there—a gipsy streak—Hungarian, I think. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but last night I heard snatches of a discussion I wasn't meant to hear. It concerned you all."
"Tell me," she demanded.
"There wasn't much. You've got something Ken wants. I know that, and he and Wilton intend to get it."
"I can't tell you that, but I know Ken. He'll stop at nothing. Even Dad is afraid of him sometimes, and they mentioned Miss Starr—Katherine."
"Kath! They couldn't——"
"There's something they can do to her. Oh, I know it's beastly, but I wanted to warn you and I want you to know that I'm on your side, not Ken's, if anything happens."
"Why, what should happen?"
"You know best. I saw you were kidding Wilton along last night. I think they suspected it."
"It's splendid of you to tell me, Jim." She placed a hand in his for a moment. "I can't see that they can do anything to us, but—-" She paused, "Jim, do you know anything about the man who was killed—the one we found? He comes into this too, and is part of the mystery."
"Then it's a mystery to you too?"
"Of course. We have got something—I'm trusting you, Jim—-but it sounds absurd to say we don't know its meaning or its value, but were just determined not to give it up, from sheer obstinacy. If he had asked for it nicely he might have had it, but now——"
Jim laughed softly. "I might have known it. I wish I belonged to the team."
"You almost do. You've proved it to-night."
"Thanks. I'll help all I can. I can't spy on Ken—never could, but I'll keep my eyes and ears open. Why, what is it?"
"I thought I saw someone moving among the trees."
Tense and silent they gazed into the dark shadows and listened, but heard nothing but the rustle of the leaves in the wind and the rushing of water. "Imagination, Val," said Jim sternly. "Now I'm going home. You're shivering."
"I'm not cold," she protested. "But I think you'd better go. I feel sure that someone has been here. Good night. No, you're not coming with me. I'll be quite all right. Thanks awfully."
In the road outside the gate she ran into Gerald who seized her arm.
"Why, Val, wherever have you been? Kath's awfully worried."
"I decided I wanted a walk, and went out of the window to save time," she said defiantly.
"That's only half the truth. Be straight, Val, you went out to meet someone."
"If I did it's no business of yours," she retorted.
"Perhaps not, but I don't think Kenneth Gardiner is a safe person to be meeting after dark."
"Oh, don't pretend to be innocent, Val. Those airs don't go down with me. He drove past a moment ago. I know you're fond of fun, but I'd draw the line at that chap. Why what's the matter?"
Valerie clutched his arm. Her thoughts were racing swiftly. Had Kenneth met Jim? Or—she drew a sharp breath—suppose Kenneth had followed Jim to the clump of gum trees beside the river——. She forced herself to laugh lightly. "Nothing, silly. I'm cold, that's all! Let's go in and tell them that the wanderer has returned and don't say anything to Kath. She'll only worry."
"I suppose not," he agreed grudgingly, but it seemed to-night that Valerie was further away from him than ever.
Valerie made a point of being extremely cheerful during the next few days, for she resented the cloud that had arisen between her and Gerald. He was a poor actor, and showed his suspicions too plainly. Members of a team trusted one another, Valerie thought, and he was not playing the game. Therefore, when Sunday came, clear, bright and exhilarating, she appeared to be in the highest of spirits and declared her eagerness to walk all the way, a suggestion promptly vetoed by the others.
They were ready to start for their picnic soon after 9, but at the gate the first hitch occurred, Valerie, as usual, being responsible, for she insisted on bringing Augustus.
"He'll feel so lonely," she protested. "And Mollie and Jim both like him."
"But you know he never sits still in the car for two minutes," pleaded Allan. "He'll be all right at home."
"Of course the brute's not going." Gerald, who was driving, threw in the clutch.
"Then I'm staying home." Valerie opened the door and to their surprise they found she was serious.
"But why, girl?"
"I've told you. He can sit in the back at my feet, and I promise he'll be good."
They submitted with an ill-grace, and Augustus, apparently acutely sensitive to the atmosphere of disapproval, crept humbly into the car, and did his best to efface himself.
Jim was waiting for them at the gate of Willaura and joined Allan and Valerie in the back seat. Unfortunately he trod on Augustus's tail in the process who with justifiable resentment give vent to a loud howl and attacked the intruder. After two snaps and a growl he fell backwards out of the car, and this fall had the effect of restoring his equanimity, for he showed no signs of renewing the onslaught, and wagged his tail apologetically.
"I'm sorry, Jim," said Valerie. "But his tail seems sort of sensitive."
"Valerie is developing a new art," said Gerald over his shoulder, apologising for Augustus. "It acts better where males are concerned. You note the method, of course—a pathetic smile, a droop of the eyelids, and you begin to feel its your fault and not the hounds. Then——"
"Be quiet! Oh, goodness, Augustus, come here."
Augustus, however, had discovered a mortal enemy. Mrs Gardiner's Persian cat had incautiously appeared on the drive. There was a sharp bark, a scurry of feet, a yelp, and the hunt was up.
"Stop him!" screamed Valerie, as she darted in pursuit, but neither Augustus nor the cat showed any signs of slackening pace. She followed them round the side of the house, the air resounding with frenzied barks. From an adjoining doorway Kenneth Gardiner emerged hurriedly.
"What the——" he began impatiently, and paused when he saw Valerie. "Oh, it's you."
"Yes," said Valerie defiantly. "At least, it's Augustus."
He paused easily, his self-possession quite restored. "I thought the zoo had broken loose. Can I help you?"
"You can take the cat away."
"Not being an acrobat, I'd rather remove Augustus." He seized Augustus's collar firmly.
"Oh—h—h——" Valerie's voice rose to a shriek. "Do be careful! He might bite."
"Not he." Gardiner tugged harder, but Augustus simply sat back on his haunches and refused to budge. Conscious of the grinning faces of two of the farm hands, who had been attracted by the tumult, Gardiner lost his head with fatal results. He gave a jerk to the collar, which would have dislocated the neck of any other dog, but at the same moment it parted suddenly, and he fell backwards.
There was another scream from Valerie, who sprang forward to help him, but he pushed her on one side, eyes blazing, and made for the dog, aiming a heavy kick at the animal, but Augustus had lived in the world and knew mankind, so that by the time the others realised Gardiner's intentions he was half-way down the drive. With a curse, Kenneth flung the broken collar from him and went indoors. Silently Valerie retrieved it, looking strangely white and shaken.
"I'm sorry," Jim was saying apologetically. "Ken's got the devil of a temper."
"He tried to kick Augustus." She spoke without heat. "Jim, I think I would be afraid of your brother." Which was, from Valerie, a startling admission.
The three at the gate evidently guessed something had happened from Valerie's unwonted quietness and Jim's worried look, but being tactful souls they ignored it, and the party set out again, Augustus in a state of grovelling penitence.
Mollie Pattison awaited them eagerly. She wore no hat, and her long plaits sparkled in the sunshine, displaying unexpected golden lights and shadows. Her shabby dark jumper and skirt were rather a contrast to the smart sports suits the girls affected, but Mollie was the only one who was conscious of it, and she glowed with excitement as they tucked her in beside Gerald, quite unconscious that any shadow had fallen upon the party.
Valerie was mending the dog's collar, firmly refusing assistance, so that there was a hurt look in Jim's eyes, but when at last it was replaced she became her old self again.
"What are we going to do?" she asked. "I want to walk miles and miles and miles."
"What do you say, Jim?" said Allan. "You know this part better than we do."
"Well, I suggest we follow this road up as far as we can, which isn't much farther, for the old sawmill was burnt out a few years ago."
"Splendid! Does the road get much worse, though, because I don't know if the springs will stand it."
"No. We're almost there. See, there's the clearing now."
Parking the car under a tree, they descended eagerly, and looked about them with interested appreciation. They had been steadily climbing for some time, and through the gap made by the road they caught a glimpse of the valley, with the clustered roofs of the township and its orderly array of orchards and paddocks.
The clearing, too, had its interest. A few blackened piles of rotting timber lay scattered about, and a building was still standing, with a rusted iron roof, surrounded by other heaps of old iron and rubbish. It all wore an air of desolation and desertion.
"How queer that the fire should have left that shed," said Katherine.
"Oh, that was rebuilt about three years ago out of the debris," replied Jim. "There was some talk of trying to reopen the mill, but it fell through, and now hardly anyone ever comes here, certainly no local people would think of it. There are other more beautiful places, but you told me you wanted to explore, and I brought you here because if you're game for the climb there's something well worth seeing at the top."
"Why doesn't anyone ever come here, though?" asked Valerie.
Jim laughed awkwardly. "Well, as a matter of fact, the place has rather a bad name."
"If you must know, a man was murdered up here several years ago. He was found dead in that hut some months afterwards."
"How was he murdered?" asked Valerie with a shiver.
"Knife in his back," said Jim briefly. "So now the valley folk give the place a wide berth—even in daylight."
"I'm sure I don't blame them," said Allan hastily, turning to the car. "Let's unpack and get moving."
"Well, someone's been here lately, anyhow," said Gerald. "These wheel-marks aren't very old."
"The road is overgrown enough to put anyone off," said Jim. "Some curious persons like ourselves, I suppose. Now are we all ready? It's a climb, but we can take it steadily. Quick march."
He lead the way to the old disused trolley track. The wooden rails were in fairly good condition, but thick weeds sprouting from between the sleepers impeded their progress. Trees and bushes walled them in impenetrably, and almost shut out the sunlight, blackberry briars clawed at their legs, intrusive wattles barred their way, but once the clearing with its sinister associations had been left behind it was strange and enjoyable.
In all directions were other mountains rising peak on peak till lost to sight in the blue mist. The valley from which they had climbed was out of sight, but there were other valleys, thickly wooded clefts in the hills, and in open spaces on the slopes near by they could see stretches of pink and white heath.
"I don't know about you others," said Gerald. "But I'm hungry enough to eat Augustus."
In a remarkably short space of time they were gathered round their meal with hearty appetites. Minor casualties were dismissed as trivial, and even when Augustus, to whom this game was both new and attractive, succeeded in eloping with a large sponge-cake in his mouth, they agreed tolerantly that as the cake represented Valerie's latest cooking experiment the dog would be sufficiently punished.
Even when everyone had eaten their fill they showed no inclination to move, and were more than usually quiet. The presence of the mountains so close in their serenity and eternal stillness is apt to engender thoughts to those sensitive to beauty, and the Team, with all their outward frivolity, all owned to moments of intense appreciation of the beautiful.
"I think," said Valerie suddenly, "I could be always good if I lived up here."
Allan looked at her in bewilderment. "Child, I never knew you had thoughts like that."
"I don't usually. I think it's indigestion. I've had an awfully big dinner. Augustus is longing for a scramble, Jim. I'll race you to that big gum tree." She was half-way there before he had gathered his wits together to set out in pursuit, and they vanished among the trees, wrangling amiably while the others set to work packing up the remains of their meal.
"I think Valerie's just wonderful," said Mollie shyly, as she and Gerald washed cups in the turbulent little mountain stream.
"She's——" A cup fell from Gerald's hand and broke in fragments, but he took no notice. "Just Valerie—-quite inexplicable."
"I don't think so," she threw back a braid with a frown. "She just hasn't found what she wants yet. We're all like that till we do. Now, Miss Starr——"
"You think Kath has?"
"Why, you've only to look at her to know, and Mr. Linton, too."
"You don't mean——?" He looked at her with startled eyes.
"Nothing silly," she tossed her head in contempt, "but they're grown up. They wouldn't be silly or moody or unhappy over trifles—for long anyway."
"By Jove, you're right," he looked at her thoughtfully, "you're really rather clever, you know."
"That's not clever, merely common sense. Are we going for a walk?"
"Yes, I suppose so." He answered abstractedly. "I wonder where Jim and Val went."
"Down there, but they won't want us. I want some pink heath. Let's go up that hill."
"Meet here at 4 o'clock," called Allan. "I hope Jim and Val will have the sense to be back by then."
Katherine and Allan did not wander far. They were content to sit on the rocks and look appreciatively at the long line of hills stretched out before them, while they talked idly for a while, and then with deepening seriousness as the mountains cast their spell upon them. They spoke of the life they had left, and their present position, of new friends and old, and then Allan hesitatingly touched on the future.
"Of course, we cannot expect to go on indefinitely, Kath. We plunged into this rather rashly for Gerald's sake, and from that point of view the experiment has more than justified itself. The boy is looking better than I have ever seen him, and he did not turn a hair after that climb. I was watching him."
She gave him a swift look. "That's very like you to be so thoughtful, I mean. But surely you don't propose going back to the city again?"
"I don't, but for you, others—-Valerie and Gerald would be happy anywhere, but this is not your place, Katherine."
"Are you then so anxious to get rid of me?" she asked softly.
"You know that wherever you are the sun shines," he replied directly.
"And yet——-" She could not see his face. It was turned to the distant hill, but there was something in the very pose of his head that made her heart begin to race. "And yet, you would sent me away."
"You know I would never do that." His voice was very steady. "But—I'm only human—and a man."
"What do you mean?" She knew. In her heart of hearts she realised that she had known for years, but she had never had the courage to face the issue. He had been just a brother, but infinitely more thoughtful and unselfish.
"I think you know," he answered swiftly. "Many men have loved you. I had never meant to tell you that I was just one more, but lately it has taken all my manhood."
Still that resolute head was turned away. She tried to speak, but for a moment found no words. Then——
"My dear! Oh, my dear!"
He turned swiftly at the sound of her voice, incredulous, wondering, as he read his answer in her radiant face.
"Kath, you can't mean it? I've never even dreamt of being worthy of you."
"Of me. You don't know the real me, Allan—vain and useless, and selfish, too. There has never been anyone in my world quite like you. I've flirted with other men, because you were there in the background, strong and steady, and I have played with fire once too often, but the flame is dead now."
"You are sure?"
She nodded. "I have learnt my lesson."
He took her slender white hands in his roughened ones. All the housework in the world would never make her hands hard or unlovely.
"You know, Katherine, it will mean staying here. I could never go back to the office routine now. My place is out of doors, making things grow."
"Where you are I am content."
There was a long silence as they sat together, looking into the future. Then Katherine spoke.
"You aren't in a hurry, Allan?"
"Now I know," he smiled. "I shall await your pleasure."
"I mean I'd rather not tell the others—yet."
"I think this might upset them. They might think we didn't want them, and do something foolish. They're at rather a foolish age, you know."
He laughed reassuringly. "I'm not worrying. Valerie will find her mountain gold, even in the shadows. Jim Gardiner's a good fellow, but he couldn't give her what she wants, and she knows it."
"I don't think she knows what she wants," said Katherine doubtfully. "She's such a child."
"She's growing up though. Haven't you noticed it lately? Hullo here come Mollie and Gerald. You don't mean to say it's as late as that."
They smiled at each other with understanding, as flushed and breathless the pair scrambled up to them. The girl's arms were filled with pink and white mountain heath, which she laughingly laid in Katherine's arms.
"For you, of course. The Browns wouldn't thank me for cluttering up the house. Why, you look quite bridal, doesn't she? Heath is lovelier than orange blossom, I think."
"You're blushing?" Gerald laughed. "I thought you'd forgotten how. What is it this time, Kath? Old Mr. McIntyre? I noticed you admiring his pigs the other day, or is it the youth in the wide trousers who brings the meat?"
"Don't be silly," his sister replied with magnificent scorn. "This is lovely, Mollie. It was very sweet of you. My house will look like fairyland tomorrow."
"And the day after you'll be cleaning up the mess," she smiled. "But it's worth it for the day."
Allan looked at his watch. "Nearly half-past 4. It's time we started back. It still gets dark fairly early. I wonder where those other two are?"
"Val's got no time sense," said Gerald. "Let's coo-ee."
Their shouts rang through the hills without eliciting any response.
"Do you suppose they're lost?" asked Katherine anxiously.
"Not they. Jim's too good a bushman for that," replied Allan quickly. "They'll turn up. I expect they've wandered too far. You know how restless Val is."
"Inquisitive, you mean," Gerald frowned. "It's confoundedly thoughtless."
"Don't worry old chap. Jim can look after her."
"Can he?" he scowled again, and mounting a boulder coo-eed loudly, and listened vainly for a reply.
"You go on," he called. "I'll wait here. There's no sense in all doing the trip in the dark."
"We'll stick together," said Katherine. "Call once again, Ger."
This time, to their profound relief, they heard a distant shout, but it was nearly half an hour later that the truants reappeared, dirty and dishevelled, much mud upon their persons, accompanied by Augustus, who, if possible, looked even more dishevelled.
"So sorry," Valerie panted swift apologies. "But Augustus went down a hole and didn't come up again."
"So we had to go," said Jim wearily. He had evidently found exploring with Valerie somewhat wearing.
"It was fun! It went into cliff ever so far, and then came out again."
"An old mining shaft," explained Jim.
"And that was why Augustus hadn't come back, and even then we couldn't find him. He disappeared. We searched the gully—a lovely ferny place."
"Knee deep in mud."
"And do you know what the darling had found? A cave all hidden by creepers and things."
"We spent ages looking for the brute," said Jim gloomily. "The place seemed walled in, and a creek, almost a young river, came out of the cliff."
"How interesting! But it will be dark soon, and we've a nasty track before us," said Allan.
"We can go down quicker than we came up," said Valerie, philosophically. "I slid backward all the time. It should be easy to keep on sliding."
"No experiments, please," Allan shouldered his bundle. "We don't want any sprained ankles here, young lady."
"All right." She lingered a moment to say good-night to the mountains, behind which the sun was swiftly setting, and already long blue and grey shadows were appearing magically, and a cold chill heralded the night. A swift step broke in upon her meditations. It was Gerald.
"Hurry, Val. The others have gone on."
"It's too beautiful," she said, breathlessly. "Ger, are you still angry with me?"
He avoided her glance for a moment, and then said frankly, "Something has been wrong somewhere. I hate you not to trust me, Val. It has worried me, too, and——"
"Let's call it square," she smiled. "It's not worth while up here."
"Nor anywhere else between pals." He took her arm. "Be careful down this slope, you silly."
"We needn't hurry." She sighed contentedly. "Ger, I've got something to show you when we get home."
"I'll keep it till then." There was a swift thrill of excitement in her voice. "Don't say anything though; it's a Team discovery, and belongs to no one else."
"Not even Jim?" he asked teasingly.
"Of course not, stupid. Ger, I've a queer feeling about that clearing down there. I wonder who that prospector was who was murdered?"
"Why should he be anyone in particular? That's right. Step right into the mud, don't go round."
"Diddums splash you?" she returned. "You look horribly clean, Ger."
"You little imp." Gerald sat heavily down in a pool of water, and those in front heard heated shouts of mirth and sounds of tumult, for as usual Augustus had not missed his opportunity.
Presently, two very bedraggled and wet figures joined the party.
"It was that brute's fault," said Gerald bitterly. "He knocked me sideways, and Valerie did the rest."
"It was only a little push," declared Valerie. "And he dragged me in, too."
"Served you right," retorted Gerald.
"You'll catch cold." Thus Katherine anxiously.
"We've coats in the car, and we're all right as long as we keep moving. Race you down."
It was not an easy descent. At length, however, Gerald and Valerie, who were leading, began to run, and emerged triumphantly into the clearing some yards ahead of the others, giving vent to a joyous shout.
Valerie caught Gerald's arm. "There's a light in the shed," she said, but even as she spoke it flickered and vanished.
"Nonsense," said Gerald. "You'll be seeing spooks next. Want to investigate?"
"No," she replied. "I'd hate to, but I'm sure I saw it."
"You're always imagining things." He shivered, and his teeth shattered. "I am cold. Let's get to the car and our coats. You must be frozen too."
They concluded the day in the kitchen at Valinstar, where Gerald and Valerie rejoiced Katherine's heart by behaving in their most idiotic vein, and made it abundantly evident that peace had been restored. They elected to escort their visitors home, and quietly but firmly deposited them together in the back seat, a proceeding which seemed quite to Jim's liking as he had been rediscovering Mollie Pattison.
It was when they were alone in the car that Gerald became serious.
"We can't have this happening again, Val."
"Well, it was your fault."
"Was it? You never told me yet why you lied about that headache."
"You never asked me," she flashed, and then laughed. "Oh well, it was horrid of me, but I'll tell you now." In a few short phrases she told him. "And," she concluded, "I can quite understand Kenneth Gardiner being just a beast. I saw that side of him to-day. He's bad right through. Why, he tried to kick Augustus."
"That's the best thing I've heard about him yet," returned Gerald, with feeling. "Anyhow, it will be useful to have a friend in the enemy's camp."
They found Allan and Katherine seated side by side in front of the log fire, but Valerie, ordinarily very observant, was too excited to notice a certain hasty movement on the part of the pair as they entered.
"Now that we are alone," she exclaimed dramatically, "I have something to show you."
"What on earth——?"
She vanished into the next room, and returned with something wrapped up in a very dirty handkerchief. They watched her with interest as she untied it, and held up for inspection two small stones, smoothly rounded and polished, and a dull gold in colour.
"A nugget!" yelled Gerald, and sprang to his feet. "Where did you find it?"
"Near the river that came out of the cliff in the hidden gully. Is it really gold?"
"It looks remarkably like it." Allan examined it carefully. "Steady, Val, no use getting excited. It may be just a kind of stone we've never seen before."
"It's gold! We've made our fortunes. Hurrah!"
"Be quiet. Are you sure you'd know the place again?"
"Positive. You get through the hole. Do you realise who did it though? Augustus! If he hadn't gone down the hole, I wouldn't have either."
"What puzzles me," said Gerald, "Is how you managed to keep it quiet. You're worse than soda-water for fizzing."
"Jim was cross, and wouldn't speak," said Valerie candidly. "I did give a yelp or two when I picked them up, and then I realised the terrific importance of it, so I said nothing. There'll be heaps more, won't there?"
"There may be," said Allan cautiously. "Secrets throng in upon us, don't they. I'll send this to town to the Government geologist, and get his verdict, and then——"
"And then we'll start a goldmine. It'll be far more paying than pigs. They're so slow. We'll head the greatest gold rush ever know since——"
A firm hand and a cushion firmly applied stifled this extraordinary outburst, but the boys could not conceal their excitement. Only Katherine remained calm and not too enthusiastic.
"As if it mattered," she said scornfully.
Allan laughed. "As if it does."
"It's not the gold. It's the adventure." Gerald struck an attitude.
"Pioneers, oh, Pioneers!" squeaked Valerie, and the discussion of the great discovery ended in a peal of hearty laughter.
The team fought valiantly against this new and disturbing factor in their existence. Since their coming to Rockwood circumstances seemed to have combined to upset the even tenor of their way, and it would have taken people of a far more sober and sedate turn of mind than they to carry on methodically with the routine of farm life. And so it happened the day after Valerie's great discovery. Katherine discovered that her household stores were considerably depleted, and she promptly commandeered Allan to take her on a shopping expedition, leaving Valerie and Gerald in charge, a proceeding which Valerie announced she intended to celebrate by bathing Augustus. This was rather a difficult undertaking for such a small person.
Augustus had an unconquerable aversion from water at any time, and was apt heartily to resent the cleansing process, so Valerie, wise from experience, arrayed herself in the oldest of garments before she braced herself for battle, and by dint of blandishments lured the unsuspecting animal to the tank-stand, where she chained him. She produced a large tub, and induced him to consent, with some meekness, to the administration of a preliminary lather of soap. Unfortunately some of it found its way to his eyes, and, becoming justly incensed, he made a dash for freedom. The contents of the tub went in all directions, but a large proportion found its way in Valerie's direction.
"Augustus, you're an ass!" she said with more force than correctness from the seat on the ground she had taken unexpectedly. The dog continued to display symptoms of insanity, and became quite unmanageable. Then his collar snapped again, and with an excited yelp he bolted round the tank-stand and collided with a young man in cycling attire, who had just rounded the corner of the house. He had barely time to express his justifiable annoyance and endeavour to remove a little moisture from his person when a second shock, in the shaped of a dripping girl with tousled red hair, once more unbalanced him.
"You idiot, why on earth didn't you stop him?" cried the apparition. "He's making straight for the pigsty. He always does."
She fled in pursuit, and the stranger, after one stupefied moment, followed with more deliberation, and soon discovered the girl leaning over the rail of the sty, adjuring the dog in the most persuasive terms to come out. Augustus, however, had not asked to be clean, and was swiftly returning to a comfortable state of warm muddiness.
Valerie vented her wrath on the newcomer. "Now you see what you've done," she said heatedly. "It'll take hours to get him clean now."
The young man was still looking at the wallowing Augustus with a somewhat dazed expression. "It is a dog, isn't it?" he murmured. "I mean, you don't cross them with calves or anything, do you?"
Valerie drew herself up to the full dignity of her four feet nine inches. "Augustus is a very valuable dog," she said coldly. "He's—he's unique. I mean there aren't many of him."
"I hope not," agreed the stranger fervently, and then realised that somehow he had said the wrong thing, and that the atmosphere was becoming, if anything, even colder.
"It's no good trying to do anything now," she said. "He won't come out till he's ready. He's frightfully determined."
The stranger surveyed the stretch of black liquid mud that lined the sty, and then looked doubtfully at his immaculate leather gaiters, which were beautifully polished. "Say the word and I'll do my best," he said cheerfully.
Valerie's wrath suddenly abated. He was young, and though his best friend might not have called him handsome, he had a satisfyingly square jaw, and blue eyes that betrayed their possessor by a mischievous twinkle. Valerie's attendant imps, never far out of sight, leapt to life in friendly response.
"Heavens, no!" she said frankly, "I'm sorry I was rude, but my temper was made to match my hair, and though I wouldn't own it to the family, Augustus can be exasperating sometimes."
"The occasion was justifiable," he told her gravely.
"Then let's start again from scratch. Good morning, sir, what can I do for you?"
"Good morning, miss," he replied, with quick comprehension, "I understand Mr. Linton lives here?"
"You mean my cousin? I'm sorry he's out. If you came from the township you probably passed him on the way."
His face fell. "That's very bad luck. I particularly wanted to see him."
"He'll be back before lunch, if you care to wait."
"Thanks. I—perhaps you can help me. I'm making inquiries about a man named Smith, and I believe your brother—er—cousin—was with him when he died."
He saw her swiftly defensive expression and wondered. "My name's Crandall," he added, "Bill Crandall. I've been specially detailed for this job."
"Gerald was there, too. He's down in the orchard." She become suddenly conscious of her dripping frock. "If you wait a moment till I change I'll take you down."
A few minutes later a very dainty young lady joined the waiting official, who stared at her with undisguised amazement and growing approval, both of which sensations Valerie affected not to notice as she led the way over the soft green grass towards the orchard, talking amiably and casually on various topics, while only the bedraggled form of Augustus, slinking wistfully in the background, formed material evidence to convince Mr Crandall that his recent experience had not been hallucination.
"Ger," she said clearly, "this is Mr. Crandall, who is making inquiries about Mr. Smith's death. He came to see Allan."
"I understand you were—er—-with this man when he died," he began somewhat awkwardly. "I'm afraid the—at least I'm aware that the police were satisfied that he died from the effects of an accident, but there has been some question raised about it, and I want to get the facts, if possible."
"He said it was an accident," replied Gerald cautiously. "They were almost his last words. If a man's murdered, and I suppose that is what you're driving at, he's usually only too keen to tell you, I should think."
"That's true enough," Crandall answered quietly. "But have you ever thought that the gun was not found?"
"I'm afraid we've never thought very much about it," said Gerald apologetically. "You see the police took it over and seemed satisfied, and by the time we had settled in here the affair was ancient history."
"Yes; it caused surprisingly little stir, and yet it's the second time in the last five years a man has died suddenly and violently in these hills."
"You mean—the prospector?" asked Valerie swiftly.
"You had heard of him?" he asked in surprise.
"We saw the place yesterday," said Gerald briefly. "You don't think the two are connected, do you?"
"As the crow flies, it's barely five miles between the sawmill and the place where you found Smith," replied Crandall. "I'm inclined to think it is more than mere coincidence."
"But the motive?" Gerald ran a dirty hand through his long dark hair.
"I think I could find it. Somewhere in the mountains lies a fortune for the lucky finder, but it's well hidden."
Valerie's start brought a shower of white petals upon her hair and frock. "A fortune?" she said, her voice shaking slightly.
"Gold." He paused, and looked keenly from one to the other. "I'm being very frank, because——" he paused; "I want your co-operation. What I'm telling you is common knowledge. The hills have been combed without result, but it's there. Of late however, it has proved a dangerous hunting ground."
"You mean that Smith was after gold?"
"The prospector, also. And they came too near the finding."
There was a moment's silence in the sunlit orchard and then Valerie shivered. "I feel as if someone were walking over my grave," she said.
"I'm sorry. It's not exactly a subject to discuss before you." He looked apologetic.
"You'll wait and see Allan," said Gerald slowly. "I think he should know what you've told us. It may make a difference."
"How can it?" asked Valerie sharply. "I must go and get lunch."
She fled in haste, for she had just remembered that they had left the smaller of the two nuggets lying on the table, where they had only that morning packed up the the larger of the two for despatch to the Government geologist, and she wondered just how much the sharp-eyed Crandall had seen.
He lingered there long after Katherine and Allan returned, and frankly laid his cards on the table. The older members of the team seconded Valerie's instinctive liking for him.
"You know something about mining?" queried Allan swiftly.
Crandall looked embarrassed. "I—yes—that is I've had a bit of experience as a mining engineer."
"I see." Allan turned the conversation into other channels, but it is possible that their visitor noted the change in the atmosphere for he left soon afterwards, leaving the team disturbed and uneasy, and with a hearty desire to be back in Melbourne again. Valerie and her find became suddenly most unpopular.
"Don't you see that if we advertise this find they will say that we stole the secret from Smith, or even the nuggets themselves!"
They digested this in silence. "I didn't post the nugget," he continued. "Something warned me not to."
"But I'm afraid he's seen the little one," said Valerie tremulously.
Allan looked graver still. "Then we've got to watch our step," he said.
"And what hurts most," contributed Gerald, "is that we're innocent. Now if we'd really done something——"
There was general laughter, and they all felt better.
"There's just another piece of information I've got for you, which fits into the picture," said Katherine, after a moment. "I had a letter from Derry Stanfield this morning, and he says—Where is it? 'About your question, the language is unquestionably some form of Magyar dialect, and as your inquiry seemed rather confidential I did not hand it on to the one or two men here who might have given a good translation.'"
"Add to that fact that Kenneth Gardiner's mother came from Central Europe, and Claude Delamere claims gipsy blood, and you have a very complete chain of circumstances," said Allan quietly.
"I—I rather wish we were home," said Valerie with a catch in her voice, and for once no one contradicted her.
There was no doubt about the awkwardness of their position, and the more the team thought of it the less they liked it. By a fortuitous combination of circumstances they had become far more deeply involved in the mountain tragedy than they had believed possible. Allan bitterly regretted that he had allowed himself to be influenced by Valerie's childish love of romance, and had not handed over the papers entrusted to his care by the dying man.
They argued about it for several days with little definite result. The gold discovery was undoubtedly theirs, and premature revelation with its attendant publicity would inevitably have the effect of opening the field to Gardiner and his gang, who were obviously on the same trail. Allan urged that they confide in Crandall, to whom he had taken an immediate liking, and gained their reluctant consent.
Katherine and Gerald were due to attend a rehearsal of the play that was being produced by the indefatigable Mrs. McDonald on the evening of the day upon which they reached this decision. Valerie had been invited to accompany them, and Allan, therefore, declared his intention of looking up Crandall and revealing part at least of the evidence they were suppressing. He left them at Mrs. McDonald's door and set out on this quest.
The good lady welcomed the three effusively. They were introduced to two daughters of the vicarage, extremely modern young women, with Eton crops and the shortest of skirts, an anĉmic young man, who was the local press, an elderly spinster, with a disapproving expression, which, as Valerie discovered later, concealed a truly charming nature, a bank clerk, bored and superior, and one or two others, comprising in all a very unpromising group of amateur actors.
They had been talking volubly enough, but ceased at the entrance of the team, who for a moment felt slightly embarrassed. Deserting Katherine shamelessly, Gerald piloted Valerie to a chair in the corner, where, under the pretence of solicitously arranging her cushions, he managed to whisper fiercely, "You little idiot, what on earth have you let me in for?"
"Thank you, darling," Valerie's voice carried past the bank clerk to the elderly spinster, who regarded her with utter disapproval, which their subsequent behaviour did not tend to abate.
The discussion centred on the choice of a play. The acidulated spinster favoured Shakespeare—"So respectable," she averred.
Mrs. McDonald cleared her throat. "I have selected the play, with the assistance of Mr. Kenneth Gardiner and a friend of his. It is a comedy by a young Australian author, and is called 'The Road to Romance.'"
Katherine and Valerie exchanged glances. Barely a year ago they had both taken part in a play of that name, which had been written by a young author of their acquaintance, and Katherine as the fascinating heroine had shared the honours with the hero, who had been that handsome mysterious young foreigner, Claude Delamere.
At that moment the front door bell was heard, and Mrs. McDonald bustled importantly away, while an indignant murmur of conversation seemed to indicate her choice was not likely to be popular.
Under pretext of adjusting Valerie's frock, Katherine crossed to them quickly. "Whatever shall I do?" she queried.
"Don't be an ass," was Gerald's brotherly response.
"Go through with it," urged Valerie, rather wishing that such an intriguing thing had happened to her, but there was no time for more as Mrs. McDonald ushered in Kenneth Gardiner and close behind came his brother with Claude Delamere, as obviously out of place in this appalling room as an orchid in a vegetable garden. He was a picturesque figure with his flowing black hair; but his manners were perfect as he underwent the inevitable round of introductions, ending at the corner where the three were seated.
"But these are old friends," he smiled eagerly; "I can't pretend to be surprised, for of course Kenneth has told me, but it's tremendous luck. Valerie, you've grown up since I last saw you and are twice as beautiful. Gerald, my boy, you are looking splendidly fit. I heard you had been ill."
"And what about Kath?" queried Valerie, ever mischievous.
"Katherine, as always—perfection." He let his eyes dwell on her face for a moment almost hungrily, and then with a courteous excuse joined his hostess, and at her request explained the play to them with such charm and humour that even the spinster raised no objections.
"You shall be stage manager," declared Mrs. McDonald magnificently. "We are in your hands."
"And hero too," broke in Gardiner. "I've seen him act the part of Charles, and we couldn't improve on it."
"And I'm lucky to have found a ready-made heroine," said Delamere gaily, as murmurs of approval greeted Gardiner's remark. "Miss Starr created the part of Beatrice in town, and I'm sure won't turn us down."
"Oh, play up, Kath," whispered Valerie under her breath, but she need not have feared, for Katherine's voice was perfectly steady as she assented.
Delamere was absolutely at his best that night, without a trace of affectation, or even of that aloofness, which always spoilt Kenneth Gardiner's manner. He became one of them with extraordinary facility, and only during supper did he corner Katherine for a moment.
"Confess. I'm not behaving badly, Katherine, am I?"
She smiled at his childish pride in himself, but she had also caught a deeper meaning. "You are being very generous—if the situation is not of your own making," she answered significantly.
"On my life, no! Kenneth lured me here with promises of mountain scenery. Besides I had to see him on business. Only then I learnt what was in store for me." He met her gaze frankly. "Am I forgiven?"
"I never could bear malice," she smiled her answer. "If you're going to be sensible——"
"No 'if,' Katherine. A queen never temporises. I make no promises, but I'll do my best. What are Gerald and young Valerie up it?"
"Aren't they absurd? They are both bored to tears, and are as a result providing material for enough gossip to keep the countryside alive for a week."
"And your cousin?"
"Allan will be along presently. He has business in the township. He's loving the country."
"Is that so?" His gaze wandered idly over the company. "We'll have the dogs of war on our tracks if I talk to you much longer, but its good to know you've forgiven my foolish moments."
Kenneth Gardiner joined them before she could reply, and the conversation became general. Soon afterwards, Allan called, and the team took their departure.
Before they had gone very far Valerie had informed him of Delamere's advent, and the cast of the play.
"But, of course, you're not going to," he said quietly.
Katherine looked at him in surprise. "Why of course," she replied, a trifle indignantly. "You don't suppose I'd let him think I was afraid, do you?"
"There's no question of that, but I hope you're going to change your mind."
"There's no necessity. It's very harmless."
"After what you have told me, Kath." There was a touch of reproof in his tone. "You can hardly blame me if I question the wisdom of your doing such a thing."
"You mean you don't trust me?" she finished.
He kept his eyes steadily upon the patch of road illuminated by the lamps. "There is no question of that," he answered, but his profile looked very stern. "I am only thinking of you."
"I know, my dear," she laid a gentle hand upon his arm. "But under the circumstances it would have looked so obvious if I had refused, and—and he seemed quite different to-night."
From the back seat came Valerie's voice, "Allan, did you see Mr. Crandall?"
"No," he answered, "he has left Rockwood."
"Already?" exclaimed Gerald in surprise.
"Yes. He pulled out this afternoon on his motor-bike. He will return, I presume, with a warrant for our arrest."
"In the meantime," Katherine laughed light-heartedly, "let us go on living, for it's a nice world."
The days flew by, but nothing further was heard of the detective, and his visit was almost forgotten.
Katherine and Gerald were much occupied with the play, and were carried off on numerous occasions for rehearsals by Delamere. Katherine raised no objections to the many excuses he found for interviews, and as the days passed seemed to find both interest and enjoyment in his company. And as this became more apparent Allan, quieter and more stern, spent all his available time out of doors.
Gerald sang Delamere's praises consistently, and even modified his suspicious attitude to the Gardiners, of whom they saw less now, as Jim had discovered certain interests in common with Mollie Pattison.
Summer came early that year. Valinstar grew hot as an oven, and outside under the gums, it was scarcely cooler. Even Augustus wilted during the north-wind days, and Valerie grew strangely pale and listless. She felt rather out of things since Gerald and Katherine had begun rehearsals, and Allan refused to be lured from the orchard until he was too weary to do anything but read and smoke in gloomy silence. Therefore one evening when Kenneth Gardiner called, apparently by accident, with the car and casually suggested a run toward the hills she accepted gladly.
He had just returned from one of his mysterious absences, and asked idly how the play was progressing. "We never see anything of Claude these days," he said idly, "and when he does come home he merely talks wildly of footlights and grease-paint. He's stage-struck all right."
"So are Gerald and Kath," Valerie vented her grievance. "They're always at the rehearsals. It comes off next week, and I'll be glad when it's over."
"As soon as that?" he smiled. "You should have been in it."
"Who? Me? I'm no good at that sort of thing. Besides, there are enough of us taking part as it is. Play-acting never appealed to me. I like real things."
"Such as——?" He stopped suddenly, and moved a little closer to her.
She laughed contentedly. There was just a hint of danger in being out with Kenneth Gardiner, and she felt happier than she had done for weeks.
"Such as—-oh! lots of things! Speeding and boat-race days and things that give you a thrill."
"So you're hunting thrills, too? There are a good many of us nowadays. Do you know I think I could provide one if I tried."
"You have," said Valerie frankly. "The first time I met you."
He laughed. "By Jove, yes! What a forlorn, little lost mite you looked with your hair. No! it's quite all right now. You needn't worry."
"We were talking of thrills." Valerie gently pushed aside an encircling arm, and he submitted with a good grace.
"Yes, I'll give you a thrill—if you're game."
"Of course I'm game," she replied indignantly.
"How far are we from Valinstar? Any idea?"
"About twelve to fourteen miles."
"Fifteen to be exact. Now, I'll guarantee to get you home in ten minutes."
"Don't be silly. It couldn't be done."
"It's quite possible. Care to make a bet of it?"
"That depends on the stakes," she replied, her eyes sparkling.
"Oh, I won't be too hard on you," he answered lightly. "Let me see—let's say the pleasure of your company on another occasion like this."
"I don't see what I stand to lose," Valerie laughed.
"No, I'll be the loser." He turned and faced her. "You're really rather nice, you know."
Valerie felt her pulses quicken a little. She had played with boys this fascinating game, and loved it as every truly feminine girl must, but this was the first time a man had dared her to play it, and her eyes dropped.
"I agree," she said softly. "But when?"
"I'll tell you that when I've won."
He started the engine running, and tested it carefully. "I'm not taking any chances," he said with a smile.
"And if you lose?" she asked.
"I'm in your hands to do as you please."
"All right, I shall ask you one question, and you shall promise to answer me truthfully."
"Only one? That seems quite fair. Have you the time?"
She advanced her tiny wristlet watch, and they consulted it soberly by the light of Gardiner's torch. Her eyes were sparkling with enjoyment, and she had flung caution to the winds. Motives rarely worried Valerie. It was a great thing to have lured Gardiner into playing with her.
"One minute to go. We start on the stroke of ten. You shall be starter." He relinquished the torch to her, and gripped the wheel. Breathlessly she watched the tiny hand.
"Time!" It was little more than a whisper, but the car was in motion.
It did not occur to Valerie to be afraid. By her side the driver, alert and confident, avoided the holes and ruts that seamed the road by almost super-human skill. Once he looked at the girl, and met her eyes with an answering smile, and she for the first time felt she had pierced beneath the civilised veneer that hid the real Kenneth Gardiner, the adventurer born.
Valerie watched the speedometer with interest. Seventy—seventy-five—eighty. The needle rose steadily. They passed another car going the same way as themselves, as if it had been stationary. Eighty-one, eighty-five? Moths and other nocturnal insects attracted by the glare of the lights fell back lifeless against the wind-screen. Ninety. For one delirious moment the the world roared about her ears. The river flashed into view, a momentary gleam of moonlit water and vanished. The car slowed down and drew up at the gate of Valinstar. Gardiner turned to her.
"It was perfectly heavenly," she said, as she sank back into her seat. "Sixty has been my limit, and then on a dusty day. Now there isn't a cobweb left on me anywhere."
"And the time?"
"Nine and a half minutes past. You've won all right, though I don't know how you did it on such a terrible road."
"I had an incentive."
For the first time she had an uneasy feeling that she had behaved rather foolishly. Always a creature of impulse, she often found the cold light of common sense rather chilling.
"But you were only joking?"
"Not I. I really would like you to take another trip with me some evening."
Valerie opened the door of the car. "I'm sorry Kath's not home or I'd ask you in."
"I can't stop, thanks." He took her hand and held it a trifle longer than he need have done. "I've enjoyed to-night," he said in a low voice, "I hope you have."
"I have," she answered, "but I wish I had won, if it had only been by half a minute. I suppose I'll never have the answer to my question."
"That's too bad," he laughed easily. "Perhaps——"
The sentence was never finished, for at that moment a car rounded the bend where the trees clustered by the river, and Claude Delamere's little grey car drew up, with Katherine seated beside the driver.
"Where's Gerald?" demanded Valerie, after the confusion of the greetings had died down.
Katherine smiled vaguely. She had the air of one who had been walking in cloud-land, and has come to earth too suddenly to be sure of being really awake. "Oh, Ger? He's taking his latest lady home. He and the Vicar's youngest daughter have discovered some sort of affinity."
"How is the play going?" asked Gardiner idly.
"Splendidly," affirmed Delamere enthusiastically. "Katherine is wonderful. She carries us all. Rockwood is going to have a show that will make it sit up and take notice."
"I think it's time you came home," said Gardiner quietly. "Good night, Miss Starr, and you too, Valerie. I think I've earned the right to call you that, haven't I?"
"Now what," said Katherine curiously, as the two cars moved off, "did he mean by that?"
"That," Valerie smiled mysteriously, "is another story. Do you know, I'm beginning to like Kenneth Gardiner?"
"Val!" There was protest in Katherine's voice.
"There's nothing like making friends with the enemy," replied Valerie. "It's no good preaching wisdom, Kath, while you persist in being foolish."
Katherine looked up defensively.
"I do not trust Delamere farther than the gatepost," answered Valerie candidly. "I though you finished with him a year ago."
"I fail to see——" Katherine raised her head haughtily, and then laughed. "You're a silly little goose, Val. I've an excellent safeguard, and besides, I'm older."
This was a fatal argument to use with Valerie, whose small chin tilted upwards at a dangerous angle, as she went indoors, leaving Katherine to linger for a moment in the moonlight, hoping Allan would join her, which he did not.
Valerie soon forgot her promise to Kenneth Gardiner. She had a feeling that she had been very unwise in her dealings with him, as doubts and suspicions flooded back to her mind. At any other time she might have confided in Gerald or Katherine, but Gerald was in the throes of a temporary infatuation with the vicar's youngest daughter, who played opposite him in the "Road to Romance," and Valerie felt frankly out of it, not even having the consolation of being able to start a counter-flirtation; while Katherine was too immersed in the details of the play to invite confidences.
The hills were shrouded in smoke that told of distant fires, and the evening of the play was still almost to oppressiveness. The team dined early and hurried through the meal without relish. Outside the day lingered, staining the western sky with cloudy, sullen crimson. A hot north wind played in the branches fitfully, and evening had brought no relief to the feeling of heavy inertia, from which they had suffered throughout the day. It was an unlikely night for their entertainment, and Gerald and Katherine were openly cross and disappointed.
"We'll have to leave in half an hour," Katherine looked at her watch. "Allan, you're not even shaved yet."
"I'm not coming," he replied curtly.
"Not coming?" she raised her eyebrows. "But I took it for granted you were."
"I'm too tired. Someone's got to work for a living while you children play."
This speech was so unlike the cheerful Allan that Valerie and Gerald exchanged glances of amazement.
"Children," said Katherine calmly, "go and get ready.'" There was dismissal in her tone too obvious to be disobeyed, and they fled.
The arguments she used must have been potent ones for some three-quarters of an hour later Allan, freshly shaved and strangely joyous, was at the wheel, and Katherine seated beside him, wore an air of quiet contentment.
The hall was crowded with perspiring humanity which chattered and laughed and ate sticky sweets in gay defiance of the thermometer. The Gardiners were there in full force and Allan joined them, but Valerie whose services were required as lady's maid to Katherine, was condemned to swelter in the overcrowded little skillion attachment that did duty ordinarily as a kitchen.
"Allan was right," Katherine confided to Valerie as the girl knelt at her feet to adjust the intricate flounces. "I should never have agreed to do it, but it's too late now, and once it's over——"
"Mr. Delamere is asking for you, Miss Starr." The vicar's youngest daughter, very pert and dainty in her milkmaid costume, broke in on Katherine's confidences, and a moment later Delamere, in the garb of a Georgian gentleman, was bowing over her hand. He looked no mean mate for her beauty, his dark hair slightly touched with powder, his blue and silver suit.
Watching from the wings is never very enjoyable and Valerie soon found herself the servant of all—mending a tear in Gerald's stocking, doing someone's hair, holding the book for the prompter, moving furniture and making herself generally useful, so that at the close of the second interval she was glad to slip outside for a breath of air. She shut the door behind her to cover her escape, ere someone could call her back, and in the darkness she almost collided with a man. Inside she heard the two violins and piano which did duty as an orchestra execute a preliminary wail.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said a trifle breathlessly for the impact had been severe.
The man caught and steadied her. "What luck!" he laughed. "I was looking for you." It was Kenneth Gardiner.
"I've escaped from the—the zoo for a moment," she explained. "I feel wilted."
"You poor little girl, I'll be bound you do. I felt that way myself, so I've come to claim your promise. We've both seen the play before, and even with Claude and Miss Starr's best efforts it's rather a travesty."
"My car is down the road, and the wings of the wind are waiting. They can do without you for this act, and we'll be back before the climax."
"Certain. Besides, you promised——"
"I know. I wonder if I ought to tell them."
"Why worry?" he said easily. "We'll be back again before they know you're gone." He led her quickly to the road. Inside the play was in full swing, and roars of laughter greeted the comedian. By contrast, the darkness seemed cool and satisfying, and Valerie sank back among the cushions with a sigh of relief, as Gardiner threw in the clutch.
"Shut your eyes and rest," he commanded, "were not going to talk."
A queer smell of burning was in the air, and now and again a whiff of acrid smoke came to her nostrils. "There are bush fires somewhere, aren't there?" she asked lazily.
"Yes. They're coming over the mountains," he answered in a matter-of-fact tone. "But I doubt if they will come through here. They have done it only once, and that was some years ago."
"When the timber mill was burnt," she woke up suddenly. "Are we anywhere near there?"
"Very near," he answered. "As a matter of fact, we'll be there in about five minutes."
"Then we've come miles. Don't you think we'd better go back?"
"Soon," he replied evasively, and trod heavily on the accelerator, so that the car rounded the next corner at full speed and came to a sudden standstill not 20 yards from the door of the old hut in the deserted clearing.
"There's someone there," she exclaimed.
"An old friend of yours." Gardiner alighted and opened the door of the car.
"But we haven't time to stop, and I don't like the place."
"We're stopping a little while." There was a ring of steel in his quiet voice that set her heart throbbing painfully.
"What do you mean by that?"
"What I say. Get out!"
A man strode swiftly across to them. "Need any help?" he asked.
"No," was the crisp reply. "Miss Raymond is going to be sensible."
Dark as it was, Valerie, with swift intuition, had recognised the voice of Wilton, and her nerves calmed a little. After all, this was the adventure she had always craved. She stepped out of the car, haughtily disregarding Gardiner's proffered assistance, and walked between the two men to the hut. On the threshold she faltered at the remembrance of Jim's gruesome story, and then, because she would not seem afraid, she stepped boldly in. The interior reassured her. There were no traces of tragedy in the bare walls, rough table, and camp-bed. She turned and faced the two men with gravity, but there was a sparkle in her eyes that hinted at defiance.
"Well?" she queried impatiently.
"Won't you sit down?" Always the gentleman, Gardiner pulled a packing-case forward as Wilton closed the door.
"No, thanks!" She was accustoming herself to the light of the hurricane lamp, which cast dim shadows in the corners, rather frightening shadows until she got used to them. She wondered if the old prospector had thought so the night death came, and then she realised that Gardiner was speaking again.
"I don't like doing this, Valerie, but there's no other way. I'll be quite frank, because you're game enough to appreciate frankness, and also there's no time to be lost. I want to tell you I know that your cousin found something in Smith's clothes, after he died, something he did not hand over to the police."
He paused, but Valerie made no comment.
"That something was hidden by you very carefully, and now I must have it."
He waited again, but the girl looked at him with polite interest, and no trace of fear. Her bearing drew a chuckle from Wilton.
"The kid's game all right."
"And I'm going to have it to-night, so you're going to tell me where it is."
"Me?" She looked at him in apparent astonishment.
"Please don't try to appear innocent. I know you hid the thing, and are the only one who knows its hiding place."
"Been spying?" she asked coolly.
He disregarded the thrust. "And you, if you're sensible, you'll yield to 'la force majeure.' There's no dishonour in that."
She threw back her head and laughed. "I wouldn't do that in a hundred years."
"Do you realise just where you are?"
"I do," she replied, with sudden seriousness. "I'm where an innocent man was murdered, Mr. Gardiner. Perhaps he had some secret he wished to hide."
"Perhaps he had," agreed Gardiner imperturbably. "Wilton, I wonder if you mind waiting in the car? I've something to say to Miss Raymond."
"Sure." He moved towards the door. "The smoke is getting very thick. That fire's close."
When he had gone Gardiner turned to Valerie, and his face was hard and merciless. She met his eyes steadily.
"I don't know what you're going to do," she said quietly, "but I won't tell you."
"I'm not going to do anything," he retorted. "I'm going to tell you a story and at the end of the story you can make your own decision."
She sighed. "Why waste time? I shan't listen."
"If you're wise you will," he answered and looked at his watch. "Otherwise it will soon be too late, and you will regret it all your life." He lit a cigarette reflectively. "About two years ago a young artist met a beautiful girl, and the obvious thing happened, but she, after amusing herself for a while, threw him over. I don't blame her," he added, as Valerie raised her head. "I'm giving you the facts. Unfortunately, that young artist came of a gipsy stock that never forgets nor forgives, and love that is all fire and passion can speedily turn to hatred. He painted a picture of her, but the evil twist in him brought to light the worst in her. I bought the picture. It—it interested me. Unusual things do, and in the spirit of experiment I brought the two together. To-night——." He paused. "I see you are interested?"
"I'm beginning to understand," the girl said slowly. "You're even worse than I thought you were. Go on."
"I thought the old grudge had died, for the man was a consummate actor, but there's a streak of insanity in our blood that takes various forms."
"He's a kind of cousin of mine on my mother's side. My dad married when he was about twenty, and was travelling abroad. They weren't happy."
"I'm not interested in you," she answered impatiently. "But Kath——?"
"I rather fancy Claude intends to bring it off to-night, unless I stop him."
"Bring what off?"
"That I can't say. He's woven his old spell over her. He may take her home to-night, and that's the last we will ever see of the pair—alive. Oh, I'm only suggesting."
"I see." Valerie was very pale. "Did you bring me here to tell me this? Let me go at once." She rushed to the door, but he forestalled her, looking down at her quivering form.
"Be quiet. I've given you the alternative—the papers for——"
"You will take me back if I tell you."
"I can't do that. I want a clear field for an hour or two, but I give you my word that I'll save your cousin if you tell me what I want to know."
She looked into his cold eyes despairingly. "Can I trust you?"
"You haven't much choice in the matter, have you?" he replied brutally. "But—I'm in the habit of keeping my word."
She looked at her watch. Five past ten! The hours were flying. Then she drew a deep breath.
"You win," she said quietly, and there was no tremor in her voice. "But God forgive you if you fail to do your part. The papers are hidden in Augustus's collar."
He stared at her. "Great Scott! I had it in my hand one day."
She nodded. "Now, go—-Quickly."
He became grim again. "I'm locking you in here until I see whether you've fooled me. If you have——" He opened the door, and a hot wind blew a puff of smoke into the room. He turned suddenly, "I hate to play against a woman, but I'd like to think there's no ill-feeling, Valerie. You——"
"Oh, go!" she interrupted with weary impatience, and he went, locking the door behind him.
She heard the car start, and then the sound died away in the distance, and she was left alone with the shadows. She sank down upon the foot of the camp-stretcher, trembling and strangely weak and helpless. Then her natural courage came to her aid. She must escape and go to Katherine's assistance. Yet she had a queer feeling that she could trust Gardiner now that she had done her part. She examined the door, but found no chance of exit there. The timbers were thick and firm, and the lock, evidently newly installed, showed no signs of yielding. The only window was a square hole looking outward toward the mountains, and was not more than 18in. across. She smashed the glass recklessly, when the catch failed to operate, and felt better, but she quickly realised that, slight as she was, she could not find egress there either.
A puff of wind blew smoke into her face as she stood looking out, and she coughed and covered her eyes. The breath of the night was hot upon her cheek, and she turned away despairingly. For the first time in her life real fear had come. She sat down, and thought of the crowded little hall, the bright lights, Allan bored a little and tired, Katherine in all the pride of triumphant beauty, and Gerald. The thought of their unconsciousness terrified her. Every racing moment brought it nearer. If Gardiner's car should fail, if he were too late—if, and this was the worst fear of all, if he had never meant to kept his word, but was headed straight for "Valinstar"—white-faced, and agonised, she sat in the semi-darkness, for the lantern was burning low, and stared into space. In that hour Valerie grew up. Prayer seemed inadequate and unreal, and yet she knew that Katherine's life could only be saved by a higher power than her own.
"God, make him keep his word!" she pleaded over and over again.
Then suddenly she became aware of a light in the hut and looked up at the lantern. It was flickering dully. The glare was coming in from outside. She ran to the window and looked out. The clearing tucked away in the valley between the hills had been out of sight of the fire but now it was racing down the mountainside toward her, and the crackling sound came to her ears as she watched the red of the flames against the starlit sky. Then came realisation. She was trapped there, right in the path of the fire which had swept the clearing before, and would do it again before the night was over.
The play was almost over when Gardiner and his companion reached the hall. There had been delays on the way, a puncture which had made him curse furiously, while Wilton, ignorant of the need for haste, looked at him and wondered at his impatience.
"What's the rush, if you've got what you wanted?"
Gardiner looked up with a set face. "That's only part of the contract, and I'd give my life to undo what I've done. If the stakes had been less—but you couldn't understand."
"I sure hate the thought of that little girl up there, but I don't see——"
"You wouldn't," Gardiner shut him up abruptly. "I'll tell you this. If this deal doesn't go through to-night I'm ruined. I've had losses lately, big ones. That's the gambler in me, and I can't look to my family to pay my debts. They couldn't, if they would."
The other man stared. "No wonder you're nervy, but the girl came across all right?"
Wilton stared at his companion's profile curiously. "Those four certainly did mess up the game from the start."
"Or you did."
"Well, it wasn't my fault Smith got away. I shot him all right, but lost him in the scrub."
"We've been through that before," Gardiner reminded him. "Fortunately, the stuff wasn't in English, or they'd have tumbled long ago."
"You certainly did good work in translating those directions into the gipsy lingo, but we didn't bargain for your other copy being stolen by that dog."
Gardiner laughed bitterly. "The stars in their courses have fought against us, and now, if I can keep my promise, things will go smoothly."
"What on earth do you mean? Aren't we going straight for the goods?"
"No. I bought the information at a price. That price, like a quixotic fool, I intend to pay."
The other shrugged his shoulders. "I never did pretend to understand you, but you're boss. Carry on."
"If only I knew——" Gardiner knitted his brows as the car slid quietly to a standstill.
"Hang about outside will you, and particularly keep an eye on Delamere's car, that grey Lancia there. If he gets away, mark the direction and come for me at once."
"But I thought he was in on this?"
"Don't think, do as you're told," was the crisp retort, and a moment later Gardiner slipped quietly into the back of the hall in time to witness the dramatic conclusion of the play.
Outwardly unperturbed, his brain worked swiftly as he tried to imagine what would be Delamere's next move. There had been no mistaking the triumphant significance of his outbreak the previous night, when for a moment the mask had slipped aside, and his cousin had known what he had some time suspected, that the hereditary taint of that Hungarian family had not passed Claude by, and that his very genius was but a form of abnormality bordering on madness. Gardiner had no illusions now as to Delamere's sanity, even though he watched him, a superb figure with Katherine by his side, receiving the enthusiastic applause of the audience at the close of an impassioned love scene. Even as the play ended and a babel of chatter broke loose he saw Allan Linton striding past him, his face grey and set. Gardiner caught his arm, but was shaken aside roughly as Allan disappeared into the night. For one brief moment he meditated pursuit, and then with a shrug of his shoulders he joined his family, who were making much of Claude and Katherine. Nearby he saw Gerald's anxious face.
"I say, have you seen Val? I want her," he as asking. "And Allan. They've both gone and bolted somewhere."
"Allan gone!" Katherine turned quickly.
"Yes. Left us both in the lurch, and I wanted to take Lucille home in the car, and now——"
"But he promised," Delamere interposed swiftly. "You're coming with me at once. You've been wonderful, but you've had enough. We can't wait to collect your scattered family. Do come!"
"Yes, do, dear. Come home with us for supper," Mrs. Gardiner patted her shoulder. "You're looking worn out. Kenneth, I want you to get my shawl. I left it somewhere in the dressing-room."
"Can't Jim get it?" he asked.
"Oh, Jim's with Mollie," she replied vaguely. "Be a dear."
Against his will he turned back and retrieved the shawl, but it was a difficult matter to get out again. When he succeeded his stepmother was alone.
"What a time you've been. Dad's getting the car. Katherine decided to leave her belongings here until morning, and Claude promised her to go on with him."
He flung the shawl across her arm, and people were startled at the sight of the usually dignified Kenneth Gardiner racing madly across the yard toward the road. He vaulted the fence almost in his stride, and reached the grey car just as the engine began to purr. Wilton, who had been leaning against a tree half asleep came to life suddenly.
Gardiner sprang on the footboard as the car started to move and jammed on the brake. Delamere turned on him furiously.
"What the devil are you doing?" he said.
"Trying to save you from madness. Miss Starr, Katherine—please get out. This man isn't responsible."
"It's you that are mad." Delamere essayed to start the car again, while Katherine, white-faced and trembling, half rose. "Get off, you fool!"
"I won't. You can't go. I know what you're going to do."
Delamere turned to Katherine. "I must apologise," he said. "I don't know what's the matter, but I'm afraid he's been drinking. Have I your permission to go?"
"Of course," she answered in a low voice, for she hated scenes, and although the altercation had been conducted in low tones, already several people were casting curious glances in the direction of the car.
She looked anxiously round for Allan. If he had not deserted her this would not have happened. But he was more than a mile away, striding savagely through the hot, breathless night, facing the final ruin of his dreams and his ideals. Only that night Katherine had promised him everything, and then betrayed her promise in another man's arms, in sight of all Rockwood. He strode on blindly, ignorant of his direction, and little caring, heedless of the red glare of the forest fires, creeping nearer and nearer to the little town.
Delamere looked at his cousin. "Now are you satisfied?" he said silkily; "Miss Starr wishes to go."
"No!" Kenneth Gardiner did not relax his grip on the car, and Delamere brought his fist savagely down on one of the clinging hands, but its owner did not move.
Katherine caught sight of Gerald, and essayed to open the door. "I must get out," she said; "I can't stay here."
"You can and will." Delamere's hand went to the flap in the side of the car and drew out a tiny nickel-plated revolver.
"Now, will you go?"
"No!" said Gardiner again. "Katherine, I——"
Two shots rang out together. Gardiner dropped back on the roadway, and Delamere's hand fell limply to his side. Wilton, a smoking revolver in his hand, was bending over the fallen man. It happened so suddenly that Katherine could not even scream, but sat there numbed, looking at the staring, dreadful face of the man in the car beside her, from whose forehead a slow trickle of blood was oozing.
"I'm sorry I was late," Wilton was saying brokenly, "I never supposed he would really shoot."
"I did," Gardiner coughed. "He got me—through the lungs. I'm going." The first arrivals were already approaching, but he had fallen in the shadow of the trees, and so was partly hidden. "Give me the gun. It was——an old quarrel. Get that. You—get back—to the hall. The game's——played."
He lay back on Wilton's arm, one hand grasping the revolver, as Katherine came to him, her long dark plaits framing her pale face, her eyes horror-stricken. She knelt beside him in the dust as Wilton pleaded with the onlookers to fetch a doctor.
"Why did you do it?" she asked softly.
He smiled at her, and its sudden beauty brought home for the first time his resemblance to his artist cousin. "To save your—life. He was—dangerous. Besides——" His voice grew weaker. "It was—-the price I——had to pay——-" Someone would have moved him, but he shook his head. "I'm done. Keep the crowd away." He fumbled for her hand, and she held his. Then suddenly his voice strengthened. "I'd have—done it anyway," he said clearly, "for you, see—-I loved you."
There was a sudden silence as his voice grew still, and Wilton motioned to Katherine to move. "He's gone," he said quietly. "A minute sooner and I'd have saved him, but I didn't know——-"
A kindly woman put her arm around the girl and led her away, while others made way for his father, who had been hastily summoned, and who now stood looking down at the still handsome face.
The police sergeant was interrogating Wilton, and the crowd was beginning to melt, when a sudden stir went through them as a man on horseback galloped up to them.
"The fire's over the ranges," he shouted. "It's coming down along the old timber track. We're needing help up there."
"The timber track?" Wilton spun round. "But it can't be! Miss Raymond's there."
Gerald, still in his actor's livery, caught his arm. "I've been looking for Valerie everywhere."
"She's up there in the old hut. I can't explain now, but——-"
The boy's gaze tightened. "Then we're going there. You know the road?"
"If she's harmed I swear I'll kill you." He half flung the older man in the nearest car which happened to be Kenneth Gardiner's.
"It's too late, lad," someone cried; "the fire's right down."
The roar of the engine was the only answer as once again the little grey car was headed for the hills.
For a moment Valerie did not realise her danger, and then with realisation came panic and terror. She screamed loudly once and stopped, appalled by its futility. She clung to the open window, and looked out, a new fear driving out the old.
Great trees were outline in flame against the starlight sky; an awful radiance glowed through the clearing; and tiny rivers of fire crept into the undergrowth, ever coming nearer. The dull roar of the flames sounded in her ears, mingled with the crackling of the burning bushes and the crash of a falling tree as one forest giant after another succumbed to the flames. What wind there was wafted the smoke, with the acrid scent of burning gumleaves right into her face, and she turned away, hope stilled.
A rat in a burning trap, that was the part that hurt. If she could have made an attempt to escape, however futile, it would have helped. Valerie's spirit was one bred to action, that would meet death fighting, but to sit there and wait while the rolling tide of fire crept closer and closer was hard. Fascinated, yet appalled, she returned to the window just in time to see the running figure of a man pass her line of vision. Once again she screamed wildly, but it seemed to her that her voice was being drowned by the noise of the fire. The second time she saw him pause and look back. She pulled herself up to the window and made a last effort. Then he vanished. She closed her eyes. If he had gone, then hope had gone, too. The seconds seemed ages long as she crouched there, listening. At last it came, the sound of hurrying footsteps, and a man's voice.
"I say, is there anyone here?"
For a moment it seemed as if she were going to faint, and her voice seemed to come from very far away.
"Good Lord! Can't you get out?"
"The door's locked and the window's too small."
He said something under his breath, and she heard him fumbling at the lock.
"Yes, it's locked all right, I'll have to break it down."
His voice sounded rather familiar, and she vainly tried to place it in her memory. Whoever he was, he was swift of action, for the next moment she started, as a mighty blow fell upon the door. For five minutes he wrestled with it, raining blow after blow, but it had been built to last, and though the hinges creaked and groaned, the timbers showed no signs of giving way, and the glare in the hut grew stronger.
At last he paused, and she heard him panting for breath as he leaned against the door. "Please go," she pleaded; "the fire's awfully close, and there's no sense in both of us perishing, is there?"
"I can't leave you here," he shouted back. "There must be some way. I'm going to look at that window."
A moment later had had dragged an old box round the house and was standing up looking in. His face, drawn and unshaven had a weird effect, with the red glow of the fire for a background; but Valerie recognised him.
"Miss Raymond!" He did not ask questions, though his face expressed his amazement. "We've got to get you out. I'm going to try to pull this frame away. Then I think you could get through." At the third wrench, it gave, so suddenly as to send him headlong to the ground; but he was speedily on his feet, tearing at the boards with eager fingers. At last he stepped back.
"Now," he said, "it's up to you. You're lucky you're not an outsize."
Even as it was there was not much room, and for a moment it seemed as if she would stick half-way, but Crandall seized her shoulders and dragged her through, apologising for his roughness as he saw her scratched arms.
"Sorry, but there's no time to lose."
Placing a hand under her arm, he led her at a half-run across the clearing. Behind them the mountainside was a wall of flame, and on one side the fire seemed to be converging on the entrance of the valley.
"I've got a motor-bike here somewhere," panted her rescuer. "Hid it here a couple of days ago. Hard to find in the dark."
"It's not very dark," Valerie answered. "Anyway, it's easier to die in the open."
"We're not going to die yet, if I know anything about it," was the determined reply. "Feel about under those wattles, will you? Hooray! I've got it in one."
He dragged the machine out eagerly, and wheeled it to the edge of the road. "There's no carrier," he said, "but you'll have to stick on somehow. Hold on to me tight. It's the devil of a road, and you might find yourself in the middle of it quite suddenly."
"Nothing would surprise me to-night," she murmured weakly.
The fire had reached the clearing on one side now, and was travelling more quickly among the grass, parched with the suns of a month of rainless days. It seemed an eternity before the engine began to cough and splutter, and even then it died away again, leaving its owner cursing softly under his breath.
"It's the exposure, I suppose."
A roar sounded, which drowned his explanation and they were off down the rough, winding road.
Of all the wild moments of that eventful night Valerie found this particularly indescribable. Anything like speed was impossible, and as it was she never seemed to strike the bar on which she was sitting in the same place twice. She clutched the rider grimly, and tried not to look behind at the pursuing flames, which were now sweeping down the narrow defile towards the cleft in the hills through which the road made its exit into the wider valley of Rockwood.
Cranston was grimly silent, but he, too, had his eves on the racing fire and on the glow to his right, which threatened to outflank them, but as they turned the bend of the road he saw that they were too late. The fire had just reached the track, though it was not burning with the intensity of that they had just left, but rather seemed to be an independent blaze coming from another direction.
"We'll have to go through it," he shouted over his shoulder, but Valerie was too dazed and shaken to reply. Then the engine of the cycle ceased running so suddenly that they were almost thrown off.
He turned to her despairingly. "Our luck's dead out," he said. "It's petrol. I had a can with me at my camp up there, but I didn't stop to collect it. I'm awfully sorry."
"You've done your best." Valerie leaned against his arm. She felt very tired. Even death would not matter much, if only it came quickly.
"We're fairly caught before and behind." The man dismounted, and looked into the smoky blaze in front, where young saplings were bending under the flames. "We can't walk through that."
The road had hidden from them the other fire from which they had fled, for which Valerie was thankful.
"How long?" she managed to murmur. Her throat felt parched and dry, and speaking was an effort.
"Not long. Minutes now. You poor little kid!"
"It's you. If you hadn't stopped for me——"
"Don't worry now." He drew her closer. "I guess we're having our hell now. There won't be much left for us hereafter."
"Listen!" She raised her head suddenly. "A car!"
"I can't hear anything. No one would drive a car into this."
"Gerald would. He's coming to me."
Why Gerald, Valerie hardly knew. Her tortured brain could picture but one deliverer, but all the man heard was the crackle of the flames in front and the distant crash of a falling tree.
"Buck up, little girl," he said steadily. "It will soon be over."
Then he heard it, through the smoke and fire in front—the steady drone of a high powered car. Crandall caught his breath. Someone was coming into the heart of the flames. Nearer and nearer! A flaming tree wavered, seemed about to crash on the road, and then fell sideways. He began to half drag, half-carry Valerie forward. It seemed incredible that anyone should be so foolhardy as to run such a risk. At last he saw it racing through the fire, its headlights burning as if in mockery, and he flung out an arm and called.
There was a savage grinding of brakes, as it stopped with a suddenness that almost overturned it, and Gerald, white-faced, with staring eyes, leant forward. By his side sat Wilton, half dead with terror. He had ridden with death that night, and the memory would never leave him. The boy dashed a hand across his smoke-grimed face and bloodshot eyes.
"That you, Val?"
"Yes, Ger I knew you'd come."
"Get in. I'm going to turn."
There was no room for four in the little car, but they managed it somehow and once again they faced the wall of flame, through which the car had come. The air was full of smoke and burning leaves dashed against the windscreen, or fell upon them and had to be beaten out. One fell on Gerald's hand as it gripped the wheel and he never moved, as Wilton clumsily extinguished it, his fingers shaking. Another caught Valerie's uncovered hair, for one fleeting second ere Crandall flung a handkerchief over it. A tree crashed behind them, missing them by inches and sending a shower of flaming sparks into the hood of the car, which began to blaze, and Gerald swerved right off the road to avoid a similar obstacle on the track in front.
And then they were through, though for a moment their smoke-blinded eyes could not realise it, and the car slowed down to a more normal speed. It was burning in several places, but they dared not stop until another five miles brought them to the bridge across the river near Valinstar, and Gerald applied the brakes.
"I'm going to send her in," he said dully. "Only thing to do."
They watched in silence as the flaming wreck disappeared with a sullen hiss into the black waters. The contrast between the glare of the fire and the night's darkness was strange and the still peacefulness of the quiet scene seemed miles removed from the blazing inferno through which they had passed. In the eastward the red glow lingered even as the first breath of a westerly wind stirred the leaves of the tall gums by the river.
For a moment no one spoke. Crandall had flung himself down on the cool grass relaxed and weary, too tired to think or speak. Wilton, similarly inclined, leaned against the coping of the bridge still staring with dazed eyes at the place where the car had sunk.
Then Gerald came to Valerie—a strange figure in his tattered smoke-grimed finery, and put his arm about her.
"I say, Val, you're all right, aren't you?"
"Thanks to you." Her strength and voice were gone, but he sensed the smile on the weary face upturned to his.
"If you hadn't been——" He did not finish the sentence, but bending, kissed her almost savagely, and his grip tightened. Though the pain on her scratched, burnt arms was intense, she felt strangely happy and content.
There was a wild tumult of barking, and something in the nature of an avalanche was upon them.
"Why," said Gerald weakly, "it's Augustus! Get down you brute."
Next morning the Team, white-faced and weary, lingered over a meal that promised to be something in the nature of a combined breakfast and lunch. They were all showing evidences of the experiences of the previous evening. There were dark shadows under Valerie's large eyes, and Gerald's hands were bandaged. Crandall had spent the night with them, and then after a long conference with Allan had left for the township. Wilton had slipped away into the darkness, and they had not wished to pursue. Katherine had been brought home by Jim Gardiner, suffering from the shock and horror of the tragedy, to find Allan and Gerald endeavouring to restore Valerie to consciousness, and had forgotten her own troubles in her anxiety. At last they had all managed to get to bed to sleep heavily until late in the morning.
They dragged themselves unwillingly to the necessary work that had to be done, and when at last they gathered round the table they showed no interest in their meal. Allan pushed away his plate in disgust.
"It's no good," he said, "we're all curious, and feeling rather guilty about some aspects of the matter. I think a good straight talk would clear the air."
"I agree with you." Katherine placed her elbows on the table, and with her chin in her hands gazed out of the window, an expression of pain in her dark eves. "We're all curious, Allan, and you're the oldest——"
"I've nothing to tell," he said shortly. "I left early and walked home, that's all, and managed to be out of the way when I was most wanted."
"Not quite all," Katherine smiled. "I'm glad it's just we four here now, because I've got to confess to awful foolishness. Allan, you've such an annoying habit of being right that I wanted to prove myself strong where Claude Delamere was concerned, so that you would know that you need never doubt me again. I'll admit I failed, because his will was stronger than mine, but nothing else. He caught me, somehow, I think it was a kind of hypnotism, and all the time, I was leaning on you, Allan, knowing you were there, and hoping you would understand and rescue me in spite of myself."
Valerie and Gerald exchanged glances, as Allan bent forward. "I wish—I wish I could believe you, Katherine."
"But you can," she smiled into his eyes. "I was just a little bored with life when Claude came, and the play was an interest, but you haven't heard the real end of the story."
Quietly she told them of Kenneth Gardiner's death in his attempt to save her from some unknown evil. "I don't fully understand now," she said, "but I'll never forget the horror of Claude's face, and he'd been so wonderful that night." She spoke as if she had lived a lifetime since the previous evening.
"I'm glad Kenneth kept his word," said Valerie softly. "It's something I shall like to remember of him always."
They all looked at her with questioning eyes, as she told them her story frankly and without excuse.
"I deserved all I got," she declared. "I know what Kenneth Gardiner was, but like a little fool I too thought it was fun to play with fire, and it very nearly burnt me. Oh, Katherine!"
"What happened then?" Allan asked, as Katherine gently smoothed Valerie's tumbled hair.
"Why, Mr. Crandall let me out, and we were caught between the two fires, and then Gerald came," she said simply.
There was a long silence as they looked at one another and reviewed the story they had just heard.
Then Allan spoke. "I think we may as well tell the children, Kath."
"You mean you still want to?" she asked wonderingly.
"More than ever now," he laughed. "Gerald, Valerie, Katherine is going to marry me."
Valerie drew a deep breath. "How perfectly ripping," she exclaimed.
"Quite suitable," said Gerald more calmly. "We'd better make it a double event. I can't see any other way of stopping Valerie careering round the country with undesirables than——"
"And so," sighed Valerie, "he proposed to me. Before breakfast too, while I was feeding the pigs. So romantic!"
Gerald grinned. "You ought to be thankful to have a proposal at all. Now if I were a cave man——"
"Anyhow," continued Valerie, ignoring him, "he's got to take Augustus, too. I'm having a special clause inserted in the service, 'I take thee, Valerie Margaret, and Augustus'."
"Are you serious?" Katherine looked down at the upturned face anxiously.
"Quite." Valerie gave a little wriggle. "I was never so happy in all my life."
"Then let's get married at once and have a nice long honeymoon all together," said Gerald, quite unconscious that he was proposing anything unusual.
"But one doesn't," cried Valerie. "And they won't want us."
"We will," Katherine laughed. "We're right in harness again, and we'll even share honeymoons. Let's go to Tasmania. I've always wanted to go there."
"Right!" Allan smiled. "Jove, it's great to feel we've come through safely. Nothing can ever go wrong again."
"We've found the gold in the shadows all right," Katherine smiled. "But now the sun is shining."
"Talking of gold," Valerie raised an eager head. "There are still two things, Augustus's collar and the two nuggets in our room.
"Yes, I'd forgotten to tell you," Allan frowned. "But here's Crandall now."
They greeted him with enthusiasm, and then demanded his contribution to what Valerie termed "the serial story."
"I guess I'll tell you the lot," he replied, with a disarming smile. "I should have done so before. It starts about 30 years ago, when my father saved Joe Blake's life when they were prospecting together in the hills. Blake vowed he would some day reward him. Well, Dad married and settled down, so they drifted apart. Blake was a gambler and a rolling stone, but he would turn up at intervals, and we kids loved him."
"Then Dad died, and we had to make our own way." He squared his shoulders. "We managed, but he helped. He'd struck a lucky patch, and insisted on helping me through my engineering course. Naturally it was only a loan, and I was dead keen to repay him. I went abroad for a while for experience, and while I was away he died. When I came back I learned the details. He'd been found knifed in a cabin in the hills."
The hearers started.
"It appears that he always believed there was gold in these ranges, and had come back to have a last look before he settled down. His bank forwarded me his will, which left everything to me, and I determined to get to the bottom of the cause of his death if I could. I worked in with the police as far as possible, and also employed a private man to go up and spy out the land. He quickly discovered a gang that was operating, with the old timber mill as its base. The leading spirit was an old chap called John Duncan, who used to live in this house. He was some relation of the Gardiners. Duncan died, but evidently Kenneth was in his confidence, for he carried on. By eavesdropping he discovered that they were after Blake's gold, and that one of them had killed the old chap in the hut, and stolen his notes and the rough sketch he had made of his find. It appears that he had known old Duncan slightly, and had come down to visit him one night, and after a few drinks became too confidential.
"He sent the report on to me, and the next I heard was that he had been found—shot. As soon as I could I came up here, and when I saw you I gathered you knew more than you told me. I couldn't make up my mind to trust you. I thought perhaps Gardiner had let this place to you for a purpose; so I took to the hills and kept watch over the clearing. Wilton made his headquarters there, and Gardiner and Delamere came there several times, also old McIntyre, whom I think you know. Wilton spent his time in the hills—searching. I heard them discussing the loss of the directions one day, and heard that Smith, my man, had stolen them. Then the fire came." He paused expectantly, and looked at the attentive faces. "You know what you know," he said simply. "The end rests with you."
Valerie went to the door and called Augustus, who bounded in eagerly. Quietly she unfastened his collar, and, cutting the stitches, drew out the folded paper therein.
"We're glad to get rid of it," she said truthfully. "Why weren't we to give it to the police? Smith told us not to."
"Publicity," said Crandall shortly. "Once it got into the papers all the country would know." He unfolded the paper with eager hands, but his face fell, as he saw the contents. "Why, it's gibberish."
"Magyar—gipsy lingo," said Allan. "But I don't think you need worry about having it translated. Valerie and Augustus can lead you right there."
"Can you?" He turned to her. "I say, you're being awfully sporting."
She told of her find with admirable brevity. "As soon as the fire's out I'll take you. It's just glorious to feel that we can shove the responsibility on to someone else. You see, were all going to get married, and we don't want to have to bother about unimportant details."
He laughed. "I need hardly say I congratulate you," he said. "And, of course, you'll share. It means a lot to me, for I've a mother to care for and two young brothers to educate, but we'll hope there's heaps there for us all, and it really is your discovery."
"I suppose Gardiner or Delamere translated the original stolen directions," said Katherine. "But I wondered they waited so long."
"I don't think they were very clear, probably old Joe was wiser than they thought him, and they wouldn't want to direct attention to themselves too soon. They thought they had plenty of time, as no one knew of it but themselves."
"And Augustus chewed up the other copy," Valerie laughed gleefully. "Now, everyone, you'll have to admit that we can't live without Augustus. Who found the gold mine? Augustus! Who chewed up Wilton's papers? Augustus! Who has kept a secret I could trust with no one else? Augustus."
Excitement is contagious, and Augustus, thoroughly thrilled by the sound of his own name, began to prance round, barking wildly, until he encountered Valerie, and the pair joined in a kind of war dance, which ended abruptly in disaster as they became entangled with the tablecloth.
It was more than two months later that Valerie and Katherine were watching the sunset over blue mountains as they walked along the promenade on the cliffs of a little Tasmanian seaside resort. They had been married just a week, and had resolutely put behind them the tragedy that had made such forceful entry into their lives.
The last few weeks had been most unhappy ones. The inquest into the deaths of Gardiner and Delamere had meant publicity of a most trying kind, and when it was over they had wanted to get right out of the world and hide their heads from those who had known them, where they would not be pointed out to everyone as the central figures of a notorious scandal. One thing had been kept secret, and the gold discovery had not been proclaimed until Crandall's claim had been fairly established.
They had left Rockwood for ever, for they would not go back to a place haunted by regrets and horror. The place seemed to have had an evil influence upon them, and they wished to forget. When Crandall's goldmine was fairly launched they would find themselves in comfortable circumstances, for it promised very well; and in the meantime there was a little apple orchard not twenty miles away that was possibly for sale. There was a little house, smothered with roses and honeysuckle, and the Team had surrendered their hearts to it.
The boys were away interviewing agents, and as Valerie and Katherine were speaking of it they joined them with an air of proud possession they had given up trying to disguise.
"Well!" demanded Valerie breathlessly.
Allan shook his head. "They're not optimistic at the agents. It belongs to an old lady, a Miss Brownlee, who is somewhat eccentric. It was her family's home, and she refuses to sell until she finds a purchaser whom she considers worthy of the house. The price is not her first consideration."
"Then we're done," sighed Valerie.
"Well, I wouldn't say that. She has consented to interview us. So if we send Katherine and keep Augustus chained up—-, I bet no other husband ever had to take an Augustus with him on his honeymoon." Gerald was off on his old grievance. Travelling with Augustus was an expensive and exciting luxury.
"Letters?" asked Katherine quickly, to avert discussion.
Gerald produced the mail and distributed it, and by common consent they sought a seat.
"One from Jim Gardiner," said Valerie. "He's engaged to Mollie. Says our example stimulated him. I'm glad."
"Crandall says they can't trace Wilton." Allan looked up from a typewritten sheet. "The police want him, of course, for Smith's murder, but he has vanished."
"I'm glad," said Katherine soberly. "Enough lives have been lost now, and we carry our punishment with us always."
"He says," continued Allan, "that the first lot of ore will be taken out of the Augustus mine next week, and that conditions are extremely favourable. He prophesies riches untold, and ends up with a deliriously incoherent blessing on both Valerie and Augustus."
"A mine with a name like that," said Valerie complacently, "must certainly be lucky."
"By the way, where is the beast?" asked Gerald. "Hasn't drowned himself, I suppose. No such luck! I'm off to get a paper. See you at the hotel."
He strolled off just as Katherine located the missing dog. "There he is," she said. "What on earth has he got in his mouth? Someone's fur?"
Augustus trotted proudly up, bearing in his mouth the limp body of a large grey tomcat. The many scratches on his face proved that the struggle had been an epic one. With and air of placid satisfaction he laid his prey at Valerie's feet.
"Oh Augusts," she wailed, "you shouldn't. Take it away."
"The owner's coming," said Allan hastily. "Katherine, dear. I think it's getting rather chilly."
Katherine cast a hasty look at the approaching figure, a large, angular female with a war-like expression, and incontinently agreed with him.
Valerie gasped. "You mustn't go. Where's Gerald? He swore to protect me."
She spoke to retreating backs and then, being no coward, she laid a firm hand on August's collar and faced the enemy. Half an hour later Valerie entered the hotel with a seraphic smile, with what Gerald was wont to call her "cat has just eaten the canary" expression, while Augustus stalked by her side, the picture of dignity and satisfaction.
"So, you're alive," said Allan. "Ger was getting worried."
"No thanks to you." She looked from one to the other with unusual meekness. "The lady happened to be Miss Brownlee."
"Not the one who owns Greystones?"
"And Augustus killed her cat. Now you have done it! We'll never persuade her to sell, and I've never seen a place I liked as well."
"It is awful!" Katherine wailed. "I'd just set my heart on it."
"Let us all weep." Allan looked at the repentant culprit. "I'd like to spank you."
"On the contrary," said Valerie softly, but very distinctly. "The cat had just killed Miss Brownlee's parrot, and she came to congratulate Augustus. We are lunching with her tomorrow, and I gather she'll give us Greystones if we're tactful. She was rather fond of that parrot."
She walked to the door, and then turned to note the effect of her words. "And I'm to be sure to bring Augustus," she added sweetly.
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