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The Secret of the Sandhills:
eBook No.: 1203331h.html
Date first posted: Aug 2012
Most recent update: Feb 2021
This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan
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IN shabby clothes and frayed collar, John Stratton stood watching the life and bustle outside the post office, conscious that his position was desperate. A grey motorcar, a pretty girl, and a dropped pocket-book temporarily send up his stock.
Then comes the murder on Henley beach, the police and—danger. John Stratton has to confess that he is in rather a tight corner; but there are always the blue eyes of the girl in the grey car.
As Chief Inspector Edis remarked once "John, you're a smart fellow right enough," and it was Stratton's quickness of brain that enabled him to evade the net that at one time seemed likely to ensnare him.
THERE was no doubt about my luck being out that bright summer morning, as I stood, shabby and down-at-heel, outside the General Post Office in Adelaide.
My collar was frayed away at the edges, my poor old blue suit was well worn and shabby, my hat was stained all over, with the band gone, and the burst in one of my boots marked me down clearly as a man who was not by any means in affluent circumstances. Everything about me told of being down and out.
Yet less than two months ago I had got into the train at Broken Hill with a comfortable thick wad of notes in my pocket, the result of over a year's hard work 'out back' as a boundary rider. But a too-confiding trust in my fellow passengers, and a too-deep slumber as the ever-stopping train had ambled on, had been my undoing, and I had awakened at Peterborough in the dim hours of the morning to an empty carriage, and, worse still, to an empty, rifled pocket.
But it served me right. I, who had been over half the world before I was twenty-seven, and who had fought for over three years in France among one of the toughest crowds on earth; to be taken in and bamboozled by two innocent-looking old fellows who had led me to believe they were just honest farm hands going down to see their relatives in Adelaide.
Yes, I can tell you that that Saturday morning, as I stood kicking up my heels in King William Street, I was feeling pretty despondent and pretty sick with myself.
I had been doing odd jobs about the city, without, however, much success, and at that particular moment my entire possession in the world in the way of money was a one shilling piece that I was reserving for my evening meal.
I was quite alone in the world, with no parents living and no relations near to help me and no particular friends in the city upon whom I could call. It was true I had one cousin in Australia, who was reputed to be a wealthy man. He had a sheep station about thirty miles from Pimba, but I had quarrelled with him years before, and was much too proud to let him know now that I was in a bad way.
Weeks ago I had written to an old friend of my father in Melbourne, but no reply had come back, and finally I had given up even calling for any letters. I had got too ashamed of going up day after day to face the amused grins of the attendants at the delivery counter. It always seemed to me to afford them much amusement when I appeared to receive the same invariable reply, "No, nothing to-day." I guessed they knew how things were with me.
I stood watching the life and bustle about the post office, wondering in a careless sort of way what was going to happen next.
A fine big grey motor drew up to the pavement and in it I saw were a man and a very pretty girl. I thought I had never seen such a pretty girl.
She was, I guessed, about twenty, of medium height, fair, with delicious blue eyes and with a beautifully slim but well-rounded figure. The man with her was undoubtedly her father. He was tall and soldierly looking, and his handsome face was burned to a deep bronze. He seemed oddly familiar to me. One who had done his bit too, I thought, as I watched him. There is no mistaking a man who has held responsible positions on active service.
He got out of the car, and nodding to the girl, went up the steps and disappeared into the post office.
I watched the girl with an unusual quickening of my heart. She looked so deliciously sweet and dainty sitting there, quite unconscious of the admiration she was evoking. She was interestedly watching the crowd that is always to be found in King William Street about mid-day. Suddenly her gaze turned in my direction, and at once her eyes were held by mine.
It would be stupid for me to pretend I am a bad specimen of an Australian. I am tall and well set up and have always carried my head proudly, as becoming one who has held a commission. Besides, a man who has smiled with death as I have for nearly four long years must surely always carry something of courage and strength about him for the rest of his life.
Well, she looked at me and I looked at her. She was a picture of luxury and prettiness, and I—well, everything about me spoke of hardship and rough times. There could not have been a greater contrast, and yet the man in me called to the woman in her, and for a moment she answered me. Then she turned her eyes quickly away, but a second later looked hesitatingly round again and gave me just the ghost of a very sweet smile.
I felt myself get hot with shame, for I was suddenly conscious of my shabby suit and my woe-begone hat, and the great burst in the toe of my right boot.
I turned quickly away from the car and banged straight into her father's arms as he was coming down the post office steps. To my apologies he gave a genial smile.
"All right, my boy, there are no casualties this time," and with a wave of his arm he turned towards the car.
I watched him give some directions to the chauffeur, and then, after a little difficulty in opening the door, seat himself back in the car beside what I already considered the loveliest girl in all the world.
The car turned smartly away from the pavement and made off in the direction of South Terrace.
Then I noticed suddenly that there was a pocket-book lying in the gutter, just under where the door of the car had been.
The girl's father, I realised instantly, must have dropped it when fumbling with the door. I ran and picked it up and looked round for the car. To my satisfaction there was a block at the cross-roads and a policeman was holding up the traffic. I ran quickly up, and threading my way between the waiting vehicles, reached the side of the car. I raised my hat and held up the pocket-book.
"I think this must be yours. It was lying in the road when your car pulled away."
The man looked at me, wondering for a second, and then clapped his hand to his breast pocket.
"Good lad," he said, smiling, "and a very honest one too," and then, before I knew what he was doing, he pulled a banknote out of the case and thrust it into my hand.
"Go and do yourself well; you've deserved it."
I forgot my shabby clothes and was indignant at once.
"No, thank you," I said hurriedly, "I don't want anything for bringing it."
"Nonsense, sir; take it. It's a pleasure to give it you. You might have made a very good haul." Then, shrugging his shoulders, "Well, if you're too proud to keep it, go and back a horse with it. I'm sure it will soon leave you that way."
Then the girl chimed in, and I thought her voice was like the tinkle of a silver bell.
"No, father, don't be so discouraging. I'm sure he'll back a winner. No, no, keep it," she pleaded, looking me full in the face; "I'm sure it will bring you good luck. Good-bye;" and before I could collect my wits that had all gone when she spoke to me, the car had moved swiftly off and I was left standing still with a ten-pound note in my hand.
For a few moments I was very angry with myself. I, who had held a commission in France, to be tipped in the public street for picking up a pocket-book! Then my commonsense came back, and I thought grimly I was really a very lucky man. The ten pounds would, at any rate, be a happy respite for me, and I could buy several things that I was undoubtedly needing very much. Quick always to respond to good fortune, I began to feel quite elated.
She had said it would bring good luck to me, and I felt sure it would.
I looked furtively at the ten-pound note and, remembering my shabby condition, thought it would be best to get it changed where no remarks were likely to be made. So I went up into the post office and bought a single postcard.
Then an idea struck me. I thought I would make use of my postcard right away and send it to myself, so that at least for once there should be something waiting for me, if, indeed, I troubled to call for any letters again. Sitting down at one of the public tables, I addressed the card to "John Stratton, Esq., Poste Restante, G.P.O., Adelaide," and I congratulated myself upon the piece of good fortune that had befallen me. I felt sure the attendants would read it.
I told myself to buck up, for my star was shining all right now, and I had only to go boldly ahead and there would be no more looking back.
I signed the card 'Mary,' because Mary was my favourite name, and I thought too I had heard the man say 'Mary' to the girl as he had got out of the car.
I dropped the card in the box, little dreaming that that simple and apparently foolish waste of a post-card was to alter the whole course of my life, and bring the girl I was dreaming about to my arms as my affianced wife within less than eighteen months from that day. Yet so it did.
As I went out of the post office the clock chimed one, and I remembered with disappointment that my new riches would not be of much use to me in smartening myself up for that day at all events. It was a Saturday, and all the shops, I knew, closed at one.
I went back to the cheap lodging house in Hindley Street, where I had been living, had a good meal, and taking heart from my brighter circumstances, did the best I could to make myself more respectable-looking.
I brushed everything carefully, and succeeded in buying a fresh tie and collar from another inmate. Another pair of boots I could not get, but with a bradawl and some well blacked string I made the burst less conspicuous, at any rate for a time.
Then I went out into the bright sunshine, feeling quite a happy man. I turned unconsciously towards the general post office again, and standing in the same place where I had stood that morning, watched the bustling crowds on their way home from work.
The trams stop just opposite the post office, and as they came up one after another, I was idly interested in their various destinations.
Presently one came up marked 'Races,' and I remembered in a flash what my benefactor of the morning had said.
Of course, they must have been going to the races themselves, and my heart thumped as I thought that if I went there too, I should probably see them again.
I boarded the tram at once, and, purchasing a race card from one of the noisy youngsters importuning on all sides, I leaned back and gave myself up to a study of the afternoon's programme.
I knew something about horses, of course, for what Australian does not, and in happier and more prosperous days, had enjoyed many a good time at Victoria Park.
The racecourse is a beautiful one, and every yard of racing can be seen from anywhere.
I had intended, at first, to go into the cheap stand, but the girl's face was haunting me, and so, indifferent to my shabby clothes, I planked down eleven and eightpence, and was soon mingling with the gay crowd on the lawn before the grandstand.
I was late in arriving, and the second race was just over. I looked everywhere for the girl and her father, but without any success, and the numbers for the third race being hoisted, I thought I would turn my attention, temporarily, at any rate, to the business of the afternoon.
This race was a Juvenile Handicap of five furlongs, and the stake money being £300, I guessed some pretty good animals would be in the running. There were eighteen runners, and the Totalisator* began to get busy at once.
* The Totalisator is the only legal form of betting in South Australia. At all race meetings during the half-hour immediately preceding every race, money can be invested on any particular horse by the purchase of tickets of values varying from half-a-crown to five pounds.
At the conclusion of the race all the moneys so invested—subject to a certain percentage deducted for taxes and expenses—are divided between the backers of the first and second horses in the proportion of three-fourths to the backers of the first horse and one-fourth to the backers of the second. This money is officially known as the 'dividend.'
Occasionally when it has happened very little money has been invested on the winning horse, very large dividends have from time to time been declared, but in South Australia itself, I believe £184 for £1 invested at present holds the record.
All the later types of Totalisators are electrically controlled, and directly a ticket is torn off the drum, the amount invested is instantaneously recorded upon the indicator in full view of the public. The indicator is a large frame set in the front wall of the Totalisator building. Each horse running has its own particular slot in the frame, and its name is conspicuously printed over it. At the top of the frame there is a larger slot that indicates the total amount invested on all the runners.
The instant any money is invested on a horse—up go the figures under that particular horse's name, and up go the 'total amount' figures to correspond. By these means—'the way the betting is going' can be followed clearly from start to finish without any chance of secrecy or mistake.
Beacon Light was evidently going to be a hot favourite, for the figures above his name were never stationary, and with every click of the machine went up fives and tens.
Next to him in favour was Homeland, and then followed six or seven all in a bunch. Much lower down in the public estimation were some horses almost unbacked, and one I noticed was a filly with the pretty name of Rose of Dawn. Eleven pounds only so far had been invested in her direction, and her number on the card was seventeen.
The horses came out of the paddock in a pretty stream of bright colour, and paraded before us on their way down to the starting post.
As far as looks went, Beacon Light was certainly a beauty. A fine upstanding colt of magnificent proportions, every curve and every movement of his body spoke of blood. His shapely neck was arched proudly, and the beautiful satin polish of his coat told of the fine condition he was in.
But they were all a good-looking lot. Just at the end came Rose of Dawn with number seventeen on the saddle-cloth. I was charmed with her at once. Rather on the light side, she was, however, a perfect little picture of a thoroughbred. She was of a light chestnut colour, with a beautifully shaped head, and had the fine large eyes that in a horse are never absent from high courage. She cantered by very much on her toes, and seemed to me to be giving her jockey plenty to look after. I saw by the number board that the jockey, Ranson, was only an apprentice, and that, no doubt, accounted for the filly's low position in the public favour.
The horses having all gone on their way to the post, I turned back to see how the betting was going on.
It was evidently going to be a good betting race, for when I reached the lightning totalisator again, I saw that £2,800 odd had already been invested. Beacon Light was responsible for nearly a thousand, but Homeland was displaced by Clever Joe with five hundred and fifty to his credit. Rose of Dawn was still being neglected, and £38 was all that had been invested upon her.
I hesitated whether I should have a pound on her myself. Mysteriously, she reminded me of the girl in the car. Both were so dainty to look at, and both so full of the joy and movement of life. I stood hesitating, fumbling the notes in my pocket.
Then I heard a voice close behind me, and my heart thumped in my chest. I moved forward a few yards before half turning round.
Yes, there she was, and strange omen, she was wearing a big pink rose on her breast.
She was standing with two immaculately dressed men, and one I recognised as Percy Thornton, the well-known and popular owner of Beacon Light.
He was smiling confidently, and pointing to the totalisator record. Evidently he was proud of the favouritism of his colt.
How beautiful the girl looked, I thought. So animated and so interested in the busy scene before her.
I edged round the crowd, and, pulling my hat down over my eyes, took up a position quite close behind her. I wanted to hear her speak again.
"Well, you see, Miss Vane," Percy Thornton was saying, "it looks pretty healthy for Beacon Light, doesn't it? I do hope it will pan out all right, for the crowd will have a very decent win, although I am afraid the dividend will be a small one—not much more than six to four at the outside."
"Well, for their sake, Mr. Thornton," the girl replied, "I'll hope it will win; but who owns the filly with the pretty name of Rose of Dawn?"
"Oh," interrupted the other man, "I know all about Rose of Dawn, Miss Vane. She belongs to a very small man, in the racing way, at any rate—an Adelaide doctor. He only owns this one horse, and she is trained in a very unlucky stable. Rose of Dawn has run several times, but so far, has never shown any promise at all. But she's a well-bred one, I can assure you, and on her mother's side, the blood of the great Carbine runs in her veins."
"Well," replied the girl, "my father always insists that blood tells in the end, sooner or later. Her day will come some day, and who knows it may not be to-day? But come, I want to get back to the stand. I'm sure at any rate, this is going to be a pretty race," and they moved off through the crowd.
"Vane," I ejaculated to myself, "so that is her name is it? Then, of course, her father is General Sir Henry Vane."
No wonder I thought his face familiar. One of the great heroes of the Mons retreat, his fine features had looked out often from the pages of the illustrated magazines, and besides, I had seen him myself several times in France.
I hesitated no longer about Rose of Dawn, but going quickly to one of the windows, took two one-pound tickets of number seventeen. Then I climbed to the top of the grandstand, and was lucky to get a seat in the corner.
My neighbour was a friendly old man, who started off talking at once.
"My word, sir," he said, mopping his face, "it was a good pull up here, but it's worth it. What a crowd, and what a lovely day! So clear too. A few years ago and I could have picked out every colour here without the glasses, but now my poor old eyes are very bad, and these glasses even are no good to me, although, by habit, I still always carry them. Tell me," and he handed up a pair of very old-fashioned race glasses, "can you pick out green and gold over there? It's Bull Dog's colour, and I've got a wee bit on him."
I took the glasses, and was able to assure him that green and gold was well-drawn in the middle, and behaving like a sheep at the gate. Then, at his suggestion, I retained the glasses and kept him informed from time to time as to what was going on.
Rose of Dawn—lilac and black sash—I noticed with satisfaction, had quietened down, and the boy on her seemed to have her well in hand.
For a long while the starter was busy, and then a great shout went up, "They're off!"
On the whole, it was a good start, but to my distress, I saw that poor Rose of Dawn had been badly left at the post. To me, it seemed she had lost quite three or four lengths; at any rate, the lilac and black lay right back by itself, well behind all the others.
I eased my feelings with the customary short word, and put down the glasses in disgust.
"All up with the Rose," sneered a fat, red-faced man in the row just in front of me, "they ought to have called her Rose of Dusk instead of Rose of Dawn."
I could have hit the fellow. I felt myself, too, that it was all up with the filly, but in the last few minutes I had so come to associate her with the girl in the car that it was sacrilege to me for anyone to make the animal a subject of coarse wit.
"Hold hard, my friend," I said angrily tapping him roughly on the shoulder; "don't just be so ready with your opinions, for you may yet have the shock of your life."
The man looked round in open-mouthed astonishment, as he well might, at being so unceremoniously addressed by a perfect stranger, but he was too interested in the race to say anything much, and contented himself with just scowling at me before returning to his glasses.
"How's Bull Dog going?" asked the old man at my side, anxiously, after a few seconds.
I put up the glasses again to satisfy him and cool my anger down at the same time, but he had to repeat his question three times before I told him quickly that Bull Dog was not in the first three.
Something had happened of far more interest to me than the wretched Bull Dog's progress in the race.
When I had put up the glasses again I could not at first find Rose of Dawn anywhere.
There were five or six horses then behind all the others, with a goodish bit of interval between them and the next batch. The lilac and black sash was, however, nowhere among them, and I was thinking she must have been pulled up altogether, when, to my amazement, I suddenly spotted her well up with the middle bunch of horses, but right clear of them all on the outside. Her jockey, I realised, must have forced her to a tremendous spurt to have made up so much ground so quickly. I knew it was a very risky thing to do, but she was apparently now running easily with that beautiful even motion of the perfectly-trained thoroughbred.
As I watched with a thrill of exultation, I saw her gradually draw away towards the flanks of the leaders. They came round the bend into the straight, and the usual storm of shouting went up.
Homeland was just leading, but he had Beacon Light in close attendance, and I noticed the crack was running without effort. A couple of lengths behind came Clever Joe, Seaboy, and the Dame, and then close behind them, with her beautiful head just level with their flanks, came Rose of Dawn.
Her young jockey was riding her like an artist, as cool and collected as you could wish, just giving her her head and letting her choose her own pace. And the pace was terrific.
Two hundred yards from home the leading horse dropped suddenly out of the picture, but Seaboy and the Dame had closed rapidly with the favourite, with Rose of Dawn now a good fourth. Beacon Light, however, had evidently a bit in hand, for his jockey was smiling confidently, and made no attempt to use his whip.
"The favourite wins! The favourite wins! Beacon Light walks home," yelled the crowd. "No, no, it's Clever Joe," for Clever Joe had at last got his head to the favourite's neck. And all the while I saw Rose of Dawn closing in on them with a long, deadly swing, coming nearer and nearer, with the white-faced boy upon her crouching low down on her neck.
Then suddenly a woman near me shrieked, "Oh, look at the lilac one; look at the lilac and black!" And well they might look. A few seconds before, the three first horses had all been bunched close together well ahead of Rose of Dawn, but the filly had now suddenly flashed level with them, like a falling star.
The jockey on Beacon Light saw the danger at once, and struck his whip sharply. The favourite shook off Seaboy and Clever Joe without effort, but Rose of Dawn still went forward with him. Down came the whip again, but Rose of Dawn was still there.
They were now not more than ten yards from home, and beautiful colt and beautiful filly were locked by themselves in a mighty death struggle.
The blood of generations of great ancestors called to them in their veins, and neither flinched under the punishing strain. Stride for stride, head and head together, nearer and nearer they came. The excitement was intense. In a mighty roar from the crowd they passed the judge's box, and a great shout went up, "Dead heat, dead heat!" But no.
Almost to the last stride, the boy on the filly, with consummate judgment, had withheld his whip, and then, right on the winning post, he had struck her sharply on the flank, and she had responded to beat the favourite by a short head.
Up went number seventeen in the frame, and I drew a deep breath of relief. But I felt really sorry, too.
That I should be a good winner by the success of Rose of Dawn I well knew, but all thought of sordid loss or gain had, for the moment, been entirely swept away by the glory of the great struggle I had just witnessed. Nothing could have been finer, and as I say, I was almost sorry it had not been given a dead heat.
Nearly everyone left the stand and went down to see the horses come in, but I felt quite sick with excitement, and remained in my seat until I saw the dividend had gone up.
Sixty-one pounds ten shillings was the dividend declared for each pound, and with my two pounds, I was entitled to a hundred and twenty-three.
As can be imagined, the paying out windows were not very thronged with crowds waiting to draw their dividends, as when a favourite wins, but, as often happens when a long-priced-winner comes home, a little knot of curious people had gathered round to see what sort of individuals they were who were going to draw the money.
One man only was waiting to be paid when I arrived at the window, but as there was some mistake in the number of notes he had been handed, I was kept waiting a little time.
I was very excited with the thought of having won so much money, but made my face as impassive-looking as possible, and glanced idly at the people standing round.
One man in particular I noticed, perhaps because he was taking good stock of me. He looked me up and down two or three times, and my shabby hat and burst boot in particular, appeared to interest him. He himself was quite an ordinary, commonplace-looking man, dark, and with rather deep-set eyes. He was well dressed in a neat blue suit. He was standing close to a much shorter man, and they were evidently friends, because I saw him scribble something on the race card he was holding in his hand and hand it across.
During all my life I have often noticed, in moments of suppressed excitement, what absurd and trivial things are apt to impress themselves upon one's mind. Here was a case in point. I wasn't a bit interested in this man. Yet I subconsciously noticed everything about him, and as he raised his arm to replace the cigarette in his mouth, I even noticed that the right sleeve of his coat had a neat but still conspicuous patch in it just right near the end, as if it had recently been burnt.
Also, I noticed he was wearing his wrist watch on his right wrist, and that his companion had the disagreeable habit of spitting whilst he smoked.
I drew my hundred and twenty-three pounds all right, and pushing the notes well down in my breast pocket, buttoned up my coat tightly, and mingled again with the crowd.
There was no sign of the girl anywhere, and I watched the next two races without making any investment.
It was a good thing for me, too, because they were both won by animals I had never heard of and I should have had nothing to guide me in my choice. The last race of the day was a mile Welter and as no favourite had so far won a race that afternoon, I determined to give my prevailing good fortune another run and have a good stake on the best-favoured horse in the betting. Nothing ever pays better than to follow up one's luck when it is in a winning vein.
It was again a good betting race, with fourteen runners, and three horses were being almost equally favoured.
Indeed, I had to wait almost to the last moment to know which was going to be the favourite, and then I took ten five-pound tickets almost just before the 'off' was shouted.
The favourite won easily, and returned a dividend of £3 15s., bringing me the nice profit of £137 on the race.
I had won two hundred and sixty pounds on the afternoon, but as I walked off the course, with my shabby clothes and the burst in my boot looking more horrible and more conspicuous than ever, I doubted if anyone would have dreamed from my appearance that I had even a solitary pound in my possession.
I WENT back to the lodging house to get my tea, and as I sat on the bare form at the bare table, along with the other out-at-elbow chaps who were frequenting the place, I chuckled broadly to myself to think how amazed they would have been if they had only known how much money I had under my dirty coat. How their eyes would have opened in amazement if I had pulled out the notes before them. Handfuls and handfuls of fivers, and not a few tens as well. I am sure every man jack of them would have been prepared to take his dying oath that I had stolen them. If anyone there ever became suddenly possessed of money, even in the small way of a pound or two, it was always surmised at once that it had been acquired dishonestly.
We were certainly a queer lot there, and most of us were known by names never given to us by our parents in baptism.
I was Rob Turner, and I was supposed to have hailed from Brisbane. We were all very reticent about our affairs. Folks without a shilling upon them, I have found, are always quite as distrustful of one another as rich men with big balances at their banks.
But we were not a glum lot all the same, and joked and laughed together sometimes as if we hadn't a care in the world. One man in particular was always merry—old Nat Saunders, who made a scanty living by selling papers or carrying bags for folks arriving at the railway station.
He was a rare old gossip, and somehow always seemed to gather all the news of the under-world of the city. It was quite uncanny sometimes how he would regale us overnight with bits of news that would next morning appear in the newspapers.
That evening he was very excited.
Something was doing in Adelaide, he said; something was going on. He had recognised Arnold Kitson, the famous Melbourne detective, that morning coming out of the station carrying a bag and a rug, and he followed him up to the police headquarters, and from the way the man on duty at the door received him, he was quite sure the visit was not unexpected; and so on, and so on.
He wondered if it had anything to do with the Mount Gambier murders, and of course that set them all talking. The Mount Gambier mystery was then about a fortnight old. A man and his wife, on a small outlying farm, had been brutally murdered and the two assassins, after ransacking the house, had got clear away. It had been at first thought there was no chance at all of tracking them down, but a week after the murder a little girl had come forward with important information. She had been going to the house the day the poor victims were killed, but hearing dreadful shrieks as she got near the door, she had hidden in the woodstack, and subsequently had seen the two murderers ride away. She had given the best description of the men she could, and all Australia was now on their track.
But Australia is a wide place, and the track was no longer fresh; so very little hope was entertained now of catching the men. Everyone was, of course, blaming the police.
I slipped out quietly when I had finished my tea. I wanted to get away somewhere by myself and think. The money I had so fortunately acquired would give me another chance in life, and I wanted to map out my plans.
I took the train to Glenelg, meaning to walk from there along the sands the five miles to Henley. It was still pretty warm when I arrived on the sands about half-past six, and there were lots of people about. But a couple of miles away I was, as I expected, quite by myself.
It is always a lonely walk from Glenelg to Henley along the foot of the sandhills, and one generally has only the seagulls for company the middle part of the way.
I lay down between two sandhills and gave myself up to my thoughts.
Here was I, quite a failure in life at twenty-six, and I wanted to understand to myself why.
I was an only son. My mother had died many years before; indeed, I hardly remembered her. My father had been one of the leading doctors in Melbourne, and two years before the war, he had sent me to England to walk the London hospitals and in due time take my degree. When the war had broken out, I had joined up at once, but I had been badly wounded on the Somme with a fractured thigh, and had been many months in hospital. When I rejoined my regiment I had come in for some hot times, but in less than a year I had risen to the rank of captain, and, indeed, when the Armistice was signed, was on the point of going up a step higher. So I hadn't done badly there. Just after the war had ended my poor old dad died suddenly, and I had returned to Melbourne to settle up his affairs.
Unhappily for me there had not been much to settle up, and a bare two hundred pounds was all that came to me when the estate was closed. I didn't know what to do with myself. It was, of course, quite impossible for me to continue my medical studies, and for a time I couldn't settle down to anything.
I messed about Melbourne for a while, stopping at good hotels and going about, and my money soon began to dwindle down and get beautifully less and less.
Then one day I suddenly woke to the fact that I had less than a ten-pound note between myself and actual want. I pulled myself together at once, and, like every true Australian, turned to the land for succour.
I got work on a sheep station out Broken Hill way, and for about eighteen months stuck like a limpet to my job. It was lonely, hard, and monotonous, but it suited my despondent state of mind for a time.
When I finally decided that I had had enough of it, the old man was very angry at my going, and did his best to persuade me to remain, but I had persisted in my resolve, and through my stupidity had ultimately arrived at Adelaide almost penniless, as I have explained.
My meditations were interrupted by the appearance of a man coming along the sands from the direction of Glenelg. I expected he would pass by without noticing me, as he was walking about a hundred yards away close to the sea. But getting level, he noticed me at once and, to my annoyance, turned in towards me. He walked very slowly, with his right hand tucked away in the breast of his coat.
As he got near me he called out and asked me the time. Without getting up, I told him abruptly I hadn't got a watch and didn't know, but he still came on towards me very deliberately. I thought he must be deaf, and so I raised my voice loudly this time and told him again I had no watch.
I didn't want his company, and was in no mood to talk to anyone.
He had almost reached me, and indeed could not have been more than a couple of yards away, when a great shouting came up almost alongside of us, and three young fellows in bathing dresses dashed down from behind one of the adjoining sandhills and raced each other laughing to the sea.
The man just in front of me evidently was not deaf, for he stopped instantly and took his hand out of his coat with a frightened startled gesture, as if he was expecting someone to strike him from behind.
He seemed dazed for a moment, and stood hesitating, staring back at the three boys running down the sands. Then he muttered huskily something about his watch having stopped, and moved off as abruptly as he came.
But he left me thinking hard. As he had turned away I had noticed a watch on his right wrist and just above a patch on the coat sleeve.
It was the same man who had stood near me in Victoria Park when I had drawn the money over Rose of Dawn. The sinister significance of it came home to me at once. He had undoubtedly been following me all the way from the races, and but for the unexpected appearance of these three lads, had meant to do me mischief.
Now I came to think of it, the peculiar deliberate way in which he had approached me with one hand hidden in the breast of his coat, could only have meant that he was holding some kind of weapon there, and for my benefit evidently.
I wasn't a bit frightened and indeed once the flash of my recognition was over, felt rather amused.
I had been in too much hand-to-hand fighting in France to be afraid of any one man, and a rough-and-tumble scrap would have been just to my liking, provided, of course, that the affair had started on equal terms.
All this flashed through my mind before the fellow had got twenty yards away, and I jumped up to go after him. Then I thought I was a fool. It might have been only a coincidence after all, and what an ass I should look if he were only a harmless individual like myself, just after fresh air from the heat and rush of the city.
I dropped down again on the sands, meaning to forget the interruption and go on with my meditation. But somehow I couldn't shake off the idea that the fellow had meant mischief. At any rate, I wouldn't take any more risks, I thought.
I had a little revolver in my hip pocket, and I took it out. It was quite a toy affair—a little .22 Yankee one. It was no good for any accurate firing, except at point blank range, and then it was as deadly as any revolver of much larger calibre, as I had fortunately found once when dealing with a savage dog up country.
It had no value, or I should have sold it long ago. I carried it, always wrapped up in a little bit of linen, along with about a dozen of its little cartridges in a scrap of oiled paper. I loaded it in its seven chambers, and slipped it loosely into my jacket pocket.
I lay watching the boys enjoying themselves in the water for about a quarter of an hour, and then moved off again on my way towards Henley.
There was no sign anywhere of the man who had disturbed me, unless it was a little figure now hardly discernible in the distance.
It was a lovely evening, and when I was less than a couple of miles off Henley, I thought I would have another rest and watch the sunset over the sea.
I lay at the foot of the sandhills and idly drew in the peaceful beauty of the scene. It was warm and still under the dying sun, and my thoughts went irresistibly to the girl in the car. I wondered if I should ever see her again. My whole life seemed to have altered since the morning. I had found the motive of my life at last. For her sake I would work, I would strive, and I would endure.
About a dozen seagulls suddenly made their appearance upon the sands in front of me, just down by the margin of the waves. They were interested in a small object lying there, and started squabbling and fluttering about.
Although quite close, they didn't notice me, and I lay back with half shut eyes dreamily watching the quarrel. They seemed so much like human beings, fighting among themselves.
All at once they all rose up together and started flying out to sea. I wondered lazily what had disturbed them, and then suddenly I thought of my racecourse friend.
I jumped up in a flash and turned round. Only just in time. There was my gentleman not five yards from me, creeping shoeless down the sandhill with a great ragged paling in his hand.
His footfalls had made no sound on the sand, but his mouth was wide open and I could hear him panting with his exertions. I saw that his white evil face had murder on it, but I smiled grimly to myself to think what he had taken on.
Stick or no stick, I felt I was more than a match for him, and could have knocked him out easily in a hand-to-hand struggle, but I didn't know whether he was carrying an automatic, and my decision was made instantly.
I whipped out my little revolver and gave him three bullets, one after another, as quick as I could, right bang in the middle of his face. One at any rate hit him, for he lurched forward in the sand, and falling on his side, lay moaning at my feet.
I had my hand on his neck in a trice, ready to squeeze the breath out of him, if necessary. But there was no need. I had killed men in France before in many a midnight trench raid, and I knew the feeling about a man's neck when he's finished with.
I stood up and turned the body over with my foot. It was still quivering convulsively, and I saw I had made a ghastly mess of his face. Two bullets had entered his forehead almost in the same hole, and the third had ploughed a deep furrow along his cheek. The blood and sand together quite obliterated his features and made him unrecognisable.
The blade of a large bowie knife was protruding from the opening of his jacket. It looked sharp as a razor, and I thought unpleasantly of what he had intended for me.
I was not at all excited and felt no compunctions at having killed him. He had richly earned his bloody end. But I was sorry and anxious for myself.
Here was I, just on the start of a new life, just when I wanted to break away from all the old unhappy surroundings, involved in the killing of this man, and when it became known, in the horrible publicity of police court proceedings and the whole Commonwealth Press.
Besides, was it certain they would believe my version of the affair? The dead man was well dressed and I was shabby and poor-looking, but in the possession of a large sum of money, the source of which it would be difficult to explain.
Again I made up my mind quickly.
I walked casually down upon the sands. No one was in sight in either direction. The sun was down below the sea. It was rapidly getting dusk. I climbed a tall sandhill and cautiously looked round. There was no one to be seen anywhere.
I went quickly back to the body, and dragging it along by the heels made my way deep among the sandhills behind where I had been lying down. In one of the small sandy gullies there I scooped a long depression with my arms.
The light was failing rapidly, and I dared not stop to make the hole as deep as I would have wished.
Before dumping the body in, it struck me I had better search it.
Notwithstanding the possible danger attending any delay, I was intensely curious to find out something about my would-be murderer.
What manner of man he was, who went about in good clothes, wearing an expensive gold wrist watch, and yet who had all the cunning and methods of the habitual assassin.
My experiences in France had taken away all repugnance in handling the dead, and in a few seconds I had methodically gone through all his belongings.
There was a thickish wallet in the vest pocket under his waistcoat, and I promptly appropriated it for later investigation. His money and a silver cigarette case I left with him; also a hefty looking automatic that he had in his hip pocket. It would have been too dangerous, I thought, to have it about me. Fortunately for me, it was unloaded, and there were no cartridges in his pockets. I ran back and picked up his hat, which had fallen off when I shot him. Then with his own knife, which I buried with him, I made it possible for the gases to escape from his body when decomposition set in. The dry sand over his remains was so loose that it would be only too easily disturbed by putrefaction.
I looked around hurriedly for his shoes but could not find them. He had taken them off somewhere to make his approach upon me quite noiseless.
I covered the place well over with a large quantity of sand by rolling it down off the adjoining sandhill.
I obliterated as best I could the track I had made in dragging up the body, and then, assuring myself that there were no late roamers on the sands, made off confidently in the direction of Henley.
As I walked along in the darkness I went over everything carefully, to be sure I had left no clues behind me.
By hiding the body as I had I knew that if anything were discovered I had laid myself open to a charge of murder. But there was only the pocket-book, I argued, to connect me in any way with the dead man, and that I would soon get rid of when I had examined the contents.
Then, suddenly, it came upon me with a sort of shock that I had still my revolver upon me, with its three spent chambers.
I was just passing the first of the numerous wooden bathing huts that stretch in line upon the sands for nearly a mile from the Henley jetty when the fact occurred to me; but I thought at once of a safe place to hide it.
I groped my way in the darkness to behind one of the huts, and, thrusting my arm deep down in the sand alongside one of the big square supports, consigned the revolver and remaining cartridges to what, I hoped, was an eternal oblivion.
The band was in full swing when I finally reached Henley, and I sat down for awhile to rest and listen. They were playing a selection from 'Il Trovatore.' I had seen the opera when on leave in London, and when they came to that part where the monks accompany the coffin to the vault, the haunting melody of their dirge quite got on my nerves.
I thought of that wretched man out there under the sandhills, with his white, bloody face, with the holes in his forehead, and with the gashes I had made in his body, so that he might rot quiet and still.
The excitement of the day was beginning to tell on me, and so, leaving the crowds on the beach, I took the tram to return to the city.
When we reached the turn of the road at South Henley there was quite a long delay. The trolley arm must have slipped off the overhead wire I thought. At any rate, we were held up for quite three minutes, and it afforded an opportunity for a little, inquisitive, parchment-faced looking man to poke his face in every department of the car and have a good stare at all of us.
Sitting in a corner, I deliberately turned my head the other way; but he wasn't to be baulked, and came right round to the other side of the car to stare me straight in the face.
The incident rather annoyed me at the time. It could be only idle curiosity I knew, but still, when one has just killed and buried a man, it is not pleasant to be the object of anyone's attention at all.
I SLEPT badly that night, and the man who shared my room for a long time complained bitterly of the sleepless time I was giving him. The cheap bed squeaked and rattled every time I turned, and it was well towards morning before I was quiet and free from my own thoughts.
Notwithstanding my good luck at the races, I felt I had now got involved in a horrible whirlpool of misfortune.
I was furious to think that when everything was going so well I should have been dragged into this wretched business.
I had no opportunity overnight to examine the dead man's wallet. There was no privacy in the lodging house where we lived, and I was fearful of exciting the curiosity and gossip of any of the other inmates. Experience had taught me that we all watched each other like cats.
After the meal next morning that we called breakfast, I announced my intention of going for a long walk. I said I had got a bad headache, and there were at once various surmises as to the way I had managed to secure sufficient money to get drunk on.
I walked quite a long way up into the hills, and there, sitting secluded in the lonely plantation, opened the dead man's wallet.
There was not much in it, but what there was was very significant.
There were eleven five-pound bank notes, all perfectly clean and of consecutive numbers, neatly folded in a blank envelope, also six one-pound Treasury notes that had evidently been in circulation some time, for they were ordinarily dirty.
Then there was another envelope, containing, of all things, about an ounce or so of red pepper.
In the other side of the wallet, wrapped in brown paper, was a length of thin black crepe, which, being opened out, became a serviceable sort of black mask, with holes cut for the eyes, and with ribbons already sewn on for tying round the head.
Then there was a card:—
203, Hutt Street,
Lastly, there was the racing programme of the previous day.
I was on the point of throwing this latter away when I remembered I had seen him writing something on it when I was waiting at the pay window to receive my dividend. I turned over the pages curiously. Yes, there it was on the margin opposite the 3.40 race. Two words written unevenly in pencil, "Mug—Mine."
I frowned disgustedly to myself. So I had looked a mug, had I, and a soft job for a blackguard like him to rob and murder at his ease? He had seen I was shabby and in low water, and then drawing a nice wad of notes, as I was, over Rose of Dawn, he had no doubt surmised the first thing I should do would be to go and get drunk.
Then he would have robbed me in the best way he could, and evidently, his general habit was not to be too particular as to the way he did it.
The red pepper and the crepe mask he was carrying marked him indisputably as an old hand at the game, and I wondered grimly to myself what his possession of those eleven five-pound notes meant to some poor wretch whose ill-luck it had been to fall across his way.
Well, he had met his deserts, anyhow. The mug had not turned out such a soft touch as he had thought, and all he had got for his pains was a bloody hole in his forehead and a shallow grave in the sandhills by the sea.
I buried everything except the notes, and took my way slowly and thoughtfully back to the City.
I had no inclination to keep the money, and for a long time was puzzled how to get rid of it. It would have been idiotic to destroy, it, and yet as long as I had it about me I felt there was something to connect me with the dead man. It was the last link that bound me to the man I had killed.
Then it struck me as a good idea to send the money to the hospital. At any rate, it would not be wasted by sending it there, and whatsoever its source, some good cause would be benefiting in the end.
I pulled up at a little roadside refreshment place, and ordering a cool drink, sat down at a table by myself to direct the envelope.
I was desperately anxious to leave no shadow of a clue behind me, and so, before addressing the envelope to the Adelaide Hospital, I carefully printed out the two words in my own ordinary handwriting upon the margin of a piece of newspaper that I found handy. Then with my own handwriting before me as a guide, I made every letter on the envelope quite different. I printed the letters in a different shape—sloped them a different way and even made the spaces between them of a different length to my own.
Then I got the woman in the shop to oblige me with a stamp, and not until I had safely deposited the letter in a pillar box did I feel secure and free from any charge the future might bring.
I determined to wipe the whole matter out of my mind, and not let it bother me any more.
The next morning I was up early, and set out to make my outward appearance a little bit more respectable.
I had no intention of blossoming out suddenly as a smart, well-dressed young fellow until I had definitely made up my mind exactly what I was going to do.
As long as I was patronising the cheap lodging house, any sudden change in my appearance would have plunged me at once into a regular hornet's nest of inquiries as to how I had got the money, and the last thing I wanted to do was to attract attention.
I bought a good second-hand pair of boots, however, from a shop near the market, and chucked my old ones away behind some fencing in Wakefield Street.
Then, as I was passing the post office, I thought I might as well just go and collect the postcard I had written to myself on Saturday.
I went up to the counter and asked for any letters for Stratton. To my surprise, there were two men with unfamiliar faces in attendance there, and it seemed to me they took an unconscionably long time in looking through the mail. One of them at length came to me to ask for my initial, and then to my astonishment, handed me a letter, as well as the postcard in my own handwriting.
I thought at first it must be a mistake, but I saw the Pimba postmark at once, and realised, in a dazed sort of way, that it was my cousin who had written to me.
What on earth, I thought, could he have to write to me about. We had had such a furious quarrel when I last saw him that I had certainly never expected to hear from him again, and how he had happened to write to the G.P.O., Adelaide, also puzzled me.
From the postmark, the letter was only three days old, and most curious, I sat down at once to master its contents.
It was quite a nice letter, written the previous week from his sheep station beyond Pimba. He had been very ill, he said, and the doctors had told him he could never get very much better. He was lonely out there with only hired people about him, and wanted to see someone of his own blood. He was sorry we had quarrelled, and was anxious to be friends again. If this letter reached me, and I had nothing better to do, would I come up and see him? He was quite well-to-do, and would deal generously by me. If I wanted money to come up, would I send him a wire?
I walked out of the post office with my head in the air. Here was the very thing I wanted—something definite to do. I would certainly go up to my cousin, and go up to him, too, well dressed, and as a prosperous man. I wouldn't let him imagine I had come to be patronised, or wanted anything out of him.
With all the niceness of his letter, I knew he was one of those sneering men who would give you nothing if you really wanted it, but if you didn't want it, well, then, everything was yours for the asking. I knew him so well, and the cause of our quarrel in years gone by had been on account of this very meanness.
I decided I would go up to Pimba on the Thursday, and at once started to get some things together. I bought a good second-hand portmanteau, and going from shop to shop, provided myself with a complete rig-out of everything I was likely to require.
I spent all the morning making my purchases, and it was a source of great amusement to me the whole time, thinking how astonished anyone from the lodging-house would have been had they been only following me about.
When I had got all I thought I should require, I went down to the railway station and left the portmanteau in the cloak room. It would never have done to have taken it to the place I was then calling 'home.'
After dinner, I went and had a good sleep under the trees in the Botanical Gardens. Towards evening, when it was beginning to get cool, I thought I would go for a walk, and in passing, just have a look at number 203, Hutt Street, the house where my dead assailant had evidently been staying.
It was quite a small house, and looking up at the windows, I idly speculated which room had been occupied by the dead man, and what the landlady had done when he didn't come back home.
Just when I was actually passing the front door, it opened, and two men stepped out into the porch. It gave me something of a shock to recognise one of them as the parchment-faced little man who had stared at me so inquisitively in the tram car at Henley Beach on the Saturday night.
I recognised him a fraction of a second before he saw me, and I flattered myself there was no look of interest or recognition on my face as I slowly lounged past the door.
I could see he remembered me, however, for his eyebrows seemed to come together with a click, but he only glanced casually over me, and went on talking to his companion in the porch.
I went slowly up the street, looking idly from side to side, but with my heart thumping much quicker than I could have wished.
It was rotten luck to knock up against the man like this, for instinctively now, I associated him in some way or other with the blackguard I had killed.
What was the line between them? I asked myself. Surely it was more than a coincidence, I argued, that he should have been looking round Henley on the Saturday, obviously, now, I could see, with some definite purpose in his mind, and then, within a few hours almost, be found coming out of the very rooms of the man whose body had lain so near him at the exact time he was examining the occupants of the tram car.
Suddenly it struck me he must have been looking for the very man I had killed, and that if I hadn't killed him he would have found him going back in the car. And if anyone was looking for a criminal like that, who would be wanting him but the police? I got hot all over.
Of course, it was all clear to me at once. The little man was a detective, and I cursed the foolish curiosity that had brought me, for the second time, under his notice.
Naturally, seeing me at Henley and then meeting me by the dead man's rooms, he would put two and two together and divine instantly there was some connection between us.
Now, I knew I should be followed and watched, and the slightest false step on my part would land me in the police court with some awkward questions to answer.
There was one good thing, however, I consoled myself. I was prepared now, and should not be taken by surprise, whatever happened. If anyone tapped me on the shoulder and told me to 'come along,' I would be ready for them, and give nothing away in surprise.
Besides, I argued, what could they ever have against me? The body was safely hidden, and unlikely, in those lonely sandhills, to be disturbed again for years and years, until, indeed, in the far future, they might start building there.
Besides again, if they did find the body, what was it to do with me? They might suspect anything, but where was the proof?
All this flashed through my mind as I slowly walked back to the city. I took it for granted I was being followed, and time after time I resisted the temptation to look round. I knew it would only precipitate matters if I tried to throw them off the scent, so I just dawdled back home and arrived at the lodging-house about eight o'clock, in a tired and rather exhausted condition.
The realisation that the parchment-faced little man was a detective had indeed been a bit of a shock for me, but I found soon, there was a worse shock to come.
I had had my supper, and was trying to read the evening paper when old Nat Saunders came in. He was full of news as usual.
They had been trapping motors in King William Street, he said, and there would be a fine crop of drivers up before the magistrates next morning. A woman had been knocked down in Victoria Square, and it was believed that both her legs were broken. Then came a piece of news that landed me in a muck sweat, and froze my tongue to the roof of my mouth. A man had committed suicide, he said, on the sandhills near Glenelg. Two little boys and a dog had come across a good pair of shoes that afternoon on the beach, and the dog had sniffed so much at the sand close by that the boys had scraped it away and come across a man's leg. He was supposed to have shot himself, and then the wind had covered him over with drifting sand. The body had been brought to the city in a covered cart.
I heard no more. A fearful drumming came into my ears, and I could feel my forehead grow cold with sweat.
So the blow had fallen. The apparently impossible had happened, and all my elaborate precautions made useless, by two wretched boys and a mongrel cur.
Well, I should be arrested for sure now, and the sooner the better, to get the wretched business over. But then I thought, how could they bring anything home to me? What was there, even now, to connect me with the dead man? Under suspicion I might be, but search as they might, surely they could never prove that it was I who had killed him.
I grew calmer at once, and went over everything carefully in my mind.
No; I had destroyed every clue behind me, and if only I kept my head and denied everything, there was no charge they could possibly prove against me.
I went off to bed almost easy in my mind, and, strange to say, had a particularly good night's rest.
The next day was Tuesday, and keeping to my resolve, I went about just as ordinary, as if I were perfectly free from care.
I went to the newspaper offices and scanned the advertisements; I walked up and down King William Street; I lounged in the park lands in the afternoon; took a trip by the tram-car to Henley, and sat for a couple of hours having a smoke on the jetty.
And all the time I felt, rather than saw, that I was being followed.
It was not that anyone hustled me, or got in my way, or that I noticed the same people about me at different times of the day.
I seemed quite free and unattended, and nobody stared at me wherever I went. Yet somehow or other, I never found myself quite alone at any time all day, and I could have sworn coming back in the car from Henley, that at least four of the other passengers were connected with the police. They didn't appear to take any notice of each other, but they were all strong, beefy-looking fellows, and all wore big, stout boots.
I fully expected to find trouble brewing when I got back home, but except that I imagined the lodging-house proprietor allowed his glance to stray towards me rather more often than usual, nothing at all happened, and I went to bed as usual just before ten.
Next morning I was out early after breakfast, and I blessed my stars it was to be my last day in Adelaide. The train beyond Pimba only went on Mondays and Thursdays, or I think I should have cleared out of the city straight away.
There was nothing in the newspapers about any body being found at Glenelg, and I was almost beginning to treat all my fears as imaginary.
But I held myself ready for anything, and was prepared any moment to be held up in the street.
It was a good thing I did so, for the end came very much as I had prepared myself to think it would.
I was looking idly in a shop window in the Arcade off Rundle Street when two men suddenly closed up to me, one on either side, and a stern voice came sharply from behind.
"Stand still; don't move, keep your hands down and out of your pockets. We're police officers, and the Chief wants a word with you."
At the same time, hands were deftly and unobtrusively passed up and down over my body.
"All right, no weapon. Now, are you coming quietly?"
I turned round quite slowly and looked the speaker squarely in the face.
"What the devil do the police want me for?" I asked brusquely.
"You come along and you'll see. Now, are you going to make a fuss?"
I looked round at my captors. There were four of them, and they all looked so eager and ready for me to give them the chance of a scuffle that the situation, perhaps from sheer nervousness on my part, struck me as having quite a humorous side.
I relaxed my face into a smile and replied quite pleasantly.
"Of course I'll come without a fuss. I've nothing better to do, worse luck."
And off we started for the Police Headquarters. Outwardly, I was proud to think I appeared calm and self-possessed, but inwardly, I was in a seething turmoil of suspense, and manfully trying to pull myself together for the dangers and pitfalls of the coming ordeal.
IT was only a few hundred yards to the Police Headquarters in Victoria Square, and in my numbed state of mind the journey seemed very short. But it gave me time to pull myself together, and when I was finally ushered into the presence of the Chief I had myself perfectly under control, and was able to look at him with eyes set in a face of stone.
I knew the Chief well by reputation. He was quite a young man, not more than thirty-five, and one of those who had made good in the Great War. He had been one of the heroes of Bullecourt, and had been twice promoted for gallantry on the field. When the Armistice was signed he was holding the rank of brigadier. He had only held his position in Adelaide for about six months, but had already proved himself a shrewd and capable officer.
He had a few detractors, and all they could say against him was that, if anything, he was a little bit too theatrical and rather too sensitive to public opinion.
Now, as I stood straight before him, with a detective on either side, I thought what a fine soldierly-looking man he was, with his strong face and shrewd grey eyes.
He was sitting down with a table between us, and he eyed me up and down very sternly.
A little behind him, and on his left-hand side, sat my parchment-faced little friend of Hutt Street and the Henley Beach car. He was screwing up his face and watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse.
"No gun?" at length asked the Chief, without taking his eyes off my face. One of my captors shook his head; and there was again a long silence.
Then the Chief rapped out his first question, and, ready and prepared as I was, I had the greatest difficulty in preventing a start.
"John Stratton," he said quickly, "why did you shoot Tod McSwiney? Why did you kill the Mount Gambier murderer?"
I was too dumbfounded to make any reply. So, in spite of all my fancied security, they knew my name, and, more astonishing still, the man I killed was one of the Mount Gambier murderers. I stood rigid in real surprise and just stared fixedly at my interrogator.
"Well taken, sir," he sneered, after a few seconds; "but another time don't clench your hands so tightly. It rather gives the show away." Then, leaning forward, "I ask you again, sir, why did you murder McSwiney?"
I found my tongue at last, and answered him slowly and as insolently as I could.
"For the same reason that you murdered Queen Ann—because I didn't do it."
"Look here, my friend," he said menacingly, "realise at once that it will pay you best to admit the truth. We know all about you—everything.''
"Oh you do, do you?" I replied, now sneering in return. "Then why is it you want to question me at all?"
He glared angrily at me, but at once lowered his voice.
"Stratton, if you think you can bluff here you make a great mistake. Let me tell you straight, you've been a marked man in Adelaide for much longer than you dream of. We have had an eye on you, my lad, for a long while, and your doings are an open book to us."
I shrugged my shoulders contemptuously, and he went on rapidly.
"We have traced all your movements from the first day you arrived in Adelaide down to these few minutes ago, when you entered this room. Listen!" and he lifted a sheaf of papers from his desk. "On October 12th you arrived here in the city. You put up at Fenney's lodging-house, and have lived there ever since. On the 14th you got employment at Hanson's wood works. Three weeks later you were discharged from there for insolence to one of the foremen. Then you worked for a fortnight with Levy, the carrier; then for three days at Bulow's. After that, up to Friday last, you only did occasional work and odd jobs." (Impressively) "Last Friday you had only one meal; you were down so low as that. Last Saturday you went with Tod McSwiney to Glenelg. You quarrelled on the beach and you shot him. You then buried him ineffectually on the sands. Returning to the city, you were in funds again.
"On Monday you collected a mail from the General Post Office, and at once started making preparations to quit. You bought a second-hand portmanteau in Hindley Street, two suits of clothes from James in Rundle Street, socks, shirts, ties, and underclothes from Applin & Thomas in King William Street, three pairs of boots at the True Leather Company, and so on all the morning. Stratton," he continued, and his voice became slow and deliberate. "On Saturday you hadn't, so to speak, a penny to your name, and on Monday," shaking his finger slowly in my face, "you spent over £43 before 12 o'clock. Now" (triumphantly) "do you still deny you didn't murder McSwiney?"
I could have laughed in his face in my relief. This long-winded account of my unimportant movements and the dwelling on the minute details of the garments I had purchased showed up unmistakedly the poorness of the evidence they could produce against me. There were gaps and hesitations in his narrative, and of what happened between the Friday and the Monday they were entirely ignorant and could only guess. But they had evidently been following me from the time I went for my letters, and I could see now how they had got hold of my name.
My spirits rose at once, and shrugging my shoulders I said indifferently:—
"Most certainly I do deny it. I have never murdered anyone in my life, and as for the late Mr. Tod McSwiney, I hadn't even the pleasure of his acquaintanceship."
The Chief glared at me angrily.
"You went with McSwiney to Glenelg," he insisted.
"Lie number one," I replied; "I did not. I never even knew him and as far as I know of, have never spoken to him in my life."
"You murdered him on the sands," he re-iterated.
"Lie number two," I said calmly. "Again I did not." The Chief brought his hand down with a thump on the table.
"You see Inspector Kitson here," pointing to the little man beside him. "Now do you deny having seen him before? On the tram car at Henley last Saturday, and on Monday morning in Hutt Street. Do you deny that?"
"No, I don't that," I said coolly, "I noticed him both times;" and then, remembering old Nat Saunders' yarn, I added significantly, "and also on Friday when he got off the Melbourne express, carrying a bag and with his rug on his arm, and came straight up here."
The Chief's face clouded with annoyance, and I thought also that the little man too looked a bit non-plussed.
"So ho," sneered the Chief, "then you know the inspector, do you? That's quite interesting; and pray how do you come to know him?"
"Well," I rejoined, "I lived for over twenty years in Melbourne, and," bowing to the little man, "who doesn't know the great Inspector Kitson there!"
The Chief made a motion to the two men behind me. "Turn out his pockets," he said curtly. "Search him well, every rag he's got on him."
In half a minute my pockets were empty, and all my possessions, including my packet of banknotes, neatly tied up in brown paper, were piled in a little heap on the table.
"Let me see his hip pocket," ordered Inspector Kitson, breaking silence for the first time. "Turn him round and pull out the lining."
"Yes, exactly," he continued, bending down and examining the turned-out pocket. "Plenty of grease marks here, and from the bulge of the lining it's quite recently carried a little pistol. Certainly a .22. This is our man right enough." And he resumed his seat as if he were quite satisfied and that nothing further would have to be done.
But the Chief was busy examining my belongings. There was not much however to interest him at first. My clasp knife he just opened and held up to the light. My tobacco pouch, he passed his fingers through carefully, and my postcard to myself (which I had foolishly retained for the memory of the girl), and my cousin's letter from Pimba caused him to screw his eyebrows together a little.
But he found nothing incriminating in all these, and it was not until he came to the brown paper packet of banknotes that there was any triumph at all in his face.
Directly he took the packet in his hand I saw at once that he thought he had at last nosed something, and when he had slipped off the covering and more than £200 in good Commonwealth currency had become exposed to view, a pleased and happy smile broke over his face.
He held out the notes significantly, for Inspector Kitson to see, and the dried-up features of the little man relaxed, and he looked as happy as a little child.
"Whew," whistled the Chief in genuine astonishment. "Ten, twenty, thirty, forty! More than two hundred here. By Jove! a regular Rothschild our friend, and yet actually living at Finney's lodging-house and going about in shabby old clothes. Now let us look at the numbers of some of these precious notes."
The two men with their heads bent close together over the table examined the numbers of my notes, one by one; at first with brisk expectant faces, then with rather puzzled looks, and finally with undisguised disappointment in both their expressions.
But the Chief was not beaten yet, by any means. "Now, Stratton," he said brusquely, "you've got a lot to explain. Where did you get this money from—there's £225 here?"
My spirits had risen higher still at their obvious discomfiture, and with every minute now I was beginning to feel that it was I who held the best cards.
"Oh," I replied, smilingly, "I won it at the races on Saturday; I backed Rose of Dawn."
"You won it at the races," he said incredulously; "and from where, pray, did you get any money to go to the races with? Remember, you hadn't a shilling on Saturday morning."
"Quite true, but I had ten pounds given me."
"Whom by?" he sneered; "some unknown benefactor, I expect, who gave it you for the sake of your beautiful eyes."
"No!" I replied quietly, "the ten pounds were given me by Sir Henry Vane."
"Sir Henry Vane," he snapped, "what did he give you ten pounds for?"
"For picking up his pocket-book in King William Street, outside the G.P.O."
"When was this?" he asked sharply.
"On Saturday morning, just before one."
"And you went to Victoria Park and backed Rose of Dawn?"
"Yes, and after that Rattler's Pride."
"Well, tell us how much you had on Rose of Dawn; quickly now, and we'll soon see if your tale holds water. Don't stop to invent, but just give me the figures."
"I had £2 on Rose of Dawn," I said calmly, "and that brought me £123. Then, in the last race, I had £50 on Rattler's Pride and got back £137, making £260 in all."
"Do you really expect us to believe all this?" said the Chief after a short silence, and knitting his brows.
"I don't care whether you believe it or not," I replied, "but it's quite true all the same. Besides, you can easily prove that I had £50 on Rattler's Pride. I took ten five-pound tickets just before the window went down. I was the last one to take any tickets, and the operator remarked that he wished me good luck for my courage."
"What dividend do you say Rattler's Pride returned?" remarked the Chief musingly after a short silence.
"It returned £3 15s.," I replied. "I won £260 altogether, making, with the General's ten-pound note, £270 that I received on Saturday. According to you—and thank you for keeping my accounts so nicely, I spent £43 on Monday. That and the £225 on the table nearly makes up the full £270. The rest has gone in expenses. Now you know everything."
"Where did you change the first ten-pound note?" broke in Inspector Kitson quietly.
"At the G.P.O.," I told him. "I looked too shabby to change it anywhere else. So I bought a postcard and for a joke wrote it to myself."
"That's it in my own handwriting there before you."
The Chief seemed to remember something and handed me a pencil.
"Just write your name please on this piece of paper, and now write the two words 'Adelaide Hospital.' No, print the letters this time and do them quickly in your ordinary way."
Now I blessed my foresight in the care I had taken in the disguising of my envelope to the Adelaide Hospital. It was standing me in good stead now. I printed the letters as quickly as anyone could wish.
The Chief took an envelope out of the drawer and carefully compared the two handwritings, with the Melbourne detective looking over his shoulder.
I could see they were puzzled. They whispered for some time together.
"I shall detain you," at length said the Chief in no good humour. "Take him away;" and I was led from the room.
I was kept waiting for more than four hours, locked away in a little room by myself, and all the time I could see I was an object of considerable curiosity to the various policemen and others at headquarters.
Various uniformed and un-uniformed men kept coming in on one matter or another, during the whole morning, and they all gave me a long and interested stare. I thought naturally they would be interested in the personality of a probable murderer, and was rather amused than otherwise at their persistent scrutiny.
Towards noon a fat, jolly-looking policeman brought me in a nice plate of hot roast beef and a couple of minutes after, to my greater astonishment, a long glass of cool beer.
"I thought that would suit you," he said, and he winked knowingly at the beer. "It's the right stuff, that I can tell you. And the beef too's all right—just the same as the Chief has. Oh, I'm looking after you," and off he hopped out of the room.
I smelt a rat at once. They were going to try and bribe me now, and the plate of beef and the beer would, of course, be only a beginning. The policeman came back in a few minutes, and seeing I had finished, asked interestedly how I had enjoyed my meal.
"Oh," I said distantly, "quite all right thank you," and I relapsed into silence, hoping he would go away.
But he had evidently a mission to perform, and fidgetted about, apparently not knowing exactly how to begin to set about it.
Finally he sidled up close to me, and putting a fat finger mysteriously on his lips, whispered hoarsely.
"Do you happen to know anything good for Gawler on Saturday?"
So much for my foolish suspicions. They were not interested in me because I was a possible destroyer of another man's life, but simply because I had backed a good winner at the races.
I smilingly told my fat friend that I didn't know anything in particular for Gawler, but I advised him all the same to follow the local trainers, as they generally managed to weigh in there with something good.
About three o'clock, I was taken into the Chief again and I saw at once that something had happened. The whole atmosphere of the room seemed different.
The Chief himself no longer regarded me with hard stern eyes, but instead, met me with quite a pleasant smile, and even the dour-looking Inspector Kitson seemed to have a more agreeable expression on his face.
The Chief dismissed my attendant with a nod and then bade me politely, to sit down. "Pick up your belongings, Mr. Stratton," he said, pointing to my little heap of valuables on the table. "Yes, the notes as well, but later on," he continued smiling, "if I were you I should buy a nice pocket-book. Brown paper is hardly a suitable covering for riches such as yours."
"Now, Mr. Stratton," he went on, and his voice took on a brisk and business-like tone, "we are not going to detain you; you are going out of this room in a few minutes, a perfectly free man. No," he added, as he saw me smile, "please don't think you hold all the trumps in your hand. There are suspicions about you—very grave suspicions, and I should be quite justified, whatever might afterwards eventuate, in bringing you before the Court to-morrow and asking for a remand until such time as we could make further inquiries. Some parts of the story you gave us this morning are undoubtedly perfectly true, as our inquiries have shown us. But your story is an incomplete one, and there are the damning parallels of Henley Beach and Hutt Street still against you." Impressively, and bending towards me, "Was it only a coincidence that you were on Henley Beach the very hour the man was shot on Saturday night, and at the rooms where the dead man had lived on Monday morning? Mr. Stratton, I am convinced Tod McSwiney was killed by a soldier and buried by a soldier. The way his clothes had been rifled, the way the body had been tucked in its shallow grave, the gashes in its abdomen—all point to the actions of a man who has seen active service and done these things before. Then again—whoever killed McSwiney was a cool and self-possessed man. He had bided his time and put all his bullets close together. Moreover, he was not a poor man in need of money, for he left the gold wrist watch and the cigarette case behind him, as well as the loose change. Now, Mr. Stratton, you answer to all these descriptions. You are a soldier, you are a self-possessed man, as witness your replies here this morning, and, moreover, you are not in any need of money. Now, will you still say we have no case against you?"
He paused for me to say something, but I only looked at him and remained silent.
"Mind you," he continued, after a moment. "The man who killed McSwiney committed a grave error of judgment in trying to hide the body. McSwiney's record was so black, that if anyone had come forward with a decent character, such as yours for instance—and I am bound to say as far as we can trace your character, it is quite above reproach—if anyone such as you, had come forward with any sort of story, however plausible, he would have been believed. Not only that, but he would almost have been publicly thanked for ridding the world of such a monster. But, as I say, we are not going to harp on that any more. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to make any further efforts to bring home the business to you, and, therefore, unless our hands are forced by some outside evidence we really can't overlook—you have heard the last of it from us."
"Now, in return for this consideration of ours—and remember, Mr. Stratton, it is a consideration—we want you to help us."
"Help you?" I asked, still on my guard; "how can I help you?"
"Now listen to me, and please follow what I say very carefully. You, of course, know about the Mount Gambier murders. Three weeks ago last Thursday a farmer and his wife were brutally done to death by two men. Tod McSwiney was one of them, that we know for certain. Tod has lived by crime for years, but a clever, capable brute, we have never been able to bring his crimes home to him."
"The Melbourne garrotting case last year we knew was his. The wiping out of a whole family near Pinaru was another crime he was responsible for. The Tarcoola strangling case, where the victim was first blinded with red pepper and then despatched with his own scarf, was another masterpiece of the same man. Tod was a devil—a heartless, brutal scoundrel in all his crimes. Well, of late Master Tod has not been working alone. He has drifted across another man, of an even more horrible brutality than his own. A man who, apart from what it brought him, loved crime for its own sake, and who would go out of his way to inflict unnecessary suffering on his victims. We believe it was this man who, after murdering a woman in Kalgoorlie in 1914, threw her three months baby into a copper of boiling water. We suspect him of a series of undiscovered crimes in 1915, 1916, and 1917, but the unhappy part of it is we have never been able to get even a good description of the man or find out who he is. He has passed like a sombre shadow across the Commonwealth, unrecorded and unknown, but leaving always behind him his trail of black and dreadful crime.
"Well, we are certain he was the companion of McSwiney in the Mount Gambier case, and we should have had them both for sure this time, for they had made their one mistake. Not only were they seen by that little frightened girl in the wood stack, and their description afterwards given, but what is so far only known to my friend here and me, they left behind them a spirit flask with two distinct sets of bloody finger marks on the side.
"Well, Tod and this other beauty came to Adelaide last week, and, as was their invariable rule, they separated at once upon arriving at a city.
"But they were traced by my friend here, and Tod was marked down going to Glenelg on Saturday. Unhappily, word reached us too late to catch him stepping off the train at Glenelg, but we arranged for all possible ways of his coming home, and then—then, Mr. Stratton, he disappeared utterly from our ken."
The Chief paused in his recital and, shrugging his shoulders, leant back despondently in his chair.
I confess I was moved by what he was telling me. With a strong dramatic instinct, he was a born artist in telling a story, and the earnestness and sincerity of the man stood out in every word he had spoken.
I felt instinctively somehow I could trust him, and something of my changed attitude of mind must have been reflected in my face, for when he broke silence again he spoke to me as one friend speaking to another.
"Now, Mr. Stratton, this is where you come in. McSwiney is dead, and in some ways we are sorry. McSwiney alive was the connecting link with the other man, and with him once in custody we might have got at his companion that way. But McSwiney dead, and his companion stalks safely through the city as a law-abiding, harmless man. If we only had someone to suspect, the finger prints would clinch the matter at once, and we might too be able to bring it home to him in other ways.
"The man is sure to be remaining in Adelaide, for he is in the dark now about McSwiney. Nothing has got in the papers yet about what happened on the beach last Saturday, and blackguard number two will be chary of making any fresh move in case he puts his foot in it. But we are quite at a standstill too, and can do nothing. We are helpless, as you see.
"Now, Mr. Stratton, for your part in this. You went to Victoria Park and made a nice sum of money. Suppose, for the sake of argument, McSwiney saw you draw this money, and suppose he followed you and tried to rob you, and you killed him in self-defence.
"Just suppose that. Now, if he saw you, there is a chance that you saw him, and if you saw him you might also by chance have noticed he was with a companion. Perhaps then, you might remember what the companion was like. Mind you, you are not committing yourself, for on my honour you go free when we have finished this conversation, whatever you decide."
I hesitated, and looked thoughtfully from the Chief to his companion. I knew I should be taking on something if I once admitted I had even seen McSwiney. It was breaking down all my defence and leaving me practically at the mercy of these two men. Then I thought of all the Chief had told me, and a great wave of anger swept through me, at the idea that this other wretch should go free. I would help them if I could, and chance the risk. But did I remember the man? I shut my eyes and tried to visualise the scene at the pay-window at Victoria Park.
McSwiney, I could remember well, but the other man was not so clear at first. Then I remembered him as spitting while he smoked, and his face and clothes came up at once to my mind. A medium-sized, common-looking man in blue clothes. Nothing particular about him but dark eyes and a rather flat broad nose. I could remember nothing more.
I opened my eyes and smiled at the anxious way I was being regarded by the Chief and his companion.
"Did the little girl in the woodstack," I asked, breaking into the silence at last, "give any sort of description of this second man?"
"Yes," said the Chief, "but not a very good one."
"Would she know him again?"
"Yes, she said she would."
"Well, did she say he was a dark man, or medium-sized, or had a thick-set nose?"
"That's all right," cried the Chief exultingly; "you know him. She described him as dark and ugly and not big. I thought the course we decided to take with you was the best one. Now, can you help us on any more?"
"No," I replied, "I don't think I can. I told you the exact truth this morning. I never knew the man at all."
"If we had searched him, Mr. Stratton, do you think," asked the Inspector, breaking in quietly, "we should have found anything more to help us—on the body?"
"No," I said, shaking my head; "nothing more than you already know."
"His pocket-book, for instance," gently suggested the Chief with an insinuating smile, "he must have had a pocket-book surely?"
"A crepe mask, a packet of red pepper, the landlady's card of his apartments, and the rest—you have already," I replied calmly.
The Chief and the Inspector exchanged meaning glances. "Yes, those notes," said the former, turning to me again, "were a part of the money taken at Mount Gambier. The poor man who was killed had sold some beasts only the previous day, and had been paid direct in new notes from the bank. No doubt our friend found the racecourse the most safe way of gradually disposing of them. Well, Mr. Stratton, the chances of catching the gentleman are not particularly rosy, but still it's more than possible that our good luck may be in.
"As I said before, Tod's friend does not know what's become of Tod, but he must be getting now mighty anxious to know. I am convinced he won't make any inquiries at Tod's rooms, because, in towns and cities these two men, although undoubtedly working together, always kept themselves severely apart so far as their sleeping places were concerned. What this man will do will be to look out for Tod at the places he would be most likely to knock up against him. Hotel bars, for example, and possibly the races at Gawler on Saturday. Don't you agree, Inspector Kitson?"
The little man made a sign of assent, and then asked me, "Have you seen the man several times?"
"No, only once."
"And then not for long, I suppose?"
"No. Barely a couple of minutes I should think, at Victoria Park."
"Well," said the Chief after a moment's hesitation, "I think we know now all that there is to be got out of you, Mr. Stratton, and this is what I propose you should do.
"I'll send down to the station for your bag, and you can just get into one of these nice new suits you have bought. Then we'll alter your appearance a little bit and turn you loose in the city. You know Adelaide probably as well as I do, and I'll leave it to your own discrimination where to go. But I would suggest that in particular you pay attention to the medium class of hotel bars; that's where our friend is most likely to turn up. Now, you will never be alone. You will be shadowed wherever you go, by some of my best men. Mind you, you will never see them and you will never know that they are standing by, but——" and here his voice took on an impressive tone of warning, "if you should ever by chance spot our man, be careful—be very careful not to arouse his suspicions. He is of the type of man that stops at nothing, and of the type too that is seldom taken alive. If you should meet him, fumble with your coat collar at the back. That shall be your signal and wherever you are and at whatever time, you shall find ample help about you. Now, this is all for the present. I feel sure you'll do your best for us."
He dismissed me with a pleasant smile, and accompanied by the great Melbourne detective, I left the room to get ready for my new role.
THE next two days were among the most worrying that I ever remember. I had entered heart and soul into the discovery of McSwiney's companion, and when the first day had drawn entirely blank, and that night I crept footsore and utterly tired out into my comfortable bed at the Central Hotel, I don't think there could have been a more despondent man in all Adelaide.
The Chief and old Inspector Kitson looked pretty down in the mouth too. As we had arranged, they came late to my bedroom at night, and I recounted to them all I had done during the day. I had been on my feet before eight in the morning. I had tramped up and down all the streets of the City. I had visited, in turn, almost every bar in the square mile, and my inside was thoroughly upset and discomforted with the innumerable soft drinks I had had to absorb in my pilgrimage.
But no sign of our man had I seen; nothing in any way answering to the picture of him I had conjured up, and it was rather beginning to grip upon me that I should not perhaps recognise him if indeed, we both came face to face.
One adventure, however, I had had. Nat Saunders had recognised me, and I had had to stop and have a chat. His eyes had bulged at my new clothes and altered appearance, but I had explained things to him with a yarn about a rich cousin who had unexpectedly run up against me and acted the fairy prince. I told him we were now stopping at Glenelg, and I had flourished a little wad of notes in his face to impress him with the truth of my tale. I had also given him a ten-shilling note for himself, and promised him another in a day or two if he held his tongue about me in the lodging-house.
I said my cousin was a very proud man, and well in with some of the richest toffs in Adelaide, and if he found out that it was getting about amongst his pals that I had lived at the lodging-house, he might just turn me down as quickly as he had picked me up.
Old Nat had taken several strong oaths that he would not breathe a word to anyone, and would not mention anything to the other lodgers.
Then he had told me the passing news of the City, but it had not interested me, except in one item. The old gossip was positive the "'tecs were after some bird in the City." The plainclothes men were all over the place, he had said, and they had even got them in the ticket offices and behind the book-stall at North Road Station.
All this information I somewhat maliciously passed on to the Chief as he sat that night on the edge of my bed drinking a late whisky and soda but he only shrugged his shoulders and said, sarcastically, it was unfortunately quite impossible for all his men to change their faces.
"I understand," he added, "that your friend, Nat, has been gaoled so often as a 'drunk,' that he now calls every man jack of the City police by their christian names."
Then he gave me a piece of information that, in turn, made me sit up.
"Our chap's in the City right enough," he said, "and I should think not over flush with money. He passed one of the stolen fivers at Bewlay's the tobacconist, on Monday, but unhappily, they can't describe the man. Now, I argue he wouldn't take that risk, although a comparatively small one, if he were well in funds. Undoubtedly, he'll be looking about now to replenish his purse, and if we don't get him in a day or two, we shall probably hear of him in a way we don't like. Don't you think so, Inspector?"
"He's a man of great resource," cautiously admitted the Inspector, "and I don't think he'll let the grass grow under his feet. When he gets the slightest inkling that all's not well with McSwiney, you'll see, he'll trail off from here like a puff of smoke. I've had some before."
"Oh, but, Inspector," bantered the Chief smiling, "Adelaide's not Melbourne. Here in Adelaide, in this beautiful dry atmosphere of ours, we never get the fog into our brains. If this much-wanted gentleman trails off from South Australia, it will only be in a nice, tight-fitting pair of handcuffs, in the interstate express, with his dear friend, Arnold Kitson, sitting by his side. But come, it's always well to be cheerful, and we're not going to confess ourselves beaten yet. We'll see what to-morrow brings. Good night, Mr. Stratton, sample plenty more soft drinks to-morrow again," and off the two men went, leaving me to my dreams.
The next day seemed likely to be as unfortunate as the first. All the morning I was tramping over the same streets and spending fourpences and sixpences galore on a nauseating variety of fizzy drinks.
It was one of Adelaide's really hot days, and the temperature was dancing merrily up to about 105 deg. in the shade. Towards noon, I was just longing for a good rest, but in spite of the heat I stuck grimly to my task, for, as the Chief had impressed upon me, about mid-day would probably be the very time when our bird would come off his nest for a nice cool drink.
But no. Lunch time came and went, and the afternoon began to wane, finding me tired and disspirited at lack of success.
Just after four, however, something happened that for the time, at least, made me forget all my anxieties.
I met the girl face to face. It was in King William Street, near the Bank of Adelaide, and she was walking with another girl, some few years older than herself.
She saw me at once, and looked at me in a half-puzzled sort of way, but with quite a frank, interested expression upon her pretty face. I returned her glance with interest, and she reddened just a little, and turned away her eyes. It was only for the seconds in passing that our eyes had met, but I was in the seventh heaven to think she had noticed me at all.
Almost directly we had passed, I looked round and saw them both going into a cafe.
My mind was made up at once, and turning quickly back, I followed them inside. The interior of the cafe was deliciously dark and cool, and fairly crowded with people.
I saw the two girls just sitting down at the far end of the room, and I made my way round to get as near as possible to them without being seen.
As luck would have it, there was a vacant table just behind them, and I promptly seated myself there, effectually screened from observation by the leaves of a large palm exactly in front of me.
By cautiously leaning round, however, I could get a good view sideways of Miss Vane, and what a charming profile I thought she had!
Now that I could observe her carefully, I saw she was even younger than I had thought. Barely out of her teens she appeared to me, only just in the first bloom of womanhood. The gentle outlines of her face, and the soft, round curves of her body, suggested to me the very early morning of a woman's life. There was something so dainty and so virginal about her whole appearance that it seemed to me a sacrilege she should be ever destined to be touched and goaded by the rough hand of passion. And yet, as I watched her, I could see the loving woman there, and once awakened, I was sure she would warmly glow and answer to the caresses of the man she loved.
All my boldness, however, seemed to have dropped away from me, and I felt ashamed that I had followed her in. It was not a nice thing to do, I told myself, and worse still, when they commenced to talk, I found I could plainly hear everything they said.
They had ordered ices, and for a while both were busy; then the other girl spoke.
"You are very quiet, Mary, what's the matter with you? Has anyone been walking over your grave?"
"Oh, no," laughed Miss Vane. "I was thinking of something not at all unpleasant, only rather curious."
"Well, come on, let's hear what it is."
"It's nothing particular, dear, but I was just thinking how strange life is."
"Nonsense; it's not all strange. If we only knew, almost the same things happen to every one of us. What is it strange that has happened to you?"
"Only coincidences, but they set me wondering. I'll tell you about it. You remember last week we went to Lady Buzby's, and they had that fortune-teller there. Well, she told everyone the usual jargon, but with me, she just let herself go, probably, because I think Percy Thornton had put her up to it. She said I was heart-whole at present, which was quite true, but soon, very soon, some one was coming into my life who would quickly alter all that. Now, you know, Mr. Thornton has been up to our house a great deal lately, and I should be very dull if I didn't see he was coming after me. The dear old dad is always chaffing me about it, and would, I think, be quite pleased to see a match.
"I like Percy Thornton well enough, but I'm sure I could never marry him. I couldn't ever dream of myself as putting my arms round his neck or letting him kiss me as long as he wanted to, without turning my face away."
"Oh, Mary, you sound like a young woman of experience. I shall be getting shocked."
"No, dear, you needn't begin to get shocked. I've never had a sweetheart myself, yet, but I've stayed in plenty of houses where courting was going on, and so know exactly how ordinary lovers behave. Well, I tell you honestly, I have never been interested in boys until last week, and then, for a few minutes, I saw a boy that I thought any girl might get rather fond of. He looked such a nice boy, and as if he'd been an officer, but he was, evidently, from his appearance, very hard up. He looked so unhappy and despondent that I couldn't help pitying him, and I have thought a lot about him since. Well, that was only last Saturday, and the coincidence is, I've just seen him again before we came in here. But he looked, oh, so different to-day. He was quite smart and well-dressed, and I'm wondering what's happened."
"And did this beautiful boy see you just now, pray?"
"Of course he saw me; we both caught sight of each other together."
"And both blushed together, too, no doubt. Well, perhaps it's the first love for you both. You great goose! What's the matter with you is you want a proper boy of your own, now. Someone to take care of you, and make a fuss of you, and keep you from thinking of every handsome face you see anywhere. I know what it was myself before my Charlie came along. But if you are determined not to have Mr. Thornton, I'll look out and find someone else for you at once. See if I don't."
"No, Netta, without joking, I've made up my mind not to have anything to do with anyone, anyhow, until I'm over twenty-one, and that's not until eleven months' time. I'm frightened."
"Fiddle-de-dee. You're in just the state of mind to give yourself to the first nice boy who comes along. Of course you're frightened. That's the primitive woman, my dear, just realising for the first time that someone's going to be her master. Well, come on, Mary, we mustn't stop here all day. I've a lot more shopping to do, and besides, if we go out now, we may find that handsome boy of yours waiting for us outside."
And the two girls got up and went out of the cafe.
I sat on for quite ten minutes thinking. It was very hard for me exactly to analyse my feelings. I felt ashamed with myself for following them, and yet much more ashamed still, that I had afterwards sat there listening. But the conversation had come upon me quite unexpectedly and taken on the personal nature it had, so suddenly, that I had not really had a proper chance of getting away. If I had left the cafe before them they would surely have seen me, and things would have been a hundred times worse.
But if I was angry with myself for the part I had played in following and listening, I was full of triumph in hearing from the girl's own lips that she was remembering me. Put it from me as I tried, the presentiment was stronger in me than ever, that the threads of Fate were gathering to link her life with mine.
How long I should have gone on dreaming I do not know, if I had not suddenly remembered the real business I was on. I paid my bill quickly and went out again into the glare of the street.
Almost the first person I ran up against was old Nat Saunders, with a bundle of papers under his arm. He would not have noticed me, but this time I stopped him for an evening paper.
His face beamed when he saw me, and then he beckoned me mysteriously out of the way of the traffic to the comparative quietness of a shop window. I saw he had something to tell me.
"There was another friend of yours asking after you yesterday," he said, "a darkish looking man with a small moustache. He must have seen you talking to me when you gave me the ten-shilling note, for directly you had left me, he came up and asked me about you.
"First he bought a Sport and gave me sixpence, telling me to keep the change. Then he said, just off-hand like, 'By the bye, wasn't that young fellow you were just talking to, young Mr. Wheatley?' I remembered what I promised you, and told him I didn't know who you were. 'But you were talking as if you knew him,' he said, and I said 'Oh, yes, he's a regular customer of mine, and often buys papers off me, but that's all I know about him.' 'Well,' he said, 'he looked like a man I used to know a long time ago up in Kalgoorlie. But it doesn't matter.' And off he went."
I thanked the old man for holding his tongue, and went off at once to ring up the Chief.
The information Nat Saunders had given me was very important, for the inquirer could only have been the man we wanted, although apparently, he was now wearing a moustache. He would, of course, be interested in me, recognising in me the 'mug' Tod McSwiney had set out to stalk, and no doubt, he was extremely curious to learn how I had got on, and how it was I was now walking about the City and McSwiney was—he knew not where.
The Chief whistled cheerfully when I gave him my news over the 'phone. "Good, good, very good," he said. "Our friend is undoubtedly still with us, and as he bought Sport, it's twenty to one he's going to the races at Gawler to-morrow. He'll go a bit disguised, I expect, and so, now, must you. Go right off the City at once. Go back to the Central, and don't, for worlds, move out again to-night.
"You shall be motored into Gawler to-morrow, and at ten o'clock sharp I'll send a man up to your room to disguise you. You can trust this man thoroughly; he's a perfect artist, and when he's done with you your best girl even wouldn't recognise you if she stood three feet from you in the street. What's your size in boots? Ah, all right, good-bye, and be careful."
I went to bed very early, and spent most of the night dreaming of Mary Vane.
Next morning, according to instructions, I had breakfast in my room, and by 9.30 was ready for the man who was coming to tog me up.
He turned up punctually on the stroke of ten, and I was surprised to find he was obviously an American. He was a little, smart dapper man, with bushy eyebrows and the usual goatte beard. He was not at all communicative, but when he did speak, it was with a soft nasal twang. He had brought quite a large bag with him, and rather to my disgust, provided me with a pair of ugly boots and an entire suit of clothes of a most horrible shape and cut. When my dressing was completed, he sat me down before the window, and for fully half an hour worked on me with the instruments of his craft.
Scissors, brush, pencil, powder, paint, and small tufts of false hair, were all in turn called into requisition, and when I at last rose from my chair and looked into the mirror, it was a very strange face that looked me back. From a beauty point of view, I did not admire my appearance, but the man was certainly, as the Chief had said, an artist, and my nearest friend would not have recognised me then.
"What am I supposed to be?" I grumbled rather ungraciously, after all the trouble he had taken.
"Well, Mr. Stratton," he drawled quietly, "you're just a young pastoralist, and you've come off some farm to lose all your wages at the races; there's always plenty such as you at Gawler, and we'll see your twin brother on every part of the course."
"Oh," I asked in surprise, "so you're coming with me, are you? Well, if so," I went on, as he nodded his head in assent, "what, please, am I to call you? You seem to have got hold of my name right enough."
"Well," he replied, looking rather amused, "you can call me what you like. You see, you hardly know me well enough yet to call me 'Arnold,' so perhaps you'd better call me Inspector, or if you prefer it, Mr. Kitson."
I fairly gasped in mingled astonishment and annoyance. This artist, then, was the little Melbourne detective all the time, and for over half an hour he had turned and handled me, with his face only a few inches off my own, and I hadn't seen through his make-up, or even suspected that he was disguised.
Then my better nature overcame my annoyance at being had so easily, and I held out my hand admiringly to the little man. "Inspector, you're a marvel. Even now, I can almost doubt it's you."
"The better for me," he chuckled, "and the better, too, for you, lad," he went on, dropping into a grave tone. "You know it isn't a picnic we're going to, Mr. Stratton. It's no safe business to-day. The man we want, if he's the party I think he is, won't be caught like friend Tod with an empty gun; and what's more, he'll shoot all over the place before he's taken, if he's got the fraction of a second to get his hand back to his hip. I tell you, we must give away no chances to-day."
"Then you do think you'll know the man, Inspector?" I asked. "Do you think you'll know him if you see him?"
"Not by his face," came the instant reply, "for I've never seen his face; but by his actions. If he's my man, he's a left-handed man, and he can shoot the pips off a card at ten paces every time. Back twelve months ago I almost had him in Castlemain one evening. Four of my best men pounced on him in the street, but he put a bullet in them all and got away. Two were killed outright, and both of the others badly hit. Oh, he's a masterpiece, this chap. But come on, we've twenty-five miles to go in the car, and we ought to be at Gawler by twelve."
It was quite a pleasant drive in the car, and I found the Inspector a most entertaining companion. Beneath his crabbed exterior there was a genial, happy little man who could give and take a joke with anyone. I found out later, however, that he was never happier or brighter than when engaged upon a dangerous enterprise, and if that were so, I always think now, some of us must have been in very great danger that afternoon.
Half a mile from Gawler, I was dropped by arrangement, to complete the journey on foot along the dusty road.
We had carefully thought out all our plans, and upon reaching the racecourse, I mounted at once to the north side of the grandstand. We had agreed that it was best I should not hang about the entrance gate, for if our man had any thought at all that we were trying to corner him, his suspicions would naturally be most on the alert upon first entering the enclosure.
Once, however, he found nothing to attract his notice there, we argued, his suspicions, if he had any, would die down, and as the afternoon wore on, if I did see him, he would be the easier to approach and apprehend.
We expected him to come made up, which would add something to the difficulty of my recognising him, but we all had agreed our great trump card lay in the fact that he would be out there at Gawler to make money.
He might indeed, be coming to change one or two of the dangerous five-pound notes he was holding, but in the main, he would be watching for someone drawing a nice win at the totalisator, as in my case at Victoria Park. That would be the time I should be most likely to see him.
The Chief had insisted I must keep some way away from the pay windows, and only approach near if I thought I saw my man. Therefore, I installed myself straight away, for the time, at the side of the grandstand. I could observe the pay windows well from there, and with a pair of good binoculars that the Chief had lent me, could keep a sure eye on anyone lounging near. If I should spot the gentleman, I was to get round behind him and give the signal by fumbling with my collar at the back. I understood there was to be a small army of plainclothes men ready to support me.
The course filled up with the crowd one sees usually at the Gawler meetings. Plenty of people from the City, and a fair sprinkling of the local country folk.
It is quite a pretty little compact course is Gawler, and everything is well managed, and if it had not been for my anxiety, I should have thoroughly enjoyed the racing provided.
The first race was won by the favourite, and as the dividend returned was not two to one, I didn't expect our bird would find much to interest him near the pay windows. So I got up to stretch my legs a bit, and walked among the crowd in front of the band.
I kept a wary eye on all dark men of medium height, but nothing came my way, and the jockeys having weighed out for the second race, I returned to my former place on the grandstand.
Short-priced favourites won the second and third races, too, and there was nothing hopeful yet. In vain in the intervals between the races did I perambulate the course. I went up and down the paddock, round the refreshment booths, and left no part of the enclosure unvisited many times.
The fourth event was a five furlong scramble, and I thought for this race I would change my tactics. So just before the 'off' was shouted, I took up my position with my back to the judge's box and raked every occupant of the whole grandstand carefully with my binoculars.
But no, there was nothing doing. Not a face struck any note of recognition in me, excepting one that reminded me of the fat policeman who had brought in my dinner when I was being detained at the police headquarters three days before.
I had just lowered my glasses despondently when a great roar went up, telling me that the horses were on their way. I couldn't, of course, see much of the race from where I was standing, but as everyone started shouting the favourite's name as they came round the bend for home, I concluded that, for the fourth time in succession, the dividend was going to be a poor one.
Just before the horses reached the winning post, however, a great groan went up from the crowd. The favourite was seen to be well beaten, and a few seconds later the numbers hoisted in the frame showed that he was only third.
"Just fancy Ibex winning," said a man standing next to me, "and the stable, I know, hadn't got a penny on him. Hardly anyone backed him. He'll pay at least forty to one, you see if he doesn't."
Now, I thought, was our chance. If there was anything in our theory, in a few minutes the man of crime would be close to the pay windows, and well on the lookout.
I had plenty of time to get back to my old seat in the grandstand, for it was fully twenty minutes before the dividend was declared, £22 10s. for each ten shillings invested.
I glued the glasses to my eyes and breathlessly regarded everyone who came near the pay window of the winning horse.
One, two, three, four, five, six I counted there at once, but no one bore the very slightest resemblance to the man I wanted. Then the usual little crowd of curious spectators appeared and started joking and congratulating the lucky winners upon their success. I ran my glasses over them carefully, but found nothing to raise any hopes. I really began to feel quite sick with disappointment when suddenly I caught sight of a stoutish-looking man lounging on one of the seats close beside the palings. He was not at all like the man I was looking for, being shorter and much too stout, but when the glasses rested on him, my interest was at once aroused by something odd about his face. He was quite close, only about ten yards from me, and about midway between the pay window and where I sat.
It struck me instantly in what a good position he was to observe all that was going on at the window, and yet, not to appear too interested in the people filing up.
As I say, he was so close that I put down the glasses and had a good stare at him without them.
My hopes fell to zero; he was quite ordinary, and there was nothing peculiar about him.
I was marking him finally off the list when re-adjusting the binoculars, I happened to focus them for a second on his face again.
Certainly there was something peculiar about him I saw, but it evidently only showed up when I had got the glasses on him.
Then it came to me all in a flash—he was 'made up.' My heart thumped like a hammer, and I had to lean hard against the wall to keep the glasses steady. Yes, the lines and shadows on both sides of his face did not correspond, and one eyebrow was distinctly out of keeping with the other.
I snapped the glasses sharply in their case and moved down off the grandstand as quickly as I could.
The man was still watching the pay window, and I got close up to him, without his turning his head.
He was like the man we wanted and yet he wasn't. The dark eyes and squat broad nose were there, but this chap was shorter, stouter, and much broader. I was in despair.
If I gave the signal and it proved not to be the man, I should irretrievably spoil all chance of success. If Tod's companion were indeed in the enclosure, the commotion of any arrest would put him on his guard at once, and all our chances would be gone.
I didn't know what to do.
I retired back among the crowd by the grandstand, and keeping my eyes fixed on the man I suspected, tried calmly to weigh up all the chances of pro and con.
Would nothing help me to a decision, I thought, and then something suddenly did.
The man lighted a cigarette, and between the puffs, began to spit.
My tongue came dry in my mouth, and I held my breath in a tremor of excitement. Whom had I seen spit like that before? Whom but McSwiney's friend as they stood near me, side by side, just a week ago in Victoria Park.
I was quite certain now, but I stood still as it were carefully to consider my cards before I declared trumps.
Sure of success, I became now at once perfectly calm and collected. I sent my mind travelling back to those bloody days in France, and tried hard to think exactly what we should have done there, under similar circumstances.
Surely, I told myself, several well-prepared men could rush one single, unprepared man before he'd time to reach for his gun from his hip pocket.
We couldn't get behind him, because the seat he was on was bang up against the palings; and we couldn't well rush him in front, because he was away from the crowd, with a good clear space before him. So the best thing to do, I argued, was to wait until he got up, and then take him from behind. But I would give the signal anyhow, right away, for everyone to be prepared.
Now, I didn't in the least know how the Chief and Inspector Kitson had arranged for their men, but they had told me positively I should be followed everywhere, and could take it for granted that ample help would be at hand whenever I should need it.
I therefore looked round meaningly on all sides into the crowd, and then deliberately began fumbling with my coat collar at the back. Then, still standing where I was, I started a cigarette, to let them know there was no immediate hurry.
It was a good five minutes before my gentleman moved; then he got up leisurely from the seat and sauntered slowly towards the rails.
The horses for the next race had gone down to the post, and there was the usual last minute rushing about to get on at the tote.
Our friend slowly threaded his way through the crowd, evidently from the changing direction of his steps, following someone just in front of him. I closed in on him behind, devoutly hoping all the time that when I did strike there would be adequate help at hand.
Suddenly, the man seemed to take suspicion at something, for he turned round sharply with big, gaping eyes, and his left hand went in a flash to his hip. But I was on him in a trice, and before he could get his hand clear, had pinioned both his arms to his side. He struggled desperately, and getting his right arm free, landed me two vicious blows in the face. Then it seemed to me there were a whole crowd of people on him, and a man dressed as a clergyman produced a stout pair of handcuffs and deftly locked them on his wrists. It was all over in a few seconds, and he was carried away, cursing and struggling, through the crowd. They took him to a place behind the weighing-room, and for twenty minutes or so I was left wondering as to whether, after all, we had got the right man.
Then the Chief came out radiant and shook me warmly by the hand.
"Keep clear of Kitson, my friend," he said, all smiles, "for I think he's going to hug you presently. You've done splendidly. It's the man we wanted, and there's heaps of evidence on him. We've found nearly all the other half of the notes taken at Mount Gambier, and everything's as clear as day. His finger prints presently will clinch the whole thing. No wonder he looked stout; he was padded all over. But by Jove some of us had a narrow escape. If you hadn't held, he'd have played hell with that automatic of his. It seems he recognised two of Kitson's Melbourne men, and that's what made him so quick to handle his gun. He's given you a nasty cut, anyhow."
"Oh, that's nothing," I replied. "I don't think I've ever felt quite so happy before."
"Yes, and you've made a lot of people happy too, to-day, my boy," he went on. "I've just heard Smithers had eleven pounds of the Station money on Ibex—entirely on your recommendation. He says you told him to go nap on a locally trained one, and our men clubbed together and sent him down here.
"Well, come on; let's go and have a drink. I'll stand you anything you like to-day."
THE newspapers were good reading during the next few days. The Chief, perhaps to compensate himself a little for all the anxieties he had undergone, was most generous in his revelations and allowed a good deal of most interesting information to filter through into the press. And the press made the most of their opportunity.
The Advertiser on the Tuesday had quite a long leader on 'The Mount Gambier Case,' and worked in a fine dramatic story of all that happened in the affair. In impressive language it pictured up for its readers the story of the crime. The lonely homestead, and the two poor victims done to death; the hurried flight of the murderers, quick upon their dreadful deed; the little frightened face peering at them from the woodstack; the stealthy crossing to the Garden State; the coming of the wretches to Adelaide, and their undoubted expectation of resting secure in the beautiful city of the plains. Their great mistake. The sleuth hounds of the law upon their track; the clue of the passed banknotes; the murderers quarrelling between themselves; the shooting on the sandhills at Glenelg; the police silently drawing their nets through the city, and at last, the flash-light arrest on the Gawler racecourse. Finally, it spoke impassionately of the lesson all law-breakers would now learn. In other States they might, indeed, carry on their perilous careers indefinitely; elsewhere they might flout insolently the guardians of law and order, and jeer mockingly at all efforts to apprehend them. But here in South Australia, here in this beautiful city of culture and refinement, they would find they were in a very different position.
Once let them cross the border, once let them set their defiling feet on any part of this most favoured State and their days, nay, their very hours, were numbered. The police service of South Australia was the best in the world, and in Adelaide, above all, there would be short shift always for the breakers of the law.
The Register also made a distinctive feature of the case, and congratulated the City of Adelaide upon the superb services rendered to law and order by its police. But it also pointed out how such crimes as these were fostered and encouraged by the curse of political unrest. If only, it insisted, we had amongst us statesmen instead of politicians and if only the people would vote solidly against all demagogues and agitators, then in a land of happiness and contentment what chance would there be, it finally asked its readers, for any crime of violence such as this to lift up its head.
I wired to my cousin beyond Pimba that I should be coming up by the Thursday morning train.
The Chief, according to his promise, told me I was perfectly free to go where and when I liked now. They had all the evidence they required to hang the man a dozen times over, and nothing of my participation in any part of the affair need come out. The murderer was to be handed over to the Victorian authorities, for although the crime would always be referred to as the Mount Gambier murder, actually it had taken place about three miles over the border, in the State of Victoria itself.
Both the Chief and Inspector Kitson did their best to be exceedingly nice to me. The three of us had a little parting dinner at the South Australian Hotel, and in saying a final good-bye afterwards the Chief pressed a little packet in my hands.
"A little present for you, my boy," he said smilingly, "a joint present from us both. The Inspector chose it this morning, and we're both sure you'll like it. It's what you've been accustomed to probably, and our only hope is that you'll find this one as useful in the future as maybe you have found others like it in the past. Don't open it until you get home."
When I undid the packet that night in my bedroom I found it contained a beautiful little .22 revolver.
I duly reached Pimba in the early hours of Friday and had a wearisome journey to my cousin's station at Velvet Hills.
He had sent a two-horse buggy to meet me, and for five blistering hours we toiled through the bush, blessing the flies that buzzed round in millions. The driver was a taciturn, uncommunicative sort of fellow, and when I inquired after my cousin would only keep on telling me "the boss was bad." He was so short in his answers that I gave up talking to him at last and for the most part the drive was conducted in silence.
But my own thoughts were entertaining enough. I wondered what good I was going to get by coming up all this way. It would be idle to pretend that I wasn't hoping to benefit by my cousin's position. He was, I knew, and on his own admission, too, a rich man. If I pleased him and we got on together it might alter my whole life again and bring Mary Vane nearer to me.
I realised fully the great gulf that lay between me and the girl who was always in my thoughts. I knew they were very rich people, and the set she moved in was the most reserved in South Australia. There was nothing of the snob about Sir Henry Vane, however. He was too fine a soldier for one thing, and of too virile a character, for another. But he belonged to a class that kept always very much to themselves. Acquaintances I knew he had without number, but friends, intimate friends, very few. He had come from the old country to settle in South Australia at the conclusion of the war, for the sake of the warmer climate, and lived in a beautiful place on the slope of the hills close to Mount Lofty.
Mary was his only daughter, and quite apart from her father's position, her beauty would, I knew, bring her many suitors.
What chance did I have then, I thought to myself? I, unknown, friendless, and with only just over £200 in all the world! I laughed at my own presumption, and yet at the same time, somehow, I was quite certain it would all come right in the end, and one day I should have her for my own.
It was well into the afternoon when we arrived at Velvet Hills. My cousin was lying down, I was told, and I was led to the door of a darkened room.
"Come in, John, come in," called out a voice that struck me at once as not being over friendly, and I pushed back the wire door and entered quickly to keep out the flies.
For a moment or two, after the glare of the bright sun, I could see nothing, and then the form of my cousin loomed up on a couch.
"So you've come, John," he said querulously, in weak, shaky tones, "but I don't know what you've come for. I really don't know, either, why I asked you. I'm not a rich man, and it's only ordinary wages I can offer you, just ordinary wages, mind. If the truth were known I've done very badly lately. I tell you I'm really a poor man; I've always got an overdraft at the bank; and I'm a very sick man, too, John, and not likely to get better, so the doctors say."
I was too surprised to speak for a minute. His words fell like a blast of icy air upon all my hopes. What a welcome, I thought, and it was for this I had come all these weary miles. I had so buoyed myself up with the rosy prospect that I thought lay before me, that it was almost with a sob of disappointment I forced myself to reply.
"Why, cousin; what on earth's the matter with you?"
"I was thrown from a horse over a year ago, and it's injured my spine. 'Caries of the vertebrae' the doctors call it, and they say there's no cure."
"Oh, but there must be," I said incredulously; "haven't you been to a specialist?"
"Four of them," he almost wailed; "in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. They all took their fees and told me the same tale: too near the spinal cord to operate. I must just lie and suffer till I 'croak.' But I suppose," he added suspiciously, "you found out I was very bad before you troubled to come up here, didn't you?"
"No," I replied indignantly. "I never heard anything at all of you until I got your letter last week!"
"And then you came up at once, like one of the vultures," he went on sneeringly. "Of course, you're awfully hard up."
I felt my temper rising, and with vexation and disappointment, was just in the mood to give him a good slating and tell him what I thought of him, but my eyes by now getting accustomed to the darkness of the room, I saw how desperately ill the man looked, and a great wave of pity drove all my anger from me. My cousin was not yet forty, I knew, and yet lying there on the couch he looked older even than sixty. His hair was almost white; his face was drawn and shrunken, and his eyes were deeply gone into his head. He was thin almost to emaciation, and the fingers of a bony hand that lay across the coverlet were almost like claws. He looked already like a dying man to me.
"No, Sidney," I said quite gently in answer to his question, "I am not in any way hard up; I have more than two hundred pounds in my pocket now. I just came up because you asked me and if you don't want me, I'm quite ready to go back to-morrow."
"I'm sorry, John, I was so rude to you," he replied at once, in quieter and more even tones, "but I'm not myself to-day. It's one of my bad days, and my head's terrible. I'm glad you've come, and I've looked forward to seeing you. But I'm no company for anyone to-day. Go out to my manager, Stevenson, he'll show you round and I'll be better, maybe, to-morrow and can talk."
I found the manager outside, and introduced myself to him. He was a pleasant-faced and slow speaking Yorkshireman, but I soon found after a few minutes' conversation that with all his slowness he was a most capable man, and had all the business of the station at his fingers' ends.
Before the evening meal he showed me round part of the station, and I was agreeably surprised to find no trace of the poverty my cousin had wailed about so recently.
I knew something about sheep stations, and as far as I could see everything looked prosperous and well. All the buildings were substantially built and the fencing was in an excellent state of repair. It required only half an eye to see that everything was well looked after.
Not far from home we came across a mob of fine sheep, and in reply to the question put me by the manager, I suggested there were about seven hundred there.
"Well, well," he said approvingly, "I see you've seen a sheep station before. You're nearly right, there should be seven hundred and twenty there."
"And in splendid condition, too," I went on enthusiastically. "It must be very gratifying to my cousin, for I understand he's been in for a very unsatisfactory time lately."
"How do you mean?" asked the manager, looking rather puzzled.
"Well, he told me this afternoon things were not going well with him up here."
"Mr. Stratton," said the Yorkshireman deliberately after a pause, "your cousin is a very sick man, and it is one of the peculiarities of his sickness that he often imagines things are very bad when they are exactly the opposite. Do you know," he went on proudly, "we have over twenty-six thousand sheep on this station, and this year, for the third year in succession, everything has gone well with us. It couldn't be better."
My spirits began to rise. My cousin's poverty and ill-luck were evidently only phases of his illness, but I felt desperately sorry for him and questioned the manager as to the life he led.
He told me my cousin was a very lonely man, no one coming to visit him except occasionally his brother-in-law, who lived on another sheep station about twenty miles north, and I gathered from the tone of his voice as he referred to the brother-in-law that he didn't think much of him.
"I'm very glad you've come up, Mr. Stratton," he concluded; "it's no good shutting our eyes to the fact that the master will never get about much again, and there are those who would be pleased to walk behind his coffin to-morrow. It's not for me to put you against anyone, but you'll soon find out for yourself, and from the look of you I should think you'll be able to hold your own."
I did not see my cousin again that night, but next morning he was out in the sunshine and hobbling about with the aid of a stick.
He looked dreadfully ill, but he said he felt better, and hoped Stevenson had shown me round properly.
Apparently he had forgotten he had told me the previous evening that he was in bad circumstances, for now he was proud of his possessions and anxious for me to be impressed with the number of his sheep and the extent of his station.
The manager took me out all day and we rode a long way up the station. As I had surmised the previous afternoon, everything was in apple-pie order and I realised my cousin must be a very rich man.
Coming back near home we came upon a beautiful roan gelding, standing well over sixteen hands, in a little paddock by himself. I reined up to have a good look at him.
"What a magnificent animal," I ejaculated. "What a glorious head and what magnificent hindquarters. What a leaper he'd make."
"What a leaper he'd make?" grunted my guide, "what a leaper he is, more likely. You wait a moment and you shall see. That's Rataplan."
He dismounted, and going to the paddock side called to the animal. It trotted up at once and rubbed its nose against his hand.
"Now help me off with my saddle," he said, "and Rataplan shall show you what sort of leaper he is without waiting for any making at all."
He got over the fence and in a couple of minutes had transferred the saddle and bridle from his hack to the beautiful looking beast I had stopped to admire.
"Now you watch," he called out as happy as a boy in his excitement. "I'll put him to that fence over there—it's six foot good and there's not much run and the take-off's bad."
He wheeled round sharply, and put the gelding straight at a high fence about five and twenty yards away. The animal rose like a bird and there was plenty of daylight under him as he skimmed over the fence. Round they both came again and the fence was a second time taken, with the same apparently effortless ease.
"Let me have a go," I said, slipping off my own beast and preparing to climb over into the paddock.
"No, Mr. John," said the manager shaking his head, "I'm very sorry, but I mustn't. The master would never forgive me if I did. It was Rataplan that gave him his injured spine, and he vowed no one shall ever ride him again except me. If the master dies Rataplan is to be shot. I've sworn to do it myself, and although I'd hate doing it, I'll keep my oath."
"How did he come to throw him?" I asked.
"It wasn't Rataplan's fault. A wild cat dashed up under his very nose. He reared up, and your cousin was thrown."
"But what a sin," I urged, "to shoot a beast like that. He looks beautifully bred."
"Aye, for sure he is. His great-grandsire was Marvel who once beat the mighty Carbine. He's only six years old, and we bred him ourselves. He's by Inverary out of Maid of the Mist."
"Never been raced?" I asked.
"No, the more's the pity. He would have been if the master had been all right. I tell you, Mr. John, put a row of hurdles or a few fences before Rataplan and I don't think, at two miles and upwards, there would be a horse in all Australia to beat him. He can stay for ever, and even after a good three miles hard spin he has always a terrific spurt up his sleeve. The only thing against him is he's a slow beginner and takes a long time to get into his stride. But come, we mustn't be late. The master's awfully particular."
My cousin was quite pleasant to me that evening, but every now and then he kept harping back to the question of his money.
"I tell you plainly I've nothing much to leave, John," he said. "Only a few pounds, and when everything is settled up and a little bequest to the Adelaide Hospital and a little present to my brother-in-law, there will be precious little else to go to anyone."
I told him bluntly two or three times that I could do without his money, and in any case he shouldn't talk about dying. He might take a good turn for the better any time, I said, and, as for doctors, I knew something about them, and the best of them were often wrong.
He seemed to think there was something in what I said, but he shifted the conversation and went on to something else.
"By the way, John," he said presently in a rather hesitating sort of way, "when you see Bob Henderson, my brother-in-law, you needn't mention I wrote you to come up here. You'll probably see him on Sunday, and just let him you think you came up on the chance. He's a very good fellow, is Bob, but thinks I ought to have no company and be kept very quiet."
I could see from the hesitating way in which he spoke that he was keeping back something, and not telling all the truth, but I pretended to notice nothing and just nodded my head, determining, however, to keep a sharp eye on the gentleman when he should ultimately appear.
On Sunday, sure enough, he turned up. I was out when he arrived, but, coming home just after noon and pausing on the verandah to flick some of the dust off my boots, I heard a strange voice coming from the direction of my cousin's room.
"A blood sucker," it was saying, "a blood sucker, Sid, as sure as you're lying there. Depend upon it, he's heard down Adelaide that you're sick and he's come up here on the chance of getting a poke in it if you don't get better. I know his sort well enough."
"No, Bob," replied my cousin, I thought rather weakly, "it's not all that. He's got some money, I know, and he's only come for a very short stay."
"Well, mind he doesn't upset you," went on the other blusteringly; "you know you can't stand any excitement."
I turned back off the verandah and did a little walk round before appearing again at the house. This time I came in whistling loudly, so that there could be no mistake about their hearing my approach.
My cousin nervously introduced me to his brother-in-law, and even if I hadn't heard what I had I should have instinctively taken a dislike to the man.
He was a big, broad, dark man with big shaggy eyebrows and a black beard. He looked a regular bully, and I don't wonder my poor cousin, in his bad state of health, was afraid of him. I guessed his age about forty, and he scowled unpleasantly as we shook hands.
"I'm sure it's very good of you to come up all this way," he said in a half sneering tone, "it must have taken a great deal to tear you up from city life."
Now I had made up my mind what to do. In the few minutes occupied by my walk round the house after I had first heard his evil suggestion to my cousin I had picked up my cue.
He would evidently try to pick a quarrel with me, I thought, and get me out away from Velvet Hills. And the reason was not difficult to find. He clearly regarded himself as my cousin's heir and looked upon me now as an unexpected but probable rival. I understood also now why my cousin had asked me not to mention anything of the letter he had written to me at Adelaide. He was undoubtedly afraid of his brother-in-law, and, as I say, I didn't wonder why. To a weak and ailing invalid this big, blustering, robust type of individual must have seemed a veritable tower of strength.
I determined I wouldn't quarrel and if this big brute of a man was thinking he would gain his ends by cunning, well, I would meet cunning with cunning and we would see which was the better man.
So, when he coarsely suggested I must have had a very special reason for coming up I just smiled at him as amiably as I could, and said, quite friendly: "Oh, no, I don't like cities at all. Besides I'm quite at home out back."
"Ever seen sheep before?" he asked sarcastically.
"Rather," I replied; "I was boundary rider for over eighteen months where they had nearly as many sheep as here."
My answers seemed to double his apprehension and he screwed up his heavy, swarthy face in a most disagreeable manner. Evidently he thought if I understood sheep as I had just said I had, I should be not only a companion, but a help also to my cousin.
All that afternoon he tried his very utmost to put me in a temper, and at times was positively rude to me, openly to my face. But all along I pretended not to notice anything, and answered his sarcastic questions in the frankest and nicest way possible.
At first my poor cousin was obviously distressed at the rudeness of his brother-in-law, and evidently expected a burst of angry temper at any moment on my part. But after a while, seeing I was determined not to quarrel at any cost, he began, I thought, rather to enjoy the battle of words and in a timid sort of way was maliciously amused at his brother-in-law's discomfiture.
At last the man took himself off, giving me the surliest of nods by way of a good-bye.
My cousin made no remark about anything that had happened that afternoon until just before going to bed, and then he said apologetically to me: "You mustn't mind Bob Henderson; he's got a funny way with him, but he's very attached to me and naturally is rather jealous."
I only replied, "Oh, it was rather funny, wasn't it?"
I quickly fell into my place at Velvet Hills and very soon day upon day and week upon week succeeded one another in monotonous regularity.
My position with my cousin was hard to explain. For a long time he was very suspicious of me, and whenever he had one of his bad days on him kept harping to me about money matters. He kept on telling me how poor he was and over and over again kept rubbing it in that there would be no money at all he could leave me.
After about three months, however, his suspicions seemed to take a rest, and except for the Sunday afternoons when his brother-in-law invariably came over, I got quite to love the busy life at the station. I must have been a comfort, too, to my cousin, as well as a help, for after the evening meal was over we used sometimes to smoke and yarn together hour by hour.
But all the while his malady grew steadily worse, and there was no disguising the fact that he was gradually 'going west.' He suffered great pain at times and it made him intensely irritable and very hard to bear with. When these attacks were on him he couldn't sleep without opiates, and yet the drugs made him so bad next day that we tried to keep them from him as much as possible.
The manager and I had often to sit up with him into the small hours of the morning, chatting and trying to make him keep his mind off his pain. Help came to us, however, in this direction in an unexpected manner.
One day, rummaging for something in the lumber room, I came across a really fine violin in a battered old shabby case that had not been unstrapped for years.
Now I am not by any means a bad musician, and up to the time of joining the colours the violin had been one of my pet hobbies.
In addition to a natural aptitude, in my poor father's time, I had been taught by some of the best masters, and, at one time, had seriously thought of taking up music as a profession.
I took the violin in to my cousin, and asked him if I might try it. He was greatly surprised.
"You don't play, do you?" he asked incredulously.
"Why not?" I said, laughing.
"Well, I don't see why you shouldn't, but you have never mentioned it to me. That violin case has not been opened for more than twenty years; it belonged to my brother, who died when I was quite a boy. Let's hear what you can do. I like soft pieces."
I gave him Gounod's Serenade, and after watching me intently for the first few bars, he lay back and closed his eyes. As I say, I am not a bad musician, and the instrument in my hands was of as beautiful a tone as one could wish. I have a good memory, and although naturally very much out of practice, I could feel I was bringing out something of the imperishable beauty of a melody that can never die. When I had finished he didn't speak, and I went on to Rubinstein in F, and then to Barcarolle.
It really touched me to see how he enjoyed it, and when I finally stopped for a rest and put down my bow, it was with a sob in my own throat that I realised he was crying.
We neither spoke for a few minutes, and then he said to me very gravely, "John, you've given me the greatest treat I've had for many a long day, and now," smiling, "you shall play to me every night."
After that night things seemed much easier with him, and whenever he was in pain I would play to him, sometimes for hours. However bad he was at first, it nearly always ended in his dropping off quietly to sleep.
I found heaps and heaps of old pieces of music, tied up in the lumber room, and there was no lack of variety in what I was able to play.
Naturally, under these circumstances, a kindlier feeling grew up between us, and I began to notice in many ways that my cousin's manner was changing towards me. He stopped sneering at me, and even on his bad days, which unhappily became more and more frequent, ceased to keep on reminding me about his money.
One thing seemed to me rather funny. By unspoken and undiscussed arrangement, we neither of us by any chance ever referred to my violin-playing when Bob Henderson was present. My cousin was silent because he was afraid, and I was silent because it was part of my plan to thwart a man I had come to loathe and detest.
In these months I had thoroughly got to the bottom of Bob Henderson. He hadn't the very slightest affection for my cousin, and was just waiting for him to die. He had some hold on him somehow and I always feared he was in the possession of a will made out in his favour.
I was no hypocrite, and never pretended to myself that I wasn't interested as to how my cousin would leave his money. It was patent to everyone he couldn't live long, and whether I got a penny or not I would have just loved to see his brother-in-law, the big, stout, blustering bully, left in the cart.
Every Sunday regularly he came over, and every Sunday regularly he looked me up and down contemptuously, and, I had no doubt whatever, cursed me in his own mind for being such a silly fool.
It was my plan always to efface myself when he came over, and never to give him the very slightest reason to believe I was quite as anxious as to the future as he was. And in the light of after events, I am sure he took it all in.
One night, after I had been playing the favourite pieces that he liked best, my cousin said suddenly:—
"John, would you like to have Rataplan?"
I was too astonished for a moment to reply, but he saw the delight in my face, and went on, "Well, you can have him if you like. I never really intended any one should ever have him again, but it seems to me childish now, and so I'll give him to you. I'll write you a letter to-morrow, saying he's yours, so that if anything happens to me suddenly, you'll know where you are."
I thanked him gratefully, and he was genuinely pleased at my obvious delight.
Mr. Stevenson whistled when I told him the news next morning. "Good business, Mr. John," he said, "the master's coming to a better mind, and there's no one I'd rather see across Rataplan than you."
I lost no time in visiting the gelding. Friends we already were, and I had no difficulty at all in persuading him to let me put on saddle and bridle and get astride.
Oh, what a ride I had that morning! It lingers even now in my memory after many years, like the fragrance of some beautiful flower.
The gelding was a beautiful mover, and took everything in a gloriously long, even stride. At whatever pace he was going he always gave one the impression of a tremendous unused power in reserve. Even when I was putting him at the stiffest fences, it always seemed to me he had a few inches to spare; and as for his speed—well, once he was got well going, it was more of the five or six furlong variety than the steady two miles and a half.
When I got home my cousin was most interested to know how I had got on. I told him what I thought of the gelding and of the possibilities that in my estimation, at all events, lay before him. I said he was in my opinion good enough to run on any racecourse in the Commonwealth, even among the best of company.
My cousin only sighed deeply, and remarked that it would be strange if an animal that had brought bad disaster to one Stratton, should by any means be destined to bring good fortune to another.
WHEN I had been at Velvet Hills just over six months, Bob Henderson rode in one weekday to have what he was pleased to call a serious talk with my cousin.
They were closeted together for more than an hour, and from the pitch of their voices, I thought his brother-in-law was trying to persuade him to do something he didn't particularly want to do.
I heard all about it the same evening after Master Bob had gone.
It appeared he was urging my cousin to go down to Adelaide to be examined by another practitioner. He had heard of a herbalist, he told him, who had newly come to the City, and who was performing wonderful cures upon patients who had been hopelessly given up by the regular medical men of North Terrace.
My cousin didn't want to go. He said he realised to the full that his case was hopeless, and he was tired of being pulled about. Besides, he dreaded the thought of the long, weary journey down the State, and the jolting and knocking about. He asked me what I thought about it.
Now, in my own mind, I knew quite well what I thought about it. Bob Henderson wanted to get him down to Adelaide for some purpose of his own, and didn't care anything about my cousin's health. It was quite possible some new quack had come to the City, but that was not the reason, I felt sure, for getting him away from Velvet Hills.
I naturally did not mention my surmise, and only suggested that whether he went or not, he ought to give the matter very careful consideration.
Bob Henderson returned to the attack on Sunday, and from that day forward, never left the subject alone. He badgered my cousin every time he saw him, and preyed on his nerves by telling him everyone could see he was getting worse and worse every week.
At last my cousin began to show signs of giving way, and taking the bull by the horns one Sunday about six weeks after he had first broached the matter, his brother-in-law announced positively that he should call for him in the waggon on the following Wednesday at noon.
My cousin tried all he could to get out of it, and struggled weakly to be left alone, but in the end, the weak nature gave way before the strong, and he finally unwillingly consented to go.
I at once offered to accompany him, but his brother-in-law again put in his word so strongly that, after hesitating a long while, he said there was no need, and I had better remain on the station.
They went off on the Wednesday, and the poor invalid looked so tired and ailing as they helped him into the waggon that we all quite thought we had seen the last of him, and that he was going to his death. But we were mistaken. They were away six days, returning on the Tuesday.
My cousin was in the last stage of exhaustion when he arrived home. If he had looked bad in starting, he looked ten times worse when he returned. He was so weak that he could hardly speak, and he had to be carried bodily to his bed.
For three days he seemed quite dazed, and we hardly got a word out of him. It required no very experienced eye to see that he had been drenched with opiates; indeed, he told us afterwards that he remembered nothing at all of the journey home.
For nearly a week both the manager and I thought he would never get off his bed again; but left quietly undisturbed, he slowly shook off the effects of the journey, and in about a fortnight was more like his old self again, only decidedly weaker and more frail.
Gradually, piece by piece, something of the happenings at Adelaide came out.
He had visited the herbalist, a Dr. Rutter, and the latter had turned out to be just as I thought—only an ordinary commonplace quack.
He had pulled him about a lot and sent him away with a huge packet of pills that Bob Henderson said would, for certain, reduce all the inflammation in a few weeks.
I asked my cousin what sort of man Dr. Rutter was, and what he was like to look at.
He didn't answer for quite a long time, and then, bending towards me, said almost in a whisper:—
"That's the curious part of it I don't understand. I have no recollection at all of what the doctor was like. The person I seem to have had most to do with in Adelaide was a very tall, clean-shaven man, who seemed, as far as I hazily remember, to be always pressing a bell. I tell you, John," he went on presently, "I am very puzzled, and I don't like it. All the time I was in Adelaide I seemed like a man who was getting drunk."
I could see plainly the matter was upsetting him by the way he was beginning to tremble, so I at once turned the conversation and offered to play to him.
But he waved my suggestion aside, and in a minute or two again referred to the herbalist.
"I tell you what, John," he said, "I have a reason for being very curious, and yet I don't like to hurt Bob Henderson's feelings. He is always so very anxious about me. But still, I want to find out about this man Rutter, and I mean to, too. So next time you see Bob, just bring up Dr. Rutter casually, and ask my brother-in-law in front of me what he's like to look at. You can easily pretend you think you know him, see?"
I promised, and right enough the following Sunday, when Henderson appeared as usual, I remarked casually to him during the course of the mid-day meal.
"By the bye, I think I must have met that Dr. Rutter of yours in Adelaide, about a week before I came up. Isn't he a rather tall man, clean-shaven, with reddish hair?"
"No he just isn't," snapped Henderson rudely. "As a matter of fact, he's exactly the opposite. He's quite a little dark man, with a pointed beard, and in addition to that, he's only been in the City a few weeks. So you're quite mistaken this time, Master John."
I just shrugged my shoulders and said nothing.
My cousin made no remark either, but I could see he was taking it all in, for he didn't speak again during the meal.
He and his brother-in-law hadn't seemed to hit it off quite so well, lately. There was a sort of strained relationship between them, but wholly on my cousin's side. Ever since the return from Adelaide he had seemed to me rather resentful with Bob Henderson for taking him down to the City and putting him to all the fatigue and anxiety for nothing.
I don't think Henderson noticed it at all, for he treated everyone at Velvet Hills with a more confident and more bossy air of proprietorship than ever.
Stevenson, the manager, positively hated him, but like me, he took care never to cross him. The only satisfaction he ever allowed himself in the way of expressing his feelings was when Henderson took himself off, as he did regularly, about four o'clock.
Then he used to stand on the verandah watching him go off, and when he was once fairly out of sight over the hill, he used to spit vigorously on the ground. It became quite a ceremony with him, and he always seemed to derive the greatest satisfaction from its performance.
The evening of the day I had questioned Bob Henderson about Dr. Rutter it set in wet, and by eight o'clock the rain was descending in torrents over the station.
My cousin, unusually for him, was not inclined for any music that evening, and we sat talking instead. He asked me a lot about my service in France, and the conversation gradually drifted on to my life in Adelaide, just before I had come up to him.
Now, I had never mentioned a word to him of my adventures with Tod McSwiney, but something prompted me that night to try particularly to interest him. He seemed to be so very despondent and down in the mouth, and it struck me suddenly to make a nice little interesting story for him of the eventful happenings of that week. So I told him all.
I told him of the ten pounds I had had given me, of my luck at the races, of my being followed, of my killing Tod McSwiney, of my being arrested by the police, and of the subsequent assistance I had been enabled to give them in catching the other murderer. I left very little out. I even mentioned Mary Vane, lingering perhaps a little bit unduly on what a pretty girl she was.
He listened, at first, with rather mild curiosity, and then with greater interest as the story was gradually unfolded.
When I had finished, and it took a long time to tell him everything properly, he had quite lost his depression and exclaimed enthusiastically:—
"Why, John, you're quite a hero. So you killed the man without speaking a word to him, without any warning."
"Oh, yes, Sidney," I replied. "Why, bless your heart, he was nearer to me with his great heavy paling than I am to you now. If I hadn't pipped him instantly, I should instantly myself have had his stick about my head and his knife in my throat afterwards. I hadn't time to tell him to go away and be a better boy, even if I had wanted to."
"Well, John, I'm glad you killed him and got the other wretch, too. But what about the girl? I suppose you fell in love with her, didn't you?"
"She's an ideal, Sidney, but her people are very high up in the world."
"But not higher than the Strattons," he burst out warmly. "Not higher than our family, John. Australia's a mixed country, I know, but your father and mine, my boy, were the finest blood in the Empire. Not only was their family among the best in the old country, but they had the courage and the spirit to leave the safety and softness there and come out here to face dangers and privations and end in making this huge land great, as it is now.
"I tell you, John, again, the very finest blood in the world runs to-day in the veins of young Australia if they only knew it, for they all had sires or grandsires who, in courage and enterprise, were the very cream, the very top-notch of the countries they came from, overseas. And don't you forget it."
I had never seen my cousin enthusiastic before. He was quite transfigured. The cold, calculating, suspicious nature was, for the moment, at any rate, entirely wiped away, and I could see the outlines of a disposition that, under happier circumstances, might have blossomed in the breast of a warmhearted, generous man.
But the effort of his enthusiasm was too much for him, and he sank back exhausted upon the couch.
A little later he bade me rather roughly go to bed, for he himself wanted to sleep.
July and August passed away, and the first week in September the manager went off the station for a few days on some private business, and I was left in sole charge.
My cousin's health was still about the same. He was suffering perhaps a little less pain, but he was obviously weaker than he was, even two months ago.
Bob Henderson came up as usual on the Sunday and was, I thought, more detestable than ever. I was beginning, however, at last to find my place more secure at Velvet Hills, and consequently, I did not allow Master Bob quite so much rope as heretofore; indeed, upon several occasions, I carried the plain speaking into his own country, greatly to his surprise.
That afternoon, he was silly enough to repeat the old fable that we never went into the fighting line in France unless we were half drunk, and expressed the opinion that he didn't think I, myself, would ever have the pluck, sober, to shoot anyone in cold blood.
"Look here, Mr. Henderson," I said to him grimly, looking him straight in the face, and intending to put it in hot and strong. "I've shot as many men in my time as perhaps you've shot rabbits, and it's nothing to me to kill a man, don't you make any mistake. If it were necessary, I could shoot you now without a tremor, and drag your body out and bury you, and come back into tea here without turning a hair. That's what active service teaches us."
The big brute didn't like the way I spoke, and, I thought, looked a little white about the gills, but he summoned up the usual sneer he assumed when speaking to me, and remarked sarcastically:—
"Dear me, dear me, what a bloodthirsty fellow we've been entertaining all these months unawares! And I suppose, sir, you always carry a loaded automatic with you."
"No," I replied casually, "an automatic takes up too much room; but I've always got some sort of weapon on me." And reaching back to my hip pocket, I produced the pretty little .22 that the Chief and Inspector had given me.
Mr. Robert Henderson looked rather as if he had trodden on a centipede, but he only scowled darkly at me, and turning to my cousin, pretended to ignore my presence for the rest of his stay.
When he finally cleared off a couple of hours later, he didn't even give me his usual rude good-bye, but went off in a clumsy attempt at a contemptuous and dignified departure.
My cousin was very tired that evening, and we made him comfortable and left him to go to sleep at a much earlier hour than usual.
The next morning I was up at daybreak, and my duties on the station kept me away until nearly mid-day.
When I returned home, the old housekeeper ran out to me with a scared, frightened face.
"Mr. John, Mr. John," she exclaimed breathlessly, "something's happened to the master. I can't wake him, and he's snoring horribly."
I ran in quickly. My poor cousin was quite unconscious, and breathing stertorously. He had had a stroke, and I saw the end could not be far off.
I knew nothing possible could be done, but at the same time thought it only right to send for a doctor.
One of the station hands rode off post haste to get a wire through from Pimba to Port Augusta. If we were lucky, I thought, it might be possible to get the doctor out by the evening of the next day.
It was a ghastly vigil I kept that night by the bedside of the dying man, but blood is indeed thicker than water, and all my heart went out to the poor sufferer struggling there for breath.
Hour by hour his breathing became harder and more laboured, and when the dawn broke softly over the hills, I waited, watching for the frail spark of life to pass away with the shadows.
But no; he lingered on during the day and was still breathing when dusk was closing down again and the doctor from Port Augusta appeared.
Dr. Rooke was a kindly old man, and shook his head sadly when I took him in to the patient.
"No hope," he said at once. "It's only a matter of hours; but you did right to call me, for I can ease the suffering."
The end came almost on the stroke of midnight, but so softly and so gently that we hardly knew. One moment he was breathing faintly and the next he had passed without struggle, and without effort, to the Great Beyond.
I slept heavily that night. I was so tired that I dropped off at once, directly my head touched the pillow, but there was neither rest nor refreshment in my sleep, and I woke up tired and dispirited as could be.
The news had filtered round quickly, and early in the afternoon Bob Henderson rode down over the hill.
He was not alone, but had brought two of his men with him, evidently remembering the conversation of the previous Sunday.
Seeing him in sight, I purposely left the house to avoid meeting him. I could not trust myself to speak nicely to him, but in the presence of the dead I wanted to avoid all chance of a quarrel.
I heard later that he dismounted in a tremendous hurry and asked breathlessly of one of the hands standing by "if the old man were dead yet."
But I was saved from the angry words I should have given him by my going from the house.
I went round to the home paddock and sat down under a clump of trees.
Now that the first shock had passed I wondered what was going to become of me. Had my cousin made a will I wondered, and if so, how did I come in.
The thought of a possible will had been upmost in my mind ever since their return from Adelaide. I suspected Bob Henderson of some underhand business, and looking back, his easy confident air of the last few weeks filled me with a sort of uneasy apprehension.
Even while I was thinking of him, I saw Master Bob, with his two companions close behind him, walking round, evidently looking for me.
They caught sight of me at last, and Henderson said something over his shoulder to the two men that made them laugh.
The three approached me, and the big bully looked at me contemptuously, with an evil grin on his dark face.
"Look here, Mr. John Stratton," he said brusquely, "you've got to clear out of this; the place is mine now."
"What do you mean?" I asked scornfully, but at the same time with a cold shiver running down my spine.
"Mean," he snapped viciously, "what do I mean? Why, I mean that my late lamented brother-in-law, Mr. Sidney Stratton, has left me sole heir to everything he'd got. Lock, stock and barrel, everything is mine."
"Oh," I replied calmly, "you're quite certain?"
"Quite certain," he went on, "and you please take notice you've got to clear out before this week's up, you, and that damned Stevenson too, when he comes back. I've put up with enough from you both in the last six months, but only to keep in with the old man. I don't mind telling you that now."
"Oh," I said calmly again, "you're quite certain, are you?"
"Yes, quite certain. It's all down in black and white, in legal hands."
"No tricks, Mr. Henderson," I went on, delighting to irritate him. "No tricks. Everything above board, I suppose. No drugging my poor cousin, no making him silly, no visits to strange lawyers, nothing hanky panky? Come, come, you don't look quite so confident now, Mr. Henderson, do you?
"Curse you," he called out savagely, "if you're not careful what you say, you'll not only go out from here without a penny, but I'll have the law on you too."
"Don't get excited, Mr. Henderson," I said calmly, "don't get excited. Where's your precious will?"
"My lawyer's got it, and you'll see it, in good time."
"Your lawyer—so ho! Not my cousin's lawyer; but your lawyer! Doesn't that look rather fishy, Mr. Henderson? Surely if everything were all right, my cousin would have given any will to the care of his own lawyer and not to yours, particularly, too, as his own lawyer lives in Adelaide."
"Oh, chuck all this," he cried angrily. "Cut it out. I'm not going to argue with you. I just tell you, I'm coming over here on Friday with my lawyer to take possession, and you'll please be off the station then before sundown. Understand!"
I looked him squarely in the face and laughed. He turned round with an oath and went off with his two companions; but he'd lost something of his swagger, I thought.
I sat on for a long time after they had left me feeling as despondent as any man could be. Before the great brute I had put a good face on the matter, but underneath I felt anything but confident, I can tell you.
So it was turning out exactly as I had thought. He had got my cousin down to Adelaide under the pretence of consulting some doctor, and once there had plied him so strongly with opiates that he practically knew nothing of what he was doing. In that state he had got him to some shady lawyer, and between them both my cousin had no doubt put his signature to a will, of the contents of which he most probably knew nothing.
There could be no doubt I was right I thought, but how on earth could I prove it? Everything was after all only surmise, and any court of law would naturally hold it just as probable a brother-in-law should be sole legattee as a cousin, particularly so as the brother-in-law had been the dead man's neighbour and companion for many years.
I knew I had frightened Bob Henderson, but I felt that was about all I should be able to do.
We buried my cousin next day; Bob Henderson not troubling to put in an appearance or send anyone to represent him.
That afternoon a wire arrived from the manager saying he was returning the following Friday, and giving me his address. I immediately sent a wire to him.
Barely twenty-four hours later and I got a wire in return:—
My spirits rose at once with a bound. Stevenson was a most cautious man in all he said and did, and his wire in answer to mine could only mean, I thought, that the surprise had something to do with the inheritance of my cousin's estate.
What else could it mean? Perhaps he had stumbled upon some evidence that would profoundly shake Bob Henderson's claim to all that my cousin had left.
I waited with worrying impatience until Friday should arrive, and a dozen times that afternoon after the mid-day meal, went up to the brow of the hill to see if I could perceive anything of his coming.
I had sent two of the fastest horses on the station to meet him, and was only prevented from going myself by the thought that if I did, Bob Henderson himself would probably arrive in my absence, and install himself in possession.
At last, however, the manager arrived. He threw the reins over the steaming animals, and jumping down out of the buggy ran quickly up to me.
Shaking hands, he exclaimed breathlessly, "Bob Henderson's not half a mile behind me. He's come straight from Pimba too. He's got three men with him, and one looks like a lawyer chap. This Johnny's been in the same carriage with me nearly all the way from Adelaide. But let's go inside. I want to talk to you."
I told him all that had happened about my cousin's death, ending up with a recital of the conversation that had passed between Bob Henderson and myself.
He heard me through without interrupting with any question or remark, then he said slowly:—
"Well, Mr. John, I was very much attached, as you know, to your cousin, but it's no good making out that his death is anything but a happy release to the poor man. I thought a year ago he would never get well, and it was because of that that I first suggested he should write to you. I have something to tell you, but it will wait now for five minutes." Then he added grimly: "I think Mr. Bob Henderson is going to have the surprise of his life. Ah, here they are!"
Bob Henderson had pushed open the door and was looking round the room with an air of confident swagger. Close behind him were the three other men, of whom Mr. Stevenson had spoken.
"Come in," said the latter in a quiet business-like tone. "Come in, Mr. Henderson, and bring your friends in too." Then, turning to me, he said apologetically, "Excuse me, Mr. Stratton, playing the host for a minute or two, but I was always your cousin's business man, and in consequence know something of his private affairs. Now, Mr. Henderson, I understand from Mr. Stratton here, that you've come to take possession."
"Who the devil are you?" said Bob Henderson insolently, "and what the hell has it anything to do with you? Still, if you want to know, I have come to take possession, and off you and young Stratton go packing, straight away."
"Wait a moment, Mr. Henderson," continued the manager, "please. Who says the place is yours?"
"I do," said the tall, cadaverous-looking man standing at Bob Henderson's side, "I'm Mr. Matthew Pellew, of the firm of Pellew & Barley, Solicitors, of King William Street, Adelaide. I have here a copy of the last will and testament of the late Sidney Stratton, of this place, Velvet Hills. In this will he bequeaths everything to my client here, Mr. Robert Henderson, of Vixen's Plain."
"Where was this will executed, please, Mr. Pellew?" asked the manager, very meekly.
"In my office in King William Street, on Friday, the 27th of July last."
"Who drew up the will?" went on the manager.
"We drew it up—our firm," was the answer.
"And who, please," continued the manager suavely, "instructed you to draw up this will?"
For the first time I noticed a slight hesitation in the legal gentleman's manner; he hesitated a moment and then replied sharply.
"Oh, come, come, sir, you're cross-examining me. I'm not in the witness-box to-day, and it isn't the custom of our profession to disclose all the secrets of their clients. The will is right enough and you'll have to abide by it."
"What date did you say?" asked the manager, again in the meekest possible manner.
"Friday the 27th of July last," replied the lawyer.
"Then," thundered Mr. Stevenson, in a voice that was in startling contrast to that he had hitherto assumed, "then, Mr. Lawyer, just look at this!" and he thrust a paper that he had suddenly whipped out of his breast pocket, right under the startled lawyer's eyes. "Look at this," he shouted, mimicking the latter's monotonous tones.
"A copy of the last will and testament of Mr. Sidney Stratton, revoking all other previous wills and leaving everything to his cousin, Mr. John Stratton, appointing him sole executor, and dated, Mr. Lawyer; dated, Mr. Robert Henderson, Wednesday the 22nd of August last. Now what do you say to that?"
I have often thought later, in thinking things over, what a splendid picture a great artist could have made of the faces of us all standing there. What different and what varying emotions he would have been able to portray.
There was the manager, flushed and excited, triumphantly throwing down his trump cards, one by one. There was the lean-faced lawyer, with his thin lips pursed closely together, obviously staggering under the blow of a discomfiture he could not wholly hide. There was Bob Henderson, with his white pasty face, dripping with the sweat of a totally unexpected fear and dismay. There were the two other men, who looked as if they had been invited to a picnic and then had suddenly found themselves involved in a rough-and-tumble prize fight, where they were getting the worst of it. And lastly, there was myself, puzzled and half incredulous, and yet with the dawn of a great joy breaking over my face.
I tell you, for a few moments the room was packed with a tense interest, so deep that it might have been cut.
Then Bob Henderson broke the silence with an oath. "Damn you; it's a forgery. It's a put-up job. I say, it's been done since the man died."
"Done since Mr. Stratton died," shouted the manager. "I tell you I landed that will in Adelaide ten days ago, with my late master's solicitors—Gorham & Davis, of Nestor Chambers, Waymouth Street, and not only the will, but a covering letter also in the dead man's own handwriting, setting down all the circumstances he could remember of that last visit to the city; and I tell you also, Mr. Matthew Pellew, the letter wasn't pleasant reading. The Master of the Rolls is having a copy forwarded to him, and it is possible—it is just possible, Mr. Pellew, you may be asked to explain how it comes you happened to witness the signature of an obviously drugged man."
"Bosh!" said the lawyer, but I could see he was shaking all over, "we don't even know if this assumed second will, even if it exists, were properly executed according to law."
"So property executed," retorted my champion, "that Gorham & Davis told me on Wednesday the whole Bench of Judges couldn't upset it if they tried for twenty years. So there!"
The lawyer muttered something about making inquiries, and whispering fiercely to Bob Henderson, half dragged the latter from the room, the two other men following, obviously with their tails very much down.
We watched the four discomfited adventurers mount back into their conveyance and drive away slowly over the hill.
For the last time, Mr. Stevenson spat vigorously as the buggy disappeared from view.
"Yes, Mr. John," said the manager, as we sat late over our pipes that night, "I suspected something of the kind, the very moment your cousin returned from Adelaide. I tackled him about it when he felt better, and it made him prompt you to find out from Bob Henderson what this blooming herbalist was like. That put the hat on your cousin's confidence in his brother-in-law. Then, you unconsciously brought the whole matter to a crisis yourself, by taking your cousin into your confidence about the matter of that Tod McSwiney and also by telling him about your love affair. It rankled his pride that you should be thinking you weren't good family enough for her. The next morning, when you were out, he sent for me, and there and then we drew up his second will. To make no mistake, it was witnessed by four people—myself, the housekeeper, and the two overseers. Then, last week, when I was going to the city, I took it, at your cousin's request, direct to his own solicitors, to make sure it was all right; together with that damning covering letter I spoke about. Oh, but they were a couple of beauties—that other lawyer and Mr. Bob. Why, they even had your poor cousin so drugged that he had absolutely to be carried up to the lawyer's room to sign that will. I traced their movements all over the place in Adelaide, and even found the man who drove them in his car. Well, Mr. John, I congratulate you. It's a fine inheritance you'll have—much greater than you expect."
I thanked my friend from the bottom of my heart, but he pooh-poohed all his part in the matter, averring he was amply repaid by the discomfiture of his dear friend, Bob Henderson.
I paid a hurried visit to Adelaide the following week, and was most politely received by my cousin's solicitors. The senior partner, Mr. Gorham, made me a long prosy speech; the gist of it was that I was now a man of great possessions, and it would be a considerable time before they would be able to determine exactly how really endowed I was.
To my great astonishment I learned that in addition to Velvet Hills, I was the landlord of properties all over the place. Shops in Rundle Street and Hindley Street, private properties in Lower Mitcham and Toorak, two large warehouses in Port Adelaide, and several farms in outlying districts in the State. Also there was a very considerable sum invested in War Loans and shares in private companies.
"Your cousin," concluded Mr. Gorham, "was in many respects a very fortunate man. He bought when values were low, and for many years had resolutely declined to realise on any of his possessions. Consequently, you will now reap the benefit of his tenacity. Altogether, Mr. Stratton," he said, with his first and only attempt at humour, "I'm afraid you will have to pay succession duty on close on two hundred thousand pounds."
I went out stunned and sobered by all that he had told me. It was strange to think I was a rich man, but it would be fascinating now to brood over what the future might have in store for me.
One thing I realised. I was nearer Mary now. Poor, and I should have had no opportunity to approach her, but well-to-do—however little she might be influenced by wealth she did not need—I should at least be in a position to meet her on equal terms.
I made discreet inquiries about the Vanes, and found they were away in Sydney and would not be back for about three months.
Mary was still Miss Vane.
FOR more than a month, I remained on at Velvet Hills, and then, leaving the station to the capable care of the manager, came down to Adelaide to make the city my permanent headquarters.
I took possession of one of the places that had come to me near Mitcham. It had such fine surroundings.
It was as beautiful a home as one could wish, right at the very foot of the hills, with a glorious old world garden full of lovely flowers, with fruit trees and vines, with gently playing fountains, and with in fact everything that would speak always to the mind of youth and tell of love, peace and happiness.
I furnished it with the best that money could buy, having Mary always in my mind, and making sure all the time, that it was there I should be bringing her when our honeymoon had waned.
I called on the Chief within a few days of coming down. Candidly I wanted his advice, and he was the only friend I had in the city.
He was genuinely pleased to see me, and met me with a hearty shake of the hand.
"Well, my boy," he exclaimed genially, "so you've come this time without being fetched. Any more trouble on the board—have you got the sack?"
"No Chief," I answered cheerfully, "but it's a very different person that stands before you now. I mean very different to the poor hunted wretch who stood here last time."
"Dear me, if my memory serves me right, it was a very insolent young man that stood before me once, with very little of the hunted wretch about his face. But, I see you're togged up a bit now—quite like an English swell. What horse have you been backing lately?"
"Chief," I said seriously, "I've come into money. I'm a very rich man."
"Yes, really. I've come to tell you about it and get your advice too, on another matter."
The Chief listened most interestedly, and it quite warmed my heart to see the genuine pleasure he took in my good fortune.
When I had finished and he had congratulated me many times over, he asked me kindly how he could help me.
"Look here," I said bluntly, "I want to get to know Sir Henry Vane."
"But don't you know him already—didn't he give you that tenner in King William Street once?"
"Yes, but I don't mean that way at all. I want to know him socially. I want to know the family."
The Chief stared for a moment, and then a broad grin broke over his face. "So ho! my lad," he exclaimed all smiles. "It isn't Sir Henry you want to know, it's Miss Mary you're interested about. Now I come to think of it, you once wasted three-quarters of an hour of the valuable time of four of my best men, by going into a cafe and sitting there to gaze at Miss Vane. Oh yes, I remember all about it now, and so that's the job you're on, is it?"
"Look here again, Chief," I said solemnly, "It's my intention to marry Miss Vane."
"Oh, is it? Well, good luck to you, my boy; but let me tell you straight—right at the beginning; you're taking on something deuced stiff in setting your cap there."
"I know that perfectly well," I replied, "and I've come to you because I know for certain that if anyone can help me, you can. You know Sir Henry, don't you?"
"Yes, John, I know him."
"Well, couldn't you put me in the way of getting to know him?"
"Look here, lad, I'll tell you all about Sir Henry and his family, and you can then judge for yourself. You know where they live; up at Aviemore, on Mount Lofty. He and his sister, who keeps house for him, and Miss Mary. Now, to begin with, they're very rich. Your money will be of no use to you. I mean, if you were as rich as Croesus and Sir Henry didn't like you—he'd just turn you down as soon as look at you—if you went near. Last fall, there were two fellows after Miss Mary, besides Percy Thornton, who's always on the job. One was young Felders of Sydney—pots of money and all that, but devilish fast with the girls. He made a dead set on Mary directly he saw her, but he never got the ghost of a look in. Sir Henry told him flatly he didn't wish him to know her. Then, there was the Tavish man. No scandal about girls there, but rumours of shady financial ways that had made him rich. Just the same 'keep off the grass, please,' straight to his face. I must say Miss Vane was not apparently taken with either of these gentlemen, for she plainly acted with her father in choking them off. So you see, my boy, money's nothing to them. Now about their social life. There's no more exclusive set in all Australia—they're most deucedly particular whom they admit to terms of friendship. No, they're not a bit snobby. They have acquaintances everywhere in all walks of life; rich and poor, it doesn't make any difference.
"Plenty of acquaintances I say, but friends—ah! that's the difficulty. They keep themselves very much to themselves. It takes a long while before any one can say they're friends of the family. It's a deuced hard set to get into. Before you're ever invited up to dinner, or indeed into the house, you've first got to be thoroughly approved of by Sir Henry. He's a man of the world. He's quite a democrat in his way, and free and easy, and hail-fellow-well-met with, as I say, all sorts of people here. But behind it all, he's still got the prejudices of the class in which he was born. He's an aristocrat at heart, and keeps his family proudly to himself. You can get to know Sir Henry himself easily, in a way. He races, and if you race, as I expect you will, you'll soon have a speaking acquaintanceship with him. If you go straight and don't have your horses pulled, and don't let the poor public be done in too often by too obviously in and out running, then Sir Henry will be always pleasant to you and give you a friendly nod when he sees you. But wait; that won't mean he's going to let you get behind him to his womenfolk—see? He'll be quite nice to you, but it will probably end there. He won't introduce you necessarily to Miss Mary. In a word John—you've got to make good yourself to get behind the cold reserve. No pushing from anyone outside will help you with this kind of people. It's up to you to work it yourself. One thing, however, I will say—once they really take to you and admit you as one of themselves—they're the nicest people in the world to get on with. They trust you in everything. Now, do you understand?"
"Perfectly," I said, "it's very nice of you to be so frank about it."
"Of course, however," he went on smiling, "if Miss Mary should happen to take a fancy to that nice brown face of yours—well anything might happen, for she's one of those girls who've got a lot of character behind her pretty clinging ways."
"You know the family fairly well then, Chief?"
"Yes, I do. You see, Sir Henry and I went campaigning together. I am quite a friend of theirs, and that is why I can tell you everything so plainly. And now look here, John. I shall keep a fatherly eye on you and your romance, and if ever I see a chance where I can chip in and help you—you can depend on me."
I left the Chief, at first feeling rather dis-spirited and down at the mouth, but I soon began to reason myself into a better frame of mind.
After all, I thought, I was in an infinitely better position than I was a year ago. Then, I seemed to have no chance whatever, but now, at all events as far as worldly goods were concerned, I could at least meet Sir Henry on equal terms.
I quite realised as the Chief had insisted in rubbing home, that everything now depended upon my own efforts. Well, I thought again, in getting to know Mary and her family I would leave nothing to chance. I would make the chance myself.
Directly they returned to Adelaide I determined I would lay energetic siege to the castle that held my lady love.
In the meantime I busied myself with Rataplan. I had bought a good stretch of land adjoining a farm of mine near Roseworthy and under the care of one of the station overseers, who in his time had worked in a large racing stable near Melbourne, had put Rataplan into strict training.
It was not that he was requiring much training. He was naturally a born leaper, and the work I had given him at Velvet Hills had brought him to the pink of condition.
He had always given us little trouble, but in one way I was very anxious about him.
I knew he was a very good animal, and I myself had never been astride of anything within two stone of him, but still I had never yet had the opportunity of trying him with any known good class public performer.
We had clocked him many times. He was always handicapped by a terribly slow beginning, but he had done two and a quarter miles, with me on his back, in under four minutes and a quarter and with a flying start I had known him to cover seven furlongs in one twenty-five.
So I knew he must be pretty smart, but before racing him in public, I determined to get a line to see how he compared with the general run of South Australian horses.
I set my fancy on a rather smart performer, Lad of Mine, an aged hurdler, about ten years old, that had been doing very well lately, and was generally about the eleven stone mark.
His running was a little bit of the in and out variety, but with a good jockey up, he was always to be reckoned with, even in the best of company.
I approached the owner and suggested a deal. After a little bargaining we came to terms.
Then, I sought out the jockey who usually rode him and made it worth his while to come up to Roseworthy for a trial.
Keys was the jockey's name, and I took him over the course I had arranged, and gave him every opportunity of observing its peculiarities.
He could weigh in comfortably at nine stone, but I went to scale at eleven stone six.
I didn't let him know what weight he was carrying, but I put him up on Lad of Mine with twenty-one pounds of lead under his saddle—myself, I mounted Rataplan as I was.
The trial was to be two miles and a quarter, over eight flights of hurdles, and my man sent us off to a good start.
As usual, Rataplan was dreadfully slow in getting off, and Lad of Mine's jockey looked back and grinned sympathetically when he was fully twenty yards ahead. But he didn't grin long.
I tried to ride Rataplan exactly as if we were riding in a public race. I didn't hurry or bustle him in any way at first, but just let him find, in his own time, that wonderful devouring stride of his.
He was soon gaining on Lad of Mine but Keys, good jockey that he was, made no effort to push his mount.
He was reckoning, I guessed, to profit later by the exertion of the extra work Rataplan was now putting in.
But he was reckoning I knew, without his host. At a mile Rataplan had drawn level, and for another mile the two animals raced even, side by side.
Lad of Mine was a good jumper, and it would have rejoiced any experienced racing crowd to mark the perfect way both beasts took their hurdles together.
Just when we had passed the two-mile post, I thought it about time to see what Rataplan could do. There was one more hurdle to jump, and I put him to it at a suddenly increased pace.
Lad of Mine came over faultlessly a length behind us and then, with about three hundred yards to go, I touched Rataplan slightly with the whip and let him out.
It filled me with delight to feel him instantly draw away. Lad of Mine made a game effort to come after him, but he might have been fetlock deep in mud, for all the effect it had, and Rataplan passed the winning post fully ten lengths ahead.
"What were we giving you?" called out Keys when he came up.
"I was giving you thirteen pounds," I replied smiling.
"My word, but he's a corker then. He went that last furlong like he was in a sprint. Why don't you put him on the flat, sir?"
"Because for one thing, he's a terribly slow beginner, and for another I don't think he'll be handy enough at the turns. He loses badly at the corners."
We gave both horses a good rest, and then changed mounts. I promised Keys a box of cigars if he caught me before we reached the first mile post.
I slipped Lad of Mine away sharply, and was quickly many lengths ahead of Rataplan, but Keys no doubt thinking of the cigars, shook the latter up a great deal more than I had seen fit to, and easily caught me before the mile was reached.
He was most enthusiastic about Rataplan, and echoed almost word for word what the manager had told me the first time I was introduced to the gelding.
"I don't think, Mr. Stratton," he concluded, "we shall find a horse in the State able to beat him at level weights."
Rataplan gave his first bow to the public at a Balaklava meeting, and with nine stone up, made a small field of seven look exceedingly silly.
Then he went on next to Gawler, and with nine stone seven this time, gave the good people there a great, if not exactly profitable, treat, by the easy way he trounced thirteen others. He started a little over eight to one.
Then I entered him for a handicap hurdle at Victoria Park, and this time he was allotted ten stone seven.
The handicappers were evidently waking up to the gelding's possibilities, I thought, and I was looking forward to the time when the weight allotted would allow of my taking the mount myself.
Several smart performers were entered at Victoria Park, and Rataplan would now be running against some quite respectable animals.
I was early in the paddock that afternoon, and had a good look over the other competitors. Sunrise in particular took my fancy. He was a handsome chestnut—an old Oakbank hero, and was carrying top weight—eleven stone ten.
Then there were two others on the eleven stone three mark. Podger and the Wizard, both very good looking animals, and not to be despised.
Very much lower in the handicap there was Kilkenny, nine stone seven, a very useful-looking little beast, just beginning to make some name for himself in moderate company.
Altogether there were fifteen horses ready to run. Rataplan had a lot of admirers, and most people stopped to have a look at him as they passed his stall. It was not often a hurdler was put up fourteen pounds so quickly.
I gave Keys very particular instructions about the race. Rataplan was drawn number one against the rails, but I knew from his slow beginning, the position would be of no use to him. So I told Keys that if he were tailed off as usual, to bring him right round on the outside, and when he made up ground, to keep him well behind the leaders until he entered the straight. The only thing I had found that really annoyed the gelding was the dust.
I finally told Keys that once in the straight he was to win as he liked, for I wanted the weight raised so that I could take the next mount myself. Keys grinned at this part of the instructions, and remarked that in fifteen years' racing he'd never been told such a thing before. The invariable command he received was to keep the win down if possible to half a length.
I was just giving him a leg up before he went on to the course when happening to look up, I suddenly saw Mary and her father among the crowd against the palings.
The girl noticed me at the same moment, and in a flash, I saw the changing expression on her face. The eyebrows contracted sharply and sweetly curved lips parted just a little. She stared hard at me for a moment and then, evidently taking in the number on Rataplan's saddle-cloth, quickly dropped her eyes and began turning over the pages of the programme she was holding in her hand.
"Good," I thought delightfully, "now she will at least know my name."
But Rataplan had got a little excited with the close proximity of the crowd and I had for a moment to transfer all my attention to getting his jockey safely into the saddle. When I looked round, about half a minute later, the girl and her father had disappeared.
I went up into the owner's stand with a great happiness in my heart. Now at last the waiting was all over and I was, for good or evil, for good luck or bad luck, face to face with the difficulties of winning the hand of the girl I loved.
It was only for a very short time, however, that I could give way to my thoughts.
The usual shout went up that the horses had started on their way.
The start was only about two hundred yards off the grandstand, and as they came before us and over the first flight of hurdles Rataplan was, as I expected, quite ten lengths behind the rest of the field, but I noticed with satisfaction, that Keys had brought him well away from the rails and pretty well clear of the dust of the other horses.
He took the first hurdle in faultless style, and the crowd knowing something now of his peculiarly slow beginnings, cheered ironically as he passed before them.
Keys seemed to take the cheers to his own account, and turning towards the stands, grinned appreciatively at the noise they were making.
The field was soon well away from us, but Rataplan had found his stride, and was quickly overhauling them.
When they were opposite the grand stand on the far side of the course, he had worked his way well up into the bunch of the middle horses. Only Sunrise and Kilkenny were then well in front, with perhaps three lengths between them and the others.
Just before coming to the turn leading into the straight run for home, I saw Keys begin to get busy on Rataplan, and before any one could almost take it in, the gelding had flashed up level with Sunrise and Kilkenny.
Both Sunrise and Kilkenny had got something in hand, and the three came away together, almost in line. Then Rataplan lost slightly at the turn and came into the straight, a good length behind the other two.
The crowd shouted "Sunrise, Sunrise wins easily—no Kilkenny," but Rataplan was now putting in his fine burst of speed, and there was at once no question about the issue.
Kilkenny crumpled up immediately, but Sunrise, perhaps remembering his old sprinting days, for a moment held Rataplan in check. Only for a moment, however, and the latter came away from his now solitary opponent, length upon length. When they passed opposite the Derby stand Rataplan was a good five lengths in front, and Keys (enjoying himself immensely), turned his grinning face towards the crowd and waved his hand.
Rataplan ran home easily a winner by seven lengths, and returned £3 15s. dividend—being almost co-favourite with Sunrise.
I met the gelding as he came in, and it was a proud moment for me as he affectionately nosed up to my hand. The public were very much taken with his performance, and surged up to the palings to get a good look at us both.
I had been introduced to the great Percy Thornton earlier in the day, and he was among the first to congratulate me.
"You have a magnificent animal there," he said, "and anything is possible with him, but why on earth, man, don't you run him on the flat?"
Sir Henry Vane came up as we were talking, and young Thornton at once introduced us.
"A new conquering hero, Sir Henry," he said, "a gentleman who has come from up country to teach us poor city chaps how to run our horses."
Sir Henry smiled pleasantly, but not offering to shake hands gave me a little bow.
Half mechanically I saluted him in return, and his fine face flushed up with pleasure.
"Force of habit I expect Mr. Stratton," he said genially. "Well all the same it's sometimes very pleasing to an old campaigner. It takes us back to those happy days when we all had hard work to do."
"Yes, Sir Henry," I returned, smiling easily. "I remember you at Bullecourt and later on before Amiens."
"Ah, we lived then, Mr. Stratton, didn't we? It was risk and danger all the time, but it was the champagne of life all the same."
We chatted lightly for a few minutes, and in parting I could see I had made a good impression on him, for he shook hands cordially before moving away.
All the while out of the tail of my eye I could see Miss Mary up on one of the stands. She was interestedly watching my conversation with her father, and I took care, every now and then, to let her know I had got my eye on her too.
Internally, I was greatly excited at speaking to her father, but outwardly at least, I prided myself there was no trace of the state of my feelings within.
I had held myself upright and straight as became a soldier, and the whole time had talked easily and without embarrassment of my service in France. Remembering the part I intended him to play in my future life, I was anxious to make good at once that I was no ignorant and uncultivated hobble-de-hoy.
Waiting for the starting of the next race, I stood by the palings near the weighing-in room, thinking that by remaining there I could get a nice half view of Miss Mary's face all the time. She soon became aware that I was watching her, and at once very obligingly made a half turn round so that I could see her full face. "You sweet little minx," I thought, "you've got some pluck in you besides your pretty ways. You know I want to look at you and you're purposely giving me the chance."
I thoroughly enjoyed myself that afternoon. Everything, I thought, was going on well. Rataplan had covered me with honour and glory—lots of nice people had been brought up and introduced to me; I was on good speaking terms with Mary's father, and last but not least—Mary had herself suggested to me in a deliciously provoking way, that it was just possible the longing and the hunger in my heart might be having all the time its exact counterpart in the soft and gentle breast of the sweet girl only a few yards away.
Things, however, didn't move as quickly as I had hoped, for after that day, try as I might, I didn't seem to be able to get any closer to the Vane family. I joined everything and went everywhere where I thought Mary would be likely to go, but without any real success.
I saw her every now and then at public functions, and we always exchanged glances in a frankly mutually interested way.
I felt I had told her many times in an unspoken way that I admired her, and in return, I always thought the sweetest look in the world came over her face when her eyes purposely met mine.
Of one thing, I became very certain. Directly I did get to know the girl, the preliminaries to our sweet-hearting should be of very brief duration.
I would go straight to the point, I thought, and tell her at once that I loved her. I believed too she would want me to be brief, for I knew quite well we had told each other many times with our eyes of the mysterious desire that was overshadowing us both.
I called on the Chief one day and complained of my slow progress. He seemed very much amused.
"Well, as I told you," he laughed, "you're not going to get Mary without a fight. She's a charming girl, and if I were heart-whole I should sigh like you. One thing, however, I can let you know, to cheer you up. She's interested in you—quite interested, and very frank about it too. I was dining there last week and something brought up your name. I was sitting opposite Miss Mary, and, my dear John, I saw the prettiest blush imaginable, as she dropped her eyes upon the plate. A little later, however, she joined in the conversation herself and asked me where you lived. I said, I assure you, all the nice things I could about you, and pictured you as the very ideal of a young man."
"Well, Chief," I said disappointedly as I took up my hat to go, "I wish Sir Henry were inclined to be a bit more friendly—he's always very nice when I meet him, but as you see, it all ends there. However, I'm on the look out and you see if I don't do something desperate soon."
Two days after my conversation with the Chief, what I thought was an opportunity presented itself.
I heard Sir Henry was selling a couple of his two-year-old fillies, Pearly Tears and Melinda. They were good little fillies, and I had seen them both in running at various times.
I thought I would ring him up—tell him I would like to buy them, and ask him if he could see me, if I came up at twelve o'clock straight away.
Twelve was very near one, I argued, and it was quite possible that if Sir Henry had made a good bargain with me over the fillies, what would be more natural than that he should ask me to lunch.
At any rate I thought I would try it. My hand was trembling when I took up the receiver, but being put through to Aviemore I said who I was, and asked to speak to Sir Henry. Sir Henry came at once to the 'phone, and hearing what I wanted, after a moment's hesitation, said twelve o'clock would do very nicely for him.
I was in the thick of it now with a vengeance.
AVIEMORE, where the Vanes lived, was barely four miles from my own place, and I had at first intended to drive myself over in the nice new car I had recently bought, but upon second thoughts I determined it should be Rataplan who should carry me on this great adventure.
I was racing Rataplan on the Saturday at the Port meeting, and had got him stabled down at Mitcham to be handy for the course. The ride to Aviemore would be a little gentle exercise for him, and apart from that his appearance at Aviemore was bound to be of some interest to Sir Henry, who was himself a most enthusiastic horse lover.
I had thought out all details of my visit most carefully, and planned everything just like a general setting on a great campaign.
I dressed myself carefully, and with a pink carnation in my buttonhole and accompanied by one of my men on a hack, at half-past eleven set out from my gates.
It was with mingled feelings that I rode up the gentle slopes on the mountain side. I was just a little nervous, but it was not the nervousness of fear. It was just that trembling that comes to most people when they are embarking upon some action upon which great issues depend.
I had felt the same sickly feeling in France just before going over the top.
But if in one way I felt nervous, in another way I felt bold as a lion. A sure instinct told me I should see and perhaps speak to Mary, and every shred of pride in me called to my manhood to assert itself and show to the girl I loved that I was strong enough and brave enough to overcome any resistance that might be offered to my wooing.
Fortune was a tricky jade I knew, but I would smile on her in spite of all set-backs she might be going to offer me.
Arriving at Aviemore in good time for my appointment, I rode confidently up the avenue, and giving Rataplan over to the care of my man, with instructions to keep him well under the shadow of the trees, boldly approached the house.
I was received by a staid, elderly butler, unmistakably English, and at once ushered into the library, where Sir Henry was sitting at his desk.
He was quite cordial to me, and we soon arranged the matter of the fillies. I, of course, agreed to what he asked at once, and we then passed on, as nearly all old soldiers do, to discussing the old days in France.
My last C.O. had been, it appeared, a great friend of his, and he was most interested to hear from one who had been actually present the story of his death. He had been killed by a shell only about three days before the conclusion of the Armistice.
We chatted most interestedly for quite half an hour; but, to my disappointment, Sir Henry said nothing about stopping to lunch, and at last, thinking I couldn't well make my stay any longer, I reluctantly rose to go.
Sir Henry rose too and moved towards the bell. He stopped, however, with his finger on the push, and remarked:—
"I see you're riding, Mr. Stratton."
"Yes, I came up here on Rataplan," I replied calmly.
"Oh!" he said briskly, "I must come and see Rataplan. I should like to have a good look at him. I'll just put on my hat."
We passed out through the hall on to the neatly gravelled path in front of the house, and my heart began to quicken.
A small group of people were standing by Rataplan, and in a flash I saw Mary was among them there.
Now for it, I thought. Sir Henry would be bound to introduce me at last.
There were four others besides Mary standing there, but their backs were turned and they didn't notice us until the noise of our footsteps on the gravel made them all turn their heads.
Mary's face was a delicious picture of perfect self-control. She must have been waiting for me to come out I thought, and preparing herself for the moment when I should actually appear.
Her sweet oval face was delicately flushed, and her lovely eyes showed what I knew well enough was only prettily assumed surprise.
Sir Henry introduced us.
"My daughter, Mr. Stratton. Admiral James, Mr. and Mrs. Ronaldson, my sister, Mrs. Townley."
They all bowed formally except Mary, and she came forward at once with a little shy smile and gave me her hand.
"I hope you won't mind, Mr. Stratton," she said prettily, with just the faintest trembling in her voice, "but I've been giving Rataplan some sugar—your man says he loves it."
"It's quite all right, Miss Vane," I replied, "he'll eat as much sugar as he can get any time."
"Oh, but isn't he a beauty?" she went on. "I thought he looked lovely with you in the paddock the other day."
I thought how lovely she looked. Pretty as I had thought her at a distance, I had never imagined the added beauty there would come into her face when she was animated. She smiled so happily with her eyes, and her cupid's bow of a mouth broke into such pretty curves when she spoke.
"Oh, you angel," I said to myself, "I'll find another use for those pretty lips of yours some day, and soon too; see if I don't."
They all stood round the gelding admiring him.
"Yes, he's perfectly magnificent," Sir Henry said. "I never saw finer shoulders in my life. He's running at the Port meeting, isn't he?"
"Yes," I replied; "next Saturday."
"I for one shall back him again," broke in the jolly-looking old admiral. "I had a pound on him last time he ran, but on Saturday I'll have to sport a fiver. I hope you'll have a good jockey up."
"Oh, well, I hope so too," I said smiling; "I'm going to ride him myself."
"You are, are you?" remarked the old man at once in a most unmistakable change of tone. "Well, I'll have a pound on, anyway."
Everyone burst out laughing, and Sir Henry said genially:—
"That's a nasty one, Mr. Stratton, isn't it? I hope you're not unduly sensitive."
"Oh," apologised the admiral quickly, "I assure I didn't mean anything at all. I was only thinking that these rough professional jockeys understand the racecourses over here better than amateurs, however good. I'm sure from the look of you, you're a devilish good rider; now, aren't you?"
"Well, I don't know about that," I replied, laughing, "but Rataplan here and I have gone many hundreds of miles together and no one gets more out of him than I do."
"I really think," said Sir Henry in a severe tone of mock solemnity, "that the very least Admiral James can do is to apologise to Mr. Stratton. I must say that in spite of the admiral's explanation it seems to me a great reflection on Mr. Stratton's horsemanship that the admiral should be reducing his investment on Rataplan from five pounds to one so quickly."
"Yes, Sir Henry," I said, joining in the fun, "no one can blame me now if on Saturday I 'pull' Rataplan out of pique."
Just then a gong sounded in the distance, and I got ready promptly to say my good-byes.
But Mary, plucky little darling that she was, came to my rescue at once before I could say anything.
"Perhaps Mr. Stratton will stay to luncheon, father," she said, meeting my eyes boldly, with the frankest expression of friendliness.
Sir Henry hesitated for perhaps the slightest fraction of a second, but then joined in heartily with the invitation.
"We shall be delighted if Mr. Stratton will," he said, and then, perhaps to make up, I thought, for not having been the first to offer me his hospitality, he went on genially, "and Mary, as Mr. Stratton has just agreed to take over those two dreadful fillies of mine we'll have a magnum of champagne to wish him luck. Tell Bunting some of the Heidsieck, 1906. You'll stay, of course, Mr. Stratton?"
"With pleasure," I returned, with my eyes full on Mary. "I'm sure, it's very good of you to ask me."
"I'm very glad you've bought the fillies," now joined in the admiral. "That idea of the champagne too is an excellent one, Sir Henry. I always think that when a man's bought anything from anybody there's nothing like a champagne to seal the bargain with. At any rate the buyer then gets something for his money."
"Really, admiral, we shall have to put you in Coventry," frowned Sir Henry. "You first insult Mr. Stratton here about his riding ability, and now you insinuate that all the good he is going to get from buying these fillies of mine will be a few glasses of miserable champagne."
"Miserable champagne, be hanged. Why, that 1906 is the best stuff you've got in your cellar. But come on, Sir Henry. Let's fall in. There's Mary beckoning to us."
It was indeed a merry party at luncheon. We all sat together at one big round table, and the champagne soon put us all on good terms with one another.
Personally, I wanted that touch of champagne. It just took away the slight feeling of nervousness I was experiencing, and gave me confidence to be natural and like myself.
In a few minutes I found myself talking easily and without embarrassment, as if I had known them all my life.
Mary sat nearly opposite me, and many times during the meal, whilst the others were talking, our eyes met and held each other in the friendliest way possible. When it happened that she caught me looking at her, as she often did, she made no pretence at all of turning her eyes away, but looked back at me with such a sweet provoking look upon her face that it was I who had to drop my eyes lest the others should see there the admiration in them.
Everybody was very nice to me, and, of course, being the greatest stranger at the table, I was generally the centre of their conversation.
I soon found they all apparently knew something about me, for they asked me a lot of questions about bush life. Then Mrs. Townley said, "You're interested in sheep, aren't you, Mr. Stratton?" and when I replied "Rather," she asked me interestedly if I had many.
"Well," I said cautiously, "probably, what you would call many; I have about twenty-eight thousand at Velvet Hills."
"Good gracious," she exclaimed, "I should think I should call it many; and who looks after them when you're away?"
"Oh," I replied, "I have a splendid manager and he has overseers under him, who in turn look after the station hands."
"Did you say Velvet Hills?" interrupted Mr. Ronaldson, who hitherto hadn't spoken much.
"Yes, Velvet Hills, beyond Pimba."
"Then you must be a relation of the Mr. Sidney Stratton who died about three months ago."
"Yes, he was my cousin, and the station came to me through him. Did you know him?"
"I knew him very well years ago. I am a member of the legal profession, Mr. Stratton, and at one time did a lot of conveyancing for your cousin. Besides the sheep station he had a great many interests in the city, hadn't he?"
"Yes," I replied; "so many that when he died I really don't think he knew how many he did have."
"And did he—did he?" he went on, and then hesitated, apparently not wishing to be too inquisitive.
"Oh, yes," I said, guessing the drift of his question. "He left everything to me. I was his sole heir."
"Then you're a lucky man, Mr. Stratton, and you must be a very rich one, too."
Everyone had been listening with interest to our remarks, but a silence fell over the table after Mr. Ronaldson had finished speaking.
It was an opportunity I had been waiting for, and turning towards Sir Henry I said impressively:—
"And do you know, Sir Henry, everything I have to-day I owe to you."
Sir Henry looked at me very puzzled, and I went on.
"Yes, sheep station, lands, houses—everything. Every brick I own, every yard of land, indeed, every penny I possess, came to me in the first instance through you."
"Well, I'm very pleased, indeed, Mr. Stratton, very pleased, but," smiling and shrugging his shoulders, "I'm quite in the dark."
"Oh, do tell us, Mr. Stratton," said Mrs. Townley; "I'm sure it'll be a nice story."
They all looked at me interestedly, but Mary, I noticed, seemed rather embarrassed. She dropped her eyes on her plate and nervously crumbled a piece of bread between her pretty white fingers.
"Well, it was like this," I began. "One Saturday a little over a year ago, I had no money at all. I had never had much at any time, but the little I did have had been stolen from me, and I was very hard up. You dropped your pocket book, Sir Henry, in King William Street, by the G.P.O. I picked it up and returned it to you, and you gave me a ten-pound note. At first I didn't want to take it, but," and here I flashed a look at Mary, who looked up and smiled encouragingly, "I did. Well, I was so shabby that I thought the only place to change the ten-pound note was at the post office, where they wouldn't ask me any questions. So I bought a post card to get change, and I was so pleased and excited at having so much money that in fun I sat down, there and then, and wrote myself a post card. I remember, I congratulated myself upon the good luck that had come, and told myself everything would now be all right. I addressed the post card to myself, care of the G.P.O., and slipped it in the box.
"Then I went to the races and turned that ten pounds into nearly three hundred in the afternoon."
"Great Scott!" ejaculated the admiral, "what did you back?"
"Be quiet at once, admiral," remonstrated Mrs. Townley, "don't interrupt, or you shan't have any port."
The admiral made a wry face at me and subsided. I went on: "Well, on the Monday I was passing the post office, and I happened to remember quite casually about the post card. I went in for it, and found there was a letter waiting for me as well—a letter from my cousin at Velvet Hills. I had never dreamed of him writing to me, for we had quarrelled, and he was the last person in the world I should have expected a letter from. Well, I went up to Pimba, as my cousin begged me to in his letter, and made it up with him. I was with him for nine months, and when he died he left me all he had. The point is, Sir Henry, that if you hadn't given me that ten-pound note, I should never have bought a post card, and should never have called for any more letters at all. I should never have gone near my cousin, and he would have left everything to his brother-in-law, already a rich man, who was a hot favourite, and lived on the spot. So, that is why I owe everything to you."
"Well, sir," said Sir Henry, after a moment's silence, "I'm sure I'm very glad to have been the unwitting means of helping you. I remember the circumstances very well. There was over £200 in that pocket book, and it was a shock to me when you brought it to the car. I didn't know I had dropped it. And you went and actually made nearly £300 at the races?"
"Yes, I had £2 on Rose of Dawn at sixty-one and a half to one, and afterwards £50 on the favourite in the last race, Rattler's Pride."
"Well," broke in the admiral, "you deserve to win. Anyone who had the pluck to put fifty quid on Rattler's Pride ought to get everything he wants in this world. The rotten beast belongs to a friend of mine, and he'd never won a race before nor has done since. Confound him."
"Take no notice of Admiral James, Mr. Stratton," said Mrs. Townley, "he's a terrible gambler and a shocking judge of form. How he ever came to put a pound on Rataplan the other day puzzles me. But what a wonderful romance yours is; and it's all happened in such a short space of time, too!"
We went into the drawing-room after luncheon, and seeing a violin on the piano, I guessed at once it was Mary's, and picked it up.
"Do you play, Mr. Stratton?" asked Mary in a voice that to me had become the sweetest sound in all the world.
"Yes, a bit," I replied, in a non-commital way.
"Oh! then you must try my violin and tell me what you think of it. Father gave it to me only the other day."
The others chimed in with their requests, and I was invited to choose what piece of music I liked from a heap on the table. Mary said she would accompany me.
I turned over the pieces of music, and almost at once came upon "Love's Old Sweet Song."
Could anything be more appropriate I thought, as I placed it before Mary on the piano.
Mary got a little red and gave me a quick look, half shy and half amused I thought, but I didn't care. There was going to be nothing of the timid I-don't-know-my-own mind sort of business about my wooing.
I snuggled the violin up closely to my chin, thinking happily all the while that it was Mary's and that many a time she must have put her own dear little chin where I was now resting mine. I even thought I could smell a delicious scent about it, a perfume that could have only come direct from her.
Mary commenced playing at once to cover her embarrassment, and in a few seconds the violin joined in.
Now I flattered myself I was in good form, and just in the very mood to do justice to the piece I had selected.
With all its sweetness, it is a sad, haunting melody, and I tried to bring out something of the unsatisfied and hungry yearning that runs like a crimson thread through the bars. I tried to portray, not only the rapture and the longing of passion, but also the sighs and the tears that must so often follow it to its end.
There was an appreciative silence for a few seconds when I had finished, and then they all broke into a chorus of thanks.
I played several pieces more, and it was nearly four o'clock when Rataplan was finally brought round to the door for my return home.
Then I asked Sir Henry if he would like to try the gelding's paces, and he trotted unsuspiciously up and down the avenue, whilst I talked to Mary.
It was the first time I had been alone with her. She was now quite at her ease, and took possession of me in a charming way.
"I remember you so well," she said with a smile that showed up a perfect row of little even white teeth; "that day at the post office I mean, and I saw you again a few days after, but you were differently dressed then."
I stood opposite to her watching the pretty upturned face with calculating and devouring eyes. Now that I could take her in calmly, I noticed a difference in her from a year ago. She was a little more of a woman now, a little less of a girl. Her figure was a little fuller and the soft curves of her body spoke now of a beauty ripening quickly to its most bewitching days.
"Miss Vane," I replied as impressively as I could, "I never forgot you, and whenever I have seen you since I have always remembered what you told me when Sir Henry wanted me to take the ten-pound note. You said then it would bring me luck."
"And so it has; but I suppose, manlike, you're not content," she went on laughing.
"No, there are other things I want badly, but I'm going to get those too now," and I smiled back at her in the same laughing way.
She reddened up a little and seemed about to say something, when Sir Henry pulled up and dismounted from Rataplan.
"Mr. Stratton," he exclaimed enthusiastically, "you've given me a great treat. I'm sure I've never had my legs over anything finer in my life."
A little later and I rode home slowly in a delicious reverie.
I loved Mary with the strongest passion of my life, and a sure instinct told me that when I asked her she would come gladly to my arms. How sweet and dainty she had looked, I thought, and what pretty, clinging ways she had. But with all her gentleness, what courage there was there! She had looked straight back at me I remembered, with those calm, clear eyes of hers, and told me instinctively, without fear or shame, that one day at the propitious hour, the making or the marring of her happiness would pass to me and all she could offer would be mine.
Two days after the luncheon at Aviemore I met the Chief in his car on North Terrace. Seeing me, he pulled up at once.
"By Jove, young man, you've got a nerve," he said. "You'll get on all right. Practically inviting yourself to lunch, playing 'Love's Old Sweet Song' to Miss Mary, and looking at her all the time as if she already belonged to you. No, you needn't get indignant. No one told me that. I only heard what happened, and I guessed at once you'd planned and schemed it all. Buying those two fillies to get Sir Henry in a good humour, you young dog! Well, good luck to you, my boy, I won't give you away."
And he tootled off before I could get in a reply.
The following Saturday at Cheltenham it seemed all Adelaide was there. There was a good programme provided, and Rataplan was in the Steeplechase in the fourth race.
He was in with eleven stone two, and to my disgust I found I should have to declare five pounds over-weight.
I spoke to Mary and Sir Henry in the paddock, and they both wished me good luck; Sir Henry with a warning that he wouldn't answer for my safety if the admiral lost his pound, and Mary with a gentle pressure of the dear little hand that for a moment I held happily in mine.
"Now, Mr. Stratton," said Sir Henry, in tones of mock entreaty, "don't go and let us all down. The admiral has found a bookmaker who's given him twelve to one against Rataplan on the strength of your riding, and my daughter, I believe, is going to take a five-shilling ticket for Mrs. Townley in the ladies' tote. We shall all be on the stand, and if you don't hear us shout as you go by, it won't be because we don't want you to win."
Keys came up to me just as I had got into my colours, lilac and old gold. He was grinning, as usual.
"Good luck to you, sir," he said heartily. "The boys are all friendly and most of them hope you'll win. I'm on Braintree—not a ghost of a chance unless all the others fall. Red Pottage will be the favourite with Spiffins up. You look out for Red Pottage, Mr. Stratton. They're a rum lot. If the stable means business to-day, and Spiffins is really out for blood, he'll lie handy with Red Pottage, see if he doesn't, until just before he reaches the Derby Stand, and then he'll come on with a spurt that will shake up even Rataplan. Don't forget sir, Red Pottage was a sprinter once."
I thanked Keys gratefully for his information about Red Pottage, but I was quite aware already that to-day at least I could play no tricks with Rataplan. We were up against some of the best fencers in South Australia, and an amateur jockey riding against professionals is always at a disadvantage to the extent of quite seven pounds.
I should be the only amateur riding, and although I had done a considerable amount of steeplechasing behind the lines in France, experience is a thing that counts more than anything in racing, and I knew I should be miles behind some of my present opponents in general craft and local knowledge of the course.
My great hope was that Rataplan being so extraordinarily good, his quality would make up for any deficiencies I might have.
It was a great moment however for me when I rode out on to the course in all the glory of lilac and old gold.
Rataplan was perfect in his action, and a buzz of admiration came up as I cantered out before the stand.
Then a section of the crowd began to cheer and laugh ironically. "Owner up and five pound over-weight declared," seemed to most of them to spell disaster at once, besides being rather cocksure and cheeky as well.
I knew there was a lot of hostility to us at the tote, and, judging by the amount being invested, public confidence was at a very low ebb.
But I wasn't in the least nettled by the action of the crowd; instead, I nodded back smilingly to them, as if I wanted them to understand I wasn't worrying at all, and was only out just for a bit of fun.
Their cheers seemed to change a little at that, and one man called out encouragingly, "Well, he's a well plucked 'un, anyhow."
Turning round, I put the gelding to a fine sharp gallop back to the starting post.
The crowd might sneer, I thought, but, at any rate, they should see I could ride, and was master, too, of the fine animal I was handling.
Rataplan stretched himself out and gave them a most perfect exhibition of a thoroughbred in action.
I heard afterwards that in that half-minute we made plenty of friends, and in the last few minutes for investment the totalisator was busier on our behalf than at any time previously.
The start took place right on the other side of the course, with the railway line not a hundred yards distant.
Rataplan never liked trains, and I was hoping none would come by when we were getting ready. Just at the last moment, however, one pulled up noisily, and the gelding began to fidget and turn and try to break away.
I was drawn number twelve out of the fifteen, and was right away from the rails, and consequently quite near to the beastly engine that had come up.
Rataplan gave me a lot of trouble, and I knew the people on the stands would be cursing the rotten amateur who was delaying the start.
The start, however, was a good one at last, and we all got off in a straight line.
Rataplan was preparing to treat himself to his usual generous allowance of time in getting fairly going, but the engine-driver made his engine shriek suddenly just as we started, and the effect on the gelding was electrical.
He burst away at a tremendous bat, and fifty yards from the start I was clear ahead of all the others by at least three lengths.
"Good," I said to myself. "Now, my beauty, you shall just stop here. I ask for nothing better."
It was just what I wanted. I was out well by myself and clear from all the bustle and dangers that would attend the jumps.
Coming past the stands I was on excellent terms with myself, and didn't mind who saw it.
We were leading by about five lengths, and Rataplan was going in faultless style. He was setting the field a fine pace, and already there was a good tail behind us. Coming to the stand fence he skimmed over it like a bird, and I heard afterwards it was then that it began to dawn for the first time upon some of the doubters in the stands that there might be some good after all in the riding of the presumptuous amateur before them.
At any rate, it was then that the jockeys behind me began to get uneasy. Up to now they had evidently thought the pace too hot to last, and that Rataplan would soon come back to the other horses. But more than a third of the distance had now been accomplished, and I was still slowly but surely drawing away.
I could feel rather than see them get busy on their mounts, and the noise and shouting of them behind me became gradually clearer.
I quickened up Rataplan ever so little however, and kept still just in front until we came opposite the stands on the other side of the course.
Then out of the tail of my eye I took stock of my opponents.
There were evidently only four of us to be reckoned with. Save for a fall the rest were too far behind me now to be dangerous.
Storm King was nearest to me, but Vexatious and the redoubtable Red Pottage were running barely half a length behind him. All the three of them seemed full of running, and only biding their time.
None of us yet were fully extended.
At the six-furlong post Vexatious was closing on Storm King, with the two now about a length behind me.
Red Pottage was going easily, level with their flanks. I was not hurrying my mount in the least, but was waiting for the final rush, determined however, to get mine in first.
There would be some heart-breaking for the moment on the stands, I thought, for to those watching there it must have seemed as if Rataplan had almost shot his bolt, and was now first only on sufferance.
About half a mile from home, however, I suddenly urged the gelding almost to top pace, and he put daylight at once between us and his three opponents.
My manoeuvre seemed rather to upset the others. Again I guessed they evidently thought the pace too hot to last, but not knowing how much I had in hand, and the winning post being now so much nearer, this time they couldn't afford to take any risks.
So after me they all came full pelt, and a nice pace I led them.
Vexatious cracked up in less than fifty yards, but Red Pottage and Storm King came on in good fighting style, and, running well together, again got to within a length of me.
We took the last fence exactly in this order, and one hundred yards from home our positions were unchanged.
A mighty roar came up from the stands, and a wave of terrible but delicious excitement thrilled through me.
I kept my head, however, and steadying the gelding for one final rush, brought my whip down once sharply on his flank.
The pace instantly became terrific, but I felt my weight was telling, and that Rataplan was now all out.
Storm King dropped away to nothingness, but, to my dismay, the outstretched head of Red Pottage loomed slowly up alongside and drew level with my girths. A terrible doubt oppressed me.
Rataplan could go no faster, I knew. Could he, indeed, keep up any longer the fierce pace he was now going?
Could Red Pottage go any faster either, or had the long run-in I had provided for him taken it all out of him in his turn.
I rode as in a dream with the great quivering head near beside me, and then, as in a dream too, the head jerked quickly forward, stopped, drew back and faded right away.
Red Pottage had shot his bolt, but Rataplan was stopping quickly too, and it was by one length only that we ran in first past the post.
I received a great ovation from the crowd. Most of them were losers over my success—Rataplan returned £11 5s.—but they were good sports and pleased to see an amateur win.
They quite mobbed the gelding in the paddock, and everyone I knew crowded round to congratulate me.
Mary looked happy as a queen, and awarded me a warm shake of her dear little hand.
"You rode splendidly, Mr. Stratton," she said. "I never saw a horse and rider so fitted for each other; we were thrilled all the way through."
The old admiral was full of glee. "By gad, my boy," he positively shouted directly he came near, "but it was a close thing. I thought my quid had gone west over yonder. I was nearly selling it to Miss Vane; she offered me ten shillings for it, but fortunately I didn't take it."
Sir Henry, too, was all smiles. He had had a tenner on me.
"You hit the Red Pottage lot, all right, young man," he said. "They'd almost put the stable door on, so much so that if they'd won they would only have got 'five to four on' for their money at the tote. But I understand they had backed it heavily at twos before the race. You upset Master Spiffins by coming away so soon; he said if you hadn't he'd have had you right enough."
Before the Vane party left the course that afternoon, Mrs. Townley asked me to come up to dinner the following Wednesday. I was indeed getting on, I thought.
THE stream of life began to flow very happily for me then.
They say money isn't everything, but I was soon finding that if you have it, most things come your way.
I got to know all the nicest people in Adelaide, and as a wealthy young unmarried man was quickly admitted everywhere.
Percy Thornton and I became great friends. We had so many tastes in common and we went out a lot together.
We naturally talked of almost everything under the sun, but by tacit consent we never mentioned Mary.
I knew he had been for a long time sweet in that quarter, and he must have somehow guessed how my feelings were in that direction too.
I met Mary quite often now, but could not somehow manage ever to get her alone to myself.
I had been twice to dinner at Aviemore, and once to a dance there. It was always heaven to me to be where Mary was, but outwardly at all events, my courting had not progressed nearly as rapidly as I had hoped.
I knew for certain, however, there was a sure understanding between us, and when, in saying good-bye I used to hold her hand rather longer than necessary, she used to answer me back with such a calm challenging look in her pretty eyes that I always went away in a terrible hunger of longing until I should see her again.
We were both of us only just waiting for our happiness, I knew.
Commonsense, however, told me not precipitately to hurry matters. Sir Henry was, I knew quite well, most punctilious and rather old fashioned in all social and family matters, and he would have considered it, I was sure, a great piece of impudence if I had too openly shown my hand upon so short an acquaintanceship.
So the weeks rolled on.
I had made one enemy, however, Leonard Hounsell, the owner of Red Pottage. He had never forgiven me for Rataplan beating his animal at the Port Meeting. Rumour had it that he had lost two thousand pounds by my success.
One afternoon Percy Thornton remarked to me, "I say, Stratton, that man Hounsell is always grousing everywhere about Rataplan. He says, old man, that you're a damn bad rider, and only won by a fluke."
"Oh, he does, does he," I replied. "Well I'll just get Master Hounsell on toast."
I looked for an opportunity, but didn't get it for some days. Then one afternoon I met the owner of Red Pottage in the lounge of Tattersall's Club.
He gave me a curt nod, which I acknowledged with an even curter one. I made as if to move away, and then stopped as I suddenly remembered something.
"Oh, by the bye, Mr. Hounsell," I said loudly so as to attract every one's attention, "I understand you rather think Rataplan's beating of Red Pottage at Cheltenham the other day a little bit of a fluke, don't you?"
Hounsell hesitated a moment, and seemed slightly uncomfortable, but he couldn't well get out of replying to so direct a question.
"Well, if you ask me—frankly I do," he replied. "My opinion is that Red Pottage would beat your animal three times out of four."
"All right," I replied, "then let's run it over again. I'm quite willing. Let's make a match of it, same weights, same distance, same riders, and £500 a side—whenever you like."
He seemed taken aback at my bringing the matter to a head so quickly, and hummed and hawed a long while before replying. Then he said slowly:—
"Well, I'll consider it. I would run it off to-morrow, but Red Pottage has been coughing, and is no good for awhile. I'll let you know later."
I knew it was a lie, and so did every one else there. But I let it go at that, and moved off contemptuously.
One day about a week after the meeting at the club, I thought I noticed a slight change in Sir Henry. I met him at lunch at a mutual friend's, and to my astonishment he seemed very short in his answers when I spoke, and very disinclined to talk to me at all.
I thought perhaps he wasn't feeling very well, and consequently didn't take much notice of it. But meeting him about a week later in the street, he was going to pass me by if I hadn't stopped him, with just a half smiling little nod, and I knew at once that something was wrong.
We exchanged just a few commonplace remarks and then, apologising he was in a hurry, he went off abruptly, leaving me with a very unpleasant feeling in my mind.
What on earth had I done, I thought? I had put my foot in it somehow, I was positive, but the difficulty I knew, would be to find out exactly what fault I had committed.
I expected, however, to meet both Sir Henry and Mary at Morphettville the following Saturday, and might, I thought, find out something then. Sir Henry was running a two-year-old there. But to my disgust none of the Vane family put in an appearance, and it was left to Percy Thornton to tell me that they had gone motoring for the day.
I began to get anxious, for I knew it was not like Sir Henry to run any of his horses and not be present to see them run.
A fortnight went by and I had not got even so much as a glimpse of either Mary or her father. They seemed to have suddenly dropped out of my life.
They were at Aviemore I knew, and all quite well, for Percy Thornton had been playing billiards up there several nights.
I didn't know at all what to do. I kept a stiff upper lip and went about smiling, but to myself I was miserable, and, soldier as I had been, tears were always near my eyes.
When things were blackest, however, the sun came out in all its glory. I met Mary in King William Street.
She was walking with another girl I knew slightly, and we all stopped at once when we met.
Mary had blushed to a most lovely colour on seeing me, but she was quite composed, and gave me her hand in her usual pretty way.
"Oh, Mr. Stratton, how fortunate," she said, "you know Miss North, don't you? I wanted particularly to see you. I have something to tell you. Clara," she went on, turning to her friend, "you want to do some more shopping dear, don't you? Well, Mr. Stratton promised the other day to give me the best ice cream in Adelaide, and I'll hold him to his word now. It's half-past eleven, and you've got just half an hour. Meet me at twelve exactly, just in front of the Bank of Adelaide."
Her friend bustled off in a most tactful way, and Mary turned to me with a little catch in her voice.
"Now, Mr. Stratton—take me somewhere—I really want an ice, and it's the very least you can give me for the fib I've just been telling for you." Then she added with a little smile, "I don't know what poor father would say. I believe it's most improper for me to come alone with you, but I shall have to risk it. So come along quickly."
Everything had happened so suddenly that I had hardly managed to get in a word, but it was all bearing out what I had always thought. Sweet and clinging as Mary always looked, there was nothing undetermined about her character, and behind all those pretty gentle ways there was a courage and resource that would be used unsparingly in the service of the man she loved.
I led her down some stairs into a cafe, and choosing a table in a quiet corner of the room, we sat down in the cool semi-darkness to enjoy our first conversation alone together.
The cafe was almost empty, and we had our part of the room entirely to ourselves.
I was in the seventh heaven to think of the confidence she had in me, but at the same time knowing more of the world than she did, I was feeling rather nervous lest any one who knew her should see us there. Her father would be so annoyed, I thought.
She sat opposite to me with only a little narrow table between us, and she looked so sweet and pretty. Her face was gently flushed with the excitement, and her large blue eyes sparkled with interest and animation.
"It's awfully sweet of you to come down here, Miss Mary," I said, "but I really don't think I ought to have brought you. Sir Henry's very particular I know, about this sort of thing."
"Oh, never mind my father, Mr. Stratton, I'll make it all right with him if he ever hears about it. I had to come to speak to you."
"I wanted to speak to you badly," I replied tenderly, "do you know I haven't seen you now for over three weeks?"
"What a dreadful time! I wonder you've existed."
"Well, I've been very unhappy about it, and very worried to know why it was—I couldn't believe it was only accident."
"No, it wasn't accident. Some one's been putting father against you, Mr. Stratton, and that's why you have not been asked up."
"What on earth have I done? Have I been looking at you too much?"
She turned her eyes away for a moment, and then gave me a deliciously arch look.
"I didn't say I had complained, did I?" she said demurely, "perhaps I haven't noticed it."
"Well, I meant you to notice it, anyhow," I went on, "but what have I done to upset Sir Henry?"
"I don't quite know, Mr. Stratton, and it's because I want you to put yourself right that I'm telling you now."
"You haven't the least idea, Miss Mary?"
"Yes," hesitating, "it's something about you and the police."
"Oh, that's nothing," I cried in great relief. "I can soon explain that. I know what they mean right enough."
"They told father you'd been arrested once."
"Well—so I have been—but it was all a mistake, and afterwards I was able to do the Chief Commissioner what he always considers a very great service."
"You're quite friends with General Edis, aren't you? I mean with the Chief."
"Yes, certainly I am; he's the best friend I have in Adelaide."
"That's what I told father. I knew from the way the Chief spoke of you one day at our house that you must be good friends. But you see, Mr. Stratton, father is one of the old sort, and fearfully sensitive about anyone who comes to our house."
"And quite right, too, but I wonder now who's been trying to make mischief."
Mary was silent for a moment, and then said rather reluctantly, "I don't know for certain, but I think it was that horrid Mr. Hounsell. Father met him the other day with Admiral James."
"Quite probably," I said grimly, "he hates me like poison after the Red Pottage business. But how do you think now I can best put myself right?"
"Well, I think I can tell you. You're going to the James' to dinner next Wednesday, aren't you? We're all going. Mr. Hounsell will be there too, and also the Chief. Mr. Hounsell doesn't dream you're friends with the Chief, for he told a friend of father's that it would be a sight to see your face when you met the Chief. Ask the Chief to bring up the whole thing casually in the course of conversation at dinner. The Brigadier's got plenty of tact, and is just the man to do it nicely. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, I do, and he's the very man to love taking a rise out of a mischief maker! I'll go and see him before Wednesday. But now what about you—you're sure you're coming, aren't you?"
"Quite sure. Father's a dear old thing, and didn't want to take me at first, but I made him promise. You know, Mr. Stratton, he quite liked you before this happened."
"Of course he did," I said stoutly, "I wanted him to. I liked coming up to your place. There are attractions there."
Mary smiled roguishly, and I asked her if she'd like some sweets. She thanked me, but said no.
"I suppose you think you're sweet enough yourself without them," I said smiling back at her.
"I didn't say so," she replied in the same vein.
"Well, some people might say you wouldn't be far wrong if you did. But don't put on your gloves yet."
"Oh, but I must, Mr. Stratton—we've been here quite long enough."
"One moment, just let me look at your hand; did you know I can tell fortunes?" She obediently passed over a pretty little hand, and I held it tightly and pretended to look at the lines.
"Hum," I said meditatively, "you've got an admirer, and he's eating his heart out for you. I see he's going to propose to you soon."
She pulled her hand away at once, but smiled happily at me with heightened colour.
"Probably I shan't accept him," she said, "you men are always so certain, aren't you?"
"Oh, no," I replied earnestly, "when a man's really in love he's awfully humble. He knows he's not half nice enough for the girl he loves. But look here, Miss Mary—if I send you up some flowers for Wednesday, will you wear them?"
"Certainly not; why, poor father would have a fit if any strange flowers came to the house. He'd shut me up for a week. But what sort of flowers would you have liked to have sent me?"
"Pink and white roses for preference—but you've none fine enough at Aviemore."
"None fine enough," she said indignantly, "why you know roses are one of father's hobbies, and we've the very finest ones in the State in our garden."
"But none fine enough," I replied stubbornly shaking my head.
Mary laughed prettily and got up to go. "Good-bye, Mr. Stratton, if you don't mind I'll go out alone. I'm sorry I can't take your flowers for Wednesday, but if I'm in a good humour that night I'll wear some pink and white roses that I shall have picked for myself, and if you should see me wearing them—you can be thinking you gave them to me yourself. Good-bye, Mr. John."
And off she tripped before I could fully take in the sweet confession wrapped in her good-bye.
Waking and sleeping, I was for ever thinking of Mary in the ensuing days.
I had now practically told her openly that I was going to ask her to marry me, and she in return, had let me know almost as openly that when I did, she would not be sending me away.
I cursed that wretched Hounsell for his mischief making, and determined to leave no steps unturned to set myself right with Sir Henry at once.
On the Monday I called on the Chief, but found to my dismay he was away in Melbourne, and would not be back until the Wednesday morning. I left a note for him, however, where he would be sure to get it the moment he returned. I didn't write much, I only just said:—
I am under a little bit of a cloud in a certain quarter because of my one time association with your department. Would you very nicely put things right casually at dinner on Wednesday evening? Let me down lightly, but you needn't keep much back.
In grief and sorrow,
P.S.—Mary's all right.
I felt very anxious until the Wednesday evening arrived, but directly I got up to the house I took my courage in my hands and determined whether the Chief came to my help or not to give myself a good run for my money.
I was a little late in arriving, and most of the company were already assembled in the drawing-room when I was ushered in.
Mary and her father were there, also Leonard Hounsell, and to my great joy, the Chief.
They were all talking together, and save for Mary, who gave me a little encouraging smile, my entrance at first was almost unnoticed.
I shook hands with Mrs. James and the admiral, and then passing round said "How-do-you-do," to Mary and Sir Henry. Sir Henry was quite nice, but only smiled a little gravely.
It was quite a big gathering in honour of the admiral's birthday, and there were lots of people there that I had got to know.
We chatted generally together for a few minutes, and then the Chief turning round apparently noticed me for the first time.
"Hello, John," he exclaimed so loudly that everyone's attention was attracted at once, "where have you been hiding? You're getting so proud now with all your racing successes that you won't even notice some of your old friends."
Dear old Chief, I thought. You are a good pal. You're losing no time, but mean to get in a good blow at once.
I shook hands cordially with him, and he drew me partly on one side with the admiral and retailed to us one of the latest jokes going about the city.
Everybody was looking at us. Sir Henry puckered up his eyebrows evidently very puzzled, and as for Mr. Leonard Hounsell, he looked as spitefully sick as his worst enemy could wish.
Dinner was duly announced, and to my surprise and joy, Mary was given me to take in. Evidently the admiral, I thought, knew nothing of the cloud I was under.
I have often in later years looked back in memory to that dinner party, and always with such happy feelings of remembrance.
There were twenty-four of us, and we all sat at one very long table. There was not too much room, and I was sitting so close to Mary that I was conscious all the time of the warmth of her dear body next to mine. Then, too, when the admiral's champagne began to circulate, conversation was so insistent and so fluent all the way round, that any couple if they so wished, could talk together in the hubbub almost as unnoticed as if they were alone.
At any rate, I know Mary and I did.
She was wearing, as I knew she would, the pink and white roses of her promise, and I duly informed her quietly how pretty she was looking.
She gave me a delicious side-look with her eyes, but only replied by telling me with mock sorrow, she was afraid I was a most fraudulent fortune teller, for so far, no one had come forward as I had confidently predicted, to claim her hand in marriage from her father.
I didn't dare then to give her back the answer I should have liked.
Presently some one at the table mentioned something about racing, and immediately the Chief's voice rose above all the others.
"All we've got to do now," he exclaimed loudly, "is just to wait until Rataplan runs again, and then back him. We shall win pots of money that way as easily as shelling peas. If we should ever lose, we'll just get our knife into Mr. Stratton here. Speaking for myself, if I'm ever out of pocket, as Chief Commissioner of the Police, I shall arrest him at once."
The company laughed and generally stopped talking to listen to the Chief's outburst.
"Oh, yes," he went on with his audience now waiting on his words, "it wouldn't be the first time I've had you arrested, would it, Mr. Stratton?"
I pretended to be very frightened, and said fearfully, "Here, Chief, you mustn't give me away."
"Come, John," he rejoined heartily, "you wouldn't spoil a good story, would you? You know, ladies and gentlemen, in some ways Mr. Stratton is quite a hero of romance, and I know he won't mind my interesting you with what happened to him a little over a year ago. You don't mind, John, do you?"
"No, I don't mind," I said resignedly, "only don't pitch it too strong."
"Well, here goes," said the Chief, delighted to have an audience breathlessly hanging on his words. "Now, I'm going to interest you. You all remember the Mount Gambier murder case something over a year ago. Well, it was not so much a single crime, as the culminating crime of a good many other crimes. It was one of a series done by the same individuals. We were desperately anxious to get these gentlemen, and the very best talent of the Commonwealth was arrayed against them. We tracked them here to Adelaide, and then we lost them.
"Mind you, we only had a description of one of them, McSwiney, Tod McSwiney. Of the other one we knew nothing, except that he was the most damnable rascal unhung.
"Well, we knew they were here in Adelaide, and we put down our net and dragged for them.
"We made a wide cast and were quite sure we'd got at least, one of them. We opened the two ends of the net at Henley and out flapped Mr. John Stratton here.
"Now we didn't know anything of our friend then. We had never seen him—never even heard of him. We were disgusted, and of course let him go. Well, two days later we cast out our net again, and this time we dragged the City, opening the two ends in Hutt Street.
"Out popped our friend John, again. This was more than we could stand. It couldn't be merely a coincidence, we thought. There must be some connection, of course, between Stratton and McSwiney. So we shadowed John hoping thereby to come upon McSwiney.
"For two days we shadowed him with four of my best men, but he somehow found it out, and a nice dance he gave them.
"He took them all over the place. He took them up and down almost every street in the city, he took them to the Art Gallery; to the Botanical Gardens; he took them to the Zoo.
"They had two hours with him on Henley Jetty while he sat looking over the side at the fishes in the sea. He walked around Grange, and I don't know where he didn't go.
"All the time they had to follow him closely. If he went into a bar, some of them had to go in too. If he stopped to look at a pretty girl—and Mr. John, let me tell you, has got a good eye for beauty—they had to stop too, and so on and so on.
"Well, this couldn't go on for ever. Apart from the fatigue and the expense of drinks, everybody's boots were getting worn out, so on the third day I had him tapped on the shoulder, and he was told to come along.
"He came quite easily, and the great Inspector Kitson and I then proceeded to ask him questions.
"I must say he wasn't exactly polite. Of course he was aggrieved at being pulled up and his dignity was hurt and all that, but as I always say, there was no need for him to be rude to us and to ask me among other things, if I happened to be the historic personage who had killed Queen Anne.
"Well we made him turn out his pockets and we found a large sum of money on him in notes, nearly £300. It looked suspicious, so I detained him while we made inquiries.
"To our disappointment we found out in a few hours that all he had told us was true. We traced his actions for almost every day of the previous three months, and found him quite an exemplary Y.M.C.A. sort of young man.
"We searched his war records and there again everything was creditable and very meritorious—I'm being very nice to you John.
"Well, the Inspector and I talked it over and I said, 'It's no good Inspector, it's another dud stunt, we must let him go, there's no connection between them.'
"Then an inspiration came to me and I blurted it out. 'By Jove, I see it all,' I said excitedly, 'there is a connection between them. Why we always find Stratton when we follow Tod is because Tod himself is after Stratton, and they're both close together all the while.' And that turned out to be the exact truth, ladies and gentlemen. The two scoundrels had seen Mr. John here pick up £300 on the racecourse, and had been tracking him down to get hold of it.
"I had Mr. Stratton back before me and explained everything to him.
"Now I flatter myself that that afternoon I carried through one of the very finest pieces of diplomacy I have ever handled.
"When the recording angel finally settles up my account, he'll put up a good big credit for the way I soothed down Master John and turned him from an angry enemy into a close ally.
"I must remind you now that McSwiney had meanwhile met his death by the sandhills on the beach. How, it has never been exactly proved, but it is generally believed that he and his companion quarrelled and the other daisy treated him to a dose of lead.
"We were very delighted he was killed, but at the same time deuced sorry we had not had a hand in it ourselves.
"The disappointing part of it was, however, we had no means now of tracking the Mount Gambier murderer number two. None of us knew what he was like; not even the famous Inspector Kitson, from whose State I am glad to say he came.
"Now that is where Mr. John here, would come in, I thought.
"If he had seen McSwiney staring at him when he drew his £300 at the totalisator window, why shouldn't he have noticed his companion too?
"I was right. Mr. Stratton remembered them both.
"I then spoke to Mr. Stratton as one man speaking to another. I told him we were very sorry we had had to take him up, but we had held it to be our duty to do so in the interests of the State. He was, however, perfectly free to go away now. I told him why we had had reason to be suspicious and I explained the fix we were then in. In fact, I took him into our confidence, and ladies and gentlemen, for the time he became one of us.
"For three days he hunted up and down the city streets, and for three days a mob of disguised service men in all sorts of get-up followed him about.
"But it was no good—there was nothing doing. Then came the climax. On the Saturday we all went to Gawler races. Almost towards the end of the afternoon, Mr. Stratton spotted his man. He prepared to give the signal, but the murderer suddenly took fright, and reached for his automatic at his hip before we were all ready.
"Mind you, he was a desperate man, and would have spat out death right and left among the crowd if he'd only got that gun out of his pocket.
"But Mr. John—our Mr. John here, of course, hopped into the limelight again.
"He closed in with the rascal at great risk to himself, and prevented him getting that left hand of his out of his pocket. What happened afterwards you all know.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, isn't it quite an interesting story I've told you? You've heard things to-night that have never come out before."
There was an instant buzz of conversation when the Chief had finished, but the admiral rapped on the table for silence and in mock solemn tones called upon "Mr. John Stratton for a speech."
"Yes," said the Chief laughing, "and make him apologise to me about Queen Anne. I've got other grievances against him too."
"What have I done now?" I asked rather embarrassed by the attention I was receiving, "I'm sure I'm quite innocent this time again."
"Who, pray, drives down King William Street about twenty-five miles an hour because he knows there's not a policeman in the city who'll give evidence against him? Why, pray?"
"Not me," I replied shaking my head, "I never put my car out of a trot."
"Yes you do, John," insisted the Chief, "you saved some of our men's lives that afternoon at Gawler, I admit, but by Jove you'll be killing some one else in the city before you've done."
And then the conversation drifted off again into a general tone. I looked round at Sir Henry, and he half winked his eye at me and lifted his glass.
"Good health, Mr. John. Look after Mary there, and see she doesn't have too much port."
"Oh, father, you are horrid," remonstrated Mary blushing, "why, I haven't had any yet."
Everybody laughed, and I gave Sir Henry a grateful look. I guessed what he intended by his remark. He wanted to make it up by being extra kind, and so for the first time he used my Christian name and spoke of his daughter to me as "Mary."
I got no chance much of speaking to Mary in the drawing-room, but Mrs. Townley talked to me for quite a long time. She seemed curious about what she was pleased to call my bachelor quarters in Mitcham, and I promptly invited her to come over one afternoon to tea.
"All of you come," I said hospitably. "I am sure Sir Henry and Miss Vane would be interested, and I believe you'll admit then that I've got better roses than even at Aviemore."
"I don't think Sir Henry will come," she replied with a curious sort of smile, "but Mary might be interested. I'll see next week."
Up to then I had thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but the best part I found was yet to come.
I had at last got hold of Mary for a moment, and was talking to her, when old Mrs. James came up and asked us if we would like to see her canaries.
Of course we had to say 'yes,' and she proceeded to lead us through the long verandah to where she kept her blessed birds.
It was quite in the shadow there, and I felt I had better guide Mary along safely by gently squeezing her arm.
When we got to the end of the verandah, the old lady asked us to wait a moment until she went on and switched on the light.
For half a minute perhaps we were left together in darkness. I quickly put my arm round Mary's neck, and drawing her close to me, kissed her fairly on the lips. And it wasn't a short kiss either.
When the light went up there was no particular expression on her face. It was as sweetly saint-like and composed as if she were in a church.
Later in the evening, the old admiral and I saw the Vane party to their car.
The old boy with a fat cigar in his mouth, grunted something to Mary about it being "a deuced fine moon to-night."
Mary assented sweetly, but added as an after-thought that she imagined it was sometimes nicer when it was less glaring and gave the stars and other things a chance.
I was just behind her and could have kissed the ground she walked on.
SOMETHING after the nature of the following conversation took place one morning at the breakfast table at Aviemore about three weeks later, but I didn't hear of it until long after.
Sir Henry and Mrs. Townley were by themselves, and the former was interestedly reading the morning paper.
Suddenly Mrs. Townley remarked:—
"So we're going to lose Mary soon, Henry."
Sir Henry looked up over his newspaper and stared hard at his sister for a few moments. Then he said testily:—
"What on earth do you mean, Jane?"
"What I say, we're going to lose Mary, soon."
Sir Henry resumed the perusal of his paper. "Rubbish," he said turning over the pages, "she's never been better in her life. I happened to remark only yesterday, that I've never seen her look better, brighter and happier than she's looking just now."
"Exactly. Because she's in love."
"Oh, she is, is she, and with whom, pray?"
"Henry—you really are blind. With young Stratton, of course."
Sir Henry methodically put down the newspaper and looked his sister straight in the face.
"What makes you think that, Jane?"
"Why, everything, of course. Look how quiet she is when he's here. Look at the way she looks at him. Look at the way she dresses. She always has her best frocks on when she knows he's coming up now."
"Oh, that's nothing, young girls always like to look their best before the other sex."
"Yes—but haven't you noticed her new hat?"
"No, what about it?"
"The colours, I mean—lilac and old gold. Mr. Stratton's racing colours. Now do you believe me?"
Sir Henry was thoughtful for a few moments.
"And do you think, Jane, that young Stratton is coming up here deliberately after Mary?"
"Do I think so? I'm certain of it. I've suspected it from the first. I believe he only came up here the first time and bought those two fillies of yours so that he might get to know her. I'm sure they'll never win a race."
Sir Henry's puzzled face after a moment's thought broke into a rather amused smile.
"Well, he's a most enterprising young man if he did. But," frowning, "Mary's much too young for that sort of thing, anyhow."
"I thought her mother was only just eighteen when you married her."
Sir Henry shook his head testily.
"What's that to do with it? Things were quite different in those days. But it's very annoying, this business, if there's anything in it, as you say. I'll buy her a new car to take her mind away from it."
Mrs. Townley laughed sarcastically.
"That won't be any good, Henry. A car won't tell her what lovely eyes she's got, and how soft her lips are, like young Stratton will."
"Jane, I'm ashamed of you. You've been reading some of those horrid books written by a woman. I'm sure of it."
"No Henry, I haven't. I'm only remembering my own days. I know how I was at Mary's age."
"Do you think it's really got to a serious stage, then?"
"I do. I shouldn't wonder if he's not already kissed her."
"No, Jane. You're mistaken there, I'm certain. Mary's a lady and wouldn't put up with any of that sort of thing."
"Oh, Henry, what an old goose you're getting as you grow old. Just as if being a lady makes any difference at all when a girl's in love. The silk frock can be just as passionately inclined as the cotton gown, let me tell you."
"There you are again Jane. What on earth are the kind of books you have been reading lately?"
"Henry, you don't want to read any books to know that sort of thing. You know it yourself as well as I do. Men and women are just the very same everywhere. Why, it was only the other day I heard you yourself saying to that nice young Henley doctor, what pretty ankles one of the dancing girls had got, at the fete."
"Quite true Jane—quite true—but only from an art point of view. That young doctor's a very clever fellow, and a very fine anatomist too, I am given to understand—and as I say, I was only referring to the matter in a purely scientific way."
"Oh, Henry, how can you? But talking about reading, haven't you noticed that Mary reads all the sporting news now. I actually found Sport and the Index in her bedroom the other day. You'll have young Stratton coming up here in a week or two—in his best clothes and a buttonhole, and with his pass book in his breast pocket, see if he doesn't. Oh, I know the signs right enough."
"Well, I can't well now forbid young Stratton the house, can I?"
"Of course you can't, and what's more, you won't be able to forbid him Mary either. You like him, don't you?"
"Certainly—he's a nice enough boy, but I don't want to lose Mary yet. What are we to do?"
"Just think what wedding present we are going to give them. That's all."
THE next week Mrs. Townley drove over to Mitcham as she had promised. She brought Mary with her, and I showed them all over the place.
They could not but admire all the nice things I had gathered together, and Mrs. Townley remarked many times upon the beauty of my home and its surroundings.
Mary, however, said very little, but I could see well enough that she was quietly taking it all in. It thrilled me with a delicious joy to see her walking through the rooms that I knew she would one day call her own.
I felt sure she knew it too, for there was a gentle shyness over her the whole time, and she hardly looked at me when we were in the house.
When we came to my room—'our room' as I always loved to call it in my mind—Mrs. Townley was quite enthusiastic.
"Good gracious," she ejaculated. "Everything in pink. What a luxurious apartment for a bachelor! Much too good for you! My word, how you have the impudence to tuck yourself in here every night passes my comprehension. I thought, young man, that life in the trenches had sickened you all of luxury. I expected to find you sleeping almost on bare boards, at any rate, nothing at all like this."
"Well, Mrs. Townley," I replied, rather embarrassed, "as a matter of fact I do generally sleep outside, but still," I added lamely, "it's always nice to have a room like this in a house, now, isn't it?"
Mrs. Townley snorted. "Why, all the rooms are got up far more beautifully than you'll ever need them, but, there, I suppose, you've got so much money that you really don't know what to do with it!"
We had tea out on the verandah, and two or three times I caught Mrs. Townley taking me in very intently when Mary and I were talking together.
I thought it was perhaps striking her then for the first time that I was more than casually interested in her niece. At any rate she ceased harping on the unnecessary extravagance of everything she saw, and when we at last said good-bye and the car moved off down the drive, she turned round behind Mary and gave me what I thought was intended to be a very knowing and crafty nodding of her head.
Things went on much the same with us all for about a month, and then I thought it was high time matters came to a crisis.
Surely Mary and I had known each other long enough now, I thought, for me to go boldly to her father and tell him plainly what I meant.
At the same time I felt I would like to speak to Mary herself first. The awkward part of it was I could never somehow seem to catch her alone. There was always someone else buzzing round when I went up, and although Mary herself upon several occasions had seemed to me to be trying to manage it on her own account, in the end nothing had come off.
One Saturday afternoon when I was driving alone in my car towards the bottom of King William Street I saw the Aviemore car flash by in front of me and go down towards the Port Road. Only Sir Henry and Mrs. Townley were inside.
Then I remembered suddenly that I had heard Mrs. Townley was going to spend the week end with some friends of hers at Henley Beach, and it flashed upon me quickly that no doubt Sir Henry was then driving her over.
What an opportunity I thought to catch Mary alone. Sir Henry had not seen me, I was sure, and I could easily make up some excuse for calling unexpectedly at Aviemore.
I would ask, of course, for Sir Henry, and trust to luck for finding Mary up there on her own.
I turned the car round at once, and twenty minutes later, at most, was passing up the drive at Aviemore.
"No, Sir Henry wasn't in; only Miss Vane, and she was somewhere in the rose garden."
I pretended to hesitate for a moment, and then told Bunting Miss Vane would do, but he needn't trouble, I would find her myself.
Bunting only replied "Very good, sir." He had had many nice tips from me, and if he did think anything in his cold placid way, he at any rate allowed none of his thoughts to filter through to his face.
I walked round to the rose garden, and there, sure enough, I found Mary alone. She was cutting roses and putting them in a basket. At the sound of my footsteps on the gravel she looked up quickly.
She blushed crimson when she saw I was alone, and a pathetic helpless look came into her pretty eyes.
To my distress she looked really frightened—like some gentle hunted creature at last brought to bay.
A great pity instantly came to me, and all the triumph of my advance was checked by the questioning look of fear upon her face.
Perhaps for the first time I realised what a big thing it was I should be asking her—to become my wife.
All my sure confidence left me in a flash, and I felt as humble and uncertain as before I had been confident and proud.
After all, what right had I, I thought, to break so roughly into the calm and peaceful happenings of her maiden ways. Would all that I could offer her outweigh what she would lose?
Would love and passion, with their attendant fuller life and burdens make up to her for the for-ever closing of the chapter of girlhood's untroubled days?
Would the red roses atone for the white?
I tell you, I felt pretty small as I stood there before her, and it was in a very humble tone of voice that I explained how I came to be there.
"I do hope I don't disturb you, Miss Mary?" I said, looking everywhere but at her, "I came up to see Sir Henry, and Bunting told me they were all out except you, so I thought perhaps you'd not mind my leaving the message with you. But what lovely white roses you're gathering."
"Yes," replied Mary, quickly recovering herself and hiding her nervousness with a little laugh, "and a certain gentleman was good enough to tell me once that he didn't think much of the roses here—now, didn't he?"
"No, no, Miss Mary!" I denied firmly. "I didn't for a moment say that. I only said there were no roses here good enough for the purpose you intended for them, and I still adhere to it. As a matter of fact, there are no flowers good enough anywhere."
She made me a little mock bow, and, to my relief, I saw the happy, roguish look steal back into her eyes.
"Dear me, Mr. Stratton," she said ironically, "I suppose you learnt to make those pretty speeches in France. The French girls are so dainty, aren't they?"
"Yes, some of them are awfully dainty; but, all the same, I still prefer the English and the Australian varieties."
"I'm sure it's very nice of you to say so, but, seriously, talking of roses, I'll show you some glorious ones round here. So please carry my basket for me."
I followed obediently behind her to another part of the garden, and in the subsequent half hour I noticed with grim humour how completely our relative positions had changed.
I had not yet got over the shock of seeing how frightened she undoubtedly had been at first at finding herself so unexpectedly alone with me. I knew she would be remembering the only other time we had been actually alone—those few seconds on the verandah when I had forcibly kissed her in the dark, and I was dreadfully afraid she would be thinking that, willing or unwilling, she was now helpless in my power.
So I kept away from her as far as possible, and as we passed up and down along the old-fashioned narrow paths between the roses, I took care to walk well behind her, with the big basket in my arms always well between me and the dainty little figure that trotted on in front.
For the time being at all events, I had quite given up all idea of telling her what I had purposely come up there that afternoon to say.
But if I was glum and timid, she was quite the reverse. She kept hanging back so that I should come up nearer to her, and every now and then she insisted upon my bending down to inhale the perfume of some particular bloom which she obligingly held up to me in the prettiest of little white hands imaginable.
Then, too, she apparently had no longer any fear of being alone with me in secluded parts of the garden. She didn't keep by any means to the main paths that were in full view of the windows of the house, but led me round and round in out-of-the-way places where we were quite safe from the prying eyes of anyone who might be interested in watching us.
Presently we came to a secluded seat, arched over with a trellis of climbing roses.
Mary appeared to hesitate for a moment, and then announced that she was tired and going to sit down for a little rest. I, of course, at once sat down too but with the big basket of roses still between us.
We chatted on for a few minutes, and then Mary noticed I had not too much room at my end of the seat on account of the space occupied by the basket.
"It's all right, Mr. Stratton," she laughed, "you can put the basket down on the ground. I see you're on your best behaviour to-day, and can be a good boy when you like."
I put the basket down and sighed deeply.
"Well, you're not helping me much, Miss Mary," I said at last.
"What do you mean, I'm not helping you?" she said innocently.
"Why, you're not helping me to be good."
"Well, I'm not hindering you, am I?"
"I don't know so much about that—you're tempting me."
"Oh, and how am I tempting you, please?"
"You know quite well enough—by coming so close to me and bringing me those roses to smell. You know what I think of you, and what an effort it is for me to be a good boy, as you call it."
I got up and walked a few paces from the seat, but Mary made no attempt to get up.
She lay back in her corner, watching me with a roguish, provoking smile, in which, however, I fancied there was something now deeper than amusement.
I was watching her too and thinking, with a pulse that was quickening every moment now, how supremely pretty she was looking. Sitting there she was just the very perfection of daintiness, I thought.
A dream of sweetly flushed pink and white, with oh, such glorious eyes, that laughed and mocked at the same time; rich coils of golden hair over the queenly head and a determined little white chin resting in its turn meditatively upon a pretty little white hand.
She said nothing, but just watched me narrowly with a half wistful, half questioning look upon her face.
All my good resolutions flew to the four winds.
"Mary," I said briskly, "I'm afraid you're a little minx—at any rate, you've asked me plainly for all you're now going to get."
I methodically sat down again, but this time close beside her.
For a moment we looked intently at each other without moving, and on my face at any rate there was not the ghost of a smile.
Then she crimsoned up all over, and turning her head away looked straight before her with eyes that were half closed under the long lashes that made shadows on her cheeks.
I could stand it no longer, I reached out, and picking her up without an effort, sat her on my knees. Then putting one arm round her neck I tipped up her face quickly, and with all the passion in me free, gently brought her lips to mine.
She struggled for a moment, but then closing her eyes, lay limp and even responsive in my arms. She trembled a little, but I put her arms round my neck and she let them remain there.
It was a long while before either of us spoke, and much longer still before our thoughts came back to earth.
She let me take my fill of all I asked, and with her head upon my shoulder made no secret that she was in the same happiness as I was.
At length, after a while—a really long while—she shook herself free and started to put straight her disarranged hair.
"Well, you're a nice boy, aren't you, to do all this? What do you think father will say?"
"Oh, your father will say I'm a very good judge; I'm sure he will. You know, darling, yourself, that you're awfully sweet. I really couldn't help it, now could I?"
"Of course you could. I didn't ask you to kiss me."
"No, but you wanted me to, didn't you?"
"What impudence! and another time, if you kiss me, John, please don't disarrange my hair so."
I at once promptly kissed her again, and this time as there was no struggling—I didn't upset her hair.
"Look here, darling," I said, after another long silence, "when can I see your father about you?"
She made a little wry face, and considered for a moment. "You'd better stop to dinner to-night. Father won't be home until nearly seven."
"Yes, but what excuse can I give. I can't blurt out all at once, 'Oh, please Sir Henry, Mary loves me.'"
"You'd better not," she laughed; "father thinks a lot of me."
"Just as if I didn't know that. But, what sweetheart, shall I say?"
"Well, give him the message you were going to leave with me when you came up."
I grinned, and Mary shook her head prettily and laughed.
"Oh, you fibber, I thought at the time you were not speaking the truth. I knew you had no message to leave."
"No," I said calmly, "I saw your father and your aunt going off in the car towards Henley—that's what made me come up here to catch you alone."
"Well, I kept you at your distance, Mr. John, didn't I?" with a little mocking bow, "until at any rate I saw fit to let you—to let you come near me."
"You did that, sweetheart." I replied gravely, "in fact, I was almost going off without kissing you at all, if you hadn't suddenly encouraged me and egged me on."
"Oh, you are a fibber again; but, dear boy, I just loved you for it. I could see you were trying so hard to be good. Do you know," she went on laughing, "I think I shall get really fond of you?" and of her own accord she put up her face for me to kiss.
"Well, dear," I said presently, "what about that excuse? I must find something to say."
"Say then that you came up to inquire how aunty was. Father will be rather amused, I'm sure; and then you can say I kept you to mend the chicken run. You told us the other day you could do any kind of carpentering. Yes, that's a splendid idea. The door of the chicken run was blown down in the gale on Sunday, and there's no one to mend it as the gardener is away ill. It's worrying father a lot, for the fowls keep on getting out. But I hope, for goodness sake, you really do know something about carpentering, and it isn't another of your dreadful fibs."
"Mary," I replied solemnly, "I'm a dab at it."
An hour later, when Sir Henry came into the paddock, he found Mary and me with our heads close together, proudly inspecting a most workman-like repair of the wretched chicken door.
"Hello, Mr. Stratton," he called out genially. "Bunting told me what you were doing (the deuce he did I thought). Why, you've made quite a good job of it! The least we can do is to ask you to dinner, isn't it, Mary?"
Mary went off to get ready for the meal, and I stood chatting to Sir Henry about the Repatriation League—the first thing that came into my mind.
Fortunately for me, he didn't seem curious about why I had come up, and the dinner gong sounded before he had stumbled upon any awkward questions.
Mary and I sat down guiltily to dinner, and the meal opened in embarrassed silence. I felt nervous and uneasy, and Mary hardly lifted her eyes from her plate.
Sir Henry too seemed rather thoughtful. When the fish was removed he abruptly asked Bunting how many bottles of old '47 port were left.
"Three, Sir Henry," laconically replied the butler, who never wasted breath upon unnecessary words.
"When did we first break into that last dozen?"
"The day Miss Mary was christened, sir."
"And when did I open the last one?"
"The night the Armistice was signed, Sir Henry."
"You've a marvellous memory, Bunting. Well," after a long pause, "I think we'll have another bottle to-night. There'll be two left then. One to console myself with when Miss Mary's married, and the other—we'll keep for a later occasion."
Mary flushed up crimson, and I felt myself trembling in my chair.
Bunting glided silently from the room.
"Come, children," said Sir Henry kindly, after a moment's pause. "You're neither of you eating anything, and I'm not going to have this dinner spoiled for all the love-making in the world. Let's get it over now. I know what John's going to tell me, and as he's mended the chicken door so nicely, I suppose I shall have to say 'Yes.'"
Mary threw her arms round her father's neck, and I stood up with my heart too full to speak, to shake his hand.
"Sit down, my boy," said Sir Henry bravely, but with moisture in his fine grey eyes. "I know it's only the way of the world, but it will be a bit hard on me to lose my Mary."
"Father, dear, you're quite a wizard," said Mary between her blushes and her tears, "how on earth did you know?"
"Oh, one hadn't need to be a wizard to find it out, dear," replied Sir Henry, recovering himself. "When I come suddenly upon a young man and a young woman together, and the young man looks as guilty as if he'd been stealing my pears, and the young woman has one side of her red face even redder than the other—well, one begins to suspect something, naturally."
I am quite sure if Bunting had been less cold and fish-like in his temperament, he would have noticed the change in us all when he returned with the '47 port.
Mary was all smiles and blushing glances at me across the table; I was supremely happy and mightily proud already that the pretty creature opposite to me was now openly to be my own; and Sir Henry, dear old, fine Sir Henry, brave Sir Henry, was happy as us both, seeing how happy his beloved child was in the love of the man of her choice.
Yes, we were indeed a happy party that night.
The next few weeks were like a glorious dream to me.
I haunted Aviemore, much to the pleased amusement of everyone there. Even the fish-like Bunting quickly acquired the general habit of pretending to be amused, and wreathed his lips into some sort of ghostly smile whenever I appeared.
Mary was a general favourite with all who knew her, and I had to run the gauntlet of a lot of searching criticism before I was finally approved of by her friends.
Everyone congratulated me in their own different ways. Mrs. Townley shook her finger at me when she met me. "Oh, you crafty one," she said reprovingly, "you laid your plans a long way ahead, didn't you? But I wasn't taken in all the time; no not I. Let me tell you now, sir, that I suspected you for a long time, and directly I went over to Mitcham I was certain at once. I knew for whom all those fine pink furnishings were intended and I'm very much mistaken if that sly little Mary didn't know it too. Oh, you young people, what duffers you think all we old people are."
The Chief was quite merry when he called.
"Well, John, you're over all the fences at last, and you've a clear run in now to the winning post. But, by Jove, lad, what about a brazen cheek? Just fancy taking a tenner from a man in the street and using that same tenner as a stepping-stone to marrying his only daughter, and all within eighteen months, too! Well, boy, at any rate I wish you every happiness. I shan't be here to see you married, because I'm going home to England on leave for six months, but, John, I'll send you the nicest wedding present this expensive city of Adelaide can produce. Oh, by the bye, I met Inspector Kitson in Ballarat last week, and he was most interested to hear about you. Do you know, the old man's quite fond of you. He reckons you saved his reputation at Gawler that afternoon. He says if he'd gone back empty handed to Melbourne, he'd have almost got the sack. Oh, yes, I tell you he asked a lot about you. But good-bye, old man, my kindest regards to Mary. Tell her I had half a mind to send her a kiss."
It was arranged we should be married the first week in May, and for weeks before Mary's various relations had discussed where we should go for our honeymoon.
We let them talk about it as much as they liked, but privately we had arranged almost from the very first what we would do.
We were not going away at all. I was going to drive Mary straight from her father's house to the new home I had prepared for her all along.
It was Mary's own wish that it should be so, and nothing fell in better with what I wanted.
Why should we give, I thought, the happiest memories of our life to the drab and crowded rooms of some strange hotel! Far better to for ever hallow in our minds the walls and pathways of the home where I hoped we might live together for so long.
We said nothing about it to any of our friends, but I quietly arranged that all my household should have a holiday and go away for the first three days after we were married.
Then Mary and I would keep house together by ourselves, and it would be so glorious to be all alone and have no one to consider but each other.
Percy Thornton was to be my best man, and there was nothing braver than the way he had choked down his disappointment and offered his services to me.
One thing I have always noticed about lovers of the turf. Your true racing man, whatever may be his faults in other directions, is nearly always a man of stout and generous heart, who can take the worst buffetings of life with a smile, and a stiff upper lip.
Well, one bright, crisp, autumn morning, when Adelaide was at its very best, we were married at the Cathedral, and because Mary was Mary all the world was there.
It was a tense and solemn moment for me before the service, as I sat waiting for my bride.
All the rapture and sweetness of life called to me in the low, soft organ peels, but in the hushed and waiting silence of the place there was something that whispered also of the sacredness and the self-sacrifice of love.
I should have my obligations, it told me, as well as my joys, and in the hollow of my hand would lie the happiness of this so-longed-for bride of mine, whose life I was now linking to my own.
Giving up all to me in the subtle and mysterious impulse of her love—for everything in the future she would look to me.
In my pleasure or displeasure would be her laughter or her tears, and as I so willed it would the sun or shadow fall across her wedded days.
Queen of my kingdom she would be, but in my love or coldness I alone could endow her sovereignty with either a wreath of roses or a crown of thorns.
Mary came up the aisle a vision of white purity, and as I stood up beside her, happy as I was, I had hard work to choke back my tears.
I was to drive her back myself to Aviemore in my own car, and as I took my place at the steering wheel, the crowd outside the Cathedral cheered enthusiastically and someone called out "Good old Rataplan, you've got the finest dividend now you'll ever get, my boy."
I remember very little of the wedding breakfast, except the continual clinking of champagne glasses and old Admiral James annoying me most intensely by clapping me on the back and telling me boisterously in a very loud voice "to keep a tight rein on the filly from the start."
In the early hours of that sunny afternoon we left Aviemore in a perfect fusilade of confetti and good-byes and drove straight home to Mitcham.
I put the car in the garage, and unlocking the front door followed Mary shyly into the deserted house.
Mary promptly sat down on a sofa in the hall. "Oh, John, dear, I'm so tired," she said, "aren't you glad it's all over?"
"Yes, sweetheart," I replied, kissing her tenderly, "but it is worth all the trouble and bother, isn't it, darling?"
"Of course it is, dear," and she turned away her eyes.
We amused ourselves going round and round the house, and just as it got dark sat down under the shaded lights to the previously prepared evening meal.
Everything had been got ready for us, and we had only to lift the covers and there we were.
Afterwards we sat out together upon the verandah, and I must confess I was terribly nervous.
For all these months I had so longed for this time when we should be alone together, and now that I had got my wish I was as timid and tongue-tied as any girl at her first ball.
The thoughts that had come to me as I sat waiting in the Cathedral surged back with added force, and I could understand and was not ashamed of my timidity. I had taken Mary from an extremely happy home, and could realise the sacrifice she was making for me. I was made silent, too, by the great joy of now actually possessing her.
So, now that she was wholly mine, I was afraid almost to touch her, lest the roughness of my ways should jar upon the gentle, childlike nature, the sweetness of which was never more apparent to me than now when we were quite alone.
Much as I loved her it sobered me and in part frightened me to see the depths of love she was prepared to offer in return.
My responsibility almost oppressed me, and the passion in me was tied down and brought to heel by remembering she was to be mine, not only in the joys and tenderness of early wedded love, but mine also to cherish and to comfort in those dread hours that would one day surely come to a woman who so loved and was beloved.
But if I was timid and afraid, Mary was exactly the reverse. She sat on my knees with her arms about my neck, in the perfect love and confidence of sweet abandon and surrender. She kissed me repeatedly, and confided in me prettily the secrets of her girlhood days.
"Do you know, dear, you're the only boy I've ever thought anything about, and you're the only one I've ever let kiss me. I never thought about boys at all until you came into my life. Of course, I've liked men, as I like Percy Thornton, but I've never wanted them to kiss me, and they've never come into my dreams at all.
"But you came in, John. I've often dreamed about you, long before I got to know you. Sometimes I used to dream you were kissing me, and then I'd wake up and think for hours how lovely it would be to have my arms round your neck, just like I'm doing now. You worried me a lot once, dear; although of course you never knew it."
"Well, I shan't worry you any more darling, shall I?"
"No, John, you're going to be mine always now. Do you know, dear, I've wanted you for such a long time, long before I knew you to speak to. And that's why, when you looked at me, I used to look at you straight back. I should have never dared to do it with anybody else. But I wanted you to come after me and not to be choked off because father was a baronet, and all that. And I knew you'd come some day, John, something always told me you would."
"I always meant to, sweetheart. I was always looking for an opportunity, little woman."
"Yes, and do you remember the first time you came up to Aviemore about those horses of father's?"
"Of course, I do—it was the first time I really spoke to you. I shall never forget how adorable you looked then."
"Yes, John, and I managed about your stopping to lunch all right, didn't I? Do you know, father was awfully astonished at my daring to suggest you should stop. He laughed about it afterwards, and told aunty in fun there must be no mistletoe about the next time, if you came up here. Dear old dad, he little knew how far things had gone, did he?"
"When did you first think I was sweet on you Mary?"
"I don't quite know, John, but I think it was as you were speaking to father when Rataplan won that first time at Victoria Park. You kept on looking for me in the crowd, and then when you found me, you kept turning your eyes a lot my way. I thought you rather liked me then, but I wasn't certain you did for some time afterwards."
"Great Scott, and when did you think, Miss Blue Eyes, that I was really gone dead nuts on you—quite certain?"
"Oh, John, the day you had lunch with us. I began to be certain at lunch because you looked at me so much, but I was quite certain when you played 'Love's Old Sweet Song' on my violin. I knew then you had come up purposely after me, and when you chose that piece to play I was positive you'd get me too."
"Why, sweetheart, why were you positive?" I asked, greatly taken with all these naive confessions.
"Well, I thought if you were brave enough to play 'Love's Old Sweet Song' before us all, on my violin—on my violin, if you please, John! you would be brave enough also to get me somehow. After you had gone that afternoon, aunt said: 'Hum, that young man has got such a nerve that I for one am sure he'll get anything he wants, in this world at all events.' That comforted me a lot too."
"Well, darling," I said, kissing her, "I've got all I want now, haven't I, sweetheart?"
"Yes, dear, I know you love me ever so much, and O John, I've always thought such a lot about you. I had a dream about you once—the night after you first kissed me. Yes, you were a bad boy. I dreamed that I got married to you and we had a little son. It was such a little angel, and I saw it walking round the garden here holding on to you with its little pink fingers round one of your long brown ones. O dear, I'm so happy now."
She lay for a long time silent in my arms, and the moon came up over the mountains and bathed us softly in its silver light. Presently she nestled closer to me and whispered very gently:—
"Perhaps one day I shall have a baby, dear, and if I do I should like it to have blue eyes and fair hair like me, but I should like its face to be like yours—very stern and proud, just like you looked when you were riding Rataplan. But let's go in now, dear. I'm tired, and want to go to bed. Yes, you may carry me if you like."
I woke up several times during the night, but Mary was sleeping quietly like a little child. I forbore to wake her, and did not even kiss her. My self-sacrifice had begun.
WE had been married just three days, when Tod McSwiney for the second time rose from the dead to torment me.
It was like the awakening from some entrancing dream.
For three days Mary and I had been alone together, and for three days life had been to us as a garden full of the most beautiful flowers.
With nothing in the world to disturb us or break into our peace, we had been supremely happy, and both of us realised we could never have quite such happy times again.
We had never once been outside our own gate, and myself I quite dreaded the time when we should have to return to the every day life again.
I knew it was bound to leak out soon that we had not gone away at all, and then would gradually commence again the round of social life and business affairs that would in a way so take us from each other.
But I certainly didn't expect the end to come so quickly, or in so disagreeable a manner as it did.
We had been married on the Thursday, and on the Sunday night about ten o'clock I was alone in the garden, having a last cigarette before turning in. Mary had just left me, and I was thinking for about the thousandth time that day what an angel she was, when a low whistle at the gates at the end of the drive arrested my attention.
I walked slowly down, wondering if my fancy had misled me, when suddenly I heard some one calling me quietly by name.
"Mr. Stratton. Mr. Stratton," the voice said, "can I speak to you a moment, please?"
Approaching close to the locked gates I saw in the shadows outside, a man with a bicycle.
"Well, what is it?" I said rather crossly. "I'm Mr. Stratton, what do you want with me?"
"I'm Harker, sir; you remember me, one of the plainclothes men from headquarters. I spoke to you once in the Arcade, and afterwards was at Gawler with you."
"Oh, yes," I laughed, "but you needn't be so soft about it. You mean you were one of the men who arrested me that day and took me to the Chief. Now what do you want?"
"Well, I've rather unpleasant news, sir. That McSwiney affair has cropped up again."
"What the deuce do you mean?" I asked quickly, a lump in my throat.
"Well, sir, last Thursday a small revolver was brought to us. It had been found on Henley Beach. They had been moving one of the bathing huts and it was found behind one of the supports. The people brought it to us, because as they said, they thought perhaps it might have something to do with that affair on the beach of over a year ago."
"But what's that to do with me?" I said, after a pause in which I had been thinking very hard.
The man moved out of the shadows, and in the moonlight I could see every line of a face which looked very grave and uncomfortable.
He looked round stealthily, and didn't speak for a moment, then he said slowly and almost in a whisper:—
"The revolver had the initials J.S. cut into the barrel, sir."
A feeling of horrible sickness came over me—I knew, of course, the revolver must be mine. It was the one I had killed McSwiney with, and so foolishly, I now realised, buried near the scene of the shooting. What idiocy I thought, had ever made me cut my initials on the barrel. I remembered doing it one afternoon to while away a lazy hour, and that foolishness was apparently now to be my undoing and bring at best a horrible scandal upon Mary and Sir Henry.
But I wasn't going to let the man see my distress and after a few moments' thought I said sharply:
"Well, that won't affect me—I'm not the only J.S. in the world, and if I were, who is there to prove the revolver ever belonged to me?"
"But that isn't all, sir," went on the man, and he looked at me narrowly, "the revolver was shown round Finney's lodging-house on Friday, and Nat Saunders swears he remembers it as belonging to a man who stayed there once, called Rob Turner. He says he distinctly remembers him having it out to clean one day, and he remarked then, he says, upon the difference in the initials."
My feeling of sickness became worse. Nat Saunders was quite right. I had cleaned it in front of them all one day, but up to that very moment I had forgotten all about it. What on earth was going to happen now?
"But, look here," I said brusquely, "who's raking up all this, and why have you come up here to tell me? You've not been sent, have you?"
"Good Lord, no, sir," denied the man warmly, "I'm risking everything in coming up to warn you. If it were known I was up here I should not only get dismissed from the force, but probably get a term of imprisonment as well. I've come up here because I reckoned you saved my life at Gawler that afternoon. I was right in front of Hunter, and should have been the first man shot for sure. Besides that—I think it's a dirty trick they're doing you. I was in the confidence of the Chief over that McSwiney affair, and know quite well what he promised you. This would never have happened if he'd not been away."
"Well, but who's stirring all this up?" I asked, impressed by the man's earnestness.
"It's the Acting Deputy Chief Inspector Rubens, Mr. Stratton. He's doing it all. He's a very ambitious man, and thinks he's got hold of a case to make a splash with, now the Chief's away. Of course, he knows all about you, and he thinks what a fine advertisement it would be for him, to have a man in your position arrested, in the middle of his honeymoon. That's what it is, that's all."
"But he knows well enough," I argued, "that even if they brought it home to me—which I still deny—there would be no punishment for me—McSwiney was at best a murderer and an outlaw."
"Yes, Sir, that's quite true, but it's the inquest verdict he's going on, 'Murder against some person or persons unknown.' He knows quite well all you did for us afterwards, and the Chief's promise to you, too. I told him about it straight."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, he said the Chief's promise wasn't binding on him."
There was a long pause, and I stood there weighing things up.
"Well, what's he going to do?" I asked presently. "You know, Harker, guilty or not guilty, it would make a horrible scandal for me. Look how terrible for my wife."
"Yes, I know that, sir, and I feel as wild about it as you do."
"Well, what's he going to do—is he going to arrest me?"
"No, I don't think he's going to do that yet. He's waiting now for Inspector Kitson. He's written to the Inspector—I know that for certain, for I saw the letter—and until he gets an answer I'm sure he'll not move. He doesn't know you're here. I didn't know it myself. I only came up on the chance to see if I could get your address from any one who was looking after the house."
"Well, Harker, I'm very much obliged to you. Be sure you let me know anything that happens. I'll see you don't lose by it."
"Very good, sir—look out for me any evening about this time. Good-night." And the man disappeared into the darkness. I went slowly into the house with a great load of anxiety in my heart. It was not for myself I cared a rap. Even if I were arrested, I had only to tell my tale openly, and I knew perfectly well there would be no penalty at all. But for Mary and poor Sir Henry the scandal would be awful.
Pulling myself together I went into our room, and I always think back now with pride that Mary all along never had the slightest inkling of any trouble affecting me.
I lay awake a lot that night, scheming and thinking what I could possibly do. The situation was certainly rather an alarming one, but still at the same time I believed if it were handled boldly I might yet escape, as I had done once before.
The next day the servants all came back, and Mary and I went shopping in the car, much to the interest of all who saw us.
I felt so proud of my wife. The crisp autumn air gave a lovely colour to her face, and she looked so radiantly happy as she sat by my side. I didn't wonder at all that everyone had a good stare at us wherever we went.
On the Tuesday night near about ten o'clock I went down again to the gates and almost immediately Harker glided up like some ghostly minister of fate.
He had some news to tell me. Inspector Kitson had written back promptly to the Deputy Commissioner, and according to Harker had thrown a lot of cold water upon any idea of re-opening the case of McSwiney. The authorities, he wrote had had all along a pretty shrewd idea as to how the man had met his death, and even were sufficient new evidence now unearthed to unerringly bring home the affair to me, nothing would in the end be gained. Nothing but a foolish error of judgment in hiding the body could at best be proved against me, and in the light of my subsequent services to the State in the matter of discovering the other man, in his opinion—it would be a piece of culpable bad taste to interfere with me again.
"At any rate," concluded Harker, "he's given Chief Inspector Rubens a nasty snub, and as good as told him to shut up."
"But what does Rubens say now," I asked. "Is he going to drop it, do you think?"
"No, sir, I'm afraid not—in fact, I'm sure not. He's rather spiteful about it, and says for some reason Inspector Kitson is trying to shield you. His opinion is, however, that the possession of the revolver is a trump card, and there will be no getting away from the verdict of the coroner's jury."
"Well, what's he going to do then?"
"Oh, he believes there's no immediate hurry, and he's waiting now for the return from Perth of another plain clothes man who worked on the case with me last year. This man, Clark, will be back on Friday week, and I think, sir, he intends to arrest you the next day at the races at Morphettville."
"The damned blackguard," I swore.
"Yes, sir, he made inquiries to-day, and found out you are running a horse in the Welter there on Saturday week, and he thinks it would be very dramatic to serve the warrant on the course, perhaps just before the race. He says he intends to make it as public as possible."
For a moment I was dumbfounded with the news. The man's cynical and brutal disregard of all nice feeling and decency made me quite speechless with anger.
I could picture it all in my mind—the bright afternoon at Morphettville—the happy crowds at the meeting—my horse being saddled for the race—Mary and I amongst all our friends and then—this brute having me arrested in so shameful and public a manner that whatever happened afterwards the shame and horror of it all would be for ever uppermost in men's minds when they either thought or spoke of me.
But the very vileness of the man's intention steeled me to a resolution that to carry through I might otherwise have lacked strength.
All my nervousness left me, and I became at once cold, calculating, and full of resource.
"Now, look here, Harker," I said bluntly, with no mincing of my words, "Money's no object to me—I've got to get hold of that revolver somehow. Can it be done? Think carefully. I don't mind what it costs."
The man was silent for quite a full minute, then he said, speaking very deliberately, "It might be done, Mr. Stratton, but it'll be a very difficult business. In any case, I don't want any money from you. Anything I do will be just because you helped the force so finely last year, besides saving me at Gawler. I'll help you all I can, but the worst of it is I don't see where to commence."
"Well, to begin with," I asked quickly, "has the revolver been photographed?"
"No, 'I don't think so; in fact, I'm quite sure it hasn't; I should know at once because"—with an amused smile—"I've practically got charge of the case."
"Where's it kept?"
"In the safe in the Chief's room."
"And the key of the safe?"
"On a bunch with other keys at the end of a chain in Chief Inspector Rubens' pocket."
"Hum! Is the safe a good one?"
"Not particularly, but still I don't know of the man who could open it quietly—without a key?"
"Well, who has access to the Chief's room?"
"Oh, plenty of us; the door's seldom kept locked. As you know, the room's right in the middle of the building, and to get to it one has to go along a passage and through two other rooms, where there are always several men on duty. I'm afraid it's a hard nut to crack."
"Well, Harker," I said after a long pause, "let's both think it over. At any rate, I take it I can depend on you to give me at least a little warning before I'm tapped on the shoulder again—that is so, isn't it?"
"For sure, Mr. Stratton, I can promise you faithfully nothing shall be sprung on you. You shall know beforehand, and in plenty of time too. But I'll come up and see you again on Friday."
The ensuing few days were ones of great anxiety to me, but I never for a moment allowed myself to lose heart.
One thing I was fully resolved on. If the worst came to the worst, and I knew for certain my arrest was determined on, I would myself precipitate matters and make public in my own way a full account of my adventure with Tod McSwiney.
I would get in touch with the Adelaide press, and lay bare my whole part in that unfortunate affair.
It would, I knew, make good copy, for, as an owner of racehorses, I was, of course, a public man, and apart from that, Adelaide had a certain measure of pride in me because as an unknown Australian soldier I had wooed and married one of the most beautiful and richest English girls in Australia.
The days rolled by.
Harker came up according to promise on the Friday, but he had no more news except to give me the positive assurance that the warrant was not going to be applied for until that day week, and that he himself then, accompanied by two constables in uniform, would be detailed to execute it the following day in the paddock at Morphettville just before the third race.
He wanted to know if I had thought further of any plan of getting hold of the revolver, but I put him off and told him I had decided nothing yet.
As a matter of fact in the past few hours I had practically arranged all the details of my intended plan of campaign.
It had suddenly dawned upon me what a suicidal business it was to think of burgling the police station for the incriminating evidence of my guilt.
Unless in every particular successful, it would only land me further in the mud, and even if I did manage to get hold of the revolver there would still be always the uncertainty of something else turning up to bring me into the limelight again.
No, I would make a clean breast of it, I had resolved, and in so open a manner that the sting of anything anyone might do afterwards would be taken away from me for ever.
To begin with, I told Mary all about Tod McSwiney, just in a casual sort of way, as if I were thinking to interest her. She shuddered prettily when I explained how I had buried him, and when I came to my first interview with the Chief, she clapped her hands at hearing how I had managed at first to outwit him, and after to earn his lasting friendship and regard.
Then I brought up the matter on the Sunday evening to Sir Henry. I told him how I had first come to know the Brigadier, and dotted the i's and crossed the t's of the narrative the Chief had once given them, the night of the dinner, at Admiral James'. Of course, Sir Henry was most interested, and for a long while we energetically discussed the pros and cons of what I had best have done after I had shot the would-be assassin.
Then, I replied to an invitation I had received two days before to attend and speak at a public dinner to be given to the returned soldiers of A.I.F. at the City Town Hall, on the following Wednesday evening. I had been asked to reply for 'The Returned Soldiers of South Australia.'
Then, I got into communication with Harker at his private address, and just told him I was going to leave things as they were, but at the same time I didn't really think now he'd ever have to execute the warrant on me.
The eventful Wednesday evening arrived at last, and at half-past seven I was seated three chairs off the Governor of the State, who was himself presiding at the dinner.
Mine was the most important toast of the evening, and it had only been given me, I knew, because of my relationship now to Sir Henry.
All the big men and the little men of Adelaide were present, and only a few chairs down from me the spiteful face of the Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Police was sourly taking in the happenings of the occasion.
He had nodded to me before dinner in the reception room, and regarded me later, when he thought I wasn't looking, with an acid and partly triumphant smile.
But it was quite impossible, however, to damp my spirits that evening. I felt I was in first-rate fighting trim, and was sure that the master trump was in my own hand.
In due time the Governor rose to propose my toast. He spoke to some length of the part Australia had played in the Great War, and he referred in the warmest and most generous terms possible to the unfailing valour of the Australian soldier. At the end of his speech he coupled with the subject of his toast "Captain John Stratton, not only an officer of distinguished career, but also a citizen of sound judgment and good patriotism, a gentleman who when he sees anything good coming into the State makes certain that it shall not go out again."
This delicate allusion to my marriage with Sir Henry's daughter was received with some laughter and cheers, and it was to a very sympathetic audience that I, in turn, rose to reply.
For a moment my knees shook under me, and I felt as horribly nervous as could be, but the sudden thought of Mary sitting up for me at home in her dressing gown, waiting to know how I had got on, and the sight of Sir Henry's anxious and rather white face close beside me, steadied me in a flash, and I opened my reply in tones of perfect and easy confidence.
Now, I am never at any time a bad speaker, and that night the desire to thwart the plan of the Chief Inspector near me, the great importance of all my speech might mean to me, and the undoubted sympathy of the audience I was appealing to, all nerved me to my utmost, and I flatter myself I was never in better form or in a more fluent vein.
I commenced by thanking the Governor for the very nice things he had said about us, and assured him that every Australian soldier, from the highest to the lowest, had always endeavoured not to be unworthy of the great traditions handed down along the ages by the Anglo-Saxon race.
I continued, I was glad to think that the high opinion he held of our fighting qualities, was now shared with at least equal force by the German people themselves.
I said wherever we had gone and on whatever field of battle we had fought, we had always surely left behind us the impression that in the defence of our beloved Motherland there were no sacrifices we were not prepared to make.
I spoke shortly of the ghastly horrors of war, and then turning to the brighter side, extolled the educational value of our times of campaigning. I said we must all of us have returned with wider sympathies, and broader views, and were, in fact, in almost every way more capable and more resourceful than when we had first joined up.
Speaking for myself, and I apologised for dropping into a personal vein, I should not indeed have been there amongst them that night, if it had not been for the powers of observation I had cultivated in the course of my military career.
In support of this, I would tell them, I said, an interesting little story about myself.
I told them how about eighteen months previously, one day I had won a lot of money at the races. I told them how quite unknown to myself, I had been marked down by one of two men who were already deep in crime and murder and hunted by the police. I told them of the lonely beach near Henley. I pictured to them the sandhills by the sea—the crimson setting sun and myself, as lying prone upon the sands watching the squabbling seagulls at the margin of the waves.
Then I described how the seagulls had suddenly flown away, and how my war-trained brain had instantly set me asking myself why.
Then I told how I had sprung up in a flash, to find the shoeless white-faced murderer right upon me with his paling and his knife.
I described how in a second I had saved myself and shot him, and yet how then foolishly—to save the annoyance of explaining everything—I had hidden away my revolver and covered the dead man over with sand.
I told them I had gone away, confident that I should never be found out—that I had left no clue behind me, and that all trace of my participation in the man's death would be, I was sure, as much a thing unnoticed as a passing shadow on the shore or a ripple on the wave.
I went on—that, however, I had reckoned entirely without my host and miscalculated the wonderful sagacity of Brigadier-General Edis and the long arm of the City of Adelaide Police.
"Within a few hours, gentlemen," I cried, "although no one had ever seen or heard of me before—with no apparent clue to guide them, I was yet standing before the Chief Commissioner of Police, and he was thundering in my ears:—
"'John Stratton, why did you shoot Tod McSwiney—why did you kill the Mount Gambier murderer?'"
When I had got as far as this—I paused in my recital and looked round.
A profound and startled interest I could see was gripping every one in the room. Every head was bent towards me, and every eye was fastened intently on my face. I went on—but now smiling and in much lighter tones.
"Well, gentlemen—the Chief Commissioner of Police and the great Melbourne detective, Inspector Kitson, who was also present, didn't quite know what to do with me at first.
"They weren't quite decided as to whether I ought to be hanged straightway out of hand, or failing that—be taken into the Adelaide Police Force as a temporary auxiliary to help hunt down the other man.
"You see, they were in a bit of a hole. The other much wanted Mount Gambier murderer was at large in the city here, and I was the only person who knew him by sight. I had seen him at the races with the man who tried afterwards to kill me.
"Well, as I say, the police were perplexed. I was the only person who could be of use to them, and they couldn't very well hang their trump card. So ultimately they made a detective of me, and for three days I roamed the city here, followed everywhere by a bigger and, I am sure, a much better disguised escort than is ever accorded to any reigning sovereign or Prime Minister."
I paused here for a moment, really to take breath, but my audience thought I was stopping, and a lot of them called out, "Go on—go on John."
I went on with my adventure to the end, finishing up by remarking that one of my most treasured possessions would always be, the revolver given me jointly by Brigadier General Edis and Chief Inspector Kitson to—in their own words—"replace the old one I had unhappily mislaid."
I then concluded my speech with a carefully prepared peroration, in which I stated that always and under any circumstances the world would surely find, that any services we might be able to give, would always unreservedly be offered to the great Motherland oversea, or to this fair land of ours, that here had given us birth.
I sat down amid a perfect storm of clapping. Nearly everyone stood up and cheered. They enthusiastically gave me "For he's a jolly good fellow," and then some one called out vociferously for a tip.
Everyone laughing took it up at once, and the walls echoed with their cries. "Tip, Mr. Stratton—tip, John, tip."
An inspiration seized me, and I jumped up smiling to my feet. Instantly the great hall was hushed.
"Gentlemen," I said laughingly, "you ask me for a tip. Well, it has just been brought to my notice that the Deputy Commissioner of Police is present among us to-night (here every one looked at Chief Inspector Rubens), and it is possible that after, perhaps, my too full confession, I may be arrested to-morrow."
Everyone at once laughed in great enjoyment and I went on, still smiling, "But if I'm not arrested, gentlemen, Oban's Pride is, as you know, running on Saturday. He's out to win, as my horses always are. If he doesn't win it'll be because he's not good enough. So, there you are, help yourselves," and I sat down feeling I had played a good card.
The face of Chief Inspector Rubens was a study. It was flushed and angry looking. With all his self-control every one could see he was mightily put out. He frowned thoughtfully at his plate, and do as I would, I couldn't catch his eye. In a little while he got up without a word and left the hall.
Saturday was a great day for me at Morphettville. Oban's Pride won in gallant fashion, to the delight of the cheering crowds on the course and in the stands.
Everybody crowded round to congratulate me, and it was quite the standing joke of the afternoon, for people to come up and ask me if I had been arrested yet.
I saw Harker in the paddock, and was going to speak to him, but he cut me dead. I didn't understand why, until I saw the sour face of the Deputy Commissioner of Police just behind him.
During the afternoon my father-in-law put his arm affectionately in mine and drew me slightly on one side, out of earshot of my friends.
"Do you know, John," he said smilingly, "I'm really very proud of you. I thought you were rather rambling in that fine speech of yours the other night but I understand things now. A brother J.P. here has just told me that but for what you made public, Rubens was going to make a mess of you here this afternoon. The fellow was actually going to take you up.
"Now, my colleague says there's not a J.P. in the whole State of South Australia who would dare put his name to a warrant for your arrest. He's positive they'd lynch him if he did."
About three months later the dear old Chief returned. He came up a lot to Mitcham, and was always just as nice as usual.
One day he remarked to me quite casually. "Yes, John, you're a smart fellow right enough. You ought to go into Parliament or get made a bishop or something. I've been reading over that old speech of yours at the returned soldiers' dinner. The idea was very clever, John, and it certainly got you out of an awkward situation. But you stretched things a little bit my boy, didn't you? However, I've forgiven you. I don't suppose we shall ever quite find out how you got your information about what my deputy was going to do. Myself, I suspect at least eleven of my men here. However, it's all over now, and you need never worry any more. The ghost of Tod is lain for ever." And the Chief swung off in his usual happy way.
ALL these things happened a little time ago, and I must finish my story now.
P.S.—Mary hasn't been to any races lately.
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