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Title: The Mystery of Murrawang Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1306461h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2013 Most recent update: November 2013 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter II.—Lydia Munce.
Chapter III.—Wonnaminta Joe.
Chapter IV.—The Rheas of Murrawang.
Chapter V.—The Pearl of Tiaro.
Chapter VI.—At the Washpool.
Chapter VII.—On Kholo Hills.
Chapter VIII.—No Man's Hut.
Chapter IX.—The Boy in the Glen.
Chapter X.—What Stella Told.
Chapter XI.—In the Caves.
Chapter XII.—Ructions in the Kitchen.
Chapter XIII.—The Rusted Bridle Bit.
Chapter XIV.—A Startling Disclosure.
Chapter XV.—The Boss of Murrawang.
Chapter XVI.—The Murdered Swagman.
Chapter XVII.—Rory Makes a Discovery.
Chapter XVIII.—Somewhere in France.
Chapter XIX.—The Passing of Ellis Rhea.
Chapter XX.—Lydia's Yarn.
Chapter XXI.—The Encumbrance.
Chapter XXII.—Rod Bunker's Yarn.
"Of all the idiotic things I've heard of, this takes the pastry," young Rory Borrn exclaimed, as his father, who had been in town for a couple of days, returned to Broonah with an unwelcome visitor. "I reckon the boss wants his brains brushed. And the hide of that fellow to come here!" Saying which, he strode indignantly out on to the lawn, where he was soon busy erecting a tent as a sleeping-out shelter.
Broonah Station was generally a quiet place at Christmas time, for the shearing was then over, the scouring and pressing completed, and the tinkle of carriers' bells a thing of the past.
But this year there was to be a little gaiety and excitement at the homestead, since Ellis Rhea, whose last seven years had been spent behind prison bars, was now a guest of Mr. Hoey Borrn's.
His coming had not been announced, and he was received by the other members of the family with undisguised astonishment. The fact was that Mr. Borrn believed him to be the victim of circumstantial evidence, and had taken him into his respectable household on account of life family connections. His advent marked the beginning of a more exciting time than the genial old squatter had ever dreamed of.
Borrn was a hale and hearty old gentleman of 60, with a pleasant, ruddy face and scanty grey hair. Though a stout party, slightly warped in the legs, he was full of energy. It was said in the station hut that no stout man of his years had ever shown such activity as he did one day when he attempted to rob his hives and the bees attacked him. He was fond of a yarn; he was also fond of a drop out of a bottle; and he loved his pipe. A robust, good-natured man was Hoey Borrn.
Rhea was about 35, but looked older. He had come to Broonah for recreation, and looked forward to a merry time—at least, he said so; but there was something in the look of Ellis Rhea that was not pleasing, and somehow he gave the impression that he was incapable of ordinary merriment. His manner in company appeared always to be forced, and sometimes after a silence he would start and answer jerkily, as if he had been caught mentally wandering in a foreign channel.
"We have very little to offer in the way of amusement," said Mr. Borrn, when they were seated at dinner that night, "unless you are fond of shooting, fishing, or kangarooing."
"Why, you have actually named my three favorites; I'd wish for no better sport in the world," Ellis Rhea returned, with a show of enthusiasm.
Mrs. Borrn looked at him steadily for a moment, with something of suspicion, even distrust, in her dark eyes.
"I'm glad of that," said Borrn, "for the swamps and creeks about here are black with game, and there are any amount of barramundi to be caught in the washpool. As for kangaroos and wallabies, I have more of them than I possess sheep. I've often tried to induce Rory to go scalping, but the only satisfaction I ever got was that he'd think about it when he got time."
"That will come with the millennium," added Stella, a winsome little lady of 22. She was more a chip of the old block than Rory, who was three years her senior. Though accomplished in the way that made her an attraction in the drawing-room, her heart was in the great, wild bush. Often a tent was taken out for her at mustering times, and she shared camp life with the men. Riding over hill and dale, breathing the delicious aromas of wild Australia, waking the echoes with her stock whip, and listening to the fluting and carolling of innumerable birds, was to Stella a glorious life. She was bush-bred, and all her childhood associations were wrapped in the primitive splendor of the wide, pastoral lands. Being a nature lover, delighting in her native trees and flowers, the broad run afforded her endless pleasure and interest. Her brother was a more matter-of-fact person, whose aesthetic sense was less pronounced than his business acumen.
"Rory is a hunter," she added, "who is mostly too busy to hunt."
"Never mind," said Rory, "we'll leave as many carcases on the plains this Christmas as we've done in other years. It's a time of terror for the marsupials."
"Poor things!" said Mrs. Borrn sympathetically. "There should be peace all over the land at this time of year. It's a shame to make holiday shooting dumb animals."
"If you continue in that strain, Mrs. Borrn, you'll make me feel guilty of something dreadful every time I fire a shot," Ellis Rhea asserted, and though he smiled, he looked at Stella with pathetic eyes, which did not escape her mother.
"I have no patience with that man," the latter remarked aside. "Such a confounded hypocrite he is."
She did not treat him with anything like the cordiality that was accorded him by her husband. She had her reasons, and intended to make it hot for Mr. Rhea when opportunity offered.
"I suppose we won't be always shooting or hunting," Rhea continued. "There's a variety of entertainment, I believe. Fishing, for instance—"
"Oh, yes," Rory affirmed. "We can sit up at the washpool without speaking and without getting a bite for two or three hours when ever you feel inclined for that sort of diversion."
"It would not be too exciting for weak nerves, at all events," added Stella, "but I think Mr. Rhea would prefer a visit to the Haunted Glen."
"A haunted glen! You interest me!" Rhea exclaimed, alert in a moment. "Have you really such a place within easy reach of the station?"
"Within a stone's throw," said Rory.
"Well, not quite so close as that; but you can see it from the verandah," Stella explained.
"And is it really haunted?"
"It has had the reputation of being haunted for many years," Mr. Borrn answered. "I don't believe in ghosts myself: I think such things are merely reflections, or hallucinations, resulting from a disordered state of mind. Anyhow, I'll tell you the story of the Glen, and you can judge for yourself."
"Do!" said Rhea. "I'll be most delighted to hear it."
"Ten years ago the body of a young man was found there with a gun-shot wound in the back. There wasn't a stitch of clothing on it, or near it, and the hair had been burned close off the head and face, which was unrecognisable. A swag and billy-can lay a few yards from it, but neither of these provided any clue to the man's identity. Some swagman, evidently. But why he was shot, and by whom, the Lord only knows. The body was buried in the Glen—unidentified.
"Previous to this the caves at the end of the Glen were frequently visited by the Ralstons—my predecessors; but after the unknown was interred there it was avoided by everyone. Not a human foot touched its precincts for six years. Dingoes turned the caves into kennels; two eagles took up their abode in the trees above, and owls and bats filled the scrubs around it.
"About seven years ago Ralston himself was riding close by the entrance to the Glen on his way home. It was near dusk. He was scanning a bank of clouds to south'ard, hoping it would bring him the rain he had long wanted, when suddenly his horse gave a quick start, stopped, and snorted.
"Following the direction the horse indicated, Ralston saw a sight that for a moment made his blood run cold. Yet it was nothing very terrible. Standing just before a shelving rock was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her hair streamed across her shoulders, her hands were clasped, and her eyes looked upward.
"He stared at her as one spellbound. She remained immovable, almost rigid in her posture, so that she might have been mistaken for a magnificent specimen of Grecian sculpture, or a figure petrified in the act of prayer. I believe there are some wonderful and fantastic shapes in the caverns under that hill, formed by ages of percolation, and for awhile Ralston thought this must be one of them that some joker had brought out and stood there.
"But all at once it shivered (I'm telling the yarn as Ralston told it), the lips moved, and some words came, half-sobbing, from them. The speech seemed more a passionate denunciation than a prayer. She continued for a minute or more, but emotion, and the wind that wails eerily through the rock pinnacles there, made her words unintelligible to him.
"Presently she turned, and, with her hands to her face, moved slowly up the Glen for a few paces, then suddenly dropped her hands and strode rapidly away towards Murrawang boundary.
"Angus Ralston had been staring at the woman—or apparition, or whatever it was—with his hair on end. He knew of no living woman who ought to be there; but he knew that Mrs. Garratt Rhea had been thrown from her horse and killed just about there. That may have been in his thoughts at the time. Anyhow, he put spurs to his horse and rode full gallop to the stockyard gate. When he burst into the room where his wife was sitting he was as white as a sheet, and his eyes had the wild look of a hunted fugitive. He told her he had seen a ghost. She laughed at him; she laughed at him for long afterwards; but she couldn't laugh him out of what she called his foolishness.
"He was rated a hard-crusted old fellow by most people, not over scrupulous in his dealings. His past life, for the most part, was a void. No inducement could draw him out on that point; all he would speak about was sundry conflicts with wild blacks in the early days. The only one I know who could throw any light on the matter is our housekeeper, Lydia Munce; but her lips are as sealed as the dead.
"However, Ralston believed that others might not see this spirit, as it had come to haunt him alone, though he never explained why it should do so. It preyed on his mind to such an extent that his one desire for the time being was to get away from Tiaro Creek and the sight of Kholo Hills. That was how he came to sell me the station.
"Since then the Glen has borne an unenviable reputation. Stockmen and others from time to time averred they had seen a woman, such as Ralston described, walking there; but she always led by the hand a little, curly-headed boy. From reports it would seem that the boy grows bigger as time goes by. I never heard of a ghost starting an infant and growing up before. The mother ghost seems to be aging too. At first she had black hair—'long streaming hair,' some described it; but when last seen it was done up, and was turning grey. What do you make of that?"
"It seems to me," said Ellis Rhea, "that there is some agency foreign to supernatural influence at work in that glen; that is to say, if the affair was investigated it would transpire that the woman is more closely allied to the terrestrial than the celestial world. Does anyone live about the neighborhood?"
"No; there's no place between ours and Murrawang."
"You know that, of course, Mr. Rhea," Mrs. Borrn put in. "You are not a new chum on Tiaro Creek. Indeed, you should know every inch of it."
"I have not seen it for nine or ten years, Mrs. Borrn. Many changes may take place in that time. Murrawang, I know, has changed."
"Merely the homestead. The country around it is much the same as when you saw it last. The same paddocks, the same hills, the same trees—"
"You are wrong, mother," Rory contradicted. "The paddocks were bare and black when Mr. Rhea left. A big bush fire had just swept over them. Now there's grass up to the saddle-flaps everywhere."
"And there's the haunted glen," added Rhea, taking Rory seriously.
"Oh, that's been there since the glacial period," Mrs. Borrn rejoined. "It's a wonder you never heard of it. You ought to be fairly well acquainted at least with the landmarks of Broonah run."
"I have no recollection of it," Rhea answered; "if I had known of it I should certainly have tried to clear up the mystery."
"I've never had sufficient faith in the story myself to bother about it. I think it's all tommy rot; Ralston must have imagined it."
"What do you think, Mr. Rhea?" asked Rory.
"Well; I don't believe in ghosts, to begin with. That sort of thing is all nonsense. If a woman was seen there you may depend it was a woman."
"But what would she be doing there?"
"Ah! that's the rub. Perhaps she had a husband; they may have been travelling and had camped there for a few days, or at different times. Seven years is a long time to look back; but even now an exploration of those caves should prove interesting."
"Then I vote we form ourselves into a Society for the Investigation of Cave Mysteries," said Rory. "We have now three enthusiasts; between us we should be able to do something."
"I should like to have a quiet talk with that woman, Munce," said Ellis Rhea. "She was a servant of ours, you know, at Berrinong, and was the principal witness against the teller in—in that bank affair, you know. I fancy, from what you say, Mrs. Borrn, that she knows more about the Glen than anyone here. She was many years in Angus Ralston's service before she went to Berrinong.
"You might as well try to bleed a stone, Mr. Rhea, as try to get anything out of Lydia. Let me tell you," Mrs. Borrn went on, "there's a mystery about that woman I could never fathom, and a darker mystery still in connection with the west-end room which she occupies."
"She was a conundrum to the Ralstons; she's a conundrum to me. Not that I have any thing against Lydia, mind you. She's a very good woman in every respect, but"—Mrs. Borrn shook her head deprecatingly—"there's a cloud over her—a something; I don't know what."
Rhea was thoughtful. He was not so enthusiastic now as he had been. Still, after some rumination, he begged her to tell him of this woman. He waited with a peculiar eagerness, while she poured out a cup of tea, a strained expression on his face.
The tea was not to Mrs. Borrn's liking, and she rang the bell for Lydia to put some water in the teapot.
Lydia came smartly into the room, but on noticing the visitor she half-stopped, and the pink faded magically from her cheeks. She was a strongly-built woman of middle age, good looking above the average, in whose face, however, there were unmistakable signs of care. Only Rory noticed her concern. What he saw whetted his curiosity, and directed his attention more closely to Rhea when she had finally withdrawn. The man who wanted to have a quiet talk with her had merely given her one shifty glance.
"For some unaccountable reason," Mrs. Borrn commenced, "Ralston had a great antipathy to that west-end room. It was given to Lydia during her last term with them. She still had it when we took her over with the station, and she's got it yet. It isn't a nice room, by any means; no one else here would have it, but she prefers it to any other.
"Now, as soon as her work is finished she goes to that room, locks the door and window, and no amount of knocking or calling can bring her out of it or elicit an answer, until she emerges next morning. She says she does not hear—that she goes to bed and to sleep immediately. But that's all my eye. Just wait till I tell you."
This was a pet phrase of Mrs. Borrn's when she wished to be impressive.
"One night I had to come down for something—I forget what it was—but, anyhow, I couldn't get it without going to Lydia. Receiving no answer to my knock—as usual—I tried the door, and, very much to my surprise, I found it unlocked. I thought this a fortunate circumstances. Entering quietly, I relit my candle, which the wind had blown out, and looked for Lydia. She wasn't there. Not a sign of her.
"I was angry, you may be sure, at finding the woman out at that hour. It was 12 o'clock, mind you. I was also puzzled as to where she could be. The only outside place where she could look for company, so far as I know, was the hut; and she hadn't been seen there. As a matter of fact. I have never known Lydia to go to the hut. She was always a girl who kept much to herself.
"I fastened the window inside, and locked the door. 'Now my lady,' I says, 'I'll see what your little game is, for now that the kitchen keys are locked up in your room, you'll have to wait outside until I let you in."
"I went down early next morning, expecting to find Lydia nursing her chin on the doorstep. Instead, I found the window wide open. The bed was as I had seen it the night before. Apparently she had not long come home, but how did she open the window? I went to the kitchen. There was Lydia at her work as usual!
"'Where were you last night, Lydia?' I asked. I didn't speak very gently either, for I was annoyed at the woman's duplicity.
"'Nowhere, ma'am.' She seemed astonished at the question.
"'Now, Lydia, speak the truth. I went to your room at twelve last night, and you were not there.'
"'I fell asleep in th' chair at th' foot of the bed. I left my candle in the kitchen,' she answered.
"'You sat down in the dark?' I questioned.
"'Just to take my shoes off. Then I fell asleep,' she replied.
"'You must have been very sleepy indeed,' I said, 'when you couldn't keep awake long enough to take your shoes off."
"She began to get a little bit cantankerous then; she's not the most amiable person in the world, I can tell you.
"'There's a lot of work on this place for one girl to do, an' I'm kept goin' all day. I often wonder meself how I do it,' was her answer.
"It seemed incredulous that she should be there and I not see her; but I let it remain at that. Next night, however, I posted Rory in the garden to watch the room. He saw her enter with something in her arms, and heard her lock the door and window.
"He waited till an hour after she had put the light out. Then he banged at the door, and called her by name. But there was no response. So he smashed a window-pane to get at the lock. By this means he got into the room. The bed was undisturbed, and Lydia was nowhere to be seen, It was a puzzle to Rory, as it was to the rest of us, how she had got out."
"You are sure she didn't pass out by the door unseen by you?" Ellis Rhea inquired of Rory Borrn.
"Quite sure. The door was locked and the key inserted inside."
"But wait till I tell you," Mrs. Borrn resumed. "'Well,' says Rory, 'I'll wait till you come back, my good woman, if I have to wait all night.' So he lit a cigar and sat down, very much elated; for Rory, you must know, is in his glory when engaged on a mysterious case. It's often struck me that we should have made a detective of him. He has an aptitude for that sort of thing, only" and Mrs. Borrn smiled with the utmost urbanity, "if he were shadowing a suspect it would be with a pair of long-necked spurs dangling at his heels, and a stockwhip doubled over his shoulder. You'll see his spur tracks round the legs of the chairs, and on the linoleum in front of them. Certainly they couldn't be on better heels, for there was never a horse on Tiaro Creek that could throw him out of the saddle. As for his father—well, I've seen a kick-up put him over the horse's neck like a frog leaping into a billabong."
"You're drifting away from the point, my dear," Mr. Borrn quietly interjected.
His wife laughed softly. "Let me see! Where was I?"
"You left me smoking a cigar, mother," said Rory; "when you've finished I'll go and smoke another."
"You're quite welcome to go and smoke it now," his mother rejoined. "But wait till I tell you. When he had sat there for somewhere about three hours, he heard a noise at the window. He kept very quiet, though he was shivering with excitement, you may be sure, but on the alert for any emergency, nevertheless. His eyes were riveted on the window, and he was wondering if she would detect the broken pane, and throw a light within as a precautionary preliminary, when all at once he heard a plaintive me-e-ow! It was the cat.
"He composed himself again, and sat hour after hour, smoking no end of cigars, flavored now and again with something out of a flask, probably limejuice, or milk and water.
"The night passed, and just at dawn, when Rory's head was getting too heavy to hold up, a match was struck close against his shoulder. Rory sprang up, very much alarmed, and saw Lydia standing behind his chair. She darted past him before he could compose himself, the light being extinguished immediately; and—my goodness! didn't she scream.
"She had the household keys in her pocket, and in a few minutes she was at my door, yelling at the top of her voice. I hurried out, and found her cowering in the passage, in a state of panic. She said Master Rory was in her room....She'd never heard of such a thing on Broonah before....It was a shame that I should allow such carryings-on. Then, she started to cry, and wound up by giving me a week's notice.
"However, I smoothed her ruffled feathers after awhile, promising that she should not be molested again. So the mystery has remained unsolved to this day."
"How did she explain her absence?" asked Rhea.
"She didn't admit it." Mrs. Borrn replied. "She said she'd been sitting on the floor behind the bed looking over some old letters in her box. The candle burnt out and she fell asleep and did not wake till dawn. She was in her stockings, so could walk on the carpet without being heard by Rory. The statement may be true; but it's a hard morsel to swallow."
They left the table shortly afterwards, and the matter was not referred to again; but later in the evening Rory, who had become suspicious and circumspective, discovered Ellis Rhea at Lydia's window. Somewhat surprised, Rory crept closer, watching with tense interest.
Rhea's movements were stealthy. He tried the window, which was fastened; then he endeavored to peer into the room, but in this he was foiled by a thick blind. There was a faint light within, but no sound could be heard. It was a still night, softly lit by the brilliance of countless stars bejewelling a clear blue sky.
Frustrated in his secret purpose, Rhea left the window, and was moving cautiously round the wall when Rory, seeing that he must be discovered, stepped into the light. Rhea started guiltily, but in a moment recovered his composure.
"Halloa!" he said, with a forced laugh, "are you at it too?"
"At what?" queried Rory, coldly.
"Trying to discover the secret of the vanishing Lydia," said Rhea.
"No. I wasn't," answered Rory. "I thought I had bumped a burglar."
Rhea chuckled mirthlessly. "Well, you know," he said, thrusting his hands into his pockets and moving away from the room, "I was immensely interested in what your mother told me. Strolling round this way, where I used to enjoy many a stroll years ago, when I lived here with the Ralstons, I was curious to know if she had gone to sleep in the wrong place again. What do you make of that woman?"
"All I know is that she's our cook," said Rory. "You know a lot more than that, don't you?"
Rhea looked at him sharply. "What makes you think so?"
"She was at the bank in Berrinong when you were there, wasn't she?"
Rhea swung half round, eyeing his questioner with resentment. "What's that got to do with what your mother told us?" he demanded.
"I don't know—except that she was mightily concerned on seeing you here."
"Indeed!" There was a sneer in the utterance of the word. "How do you know that?"
"Oh, I have eyes to see," said Rory, with a shrug of his shoulders. "What's behind it might be illuminating."
"If there's anything behind it, I suppose it's best known to herself." said Rhea, nastily. "I'm sorry I can't enlighten you."
"I judged that her perturbation didn't arise from anything that was confined to herself," Rory returned.
"I think you imagine things," snapped Rhea, looking away at the black skyline. "I saw nothing—"
"I observed that," Rory broke in quickly. "You hardly looked at her, though you used to know her well, and hadn't seen her for seven years, and she was the subject of the discussion that you were particularly interested in."
Rhea walked on without speaking, and presently he entered the house, his moody demeanor implying something different from a growing regard for Rory.
Rory went on to the lawn. There he bethought him of a lantern that was required to complete his camping outfit, and made his way round to the kitchen to get it. Lydia was closing the windows for the night when he entered. She slammed the last one down, and turned to him with a look of aggressive inquiry.
"Have you seen my lantern, Lydia?" he asked.
"No," said Lydia; "I haven't seen it since yesterday."
"What's become of it?"
"I'm sure I don't know. I filled it with oil, an' cleaned it, an' left it on the shelf there. I thought you took it."
She went to the back door and stood waiting to shut it. She seemed to be more than usually preoccupied. Her manner gave him the notion that she had some trouble, and this he attributed to the presence of Ellis Rhea. There had been some arrangement between them over the bank affair; her evidence had not been altogether of a spontaneous nature and perhaps she had not acquitted herself to his satisfaction, and had not wished to meet him again. If he had involved her in the matter, his stay at Broonah would not conduce to her serenity of mind. Thinking thus, Rory did not bother her any further.
The lights across at the hut caught his eye as he went out, and he strode over to give some instructions for the morning.
It was an old shingle and slab hut, with wide fireplaces, where good logs burned cheerily on winter nights. To-night the doors and wooden windows were wide open. At one end was a card-room, and here, seated at a long, narrow table, were two white men and two blackfellows. One of the former was the homestead boundary-rider, Jim Jack by name, a medium-sized man, whose beardless, bronzed face had as many wrinkles as a ram's neck. The other was a tall stockman, a quiet man, with a happy cast of countenance, adorned with drooping moustaches. His registered name was Joe Eagle, but he was commonly known as Wonnaminta Joe. He had come to Broonah with rams a couple of years before from the neighborhood of the Paroo.
The first thing that Rory noticed as he stepped into the room was the lantern he had been looking for, standing on the table between the card-players. Their customary light was a slush-lamp, which had been pleasurably passed into a corner of the fireplace.
"Hulloa!" he said, "that's my glimmer you've got there. I've been hunting around for that."
Wonnaminta leaned back against the wall.
"I've been wonderin' who owned it," he returned. "It had me beat."
"Why?" Wonnaminta repeated. "Where did you leave it?"
"Lydia left it on a shelf in the kitchen. When I asked her a few minutes ago, she didn't know what had become of it."
"Weren't you in the Glen last night—about an hour after dark?"
"I haven't been there for a month."
"Anyone else from the house there?"
Wonnaminta gazed at the light in perplexity. "Well, that knocks me kite high," he said. "I got that in the Glen—standin' on a rock near the cave mouth—all on its lonesome."
Rory sat down on the end of a stool, and planted an elbow on the table, his eyes full of interest. Wonnaminta lit his pipe, while Jim Jack nursed a patch-covered knee and studied his mate from the opposite seat.
"It was this way," Joe related. "I stopped yarnin' at the Four-mile with Phil Clarke, an' didn't get home till an hour or more after dark. Comin' past the Glen, I noticed a light, an' rode up to it. Couldn't see anyone about. Whistled an' coo-eed. No answer. I waited a few minutes, listenin'. Couldn't hear a sound, an' not a movin' thing was to be seen. Just that light standin' on the rock, an' nothing to say what for."
"I bet you wasn't scared, Joe. Not a little bit," Jim Jack interrupted.
"I'll admit I wasn't feelin' too comfortable," Said Joe, frankly. "I thought of the bloke that was shot there, an' the queer yarns that's been told about the place, an' it struck me as a good corner to be out of. I picked the lantern up, as I reckoned it wasn't the correct thing for it to be there makin' out to be a lighthouse, an' brought it home."
"Well, that beats cock-fightin'," said Rory. "Who could have had it?"
Wonnaminta shook his head. "Jim was sittin' on the bunk mendin' his trousers when I got home," he said, in answer to Rory's look.
"These blokes"—indicating his dusky companions—"were arguin' about what was trumps, the lubras were havin' a sing-song at th' camp; an' the cook was layin' down the law because I was keepin' him from clearin' the table. So that leaves only the women at the house."
"An' they wouldn't go there at night for all the tea in China," Jim Jack chipped in, amusement adding more wrinkles to his face.
"I can answer for them," said Rory. "I was with them all the evening. Lydia was ironing till a quarter to nine, because the mater was speaking to her just about that time. The boss was in town. So the position is, the lantern was taken from the kitchen and left alight in the Glen; and everybody on the station can prove an alibi. That's the queerest, caper yet."
"Beats me," Joe said, screwing his eyes up at the light and blowing smoke-clouds across the table.
"We're going to do some exploring down there to-morrow," said Rory, after a contemplative pause. "We've got Ellis Rhea at the house. He's eager to have a look at our show piece. This incident will be something definite and tangible to start on."
"Rhea goin' on to Murrawang?" asked Joe.
"In a few days. I think, if I were in his place, I'd be all impatience to get on to my newly-acquired property."
"Same here," Joe agreed. "Such a nice change, too, bein' boss o' Murrawang after bein' in gaol so long....Whose deal was it?"
"It would be dead funny if one of the missing heirs turned up now," said Rory, smiling. "Ellis was the last man old Garratt Rhea thought of as his successor. He always believed that Bert would turn up."
"More impossible things than that," commented Joe. "Reuben's a goner for certain, but Bert's a different proposition. No tellin' whether he's over the other side or not. There ain't much hope left, though. Not enough to cause Mr. Ellis to lose much sleep thinkin' over the happy return, anyhow. Dashed unlucky family, them Rheas....What did yer turn down, Jim? Spades! I'll make it hearts."
Rory got up from the stool. "Yes," he said, moving towards the door, "old Garratt was the only one of the Murrawang lot who died in his bed."
He left them playing, and returned to the lawn, thinking so much about the strange incident Wonnaminta had related that he left the lantern behind.
Station people, whether in sub-tropical Queensland or among the snowcaps of Monaro, are usually astir at daybreak; and Broonah was no exception to the rule. A mob of horses galloped up the home paddock into the yard; there was the crack of a stock-whip here and there, mingled with the barking of dogs and the calling of cows; whilst from the back part of the house came a rattle and clatter of utensils and the noise of tables and chairs being moved about.
The general activity within aroused Ellis Rhea, and, though it was not yet sunrise, he had already had his bath and a cup of hot coffee—prepared by that interesting factotum, Lydia Munce, who put it down on the table so roughly that some of it spilled over into the saucer; and now he was perambulating the broad walk around the front garden, enjoying one of his host's choice cigars—which his host never smoked himself. As before stated, he stuck faithfully to the old dudeen.
Rhea had been for some time curiously eyeing a small tent that was pitched in the centre of the lawn. "I am sure it wasn't there yesterday evening," he soliloquised. "Some tramp, I suppose, arrived late last night. But what a place to pitch a tent!"
He walked round the strange habitat once or twice more, then resolved upon an interview with the inmate. Sauntering up, he slapped the back of his hand against the flaps, at the same time calling out;—
"Hello!" a voice answered.
"Do you know that you're in the very middle of Mr. Borrn's garden?"
"Have you been taking measurements?" asked the occupant of the tent.
"Indeed, I have not." answered Rhea, irritated at the man's seeming impudence. "But you'd better shift your camp down the paddock and be quick about it."
"Good heavens!"—and there was a rustling of sheets and the creaking of a stretcher. "Is the house on fire?"
"No, it isn't."
"What's the matter then?"
"Don't I tell you you're in Mr. Borrn's garden. Where the deuce will you want to camp next?"
"What the deuce has that got to do with you?" was the retort.
At this juncture Mrs. Borrn appeared, attired for walking.
"What's this I hear? Are you two quarrelling?"
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Borrn. Do you know this fellow?"
"Fellow! Why, goodness me!"—she burst in to a hearty laugh—"that is my son—Rory!"
"Here, you scamp, come out of that. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
"What have I been doing now?" asked Rory with meek innocence.
"It's what you haven't been doing. Do you want the sun to burn a hole in your blanket? Get up, you sleepy head."
"My dear Mrs. Borrn," said Rhea, much confused. "I had no idea—I thought—really—I beg your pardon!"
"Oh, that's an old game of Rory's," Mrs. Borrn broke in, with another merry laugh. "He always sleeps out on summer nights."
Rhea surveyed the young man's healthy, muscular proportions with a disapproving eye.
"I'd imagine soldiering would be into his hand," he said, meaningly. "He's just the stamp the recruiting officers are looking for."
Mrs. Borrn's head went up a little stiffly, and there was a flash of anger in the look she gave him. The big war had been in progress for three years at the time, and Broonah, like other squattages, had been stripped of its handy rouseabouts and skilled horsemen.
"Rory is my only son, and he's indispensable," she retorted with warmth. "He wouldn't be here only for me, let me tell you," she added.
"Mr. Rhea is unfortunately among the ineligibles," said Rory, "or he'd be in khaki himself."
Rhea winced. Criminals and men of bad character were not admitted into the Australian Army.
"It is certainly unfortunate in the case of a man who has no responsibilities," Mrs. Borrn suavely remarked, a thrust which set Mr. Rhea biting at his lip. "But come with me. I'm going for a walk. It's such a lovely morning, and I have something to say to you."
Rhea acquiesced, though with some misgivings as to the nature of the conference. He was a man of ordinary stature, with prominent cheekbones and a thick, short-clipped black moustache. He had seen many ups and downs, and from a beggar and gaol-bird he had come to be the king of the Tiaro squatters.
He had been intended for a solicitor, but the demise of his father, who died insolvent, compelled him to abandon his forensic studies to seek employment in some capacity that would ensure immediate remuneration.
He had a wealthy uncle, Garratt Rhea, of Murrawang—a large sheep station adjoining Broonah. The two brothers had been at variance for more than a decade, and after the death of Fergus the family feud continued between young Ellis and his cousins Egbert and Reuben, especially the former, who was a casual sort, somewhat restless in disposition, and inclined to be wild. Garratt bestowed upon his prodigal son with a lavish hand. He was also most liberal with Reuben, who was practically his working manager. But he would have none of Ellis. The latter, so far as his own kin was concerned, was an outcast. Small wonder, then, that his nature soured. Everything around him became hateful to him. His ear could detect no note of gladness among the sweet-voiced birds of the bush; the cheeriest sounds had to him a sad and lonely ring.
Adversity soon forced him on to the track. As he trudged along with his swag and billy, he met his uncle on the way to Moreena.
"Hullo!" cried Garratt, reining in his big grey; "looking for a job, young man?"
"I am!" Ellis answered, defiance in his look and tone.
"Well," said Garratt, stroking his beard meditatively, "I want a man; in fact, I want two or three. Ever do any tank-sinking?"
"You know well I haven't!" Ellis, who had never once taken his eyes off his rich relative, spoke with much feeling.
"H'm!" said Garratt, unruffled. "Perhaps you'd help with some fencing. Can sink post holes, can't you?"
"If I could ram you into one of them, you miserable old dog, I'd sink them with pleasure." With which remark he hitched up his swag and passed on.
At Broonah he found the goal he sought, being employed as bookkeeper to Angus Ralston. Here, at long intervals, he met his unfriendly uncle, but if ever they took any notice of each other it was only of a hostile character. Sometimes, too, he met his cousin Reuben, but they never spoke—except once; and then there was a brief and spirited exchange of compliments. Shortly after this, Reuben, who had been to Moreena, was lost and perished in the bush. At least, that was the surmise. It was known that he had set out on horseback for Murrawang, via Broonah, and that was the last that was seen or heard of him. He was a good bushman, but good bushmen in plenty had gone the same way in the backblocks, and no one had been able to tell the manner of their death or the place of their tragic end.
Ellis remained for a considerable time with the Ralstons, acquiring some immunity from the feud canker by applying himself sedulously to his duties; whilst his more fortunate cousin Egbert was travelling round the world and enjoying all the pleasures of life. But the life was short.
Egbert had been globe-trotting a couple of years or more when the blow fell. First came the announcement that he had booked for home per steamship Solent. Next came the news that the Solent had foundered in a storm with the loss of nearly all on board.
Later the names of crew and passengers appeared in the papers. Anxiously Garratt perused the list of survivors. The name he sought was not there. But under the heading of missing he read, "Egbert Rhea, Queensland." There was that faint hope held out to him—a hope that grew ever fainter with the gathering years.
Meanwhile Ellis had received an appointment in the bank at Berrinong. For awhile he was contented, for things were looking considerably brighter, and, with his cousins removed, there was none to dispute his claim to the Murrawang estates.
At this stage he wooed and won the flower of Berrinong—so it was said. Her name was Esther Borrn. Her parents had reason to view the engagement with favor. They were helping all they could to complete the match when irregularities were discovered in the bank accounts, and Ellis Rhea was arrested. Subsequently he was arraigned on two indictments charging him with forgery and embezzlement; and though the depositions of Lydia Munce tended to incriminate the teller, the proud Ellis Rhea was found guilty by an unsympathising jury, and sentenced in all to seven years in the island prison in Moreton Bay.
This was a death-blow to the expectations of the Borrns. Yet what followed rendered the incarceration of Rhea but a secondary consideration. The malefactor had been four years in prison, and war had just broken out, when Esther Borrn disappeared as suddenly and completely as a burst bubble. Though the country was searched, and money freely expended in town and bush, no trace of her was discovered.
Events were happening swiftly in the career of Ellis Rhea. His sentence was all but completed when the chaplain informed him that his venerable uncle had gone to his long sleep. He had died intestate, the prisoner was told, so all his real and personal estate went to his next of kin, who was then Ellis, the thief.
One of the first to welcome him back to freedom was Hoey Borrn, who, shortly after his release, invited him to Broonah so that he might spend his first Christmas in the vicinity of his future home.
The clouds now appeared to have been dispersed for ever, and the ignominy of the past, it was confidently expected, would be forgotten in the halo of a roseate future. There was only one beknown to him who might take a heinous delight in resuscitating disagreeable incidents, and harping upon certain chords that would bring back each little act of bygone years, and transform the peaceful prospect into wretchedness. The thought was ever with him, and he pondered, with a grim compression of his lips, as to how he might obtain complete relief.
Whenever Mrs. Borrn indulged in pedestrian exercise she reminded one of a flurried person making a desperate effort to catch an unobliging train. She held her head up, thrust her chest forward, and stepped out with briskness and much rustling of skirts.
In this manner she led the perspiring Ellis—who wished to loiter and watch the black-boy racing up the stock-horses—to the bottom of the home paddock before she touched upon the something of importance she intended to discuss. Rhea had made a few attempts to open a conversation, but she had only walked the faster. Now she drew a long breath, and smiled at him.
"It's of my daughter Esther I wish to speak," she announced, seating herself upon a raised bauhinia, the appearance of which betokened an old resting-place. Rhea directed a sharp, suspicious look at her, then sat moodily, pulling at his moustache.
"It is an extraordinary thing that she has not been seen or heard of for so long. I don't know what could have come over her. She was never quite the same girl after—after that unfortunate mistake was made in regard to yourself.
"Very extraordinary," Rhea assented.
"Of course, there is no blame laid to you. None whatever. But wait till I tell you. Esther, during those months, was a great deal more at Berrinong and Moreena than at home. Though we believed ourselves at the time well informed as to her movements and doings, it has since occurred to me that there must have been something of which we were kept in ignorance."
"Of what nature?"
"Perhaps some love affair."
"But I was her intended husband," Rhea dissented.
"Oh, yes, so we believed. But, don't you see, there may have been someone else whom she regarded with favor, and to whose importunities she yielded when—you had got into trouble."
"Oh, that's ridiculous," Rhea testily objected. "I credit myself with having known Miss Borrn thoroughly, and I am confident of her attachment to me being too sincere to permit of her giving an amorous thought to another. She wasn't a flirt; she was one of the steady, homely, sympathetic sort."
"However well you may have known her," Mrs. Borrn persisted, "you must allow her mother, who nurtured her from birth, to know her better."
"Of course, a mother's eyes are naturally quick to detect any little failing or blemish, any mood or change. But is not a lover in the same position?"
"By no means. A mother knows her child before she is old enough to hide her feelings, or to conceal her failings; but she has learnt to dissemble when the lover steps in. He is mostly blind, in a sense—too apt to exaggerate every little virtue and minimise whatever is defective. Now, Mr. Rhea, I take you to be a man subject to the common delusive notions of your kind."
"And pray, what are they?"
"That your own judgment is more reliable than anyone else's; that you can't be deceived in matters of everyday occurrence."
"I am certain I was not deceived in Miss Borrn. She is the last one in the world I should have suspected of duplicity."
"That is as it should be. But wait till I tell you. No man who is an interested party is qualified to judge. He must be able to view and criticise with perfect equanimity and impartiality. A lover certainly cannot."
"But, my dear Mrs. Borrn, love is not a thing that springs into existence before the object of it has been seen. It is association, acquaintance, intercommunion, very often of long duration, that begets love."
"Yes, yes; but I refer to love at first sight, which, if I am rightly informed, is applicable in your case."
"Certainly I was attracted—I might say fascinated—from the first moment I beheld her."
"There you are then!" Mrs. Borrn triumphantly clinched. "You were enraptured with her beauty, and that rendered you incompetent to judge of her character. You did not know that she was weak and irresolute. People called her winsome; they said she had a winning way; but it was only her simplicity, her want of firmness and proper pride, which her beauty in a way concealed."
"I think you do her injustice. She impressed me as a lady of great intelligence, quite capable of holding her own against odds," Rhea returned, plucking at a blade of grass.
"Oh, but you were in love with her. That accounts for a great deal," Mrs. Borrn contended. "Did it never strike you that your cousin Egbert still lives?"
"I have thought at times that he may be living on some lonely island. But what has that to do with it?"
"If it is as you suggest, it would have nothing to do with it; but it was rumored while you were in—er—Morton Bay that he had come by another vessel, which arrived safely; and a Sandgate resident informed Mr. Borrn that he had seen and conversed with a young tourist whom he believed to be Egbert Rhea. He had seen him once or twice before he went abroad. At all events, this young person did leave Brisbane for Murrawang. Whether he got lost in the bush, like poor Reuben, or resolved upon some escapade, I cannot say; but I am inclined to favor the latter supposition. He may be as much alive as you are, and not very far away. He has a motive in remaining incognito, at which I could give a pretty shrewd guess. I believe, too, that Esther will some day swoop down upon us like a hen with a clutch of chickens. I speak lightly on these matters, because I am confident that my daughter lives and is the wife of Egbert Rhea!"
"That's nonsense," Ellis almost inaudibly declared. His cheeks were pale, and he gazed down with a troubled aspect.
"On the contrary," said Mrs. Borrn, "if you consider the circumstances carefully, you'll perceive how very feasible it is. You and Egbert were enemies almost from the cradle.
"When boys together at Murrawang, you were always rivals, constantly involved in some broil or other. He was antagonistic, you have told us, to your advance in any capacity; whatever you set your heart upon accomplishing he would oppose with all the ingenuity of his subtle nature. When you entered Cheater's Office, I remember, you told my husband that you were glad, as it accorded you some immunity from the malicious designs of your cousin. Personally, I never saw anything objectionable in Egbert; but I suppose you knew him best."
"Quite true," Rhea admitted, somewhat sullenly.
"Egbert, you know," Mrs Borrn continued, "was much at our place—between Moreena and Berrinong—and he and Esther were playmates from childhood; whereas you met her for the first time at Welford's, in Berrinong. Egbert was then on his travels round the world. You will excuse my saying so, Mr. Rhea, but there was some tacit understanding between Egbert and Esther that was likely to evolve into a pleasant denouement on his return."
"Imagination, Mrs. Borrn, pure imagination," Rhea dissented.
"Not at all," said the lady, impetuously. "But wait till I tell you. It was after the wreck of the Solent that you became acquainted with her, and possibly disestablished whatever claims Egbert may have had. You may justly combat the assertion that Esther was vain and conceited; that she was not different from the average butterfly of society; but she had her little whims and caprices like the rest of her sex. She had a strong liking for Murrawang, which looks so pretty across the downs; she loved to view it from the top of Kholo Hills when the sun was setting."
"Do you mean to tell me," said Rhea, with a vicious ring in his voice, "that she had a hankering after that home, and was bent on getting there, whether as my wife or Egbert's?"
"I wish to impress upon you that she was early in life attached to Egbert, and that the old place was in consequence imbued with a charm she could not resist."
"In plain words, I am to consider myself as having been a substitute?"
"Don't be unreasonable, Mr. Rhea. I don't discredit your assertion regarding her feelings towards yourself. What I want to point out is this; being his cousin, and remembered among the associations of her girlhood, she naturally turned to you as the only solace at hand. This is not mere supposition, for I can assure you she was much affected on hearing that he was drowned. Is it not probable, then, that she flew to him on his returning as one from the grave, and at the time when you were in prison?"
"That is all plausible enough, Mrs. Borrn; but you're not aware of the fact that she visited me twice during my first week in prison—that was before I was removed to the island—and on each occasion desired me to have the marriage take place on the day originally agreed upon."
"While you were a prisoner!" In shocked tones.
"Even so. She would have married me in gaol."
Mrs. Borrn slewed sharply, and her back stiffened.
"I don't believe it!" she said, looking at him with almost hate in her beautiful eyes.
A hard, pained expression shot into Rhea's face.
"Mrs. Borrn," he remonstrated in a low voice, "I have no cause to tell you a lie."
"And why did you object?" Mrs. Borrn's maternal feelings were severely wounded.
"I thought I had disgraced the family enough already without adding the climax that my assent to such a proposal would have been."
"I didn't know that your courtship had proceeded so far. I never heard before that a day had been agreed upon." There was a biting sarcasm in the words.
"It was just before the trouble occurred," he said, with some reluctance.
"The engagement was not announced," she reminded him.
"Several people knew of it, all the same."
"Was there anything unusual in her manner?"
"Nothing; except that she was much distressed."
"Did she visit you after the first week?"
"No; I never saw her after."
"Had she promised to do so?"
"She told me she would be away for a few months, when she would see me again. But she never came. I heard she was in Brisbane three years ago, and she was then going back to Moreena."
"Yes, she went to Moreena. My brother-in law was to have driven her to Broonah. They were going to start on a Wednesday morning, but, instead, she took the train back to Brisbane, saying that a girl friend of hers, an old schoolmate, was very ill and wished to see her. Whither she went afterwards we've not yet discovered."
"Was not Lydia Munce in Moreena at the time?"
"Yes. She was down for a week's holiday. She called on Esther three or four times at my sister's; but she left town on Tuesday morning on horseback."
"And could she give you no clue?"
"Then you know something?"
"Something that leads me to suppose what I have said in reference to the propinquity of Esther and Egbert." Mrs. Borrn added.
Her companion started as though he had been struck. He fumbled nervously with his watch, which he had just before drawn from his pocket, and observed that it was seven o'clock.
"We'd better be going," Mrs. Borrn said, rising. "By the time we get back breakfast will be ready, and I confess I am quite famished now."
"The walking, I suppose, sharpens your appetite," said Rhea absently.
"Undoubtedly. The matutinal walk is my cure-all. Poor Esther used to enjoy it immensely; but Stella is quite the other way; she's all for riding."
A long silence ensued. As a rule, Mrs. Borrn did not speak much whilst enjoying her constitutional. She contended that it was analagous to burning a candle at both ends to wag her tongue while her legs were in motion. The use of one member at a time was sufficient.
They had reached the yard before Rhea ventured to interrupt her thoughts.
"What was the information you elicited from the woman Munce?"
"Well, it wasn't much, Mr. Rhea; but I must keep you in suspense until we reach the drawing-room. I want to illustrate it."
"To illustrate it?"
"I don't understand you."
"You will presently," Mrs. Borrn rejoined.
Rhea was not at all satisfied with the tenor of Mrs. Borrn's speeches. There was an underlying current of meaning in them, as if she were fully cognisant of the true state of affairs, and desired to probe him with occasional hints, either to torment him or compel him to compromise by revealing whatever knowledge he had of the matter.
Again, it seemed that her intention was to establish the idea that he was never an intimate of the family, much less an elected member. It struck him then that the convict garb had so contaminated him in Mother Grundy's' eyes that, though they believed him innocent, the elite must ever shrug their shoulders and look on him askance.
Marvelling as to what her next move would be, he followed his hostess into the drawing-room. She drew the damask curtains aside, and pointed to a painting of a beautiful young woman standing at the brink of a stream. Beneath it was the legend: "The Pearl of Tiaro."
"That," Mrs. Borrn explained, "'is a complimentary title bestowed on Esther by the settlers when she used to visit the Ralstons. That was after your time. The picture was painted from this photo, which was taken at the time she was in Moreena. Now, do you notice how fresh and smiling her face is? Look at the merriment in her eyes!"
"She certainly looks happy," Rhea conceded, mechanically.
"Very well. Now, look at this portrait; do you know whose that is?"
"Egbert's—is it not?"
"Yes; taken just before he sailed from San Francisco."
"Indeed! You obtained it, I presume, from my uncle?"
"Oh, dear, no. These photos were left by Esther at my sister's."
"But how did she come to possess a late photo of Egbert's? Did he send it to her?"
"Decidedly. They corresponded regularly during the whole time he was away. She did not inform you of this?"
"Then you were not her confidant?"
"Not wholly, it would seem."
"You admit now that you were mistaken in Esther?"
"To a certain extent."
"And don't you think it likely that they came together?"
"I do not."
"I can think of absolutely no reason for their subsequent conduct, their long silence, and your own theory is so utterly improbable."
She turned away from the picture, still unshaken in her own opinion.
"We'll go to breakfast," she said.
That morning saw a new arrival at Broonah, in the person of Mr. Julius Cobblestone, governor of Berrinong Gaol. Ellis Rhea viewed his inclusion in the company with marked disfavor. He particularly objected to the newcomer being one of the hunting party.
"If you take my advice, Mr. Cobblestone," he said, "you'll do a loaf to-day. We are going on to Murrawang downs, which you crossed yesterday."
"I'm not going as far as that," Mr. Cobblestone complacently returned. "Mr. and Miss Borrn and I are going to fish the Washpool for barramundi, while you two young ones are galloping about the bush trying to break your necks. Is that not so, Miss Borrn?"
"That is our arrangement, certainly," Miss Borrn answered.
Rhea's face clouded. It was evident the arrangement had been come to whilst he was wasting his time gallivanting about the paddock with the old lady; and it hurt him to think that they had upset the plans he had been instrumental in formulating, and made fresh ones without consulting him. The change had been made to suit Mr. Cobblestone.
"I understood," he said, "that we were all going riding?"
"So we are. But it will be too hot, I think, to ride any farther than the hills. Besides, we wish to explore the Glen in the cool of the evening. Mr. Cobblestone is anxious to see it. I hope you two will be back in time to accompany us."
"For that matter, we need not separate at all," said Rhea.
It was with Stella he wished to spend the day, for to part from her would be embarrassing, as it would throw him on to Rory, whom he did not like, or with the two old men, and he had reasons for wishing not to be alone with them; but it was not to be as he desired.
"Rory has to go to the mountains to get some game for to-morrow," Stella informed him. "This is what we call a half-day, Mr. Rhea, for it's pleasure and business combined. On Boxing Day, however, we'll have a merry run, I hope, on those beautiful downs. Are we all ready?"
Jim Jack had their horses ready groomed and saddled, and in less than half an hour they had collected their paraphernalia and were mounted.
Even as they rode from the homestead the heat was intense, and the landscape at no great distance was obscured in haze. Rhea did not like the prospect as they struck out into the open, and his eyes wandered to the cool lagoon, near which he and Rory left the rest of the party.
Under the trees by the Washpool, Miss Borrn and the two old gentlemen commenced operations with enthusiasm. Crouching behind the reeds, they waited silently, patiently, for a bite.
Huge barramundi could be seen swimming lazily along just under the surface, sometimes with their backs out of water, basking in the sun. But they were shy fish.
An hour went by. No one had yet got a bite except from flies and mosquitoes. These bit continuously. The men lost all interest in barramundi, and went to sleep. Stella fished on, and her patience was at last rewarded. With a thrill of pleasure she felt the plunge of the hooked fish, and, hauling up quickly, but gently, landed him with a bang against the ribs of the sleeping Cobblestone. He woke with a snort.
"Goodness me!" cried Stella. "What's up?"
Then he saw the cause of the disturbance. Looking rather foolish, he apologised, and in the next breath congratulated Stella on her catch. All now fished and renewed interest.
Meeting with no luck, at midday, Mr. Cobblestone essayed to boil the billy. This occupied him an hour, and cost him many a burn on hands and fingers.
After lunch they returned to their lines, and the two men sat talking contentedly over pipes. Naturally, the conversation drifted to the alleged defaulter.
"He's altered a lot, don't you think?" Cobblestone remarked.
"Terribly," said Borrn. "He's a different man altogether. He used to be a gay young spark one time; but now he's always brooding. Getting quite melancholy. I think he feels his position."
"That's to be expected; but it's not all. He's got something on his mind."
"The fact that he suffered for another man's crime would weigh on him—"
"You're too cocksure of his innocence, Borrn," the other interjected. "I've heard enough to convince me that he suffered justly. He wasn't alone in it; but he was the principal one."
"How do you know this?"
"I watched him while he was at Berrinong, and several times I heard him muttering in his sleep. Once he cried out, 'Give me that money, woman!...It's mine...All mine!' "
Cobblestone paused, whilst Borrn watched him with startled, wondering eyes.
"Another time he said, 'You vixen, where, is that bank money?...What do you mean, woman?...You want to rob me!...I'll kill...kill...' "
"Go on!" said Borrn, breathlessly.
"His sentences were disconnected—as though he were arguing the point. Often I had to wake him: he used to get worked into a frenzy. Once I heard him mutter. 'No one knows....He's dead...All mine." Then he'd wander, and presently would be demanding money from the woman again. There was always a woman in it."
Borrn's rod shook slightly in his hands. He pulled hard at his pipe for a while, his eyes fixed on the floater; then he turned, half-fearfully, half-appealingly, to his companion.
"Did—he ever mention my daughter's name?" he asked.
Cobblestone was lighting his pipe, which had gone out. He seemed loath to answer.
"Come, old fellow. You needn't be afraid." said the squatter. "If she was ever mentioned, tell me."
"No," Cobblestone answered slowly, as though he had tried to recall some incident with which her name was connected.
"Did he ever call her—this woman—by name?"
"Never in my hearing. I wish he had."
"You have no clue to her identity?"
"Not the slightest."
The struggling of a great fish interrupted him. A moment later Stella had the good fortune to place a second in her basket. This was exasperating to Mr. Cobblestone, who had never caught a barramundi in his life, and it was only the hope of making his maiden catch that had induced him to face the heat and flies. Stella laughed good-humoredly.
"I notice," he remarked, "that you keep your floater very close to the hook."
"I'd have no luck if I fished deep," said Stella. "Barramundi are queer fish. They're mostly near the top."
"That's the place for the small fry," Cobblestone rejoined. "I always understood that the big ones swam near the bottom. Anyway, I'm going to fish deep."
"O, my godmother!" cried Stella, as Cobblestone ran his floater nine or ten feet up the line; "your bait will be on the mud. I'm afraid you wont hook much there."
"I can't hook less."
He cast out clear of the broad, water-lilies which fringed the lagoon like a green carpet, dotted here and there with blue and white flowers, and planted himself behind some screening rushes.
He had not waited many minutes when his cork began to bob and move slowly in towards the weeds. Stella well knew from experience what that meant. She smiled at the rotund figure beside her, gasping and perspiring in a ferment of excitement. Borrn looked away; it seemed a pity to laugh when the man was in such earnest. He started and jumped at every bob of the floater, and when at last it dipped under he jerked it up with a suddenness that left a hole in the water.
His exclamation, "Missed, by George!" was superfluous.
In went the line again, and again the cork commenced to bob and move landwards.
"He's there yet!" cried Cobblestone. "I'll have him directly. Must be a monster...Mouth too big for the hook...slips out...Ah!"
The hook held fast in something. Cobblestone, throwing off his hat and spreading his legs, began to hoist the monster.
"Look out, Borrn! I've got him!...stand clear now...Ugh!"
He dropped the rod like a hot coal, at the same time taking quick, short steps backwards, as a snake-like head attached to a long black neck appeared.
"What's the matter?" cried Borrn, springing up.
"A darned snake!" said Cobblestone, his eyes like a startled owl's.
Stella, leaning back in the rushes, was holding a handkerchief to her mouth.
Mr. Borrn caught up the rod and landed the monster—an ugly, long-necked turtle. Cobblestone, recovering himself on finding it wasn't the sea serpent, consented to try his luck again. But he caught nothing more, though he kept close to Stella and took lessons from her. She laughed at his chagrin, also his awkwardness, as they moved from one favorite spot to another round the Washpool.
So the afternoon passed. Half an hour before sundown they quitted fishing and climbed the hill to view the surrounding landscape.
Meanwhile Rory Borrn and Ellis Rhea were busy with their guns in another field. Rhea took little interest in the proceedings, following his companion about as if it were a weariness to him. One incident occurred which nearly precipitated a quarrel between them.
They were waiting at the point of the scrub for one of the blackboys to bring their horses round.
"What sort of detective is your friend. Cobblestone?" asked Rory.
"He's no friend of mine." said Rhea, "and, so far as I know, he's no detective,"
"I heard he used to do a little in that line when a young man. The secret history of Broonah and Murrawang, and of some of the people here, ought to interest him. For one thing, he was curious to know how you and Lydia Munce were hitting it."
"Pity he couldn't mind his own business," snarled Rhea. "Does the fool really imagine that there could be anything between me and that woman?"
"Hard to say what he imagines," returned Rory, complacently. "Apart from that, I discovered something to-day that ought to set his wits working."
He took from his pocket the rust-encrusted remains of a bridle bit. "I got that from between the teeth of a decayed skeleton of a horse."
Rhea put out his hand to take it, but drew back again.
"The poor brute must have got away with the bridle on and got hung up in the scrub," he remarked, disinterestedly.
"Perhaps," said Rory, "but I can't understand a horse going in there on its own account. Horses are not scrub ramblers."
"Somebody, hunting out here, might have left him farther up the range, and got lost," Rhea suggested.
"And what about the saddle?" questioned Rory.
"Torn off in the scrub, probably, or dragged away by dingoes—or got buried. Lots of things could happen to a saddle," Rhea declared.
"The only man who went a-missing in these parts, that I know of, was your cousin Reuben." said Rory. "You'll remember his horse was never found."
Rhea shot a quick glance at the speaker, but said nothing.
"I think," Rory continued, "this clue is worth following up. It might help us to unravel something at last. I am positive that bit was Reuben Rhea's."
"In that case, I'll take possession of it," said Rhea, holding out his hand for the relic.
"I'll look after it for the present," Rory returned, thrusting it back into his pocket.
A shade of anger suddenly showed in the other man's face.
"What right have you to keep it?" he demanded.
"I'm going to look into this matter a little further," said Rory. "Our friend, Julius, will also want to inspect the 'exhibit'—and perhaps he'll join in the search for what's left of Rube."
Rhea was silent for some time; then he said:—
"What's the good of stirring up all this again now? The tragedy is long past and forgotten; and as I'm the only remaining relative of Reuben Rhea, I'm the only one it can concern—and I don't wish it to be revived. It means the whole family history being raked up again—for no good reason, except to gratify some people's morbid curiosity."
"If he were my cousin, I would wish to find his remains, no matter how long after, and discover, if possible, how he died," said Rory, with some warmth.
"The affair is entirely my business, Borrn." said Rhea, more heatedly: "and, you will understand, the subject is painful to me. So be good enough to let it drop."
"I shall not let it drop," Rory returned. "It's my duty to report this, whether it's painful to you or not."
Rhea kicked impatiently at a tuft of grass, and there was an ugly look in his face. He was holding his gun in one hand, the butt resting on the ground; and presently he took it up, and stood, whistling softly, and examining its mechanism.
At that moment the blackboy came up with the horses, and the men mounted without further parley, and headed for home, Rory, much to the annoyance of Ellis Rhea, retaining the rusted relic in his pocket.
No prettier sight could the eye look upon than that to be seen from the crest of Kholo Hills, with the great grey downs spreading away to the north-west, flanked by a long, low ridge that marked the course of a narrow stream. Under this ridge stood the future home of Ellis Rhea, forming a picture for a painter's eye as the mellow tints of the setting sun fell upon it. To the east was Broonah, plain and rugged, with a sea of silvery brigalow and tenacious dead-finish for a background. They turned from it to gaze again across the downs of Murrawang.
"It's an ideal home," said Stella, as if speaking to herself.
"It's very pretty." Cobblestone agreed "Would you like to live there?"
"Yes, I would like to live there." Stella answered gravely. She was thinking of her sister. How often had poor Esther looked from those hills and conjured up visions of happiness that were never realised! She admired it for its beauty, loved it for Egbert's sake; for Stella knew, or thought she did that it was Egbert whom Esther really cared for, and the yearning to be there, to call it her own, had filled her heart from girlhood.
Thoughts of Esther were always in her mind when she stood on that hill, for there they used to ramble together, and there they used to sit and talk, with the broad panorama spread out before them. And where was she now?
As if in answer to her thoughts, Ellis Rhea and Rory Borrn rode across the hill, with two blackfellows following close behind loaded with game.
"Have you anything left in the basket?" was Rory's first question.
"Yes," said Stella; "but we didn't bring it up with us."
"Then I must go down; I'm nearly famished."
"Can't you wait for dinner?" laughed Stella.
"Not while there's anything on the spot," he called back.
His father and Mr. Cobblestone proposed to accompany him, as the latter wished to explore the Glen before it got too late. Stella was about to follow, when Rhea detained her.
"Don't go yet. Let us walk along here. It's so much more pleasant than down in that hollow."
"But look how late it is," was Stella's gentle remonstrance.
"The sun has scarcely set," Rhea answered her, "and the twilights are long these summer evenings. Besides, the nights are moonlit, and I think you'll admit they are quite warm enough."
"Indeed, yes; I only wish they were a few degrees cooler. Still, these things are not to be responsible for my being late to dinner."
"We have plenty of time," Rhea assured her. "See, we'll walk to the end of the hill and descend into the Glen. It's the shorter way."
"It is shorter," Stella conceded, "but you'll find it dreadfully rough."
"You are not afraid, are you?"
"Oh, no; I've gone down it a dozen times."
Rhea gave his horse to a blackfellow to lead round to the Glen, and started at a leisurely stroll along the hill. He did not admire the scenery: in fact, his eyes were for the most part downcast. He was thinking of her, the girl beside him, in whose cheeks there was a delicate blending of the lily and the peach bloom, and whose lips, smiling half-shyly, half-mischievously, had an irresistible sweetness about them.
"Did it ever occur to you. Miss Borrn, how severely my hopes were shattered by the loss of your sister?"
"In what way?" asked Stella, innocently.
"She was to have been the presiding angel at Murrawang. I had pictured her there as a gentle dove in its cosy nest: by her influence it was turned into Paradise. My dreams then were delectable, Elysian. Now I am reluctant to go there, for I cannot look at the place without a shudder. It seems so cold and lonely."
"But you will marry?" Stella suggested, her eyes following the flight of a belated butterfly. Rhea looked at her wonderingly.
"Would you advise me to marry—now ?"
"I never give advice, for the reason that I should always consider myself responsible for what came of it."
"But you made a suggestion?"
"I thought it likely that you would marry, as I could not imagine a person living alone like a hermit on his station, particularly such a large place as Murrawang."
"But do you think I ought to marry?" he persisted.
"Why not? It's many years since you and my sister parted; it's not likely that she would reproach you when she returns."
"I don't know. If I did I would not wait for her to come; I'd fly to her to-morrow."
"Why do you think she is still alive?"
"Because your cousin, Egbert, did not sail in the Solent."
Rhea looked at her sharply.
"His name appeared in the list of the Solent's passengers—missing."
"Yes; he booked to come by the Solent, but delayed till the next boat owned by the same company."
"How do you know that?"
"I saw the list of passengers. Didn't you?"
"I did not see the name 'Egbert Rhea'; I saw a 'Mr. Rhea.' But we are not the only Rheas, even in Australia."
"I am sure he was your cousin," Stella declared.
"What became of him?" asked Rhea.
"That I cannot answer. Rumor said he came to Brisbane. Where he went to from there no one knows; but I believe he and Esther met, and were married."
"That is your mother's delusion. I had thought to find you more practical, Miss Borrn. Can't you see how improbable it is that they would allow so long a time to elapse without writing?"
"Esther often acted strangely. She hated letter-writing."
"That may be; but nothing save a complete lapse of memory would induce my dear cousin to leave me in possession of the squattage."
"He didn't leave you in possession. He knew that you were a prisoner for seven years, and your uncle is only a little while dead. My theory is this: Learning the true state of things, he hadn't the hardihood to face his old friends and acquaintances. Some men are very sensitive concerning matters that tend to stigmatise the family honor. He met Esther accidentally, married her, and took her abroad to live until the years had passed away, and you were again a free man, and the bank affair forgotten. You must remember that the seven years are not yet quite expired. When they have gone by you may expect Egbert and Esther to turn up any day."
"I wish I could share your hopes. Miss Borrn; but I look upon it as folly."
"It is not folly. Tell me this: Who appointed the present manager of Murrawang?"
"The executors of my uncle's will." Rhea drew in his breath as soon as he had spoken, in a manner which showed that he had said something he was sorry for.
"You told us there was no will, Mr. Rhea!" Stella questioned.
"Four gentlemen, at all events, interested themselves in the matter. They were, perhaps; the nearest friends of my uncle, and were instructed by him to act. Rod Bunker, anyhow, pretty well managed the place before the old man died."
"Excuse me, Mr. Rhea. It's common talk on Tiaro Creek that your uncle made a will in Egbert's favor. Yet that will could not be found after his death. How do you account for that?"
"I suppose he destroyed it—if one ever existed, with the intention of making another, and was stricken down before he had done so. You know the poor old fellow died very suddenly."
"Yes, poor old fellow," said Stella, meaningly. She did not forget that Ellis and his uncle had always been bitter enemies. "I would not be surprised if that will were to turn up. If it does, you won't be able to claim anything, will you, until you have proven that Egbert is dead? That will be hard to do."
"It won't be necessary. I have possession, and Egbert must return to oust me. There's little chance of that occurring."
"You don't believe, then, that he can be living abroad?"
"I know he isn't with Esther—unless the hopes and aspirations of this world are fulfilled in the next."
"What do you mean?"
"She'll never return. She's dead."
"She flung herself into the sea and was drowned."
Unconsciously she called him by his Christian name. She had stopped abruptly, looking at him with anxious eyes, her cheeks the color of the white lilies around the Washpool below.
"I don't know it for certain," Rhea continued with heartless calmness. "It was revealed to me in a dream. It was all so vivid that I am sure what I saw did really happen. I saw her get into the train for Brisbane. She looked happy, more like a person bound for a pleasure party than one going to a suicide's grave. She went to the wharves and watched a big vessel come in. She scanned the faces of the passengers eagerly, but the one she sought, apparently, was not among them, for she turned sadly away when the last had gone ashore. I next saw her going to Redcliffe. She went down to the rocks. From an over hanging cliff she flung herself headlong into the boiling surf, and the last I saw of her was the white, drawn face looking up in all the agony of despair. Then I woke, saw one of the officials standing by me with a black-edged letter in his hand. It was for me. For a minute I could not open it. I was nervous and trembling. Then I broke the seal, and learned that my uncle Garratt was dead.
"Oh, Mr. Rhea, what a ghastly picture you have drawn! You—you're a brute!" She shrank from his side, pain and resentment in her glance. "And it was only a dream. Why did you tell me?"
"It was a warning."
"Yes, of your kinsman's death. It's not to be supposed that what you saw at the cliff ever really happened, or would happen."
"I hope not. For all that, even if Esther is still alive, she's as good as dead to me."
Stella walked slowly on, without speaking. She was thinking of that horrible dream—hating the horrid man who told it. It had unnerved her. But she was conscious that Rhea had come closer. She felt his breath on her cheek. Her lips compressed, and a slight shudder went through her. She would like to have turned and left him. She was a pretty girl, and he thought it remarkable that she had not changed her name long ere this. She was young enough yet, but a girl of her beauty and personality could not have lacked for suitors.
She stopped to pick a flower, remarking that she loved the wild blooms. But Rhea had no eyes for such things.
"Miss Borrn," he said, "can you not pity me in my loneliness? Can you not comprehend the great void in my life? How utterly lost I am?"
"I do pity you, Mr. Rhea—sometimes," she answered, looking away towards the Glen. "You've had a very sad career; but how can I help you?"
She recognised the indiscretion of such a question the moment she asked it, and bit her lip with vexation.
"By sharing my lonely castle," Rhea quickly answered. "Be my wife. Promise me that, Stella, and I won't go near Murrawang until we can enter it together."
The girl's cheeks flushed hotly, and she slewed away from the hand he was about to place on her shoulder, accompanying the action with a swift look of bitter reproach.
"No, Mr. Rhea," she said firmly, "I could not be your wife; I am Esther Borrn's sister."
"I'm quite aware of the fact," said Rhea, stung by the rebuke. "I would have married Esther had circumstances not prevented my doing so. I cannot have her now. Why should I not ask her sister?"
"I believe my sister still lives. In any case—even if I liked you ever so much, which I'm not saying I do—I could not step into my sister's shoes. Her memory is too sacred to me; and to you, who professed to love her, it should be sacred, too."
"It is. I have no sweeter memory than the love of your sister Esther."
"Then don't ask me to be your wife."
"We may still be friends?"
"Certainly; I have no quarrel with you—"
She broke off suddenly, starting back in alarm.
"What is that." she cried, pointing before her. Near the butt of a big gum tree was a flat rock which cropped up just above the short grass. Through a chink in its bare surface issued a thin column of smoke.
"The hill's on fire, surely," said Rhea, edging round so as to examine the outlet more closely.
"Is there any danger?" Stella asked anxiously.
"It would be hard to give an opinion without knowing the cause," Rhea answered. "It may be harmless enough, but I don't like the look of it, for all that."
"Let us go away from it. I've read of some dreadful things that happened near burning mountains; and wouldn't it be terrible if this was to break out into eruption periodically like the mountains of Maoriland. and bury our valley with its streams of lava?"
"That is hardly likely to occur. Are there not several big caves under this hill?"
"Oh, yes. It's perfectly honeycombed."
"I think some traveller, then, has gone in there for shelter, and that's the smoke from his fire."
"Nonsense! Whoever would go away under there to make a fire? Travellers, as a rule, have a horror of caves. So have the blacks."
"I've known men who would search for that kind of habitat," said Rhea, casting a quick, furtive glance across the hill.
"To escape from a storm, or in wet weather," Stella rejoined; "but on a fine night like this they prefer to camp out under a tree. Even if they did chance a cave—it's not always safe to go into them—they wouldn't pass through half a dozen and camp in the farthest one, away from all light and fresh air. They'd want some courage to go in there on a visit of inspection; but to carry wood and water in there, and sleep there—Oh, no! I couldn't believe that. Tell me it's a pocket edition of Mount Vesuvius and I'll be ready to believe you."
"It would be unfortunate for Broonah if it was."
"Broonah has always been unfortunate. I often regret that we left Moreena. The Glen is the only interesting place about here, and Kholo Hills the only pretty spot where I could enjoy a walk. Now I'll never be able to come near it without a horror of being blown up to the moon in little pieces."
She looked timidly over her shoulder at the smoke, and quickened her steps.
"There's always something uncanny happening on this station. It gives one the cold shivers."
They walked briskly to the rocks above the Glen, down into which a narrow zigzag path descended. There the greatest surprise of all waited them, an event that caused changes in the household of Broonah, and unveiled the latent treasures of the long buried years.
In the meantime, Wonnaminta was riding home along the boundary fence between Broonah and Murrawang. When opposite the Glen, from which the boundary was only a couple of miles, he noticed Rod Bunker, the gruff and rugged old manager of Murrawang, drive up in a waggonette to an empty hut that stood a few chains back from the fence. That hut was a puzzle to everybody on Broonah. It was built by Garratt Rhea, for what purpose none of them could guess. Nobody had ever lived in it, nor had a fire ever been lighted in it—as a matter of fact, it had no chimney, and was plainly never intended as a dwelling. It had a bark roof, and the walls were of split slabs. A lonely, bleak little place, away from all roads, with no water near it, nor a yard, it was a landmark only to the boundary-rider and a source of everlasting wonder. It was known as No Man's Hut.
Wonnaminta had never seen anybody there before, and he was so curious that he hitched his horse to a post and strode over to see what was doing there. When he reached the hut, Mr. Bunker was sitting on the low threshold of the only door, gazing across the plain through a curtain of tobacco smoke. On the floor behind him was a bulky parcel and a big hamper. There was nothing else in the hut, except a half bottle of strychnine, which somebody who had been laying baits for dingoes had left on the lintel of the window, and a small lantern standing on the floor underneath. The window, which looked out on the mid-distant Kholo Hills, was open, and on the sill, evidently just left there, was a pair of field-glasses. These things intensified Wonnaminta's curiosity, more so as the horses were still harnessed to the waggonette, indicating that Mr. Bunker intended to drive away presently.
"Good day, Mr. Bunker," said Wonnaminta, his glances shooting in all directions. "Nice day!"
"Good day, Joe," Mr. Bunker rejoined, and at the same time he reached back and drew the door towards him as if to hide his luggage from prying eyes.
He was a fairly heavy man, well over 50, with a short beard, more grey than otherwise, and a weatherproof face, that was not unpleasant to look upon, though it had small claim to good looks. He had seen many years come and go on Murrawang, and there had been little in the life and business of the late owner that was not open to him. Apart from the two sons, he was the only one who had enjoyed the full confidence of Garratt Rhea. He was a bachelor; it was said that he had meditated matrimony at one time, and had taken up a selection and built a home for the intended, but something had occurred then which parted them, and the selection soon afterwards became part of Broonah run.
"Thinkin' o' warmin' her at last?" Wonnaminta grinned pleasantly as he nodded at the hut.
"No-o," Mr. Bunker drawled. "Just waitin' for a man o' mine who's camped up at the Brigalow. Time he was here." He puffed a moment or two at his pipe, while one critical eye seemed to measure the long figure of Wonnaminta Joe. "Where are you bound for?" he inquired then.
"Lost a couple o' rams," was the reply. "I suppose you haven't seen anything of 'em?"
Mr Bunker shook his head. "Fence ain't broken anywhere, is it?"
"No; but I thought they might 'ave squeezed through at the creek. Blamed pokin' things, rams. Yer never know where they get to."
"I found two o' mine the other day in a bit of a hollow, reduced to mere bags o' bones," said Bunker. "They'd been havin' a fight an' got their horns locked together; and there they stood, slowly starvin' to death." After a pause, he remarked casually: "I hear you've got Ellis Rhea over there."
Wonnaminta looked surprised. "How did you hear that?"
"Oh, mulga wire," was the somewhat cryptic reply.
"Wonderful things them mulga wires," said Wonnaminta, drily. "News flashes around in the bush without any apparent means o' transit, as you might say. The bloke only arrived last night."
"Is he one of the party that's down there now on the Kholo Hills?" asked Bunker, staring unconcernedly at his waiting horses.
Again Wonnaminta looked surprised. "I didn't know there was anybody there." he said. Then he remembered the field-glasses, and he understood.
"Noticed a female an' a couple o' chaps there just now," Bunker informed him, still studying the horses.
"Some o' the folk from the house, I suppose, lookin' at the scenery an' showin' the visitor round," said Wonnaminta. At the same time he wondered why Mr. Bunker had that hill under observation, and what special interest he could have in that quarter. A vague notion was sprouting, too, that the hut had some connection with the scheme of things, whatever they were. He threw out a feeler.
"Queer place to put a hut, this." He glanced up at the roof as he spoke.
Mr. Bunker reflected awhile before he answered. "Old Garratt had it built for a shelter for a dingo shooter. Dingoes used to come across from the Glen an' worry the sheep. But they disappeared from around here just about then, an' so it was never used. Still, it ain't an inconvenience."
A more commonplace ending to what had promised to be something in the romantic line could hardly be imagined. Wonnaminta was disappointed. All the same, he was not wholly satisfied with the explanation. The hut was being used now for a purpose that wasn't at all clear. There was yet no sign of the man from the Brigalow. Neither did Mr. Bunker show any anxiety or annoyance at his non-appearance. He seemed to have no other object for the time being than to sit there and enjoy his pipe.
Wonnaminta endeavored to keep up a conversation to put in time.
"I suppose you'll be havin' yer new boss over here in a day or two," he said.
"Who's that?" Mr. Bunker inquired, disinterestedly.
"Ellis Rhea. It's a wonder he didn't go straight to Murrawang instead o' to Broonah."
The old man smoked meditatively, a peculiar twist about the corner of his mouth.
"I hear he's goin' to sack all the old hands when he goes there," Wonnaminta continued. "Make a clean start with new brooms."
There was a cunning, half-amused look on Bunker's face. "He won't sack me," he said with emphasis. "He won't give me any orders either."
Wonnaminta's eyes were two staring interrogation marks. "But he's boss now, ain't he?"
"When he arrives, I mean. As owner, he must be top dog, anyway."
"Well, I haven't been instructed to that effect." said Bunker. "Between me an' you an' the door, there's some rough tracks ahead of Mr. Ellis Rhea yet. There's goin' to be some happenings in this neighborhood before long."
Wonnaminta gave a hitch to his belt, and squatted down on his heel, thirsting for information.
But after that burst of confidence Mr. Bunker was not inclined to be communicative. He got up and knocked the ashes out of his pipe, then stood with his hands in his pockets, tapping his foot on the ground. Wonnaminta made another attempt to draw him.
"So there won't be a string band or a bed o' roses for Mr. Rhea when he goes over yonder?"
"There won't." Mr. Bunker was emphatic on that point. "As you sow, so you'll reap—an' Black Ellis sowed badly."
He began to pace about, kicking at lumps of clay. He was obviously getting fidgety, not because his man wasn't coming, but because Wonnaminta wasn't going. It was nearly dusk then.
"Travelling a bit late, ain't you?" he said, presently.
Joe took the hint. "Yes," he said. "Time I got home. Well, so long."
"Don't loiter about down there, Joe; I might be havin' a shot before I go if a dingo should show up," was Mr. Bunker's valediction.
Joe had intended to loiter when he got among some bushes, to ascertain what Mr. Bunker's real object was; but on receiving that warning he decided to ride straight home, if no dingo appeared, he could possibly be mistaken for one in the dark. He consoled himself with the reflection that the happenings that would follow the coming of Ellis Rhea to Murrawang might also throw some light on the movements of Rod Bunker. He did not believe the manager's statement about waiting for a man from the Brigalow. If there was such a man there, it was a more sensible course to go direct to his camp than to an empty hut miles away from it. Then the man had not turned up according to the alleged arrangement, and it was not usual for a station hand to fail his boss in that fashion. Other little things occurred to Joe which went to convince him that Mr. Bunker had something of a secret nature on hand. What it could possibly be he had not the slightest idea. But he had a vague notion that Bunker's objective lay in the direction of the hill he had been watching.
On the way home he was joined by Jim Jack, who came up from the point of the hill at a faster pace than seemed necessary. He was an old hand on the place, whose recollections of Broonah went back beyond the days of the Ralstons. He had passed from one boss to another without changing his routine of years, acting as boundary-rider, "sheep inspector," and general rouseabout. He was one of the few who had been privileged to see the unaccountable forms that had made the Glen a notable place in the district. But no one took Jim Jack very seriously; he too often mistook bushes for animals and human beings when riding late. His eyes played him tricks in the dim light of the stars. He had once seen a mob of sheep rushing away in the moonlight with a dingo after them. On the matter being investigated, the mob of sheep transpired to be a lot of roly-polies bowling along before the wind. So Jim Jack's visions had become a joke in the hut. But he was positive there had been no delusion about the forms under Kholo Hills; and when he heard Wonnaminta's yarn, he jumped to the conclusion that Rod Bunker somehow held the key to the solution to the mystery of the Glen.
"I never did believe in spooks or spookesses," he declared; "an' I'll bet my old hat agin any other that the joker that pokes about down there couldn't vanish for his socks if he was caught in the open." He leaned forward awhile, with his hands propped on the knee-pads, peering curiously at a dark object which presently turned out to be a stump. "Can't make out what Bunker's doin' with a lantern if he ain't bound for the caves," he said as the stump was left behind. "I've never seen a light at the hut, an' he ain't stoppin' there to-night, accordin' to what you say. P'rhaps he's takin' it down in place of the one you lifted from th' rocks?"
"I don't know what to make of it at all," mused Joe. "It'll be a surprise if Rod Bunker's got a skeleton in that cupboard, an' has been prowlin' about there at night. Such a straight-livin', sober-minded old cove as he seems."
"Every cove's got a secret of some sort; if we could only read 'em like we can read a book we'd get some shocks," contended Jim.
"Perhaps it's just as well we can't," Wonnaminta concluded.
Some real living thing just then shot past Jim Jack's horse, which gave such a sudden spring that Jim lost his hat. He did not pull up till he reached the gate, a couple of chains away. Joe proposed to wait for him, but Jim said he could find his hat much easier in the morning, and left it.
The sun had gone, and the sky was beautiful with opalescent colors, when Stella and her companion started down the narrow path from the end of the hill. Tall ferns brushed them here and there as they passed, and dead leaves, stirred by some unseen life, rustled at intervals in the shadows of the rocks. The rest of the party had ridden round from the Washpool, at the head of which they were joined by Rory, and they were coming into the Glen when all were suddenly startled by a cry from Stella.
"Oh, my goodness, look—look there!"
Involuntarily she clung to the arm of Ellis Rhea, and pointed towards the head of the Glen. There, standing with his face to the rocky wall, his gaze fixed on something at his feet, was a little curly-headed boy in a sailor suit. It was a strange place to find a boy at that hour, as Stella knew of no white boys resident in the neighborhood, and the spot was far from public roads. A bridle track led past it from Phil Clarke's selection. Clarke's family was grown up; the only one that was left at home was known to everybody on Broonah as Rory Borrn's girl.
The boy turned quickly as Stella spoke, and a look of terror came into his face when he espied the intruders. For a moment he wavered; the presence of persons above and below seemed to confound him. Then he caught his hat in his hand, and ran like a wild thing into the caves
Rory dashed in pursuit, as Mr. Borrn called in vain to the boy to "come here." Stella made all speed down the zigzag, her face flushed with excitement.
"Whose boy is that?" she cried, breathlessly.
"Ask me something easy, my girl," Mr. Borrn replied.
"Does nobody know anything about him?" Stella persisted.
"Nothing more than if he'd just dropped from the clouds."
"Must have come in the last shower," she returned, looking smilingly at Cobblestone.
"Appears to be wild," hazarded that person.
"But he is so respectably dressed. We must have frightened the poor little fellow. Perhaps his parents are near. He is too young to be alone.
"That's so." Mr. Cobblestone agreed; "yet the parents don't appear to be here."
"No—unless they are dwelling in the caves. I've been thinking," said Mr. Borrn, "that this is the boy that used to be seen here with a lady—the ghost that is supposed to haunt the Glen."
"That would verify my prediction that the supposed ghosts will be found to be persons of flesh and blood," said Rhea.
Mr. Cobblestone took a careful survey of the surroundings, but could discover no evidence to swear by that people had lived in the vicinity for a lengthy period. The place appeared to be quite unfrequented.
"How often do you visit this place?" he asked.
"Very seldom," said Borrn.
"A family could hardly come and live here for long without being seen by somebody," Stella put in.
"Persons of some sort or other have been seen here," said her father.
"But they couldn't live here continuously," Stella objected. "And what would anyone want to live here at all for—hiding away, apparently?"
"Some people are queer," said Cobblestone.
"The bush calls them 'barmy blokes.' "
"Surely you don't think we've struck a lunatic asylum?" cried Stella, with lifted brows.
"Not exactly," said Cobblestone. "May be a family enjoyin' the simple life for a change. They might come here periodically. Come to think of it, it's an ideal place for the purpose."
Just then Rory returned, and all asked in a breath: "Didn't you get the boy?"
"I didn't." said Rory, pettishly, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose and looking at them. "I got a clout against the cavern wall, and nearly bashed my face in. It's no use going in there without a light. It's pitch dark."
"But the boy went through at full speed," Mr. Borrn argued.
"So might I if I knew the run of the place as well as he does. He lives in there; I'm sure of it."
"There's a fire in there, at all events," Rhea added.
"Oh, yes, pa. Come here," said Stella, moving up the Glen so as to obtain a better view of the smoke which had so frightened her a few minutes before. "I thought at first the hill was burning, and we were hurrying away from it when we saw the boy. I can see now that what Rory says is true."
"What Rory says!" muttered Rhea under his breath.
"Do you see that tall tree that stands alone?" Stella continued.
"Aye," said her father, shading his eyes.
"Well, look just to the left of that and you'll notice a white, vapory-like column going up."
"Is it blowing towards the homestead?"
"Yes, that's it. It's issuing from a chink in the rock."
"I see it. Do you make it out yet, Mr. Cobblestone?"
"Quite distinctly," Mr. Cobblestone replied, gazing at a spot three chains or so to the right.
"We must see into this, Rory." said Mr. Borrn. "Do you think we could find our way in to that fire?"
"I don't want to find my way into it," answered Rory. "If you want to get into a fire, why not make one here?"
"I mean, can we find our way into the cave where the fire is burning?" Mr. Borrn explained.
"Aye, at once."
"No; I've had enough of in there for the present. What's the use of being in a hurry? Leave it till to-morrow, when we'll be able to explore the place thoroughly."
"To-morrow is Christmas Day."
"What odds? Better the day, the better the deed."
"Yes, my boy," said Mr. Borrn, quietly: "but young men should pay more heed to what the poet says: 'Procrastination is the thief of time.' If there's a thing to be done, and you can do it to-day, why put it off till tomorrow? How many young men like you have formed good resolutions for the morning, and never saw the morning light!"
"Well, in that case, what did resolutions matter at all?"
"Humph!" said Mr. Borrn, with a doleful shake of his old locks: "he's a terrible boy—a terrible boy. I'll never make anything of him, Mr. Cobblestone—never!" He stood awhile beating a switch against his leg. "I know I'd sleep better to-night," he continued, "if I saw the inside of those caves."
"Why not go and see them?" Rory prompted. "The door's open."
Mr. Borrn moved towards the caves, feeling his pockets. "We can strike matches as we proceed," he said.
"Take, plenty," Rory advised; "I'll wait here till you come back." And he seated himself on a projecting rock to carry out his promise.
Mr. Borrn stopped. "Would you see your old father go into danger alone?" he reproached. '"There may be desperate characters in there."
"Let them stop there then. There's no necessity for you to go disturbing them at such an ungodly hour as this. It's etiquette to send your card in first, anyhow."
"Who's going to take it in?" his father demanded.
"Oh, leave it in the vestibule," said Rory. "The butler will find it in the morning."
The old gentleman shook his head once more, raised the switch slowly in the air, and brought it down sharply.
"Rory," he said, "I never thought you were a coward."
"At least," said Rory, "I'm not a fool."
A faint smile lingered on the lips of Mr. Cobblestone as he watched father and son; but Rhea stood frowning. He regarded the young man as a presumptuous cad.
"Will you bear me company, Mr. Rhea?" asked Borrn.
"Not if you gave me Broonah."
"Oh!" Stella laughed softly; but in that laugh there was more derision than mirth.
"We may as well go home, then,"' Mr. Borrn rejoined.
"Let's see what the boy was looking at, and have a walk round the Glen first," Stella suggested.
This was readily agreed to. There was not much time for looking about, as the ruddy glow had almost faded from the sky. The place was more dismal than pretty; the grass was as green as ivy leaves, but the encircling rocks looked black and frowning.
The top wall that faced the west was yet lighted. Rudely carved on a crude facet they saw two names. One was "Egbert," the other "Esther."
Below each, pointing westward, was a little mound like a grave. A few wild flowers grew on them.
For some seconds all stood gazing at these strange things in silence. Rhea seemed to recoil.
"What does it mean?" Stella at last managed to ask.
No one spoke. All were occupied with their own thoughts. It was a tense moment that seemed pregnant with important things.
"Pa," Stella entreated; "do you know anything about it. Is—is it—? Tell me the truth. Do you?"
"Only this," said Mr. Borrn, tapping the first mound with his switch. "This is the grave of a murdered swagman who was found here many years ago—the man I told you about last night, who was never identified. There was no name on the stone when I last saw it; neither was that other grave there—if I remember rightly. I don't understand it. If anyone is buried there, it must be another murdered man—buried in secret. They both seem to have been tended."
"And the names " Cobblestone began, and stopped, looking questioningly from one face to another. Rhea's was almost ghastly in its sudden pallor as he turned to the afterglow. Rory watched him as if fascinated, surprise and wonder in his own countenance. Stella was deeply perturbed. A sudden fear struck a chill into her heart, and with a sob she threw her arms round her father's neck.
"My girl, what is the matter?" cried Borrn, as he took his daughter's hand caressingly in his.
"It's Esther's grave! My sister—my poor sister!" Stella sobbed.
"Nonsense, child," said her father. "How can it be, when she never came to the station?"
"We don't know whether she did or not," Stella answered. "Why is the name there?" she asked. "Whose grave is it?"
"We shall know to-morrow, child. Don't give way like this. It's folly. We must find those cave-dwellers in the morning, Rory. That's imperative."
"I'll get Wonnaminta on the job bright and early," promised Rory.
"That's right," his father approved. "When you've any doubts about the pill you're asked to swallow, try it on the dog first."
"It looks to me like a job for the police," Mr. Cobblestone interposed. "That grave will have to be opened."
"We can do that," Borrn answered. "There may be nothing there; the names may mean nothing. Young people often carve their names on rocks and trees; and perhaps those have been there for years, unnoticed. Whether or no, I wouldn't say anything to your mother about them, Stella; it would only upset her."
Stella was dabbing her cheeks with a tiny handkerchief, a wistful, far-away look in her pale-blue eyes.
"We'd better be getting home now," her father concluded. "It's nearly dark."
They mounted their horses at the Washpool. Rory and Stella at once cantered ahead, discussing the evening's incident between themselves. Behind them rode, more leisurely, the two older men, both of them with a more serious mien than had marked them on their outward ride: and in the rear of all followed Rhea, with the attitude and demeanor of a cowed and beaten man.
That night Stella stole softly to her brother's room. Rory kept a diary, and was at that moment busily writing up the incidents of the day. Looking over his shoulder, she noted some of the previous entries:
"December 21.—Rode to Blind Gully. Called at Clarke's on way back. Saw Elsie.
"December 22.—Rode western boundary. Called at Clarke's on way back. Saw Elsie.
"December 23.—Took rations to Bayley's Camp. Called at Clarke's on way back. Saw Elsie.
"December 24.—Shooting forenoon....Called at Clarke's on way back. Saw Elsie."
"Clarke's seems to be a handy place," laughed Stella; "it's on the way back from everywhere."
Rory shut the book with a snap. "It's rude to be quizzing," he said, lamely.
"I didn't come in to quiz," Stella returned; "I've just got a letter from Bynaaban—from Mrs. Morey, saying the captain's been wounded."
"Poor old Clyde!" exclaimed Rory, looking up quickly. "Where did it happen?"
"Oh, somewhere in France. All the dreadful things happen in France these days. The cable came through yesterday."
"Say where—or how much?"
"No; just that he's wounded."
"It's not serious then—so you needn't worry," said Rory, smiling. "You'll see Clyde hopping about here again by-and-by as good as new."
Stella sighed. Rory knew the position just as well as Stella herself. She and Captain Morey had been good friends—very good friends—before he went away. He had caught her in his arms and kissed her passionately at parting; but he had left her free. He might come back a wreck, he had said, and in that event he would rather she were not bound by any promise. She admired him all the more for his unselfishness; and she had confided to Rory that if only a piece of him came back she would marry the piece. A splendid type of vigorous manhood, was the verdict of all who knew Captain Clyde Morey, son of big, bluff, Toby Morey, of Bynaaban.
"I am not worrying over that," she answered her brother. "There's another matter that's troubling me." She paused for a moment, while she gave a few little pats to her hair, looking into Rory's mirror. "I want to have a talk with you about that boy we saw before I go to bed." she said then.
Rory was seated, at his dressing table. There being no other seat in the room, Stella sat down on the edge of the bed. Rory turned in his chair, so that his arm rested across the back, and the light stood between them.
"My dear sister," he demurred, "let it be till to-morrow. What's the use of conjecturing when in a few hours it will be cleared up. Go and have a sleep."
"I must unburden my mind," she insisted; "I can't rest."
"Have you a secret?" asked Rory, with lifted brows.
"I've kept a secret from you for years," Stella answered.
Her brother's surprise was manifest.
"You shouldn't have done that," he reproved.
"She made me promise not to tell before she would trust me."
"She! Who's she?"
Rory dropped the pen which he had been twirling between his fingers.
"Why the deuce didn't you tell me that before?" he demanded roughly.
"I couldn't help it, But—had I told it, Ellis Rhea would never have come to Broonah. We're harboring a black snake. Do you know, Rory, that only this evening he asked me to be his wife."
"He asked you that?"
"Just after you left us on Kholo Hills."
"The darned scamp! If I'd been there I'd have knocked him down!"
"He seems to be utterly devoid of feeling. He's got no conscience. And he's a lying hypocrite. He's acting the injured saint now, whereas, if all had their dues, he'd have the broad arrow on him yet."
"He shouldn't have come here, in any case," growled Rory. "But what extras do you know about him?"
Stella drew a deep breath, as if weary. "It was this that Lydia told me. She used to sweep out the bank offices. She saw him forge cheques with the aid of tissue paper, and saw him take money. Rhea didn't know he'd been detected till after his malpractices were discovered by the manager. Esther was then in Berrinong, and short of money. For some reason she didn't want to come home. Lydia told her that she had £900 put by which she had no immediate use for, and induced her to accept part of it."
"Where did Lydia get so much?"
"It was the money Rhea stole from the bank."
"And Esther used it?"
"Yes—according to Lydia's tale."
Rory's feelings at this news were hard to define. He was angered; he was ashamed for the sake of the family honor. For a moment, too, he felt bitter towards his father for harboring a person who had already doubly injured them, and resolved that he should know the egg was bad, and how much bad, before another forty-eight hours had passed.
"Before his arrest," Stella continued, "Lydia told him what she had seen, and threatened to appear against him unless he fulfilled a certain contract that was desired by Esther."
"That she would not divulge."
"Have you no idea what it was?"
"I—I think she wanted him to marry Esther"
"And why should he object? They were engaged."
"I suppose he wanted to get clear of the charge against him first."
Rory shook his head impatiently. "If you said that Rhea wanted to marry her, and she desired him to wait until he had cleared himself first, it wouldn't be so hard to believe, but—" Again he shook his head.
"Let me tell you all. Rhea gave the money to Lydia on the understanding that she would depose in his favor, endeavoring at the same time to implicate a young fellow against whom she had a grudge; and that she would return £500 to him on his acquittal. She did as he asked, she said, for Esther's sake; but it did no good. Rhea was convicted. Lydia then gave half the money to Esther, and after her disappearance she buried the other half. She was then to Broonah."
"Did she tell you anything more about Esther than what we already know?"
"No; but I am sure she knows more. She could explain the mystery that clings to that Glen if she liked. So could Rhea."
"Rhea?" repeated Rory, with a frown that was almost fierce. He had a habit of contracting his brows and wrinkling his forehead when surprised or angered.
"Did you not notice," Stella went on, "the change in his face when we went to those graves?"
"By the bye, yes; but I attributed it to quite a different cause. I thought the graves and the names were suggestive to him as they had been to you."
"No, I believe Egbert and Esther lived in those caves."
"For what reason?"
"Oh, dear, don't ask me that. Haven't many things happened that are inexplicable to us?"
"True; but there's generally a cause or a motive."
"That's where it is. We don't know the cause or the motive. Do you know what I was thinking?"
"The boy we saw in the Glen is our nephew."
"Pshugh! What nonsense you talk, Stella."
"It's quite feasible, my dear brother."
"I dare say; but, following your theory for the sake of argument, the mother and father would be absent—if not dead. Who looks after the boy?"
A new light seemed to spring suddenly into Rory's face. He did not speak; but he regaled his sister in a way that convinced her that she had razed a barrier in the range of his mental vision that enabled him to see, however dimly, into the obscure. But it took him along a very different chain of reasoning to that which had worried Stella. He sat for a long while with his cheek resting against the palm of his hand. Suddenly he said:—
"I don't believe that yarn of Lydia's. She's a liar. It's utterly improbable that Esther would hide herself in such a place—right near home; she'd go hundreds of miles away where she wouldn't be known—especially if she got so much money from Lydia. But she never got it, Stella. She would never touch it if she knew how Lydia had come by it, and I refuse to believe that she has put a stain on our name."
"Why did she go away like she did—and what is the reason of her long silence?"
"That's the rub," said Rory. "Though what may have led up to it was the affair with Garratt Rhea. You remember, the old fool wanted to marry Esther after he had lost his sons. His object was to prevent Murrawang going to Ellis, who would otherwise be next of kin. He did not press the suit, but the pater thought it would be a good match and quarrelled with Esther over it. The mater was opposed to it, and Garratt had a bust-up over it. There was no further exchange of visits between Murrawang and Broonah after that. Black Ellis, by the way, had come to the scene previously, and as there was nobody standing between him and Garratt he was welcomed as a desirable suitor. They were keeping company, when the bank robbery cut that short. Whether Esther cared much for him or not, I don't know, but I dare say it hurt her pride if nothing else. The little scheme then in connection with the uncle must have embittered her altogether. She was not much at home after the old party was turned down."
"No, she made protracted visits to friends in Berrinong and Moreena; and she had a long stay in Brisbane—studying for a nurse's certificate. She said she would take up a profession, and never marry. She may have wanted money for that."
"She had a good deal of money of her own," said Rory; "and she could have got more from the mater."
"What I can't make out, if she is alive, why she doesn't write. She had no quarrel with me or you."
"No," said Rory, and he lapsed again into a reflective mood, which showed Stella that he was up against another wall.
"There's a link somewhere between Esther and Lydia," Stella persisted. "I'm sure she knows what became of her."
"I know there's something very important between Lydia and Ellis Rhea." said Rory. "I'd like to get to the bottom of that! and for that reason I don't think I'll say anything to the boss for a day or two. Does Lydia ever say anything about that fellow to you?"
"Never mentions him."
"Such old chums too!" chuckled Rory.
"They must have had a quarrel, I think. At all events, Lydia went to Brisbane shortly after Rhea was sent to Moreton Bay. She was there a good while, and probably used to visit him. She had never been to the city before; and, so far as I know, she has no relatives there. She went to Brisbane again some time after Esther made her last unexpected trip, and she came back by Murrawang. Old Garratt Rhea happened to be in Roma when she arrived there on her way back, and he drove her out with him. He set her down near No Man's Hut, as he'd left off visiting here then, and she tramped home at night. Jim Jack brought her luggage from the fence in the morning. He used to call her 'Lydia from the Fence' for a long time afterwards."
"I remember that," said Rory, musingly. "I was over at Bynaaban that week after some of our sheep that had got through."
Some seconds later he said:—
"I'll have it out with that woman first chance. It's time to go to roost now. Good night"—as Stella rose from the bed.
"Good night, Rory."
In another moment he sat alone at his table, resolving plans for the morrow. The clock struck twelve. Christmas morning was at hand.
Christmas morning was spent in exploring the caves, Mr. Borrn remarking to his companions at the outset that they must strike the iron while it was hot. There were six of them on the quest, including Wonnaminta Joe and Jim Jack. Rory had invited the former to accompany them, as he was a good tracker, promising him another holiday for his time; but Jim Jack had joined them out of curiosity. He considered that his reputation as a reliable observer was at stake, and saw an opportunity of vindicating it. Rhea did not accompany the party. He was indisposed.
"I hope he remains so," was Rory's uncharitable remark when Stella had explained the cause of his absence to Mr. Cobblestone.
"Do you think he knows anything about this affair, Miss Borrn?" the latter inquired. "You both appear to be a little off him, as the saying is. Of course, you have some good reason?"
"I don't know what to think, Mr. Cobblestone," said Stella. "Things are a little bit too nebulous yet to form an opinion. We must find the boy. I fancy we shall learn a good deal through him if we succeed."
They left their horses under a clump of bushes at the foot of the hill. Jim Jack had pushed eagerly ahead as they approached the caves. He stopped alongside a flat rock near the entrance, and he was feeling it with his hands and looking about it when Mr. Borrn came up.
"Found anything, Jim?" asked the latter, pleasantly.
"Looks to me like a seat that's been sat on more'n once," Jim replied, pointing to the rock.
"That's where I saw th' woman an' th' kid a few months ago. I was only laughed at when I told about it. Everybody reckoned I'd been seein' visions agin, an' ought to get my eyes seen to. But now you've seen th' kid here yourselves, you'll 'ave a better opinion o' my optics."
"What sort of a woman was she?" asked Mr. Cobblestone.
"Oh, there was nothing lovely about her," said Jim. "Just like an old black gin. It was too dark to see her complexion, but by her make-up I'd say she was a gin. An' she was sittin' here, smokin' a pipe."
"That introduces a new complexity," Mr. Cobblestone remarked. "What was the boy like? Was he aboriginal too?"
"No; he was a white boy all right," Jim declared.
"Strange!" mused Cobblestone. "Very strange! What did she do when you came?"
"She vamoosed like a whiff of her own smoke." said Jim.
"Did you ascertain if the smell of tobacco remained?" Cobblestone was a little incredulous.
"No." Jim answered. "It was tea time, an' I was in a hurry."
At this point they missed Wonnaminta. The next moment they observed him far up the Glen, apparently tracking. He came back shortly, and directed their attention to a single footprint on a little patch of sand, which had set him at once looking for more.
"That track wasn't made by any of you gentlemen last night," Wonnaminta asserted with an air of conviction.
Mr. Borrn and Mr. Cobblestone looked involuntarily at their boots. The last-named had particularly good foundations to stand on.
"It's not big enough for mine." he observed. "That boot has an iron-shod heel," Wonnaminta pointed out.
"So it has," Mr. Borrn corroborated, looking at it again.
"I cut the tracks up there," Wonnaminta continued, pointing up the Glen. "The track of one boot has an iron-shod heel and the other hasn't."
"That's an important clue," said Mr. Cobblestone.
"Well," Wonnaminta went on, "I saw a gentleman last night who was wearin' a boot with an iron-shod heel, an' one that had lost the iron."
"Who?" Mr. Borrn and Rory asked in a breath.
"Good Lord!" Mr. Borrn ejaculated, astonishment in his face, as there was in the faces of all.
"Where did you see him?" asked Rory.
"At No Man's Hut," said Wonnaminta. "I walked over from the fence, pretendin' I'd lost a couple of rams, an' had a pitch with him."
"What was he doing there?" asked Borrn, whilst all eyes were intently fixed on Wonnaminta's immobile countenance.
"That's what puzzled me," said the latter. Propping himself against a rock, he then related what had passed between them and what he had seen.
His hearers looked blankly from one to another when he had concluded. A tense silence was broken by Jim Jack.
"I always surmised there was something crook about that blamed hut."
"But surely there's nothing crook about Rod Bunker?" Mr. Borrn objected. "I've known him for 30 years, and he's always been as straight as any living soul. Rough enough in some ways, but a gentleman by nature."
"Perhaps you didn't really know him after all, pa?" Stella questioned.
"God knows, girl!" said her father, perplexedly, staring down at the ground.
"He's nursing a secret, evidently," Rory put in. "Seems to have a surprise packet in store for Mr. Rhea, at all events. I wonder has this affair here any thing to do with it "
"Come on!" cried Mr. Borrn, rousing himself suddenly and moving towards the entrance. "We must see what's in here, boy."
They entered a large cave, where the boy's tracks could be seen on the sand diverging in all directions. There were also the tracks of big spreading bare feet, which were possibly those of an aborigine's, and there were the tracks of a large goanna. But there was no trace of the boot with the iron-shod heel. The wearer of that had not entered the cave.
"So far as the evidence goes," said Mr. Cobblestone, on these facts being made clear, "the human inhabitants—or visitors—are a white boy and a black woman—under the protection of the manager of Murrawang."
"He hasn't been in here," Rory dissented.
"He's been outside," Cobblestone rejoined. "He could meet them there."
From a cursory inspection, there appeared to be many caverns with entrances here; but on passing through one of the openings it was found that all led into one great cave. It was pitch dark, and myriads of bats clattered against the roof and walls. The floor was uneven and gritty.
"With a light we might follow the boy's tracks."
"I have a piece of candle," said Stella. "That will light us along. For all that, I don't think you'll do much tracking."
"I should think not," echoed Cobblestone. "To track a boy over flat rock—why, it would beat an aborigine."
"We must shove along and trust to Providence," said Rory, after he and Wonnaminta had been vainly searching with the lighted candle for a track on the stone.
He led the way to the end of the cave. Here, in places, the roof dipped; in others there were shelf and pocket formations in the wall; but there was no sign of any opening that might lead into other caves. On the floors of a couple of the small caverns were irregular piles of stalagmites, with rugged indentations in the rock behind them. They searched the wall round without success, and finally stood at the spot where they had entered.
"We're a bit too late," said Cobblestone; "the bird has flown."
"If so we should find the empty nest," argued Rory. "It's not to be supposed that the nipper and his guardians could live any time in a cave and go away without leaving a trace behind. We know they had a fire. Where's the remains of that fire? The fact is we're on the wrong track."
"The boy ran in here," Mr. Borrn protested.
"Couldn't he run out again when we had gone?" Rory demanded.
"Could the fire run in and run out again, and leave no ashes," his father retorted.
"What I mean," said Rory, "the way to the interior is not here. There's a secret entrance somewhere else."
"I'm perfectly satisfied to let it remain a secret for the present," his father rejoined. I'm feeling a bit peckish. It's Christmas Day too. Perhaps, with torches, we may have better luck another time. I think we'll toddle home, Cobblestone."
Both Rory and Stella felt chagrined at their non-success. Last, night it had seemed a simple matter to trace the young recluse to his lair. Now the difficulties appeared manifold.
"We'll come by ourselves tomorrow, Stella," he said aside. "These old buffers are only in the way. If they get peckish, or run out of tobacco, or their corns pinch them, they want to go home. I haven't patience with such people."
Nevertheless, Rory did not propose to stay to continue the search on his own hook. He was in full retreat as he spoke.
They had proceeded a little way across the green grass when Wonnaminta inquired:
"Where's Jim Jack?"
All turned immediately, and stood waiting. Five minutes passed, and he did not appear.
"Must be lost," Wonnaminta surmised, and going to the entrance, he called to him, louder and louder, but there came no answer.
"Let us go back," said Borrn; "he must have stumbled on to the passage we were looking for."
Wonnaminta and Rory went ahead, calling at intervals as they advanced slowly inwards with the lighted candle. They proceeded as far as the second cave, and looked into all the smaller spaces they could find, but there was no sign anywhere of Jim Jack.
They retraced their steps slowly, the old gentleman less amiable and more peckish than before; and shortly afterwards they left the caves.
As they turned the point of the hill their speculations ended abruptly, for there was the man they sought, sitting near the horses, staring stolidly into vacancy. A muttered imprecation escaped Mr. Borrn. He strode down with the intention of relieving his feelings with some plain talk, but when he got close to the man his anger evaporated. Jim Jack was plainly upset. When addressed, his manner was very different from what it had been a little while previously. His face seemed also a shade greyer.
"What did you go away for?" Mr Borrn demanded. "We've been looking everywhere for you—wasting time and patience."
Jim fidgetted uneasily on his seat.
"I was pokin' along a narrow sort-o'-passage way, strikin' matches." he explained, "when all at once something came rushin' at me from the far end, makin' a terrible clatter over th' stones—an' I left."
"Why didn't you let us know?" Mr. Borrn asked .
"I 'adn't time to stop," Jim replied. "I thought you wouldn't be long, so I waited here, mindin' the horses."
"Have you any idea what it was like?" asked Borrn.
"I've been thinkin' it might a been the goanna," Jim replied, at which Stella laughed heartily.
"Where did it go? We didn't see anything of it."
"Must 'ave come out after me," Jim conjectured with a sickly grin, "or p'rhaps it got into a hole."
"Could it have been anything else? Was it scrambling and scratching!"
"Yes—like all possessed. That's why I think it was a goanna."
"Perhaps it was," said Wonnaminta, afterwards, as they were riding home; "but Jim didn't look as if he believed himself. He seemed to me to be hidin' something."
About an hour after dinner Rory sauntered into the kitchen to have an interview with Lydia. Her sharp look of inquiry as he crossed the threshold of her domain was not encouraging, nor was the extra vim she suddenly put into her work an indication of an amiable frame of mind. She was standing at a side table cleaning knives, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, her blouse unhooked at the neck, and her hair tossed and frousy. Two young gins, Lydia's offsiders, were sitting at another table, gorging themselves with plum pudding. Rory propped himself alongside Lydia, with his hands in his pockets.
"I want to ask you a question, Lydia" he began, watching the rapid motion of the knife in her hand.
"Certainly, Master Rory," responded Lydia, in her most obliging manner.
"When did you see Rod Bunker last?" he asked her then.
Lydia's lips compressed slightly, and she stopped in her work for a moment. "I disremember," she said. "He hasn't been over here lately."
"No, but he was seen in the paddock, last night. I thought he might have called, and hearing that Rhea was here decided not to come in. He wasn't at the hut."
"He wasn't here either," Lydia told him.
"I don't know what he could have been doing down the paddock," Rory pursued.
"Who saw him?" Lydia inquired.
"One of the men."
"Was he talkin' to him?"
"Close to him?"
"What time was it?"
"Oh, he must have made a mistake," said Lydia. "Some traveller, I suppose—or one o' Jim Jack's visions. Whereabouts was he?"
"In the Glen."
Again the knife moved slowly and hesitatingly and then for a few seconds it flew like a team-driven piston. "I thought it would be there," she said, finally. "But it used to be a woman in Ralston's time. Mrs. Garratt Rhea was thrown off her horse and killed there, you know—just at the foot of the hill. That was the beginnin' of all silly yarns you hear."
"'Tisn't all imagination though," said Rory. "Imaginary things don't leave tracks behind."
"Tracks?" Lydia exclaimed. "I don't know anything about tracks."
They were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Borrn, who looked her surprise on seeing Rory in close confabulation with the cook. Rory retired to the back door, where he stood looking out at the woodheap, softly whistling. His mother gave a few instructions to Lydia for the evening and then withdrew; and presently he returned to his former position, eliciting thereby another inquiring glance from Lydia.
"Can you tell me the name of the little boy who lives in the Glen?" he asked abruptly.
Lydia flushed and became perceptibly nervous. Her manner changed at once.
"The little boy who lives in the Glen?" she repeated. "When did he arrive?"
"I don't know."
"Where did he come from?"
"I don't know that either."
"Didn't you speak to him?"
"No, he ran away."
"Into the Caves."
"Did you run after him?"
"Yes, but we couldn't find the way in."
"Didn't see what he was up to, then?"
"Didn't get a chance."
"White boy or black boy?"
"What's he doin' there?"
"Don't know. I only know he's there"
"Well, I don't."
Her interest in him slumped suddenly. She went on cleaning knives.
"I think you know something about him, Lydia," said Rory. "The matter is of much moment to us, and I think you could help us if you liked. I am sure you would lose nothing by doing so."
This had the effect on Lydia that a match has on dry grass. Her temper flared up at once, and the knives began to clatter and bounce.
"For th' Lord's sake, why do you torment me about these things? Isn't it enough to be bothered nigh out o' me wits by that blackguard Rhea without you comin' naggin' at me too."
"I didn't know that Rhea had been bothering you."
"I know it. Don't I?" She tossed her head and circulated about the floor with heavy steps, wiping her hands on her apron.
"When did this occur?"
"This mornin'—after th' rest of you had gone out."
"I understood he was off color and was resting in his room," said Rory.
"Ugh!" grunted Lydia. "Th' sneakin' hound only wanted to get me on the quiet. He's off color now, anyway."
"You didn't have a fight, did you?"
Lydia breathed hard and her eyes flashed.
"I give him all he was lookin' for," she told him, nodding her head with each word. "I smacked him over the chops with th' back of the fryin' pan—an' I don't care if he tells th' missus or th' boss either. But he's not game. He might burn his fingers a bit more if he did. I could put his pot on, an' he knows it. Like his rotten hide comin' here for me to cook for him an' wait on him. I'll be shut of him before he's much older though."
This outburst left Rory in a state of perplexity.
"He has no right to intrude here at all, for that matter." he said in a tone intended to soothe her ruffled feelings. "If he interferes with you, you have only to complain to the missus—"
"Oh, a fat lot you know about it!" she retorted, sullenly.
Rory stared. His sympathies changed instantly to a flush of indignation.
"If it was just a matter of complainin' to the missus, do you think I couldn't do that without bein' instructed? Everybody's troubles ain't cured by runnin' to mammy."
"I don't understand how yours, in connection with Rhea, can be unsurmountable."
"Of course, you don't"—tossing her head again. "You're only wastin' my time."
"I'm sorry," said Rory. "There's none of us keen on Mr. Rhea. Perhaps if everything was known about him he wouldn't be here at all."
He was endeavoring to draw something definite from her that would make her acrimonious remarks more intelligible; but she answered him with a show of indifference.
"It don't matter much to him where he is unless he was with his cousin Reuben."
"Where's Reuben?" Rory asked quickly.
"Missin'," said Lydia.
"He's been forcing his company on you though, you say," he continued after a pause.
"An' he not the only one," she returned.
"What was he after?"
"He was on the same lay as yourself—askin' me a rigmarole about th' spiflicated Glen, an' the cemetery, an' th' devil knows what. How should I know any more'n anybody else? Am I a cyclopedium, or an inquiry-within-me? If I'm to be pestered like this my name'll be Walker pretty soon. The sooner the quicker."
She tugged at her sleeves, already up to her elbows, threw the knives into the box so energetically that several bounced out again, and pranced about the kitchen in a fury that nearly broke up the audience. It was a comic opera to Rory.
"By the cemetery I presume you mean the two graves down there?" he queried, struggling to keep a straight face.
"I presume I do!" she snapped.
"We were naturally concerned about them," continued. Rory. "The names Egbert and Esther? Do you know anything about that?"
Lydia faced him sharply.
"How should I know? Do you think I made away with your sister? Do you believe I'm an antichrist? You needn't look at me like that. I've stood it long enough. An' let me tell you this. As long as I'm on the station I'm boss o' this kitchen. Now, you take your brake, please."
Rory, humbled and crestfallen, walked slowly out. There was nothing to be gained from Lydia. He could never again approach her on the subject. He resolved to play his cards more deftly, more cunningly, hence forth. He had the name, so why not the blame? If she was in league with the supposed troglodites, as Stella had suggested, he would find her out.
Going into the garden, Rory threw himself down on the grass under a Moreton Bay fig, and lit a cigar. His sister was lying in a hammock swung under the spreading branches, a book in her hands.
"Stella," he said, between puffs, "I've just got myself into an awful row with Lydia. I'm the unluckiest beggar on earth."
"Indeed! And what was that about?"
"Oh, I just simply asked her a question or two about the little stranger. She nearly bit my head off; ordered me out of the kitchen."
Stella laughed. She knew what Lydia was in her tantrums.
"You have no tact, Rory," she said.
"Perhaps not; but I'm going to beat her now at her own game," Rory declared. "One of these nights I'm going to do a mean thing."
"You don't say so!" There was a quizzical smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eyes as she peered at him from under the book. "What is that?"
"You would be shocked if I told you, and you'd spoil the game. You'll know all about it next morning."
"I hope you're not contemplating anything very wicked?"
"Oh, no, certainly not. By-the-bye, have you seen anything of Rhea since dinner?"
"He spoke to me on the verandah. Asked me if we discovered anything. He seemed relieved when I told him no."
"That matter somehow concerns him. The more I think of it the more I'm inclined to believe that he's involved in some dark enterprise. And Lydia is in it too. I can't understand what the relationship is between them—unless they are just birds of a feather, tied by a common secret. And yet he appears to be on the same quest as I am. He was pumping her this morning, from what I could gather. That was the reason she flew into such a temper when I touched upon the subject. I must get to the bottom of it all before he goes away."
"Unfortunately, he won't be going for some time," said Stella. "I hate that man," she added, clasping her hands behind her head. "I don't know what Dad can see in him. I know mother detests him. It's a wonder the fellow can't see that he's not wanted."
"He's too thick in the hide," said Rory. "But it's as well he remains for awhile. I want to have a reckoning with him if there's been anything crook going on at our door. If not, we'll soon shunt him."
"You'll have to make the most of your time. You'll be mustering early in January, won't you?"
"Yes, the stock will have to be shifted from Wyoona and Narri-arra. We'll have to muster the other paddocks before we can shift them. Long Gully is just about dry, and Jim Jack says the horse-shoe Lagoon would bog a duck. Unless it rains, we'll have any amount of work for the next couple of months."
"I suppose the pater will be going with you?"
"Of course; nothing would be done right if he wasn't there."
"He'll be the means of saving one poor horse's legs, at all events," laughed Stella.
"The horse that always has to come home by Clarke's."
She was looking down at him with a face glowing with merriment. Rory, strangling a grin, looked away through the smoke-wreaths with half-shut eyes. Presently he made an irrelevant remark:—
"You're going with us to Bayley's Camp, aren't you?"
"If Rhea isn't shunted I think I will."
"I don't think he'd remain at the mercy of you and mother, anyway," Rory reflected. "I notice he avoids mother now."
"He doesn't avoid me though. He's inclined to persecute me with his attentions. I'll have to tell him that I'm going to marry Cobblestone. That will kill him dead, as Lydia says."
Rory was glad in a way that Rhea had incurred his sister's displeasure. He took upon himself a good deal the guardianship of Stella; while Stella, on her part, was at pains to guide Rory the way he should go. Borrn pere, in the opinion of Borrn fils, was too easygoing. Had he shown his paternal authority, and kept a tighter rein on the elder girl, the sorrow that had clouded their lives might never have been known. He laid none of the blame at his mother's door. Stella, on the other hand, piled it all on the maternal shoulders. If he had not tried to induce her to marry Garratt Rhea she might have been with them yet. But, whereas mother told father it was his fault, and father told mother it was her fault, the children kept their own counsel, and at the same time a loving eye on each other.
Mr. Borrn was strolling slowly round the garden with Rhea and Cobblestone, and they now came under the fig tree, which stood a few yards out from the corner of the back verandah. While they paused to exchange a few pleasantries with the young people, Mrs. Borrn came out, holding a rusted bridle-bit in her hand as if she were afraid of it. Rhea frowned darkly as he saw it, and watched her under his knitted brows.
"Rory," she said, "what are you carrying this thing about in your pocket for?"
Rory sat up on the grass. "How did you get hold of that?" he asked her.
"I picked your coat up from the floor, where you mostly hang your things, and I noticed it sticking out of the pocket," his mother explained.
"I got that up in the mountain scrub," said Rory. "I found the skeleton of a horse there, and that bit was fast between its teeth—as if the animal had died with the bridle on."
Mr. Borrn's face at once assumed an aspect of deep interest. He took the bit from his wife and examined it closely.
"I don't know of any horse that got away on the run and wasn't found. It wasn't mine, and I never heard Clarke mention that he had lost one."
"There was Reuben Rhea's," said Rory, to the evident annoyance of Ellis Rhea, who thought he had squelched that disagreeable subject. "What became of that?"
"Ah!" said his father, suddenly, and he turned the bit over in his hand again with a grave look. "Reuben was supposed to have got bushed while crossing Broonah run—and yet he knew it pretty well."
"He must have got adrift in the dark," Rory suggested.
"Still he would be able to right himself in the morning. Anyhow, he didn't perish for want of water, and he could have caught a sheep if he was hungry. He was probably thrown and injured. But the horse would make back to Murrawang."
"There's a track out there through the gap," Rory rejoined. "Reuben might have been following that in the night, and the horse, when it got away, was possibly making back through the scrub and got hung up by the bridle."
"Very problematic," Mr. Borrn mused. "What about the saddle?"
"There was no sign of a saddle; but that might have been dragged off somewhere."
Mr. Cobblestone here took hold of the bit, and ran a sleuth-like eye over it with the air of an expert. "That's an important clue," he announced. "The first trace that's been discovered?" He looked up inquiringly at Rory.
"That's the first," Rory informed him.
"Exhibit A," said Mr. Cobblestone. "That scrub should be well searched. There are doubtless more remains in the vicinity."
"Mr. Borrn turned to Rhea. "What's your opinion, Mr. Rhea?"
"It's all supposition, of course," said that person; "and I don't see that it can ever amount to any more. The affair occurred so long ago that nothing could be gained by a search now."
"Tut, tut!" Mr. Borrn demurred. "That relic would rekindle the interest of the whole country side. If old Garratt Rhea was alive he'd have every inch of that locality searched."
"I'll be going over to Murrawang to-morrow," said Rhea. "I'll take it with me and see what Rod Bunker thinks about it." He stepped forward as he spoke, and much to Rorys' chagrin Mr. Cobblestone yielded it to him. "If it belonged to my cousin Reuben," he added, with a triumphant glance at the finder, "its proper place is among the family relics at Murrawang."
They strolled off towards the front of the house shortly after. Rory remained awhile discussing the matter with Stella, and then he left the shade of the fig tree, saying that he was going out to tea.
"Give her my compliments," Stella laughed after him.
There was only one place near home where Rory went to tea. That place was Clarke's, and the attraction was Elsie. Of course, she was the dearest little girl on earth, and quite the prettiest. Rory's diary said so. His horse was not spared in bridging the distance betwen Broonah and her charmed abode. The animal was pulled up at a bark-roofed stable in a lather of sweat, and in a few minutes the rider was alongside Elsie, who was sitting on the grass outside the garden railings, a suggestion of apathy in her manner. Some wool lay crumpled on her lap, some woollen strands were tangled about her fingers, and she was toying idly with a knitting needle.
Whenever he saw her in her spare time she had needles and a bundle of wool in her hands; if she was waiting anywhere for him, she was knitting socks for soldiers when he arrived.
He had taken little notice of his sister doing the same thing; but seeing his sweetheart making socks for some strange soldier to wear seemed to get on his nerves. It set him thinking of old mates who had gone to the war; and he wondered what she would think of him when the clouds had rolled by and the local heroes returned. Wouldn't she feel prouder of him if he were one of them? Those ever-moving needles, and the cognizance of the worker's thoughts, stamped a more sober expression on his countenance.
"Those things make me restless," he said, when they had shaken hands and inquired about each other's health. "I'll have to enlist whether the mater likes it or not."
"Don't you!" advised Elsie. "Some must remain, you know, to provide for those at the front and keep the home fires burning."
"Plenty of married men to do that," said Rory in a voice that was half a growl. "It's either go or get married."
Elsie laughed merrily. "Something of the devil and the deep sea?"
"Oh, it isn't exactly that," said Rory. "I'm going to do one or the other—and you're going to decide—now."
"Am I?" she questioned, while the pink deepened slightly in her cheeks.
Rory edged nearer, and put his arm across her shoulder. "Elsie, you know I've not been coming here to talk about the price of wool and the state of the water-holes with your father."
"Haven't you?" innocently. "They're what you mostly talked about."
"I only wanted you. Say you'll be mine—or I'll be into khaki next week."
The blushing face she turned to him and the laughing eyes gave him the answer he wanted, and Rory caught her quickly in a bear like hug and kissed her passionately on the lips. He kissed her twenty times in five minutes; and that night the monotonous entries in his diary were relieved by the magic words! "Engaged to Elsie."
Before he left, however, something more transpired about the rusted bridle bit. He was leaning over the gate with Phil Clarke after tea, whilst Elsie and her mother were washing up. Clarke was a tall, sandy-bearded man, who spent much of his time on the roads, buying stock in the Northern and Western districts and droving them to Eastern markets. His selection cut a big square out of one side of Broonah run, which, in a measure, excused Rory for passing through there so often.
"I mentioned at the time they were lookin for Reuben Rhea," said Clarke, "that I saw a man ridin' out that way, leadin' a chestnut horse with a blaze down the face. Stockmen sometimes took a short cut through that way so little notice was taken of it. But Reuben Rhea's horse was a chestnut with a blaze down the face."
"You think somebody took his horse out there?" asked Rory. "That would mean foul play?"
"I can't account for the bones bein' in the scrub in any other way. I wish I'd got on to that rider's tracks and followed them up. If I had, and that dead horse was Reuben's, I've got a strong suspicion that I'd have found the brute with its throat cut."
About the same time as Elsie was passing the iced cake to Rory, his relatives and their friends were sitting down to tea at Broonah. The last-comer was Mrs. Borrn, who had been speaking to Lydia in the kitchen. Whilst passing through the hall she picked up a folded sheet of paper that someone had dropped, and carelessly opened it under the hanging lamp.
When she glanced over the lines she almost shrieked. She reeled against the wall, gasping incoherent words of astonishment and breathing hard. With her hand to her side, she read it and re-read it a dozen times, one moment feeling strangely elated, and the next blanching with a fear she could scarcely define. She pondered what to do, her brain in a whirl. It was a matter first for private discussion, for private investigation; but if she said nothing now the opportunity would be lost discovering in whose possession it had been. She thought of calling her husband out and conferring with him; then suspicion rested on Rhea as the likeliest person to have had it, and in a spasm of anger she rushed into the room.
Her face and manner at once attracted everyone's attention at the table. She had folded the paper as it was when she picked it up, and, standing at the foot of the table, grasping the back of a chair with one hand, she held it up in the other.
"Who dropped this?" she asked with an outward calmness that did not conceal the storm within. Only blank faces answered her. She looked at Rhea, but he met her gaze unflinchingly, and with the same puzzled expression with which the other men regarded her.
"Who came in last?" she next inquired.
"I believe I was the cobbler," Mr. Cobblestone replied. "But that doesn't belong to me. I have no papers but a small note-book in my pocket."
"Did you lose anything, Mr. Rhea?" Again she fixed him with a piercing look.
"No, Mrs. Borrn," he answered easily. "I had no papers on me."
"What is it?" Mr. Borrn asked impatiently. His wife opened the paper before she handed it to him.
"It is a marriage certificate," she informed him, her excitement becoming more manifest, "and the names of the principals are Esther Borrn and Egbert Rhea."
"Good heavens!" gasped her husband, starting violently, and almost instantaneously snatching the document from her.
There was consternation on every face, murmurs of incredulity on nearly every tongue.
Mr. Borrn appeared as if he had been petrified. Gravely, silently, motionless, he stared at the paper. Julius Cobblestone, with mouth agape, stared at Mr. Borrn.
"Married nearly seven years ago!" the latter finally ejaculated. "And someone in this house has been keeping the secret from us!" His glance wandered sternly round the table.
"That's strange!" uttered Rhea, slowly shaking his head.
"Extraordinary!" said Mr. Cobblestone. "Most extraordinary!"
"The strangest part of it," said Mr. Borrn, speaking with some show of exasperation, "is that the paper was dropped by someone coming into this room, and yet nobody knows anything about it!"
"Must have blown in," muttered Cobblestone.
Mr. Borrn looked round the table again. "Where's Rory?"
"Having tea at Clarke's." said Stella. "He went away early in the afternoon."
"Huh.'" said her father. "Poor devil of a horse stuck in the stall till midnight again."
After a minute of mutual reflection, Mrs. Borrn rang the bell for Lydia. She was the only other person in the house who had passed in and out within the last half-hour. She came in smartly, not because it was a pleasure, but because she was annoyed at the summons. She was now nattily dressed, and her good looks drew admiring glances from the still impressionable Mr. Cobblestone.
"Do you know anything about this, Lydia?" asked Mrs. Borrn, thrusting the paper under her nose. "I found it in the hall."
Lydia's brows contracted as she peered at it. Suddenly she started, went very white in the face, then, with parted lips and a wild stare in her eyes, looked at the assemblage as if stunned. Mrs. Borrn was eyeing her critically, still holding the paper towards her, when she turned abruptly and rushed from the room. She had not spoken a word.
Mrs. Borrn gazed after her in astonishment, then turned slowly round to the table and sat down with a sigh of impatience. Lydia was plainly the culprit, and the knowledge engendered bitter anger and humiliation. In the painful silence that followed, Mr. Borrn mechanically commenced to carve, but presently the knife slipped nervously and stopped.
Lydia came rushing back in a whirlwind of excitement and rage. "Somebody's been in my room an' broke my box open!" she screeched wildly, her eyes flashing. "Somebody in this house!" The jerking of her elbows gave a vicious emphasis to her words. One foot also hit the floor unduly hard as she brought up behind her mistress, which caused that lady to slew sharply in her seat.
"Lydia, you forget yourself!" she remonstrated.
"I say my box has been robbed—an' I know who did it!" Lydia cried, and her arm shot out and remained pointing at Ellis Rhea. "That fellow there!"
The accusation struck her hearers like a thunderclap. Each glanced at the other with a shocked and pained expression. Rhea seemed as much surprised as anybody. He met her fierce gaze unflinchingly, an indignant, vindictive look in his steel-grey eyes.
"Lydia!" Mrs. Borrn again reproved.
"You don't know him, ma'am," Lydia snapped. "He wouldn't be here if you did. A fine gentleman, I don't think!"
"Oh, this is, dreadful!" Mrs. Borrn exclaimed, grimacing.
"He's the only one as would be after my papers. He's burgled my box."
"Be quiet, woman!" Mr. Borrn thundered. "How dare you say such a thing!"
"I do say it," Lydia shrieked. "An' he knows it's true!"
Mr. Borrn held up his hand, eyeing her sternly the while.
"When did this occur?" he asked her.
"While I was gettin' the tea ready."
"Within the last half-hour? Well, Mr. Rhea has been down in the cultivation paddock with me, and we only returned a few minutes ago."
Lydia was nonplussed. Her eyes shifted momentarily to Mr. Cobblestone. Mrs. Borrn immediately answered their inquiry.
"Mr. Cobblestone and Stella were sitting in the garden with me until the bell rang. Master Rory is away. So you see, Lydia, you have made a grievous mistake."
Another brief silence followed, which was broken by Mr. Cobblestone.
"By the bye," he said, "I noticed a man leaving the vicinity of the room in question while we were in the garden—the man you call Jim Jack."
"Jim Jack was in the kitchen," Lydia rejoined. "He came to get a needle to sew a button on his Sunday shirt."
This looked like another dead end. In the pause that ensued Mrs. Borrn reverted to the document she held in her hand.
"You say this was stolen from your box, Lydia?" she questioned.
"Yes, mam, it was."
"What were you doing with it? You have been deceiving me!"
"It's mine—an' if I've been deceivin' you, that fine gentleman there can tell you why."
"That will do!" Mrs. Borrn cautioned. "You say it's yours. But wait till I tell you." She held the paper up. "The names here are Esther Borrn and Egbert Rhea?"
"That ain't your Esther, an' the other name's false."
"Whatever does it mean, then?"
Lydia drew a deep breath, and fumbled with her apron. Then she said:—
"I married under the name of Esther Borrn. He told me to. So the relationship wouldn't be known at the trial, so he said."
Mr. Cobblestone was immensely absorbed in the "evidence" at this stage. He leaned forward, his whole attention on Lydia. Rhea watched her with a hard grin, whilst the others appeared thunderstruck.
"You married!" Mrs. Borrn gasped, recovering her breath. "And who are you?"
"I'm Mrs. Ellis Rhea!" said Lydia, holding her head up and looking defiantly at her alleged husband.
"Goodness gracious!" Mrs. Borrn ejaculated, with a start that wrenched a protesting creak from the chair. "What next?"
She had let go the paper, which lay on the table. Lydia picked it up quickly, with the remark: "I don't want to lose that. It's mine." She thrust it into the bosom of her dress, and, without saying another word, stamped out of the room with her head haughtily erect.
For a little while nobody spoke. It had been a painful cataclysm that left everybody temporarily dumb. To most of them her abrupt departure was a relief. To Mr. Cobblestone it was a disappointment. He was feverishly thirsting for more revelations. Questioning and suspicious glances were cast at Ellis Rhea, into whose face had crept an unhealthy pallor. Stella shrank from him with a horrified aspect. She reached vividly every word he had said to her on Kholo Hills, and his demeanor when they had later stood together in the Glen.
"The woman must be taking leave of her senses," he said at last, speaking with an effort.
"Well, well!" muttered Mr. Borrn, rousing from a meditative attitude and proceeding energetically with his carving. "I never heard the like of it.
"It's very embarrassing for me," Rhea complained with a dry chuckle, which carried no conviction to his hearers.
"Is there any truth in it?" Mrs. Borrn demanded sharply.
"So far as it concerns me, none whatever," Rhea declared. "It's a silly cock-and-bull story on the face of it. The names are Esther Borrn and Egbert Rhea, and she claims that to be the marriage certificate of herself and me. Phugh! the woman's mad. Utterly mad!"
"It's a queer yarn, without a doubt," Mr. Borrn mused.
"I shall have the matter probed to the bottom," said his wife, determinedly. "If that certificate isn't Esther's, her name has no right to be on it; and if it is Esther's, what right has Lydia with it?"
"If Lydia hasn't taken her name in vain, as she says, then the whole thing's a fake," Mr. Borrn returned.
"The ridiculous hoax of a lunatic," Rhea interpolated.
"I would like to know who took it from her box," said Borrn. "That might tell some thing."
"Send for Jim Jack, and let me examine him," Mr. Cobblestone interposed.
"He hasn't been in the house," Mr. Borrn objected. "Whoever had it dropped it in the hall."
"He could have passed it to someone, or left it somewhere by arrangement." Mr. Cobblestone was loath to let the subject drop at that unsatisfactory stage. But Mr. Borrn shook his head.
"We haven't sufficient grounds to suspect Jim Jack of any complicity in the matter. Lydia herself clinched that."
Mrs. Borrn, however, resolved to get further information from Lydia about the mysterious document; and that evening, before Lydia had finished washing up, she went into the kitchen for that purpose. Lydia was in a sullen mood, and plainly resented the intrusion. She made a prodigious noise with the crockery. It was not an easy task to elicit information from her when she was reluctant to give it, and she was more than usually reluctant just now. But she stuck resolutely to the statements she had made in the dining-room.
"Mr. Rhea says your story is utterly ridiculous," Mrs. Borrn argued.
"Mr. Rhea is a liar!" cried Lydia. "He's my lawful 'usband. More's the pity, I say."
"I don't understand my daughter's name being on the paper," Mrs. Borrn persisted. "That's what concerns me. Concerns me very much."
"I thought I told you that?" growled Lydia.
"You didn't explain it to my satisfaction. Let me warn you, Lydia, that you're placing yourself in an ugly position."
"'You don't know what the position is," retorted Lydia. "That miserable cad in there's the cause of it all. When he was found out at the bank, I was the only witness he could call on—an' all I knew was harmless. But he talked an' talked, an' offered me a lot of money, an' at last I agreed to help him out—if he married me. I 'ad reasons for wantin' to marry him—an' he didn't want to marry me. Seemed to think I was dirt. I held out, an' in the end, to save his own skin, he consented on condition that we married under false names—so it wouldn't be known in court. He told me my evidence wouldn't be worth much if it was known that I was his wife. An' he said people could marry under any name they liked. That made no difference. He had his own way, anyhow, an' everything was fixed up in secret. He give me the name Esther Borrn at the last minute. He'd wanted to marry her, but she wouldn't 'ave him after she found out he'd been makin' love to me which I made it my business to tell her—an' he might 'ave done it for spite. I was too flustered an' flummoxed to think about it then. I wanted to get him—an' I got th' swine. But after his schemin' failed, an' he was sent to prison, he disowned me. Said I was nothin' to him. An' I couldn't prove I was. The two witnesses we 'ad were strangers—two old tramps they'd called in from the street; an' the clergyman who married us died a month after. So all I 'ad to prove he was my 'usband was that certificate—an' it calls me a liar. That's why I kept the secret all along—as he asked me to do at first. Nobody would 'ave believed me if I'd told. I couldn't say, Go an' ask So-an' so, or look up the registry. There's no record of the marriage of Lydia Munce an' Ellis Rhea. All the same, mam, I'm a respectable married woman, an' that thievin' blackguard in there is my 'usband."
"Gracious me!" said Mrs. Borrn, in grave amazement. "What a terrible tangle it all is! And what do you propose to do now?"
"Lord knows, mam, I don't. I was just waitin'—an' if I'd been left alone I wouldn't 'ave said anything now. But there's more bumps in front of his nibs yet. If he can get to Murrawang without me, then I'm mistaken."
"What do you mean by that?" Mrs. Borrn asked, with a quick lift of her brows.
"There's more washin' to be done yet, mam, but it ain't ready yet. You'll see it all on th' line before long." And with these mystic words Lydia took up her towel and set vigorously to work, drying the pile of crockery in front of her.
There was a decided coolness between Rhea and the rest of the household after the scene in the dining-room. Mrs. Borrn had always been an embarrassment to him after their first talk about Esther, and now he was aware of an increased frigidity in her manner towards him. She believed, in spite of his denials and her husband's opinion that Lydia was an hysterical female who couldn't be taken seriously, that he had been grossly deceiving them, and imposing particularly on her and Stella. He had insulted Esther, and he had insulted her, while posing as a martyred innocent; for she believed that Lydia told her was the truth, and in this light there were many little memories now that rankled sorely. She regretted more than anyone else that he had ever come into her house. He was a bugbear, a menace to their good name.
As for Mr. Cobblestone, he showed a desire to become more intimately acquainted with Rhea. This did not please that person. He rather resented the advances. Cobblestone was of a prying nature, and there was an impelling suspicion under his affability and apparent good fellowship. He was having a very interesting holiday. As an old-time detective, he found himself amidst scenes and people that intensely interested him. He had intimated that he would like to see Murrawang. He had thrown out half-a-dozen hints to that effect, but they had not met with any encouragement; and he was greatly disappointed when Rhea rode off alone after breakfast to see Rod Bunker and make a preliminary inspection of the estate.
Mr. Borrn considered it unusual that he was not asked to accompany his guest. Common courtesy and ordinary hospitality between neighbors would have suggested that course to most people. He commented also on the fact that Ellis Rhea was merely making a flying visit to his future home, and was returning to continue his stay for a few days longer at Broonah. That made his remissness the more remarkable.
The fact was, Mr. Rhea was not quite sure of his position. There might be some awkward legal forms to fix up before he could take possession. Rod Bunker, the present manager, was not going to accept him as the undisputed owner on his mere word. He had gathered as much from Lydia. He didn't know the nature of Bunker's engagement; there was a lot he had to learn; and on that account he did not wish to take anyone with him. Covetous he was, but not mean; rather was he the sort of man who would make a great show, and invite his neighbors to do him honor, once his footing was established. He intended to live a gay life, and enjoy to the utmost the fortune which his uncle had amassed for other purposes and with better intentions. The immediate realisation of his long dream would be the more gratifying to him because his uncle had hated the thought of a penny of the money or an acre of the land coming into his possession. A hard and vindictive old man was Garratt Rhea, he reflected, but the despised nephew would get even with him at last.
He viewed the beautiful grey downs and the mobs of feeding sheep with deep satisfaction as he rode towards the homestead. Passing close to a small lagoon, his hand stole to his coat pocket, whilst he cast a hasty glance around him. Then he drew out the rusted bridle bit and tossed it into the water, remarking as he did so: "That's the best place to lose that,"
Murrawang house was a rambling edifice, with gables on all sides. It had apparently been a bachelors' hut at the beginning, from which it had developed into a bungalow; and bit by bit it had grown into the huge, spread big building that Rhea looked upon now with a satisfied air of ownership. It was as difficult to tell where the construction of the pile had begun as to ascertain where it had left off. But it was commodious, substantial, homely.
Rod Bunker was walking across from the yards to the house when Rhea rode up. He had not seen Rhea for years, but he had been informed of the claimant's current movements and intentions, and was expecting him.
"Are you Mr. Bunker?" Rhea asked, reining in.
"I am," the manager replied.
Rhea dismounted and introduced himself. "I'm Mr. Ellis Rhea. I suppose you're aware that I own Murrawang now?"
"No," said Bunker, in a reflective drawl. "I wasn't aware of it."
"Well, such is the fact," spoke Rhea, pleasantly. "I'll be coming here to live in a few days. For the present, I want to have a look over the place—and the books."
Bunker propped his back against the little gate which opened into the house grounds, and crossed his legs. "You can't do that," he said, shaking his head.
"I've got no instructions to that effect."
"Don't I tell you I'm the owner of the property? What more instructions do you want?" he asked sharply.
"How did you become the owner?"' Bunker asked in return.
"I am the next-of-kin."
"What about your cousin—Egbert?"
"He's gone long ago. So is Reuben. As you know, there is nobody else."
"You can't prove that. Your cousin Egbert may turn up any day."
"He may, but that remote possibility can't stand between me and my claim. You've got no right to question my authority here, at all events.
"Go easy," said Bunker. "Go easy. You're not boss here yet, an' I tell you, old man, I don't think you ever will be boss."
"What do you mean?" Rhea demanded, angrily, a cold fear beginning to grip him.
"Your uncle Garratt left a will, though it was generally reported that he died intestate because no will could be found. Anyhow, you know where it is, and why it wasn't found. If Egbert turns up, it doesn't matter whether it transpires or not; in fact, the party who has been guardin' it so closely will probably destroy it then an' say nothing more about it. But if he doesn't come back, it will stop you from comin' here, an' the party I refer to won't be slow in producin' it if you press your claim. That was your Uncle Garratt's intention. I needn't mention names. When I say he used a certain youngster, which you tried to throw on the world, to baulk your ends, you know what I mean."
"That's all moonshine," said Rhea, speaking a little hoarsely, and swallowing to lubricate the dryness in his throat. "That sort of will would not hold. The law doesn't permit me, as next-of-kin, to be thrust aside in that fashion. I should certainly dispute it."
"If I were in your shoes I wouldn't meddle with it," advised Bunker, with a dry grin, "You know all that's hangin' to it. Lord, what a sensation it would make if you took it into court!"
Rhea was eyeing him with a cold, calculating stare.
"It doesn't concern me much who gets the property. I've got no stake in it. I'm only the manager. But I tell you plainly an' honestly, old man, you've got no chance of comin' here. When you see the letter I'm waitin' for, which I'm expectin' by every mail, you'll get the shock of your life. You won't think o' disputin' any will then; you'll just fade away."
"I really don't understand you," said Rhea, hastily. "Will you please be a little more explicit?"
Mr. Bunker got away from the gate, a faint smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. "Come into the office," he said.
Rhea followed mechanically, for already his hopes were dying. He had waited and striven for many years to get Murrawang, and when there seemed to be no longer an obstacle in the way of attainment, the coveted prize was to be snatched rudely from him. It would be a bitter ending to all his aspirations, a most humiliating one under the circumstances.
When he had seated himself in the office, Rod Bunker produced a decanter and two glasses from a corner cupboard. "Help yourself," he invited, and Rhea helped himself liberally. When the glasses were drained, Mr. Bunker proffered him a cigar, and then sat down at the opposite side of the table, and took a telegram from the drawer in front of him.
"I got this lately from military headquarters in Melbourne," he said, handing it over. "As you will see, Egbert Rhea has been seriously wounded in France."
Rhea almost leaped from his chair, and his eyes bulged. Something unintelligible escaped his whitened lips as he clutched the telegram. He read it over and over again, the paper shaking in his hands. Presently he let it drop on the table, and, holding his head between his hands, gazed down at it in a wild and fascinated way.
"His name will appear shortly among the casualties, and then everybody will know where he is. So I may as well tell you at once. Mind you, I had instructions not to say anything about him—an' they didn't come from him. But that's a matter I can't make known until I get the letter I spoke of."
"Where's he been all the time?" Rhea asked, in a rasping voice, staring at his informant with wide eyes, a stunned expression stamped on his pallid features.
Bunker threw one leg across the other and sat back with an enviable composure.
"Castaway." The word followed a cloud of smoke. "After the foundering of the Solent, he drifted with three other men on a small raft. One of them went mad an' jumped overboard. Another was washed off, an' the third died. Egbert landed on a lonely island, away from the track of ships; an' he lived like a wild animal, for ages an' ages it seemed to him. He lost all calculation of time, lost the last remnants of his clothes, an' had to make coverin' with bark fibre. A little while after war broke out, a warship, cruisin' about in search of a possible base of a German raider, came close to the island an' discovered him. He was a queer-lookin' object, from all accounts, with more hair than a woman. They landed him at Colombo. Somehow, the name he gave his rescuers was mutilated into Albert Grey. He was almost unintelligible for a time, which may account for it. He was in a home in Colombo, gettin' civilised again, when an Australian transport touched there, and among the troops on board were several chaps from this quarter—Light Horsemen, bound for Egypt. They took him with them. He wrote from Egypt to your uncle, but the old man had passed out before the letter came. It was delayed through interruption in the mail service. I passed it on to an interested party, who asked me to say nothing until I received a special communication from the front. He wrote two or three times to your uncle, after he enlisted, before he got a letter from me. He said then if he had known how things were he would have come home before he volunteered; but there was no get-away now. He asked me to do the best I could until he'd finished with Fritz. I suppose he'll be invalided to England now, and after that will very likely be sent home. Anyhow, while there's anything of him left, an' wherever he is, he's the late lamented's next-of-kin."
Rhea still held his head between his hands, as if it ached, his elbows on the table. His gaze had scarcely shifted from the manager's face for an instant, and now and again he mumbled under his breath, or hissed some comment through his clenched teeth. At the conclusion of the recital he glanced down at the telegram again.
"Severely wounded," he repeated, with emphasis on the adverb. "He may die."
"'Please God!' says you," added Bunker, with a side look at the disappointed claimant. "Until he does, he's boss of Murrawang."
Rhea seized the decanter and helped himself to another drink. Then he sat in gloomy meditation for several minutes, flicking his fingers softly the while. Bunker cut his thoughts short by springing up abruptly.
"If you should be passin' this way after I get the letter I'm expectin', I'll have something more to tell you; but it'll be something, as I said before, that will give you a shock."
Rhea nodded. "Thank you, Bunker," he said, still like a man in a dream. "I'll look in when I'm leaving Broonah."
He rose unsteadily, and Bunker followed him out to his horse, talking pleasantly about the beautiful weather they were having for that time of year. Rhea answered absent-mindedly, and soon he was riding away.
From Murrawang to Broonah was only a short journey. A horseman could travel across in little more than half an hour. But Ellis Rhea did not go straight back. Seeking a sheltered spot, he threw himself down in the shade, and endeavored to review the situation. He would have to get away from Broonah, that much was clear. The atmosphere was already unhealthy, and it would not improve with the knowledge that he had no claim to Murrawang. He would be ridiculed, tacitly if not openly, by Julius Cobblestone, and he could expect no sympathy from Rory and Stella, or their mother. If he judged them aright, they would rejoice at his humiliation. The old homestead, which had known so much of his tragic history, looked cold and repelling now. He was an unwelcome guest, an impostor—if they could see the hidden pages of his life as he saw them himself. He realised that they at last must be turned up for all to see—and then his remaining friends would desert him. They would spurn him: He decided not to let them know of his failure. He had possibly a few days' grace before the truth would leak out.
What course to pursue next was the problem that troubled him. The future looked gloomy enough. He had no money, and no prospects. The blackened name did not worry him, except in so far as it shut him out from good positions he might otherwise have got into. If nothing else availed, he would truly have to "fade away." There was a possibility that his soldier cousin would succumb to his injuries, or he might return to duty and get killed in action, or he might get blown up by a submarine, or get wrecked again. Travelling was a thousand times more risky now than it was before the war. Until Egbert returned to Australia there was still a gleam of hope on that horizon. But there was an alternative obstacle. Was that insurmountable?
While he pondered miserably over this, his friends of Broonah were at work in the Glen. Acting on the suggestion from Mr. Cobblestone, they had seized the opportunity to examine the mounds where the names "Egbert" and "Esther" were cut in the rocks. The three men from the house were accompanied by Wonnaminta Joe and Jim Jack. The latter was only induced to go after much persuasion by his mate. He had taken a dislike to the Glen, after his adventure in the caves. He was also averse to digging up bones. It was a ghoulish job which should be left to those whose business it was.
"Another thing," he said, "a man's bones should be left alone once they've been put underneath. I shouldn't like to think that mine would be meddled with an' dislocated an' chucked around for strangers to look at. They'll be tired enough when I'm done with 'em, an' they ought to be left to rest peaceful for the rest o' their days."
"Don't you worry, Jim," said Wonnaminta. "No one will want to give you more than one funeral. You'll be lucky if you get that."
Jim carried the tools, which he threw down under the rocks with a gesture of disgust. Mr. Borrn had brought a flask with him, a gulp from which put the grumbler in a better working humor.
"We needn't interfere with this," said Borrn, planting a foot on the first mound. "We know the murdered swagman is buried there. But we don't know what's in that other. If I recollect, the top part of it is a natural hump. You might dig down from the foot, Jim."
Jim spat on his hands, and drove the pick in vigorously. Wonnaminta handled the shovel, the two working in turns. Cobblestone and Borrn sat down on the opposite mound, watching operations, whilst Rory moved around to ascertain if any more tracks had been left in the vicinity. He found none; but for a moment he thought he saw two glistening eyes peering at him through an aperture at the side of the cave mouth. He rushed to the spot, and searched about it, but could discover nothing. There was the print of a dingo's foot on the sand a little farther in, and he thought, what he had seen must have been a dingo. He had brought a lantern with him, and, while the excavating was in progress, he lit it and went into the cave. Round all the walls he had previously searched he moved quietly, swinging the light up and down, and listening intently for any sound. There was only the fluttering of bats. No sign of a dingo could he discern, nor any other creature, except mosquitoes and little geckoes. If he had not been mistaken, the owner of the watching eyes must have had some convenient retreat; yet he could discover no passage from the outer or inner cave leading into the farther recesses of the hill. Such recesses he knew must be there, otherwise whence had come the smoke they had seen a few days before? How had the boy escaped? Had he alone seen these things he would have begun to doubt his senses. But everyone present had seen them. They were realities. Then there was Jim Jack's "goanna." Nobody else had seen that, and it was a puzzle to Rory where it had come from. It occurred to him also that Rod Bunker had not come there to catch lizards or to shoot dingoes. There was no indication that he had gone into the caves. If he had business with any person there, that person must have met him outside, and therefore the way into the hidden chamber was somewhere there abouts.
So cogitating, Rory surveyed every nook and corner, and searched well about the loose piles of stones and shelving rocks outside. He also mounted the zigzag path and explored the rocky end of the hill. No sign of another entrance, however, rewarded him, and he returned to his companions more puzzled than before.
The diggers had been more successful. A heap of mould, which Mr. Borrn and Wonnaminta were carefully sifting, lay alongside an oblong hole, about 18 inches deep, whilst Mr. Cobblestone was excitedly sorting out a little collection of relics. Jim Jack was squatting beside him, staring at them in horrified surprise.
"Are those the remains?" asked Rory, curiously.
"Ah!" said Cobblestone. "We've struck a little museum. It's a pity we let that bridle bit go out of our possession. That was exhibit 'A.' Most important item, if it can be connected with these. Here's exhibit 'B.'—the tree and other parts of a saddle."
"You've got the whole bloomin' alphabet there," Wonnaminta interrupted. "Buttons, buckles, stirrup-irons—"
"And a pair of gold sleeve-links," Cobblestone broke in. "And there's evidence in this mould that clothes and other perishable material have rotted away. Mouldered to dust! But there's no bones."
Rory was looking down at the collection in awe-struck wonder. His mind at once connected them with a bit, though as yet it was a nebulous idea that he could not explain. There was something sinister behind the burial of those things. That was clear. They could not have belonged to the swagman, for his swag was picked up near by. If they were buried by his slayer, that presented another inexplicable feature. He picked up some of the things, turning them over absently, for they told him nothing. On the other hand, Mr. Cobblestone cleaned them as if they were valuable trinkets.
"Hulloa!" cried Borrn, suddenly. "What's this?" He pulled out a tangled chain, attached to what at first appeared to be a clod, but transpired, on the caked earth being knocked off it, to be a gold watch. All pressed curiously round him while be cleaned it. The case was forced open with the point of a pocket knife and on the inside, little the worse for the years it had been buried, was the inscription:—
"Reuben Rhea. Murrawang."
"The missing link!" cried Cobblestone, rapturously, reaching out for it with the eagerness of a prospector who had unearthed a rare gem. "That tells the whole tale," he added, gloating over it. "That's the riddle unravelled!"
Borrn got up off the mound he had been sitting on, and a startled look sprang into his face.
"That must be Reuben's grave!" he said, looking back at it.
"The man you supposed to be a swagman?" queried Cobblestone.
"Was Reuben Rhea," said Borrn. "What do you think, Joe?"
"You've just about hit it," Joe agreed. "Who ever shot him here must 'ave stripped him an' buried the clothes an' saddle in this hole. Then he dropped a swag an' billycan near him, an' changed his looks a bit so nobody could swear to him."
"And then he led the horse away into the mountain scrub and cut its throat," added Rory.
"Good Lor'!" his father ejaculated. "That was its skeleton you found—with the bit between its teeth?"
Rory nodded. "It could be no other. I reckoned it was Reuben's when I found it. And our friend Ellis was very much against the matter being inquired into, too."
"You don't think he had anything to do with it?" his father questioned.
Rory shrugged his shoulders. "Hard to say. The two were enemies, and Reuben's death would be some gain to Ellis. There's a good deal about that man that's suspicious."
"I begin to think so," his father affirmed. "Your mother and sister were right: I shouldn't have had the fellow here. Of course, this proves nothing against him."
"Strong substantial evidence," Mr. Cobblestone remarked.
"Which has hung many an innocent man." Borrn rejoined. "There's still a screw loose somewhere. These things weren't buried there till after the body was interred. The ground had not been disturbed anywhere when the spot was searched."
"He must 'ave hid 'em in the cave," Wonnaminta surmised. "In that blamed passage we can't find. Afterwards, I s'pose, he thought they'd be safer in th' ground."
"What do you propose to do with them, Cobblestone?" asked Borrn.
"We'll take them to the house for the present. They may be the means of clearing up an old tragedy. "We've been enabled by them, at least, to identify your supposed swagman. That's something. What I should like to be clear about is those names on the stone there. They weren't cut there by the villain of the piece, for he'd be the last man who'd want to put up a signboard."
"It's too much for me," said Borrn. "I fancy if we fossicked out the secret of this cave we'd get some light on the subject."
"What about another hunt round in there, Jim?" asked Wonnaminta, turning to his mate.
Jim appeared not to hear. He was filling in the hole they had made. When that was completed, he threw the tools across his shoulder. "I'll jog along home with these," he said, and walked off.
Joe and Rory exchanged glances.
"Jim's not havin' any more caves," the former remarked with a grin.
"Peculiar," said Borrn, wonderingly, "that such an old bushman as Jim Jack is should be so scared of a goanna. Did you find anything fresh, Rory?"
"Nothing." was the reply.
"We may as well toddle home," his father concluded. "I don't know how you feel, Cobblestone, but I'm getting a bit peckish." He squinted up at the sun, while Cobblestone picked up his treasures. "It's getting on that way."
Rhea did not return to Broonah till nearly sundown. He came up the home paddock at a brisk canter, and swung out of the saddle at the gate, as though he were full of animation and enthusiasm. For all that, Borrn observed that he looked pale and weary; but Rhea passed it off with a harsh laugh, saying that he'd had a long ride, inspecting the ancestral estates, but otherwise he had enjoyed himself. He praised Rod Bunker as a capable manager, remarking that he would leave him in charge for the present. He found that he would have to make a trip to Brisbane before he took up his residence there. He had made all arrangements with Bunker, and would go direct from Broonah in a day or two.
That plausible account established him on his old footing for the rest of his brief stay, although he noticed that Borrn was more reserved than formerly, and he got an inkling of the reason when Julius Cobblestone thrust the recovered watch in front of him.
"Have you seen this bit of jewellery before?" he was asked. It had been polished up in the interim, but still bore traces of its long burial.
"Seems to have had some rough usage," Rhea remarked, taking it and turning it carelessly about in his hands. On noticing the inscription his nerves gave a perceptible jump, and for an instant or two he subjected it to a more curious inspection. "Where did you get this?" he inquired.
"In the Glen," answered Cobblestone. "It was buried, along with a saddle and a bundle of clothes, near the grave of the murdered man."
"'Is that a fact?" Rhea looked up in surprise. "Then the unknown—"
"Was your cousin, Reuben Rhea," said Cobblestone, as the other paused. They were watching him closely, but the statement made no visible impression.
"Poor devil!" he said, calmly. "It's a wonder no one around here ever suspected the identity. Whoever did it was pretty thorough in his methods."
"He must have been living somewhere handy too—or hiding in the caves," Rory threw in. Rhea was weighing the watch thoughtfully in his hand. "It will be something to keep in remembrance of him," he observed.
Mr. Cobblestone seized it quickly. "That will probably be wanted officially—together with the other relics. They are all important exhibits that will help to clear up one mystery—if not more. By the way, you have the old bridle bit? We'll want that too."
Rhea slapped his hands over his coat pockets. "By Jove! I've lost that," he said reflectively. "I intended to leave it at Murrawang. Dash careless of me!"
A shade of annoyance, mingled with suspicion, showed in Cobblestone's face, whilst glances, expressive of doubt, flashed between the others. Rhea did not notice them; he was looking down in a thoughtful mood.
"It's unlucky that you lost it," Cobblestone remarked, stressing the pronoun, which brought a sharp look from Rhea. However, he let it pass.
"It's very unfortunate," he said. "I was going to have the horse's skull brought in and replace the bit in the position it was found. I dare say I'll come across it again."
"Take Wonnaminta and one of the blackboys along your tracks," Borrn suggested.
"I may do that when I come back," said Rhea. "There's no particular hurry now. The thing's not that important."
"You strike me as being remarkably disinterested in the fate of your cousin," Mr. Cobblestone objected, a little severely.
"It's a good few years since he died," said Rhea, "and after all, the watch is the only thing you can swear by."
"There's evidence enough that he died violently," Mr. Cobblestone returned. "An' link by link we may trace it up till we get hold of the man who was behind him with the gun. It isn't too late yet for that fellow to hang."
Rhea's head jerked up sharply, and for a moment he regarded the other man with parted lips.
"If you can trace him out now, Cobblestone, you'll deserve a stripe," he said finally.
Mr. Cobblestone was a little disappointed. His treasure had not produced the effect he had anticipated. Still, suspicion became fixed in his mind that Rhea had known before of the identity of the dead man. He left in a thoughtful mood to lock up the watch with the rest of his collection. Strolling into the garden subsequently, and while about to light a cigar, he noticed Ellis Rhea striding towards the kitchen. He put the cigar back in his pocket, and tiptoed quickly round to the rear of the premises. Julius Cobblestone was a portly gentleman, and when hurrying in that fashion he was an attractive object. There was one who observed him, and that one was Rory, who laughed inaudibly in the shadow of Lydia's room. He had seen Rhea, too, but he had other game in view just then.
Mr. Cobblestone planted himself at the kitchen window. Lydia, who was finishing up for the evening, stood with her palms propped on the table, glaring at Rhea as he crossed the floor. She would as soon have seen a black snake coming towards her.
"Well, Lydia," he said, with an effort at affability that was not very successful; "are we going to be friends?"
Lydia caught up the dishcloth, with which she had been wiping the table. "Look!" she cried, pointing with the other hand to the door, "you get out o' my kitchen, or this 'll be the friend you'll get."
"One moment!" He held up his hand to stay the threatened onslaught. "I have to make a trip to Brisbane before I can settle down at Murrawang. I know it will be rather inconvenient for you to stay here now; so I came to ask you to go with me. We can cut adrift from Broonah altogether, and the unpleasantnesses of the past need not worry us any more."
"Lydia eyed him ferociously. "Go with you, you dirty cad! I wouldn't be found dead in the same paddock with you. Not me. Denied I was your wife, you thing! Said it was preposterous!"
"I'm sorry that circumstances compelled me to. You shouldn't have mentioned it there—"
He got no further. The dishcloth flew suddenly from Lydia's hand and smacked wetly across Rhea's face. "Get out!" she screeched, and followed the missile with menacing fists. Rhea promptly turned and fled. Lydia followed to the door, where she almost ran into the arms of her astonished mistress.
"Lydia!" the latter remonstrated in shocked tones.
Lydia danced furiously from one foot to the other. "Am I to be pestered like this?" she demanded. "If that thievin' hound comes into this kitchen again I'll leave!"
"If he's your husband, Lydia—" began Mrs. Borrn, pacifically.
"Oh, to blazes with him!" Lydia broke in. "I've seen all I want to see of him. The miserable dog! Him, with his fine airs, doin' the la-de-da in the house, an' his wife drudgin' in the kitchen. If I get my hands on the cow, I'll spiflicate him. You see if I don't! Comin' in here, smirkin' to me, an' askin' me to elope with him. Me, his lawful wedded wife! Ugh! I don't want to be disappearin' mysterious—which, I suppose, is what he wants me for. He don't catch me that way. What a fool I'd be! I'll get a divorce! That's what I'll do. Get a divorce."
It was not till the storm had moderated a little, and Lydia paused for breath, that Mrs. Borrn could get a word in.
"If that man doesn't leave my house tomorrow," she said earnestly, "I'll order him out!" With that she retired.
Lydia tore back to the table, and, snatching up a dish of water, hurled it out through the back doorway. Mr. Cobblestone, who had been wiping tears from his eyes at the window, had to pass the door to get away, and he paused just in time to get the greasy water all over him. The involuntary roar that escaped him caused Lydia to drop the dish in consternation. She didn't know who her victim was, but she pirouetted across the floor, mumbling anathemas on everything and everybody. It was the dead finish. She would pack her box that very night.
After awhile she stole back to the door to see if she had killed anybody. The night was still and starlit. A fragrant breeze fanned her heated cheeks. Nothing else was moving, except a cat that rubbed its back against her dress. She kicked it vigorously into the night, and shut the door. During these events Rory's progress had been suspended. The extra traffic and the unwonted excitement rendered a move towards his objective unsafe; for the electrified atmosphere suggested to him that he was engaged on a hazardous enterprise. The storm that was past was a mere preliminary blow to the storm that was to come—if he were caught.
In that case, the undertaking was one that would not redound to his credit. It would make him look small and mean. So he thought in the interval that had been given him for reflection
However, when all was quiet again, in pursuance of his promise to Stella, he stole out from the shadow of the wall, and slipped into Lydia's room. Striking a match, he took a hasty inventory of its contents. The main piece of furniture was a three-quarter bed with wooden posts, on one of which a blue bonnet and a dust-cloak were hanging. A square case, draped with cretonne, stood at the head of it in substitution of a table, and on this were a candle and a lantern, together with divers pots and packages of a chemical nature, and the usual dressing paraphernalia; and at the foot was a large cane chair, with cushions and arm-rests. The apartment, which was long and narrow, had one window and one door, a similar number of ventilators, and a storage of cobwebs and spiders in the top corners, with a dead fly glued here and there for variation. Rory gave special attention to the lantern and the chair, remembering his experience there on a memorable night in the not distant past. His object was to discover the means of Lydia's evanishment.
He had thrown down the butt end of the burnt match when footsteps were heard approaching the door. There being no other course under the circumstances, he dived quickly under the bed. Somebody entered. An instant afterwards a beam of light shot across the room. Peeping under the coverlet, Rory was horrified to see the legs of a man. In a little while he recognised the intruder as Ellis Rhea. He edged back against the wall, scarcely daring to breathe.
Rhea moved stealthily about the room, focussing the light on various objects, searching bags and pockets, and peering into corners, whilst Rory waited anxiously for something to turn up.
He had not taken anyone into his confidence, thus there was some speculation as to what had become of him when, about 8 o'clock, he was missed from the family circle. Stella, suspecting something of the truth from what Rory had told her, set their minds at rest by stating that he had gone walking down by the Glen. Rory could have wished at the moment that he was in that salubrious atmosphere. Yet the venture was worth the risk.
Rhea had not proceeded far when the inevitable interruption came that both had been expecting. The light was instantly shut off, and Rhea, too, plunged under the bed. Rory drew a long breath, and his heart beat faster. He tried to flatten himself, limpet-wise, against the wall, dreading that Lydia's husband might sprawl his legs across and touch him.
Lydia came into the room almost immediately, locking the door after her. She carried a bundle, which, after lighting the candle, she opened on the table. It contained sweets, child's toys, and dress materials. Rory remembered that a parcel had come for her by mail coach that afternoon. She frequently received parcels per post, as did others on the station. So this excited no comment.
Rhea was listening intently. In an interval of quietness, when one might have heard a flea hop on the floor, Rhea became aware of Rory's breathing. Enough light flowed under the bed to make their forms distinguishable. Rhea looked towards the sound, and started violently. He shrank back, and his breathing became short and tremulous. They glared at one another like two snakes, each thinking desperately of how he was to extricate himself.
Lydia was examining the contents of her parcel, when a tapping was heard in the corner behind the table. She at once tied up the bundle and hastened with it to the spot. A sound, as of the opening of a door, followed. The quilt dropping to the floor and the table screened that part of the room from observation. Rory dared not shift or remove anything lest his doing so should attract Lydia's attention. Besides wishing to avoid another "bust-up" with Lydia, he did not want Rhea to see.
There were steps and a rustling as though from beyond the room, the cessation of which was succeeded by the sound of kissing. Then he heard Lydia whisper:—
"They'll be up till all hours to-night, an' I daren't leave the room till the house is quiet. You go to bed, like a good boy; I'll drop in about daylight—or earlier."
The door closed, and Lydia came back to the table. Standing before the mirror, she gave one or two light touches to her hair, then left the room.
As soon as she was gone, Rhea flashed the light on Rory's face. The latter was considerably relieved by Lydia's departure. He made the best of the situation.
"So," he hissed at Rhea, "it was you who ransacked Lydia's box! I suspected it; that's why I was watching for you."
Rhea grinned maliciously. "That's your version," he snarled. "Don't forget that you've been caught before where I've caught you to night. So the less you say about it the better for yourself."
He shut the light off as he spoke, and slipped out in the dark.
Far away from the sunny sheep runs, in a hospital behind the turmoil of warring nations, lay one who knew Broonah well, and whose thoughts were constantly wandering there and to Murrawang. Through a wonderful and adventurous span he looked back, it seemed, through a man's life; indeed, the old scenes at Broonah and Murrawang seemed to belong to another and far-distant age—some of them dimly remembered, but amid them all there was one picture that was vivid still—the face of a girl. Had she forgotten him? Was she married or dead—or waiting? Lovers they had been long ago—so long ago that he hardly hoped ever to see her again. They were merry days on Broonah, sweet, enchanting hours on old Murrawang, that they had known together. He was young then, wild and devil-may-care, but the favored son of a wealthy squatter. He thought lightly of his possessions in those happy times, and less perhaps of the girl who had kindled the love fire that had never died. The weary years on a lonely island, when he saw no one, heard no voice but his own and the storm wind's and the sea bird's, when he had sunk to the level of a ravening beast, made her appear to him as a creature almost divine. And now, grown old for his years, a wreck of his former self, who could never run and romp and ride again as in the old days, the memory of her brought tears to his eyes.
An officer, lightly wounded, with a bandage across his forehead and his arm in a sling, came sauntering through the ward, chatting now to a nurse and now to a wounded soldier, and stopped at last beside his bed. The officer was Captain Clyde Morey, of Bynaaban. The other was Egbert Rhea, of Murrawang.
"Well, Bert, old chap, how're you getting on?"
"Oh, pretty good—what's left of me," was the reply. "But I'm an unfit now."
"Well, you were never a misfit, old boy, while you had legs to stand on."
"I've got one left—and one eye to see with—"
"You're lucky to have come out of that hell alive," said the captain. "It was Sheol for all of us, but more so for the enemy. That's one consolation; the crack German regiment broke—and went down—before the Australian steel.
"By the bye, I met a little nurse the other day who's very anxious to see you. Seems to have been hunting for you a long time, but didn't have a chance of getting hold of you till you were bowled over. She reckoned you'd come to her field of operations in the end, and you're not far from it. However, I'll send her along."
He went out and the wounded private now noticed that he also limped slightly.
He lay thinking, and listening half consciously to the dull boom of distant guns, and finally dozed. How long he remained thus he didn't know, but when he opened his eyes a nurse was sitting beside him, a nurse whose face he knew. He started up from his pillow, staring strangely at her, hardly believing that what he saw was real. She had seated herself beside his bed, and was smiling at him, a smile in which there was sorrow and weariness.
"You poor dear!" she exclaimed, leaning forward with a little tremor on her lip. "I thought this would be the way I would find you at last."
He thrust his hands out suddenly, grasping her and drawing her towards him. "Esther Borrn: Here!"
"On active service," she laughingly added. "It's quite a long while now since I enlisted."
He drew her nearer, flung his arm round her neck, and kissed her on the mouth with the ardor and hunger of a man who had come back from a desert world. Quickly and shyly she returned the caress, then drew back with her cheeks aflame.
"Bert, you shouldn't," was her whispered reproof. "There are people looking."
"What odds if the regiment's looking! They're only wishing they were me," he returned, with the gladness of a boy. "But they don't know the years of heart-ache I've suffered."
"Something besides the heart is the matter now." She was looking at the bandage, reading it with the professional eye that knew the meaning of every twist and angle.
"Yes."' he said, with a dry laugh. "I've got one leg in the grave."
"You don't mean that?" she cried in quick alarm. "You've aged terribly, but you're a strong man yet—by the look of you."
He noticed that she had aged too. There was not the same fresh pink in her cheeks, and the sparkle and buoyancy of the girl he had known at Broonah were gone. She was more matronly in her look and manner.
"I mean I've lost a leg," he explained; "and one blinker has gone too."
"Oh, you poor dear!" A wave of agony shot through her, and her eyes filled with tears, and her lips trembled, but she steeled herself with a supreme effort to maintain an outward calm. She was ashamed to display her true feelings before curious strangers, and longed to be alone with him where there would be less need for restraint.
"I was going to ask you to marry me, Esther, but I can't now," he said, his manner more serious.
"Why?" Her Voice was hoarse, and her heart was beating wildly.
"I'm not all here," he answered with a grim smile.
She reasoned within herself that he needed her all the more, and, taking her courage in both hands, she told him so.
"I followed the troops because you were one, and I won't go back unless you take me."
"You might be sorry afterwards, Esther; you don't realise now the sacrifice you'd be making."
"Where is the sacrifice?" she questioned. "For me it is a duty of love."
He pressed her hand in gratitude. "I'll be invalided to England as soon as I mend a bit, and if you can get across a little later, we'll talk it over there. It won't be very long, I suppose, before they'll be packing me back to Australia."
"It's the best place in all the world, Bert," said Esther, a wistfulness in her voice.
"It is." Bert agreed. "I've found that out, and I'll guarantee nothing will ever drag me away from it again. I'm glad I had this scrap, but what went before I'll always regret. They were barren, wasted years. And I go back to an empty home—No; you must go back with me. But tell me how you left—all about yourself. I'd never dreamed of seeing you walk in here."
"It was your first letter to your father that did it. We all thought you had perished when the ship went down, and I was awfully excited when I got the news that you were alive, and had enlisted. I'd been on a trip to Brisbane, and was breaking the homeward journey for a day or two at Moreena. Rod Bunker was there, and he showed me the letter—for your father was dead then. By the same mail, strange to say, I got a letter from an old schoolmate in Brisbane, saying she was going abroad, as they wanted nurses; and she pleaded to me to go with her. I was just mad to go. I thought the trip would be nice, and—and that I'd find you. I didn't want anybody to think that was my reason, and I might not meet you or you might get killed or something, and when I'd come back people would be saying that I'd chased round the world for a husband and didn't catch him. You know how people talk and make a lot out of nothing. So, rather than have them say that you were the objective, I asked Rod Bunker not to say anything about the letter until I had seen you and wrote him to that effect. There was nobody else that the letter really concerned, except your cousin Ellis, and he was in prison.
I didn't wait to go home, but took the train straight back to the city. If I hadn't done that I might have missed my girl mate, Lydia Munce, our old servant, was at Moreena. I gave her a message to mother, to say that I was going away as a nurse with Milly, and not to worry; and I instructed her not to give it to mother at once, but to wait until we'd had time to sail, in case she might try to stop me from going. I also borrowed £50 from Lydia's hard-earned savings, and enclosed an order to Dad to pay her £55 in return and debit the amount against my allowance. I left my address with Lydia, which she was to give mother. I didn't write home till a month after we'd disembarked. Whether the letter went to the bottom of the sea, or went astray, or what, I don't know; but I got no reply. However, Lydia wrote to me later, and said that my parents were very angry with me for what I had done, and that none of the family intended to write me a line. Just fancy! Because I had not gone home to say good-bye and obtain the parental sanction. I thought it very strange that they should have taken it that way. It was so unlike them. I wasn't a chicken—and I hadn't been much at home for some time. At all events, I didn't get a line; and I didn't write any more. Lydia told me she was leaving Broonah, and would let me know her address as soon as she was settled possibly in the city. But I never heard any more from her. So my home correspondence closed. I gave my whole attention to my work. There's been so much to do that I haven't had a furlough since I started. And there was always the expectation of meeting you, and other old friends from home. I thought, though, it would be in hospital we'd meet."
"So you don't know how things are at Broonah and Murrawang?" said Bert.
"No. Have you any news?" eagerly.
"Nothing of importance," he replied. "Plenty of water on the runs, good grass everywhere, sheep fat, wool and cattle bringing record prices—"
"Shuh!" laughed Esther. "Is that all?"
"Rod Bunker doesn't tell much," said Bert. "Keeps strictly to business; and he's the only one I correspond with. I've been so long out of the civilised world that I've lost touch with everyone else."
"You will be quite a stranger when you go back, Bert."
"Ah, well!" he said, thoughtfully, "I'll take a couple back with me who'll soon put me into the swim again—yourself and Captain Morey."
She was studying him closely. He had changed almost into another man. There were hard lines about his mouth, a hunted look in his eyes; he was not half as good looking as he used to be. When she pictured him on a wooden leg, he was less beautiful still. But she smiled bravely into his strange, familiar face, and transformed the hard lines into humorous wrinkles.
He was happy. He had much to look forward to. Once back at Murrawang, he would have nothing to worry him. He would have Esther always with him too. She was as beautiful as ever, if a little graver and stouter and older, and she had been as true and steadfast through the long years as the stars in their courses.
When he spoke of this, matching it with his own constancy, her conscience called her a hypocrite. She had the excuse, of course, that if she had looked upon another man it was when she believed her true lover was dead.
Fate for once had been kind, if it had played impish tricks in other ways. There were things she did not tell him, either then or after. It sufficed that they had each other, and after the long separation the veil could be drawn over certain aspects of the past.
Rory could scarcely restrain his delight at the discovery he had made, as he crawled out from under the bed, and darted across to the men's hut, though the fact that Rhea had learned as much of Lydia's movements as himself was a fly in the ointment. He would deal with that person later on, when he had finished with what he had on hand.
Calling Wonnaminta aside, he gave him a few hurried instructions, and then crept quietly back to his own apartment.
He lay a long time thinking over what he had seen and heard. Evidently there was a secret door in the wall of the west end room, though, from his knowledge of the building, it did not open into any other room. Then, if it opened into the garden, where was the object of a secret panel? He could only surmise that the room was double-walled, and that a passage led by a circuitous route into an unsuspected chamber in the heart of the building. It was a large, curiously-built old place, in which a compartment of the kind might easily be overlooked. This thought set him to a mental survey of the house to locate the place, and, marvelling on the interesting possibilities of such an event proving true, he fell asleep.
Waking from a nightmare of hidden dungeons, he was some minutes locating himself. Then he got up and regaled himself with a glass of Australian wine and a soda biscuit from his private cupboard. The cocks were crowing in the yard. When he had bathed and dressed, a few brave stars still shone in a brightening sky.
"Here goes," he determined, and, donning a woollen cap, passed quietly out to the west end where Wonnaminta was waiting with the lantern. Following his former tactics, he gained access to the room by smashing a pane in the window. Lydia, as he had expected, was an absent quantity.
"She never sleeps here," he whispered. "Where, then, does she pass the night but at the Glen, or in some secret chamber? There's a way out of here other than by that door or window. And that's what we must find."
He examined the walls from the window round, spending a considerable time in the corner where Lydia had met and whispered to the unknown visitor the previous night. There was no sign of any means of exit in that quarter.
He noticed that the lock on Lydia's box had been broken, and an inspection showed that the contents had been hastily turned over. He suspected Rhea of having done this, and he was enraged at the thought of the false light it would throw on his own movements there if he encountered Lydia.
He then turned his attention to the floor. In a moment he was master of the situation. A little out from the angle of the wall he saw what appeared to be a small trap-door.
"Here we are, Joe!" he cried gleefully, and, dropping on his knees, with little effort he prized it up. His heart gave a thump as he looked down through the aperture. A narrow flight of stairs descended into a dark, rocky passage.
"Now," he said, musingly, "will it he safe to venture through there, or would it be wiser to wait until Lydia returns?"
"Plunge in," Joe advised. "We'll reach th' bottom quicker that way."
A moment's reflection decided him. Determining on that course, he descended the stairs, with Joe following closely on his heels. They found themselves in a great rocky tunnel, which, from its appearance, had been an underground watercourse, made by hand into a passable thoroughfare. The roof was mostly of heavy timber, with natural rock and flat stones intervening. The work was old, many years old, though decayed roots of what had once been flourishing ferns and shrubs still showed here and there.
They did not stop to inspect the passage, but hurried on, feeling confident that it would lead them to the hidden home of the cave dwellers.
The tunnel seemed interminable. The bottom was uneven, dropping in places a sheer depth of five to seven feet, where steps had been rudely cut in the rock; while the sides varied from three to ten feet apart. Naturally their progress was slow.
For an hour they had picked their way along, moving from side to side, when they came to a steep shoot, long ago worn smooth with running water. Ascending this, they entered the first cave. It was large, of triangular shape, and so thickly strewn with pebbles and boulders that they had some difficulty in finding their way through it. Even then they entered one or two blind caves before they picked up the connecting path.
They had lost so much time in ferreting round the walls that they were now anxious and impatient to reach the goal. Lydia mostly commenced her work shortly after sunrise,
As they could not proceed without a light, it was imperative that they should find the lair before she started back, otherwise she would discover them at a distance.
Fortune favored them. On entering the second cave they heard a faint hum of voices far in. They hastened towards the sound, which grew louder and louder as they advanced. There was a man's voice and a woman's, and they appeared to be quarrelling.
Another minute's breathless groping, and they saw a glimmer of light ahead. They now extinguished their own and listened. They could hear the voices distinctly; moreover, they recognised the speakers.
One was Lydia; the other, Ellis Rhea!
For an instant Rory felt his flesh creep. He put his hand out against the wall to steady himself, breathing heavily. Then, nerved by the tenor of the heated dialogue within, he crept closer—closer, till he had reached the partition wall, through a jagged hole in which the light streamed. Putting his eye to this, he looked within, whilst his heart thumped against his side.
It was a massive hall, furnished with a few clumsy chairs and stools, a deal table, and a three-quarter bed. It was well draperied; there were books in plenty, a lot of clothing, three or four boxes, and an assortment of toys, some of which Rory had seen not long before. "Daddy Christmas had come even there and brought good cheer to one lonely heart.
Sitting up in bed, with a wondering expression on his pretty face, about which hung a profusion of golden curls, was the little wild, white boy who had fled from his fellow-creatures but the other evening. Before him stood Ellis Rhea, his attitude suggesting that he had been arrested in the act of springing upon the bed: his right arm held rearward and rigid with the strength with which he gripped a sharp-pointed knife, his left raised to a level with his chest. His aspect was fierce and desperate.
Between them, excited but firm, was Lydia Munce, adding impressiveness to the scene in her deshabille, with her hair in disorder, and holding at arm's length a pocket revolver.
His eyes bulging with the first sudden shock, Rory gazed upon this remarkable scene, the memory of which nothing would ever erase from his mind, and listened with bated breath to every word that fell from the lips of the participants.
Rhea was furious. His words sounded as if hissed through clenched teeth.
"Give me that will!" he cried.
"I'll give you a bullet," answered Lydia in a frenzy.
"The will!" repeated Rhea.
"A bullet!" echoed Lydia.
Rhea dropped the hand in which he held the weapon to his side; with the other he supported himself against the bedpost. He spoke in a calmer voice.
"What fools we are to quarrel over a trifle like this. Let us be rational. There's no sense in flying at each other's throat. This is purely a business matter, and should be treated in a business-like manner. You have a document which, for certain reasons, it is essential that I should possess."
"What good is it to you?"
"I want to destroy it."
"Because if the existence of such a document became known I would be socially ruined. My old friends have taken me back, despite what has happened, because they still believe in me; and I desire, of course, to maintain my position."
"At the expense of a helpless infant. How manly of you! If you were anything but a contemptible cad, which you've always been ever since I've known you, you'd scorn to hold a position that was gained at such a sacrifice to a child, and that child your own son!"
"I promise you he will be well provided for. Let us sit down and discuss terms amicably."
"There's no terms to discuss. I'll have no hand in any more dirty work of yours. I only want to see the end of you. A thing like you is only pollutin' the earth. Get off my premises, you murderer."
"Look here. Lydia: it's no use talking like that. Listen to me. You have nothing to lose. You can gain a good deal. I'll give you a handsome sum for the document, which will enable you to go away and live in comfort for the rest of your days. Isn't that better than slaving your life away in a hole like this? Nobody will be any the wiser. What does a child so situated want with a station? From a practical point of view—ask yourself the question. What can he do with it?"
"He'll make better use of it than you would—when he comes into it."
"It will be years before he is capable of taking any hand in the management—if he came into it. In the meantime the place is going to rack and ruin."
"That's a lie. Rod Bunker's lookin' after it better than you could do."
"Rod Bunker? Who put him there?"
"Your uncle—Garratt Rhea. He's the executor. Didn't your gentleman friends, that you sent out here to pry into things, tell you that? You put it round that they appointed him—or that's the yarn that's about, anyway."
"How did you get the will?"
"Garratt Rhea gave it to me before he died."
"Why did he give it to you?"
"Ain't I the child's guardian?—the principal one, anyway."
"Then there are others?"
"There's Rod Bunker. He knows how much salt the cook put in the soup, you take it from me. Now, what chance have you got of ever owning Murrawang, even if the will was destroyed?"
"Let me destroy it, and I'll manage the rest."
"I dare say you would. You'd destroy the heir too. He'd been dead now if I hadn't been here. Then there'd be only big Egbert in the way—an' you're prayin' to God he won't come back. You crept in like a murderin' cannibal to stab him, thinkin' I'd gone to work; but I smelt a rat when you come quizzin' me yesterday. I knew what you had in mind, an' I stopped here; an' here I intend to stop. The dinner can go to pot. It's you that will 'ave to explain the whyfore. An' you'll strike for new country to-day, too, or I'll put you where I'll know where to find you."
"Don't he a fool. Give me that document, and I'll give you five thousand pounds."
"Yah! You haven't that many pence."
"You lie! Where is that bank money? Hand it over."
"I won't. That's straight."
Rhea grew more desperate. "You wry-faced old cat, I'll—I'll—"
"Back! or I'll shoot you as dead as you shot your cousin Reuben."
"What!...Shot...Reuben!" The words were uttered in hoarse gasps.
"Oh. I know," cried Lydia, tossing her loose hair back from her face. "There's them, that's tracin' it all out. You saw him ridin' by to the station: you knew your cake was dough if he reached it. You called him—decoyed him in—an' shot him. Then you stripped him an' buried his clothes an' saddle. Afterwards you came an' burnt his hair off. I saw you sneakin' away from th' house with a swag an' billy that never came back. The horse you led to th' mountain scrubs. They've found that too. An' they've got everything that you buried. They've only a suspicion yet who the murderer is, but I know. Don't I?"
He reeled away with his hands to his brow, but staggered towards her again. Lydia backed, still keeping him covered.
"I've kept your secrets too long, you dog...If I'd only known as much as I do now, you would never 'ave seen the outside of a gaol again: you'd 'ave worn a hempen collar long ago. Now you can make the best of your time. They've run me into a corner an' ferreted my little plot out—a nice mess that I owe to you—an' I'm goin' to make a clean breast of it."
"So you'd betray me, would you?"
She glared at him fiercely. "Why should I spare a brute like you?"
"So be it. You've got the advantage of me now with that pop-gun, but my chance will come before the darbies are on me again. And mark me, if the worst comes, there's only your word against mine, and mine will have more weight than yours. I can turn the whole thing against you. I'll make you prove that you didn't commit the murder here and the robbery at the bank. You coveted the dead man's property; you used the stolen money. Now, how would you clear yourself? Where's your witnesses?"
"With these words, Rory, who had discovered the entrance after a frantic search, sprang into the chamber.
"Here's another!" cried Wonnaminta, scrambling breathlessly after him.
Their dramatic entrance wrung a cry from both. The knife dropped from Rhea's hand, and he clutched at the bed-post for support, where he stood with the agonised look of a penned-up beast. Lydia could only stare, with a mingling of stupidity and fear depicted in her face.
Rhea was the first to recover, and, noticing that Rory was unarmed and Lydia for the moment off her guard, he made a sudden rush to get possession of the girl's revolver. There was a short, fierce struggle; then a loud report echoed from the caverns.
The weapon had exploded, and Rhea fell back against the curtains—dead.
Rory, pale and trembling, sat on a box in the corner where the tragedy had occurred. A rug had been thrown over the body of Rhea; the child had gone to sleep; Wonnaminta was searching for the passage into the Glen; and Lydia reclined on the bed, crying.
"The fat's in the fire now, Lydia, so you may as well make a clean breast of it," Rory urged. "Tell me all—from the time of the Ralstons—the tunnel—everything. It's no good being a mystery any longer."
In a halting fashion she told him that the tunnel had been a natural channel emptying into Tiaro Creek. The outlet had been partly blocked up and the course used for conveying water from springs in Kholo Hills to a well at the back of the kitchen. These springs went dry in a drought, and "never sprung a leak any more." Then the channel was made into a passage connecting the west end with the caves, where Ralston was wont to repair on summer days to escape the heat. Lydia had done him many a good service in the long ago, and she asked in return that the secret of the west end should not be revealed, being prompted to make the request by two contingencies; Ralston was talking of selling the station to Hoey Borrn; secondly, she already had mapped the place out for use, and it was the most suitable in the whole country for her purpose.
"But why did Ralston shun this passage and want to get away so urgently in the end?" asked Rory.
"Because his old thievin' rackets was prickin' him. Wasn't it stealin' Garratt's sheep, an' other people's cattle, that made him! He was nothing but a small selector when he begun first, but he got up the ladder two rungs at a time: one by breedin' an' one by stealin'. Don't I know it! Mrs. Garratt caught him one night chasin' a mob of sheep. She was ridin' home from Rod Bunker's selection. It was moonlight, an' she started to gallop over to see who the bloke was as was scurryin' away with the mutton. She didn't go far, poor thing. The horse turned topsy-turvy in a hole, an' she was killed dead on the spot. Months afterwards the old scamp—that's Ralston—saw a ghost in the Glen an' he thought it was Mrs. Garratt come to haunt him. He never lifted a hoof after that. It was the fear o' God. It struck into his black heart that made him sell out an' clear with his bundle o' sins to the Lord knows where."
"And Esther? Tell me all you know about Esther."
"I haven't got Esther in my pocket, so put that out of your head," said Lydia impatiently. "She's a long, long way from here."
"Then she is still alive!" cried Rory, his heart leaping.
"So far as I know. I 'aven't heard from her since goodness knows when. I couldn't tell you anything before. I was sworn to secrecy. But I think she'll forgive me if I break my word now. At least, I'm not goin' to break it altogether; just crack it a bit. Indeed, when she knows what's happened, I think she'll come home again. She ought to."
"Where is she?"
"She's at the other side o' the world. I can't tell you the place, or the name she's known by, till I hear from her. I don't know myself."
"What was the reason of her self-effacement?" asked Rory.
"Reason?" said Lydia, hesitating. "Oh, it all come of her gettin' tangled up with a calamity. But that's her story, not mine," she protested once more. "You saw the mound in the Glen with 'Esther' on the rock. Esther used to sit there sometimes before she went away, an' she used to say, when her time come she'd like to rest just there. She cut her name on the rock herself. Poor girl! But she was fairly happy with this little boy. He was good company for her. An' many a night we were down here together when you thought we were in our rooms."
"Was she the woman who was seen outside the caves?"
"Perhaps she was—if it wasn't me. I don't know of any other—exceptin' old Wolgen."
"How long was she here?"
"Oh, not long. I disremember."
"All alone in these caves?"
"Oh, dear, no! As I said, she was with me at the house, an' she was at Murrawang some of the time. We had to have a man in the secret (there's times when the most independent of us can't do without him), and that man was Rod Bunker. He carried the furniture an' trappings over, and got what was wanted from town. We 'ad papers an' books in plenty, an' whatever you had at table was shared here. An' you never had a toothache or a prickle in your toe but she knew it. Wolgen, the gin, looked after the child. They didn't do too bad at all, considerin'."
"How did Esther go away?"
"I borrowed a horse from Rod Bunker, an' she rode to Roma. There she got straight into the train, an' I didn't hear no more of her till she'd planted herself in another country."
"Who's been looking after the boy through the day lately?"
"Wolgen. She's been nurse all along, an' a good, faithful old nurse she's been. Nobody ever set eyes on her but once—an' that was Jim Jack. You wouldn't believe how fond that boy is of her, black an' all as she is. But at Christmas she has a week in town, where she is now. You'd never 'ave seen Egbert, perhaps, only for that."
"How did he escape that day from the Glen?"
"There's a door, made with a big slab of stone, just inside the first cave. You can't notice it unless you look very close. It looks like part of the broken wall. He darted in there an' shut the door. He was nearly caught though, next day, when you were all down here lookin' for him. Jim Jack, I think it was, from what I heard tell, got into the passage (the door 'ad been left open). Bertie was sittin' on th' stones a little way in. When he saw Jim Jack—as I suppose it was—comin' along—he was scared out of his wits. He was sittin' at the top of a rise, an' when he jumped up an' tore off like mad, he set a lot of stones rollin' down, which must 'ave scared Jim Jack, too, for he rushed back for his life. Afterwards Bertie crept back an' shut the stone door, an' barred it. He was goin' away to school after Christmas. He's beginning to know now, an' it's time he got among folks an' lived as a Christian should."
"You might have told Stella, if no one else," Rory reproached her.
"An', of course, she'd 'ave told you, an' you'd a' told the rest," growled Lydia. "I promised Miss Esther I'd tell nobody, and that's all about it. When she comes back she'll put you wise to everything that concerns her. It's not for me to say one way or the other. Let her give her own story in her own time."
"All right, Lydia," he said, more kindly. "Wake the little chap, and we'll take him along with us. He's done with these apartments."
Lydia did as she was bidden, whilst Rory whistled into the darkness for Wonnaminta.
"Lydia," he said, as he came back to her, "whose boy is this?"
"Ah, Master Rory, he's a good little fellow," said Lydia. "I hope none of you will be hard on him."
"Of course we won't. Who is his mother?"
"Ask him?" said Lydia, half-resentfully.
Rory did so, and the boy clung to her skirts, looking up at him.
"You!" cried Rory, astonished.
Lydia shook her head and hurried with her task of tying up a few things to take with her. The question embarrassed her, and she wanted to get home.
"And his father?" Rory persisted.
"Ellis Rhea. A nice scamp for a father...But we can't choose our fathers any more than we can help bein' born."
Wonnaminta returned at this juncture. He had found the way out, the secret of which had reposed in the cunningly-contrived stone door. Rory proposed to return that way, but Lydia objected. She "didn't want everybody garpin' at them," and so they went back to the old water channel.
Though the sun had now risen, no light entered here. Carrying a lantern in her hand, Lydia stepped quickly along the passage, with Rory and Wonnaminta at her heels.
Whilst all in the house were searching for them, and speculating on this new addition to the catalogue of mysteries, the truants turned up, Lydia and Rory each holding a hand of a very pleased little boy.
The wildest excitement for awhile possessed Broonah; but what Lydia had feared did not happen. All there had been prepared in a measure for the truth, after digesting the events of the preceding days. But one and all were curious—and somewhat dumbfounded—about the child.
"Isn't he something like Esther?" Stella exclaimed.
A new look came into Lydia's face, a brighter light into her eyes.
"You have spoken my very thoughts, Stella," said Mrs. Borrn, gravely; "and yet—and yet he's got Lydia's mouth."
Lydia coughed and looked uneasy.
Rory hastily repeated what she had told him, and then he withdrew, so that Lydia might explain matters to them.
"What is his name, Lydia?" asked Mrs. Borrn, whose face showed anger and anxiety.
"Egbert Garratt Rhea." Lydia answered.
"Why did you call him that?"
"Twas Esther christened him, ma'am. She called him Egbert after his uncle."
"And why Garratt?"
"The old boss of Murrawang gave him his name. He adopted him partly, an' willed him everything. By doin' that he got back on Ellis, an' served him proper for the wrongs he'd done. The old man would 'ave kept the child at Murrawang—only for some complications. He knew all about everything, an' so did Rod Bunker, who carried on for us after old Garratt died; but they were all sworn to secrecy. All the same, the boy spent many a night at Murrawang unbeknownst to all save Bunker."
"Esther reared him, did you say?"
"Yes—off an' on—till he came here. Then Wolgen was with him in the day, an' I was with him of a night."
"Has he been taught anything?"
"Oh, lots o' things."
"Does he know his letters?"
"Yes, ma'am. Miss Esther taught him the rudiments, an' after she went away I continyered his edjecation, though it wasn't much, as I never 'ad no chance o' goin' to college meself. But he can say his prayers right through, an' 'Old Mother Hubbard,' an' 'The Three Blind Mice,' an' 'The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon.' He's real sharp at pickin' up things."
"Why had Esther so much to do with him?" asked Mrs. Borrn, a dull dread in her heart.
"Why did she hide an' run away?" asked Lydia in return. "That's her story, ma'am. You must ask her when she comes back."
"Where is she?"
"I don't know. She don't write to me."
Mrs. Borrn looked long at the boy, and shook her head; but she did not then speak the doubt that was in her mind.
It was not till after she had talked the matter over with the other members of the household that she took Lydia seriously to task about him.
"Look here, Lydia," she said, shaking her finger at the woman, "I am not at all satisfied with what you've told me. Now, speak the truth. Who is the mother of that child?"
"Look at his face," said Lydia. "Doesn't it speak for itself?"
"What it speaks doesn't corroborate you in the least."
Lydia was silent.
"Will you let me see the birth certificate?" Mrs. Borrn went on, with some coercion in the request.
"It's sealed up with the will, ma'am," Lydia told her.
Again the doubt was plain in Mrs. Borrn's look. "Is he registered in the name of Egbert Garratt Rhea?"
"In Brisbane. That's where he was born. He was brought to the caves when he could run about an' amuse himself."
"How did you travel?"
"By train to Roma. Rod Bunker met us there with his trap."
"What is the mother's name on the register?"
"The same's what's on the marriage certificate—what you saw."
Mrs. Borrn wet her dry lips with her tongue. "And you say that's yours?"
Lydia turned upon her a half—frightened look, then, dropping into a chair, buried her face in her hands.
"I am not going to reproach you, Lydia," Mrs. Borrn resumed, a tremor in her voice and tears glistening in her eyes. "You have won my gratitude and my admiration; your self-sacrifice and devotion are extraordinary; and I shall ever remember you as a true and noble-hearted girl.
She bent down and kissed her, then turned away with a sob.
But Lydia sprang up and clutched her by the arm. "Don't go," she entreated. Then, as if speaking to herself, she added, "I can see you are wrongin' Esther. You believe the child is hers?"
"You have as much as told me so!''
"You are right, ma'am; but...listen!"
She lowered her voice to a whisper, though there was no one else near. "She was Rhea's wife—not me.''
Mrs. Borrn gave a little start, and her cheeks blanched, but she did not speak. Almost breathlessly she waited for more, her gaze never shifting from Lydia's face.
"How it came about God only knows—I don't," the latter went on. "Miss Esther which I should call Mrs. Rhea—said she didn't know herself what came over her. Maybe she was bewitched, or jadoo'd, or something o' that sort. Anyhow, the long an' short of it was, Rhea not only got her to marry him, but to marry him in secret—as he had to reach a certain position in the bank before the regulations allowed him to marry. So he said. A heartless, schemin' dog he was. They weren't married a week when he was arrested. It was after he was committed an' sent away that she first spoke of breakin' from home though she didn't altogether for four years after. I wanted her to brave it out, and maybe get her release later on; but when she found out everything, she said she could never hold her head up among her people again. You know, she was always a proud girl—I don't mean stuck-up, but high-spirited an' sensitive. She asked me to take her away an' hide her somewhere. I got her home for spells thinkin' she'd settle down here again. But no; she said she would rather be thought lost in the bush, an' dead, than you should know the disgrace she had brought on the family."
"Better that a thousand times than the aching, silent years of uncertainty," said Mrs. Borrn, tremulously. "I wish to heaven she were here to explain this awful riddle herself. What you tell me may all be true; but the story doesn't hang together to my liking. If she were married, and the child hers, it was nothing but plain lunacy to put him in the caves here. Why didn't she take him away with her? According to what you say, she liked the boy-yet abandoned the little fellow to a life like that! I don't understand it Lydia." She wrung her hands in despair, and began to pace up and down the room.
"Mother!" cried Stella at this moment. "Bertie's in the garden pulling up every flower he can lay his hands on."
"Poor little barbarian!" murmured Mrs. Borrn; "he thinks they are to be pulled like the wild ones. We must civilise him."
And with a feeling of compassion for the little wilding, and a bitter hatred for the author of its being, she followed Stella into the garden."
A very unpleasant experience for Lydia Munce was the necessary inquest. She had been through one forensic ordeal, and had been subjected to a gruelling cross-examination by an insulting, bullying lawyer, and she hated the law ever afterwards. Fortunately for her, and because she didn't tell a word more than she was compelled to, the inquest was soon disposed of, and within a few hours the subject thereof was buried in the Glen beside his cousin Reuben, Jim Jack, to his utter disgust, performing the office of grave-digger.
Lydia had tactfully avoided all complications. She said the furnished cave was the camp of Wolgen, the gin, and she had been in the habit of going there with the little boy, whom she was looking after for a friend, when Ellis Rhea crept in and murderously attacked her. She also omitted any mention of Rod Bunker. Rory Borrn and Joseph Eagle corroborated her statement that the shooting was accidental. They had been exploring the caves when they came upon the pair quarrelling.
It was a great relief to the Borrns that nothing of the romantic and tragic history of the caves was brought out. It was also a relief to have the whole dreadful business done with. But Mrs. Borrn's troubles were not ended. Lydia had given notice; she could not remain at Broonah any longer, and Murrawang, where she had once hoped to be something akin to a dowager, was closed to her while the absent heir, Egbert Rhea, was alive. The boy she proposed to leave on Mrs. Borrn's hands, and this addition to the family Mrs. Borrn was not at all pleased with. She desired Lydia to wait, or to take the boy with her, until Esther returned and confirmed her statement, or amended statement, concerning the marriage certificate. Neither Rory nor Stella believed Lydia, and Mrs. Borrn herself had grave doubts about the story, though Lydia had documental proofs of it. And there was Garratt Rhea's will, bequeathing his fortune, including Murrawang station to the boy—in the event of the testator's own son, Egbert Rhea, not returning. Lydia knew now that he would return, bar accidents; Mrs. Borrn did not. Artfully Lydia argued that the boy must be brought up to fit him for the position he would occupy. She could not do that herself, but they could afford it at Broonah.
For one who had been so sedulous in her regard for the boy, who had kept him near her at all hazards and at great personal inconvenience, her anxiety to get rid of the encumbrance now appeared to Mrs. Borrn as most remarkable.
"The cat's out of the bag now,'' said Lydia. "There's no tellin' when Esther will come back, ma'am—an' she might get exploded by a submarine. 'Taint right for the nipper to be knockin' around with me when he ought to he livin' a toff—an' gettin' his proper edjecation. 'Taint fair, as I look at it. An' you wouldn't like one of your own to grow up in ignorance, would yer? There's nothing to be ashamed of, I'm sure. There's the legal documents to prove he's your proper an' legitimate grandson."
"Why don't you hand those documents over to me?" Mrs. Borrn demanded irascibly. "What right have you to keep them? What good are they to you?"
"I was told to hold on to 'em, ma'am, an' I'm just holdin' on. That's all."
At that moment Rod Bunker stepped across the verandah and stood-in the doorway. Lydia's face flushed, and she eyed him with an anxious look.
"I've got good news for you, Mrs. Borrn," he announced, ignoring Lydia, whose cheeks slowly paled. "Your daughter, Esther, is on her way home—"
"Oh, thank heaven!" Mrs. Borrn exclaimed, with a fervor and a lightning change of expression that indicated that a load had been lifted from her mind.
"I've just had a letter from her husband," said Bunker in his blunt way, drawing a crumpled sheet from his pocket.
"Her—husband!" Mrs. Borrn gasped, moving impetuously towards him.
"Ellis Rhea told you, I suppose, that his cousin Egbert—my boss—has been fighting in France, where your daughter has been workin' as a Red Cross nurse—"
"Goodness gracious! Is—"
"Well, he tells me that they were married the other week in England, an' he's bringin' her home with him—"
He stopped short as a heavy bump shook the room. Lydia Munce had fallen in a dead faint.
Between them, when they had brought Lydia round, Mrs. Borrn and Rod Bunker dragged the truth out of her. She was by no means contrite. She was sullen and resentful, especially against Rod Bunker, who had stepped in and unwittingly spoiled her little plans before she had time to get away. She had thought it probable that Egbert Rhea would not see Australia again; she had not thought it possible that he would marry Esther Borrn and be on his way home so soon.
The first version she had given of the marriage certificate was the true one. She was the wife—now the widow—of Ellis Rhea. Esther had been a friend to her, and, knowing her secret, had helped and shielded her. They were much together in Brisbane and elsewhere; but Esther had not been in the caves, and knew nothing of the boy being there.
Lydia herself had cut the names in the rock in the Glen, with some wild idea of giving a semblance of truth to her story anent Esther being temporarily domiciled there. Esther had walked with her on a moonlight night in the Glen, at Lydia's request, when, she was at home, because Lydia wanted to get used to the place. The whole scheme in Lydia's mind was a sordid one, its ultimate design being the benefit of the boy and herself. She withheld Esther's message and other information from Mrs. Borrn for the same end.
The injured mother was so incensed that she felt, as she expressed it, that she could shake the life out of the woman. She did not attempt to gratify the pugnacious feeling, but she spoke her mind to Lydia; and Lydia, flaring up, spoke her mind to her. Lydia's mind, with rage and defeat as the driving force, was a tempest, her tongue vitriolic.
There was a lively exchange of feminine compliments, which made Rod Bunker stare. Mrs. Borrn finally ordered her to leave the house at once, and Lydia flounced out, saying she was glad to get from under such a roof. She banged the door after her, kicked the cat through the hall, and shook the house with her forceful strides as she retreated to her own quarters.
Rory came in. He found Rod Bunker fidgeting on a chair, wishing himself in a back paddock, and his mother sitting opposite, crying. There was no one else in the house, Julius Cobblestone, to his everlasting regret, being out driving with Stella and her father.
"What's the row about?" asked Rory, halting between them.
His mother, in a tearful, angry voice, rapidly repeated the gist of Lydia's confession.
"And now, Mr. Bunker, I want to hear your yarn," she requested, with more asperity than that gentleman thought necessary. "You seem to have been very much mixed up in this affair. I'm really surprised—"
"Go easy, now," said Mr. Bunker, pleasantly. "My part was a wholly unselfish one."
"Lydia has involved you up to the eyes," Rory interposed. "I was going over to Murrawang to-day to see you about it. This will save me the trip."
"Just so," said Bunker, quietly. "I didn't know till this mornin' that I'd been fooled, an' I lost no time in comin' over here to get quit of the whole concern. Sit down, Rory, an' don't look so fierce. When you've heard what I've got to say, you'll laugh. I'm not forgettin' the way you've been treated in regard to Esther: It was a downright shame; but that cloud's gone. The girl has never done anything that you can chide her for unless it's goin' away to look after our wounded boys without askin' your leave; an' she's comin' back to you now as the wife of Egbert Rhea."
"Why didn't she write to us when she was sailing—or from one of the Australian ports?" asked Rory. "It would have saved a lot of bother."
Bunker held up his hand. "For the Lord's sake, don't ask me conundrums. If there's one thing I hate it's conundrums."
"Why didn't you tell us about it when you knew we were worrying and inquiring every where about Esther?" Mrs. Borrn demanded.
"She told me to say nothing, an' I said nothing. I always do as I'm told—providin' it's not something too inconvenient."
"It's no use buttin'. There's the facts. When you've heard my yarn you'll understand better."
Mrs. Borrn moved her chair up to the table and waited eagerly. Mr. Bunker threw one leg carelessly across the other, and hung his hat on his knee.
"Well, the beginnin' of it all was old Garratt Rhea met Lydia in Brisbane. You remember she was down there for a good while after Ellis got into trouble, stayin' with a step-aunt, or some such relation. She asked Garratt to come to the house, as she had a great secret she wanted to confide in him. Garratt went—an' he saw Esther there—as Lydia intended. But Esther was stayin' with friends of her own, an' merely dropped in now an' again to see Lydia. There was a nipper there too. When Esther had gone, Lydia showed Garratt that marriage certificate, an' the birth certificate, by way of provin' that Esther was Ellis Rhea's wife an' the child was theirs. She said to him:—'For your life, Mr. Garratt, don't say a word to a livin' soul, or Esther will kill me. I'm passin' myself off as Mrs. Rhea, an' pretendin' the kid's mine: but I thought it right an' proper that you should know—seein' as you've been thinkin' Ellis is the only relation you've got left."
"Well, old Garratt got thinkin' a lot after that, an' Lydia helped him to think in her way. He liked Esther—was rather fond of her, I may say—an' he hated Ellis with the blackest hate of a man's soul. He wanted an heir, as Lydia knew, an' wasn't over particular how he got it so long as he could stop Ellis from gettin' a look in. He had an idea once of gettin' married, you know; but there was only one woman he would willingly have given his fortune to—an' she wouldn't have him. He thought he saw the reason why when the young 'un was introduced. The more Garratt thought about it the more that kid tickled his fancy. The secrecy about it all, an' Lydia's assurance that Esther was never goin' to recognise Ellis any more, pleased him too. Many a time I've seen him rubbin' his hands together an' smilin' into his whiskers when he'd had a line from Lydia, saying how the young 'un was comin' on. Garratt kept 'em; he'd have given Lydia a little home to herself in Brisbane if she'd liked. But Lydia couldn't stand the city. She wanted to get back to Broonah, where she'd spent most of her life—there an' thereabouts. An' she wanted to have the kid near her—though she didn't want to be seen with it in the districts where she was known, because it was a proposition she couldn't explain to inquisitive people who'd want to know all about its antecedents. She'd left it off an' on with the step-aunt, an' if she'd been satisfied to keep on with that arrangement she wouldn't have got tangled up so much. But seems she had some affection for the kid—an' she thought it might be kidnapped—an' she was a fool.
"She'd had those caves in mind for a long time, an' there she decided to keep him, with the old gin, Wolgen, to look after him, till he was old enough to put in a school. Garratt tried to persuade her against it, but it was no use. He couldn't take 'em to Murrawang for the same reason that Lydia couldn't take the young 'un to Broonah. Those caves were just the thing in her mind, as nobody here knew anything about the connectin' passage. She could be stubborn, as I suppose you know, an' she was as stubborn as two pigs in that. It was for the convenience of the coming heir that No Man's Hut was built. It was just a depot.
"I didn't know anything about all this till a little before old Garratt died. Then he told me he had willed his property to the kid. There was a codicil, settin' out that if his own son, Egbert, turned up he was to get everything, and Egbert was to make what provision he thought right for his namesake. Garratt asked me to be its godfather, or something of that sort, when he was gone, to do whatever Lydia wanted, an' keep my mouth shut. The arrangement put me into a queer pickle at times. Everything that was wanted from outside had to be delivered by me personally at night time, or left at No Man's Hut. My movements down that way got to be suspicious in other people's eyes. I was prayin' for the day to come when the kid could be packed away to school. Until I received the letter from Bert Rhea this morning, I believed that Esther Borrn was Ellis Rhea's wife an' the mother of that boy, just as old Garratt Rhea had believed it."
"That's what she told me," said Mrs. Borrn. "After she had said, before the lot of us, that Ellis Rhea was her husband. It's strange she let that out."
"She must have been in a mad temper with Rhea, an' couldn't resist givin' him a nasty knock when she had the chance. She was also a bit flabbergasted over hearin' that Bert Rhea was likely to return. That swept the ground from under her feet. Her bouncin' boy was no longer the heir. Thinkin' over it afterwards, she reckoned the best plan was to recant, an' stick to the original scheme, so that she could palm the youngster on to you. That would give him a better start in life—if he couldn't get Murrawang. When I gave you the news that Esther an' Bert were married, an' were homeward bound, she was flattened out. It was the end of the section. An' here's one that's not sorry, I assure you, that it's all over."
During this narration Lydia had packed her things and left the house, going out by the caves: and that night, a couple of miles down the road she boarded the coach for somewhere east, taking the boy with her.
The visit of Rod Bunker was the precursor of many friendly exchanges between the two places before the return of the warrior heroes and the wandering girl. The caves were explored by groups from both places, Jim Jack thrusting himself forward as guide on every possible occasion, and explaining how he was the discoverer of the concealed passage from the Glen. He assumed the air of proprietorship, seizing the lantern whenever he could, and showing everybody else into the nooks and corners, together with the spot where the old gin used to sit and smoke. He was the only one who had seen her during the time she had spent there as nurse, and that was a distinction. Jim told how he dashed up to cut her off from the cave, but she had unfortunately eluded him—"vanished like a whiff of her own smoke."
"You vanished, too, Jim," Wonnaminta reminded him, with a sly grin, "when the goanna charged you."
That was the joke in Broonah hut, and in other huts, and Jim Jack became knows to everyone in the neighborhood as "The Goanna." That was a distinction, too, but one that always made Jim look sour when he heard it.
An intensely interested person in the sights of Broonah and Murrawang was Julius Cobblestone. The sudden passing of Ellis Rhea, and the abrupt finale and sensational disclosure in which he had no share, were a great disappointment to him. He regarded it as a thrilling drama that had been spoilt in the ending. After all the evidence and exhibits he had collected, he should have tracked the villain to his lair, and unravelled all the intricacies, and exposed the base plots and connivances, with great and lasting credit to himself. He pondered sorrowfully over the narrow margin by which he had missed greatness. An old tragedy had almost been traced to the perpetrator, and he was closing on to him with feverish zeal, when the whole case blew out. He left his treasures to be given to Bert Rhea, and returned to duty.
Old Wolgen returned to duty too. She came back at night. Finding the caves had been vacated, she made her way through the subterranean passage to the west end room to see Lydia. There being no answer to her knock, she shoved back the overhead door and entered the room. A new cook had been temporarily engaged—an old man who had cooked for the rouseabouts at shearing time. He was lying on the bed, smoking. The knocking had mystified him, and he was listening intently when the strange feminine form reared up from the floor. The moonlight, streaming through the open window, shone on her ebony face and glistening eyes. With a gasp, the cook leaped from the bed and rushed out of the room for his life. Wolgen dived back as precipitately into her retreat, and made all speed to Murrawang, where she remained. Mrs. Borrn endeavored to reason with the cook. But her assurances were useless. He had heard a lot of queer yarns about Broonah, and that apparition was enough, for him. He rolled up his swag and left. After that a wooden door was made at the interior entrance to the caves, and kept locked.
The glorious calm that followed all the excitement and worry was very welcome to Hoey Borrn and his wife. Sitting on the shaded verandah in the hot afternoons, and on the lawn in the starlit evenings, they had talked over events a hundred times. Not that they talked much, a few words and a long meditation was the usual course of their conversation. Now and again Mr. Borrn would say, "Well, well!" and lapse into a reverie. They laughed over the trick that had been played on Garratt Rhea, and the ludicrous position in which sober Rod Banker had been placed. But for a mere chance of fortune, that brought Bert Rhea back to their midst, Lydia, by means of her boy, would have had possession of Murrawang. The return of Esther would not have mattered, for Rod Bunker would not have betrayed the secret that she was the alleged mother, and that Lydia was merely acting as Mrs. Rhea, It was a bitter pill to Lydia. Whether she saw the troops land or not, they did not know, for they saw no more of her after her flight from Broonah, nor did they hear of her again.
It was a holiday for everybody on Broonah, Murrawang, and Bynaaban when the long-absent members returned home; and everybody, including the Clarkes, had mustered at Broonah, making it a day that dimmed the unpleasant memories of the preceding time. Rory had taken horses to Moreena, and the men of the three stations rode down the road to meet them, and they came up the paddock with a thundering clatter of hoofs that shook the ground. The cavalcade was led by Captain Morey, and the first to welcome him was Stella, who smothered her blushes and flew into his arms.
Mrs. Borrn had eyes for no one but Esther, who met her with a radiant face and the lustre of animated youth in her flashing glances, rekindled by the brisk ride and the enthusiasm engendered by the old scenes and associations. She had promised to give Esther a severe lecture, but that all faded away. She only kissed her and cried.
There was one who was helped to the ground, and who came to her on a crutch and with a cover over one eye. That was an item that Rod Bunker had not mentioned. As Esther turned to him with a smile, placing her hand on his shoulder, her mother despite the great change in the man, recognised Bert Rhea, and with the recognition she felt a stab in her heart.
"I have not brought back a whole husband," said Esther, "but what there is of him is Australian."
"You poor boy!" cried Mrs. Borrn, compassionately. "What a terrible time you've had!"
"It's all right, mother," said Bert, lightly. "I've got a good many kicks in me yet—and there's a haven of rest over the downs there."
"Yes, that's a blessing. Esther"—turning from him suddenly, "why didn't you tell me?"
Stella here bounced in among them.
"A nice one you are!" she said to Esther. "Why didn't you write to me instead of to that Lydia—and believing the lies she told you?"
"I left a message with Lydia when I was going away; and I wrote from England, but I got no answer."
"We got neither message nor letter. You know letters go astray these days—and you ought to have written again—and again—and again—"
Esther patted her playfully on the cheek. "Letters won't matter now; we'll all be near one another. Go and look at the D.S.M. the captain's wearing. Everybody's admiring it but you."
"Oh, I saw it away down the road," said Stella. "I had the telescope on it. Here's Elsie—you remember Elsie Clarke? She'll be another sister shortly. The family's growing"—with a merry laugh. "How many are we now?"
"Some of you girls come and help me with the lunch," Mrs. Borrn interrupted; "you'll know how many there are then."
Improvised tables had been spread under awnings on the lawn. There they all gathered, the bosses with their men, the girls and the soldiers: and toasted each other, and cheered, and sang; and afterwards they danced on the grass under fairy lamps, danced till the stars were gone. So the dawn, with a sweet promise, came laughing over Broonah and Murrawang.
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