Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership


Title: Shadowed Gold
Author: Alice Fox Parry
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1402561.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2014
Date most recently updated: September 2014

Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and "Romander"

Project Gutenberg 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 at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Shadowed Gold
Author: Alice Fox Parry

*


SHADOWED GOLD.

BY

ALICE FOX PARRY


Published in The Argus, Melbourne, Vic. in serial form commencing
Tuesday 5 July, 1932.


*


CHAPTER I.--"THE TEAM TAKE COUNSEL."

The team were in conference and unusually serious. Seated around the
dining table in the living loom of their little flat in St. Kilda,
they presented a united front to a new and perplexing problem, and
considered it in all its bearings.

There were four of them--Katherine Starr and her brother, Gerald; Allan
Linton and his stepsister, Valerie Raymond.

Katherine took the head of the table, by virtue of an authority which
none dreamed of disputing. She was tall and slender, with brown eyes
that were often merry, and sensitive curving lips. More than one
ambitious artist had sought to paint Katherine Starr, but here was
a mysterious and illusive beauty, of which she herself seemed most
unconscious. Her brother, two years her junior, was still very much
of a boy in spite of his 23 years, with a boyish face, surmounted by
unruly dark hair, but his usually bright face was clouded, and he
stared miserably at the table.

Opposite Katherine her cousin Allan lounged awkwardly in his big chair,
and regarded his empty pipe thoughtfully, while Valerie, the youngest
of the group, looked from one to the other with eager hazel eyes. She
was a tiny, slender person, dainty in every movement, her crowning
beauty the mass of red-gold hair that framed the small pale face. She
was no relation of the Starr's, nor yet of Allan, for his father's
second wife had been a widow with one small girl when she married
George Linton, but when the motoring tragedy had robbed them all of
parents, the other three had unhesitatingly adopted her into their
family circle.

It was Allan who had christened the "Team," and the name had stuck.
They did things together, and shared them--holidays, friends, jokes and
troubles. Katherine and Valerie's many admirers had learnt that it was
hopeless to attempt to break into the magic circle, and it was certain
that no girl existed who had, for the boys, half their attraction,
though on occasion Gerald and Valerie were prone to impulsive
friendships, and once they had nearly lost Katherine.

So after the crash they had taken up the threads of their lives, and,
moving to the little flat, had faced the world together with easy
comradeship, and found it very fair. Now, after two years, had come the
testing time, when the Team was faced with the prospect of dissolution.
Therefore they were serious.

Katherine turned to her brother. "Let's have it, Ger."

Gerald hesitated.

"Buck up, old chap!" said Allan, encouragingly. "You're not dead yet,
and with four of us to face it together we'll soon have you right
again."

Katherine flashed an approving smile at him, and they all waited for
Gerald, whose unusually pale face flushed painfully.

"Stark just backs up the other chap's verdict. With fresh air and
nourishment I'll be quite all right in a year or so."

"You mean you'll have to go away?"

"It's more than a holiday, Kath. It means living in the country and
working there, and throwing up my job at Lang's."

"And if you don't?"

"He says it's only a question of time. The lungs aren't affected much
now, but this damned cold I've had all the winter has pulled me right
down."

"You are thin," Katherine frowned.

"You'll have to go then." Allan began to fill his pipe deliberately.
"But it will hurt like the deuce breaking up the gang."

"Yes, I suppose I'll have to try for a job on a farm somewhere,"
answered Gerald dispiritedly.

"But you can't," Katherine looked at her brother anxiously. "You're not
strong enough yet, and you need someone to look after you."

"Why shouldn't we all go?"

"Valerie!" Three pairs of eyes regarded the hitherto silent girl with
amazement. A swift, warm flood of colour glowed in her cheeks, and her
hazel eyes were very bright.

"Gerald can't go alone," she said. "He'll get wet feet and smoke too
much, and do a hundred things he shouldn't, and be worse than ever."

"Thanks!" said Gerald shortly.

"You're quite right, Val," corroborated his sister. "Men simply cannot
be trusted to look after themselves, but what can we do?"

"I--I only thought--Allan has always wanted to go on the land, and if
Gerald has to----"

"By Jove, you've hit it!" Allan's large fist crashed down upon the
table. "Let's be farmers."

"You're quite mad." Katherine looked from one to the other
despairingly, but there was a gleam of hope in her heart. She and
Gerald had never been parted before, and the prospect of seeing the
boy go to strangers, particularly in a weakened state of health, was
worrying her more than she had owned.

"Not it all," retorted Allan. "As Val has pointed out--Gerald must go.
I've always been keen on it. Office work never did appeal to me. I only
took it on to oblige dear old dad, so in any case, I'll go with him. It
rests with you girls. It means roughing it, perhaps. Can you face it?"

"What a question!" Katherine's proud head went up. "But its so
overwhelming, and you talk about it as if you were planning to run down
to Cowes for the weekend."

"I can't let you do it," broke in Gerald excitedly. "It means giving up
all you're used to just for me."

"Don't delude yourself." Valerie's eyes were dancing. "It's too
thrilling for words. Of course, if you don't want us, Ger----"

"Want you?" The boy broke out feverishly. "Why----" he paused, as if at
a loss for words to express his need.

"Then that's settled," said Valerie placidly. "Shall we keep pigs?"

"Why pigs?" asked Allan curiously.

"They're such darlings, I mean the little ones are, and I do like bacon
for breakfast."

Katherine still stared about her with startled eyes. "Allan, do you
think we can?"

"I don't see why not," he replied. "But it must be your decision. As
Gerald says, it will be a case of doing without a lot of things you
regard as essentials."

"Such as?"

"Hot water service, electric light, gas, theatres, dances, young men at
your beck and call-----"

"That'll do."

"And a hundred other harmless and unnecessary appliances."

"An you and Ger won't have to give up anything, I suppose?"

"Stiff collars, tight boots, and the alarm clock at 7.30."

"I wish you wouldn't joke." She wrinkled her brows. "I'd give up
anything to be with Ger, and if you and Val could come too, it would be
just heavenly, but there are lots of things to be considered--money for
instance."

"Well, we've all got some. Not that I'd propose putting it all into
this, because we're very ignorant, and farmers fail like everyone else.
I would propose we all adventure, say, £500 each, and borrow more if we
need it, which will leave us with a margin. We don't want a big place."

"I'm glad of that."

"No sarcasm, please. I think fruit would be the best, up in the
north-east somewhere, in the mountains."

"You seem to have thought it all out."

"I did a few years back, when I wanted to go myself. If Ger has got to
work out of doors it would be much better for him to be his own master."

"I shall keep poultry," announced Valerie. "White ones, and have lots
of baby chickens and a dog."

"Queer combination," grinned Gerald, and then became serious again.
"It's splendid of you all to take it like this, but suppose the whole
thing's a failure, what do you think I'll feel like?"

"Nonsense!" interrupted Allan, pushing back his chair to stretch his
legs more comfortably. "It's pure selfishness. Flats like this were not
built for men of my size." He stood six feet three in his stockings and
was built in proportion. "Why, whenever I have a bath here I've got to
stick my feet out of the window."

"Do farms run to bathrooms at all?" queried Valerie.

"Well, there's always the pump," he returned calmly. "Katherine, fair
lady, not convinced yet?"

"It's such a plunge in the dark," she said. "It's not money I'm
thinking about. We're all young and can earn more, but--oh! It all
seems so absurd--Allan, who is an accountant in a city warehouse----"

"The accounts of the new venture will be scientifically kept, Madame."

"Gerald, who has just qualified as an architect----"

"His talent will be fittingly employed on the erection of henhouses
and--I think you said pigsties, Valerie?"

"Val," continued Katherine remorselessly, "whose knowledge of poultry
begins and ends with her breakfast egg and Sunday fowl, who simply
hates housework."

"Unless you all get married," said Valerie defensively. "Then I'll
start a creche for----" she dodged a cushion neatly. "I'm serious, Ger."

"Something unusual." Gerald's cheerfulness was fast returning.

"And what about yourself, Kath?" asked Allan. "We know it's harder on
you than any of us. You manage the flat rippingly, but it's a different
proposition being 10 miles from the nearest store."

"Those are mere trifles," returned his cousin loftily.

"Will we have to give up the car?" asked Gerald.

"I shouldn't think so. We'll need something of the sort." Allen
straightened. "Look here, chaps, we've had all the disadvantages.
Kath has proved to us that we're a group of incapables. It means
adventuring £2,000; it means giving up most of the pleasures that make
life bearable and going into doubtful exile. Now, on the other hand
Gerald's got to go, and though we love you, cousin, we know you're
quite incapable of taking care of yourself, and it breaks into the
Team. Besides," he hesitated, "isn't this rather a testing time? Since
we came together we've had smooth running. This is the first hurdle.
Are we going to clear it?"

Katherine's dark eyes smiled into his. "You've put things awfully well,
Allan. It's not that I'm afraid, but I just wanted to be convinced."

"And you are?"

"In the essentials. I expect we're bound to quarrel over details."

"Hooray," cried Gerald excitedly, and then was seized with a fit of
coughing that made them look at him anxiously.

"Well, when do we start?" asked Valerie when the paroxysm had somewhat
subsided.

"Steady, my child," Allan picked up the newspaper. "We've got to catch
our farm first. I'll go and see young Leighton. He's in the stock and
station line, and may be able to put us on to something."

"Were sure to be had," said Katherine lugubriously. "Never mind. Will
there be horses?"

"Possibly. We'll need one for ploughing. That will be about your form."
Her look of indignation failed to move him. "And we'll get a mount for
Val, too. What do you say to a nice, quiet donkey?"

"We have one already that is neither nice nor quiet," she returned
witheringly. "Kath, I shall get my hair cut before I go."

"Don't you dare!" cried three voices at once. Valerie's golden glory
was, like all other assets, considered a family possession.

"I shall, and I'm going to get breeches--nice khaki ones, and a wide
hat." She surveyed herself in a mirror somewhat complacently.

"I suppose you will wear that rig when you clean the pigsty?" inquired
Gerald, with interest.

"I shall superintend the cleaning," she returned airily. "O--o--oh!"

"What's the matter?'"

"We won't have cows, will we? You know they terrify me."

"Of course," said Allan firmly. "Large cows--with spots," he added
gravely.

"N--not red ones."

"Certainly, bright red ones."

She sighed heavily. "I suppose I must bear it. Who is going to milk? I
warn you every time I set eyes on them I shall run."

"Kath will do the milking," said Gerald.

"Thank you." Katherine was regarding her slender white hands a little
ruefully. "My province will be the house. I hope there's a decent
stove."

Gerald rose to his feet, his eyes shining. "You three are the
rippingest pals a chap could have," he said. "I don't mind telling you
that I felt like chucking up the sponge when I heard what Stark said
to-day. I hated the thought of going away, and now you all calmly toss
everything overboard and come, too. I don't care if my metaphors are
mixed. I want you to know I appreciate it."

"Don't worry about that," said Allan calmly. "You're not the reason,
merely the excuse. We've been getting into rather a groove lately, and
I, for one, have been wondering when something would happen to get us
out. It took Val's brain to find the solution."

Valerie's small face grew suddenly grave. "I haven't forgotten how you
adopted an orphan who had no relations in the world," she said softly.
"Why, I'd go adventuring with you to the world's end."

Katherine slipped an arm about her. "That's a forbidden subject," she
said softly. "We owe no gratitude, any of us, because we're one family.
Now I can't see how we could have thought of letting Gerald go alone.
While we keep together I don't feel as if anything very bad can happen."

"We are four adventurers," supplemented Gerald. "As Allan said, this
was the testing time. I know I'm going to get well."




CHAPTER II.--ENTER AUGUSTUS.

It was not such a simple procedure as they had imagined. There were
certainly plenty of farms but these were either too small or too large,
too remote from civilisation, or too expensive.

At last, however, they succeeded in finding something which they
thought would fit their needs. Situated in a fruit-growing district in
the heart of mountainous country about 120 miles from Melbourne, the
property had come on the market owing to the death of the owner, whose
heir was disinclined to continue working the place, and was prepared to
lease it with an option to purchase at the end of six months.

They made hurried preparations for departure. Furniture had to be
sold, suitable clothing bought and numerous articles for kitchen and
household use, which had not been necessary in a flat, but which
they considered would be essential for the country. The boys proved
but broken reeds. Their heads in the clouds, their pockets stuffed
with literature supplied by a benevolent if somewhat indiscriminate
Government bureau.

Their heavy baggage had been sent on in advance, and they had decided
to motor up in the Austin car which they had jointly acquired about a
year previously. It was a clear autumn day when Allan brought the car
to the door of the flat and sounded the horn impatiently. A moment
later Gerald came downstairs with a suitcase in each hand. These he
roped, carefully to the sides of the car and returned for a third when
Katherine, radiantly pretty in a warm red motoring coat appealed on the
threshold.

"Allan, isn't Val with you?"

"No; I haven't seen her this morning."

"Neither have I. I was sure she had gone with you to the garage."

"I bet she's in mischief." Gerald thoughtfully tested the ropes that
bound the cases. "I wonder just what?"

"I wouldn't venture to prophesy; but now you come to mention it, I
have noticed a certain--er--gleam in her eye, which, being correctly
interpreted means-----"

"Oh dear!" sighed Katherine. "I wonder when she'll be back. I
particularly wanted to start early. There'll be such a lot to do when
we get there."

"Well that's all the luggage." Her brother surveyed his handiwork
proudly.

"Looks like a battle-ship goin' into action." Allan was fond of the
car. "However, I don't suppose it would be worse. Talk about knights
of the road--Kath, haven't you a frying pan or two to stick into that
bundle or a billy to hang over the back? I like to be thorough, you
know."

"Do it yourself, then," retorted Gerald. "It's Kath's fault. Quite a
lot of this dunnage could have gone up in the big cases.

"Supposing they don't arrive--the cases, I mean?"

"Isn't that like a woman? Have you no confidence in that inestimable
servant of the public--the Railways department?"

"Not much. As it is, against my better judgment, I let all the linen go
and went to the hotel for the night."

A taxi swerved suddenly round the corner and came to an abrupt halt at
the kerb, not 10 yards distant. The driver, with a broad grin on his
face, got down and opened the door, whereupon there emerged something
in the nature of an avalanche. A large reddish dog leapt out. He was
about the size of a young calf and not altogether dissimilar to that
animal in his ungainly and awkward movements. The three were regarding
his evolutions with interested amusement when, to their amazement,
Valerie's small figure appeared in the doorway of the taxi.

"Good lord Val, what is it?" cried Allan anxiously.

"A dog of course. Pay the taxi-man for me Ger, please. I haven't got a
free hand. Do lie down, Augustus. I'm sorry I'm so late, but Augustus
got sort of excited and I had an awful bother finding a taxi-driver who
would be sport enough to take us."

"I don't blame the taxi-drivers," observed Gerald, eyeing the animal
with extreme disfavour. "Where on earth did you find it?"

"At the Lost Dogs' Home, of course," returned Val triumphantly. "It's
an Irish setter."

"Having it, what do you propose to do with it?" Allan asked.

The other two remained expectantly silent, fearing the worst. It came.

"Why, take him with us, of course," was the reply, with just that air
of innocent surprise which made Valerie so attractive. "I bought him
for the farm."

Gerald choked, "Val, you don't mean to say you were inveigled into
paying money for that animal?"

"If he goes, I don't," said Katherine decisively, who entrenched in the
comparative safety of the car, was regarding the woebegone Augustus
with suspicion.

"Val, it's impossible, you know that," Allan said sedately. "Where do
you suppose the animal shall travel?"

"In the back with Ger and me. He likes motoring. He was awfully good in
the taxi."

"But the thing's a mongrel----"

"Hush!" pleaded Valerie, "you might hurt his feelings. I--I know he
isn't very beautiful, but really he has an awfully kind heart."

The animal under discussion returned to the group round the car, sat
down upon his haunches, and gazed upward into their faces with liquid
brown eyes, as if inquiring with gentle melancholy just how this
condition of affairs had come about.

"You see," pursued Valerie, quick to follow up her advantage. "He's
so big that he looked quite out of place among the little dogs there,
and you can just imagine him bounding over the green fields, chasing
rabbits. He loves chasing things."

"But, Val----" Allan was beginning, acutely conscious that the
prolonged altercation was causing some comment, when the dog, evidently
an animal with a sensitive disposition, flung back his head, opened his
huge mouth, and gave vent to a mournful howl, which he followed up by
a second, and a third, each rising in cadence until the quiet street
resounded.

"Great Scott, we'll have the police here next," cried Gerald, while
Allan, flushing darkly, opened the door of the car, saying forcibly.
"Here, get in Val, and the brute too. Be quick. I've had as much of
this as I can stand."

And so it befell that the "team" received a new recruit, and Augustus
was formally, if not willingly, adopted into the band.

For the first hour things went smoothly enough. They left Melbourne
behind them, and bowled swiftly and easily along the country road
until, according to the road map, they had a full 13 miles to go before
they reached the town where they proposed to lunch, when trouble came
upon them in the simplest form--a puncture.

Gerald sighed wearily. "What a bore! I hate to see you working, Allan."

Allan took out a cigarette and lit it with deliberation, "So do I," he
replied, "that's why you're going to change that tyre."

Gerald raised his eyes to the heavens. "However, as I was always
brow-beaten, I suppose there's no reason why I should expect kindlier
treatment, even in my infirmity."

"If you're reciting something, I'd advise you to stop. If you're merely
trying to delay us, you'll suffer most, having the largest appetite,"
said Allan.

Gerald shook his fist at his cousin, whereupon Augustus, who had slept
very soundly during the journey, opened his eyes and, perceiving
Gerald's gestures, decided that a game was in progress, and leapt
upon him so suddenly that he overbalanced and slipped to the floor of
the car, while the delighted Augustus obtained possession of his cap
and proceeded to worry it with every appearance of excited amusement,
resolutely declining to return it to its owner, who cast wild looks
about him.

"Call him off, Val, do you hear? He's ruining it. I may never get
another. Here, you beast, drop it."

"I'm going for a walk." Valerie, who could never sit still for more
than two consecutive minutes, sprang up, and called Augustus, who
shambled toward them, laying a tattered remnant at Gerald's feet and
wagged his tail, evidently expecting applause.

"Thanks," said Gerald shortly to the animal, "your kindness exceeds
your good looks by I can't say how much. Are you sure you can spare it?"

"Come, Gussie dear." Valerie laid a hand on his collar. "I'm off up the
road. It looks interesting. When you're ready, come on slowly and toot
loudly. I shan't be far away."

She turned at the comer to wave her hand to the three. Then, with
a smile that was wholly carefree, she tramped forward briskly,
Augustus gambolling in her wake, making little runs at the bushes,
as if expecting to unearth a stray rabbit, and then returning to his
companion with every symptom of happy enjoyment. Then at last a real
rabbit presented itself, and he was off, crashing through the bushes
with ungainly strides, leaving Valerie helpless with laughter beside
the road. Breathless she sank down upon the low bank that bordered it,
and was beginning to expect the others when she became aware that she
was not alone.

An exceedingly ill-looking tramp was gazing down upon her with the air
of having suddenly materialised out of nowhere. He was a tall fellow,
with a lank, unshaven face, and bloodshot, protruding eyes. His ragged
suit was soiled and travel-stained, his swag a mere bundle and untidy.
Valerie regarded him with a quiet, unwavering glance. It never occurred
to her to feel frightened. His shifty stare fell before her inquiring
eyes.

"G'd mornin', miss."

"Good morning." She regarded him with interest. "Where did you come
from?"

"Me? I were just takin' a sleep in the bushes when an animal like a
calf bolted clean over me.'"

"That," said Valerie calmly, "was Augustus."

"Who?" He looked pained. "See 'ere, miss. If it's your'n it shouldn't
be allowed off the chain. It near killed me--a 'ard-workin' man can't
even lie down for a nap."

"You don't look as if you worked hard." Val's dispassionate scrutiny
had a singularly irritating effect.

"Ho! Don't I? That's all you know about it." He spat vigorously, and
scientifically at a tree stump, and then, emboldened by Valerie's
quiescence, came a step nearer.

"Ain't you got nothin' to give a poor man that's out of a job?" he
whined. "You wouldn't like to 'ave to 'oof it through these 'ere 'ills."

"I think I would," she replied calmly. "You don't appreciate the joys
of the road," she added severely.

"Joys be----" he growled. "You're talkin' through your hat. Look 'ere,
I'm a poor man, and you wouldn't miss a bob now, would you?"

"I left my purse in the car," replied the girl, suddenly realising that
he had drawn very much nearer.

"That watch'll do." He indicated a dainty gold wristlet on a narrow
band of ribbon that had been the team's gift to her on her last
birthday.

"Why, I couldn't give you that," she exclaimed. "Go away at once."

"Then I guess I'll take it." The large grimy paw closed suddenly on
the slender white wrist, and Valerie screamed, struggling vigorously.
Although very small, she was wiry and strong, and had no thought of
submission, but the fellow laughed an ugly laugh, and caught her other
hand.

"I'll teach'yer----" he began hoarsely, when there was a sound of
rending bushes behind him. With an oath he released her, and Valerie
eagerly hailed her rescuer.

"Augustus, good dog! Go for him!"

Augustus, however, was perfectly indiscriminating, and he sprang upon
the tramp with every expression of demonstrative affection.

"Get off--curse yer!" The fellow wrestled vainly, and Valerie, with a
little cry, turned and fled blindly into the bushes.

For some minutes she stumbled on heedless of direction, an unreasoning
terror in her heart. She did not even stop to listen for pursuit,
but when at last, with bursting lungs and trembling gait, she leaned
against a gum tree for support, she could hear nothing.

The noon-day silence of the bush encircled her. All was still, and
yet through the stillness small sounds came to her with startling
completeness. Unable to go farther she flung herself on the dry sward,
and lay face downwards. In the distance a motor horn sounded very
faintly, but she did not hear.

Half an hour later she sat up and looked about her, then at her torn
coat and stockings, and her bruised wrists, where the mark of cruel
fingers showed blue and angry. Worst of all came the realisation that
she was utterly and completely lost. She had no notion where the road
lay. She pictured her companions' anxiety, and frowned with annoyance.

"This," she observed to herself, "is the limit. If only Augustus were
here. Anyhow, he did save my life in his own way. Ugh!"

She stepped out lightly but steadily in the direction she had chosen,
quietly confident that she would arrive somewhere, some time. But it
was more than an hour later before she emerged upon a narrow country
road, deeply grooved by wheel tracks, rough and overgrown, but
nevertheless a road, and so a path to civilisation.

For several minutes she hesitated. It was now long past noon, and the
afternoon sun was very warm. She was thirsty and almost unbearably
tired. She had lost the heel of one of her shoes, and her stockings
were in ribbons. Altogether, she looked as forlorn a maiden as any
wandering knight errant would wish to meet.

The silence unnerved her. The road seemed endless, and in addition
to her other troubles a strange weakness came upon her. She had gone
past the stage of expecting help, and therefore it was with a stare of
almost incredulity that she greeted the sight of a small grey single
seater roadster, drawn up beside the bank. Then relief gave her added
strength, and she hurried towards it.

It was a very complete little car, shining with newness, and with much
bright nickel about it, well polished. She regarded it with interest
and approval, noting its points with an almost professional eye. Then,
having made a thorough inspection, she began to wonder where the owner
was.

"Cars don't grow like mushrooms," she told herself. "I suppose he's
somewhere about, but I wish he would hurry."

After a moment's hesitation, she got in and sat down. The car was
drawn up in the shade, and soon a comfortable drowsiness fell upon
her. So it happened that the car's owner, a tall young man, returning
after a protracted search for water, received such a surprise that he
felt constrained to express it rather forcibly. It is not given to
everyone to abandon temporarily an empty car, and to return to find a
small red-haired girl, looking decidedly the worse for wear, soundly
asleep therein, so he had every excuse for staring. His involuntary
exclamation, however, awakened Valerie, who became suddenly conscious
of a pair of interesting masculine eyes, and also of her somewhat
dishevelled appearance. Her hands went to her hair instinctively, and
as the young man remained silent, possibly from amazement, she said
very calmly:

"You've been gone an awfully long time."

He gravely consulted his wristlet watch before replying in a
matter-of-fact tone: "Yes, I believe I have, nearly an hour. I was
looking for water."

"Did you say water?" Her eyes fixed themselves on the can he was
carrying.

"Yes, would you----"

"Please! I want a drink more than anything else on earth."

"But this is a petrol tin and----"

"That doesn't matter. I've never been so thirsty."

"If that's the case," he returned, "we can do better than this."

She watched him eagerly, as he went to the back and extracted a thermos
flask. He poured its contents into a cup and handed it to her.

"Iced coffee," he said. "I'm glad I didn't drink it all at lunch time.
It's better than water from a petrol tin. Are you hungry too, by any
chance?"

"Rather."

He laid the remains of his lunch on the seat beside her, and she
attacked it with enthusiasm. When she had finished she smiled, and
Valerie's smile was as a ray of sunshine. "I suppose," she said
wistfully, "you haven't got such a thing as a mirror and a comb, have
you, and some hairpins?"

"I've a comb, and there's the driving mirror. I'm awfully sorry about
the hairpins. Of course, if I'd known I was going to meet you---- Hold
on though, I've a better mirror than that in my suitcase."

She stopped him with a gesture. "It doesn't matter. I'd probably never
survive the shock if I saw myself just at present. Am I very awful?"

He eyed her thoughtfully. "We--el. You apparently have been in the
wars, but with the exception of taking that curl out of your left eye,
I can suggest no improvement."

She hastily tucked in the offending curl, and did mysterious but
skilful things with her few remaining hairpins.

"That better?" she asked guilelessly.

"If possible," he replied readily. "That's what I should have said,
isn't it?"

She babbled over with ready laughter. "Ye--es. Rather. You know the
rules awfully well, don't you?"

"And now----" he removed the remains of Valerie's impromptu meal.
"Where can I drive your ladyship?"

"I don't know," she frowned.

"You've got me this time," he replied, as he took his seat beside her.
"I don't know what comes next."

"You see, I'm lost," Valerie explained.

"But at least you know where you came from?"

She sighed. "I don't. That's the difficulty. It was a road between
Melbourne and Rockwood, and we were to lunch somewhere. I've forgotten
the name of the place."

"You're not exactly explicit, are you?" He leaned back and regarded her
with amused eyes.

"I've put it quite clearly," she replied with dignify. "You see, when I
met the tramp--but I've told you all about that."

"Which is precisely what you have not done. Suppose you begin at the
beginning."

"Well, I met the tramp. Augustus loved him, but I---by the way, I
wonder where Augustus is."

"Do you mind," he queried meekly, "telling me who Augustus is or was?"

"My dog, of course. He loved the tramp, but I ran away, and Allan and
Kath and Gerald will be in an awful state. We must go and find them at
once."

"Well, that's something to go on." He let in the clutch. "I gather that
you were on your way from Melbourne to Rockwood, and owing to some
mysterious agency remotely connected with the tramp and Augustus you
became separated from your party. Am I correct?"

"Of course, I've just told you that." Valerie's tone was innocence
itself.

"You probably were intending to lunch at Cortelyon."

"That's the place. I remember Gerald showing it to me on the map."

"Then the best thing we can do is to get on the main road as soon as
possible, and make for there. Your friends will probably be looking for
you along that road."

"Yes. It's very likely they will. I don't suppose they'll worry much.
You see, they're used to my doing stupid things, and they're rather
patient, considering."

"I see. Look, I'm not inquisitive usually, but I would like to know how
you got in this mess."

"But I've told you. Allan had a puncture, and he made Gerald mend it.
Gerald always takes ages, so I went for a walk with Augustus, and I met
the tramp. He tried to steal my watch, so I ran away."

"Now, we have it at last. I suppose you wouldn't tell me your name as
well?"

"I seem to have been telling you lots of things, don't I? But, as it's
your car, I suppose I'd better. It's Valerie Raymond. I live with my
step-brother, Allan Linton, and his cousins, Katherine and Gerald
Starr."

"Linton and Starr!" To her amazement he leaned back and laughed softly,
but sobered somewhat under her inquiring glance. "It's just the long
arm of coincidence, Miss Raymond. Mr. Linton has leased one of the
properties that my uncle left me. My name is Kenneth Gardiner. I am
your landlord."

They made a sweeping turn onto the main road, and Valerie screamed and
clutched her companion's arm so violently that he swerved and almost
ran into the bank. Fifty yards farther up the road the Austin was
standing at rest by the roadside, and grouped around it were Gerald,
and two uniformed policemen, all arguing vehemently. Gardiner took in
the situation at a glance, and brought his car to rest not five yards
away. Lying back in his seat, an expectant gleam in his eyes he awaited
developments.

Gerald noticed them first and uttered a loud yell. "I might have
known it," he said. "Here have we been tearing about the country
half-distracted, and she turns up alive and unworried. I told you there
was no need for all this fuss."

The boy's strained face belied his words, but Allan also spoke
seriously. "Where have you been, Val? It isn't a joke, you know. We've
been terribly anxious."

Gardiner became aware that there were tears trembling beneath her dark
lashes, and that the tiny figure beside him was strangely rigid. He
guessed that the nervous strain of the past hours was beginning to
tell, so he interposed swiftly.

"Miss Raymond had an unfortunate experience with a tramp, and in
escaping lost herself. I found her hungry and tired not an hour ago,
and was bringing her to you."

"Val, dear!" Allan opened the car door, Gerald close behind him. "You
poor kid. I'm so sorry I was cross." He put an affectionate arm about
her, and she wept unashamedly on his shoulder.

"You--you shouldn't have thought I'd do it on purpose," she wailed.
"I-----"

"Of course not."

"But Ger said----"

"Gerald's been nearly out of his mind, and Kath's at the hotel
Cortelyon worrying terribly. We thought you might turn up there. You
see, we found Augustus," he talked on gently and soothingly giving the
girl time to recover her self-possession. Then---"We must get back to
Kath at once," and he said to Gardiner. "I can't tell you how grateful
we are to you."

"You're welcome." The two men regarded each other frankly. "But I'm
making for Cortelyon, too. Won't you let Miss Raymond stay where she
is?"

"You're very kind." Allan glanced at the two policemen who were
regarding the scene with some curiosity. "Perhaps it would be best.
I'll have to satisfy the constables with some sort of an explanation.
We don't want to be held up at Cortelyon while they hunt for tramps.
Cheer up, Val, dear. It's all over now." With a reassuring pat on her
shoulder he strode over to the other car.

Gerald lingered for a moment, his eager eyes noting her torn stockings
and soiled frock. Then he swore quietly to himself under his breath,
and followed his cousin.

Half an hour later the two cars arrived at Cortelyon, and drew up
before the hotel where quite a crowd had collected to witness their
arrival. Acutely conscious of the curious gaze of these onlookers, Val
hurried indoors closely followed by the man, and on the staircase she
met Katherine, white and anxious, her arms outstretched. Val gave a
little sob and ran straight into them.

Kenneth Gardiner, entering a moment later, paused on the threshold,
a sudden light of recognition in his eyes. He moved forward towards
Katherine as if he would have spoken, but at that moment something in
the nature of an avalanche seemed to strike him as Augustus, in a state
of wild personal excitement, burst into the hall and flung himself
bodily upon the two girls. By the time Gardiner had recovered his
balance and his self-possession they were gone.




CHAPTER III.--"THE FIRST SHADOW."

"And so," murmured Katherine meditatively, "you are our landlord?"

The Team were seated round the breakfast table, and with their usual
cheerful hospitality had admitted Kenneth Gardiner into their circle,
where he had every appearance of being quite content. He gazed at her
thoughtfully before replying with an air of placid satisfaction.

"I suppose that's the case, but I'd much rather you didn't think of me
in such a connection."

"Seventeen," said Gerald suddenly, and Katherine became very red.

"I beg your pardon."

"Oh, nothing," replied Gerald airily, "just a little mental
arithmetic." Gardiner saw that Valerie's eyes were dancing in sympathy.

"I make it eighteen," she announced.

Katherine rose with dignity. "If we are really going to start to-day
we had better do so," she observed. "We will be ready in 10 minutes,
Allan. Perhaps we had better say good-bye now, Mr. Gardiner, and we are
more than grateful to you for your kindness to Valerie."

"It's not good-bye," he resumed easily. "I am to be your neighbour, you
know. Willaura, my home, is not seven miles from your property, quite a
short distance in the country, I assure you."

"You're very kind," replied Katherine rather coldly. "But I'm afraid
that for a while we'll be too busy settling in to see much of our
neighbours."

"Well, my stepmother will be calling in any case," he answered, with no
less assurance. "What is it you have named the place?"

"Valinstar; rather nice, isn't it? It's Val's suggestion, and includes
us all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go."

The boys lingered a while longer, endeavouring to atone for Katherine's
unusual abruptness. Allan felt that here was a man likely to be of
some assistance to them in affairs agricultural, besides which he had
developed quite a liking for this quiet yet self-assured young man,
with the steady eyes and imperturbable manner. Then they, too, moved
away to prepare for departure, leaving him alone in the somewhat stuffy
hotel dining-room. He was about to light the inevitable cigarette when
he noticed a brown handbag lying on the floor near the chair in which
Valerie had been sitting. He picked it up, and hesitated, but at that
moment a light footstep announced her return in search of her property.
Placing it behind him on the table he turned and faced her, a slow
light of amusement in his eyes.

"Have you seen my bag?" she asked. "I'm sure I had it in here."

"Yes, I've got it." He revealed the missing article, but made no move
to hand it over. "You're exceedingly careless."

She looked at him tranquilly. "I am. It's the one thing I'm consistent
about."

"I see. But sometimes you must have to pay the penalty."

"I don't understand you."

"It's customary to offer a reward for lost property. I'm no exception
to the general run of those who find. I'll hand this over in exchange
for----" he paused tantalisingly.

"What?" There was a sudden defensiveness in her manner which made him
smile.

"A little piece of information."

"Oh!" Her face cleared suddenly. "In other words, this is blackmail."

"Not at all. Just an ordinary business transaction. Far be it from
me to interfere at all with the secrets of such an exclusive clan,
but there were certain cryptic remarks made by you and Mr. Starr a
few minutes ago which seemed to a mere outsider to demand a little
explanation, especially as I rather guess they concerned myself."

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Do your cousins ever shake you?"

"N--no. Why?"

"I surrender. You're incorrigible, but I won't be side-tracked. I refer
to certain numerical calculations."

"Oh!" she remarked in a tone of enlightenment, "I suppose you mean
scalps."

"What?"

"Kath's scalps. She makes a collection, at least she doesn't but we do.
Kath is so beautiful that men just naturally fall in love with her, but
she's not like the other girls; she rather hates it, and to tease her
we keep count of them."

"So you think I have fallen in live with your cousin?"

She looked at him critically. "Well, you've got all the symptoms, or
most of them, and you'd be hardly human if you hadn't."

"And suppose I have. Would such a proceeding meet with your approval?"

"It wouldn't matter what I thought because she's the one to approve,
and she takes it all for granted in a truly wonderful way. I remember
Grant Merrivale, the writer, saying, 'A queen is never without
courtiers.' No it was Claude Delamere, the painter who said that. He
painted her portrait and it was hung in Paris."

"Yes, I-----," he paused. "Well, here's your bag Miss Raymond. Thank
you for warning me."

She looked at him quickly. "Now just what do you mean by that?"

"What do you think I meant?" he asked teasingly; "I think I hear your
cousin calling you."

"Yes. They're waiting in the car," she replied. "My goodness, I must
run."

He crossed to the window and stood looking out on the departing
travellers, but Katherine was occupied in adjusting her hat, and
Valerie and Gerald between them were endeavouring to subdue the
transports of Augustus, who, having been chained up all night, was
feeling surprisingly full of energy, so none of the party were aware of
the watching figure, and at that moment he was called to the telephone
and learnt news that drove all lighter thoughts from his mind.

It soon became evident that the drive was not going to be a pleasant
one. As the morning advanced the weather grew more cold and
boisterous and the wind increased in fury, whistling along the narrow
funnel-shaped valley where the road wound a tortuous way through the
heavily wooded hills. It became necessary for them to stop and raise
the hood, a proceeding which meant the entire repacking of their goods,
while the girls waited shivering, casting anxious looks at Gerald, the
erstwhile invalid.

"This trip has a hoodoo on it," observed Allan as they reseated
themselves.

"I don't believe we're ever going to get there," Gerald grumbled.

"Hush! This is a poor beginning to our adventure, if we're going to
give in at the first tough weather." Katherine, her cheeks glowing with
the keen air, smiled. "Think of home, a cosy fire, and a good dinner.
It can't be more than two hours away at most."

"Well, jump in, and don't let's waste any further time."

"Just a minute." Valerie looked anxiously up the track. "Augustus has
gone after a rabbit."

"Dash Augustus," said Gerald forcibly. "That hound will be the death of
some of us."

"I wonder where he is." Valerie plunged into the blush that bordered
the roadside and disappeared, whereat Gerald murmured something about
yesterday and departed in pursuit. Katherine and Allan patiently
resigned themselves to awaiting the return of the wanderers.

"Travelling with Val is not without incident," Allan laughed easily.
"It's lucky none of us attempt to run to a time-table."

"Yes. We're only 24 hours late." Katherine consulted her watch. "I
sometimes wonder, Allan, if we've been taking the world too easily
these last two years, and whether we aren't beginning to encounter the
rocks that lie in every passage."

"Oh, I don't know," he replied vaguely. "We've had a good time, that's
all."

"Ye--es. But don't you think its been almost too good. I feel rather as
if a cloud has been hanging over us, and is just going to burst."

"So it is. In just five minutes," he answered literally. "I wish those
kids would hurry. Cheer up, Kath. It's not like you to be so gloomy."

"You forget I'm Irish." Katherine looked at him gravely. "And I've a
sense of destiny denied to you mere Anglo-Saxons."

"Thanks." He grinned. "If a sense of what you call it makes you talk
like a revised version of Hunt's weather prophecies I'm rather thankful
I'm denied that privilege."

"You--Allan, there's Val. She's been running. There's something wrong,
I'm sure."

Allan was out of the car before she had finished speaking, and had
placed an arm about a white-faced, tearful Valerie. For a moment she
could not speak, and her breath came quickly. Then she gasped.

"The man--back there. Augustus found him. Ger stayed. He's ill or dead.
I don't know."

"I'd better go and see, I suppose." Allan refused to meet Katherine's
eyes. "Some wandering swaggie, I suppose. Straight ahead, you said,
Val? I'll find it. You stay here with Katherine."

After a few moments' rest Valerie was able to speak more coherently,
but she had little to add to her story. They had followed the dog
through the bush until they came to a narrow track in the timber,
and it was here that Augustus had paused before some bushes, barking
furiously. Closer investigation had shown them a man lying on his back,
at which stage Gerald had sent the frightened Valerie back for Allan.

The rain returned at this moment, a stinging shower, and the girls
cowered miserably in the back of the car, until at last they would no
longer bear their loneliness.

Five minutes brought them to the scene, and showed them a tragic
picture. In the lee of a bush where the boys had carried him to
shelter from the rain, lay the stranger, his head pillowed on Allan's
arm, while Gerald, white-faced and anxious, knelt beside him. The
girls, fascinated yet afraid, approached so silently that they were
unobserved, for Allan and Gerald were concentrating their attention on
the feeble words that came falteringly from the dying man, for it was
obvious that death was very near.

"You'll remember--accident."

"You wish us to report your death as an accident?" Allan repeated
quietly.

"Yes." There was a pause, and he half-raised himself and fumbled with
his coat. "I--I haven't got long now. In the lining--paper. I tricked
them all right. You must keep it--not--to show--it--to any-one.
Promise."

"But----" Allan hesitated, and the man caught at his hands a pitiful
feverish grip. "It's important. Promise," he reiterated.

"I--promise."

"You're to take it. I haven't a chance--to tell you now, but hide it.
Others will want it if they know you have it. They--must not--know.
Promise."

"I shall take what is in your coat, and hide it. Is that what you mean?"

"Yes. You've been white to me. Remember--it was an accident."

The head dropped, the eyes closed, and the restless hands fell limp and
nerveless. He was dead. Valerie uttered a faint cry, and Allan, looking
up, saw them there.

"This is no place for you," he said hastily. "Get back to the car.
We'll be with you as soon as we can."

Fifteen minutes later the pair emerged from the bushes solemn and
quiet-eyed.

Katherine went to meet them.

"You didn't bring--him?" she questioned.

"No. We thought it better not. We can tell the police where to go.
We've marked the spot." Allan took her cold hands in his. "My dear,
you're frozen. Get in quickly."

They obeyed readily enough. Even Augustus for once proved quite
amenable, and for a long time there was silence, very unlike the usual
cheerful demeanour of the Team when on the road. Then Valerie said
softly.

"Ger?"

"Well?"

"Did Allan take the thing from his pocket?"

"Yes."

"What was it?"

"I don't know."

"But-----"

"He didn't look at it. Probably the poor chap was raving."

"But there was something there?"

"Yes. There was something there, and Allan has it. That's all I know."

"You needn't be cross," Valerie pouted.

"You don't understand," was the reply. "Do you realise what this means.
We've got to report the matter to the police, and there will be all
kinds of trouble."

"Police?" Valerie looked faintly scared

"Yes, and all sorts of inquiries will be made."

She stroked Augustus's left ear thoughtfully, whereupon the animal
responded in his usually effusive manner. When he had somewhat
subsided, Gerald said irritably, "If you hadn't brought that wretched
mongrel it wouldn't have happened."

"An if you hadn't had pneumonia----" began Valerie with flashing eyes,
when the car stopped with a jerk, which threw her into Gerald's arms,
who received her with marked unwillingness. Augustus immediately sprang
into the fray, and when at last they freed themselves, somewhat ruffled
but infinitely more cheerful, both Katherine and Allan were regarding
them with expressions of marked severity, which they were quick to
interpret correctly.

"It's all right," averred Valerie as she adjusted her hat somewhat
over her left eye, and hurriedly fumbled for her mirror. "We were only
pulling your leg."

"I'd like to spank you," said Katherine severely.

"Which of us?" Gerald was applying a handkerchief to his eye, which was
watering freely owing to an unexpected encounter with Augustus's front
paw.

"Both of you." She surveyed them scornfully, with an involuntary twitch
of amusement at the corners of her mouth. "You're a pair of quarrelsome
infants. Fortunately, Augustus seems quite capable of dealing with you
both."

"Augustus----" began Gerald hotly. "Here, get down you brute," as that
sagacious animal, on hearing his name, showed signs of renewing the
assault.

"Augustus might be likened to the apple of discord, but he has his good
points," said Allan grimly. "Is it necessary to separate you two, or
shall we proceed?"

"Go on, please, we'll be good." The dazzling smile Valerie lavished on
him was entirely wasted, but, as she often declared, it was excellent
practice.

They proceeded with further incident until at last they came in sight
of Rockwood, and swung gratefully along the smooth stretch of metal
that betokened it a town. Soon they rounded a corner and became
immersed in traffic. It was market day, and there were signs of it
everywhere.

As they drew abreast of the hotel a loquacious individual aided by two
vicious black dogs and a long whip, escorted a drove of sheep from the
gateway of a neighbouring yard. Urged on from behind in no uncertain
voice, they poured pell-mell into the roadway, rushing blindly this
way and that, and almost swamping the car, whose occupants found
themselves, much to their embarrassment, the centre of public gaze.
The animals surrounded them on all sides, their heaving grey shoulders
resembling the surging waves upon the seashore. The air was filled
with their bleats of protest. Allan sounded his horn vigorously. The
owner swore and kicked right and left with hearty good will, at the
same time proclaiming in a definite brogue that "shape were mischancy
creatures--the devil's own. Ah! Would ye, ye misbemannered son of
a-----"

The occupants of the car were far beyond speech. Valerie, her nose
buried in a lace handkerchief, was tearfully vowing that she would
never eat mutton again, while Katherine, her cheeks flaming, was
endeavouring to appear dignified and unconscious, and failing signally.
The boys, having yelled themselves hoarse, had now become convinced
of their impotence, though Gerald at times made feeble efforts to
quell the vociferous Augustus, and at length, with with an air of
desperation, opened the door of the car, on which he was leaning, and
precipitated him into the heaving mass below.

Valerie screamed faintly, and followed her favourite's progress with
straining eyes, and parted lips, but she need not have feared. Augustus
rallied gamely, and swam "doggedly" to solid ground. At this stage a
puffing constable reached the footpath, and having comprehended the
situation he bellowed at the top of his voice.

"Drive on there! You're obstructin' the traffic."

There was a howl of mirth from the on lookers, while Allan buried his
face in his hands, but deliverance came from an unexpected quarter.
A couple of young men appeared on horseback, and with uncanny skill
unravelled the tangled skein, and removed the flock up the street,
whence they returned to receive the profuse thanks of the perspiring
driver, whom they rated soundly as a clumsy idiot, and then proceeded
to accost the team.

"I hope there's no damage done," the elder said pleasantly. He was
tall, suntanned and blue-eyed, and seemed amazingly part of the horse
he rode. Valerie's hands stole unconsciously to her hat and hair.

"I don't thinks so," Allan retorted weakly. "I think we are more
overwhelmed than hurt."

The young man laughed. "I'm glad. I'm awfully sorry you had such a
rough spin, though. You see, they're Dad's sheep, so I feel partly
responsible."

"Thank you. I think we'd better remove ourselves from the public eye."
Allan threw in the clutch. "I'm not used to such a limelight."

As he spoke there arose a snapping and snarling of great fierceness,
and even as the car began to move, Valerie flung open the door and fled
along the street to where Augustus and the biggest sheepdog were locked
in mortal combat. Finding words of no avail, she seized Augustus by the
collar, and tugged with all her might, narrowly escaping being jerked
off her feet, but suddenly she was thrust aside by a masterful hand, as
their previous rescuer flung himself from his horse, and was using an
argument more potent than words--a hunting crop. The combatants parted.

"Don't you know," demanded the newcomer sternly, "that it's dangerous
to get mixed up in a dog fight."

Valerie looked up earnestly. "But he was nearly killing Augustus," she
said simply.

"Who? Oh, your dog. Why our Scott was only half his size. All the
same," he relented under the gaze of a pair of serious eyes, "I'm
awfully sorry they got mixed up."

"It was your dog's fault," said Valerie vehemently. "Augustus is as
meek as a lamb. He's got a lovely nature."

"I'm sure he has," said the young man hastily. "Does he--does he often
make a noise like that?"

The injured Augustus, deprived alike of his foe and of human sympathy,
was giving his celebrated imitation of a steam siren in full blast.

"Augustus, stop it," she commanded, whereupon Augustus obediently
stopped for the space of half a minute.

"You don't thing he's hurt, do you?" she asked anxiously.

"We had better make sure." Gravely he approached the dog, who received
him with every demonstration of affection. Augustus had a large heart
and no reserve.

"I say, steady on!" He unsuccessfully countered an attempt to lick his
right ear. "There doesn't seem very much the matter, does there?"

"No," Valerie smiled gratefully, and an insistent horn awoke her to the
exigencies of the situation. "I must go now. Thanks ever so much," she
paused, "for everything."

"That's all right. I say, are you staying here?"

"At Valinstar. Yes, Allan, I'm coming. Augustus!"

Jim Gardiner stood for a moment gazing after her, and then he became
aware of a small brown glove lying on the roadway, almost at his feet.
He picked it up, and made a step forward, then with a light laugh
thrust it deep into his pocket. He remounted his horse and rode back to
receive the caustic comments of his younger brother, whose witticisms
left him entirely unmoved.

"Bill," he asked, "have you ever heard of a place called Valinstar
about here?"

"No, I can't say I have," was the reply. "Rum name. What was it?
Something 'star.' A chap named Starr has leased that place Uncle John
left to Kenneth."

Jim's face cleared. "That must be it, then."

"Going to call, are you?" The boy grinned. "I'd watch my step, if I
were you. They've just been taken in charge."

"What?"

"Old Peters, the bobbie, was talkin' to the big fair chap at the wheel
for five minutes, an' then I heard him say, 'You'll have to come round
to the station!' 'Right'o' says the other chap, as cool as you like.
Reckon he's a tough customer. Then he blew his horn for the girl you
were making sheep's eyes at, and that's where they went."

"Nonsense!" Jim hesitated and then swung his horse round. "You and Mike
can take the sheep home, Bill. I've got some business to do."

"Just thought of it?" questioned Bill innocently. "A'right. So long."

Jim sighed with relief as he saw his sharp-eyed junior disappearing
in a cloud of dust, and then he turned again into the main street
where he learned upon the best authority that the occupants of the car
were under arrest (a) for obstructing the traffic and driving to the
public danger; (b) for being in possession of a stolen car; and (c) as
escaped criminals from the great city. At which information he uttered
a snort of disgust and departed for the police station, which he found
deserted. Both the occupants of the car and the police force having
vanished, at which stage he called himself a fool in good round terms
and headed for home.




CHAPTER IV.--VALINSTAR.

But the day was not yet over for the team. After losing themselves
twice in a maze of cross roads, at last they reached their destination,
and surveyed it with dissatisfied eyes. It was not at all what
their fancy had pictured. The house faced the road, square and
uncompromising, built of hard stone that somehow emphasised the
corners, so that the front seemed quite unrelieved by the small
tin-roofed verandah, which stood sadly in need of a coat of paint,
as did the roof and the square window-frames, from which uncurtained
windows stared at them unblinkingly with a certain hostility that
daunted the beholder. There was a semblance of a garden in front, where
a few wilted geraniums had alone successfully defied the summer heat.

"Frightful!" wailed Valerie and Katherine in one breath. "Appalling!"

"Perhaps it's better round the back," suggested Allan, who was always
an optimist.

The back of the dwelling proved equally as uninviting as the front,
presenting the same square outline, set off, in this instance, by a
couple of galvanised iron water tanks, which flanked the doorway like
a pair of sentinels. From here the orchard was plainly visible--row on
row of fruit trees with that subtle air of desolation upon them that
precedes the falling of the leaf, while on one side in a paddock of
tangled weed and grass a couple of horses and a cow grazed contentedly.

An old man with a hoarse voice made his appearance from a shed. "You
Mr. Linton?"

Allan nodded briefly as the girls climbed out of the car, thankful to
come to the end of such an adventurous journey, even though that end
was not particularly inviting.

"I'm Jones, Mr. Gardiner's man. I've been expectin' yer since
yesterday."

"We were delayed on the road," said Allan, "have you the key?"

"What key?"

"Of the house, of course."

"I never 'eard of no key. Old Jack never used to lock up nothin'."

"Oh!"

"Well, reckon I'll be gettin' along."

"But----" began Katherine.

Allan laid a hand on Katherine's arm. "He can't help us Kath. It's
nearly 5, and we can't do much to-night."

"I milked the cow," offered Jones, with the air of one trying to be
helpful. "Milk's on the kitchen table."

They watched him go in silence, and Katherine sighed wearily. "It's
lucky we had lunch in Rockwood, for we've got our work cut out here."

"Let's explore," demanded Valerie, and led the way to the door,
which refused to yield to her efforts. "It is locked," she declared
viciously. Then------

"Let me try," suggested Allan. A twist and several jerks failed to move
the refractory panel of wood, which stood firm.

"We must try a window," said Gerald, while Allan still wrestled to such
good purpose that at last the doorknob came away in his hand, amid
shouts of unsympathetic laughter.

"I wonder if there's an axe in the woodshed," suggested Gerald. "Which
would be cheaper, destroying a door or a window?"

"We'll have a shot at Val's kitchen window." Allan was surveying a
split thumbnail with interest. "First blood to me."

"If we get it open Val will have to get through," said Gerald.

"Rather!" assented Valerie eagerly. "Mercy, what's that?"

From the rear of the house came a loud squawking sound and much
confusion. At the corner they were met my Augustus, bearing proudly in
his mouth a large dead rooster which he laid at Valerie's feet with
simple confidence.

"First blood to Augustus I think," Katherine surveyed the scene
critically. "Gerald, will you kindly tie that brute up? Yes, I know
he'll howl, but he must be taught that such proceedings are capital
crimes."

When Gerald returned, having administered due chastisement, he found
the three contemplating the kitchen window, which was just too high for
even Allan to manipulate with ease. At last Gerald, mounted on Allan's
bended back, succeeded in pushing back the catch.

"Come on, Val," groaned Allan. "If we don't get in soon I'll be a
mangled corpse."

Valerie scrambled through the aperture with the agility of a cat, and
there was for a moment silence. "O-oh! It's dark," came her voice a
little uncertainly.

"Hurry up with the door," they urged her.

Then their blood was curdled by a succession of piercing shrieks in
Valerie's best vein. "O--o--oh. Let me out! Let me out! O-o-oh." And
there was a sound of small hands fumbling desperately at the door.

"Val darling, what is it?" cried Katherine anxiously.

"O--o--o--oh!"

Allan and Gerald strained themselves to catch a glimpse of the
interior, but the small window merely opened into a cupboard-like
place. They raced round to the door where they could hear her sobbing,
frightened cries. At last it yielded and she fled into Allan's arms
sobbing weakly.

"Val, child, whatever is the matter?"

Katherine, white and shaken, clutched her brother for support.

"C---c--cockroaches," she wailed tremulously.

The boys' shout of laughter betokened their relief, but to their
amazement Katherine remained serious.

"How positively awful," she gasped. "I couldn't go in there."

"What rubbish!" said Gerald, scornfully, and pushed the door wide open,
letting a flood of daylight into the darkened house. On the threshold
the girls halted nervously and Katherine sniffed.

"I don't believe this place has ever been opened. None of the windows
has, anyway."

The room in which they were was certainly not inviting. It was a
kitchen, and its sole window was covered by a piece of sacking,
rendering the room unduly dark.

After a stupefied silence Katherine took her courage in her own hands.
"We'd better see the rest," she said. "It can't be worse."

She was not so sure. Adjoining the kitchen was a large pantry, whose
shelves contained many rusty tins, some of which displayed most
interesting varieties of mould. Two bedrooms opened off the narrow
dark passage that led to the front door. The furnishings were mainly
home-made. Rusty wire stretchers were piled with doubtful bedding,
while the large room in the front was empty of furniture of any
description.

In silence they returned to the kitchen, but after one expressive
glance Katherine led the way to the car, which had a comfortable and
home-like aspect.

"I'm afraid," said Allan after a moment's silence, broken only by the
wailings of the imprisoned Augustus, "that we had better return to the
hotel."

"Which looked several degrees worse than this--to judge by the
condition of the lunch-table," returned Katherine crushingly.

"Well?" he threw up his hands helplessly.

"Men have no initiative," retorted his sister, "we'll camp out. Yes, I
know it's cold, but I'd rather freeze to death than spend the night in
that chamber of horrors. We'll sleep in the car, and you--well, there's
the stable."

"Or the pigsty," assented Allan. "We don't count, of course, but you
don't propose that we starve, do you Kath?"

"Certainly not. I bought bread and butter and eggs, thank goodness. One
of you boys can light the stove and I'll unpack the kettle, but I'm not
going in there again until daylight, and then it will be armed with
several mops and loads of kerosene."

"It's an outrage," said Allan hotly. "Wait till I see Gardiner."

"I expect Jones was sent to clean up," suggested Valerie. "Probably he
never got any further than the stables. Let's go and see."

Her prophesy was correct. The stable and adjoining shed were in a
fair state of cleanliness. Apparently Mr. Jones's energies had failed
him before he got as far as the house. A pile of fresh straw in the
shed suggested admirable material for beds, and then, spurred on
by the approach of night, they made hasty preparations for their
unconventional meal.

"Thank the Lord it isn't raining," was Gerald's somewhat unusual form
of grace, and hearty appetites soon gave evidence that youth can rise
triumphant over the most discouraging circumstances.

"We are--adventurers." Valerie rolled the word round her tongue as if
she liked it, and stretched her arms luxuriously. "It doesn't seem like
only two days since we left Melbourne. Think of all that's happened."

"Mainly unpleasant, too." Allan lit a cigarette. "Val's escapade, which
nearly drove us frantic; the finding of that chap; then we are made the
laughing stock of Rockwood, and finally are denied entrance to our own
home by a tribe of cockroaches and--er--other insects."

"I suppose we'll have to call at the police station again tomorrow,"
Gerald lowered his voice a little.

"Yes. They were very decent, but I felt rather awkward. The
circumstances were so strange. He was so insistent that it was an
accident."

"Then you think it wasn't."

"We---ll. He was shot, and I saw no gun about."

"Did you tell the police that?" asked Katherine.

"I gave them the facts, nothing more. It's the safest way when dealing
with the police force."

"Experience speaks. Is this the third or fourth conviction?"

"Allan." Valerie moved a little nearer to him, "you've not shown us the
thing--he gave you."

"I had forgotten. To tell you the truth, I haven't had time to look at
it myself. Fetch the torch this way, Ger." He took out his pocket-book
and looked round the attentive group. "I've a kind of feeling that I
ought to hand this over to the police, but------"

"But he made you give that promise."

"Yes. I'd hate to break it. I've only once before promised a dying man
anything." His eyes rested on the dim outline of Valerie's eager face,
"and there's something rather sacred about it."

"I don't like it," Katherine moved uneasily. "He told you to hide it,
didn't he? It sounded as if there was something not quite right about
it."

"An adventure." Valerie wriggled excitedly. "Open it quick, Allan."

He smiled tolerantly and took from his wallet a folded scrap of paper.
It was quite small and tattered and frayed. Four eager heads bent over
it, as by the light of Gerald's torch they endeavoured to decipher the
writing thereon. To their disappointment, however, it was in a foreign
tongue, and one quite unknown to them. There were barely half a dozen
lines scrawled in a somewhat uncultured hand, and at the bottom a rough
sketch map, drawn with big bold strokes.

"Why I don't understand a word of it," said Katherine.

"Nor could anyone else, I expect," said her brother sceptically. "The
poor chap was probably crazed."

"Nonsense." Valerie thrilled. "It's hidden treasure, of course."

Her remark was greeted with subdued laughter. "You will read penny
dreadfuls, Val, and this is what comes of it," said Gerald.

"What are you going to do with it, Allan?" asked Katherine, regarding
it dubiously as if it were a piece of high explosive about to explode.

"Oh, I don't know. Put it in here, I suppose." He made a movement to
replace it in his wallet, but Valerie intervened.

"He told you hide it and if you won't, I will."

"Here you are then, Baby," he laughed good-naturedly, and tossed it
over to her, but she did not smile. "I've a feeling it's going to make
our fortunes," she declared. "I shall put it where none of you will
ever dream of looking."

"And you'll forget where, so here endeth----. Children it's high time
we went to bed. Tomorrow we must work as we've never worked before."
Katherine rose gracefully and insisted on seeing that Gerald was snugly
disposed of amid the straw before taking up a somewhat restricted
position on the back seat of the car.

"Why am I so tall?" she murmured. "Val, you seem just to fit."

Valerie curled up like a kitten in front, yawned. "I'm going to dream,"
she prophesied, "buried treasure."

"Rubbish! You'll be lucky if you sleep at all. I know I shan't."

Silence reigned at length, broken only by the soft stir of the trees
and the belated cry of a bird.




CHAPTER V.--"THE TEAM MAKES A FRIEND."

The noise of the farmyard heralding the sunrise aroused the girls next
morning.

"Goodness! I am stiff." Katherine stretched herself cautiously. "I can
hardly move."

"Ye--es." Valerie's eyes were still upon that age-old miracle in the
east. "I don't ever remember having seen a sunrise before."

"Let's hurry up and get breakfast before the boys wake," suggested
Katherine practically. "We've got a tremendous amount to do to-day, and
it would be lovely to get an early start."

"Also won't we crow if we're up first." With characteristic energy
Valerie was already out of the car. "Fancy sleeping on such a glorious
morning as this. Kath, do let me wake them."

"How?"

"I'll let Augustus do it." She looked at the recumbent form, stretched
in ungainly length against a tree, and proceeded to rouse him, dodging
his caresses as best she could, and admonishing him in whispers, "Down
'Gustus, down! This way, old chap." She reached the door of the shed
and opened it gently. "Fetch em out, old man," she concluded, and
retired tactfully to the car.

The boys emerged five minutes later with much straw in their hair and
the light of battle in their eyes, to find Katherine busily preparing
breakfast, and Valerie, with her most innocent expression, plaiting her
long hair in front of a mirror propped up on the car bonnet.

"Who let that brute in?" demanded Gerald. "He kicked me in the eye, sat
on Allan's chest, and chewed half his hair." There was a suspicious
silence, and Valerie looked round for an avenue of escape.

"It was Val.," declared Allan. "This time, young lady, you've gone too
far, and you 're' going to get what's coming to you."

She fled swiftly round the side of the house, the boys in pursuit.
Punishment, she knew, was inevitable, but she would give them as much
trouble as possible.

She rounded a corner by a clump of trees. Gerald hard on her heels, and
ran almost under a horse's feet. Gasping for breath she nearly fell
when she found herself seized by a strong arm, and looked up into the
eyes of the tall young man who had come to their assistance in Rockwood
on the previous day.

"Save me!" she murmured imploringly, as her pursuers came in sight,
breathless and dishevelled.

For a brief moment Jim Gardiner stood bewildered. The girl still
clung to his arm. The boys paused, baffled, glaring with undisguised
ferocity at their quarry. Then Augustus bounded round the corner in
joyous pursuit, and Gardiner's horse shied violently at the apparition,
catching his unsuspecting owner on the side of the head and knocked him
down. Then it bolted along the road.

Instantly the tableau changed, and Jim found himself assisted to his
feet by the two boys, while a very contrite Valerie looked on with
unaffected concern.

"Sure you're not hurt?" queried Allan, as he lent a friendly hand. "By
Jove, it's you, is it?"

"I'm all right, thanks." Gardiner gazed reflectively at the distant
cloud of dust, which betokened his departing steed. "It's just a colt
I'm breaking," he explained, a trifle apologetically.

"It's that confounded beast again." Gerald glared at the innocent
Augustus. "You've got Valerie to thank for this. She inflicted this
nightmare upon us, and we've never had a moment's peace since."

Valerie smiled, "I'm ever so sorry."

"Not at all." Gardiner looked inquiringly at Allan and surprised a
fierce frown on Gerald's face.

"Rather." The former seconded the invitation heartily. "We live just
round the corner, you know."

Jim did know. The direction of his morning ride had not been altogether
accidental, but he made no mention of the fact.

They retraced their steps in silence until Katherine came into view.
"I was getting nervous," she began. "I thought-----" Then she stopped
short at the visitor.

"We picked up a stray," announced Valerie calmly. "That's twice he's
rescued me from a violent death. There's bound to be a third time."

"Do you mind telling me--or--the meaning of this--er----?" Jim glanced
from one to the other. "Is it your usual form of morning exercise?"

"You interrupted an act of justice," said Gerald solemnly. "Now we'll
have to postpone it."

"Don't mind me," begged the visitor cordially.

"You really mean that?" Gerald inquired. "You're not merely being
polite. Right'o then. We carry on."

He suddenly seized Valerie from behind and swung her off her feet.
"Coming Allan?" he asked.

"I'll leave it to you," Allan laughed.

Valerie allowed herself to be borne round the corner of the house with
surprising meekness. Then her voice could be heard calling loudly upon
the name of Augustus, who rushed to the rescue.

"Aren't they children?" Katherine's air of amused tolerance was very
charming. "But she really does deserve it."

Allan fingered a scratch on his cheek thoughtfully. "I hope Ger----" he
began, then turned to their guest. "We're not all mad," he explained
gently. "Augustus frightened our friend's horse, which-----"

"Threw him rather on your hands," concluded Gardiner with a disarming
smile.

They entered the battered garden as they spoke, and from the back came
sounds of mirth.

"Peace is restored apparently," said Allan, as they quickened their
footsteps. "I wonder what's happened now."

In the centre of the yard, placidly oblivious of the fact that one
forefoot was planted in the middle of Kath's impromptu breakfast table,
was a large red cow, with wild eyes and wicked horns, which, with head
well down, was surveying Augustus in no very friendly manner. From the
shelter of the car Gerald and Valerie shouted encouragement as the dog
circled warily about his quarry.

"Don't be frightened," said Gardiner quickly. He spoke authoritative
words, and the intruder, quick to recognise a command, moved at his
bidding.

"It's milking time, and she knows it," he observed.

"Milking?" The four looked blankly at one another.

"Yes, milking. You know you milk cows, don't you?" He looked at them
amusedly.

"We'd gathered that," returned Allan drily. "But the manner of the
operation is, I confess, somewhat beyond us."

"I'll earn my breakfast, then, by giving you a lesson," he offered.
"It's quite easy."

His quick eyes took in the deserted house and untidy yard. "You don't
mean to say you slept here?"

"Where else? You just take a look inside and you'll know why. When we
encounter our landlord there's going to be trouble." Valerie's menacing
air made them all laugh, but they observed that their new friend was
looking most annoyed.

"It's the limit," he said forcibly. "I can't understand----" He
broke off and strode in the direction of the milking-shed, the boys
accompanying him.

When they returned from the demonstration, they found the table relaid,
the tea made, and Valerie and Katherine awaiting them, the former now
more completely attired, and her hair once more under control. During
breakfast Gardiner listened while they talked with cheerful candour of
their plans and prospects, and also they regaled him with an account of
their adventures on the road.

"And we met our landlord," finished Valerie. "A useless looking
individual in a plutocratic car."

"You----" Their guest paused awkwardly. "I--I'm sorry. I've never told
you my name. It's Jim Gardiner."

There was a constrained pause, until he continued hurriedly. "Of
course, we'd no idea the place had been left like that. Dad told one of
the men to come down and clear up. I'm most frightfully sorry. You must
come up to the homestead and stay until things are fixed up."

"I--we simply couldn't think of it, thank you." Katherine's head was at
a dangerous angle.

"It's very good of you, but we're really rather enjoying ourselves,"
said Allan hastily. "We had to grumble to keep up appearances, but we
can manage quite well."

"You probably can, but you're not going to." He rose to his feet. "I'm
going to borrow your horse if I may, and get things moving."

"But----"

"There's not a van in Rockwood to carry your stuff, so I'll send a
couple of the chaps from the place with the wagon, and they can bring
out any stores you want."

There was a masterful air about him, which defied contradiction, and in
a very short time he had saddled the pony, and after hearty thanks for
the meal disappeared down the road.

"Apparently we have entertained an angel unawares," Gerald yawned. "He
seems so darned set on doing the job, I propose we turn in again and
have a couple of hours' sleep. I'm not used to rising with the lark."

It was soon evident, however, that Mr. James Gardiner's intentions did
not outrun performance, for barely an hour later a covered wagon drew
up at the gate, depositing that gentleman himself, and a burly looking
Irishwoman, together with sundry mops and buckets.

"They're going straight to town," he said. "Have you your list ready?"

They had not, and he proved a valuable assistant in the compilation
of it, suggesting items which would never have occurred to such
inexperienced housekeepers, who had never lived more than five minutes
from a shopping centre in their lives.

The first load of furniture arrived, and the waggon was sent back for
the second before lunch, when, to their surprise, a hamper arrived.

"Mother said you wouldn't want to come up to the house in the middle of
spring cleaning," explained Jim, "so she sent this instead."

They certainly found no fault with its contents, and after the meal the
four were obliged to motor into Rockwood to attend the inquest on the
unfortunate man whom they had found, and Jim Gardiner accompanied them,
leaving the place in charge of the Irishwoman, who seemed both sensible
and capable.

On their arrival at the police station they found that the unknown had
been identified as a labourer named Smith, who had worked for some
months on a neighbouring farm, but of whom little else was known, and
after Allan's evidence the coroner was evidently quite satisfied to
record the happening as death by misadventure, and the proceedings were
soon over, much to the relief of the team.

"I remember that chap, you know," Jim said, as they re-entered the car.
"But Ken would know him better. He employed him for a while after Uncle
John died to look after that place you've taken."

"How queer that we should have been the ones to find him," said
Katherine thoughtfully, "and that he should be connected with your
brother."

"Yes, isn't it? And talking of----here he is now."

The smart little car pulled up beside them, and the owner, courteous as
ever, got out and came to them, exhibiting no surprise at the sight of
his brother.

"How are you all?" he asked. "Hullo, Jim!" He questioned them about the
rest of their trip, and Jim treated him to an indignant description
of the state of affairs which had greeted their arrival. He appeared
genuinely sorry, and apologised profusely. "I'm glad Jim came in
handy," he concluded, "but what are you doing here! You haven't become
embroiled with the police already, have you?"

Allan told him briefly, but was unprepared for the look of
consternation and alarm that overspread Gardiner's features, though
he recovered himself quickly after ejaculating, "You found him?" and
changed the subject, but not before he had aroused suspicions in four
keen young minds.

"Are you coming home, Jim?" he asked. "I'm going straight away."

Jim shook his head. "Rather not. I'm going back to Valinstar to dinner.
I'm to be allowed to cook the chops."

Kenneth Gardiner frowned a little as if at some unpleasant thought.
"Well, I'll say good-bye then," he said abruptly. "I'll be seeing
you again, I expect. I'd like to know more of this man Smith. I was
interested in him."

"I wonder," said Valerie thoughtfully, as she brushed her hair that
evening in a rejuvenated bedroom. "Why Kenneth Gardiner doesn't like
you, Kath."

Katherine turned surprisedly. "So you've noticed it too," she said. "I
thought perhaps it was my imagination."

"I don't think so. At first," remarked Valerie candidly, "I thought
it was just another 'case,' but he must be a woman hater, or blind.
He's got a jolly nice brother." Valerie smiled into the mirror, as she
remembered that Jim had forgotten to return her glove.




CHAPTER VI.--PORTRAIT OF A LADY.

"This!" said Allan contentedly, "is something like it." He looked
around the transformed kitchen with an air of placid satisfaction.
Dainty curtains now adorned the ugly windows, the floor from which no
amount of scrubbing could remove the stains, had been covered with a
dark linoleum.

"Yes," Katherine smiled back at him, "I didn't think it was going to be
much of a home for us, but somehow it seems as if we quite belong here
now."

"I'm so glad. To tell you the truth, when we first saw the place, I
felt like turning and going straight back to town. It was unfit for
you."

"Nonsense! I'm quite as capable of bearing little hardships as anyone
else."

"I'm not so sure that you should though. You were made for a life of
ease and laughter---Italian gondolas and Spanish moonlight should be
more in your line."

"Allan, you're beginning to talk like Claude Delamere," she reproved
him. "I thought better of you."

"Have you heard from him lately?" he asked idly.

She turned defensively. "No, why should I?"

"Oh, I don't know. You were rather good pals with him once." He looked
out the window to where Valerie and Gerald were playing tennis on an
improvised court on an improvised net. "Val has a ripping back-hand,"
he observed irrelevantly.

Katherine came across to him, laying a cool, firm hand on his shoulder.
"I don't know what I've done that you should remind me of some of my
most foolish moments. Allan, are you so anxious to get rid of me?"

"Need you ask, my lady?"

"But tell me seriously, what put Claude Delamere into your head? I've
been thinking about him lately too."

"I don't know, unless it was hearing young Gardiner mention him."

"Why?"

"Young Jim Delamere stayed with him last year. He is a friend of
Kenneth."

"Oh is he?" She stood for a moment looking out of the window at the
laughing players. "That might explain----"

He looked at her interrogatively as she came to a sudden resolution.

"I--Allan, you've always been a kind of big brother to me. Ger is such
a child in lots of ways. I'd like to tell you about him--Claude."

He made a movement of protest. "Don't if you'd rather not."

"But I want to. I was so glad when we came up here, because I thought I
would get away from his memory completely, but seems I can't--not even
here."

He rose and paced the room restlessly. "I can't see that any good can
come of raking all this up again."

"To the best of my knowledge it never has been raked up," she replied
resentfully. "I know you all thought I treated him badly, but because
you were all bricks you never even mentioned him. The truth is that he
fascinated me and I loved him. I'm not sure that I don't still."

"Kath!"

"It's true. While he was painting that picture it went to my head, and,
well, I gave him the impression that----Anyway, after the glamour had
gone I refused to marry him."

"Well, he's not the first."

"He took it differently from the others. His pride was hurt, and he
vowed he would make me sorry. He almost frightened me, for he seemed to
go quite out of his mind."

"The cad! Why didn't you tell me?"

"It was my own fault. Besides, he's a genius, and they always behave
abnormally. He went abroad soon afterwards, and his picture--my
picture--was hung in Paris."

"And that's the end of the story," he returned with cheerful common
sense.

"No," she replied swiftly. "I've a feeling that it is but the
beginning."

"If he dared come near you now he'd have me to reckon with."

"I know. That's why I told you, I think; at least it was one of the
reasons. I think it is because he's so un-English that he worries me.
There is a foreign streak somewhere that makes him different--and
interesting."

"If that isn't just like a woman," Allan laughed easily.

"Oh men never understand," she answered impatiently. "I don't know why
I told you at all."

"I'd like to think it," he began, when they were interrupted by the
arrival of Gerald and Valerie.

"I expect there are courts in Rockwood. I shall ask Jim." Valerie
perched herself on the table and swung her legs easily--they were
slender limbs, with quite the nicest things in ankles, and Valerie was
pardonably vain about them.

"So it's 'Jim' now is it?" Katherine looked at her reprovingly.

"Of course, you can't go on calling a man Mister when he's saved your
life. I reserve that title for his high and mighty brother."

"Hush!"

"I won't hush," she retorted rebelliously. "I quite expect he'll pat me
on the head one of these days. He's so condescending. He'll get a shock
it he does, though."

They all laughed.

"There's something queer about him," she continued reflectively. "He
was decent enough to me, I admit. I've a kind of feeling, though, that
he's more interested in that poor man we found than he owns to. Allan,
promise me you'll never tell tell him about that paper."

"He's not likely to want to know."

"Isn't he?" she said darkly.

"He's the white-haired boy of the family," Gerald contributed. "He
never has to work on the farm like the others. His mother left him
money. The other boys are just stepbrothers, and then his uncle did,
too."

"Val," queried Allan suddenly, "where did you put that paper?"

Valerie laughed. "I thought you had no interest in it whatever; I'm not
going to tell you. I'll get it for you if you want it, but to tell you
would spoil everything."

"Just like a girl," Gerald remarked with a superior air. "Makes a
mystery out of every little trifle."

"Well why not? Life without romance would be the strawberry without the
cream."

"That's very typical of you."

They all started in surprise, and, looking up, found that the subject
of their previous conversation was standing in the open doorway.

"I did knock but you didn't hear me," he apologised courteously to
Katherine.

"I'm awfully sorry," Allan indicated a chair; "do come in. We're just
teasing Val about her incurably romantic view of life."

Valerie looked at him with a warning glance, as Gardiner complied. She
was wondering just how long he had been outside the door.

"Jim is with me," the visitor remarked, "but he stopped outside to talk
to old McIntyre, who was passing. I brought the big car, thinking you
might like to come for a spin."

"What! All of us?"

"Why not? The car will easily hold six. I'll show you a bit of the
country before dark, and we'll go back home for supper. My stepmother
would have called, but she is confined to the house with a stiff ankle,
so please don't be formal."

"It's very kind of you." Katherine was beginning to wonder if her
imagination had led her astray.

"Not a bit of it. I feel I owe you something for the unpleasant
experiences you had on arrival." He looked around the room with
undisguised approval. "It is quite a transformation."

"Would you like to go?" Katherine looked doubtfully at her family.

"Rather," Valerie smiled upon Gardiner with great geniality. "I think
its ripping of you, but we must hurry if we're going to see anything
before it really gets dark."

A few minutes later they were comfortably settled in the huge car.
Allan and Katherine in front with the driver, while Valerie, ensconced
between Gerald and Jim, was preparing to enjoy herself as only she knew
how.

The road was a good one, and the car travelled well, so that before
darkness came they had covered a great deal of country--open paddocks
freshly planted with Lucerne, orchards, whose long rows of trees
stretched away into the shadows like a ghostly army, and farmhouses,
built for the most part of hard stone or unpainted weatherboard, and
presenting that peculiarly uncared-for appearance which is typical of
the Australian countryside.

An hour later they drew up in front of a long, low rambling house,
half-covered by creepers, from the windows of which lights gleamed a
cheerful welcome. The door was hospitably open, and Kenneth led the way
to the drawing-room, a spacious room, comfortably furnished with deep
easy chairs in dark serviceable shades, evidently a room used more by
men than women, and such had been Mrs. Gardiner's plan, for she liked
to have her sons about her.

She give them a hearty welcome, and they responded instantly,
recognising in this stout, rather plain woman, with the twinkling eyes
and ready smile, something of a kindred spirit. Her husband, a bluff
straightforward man, was all attention, and he and Valerie became
speedily engrossed in a profound discussion on dogs, he having heard
from his sons of the exploits of Augustus. Gerald discovered that Jim
and Bill had played cricket for his own school's deadliest rival, and
Allan devoted himself to Mrs. Gardiner, who had taken an instant liking
to this tall young man with the steady eyes, and she was quite willing
to leave Katherine to be entertained by Kenneth. After a few minutes'
desultory conversation, he rose.

"Come with me for a moment," he said gravely. "I've something to show
you."

She hesitated, with a glance at her hostess.

"Oh, mother won't mind," he declared easily. "I'm going to show Miss
Starr my pictures."

"Don't be long then, for supper will be on. Kenneth is quite mad about
pictures and once he gets going----" She dismissed them with a smile,
and Katherine followed him somewhat unwillingly along a wide passage,
into a room furnished in marked contrast to the rest of this house. It
was severely plain, but there was quality in every line. On the walls
were hanging several fine pictures, but what caught her eye almost
immediately was one standing on an easel at the far end of the room.
She advanced towards it swiftly with a cry of surprise.

"Why, you've got my picture," she exclaimed. "I never saw it finished."

"I bought it in Paris last year," said Gardiner smoothly. "You see, I
never thought I'd have the good fortune to meet the original."

She glanced at him keenly, but his eyes met hers steadily, and she
turned quickly to the picture. "I heard about Claude's success," she
replied, "but I'm sure he has flattered me."

She paused again in contemplation of the pictured face, so like her
own, with its huge serious eyes, and stately grace. "Queen Katherine,"
the artist had often called her, and he had painted her with just that
serene unconsciousness of bearing becoming true royalty. Yet the longer
she looked the more she became aware that it was not like her. He had
missed something essential. Katherine was no stately aloof ice-maiden,
but a sentient vivid human being, and she turned away with a queer
feeling of distaste that was almost fear.

"I don't think I altogether like it," she said, "it's not the real me
at all."

"It created a great sensation in Paris," Gardiner said, "it made
Delamere's name. He's a pal of mine, you know--a distant cousin of
mother's. She came of an old Hungarian family, and Claude has streaks
of about four nations in his composition."

"Yes I've often wondered about him," she said absently, "he could
paint, but----"

"He takes knowing." Gardiner moved to the easel, and covered the
picture deftly. "Please don't think I keep this on show, Miss Starr.
It's for private view only, but I thought you might like to see it."

"Thank you, it has been interesting," she replied, "but I don't think
I'd like the others to see it. There's something about it--rather
inhuman." She looked at him challengingly.

"I think you're imagining things," he said lightly, "but you can talk
it over with Claude when he comes in the spring. In the meantime mother
will scold me if I keep you here am longer."

Katherine rejoined the party with a queer feeling of uneasiness,
which she managed, however, to conceal so successfully that in that
confidential time when lights are out she could reply quite easily to
Valerie's question as to what Kenneth Gardiner had shown her. "Oh, just
pictures," and Valerie, acutely sensitive where those she loved were
concerned found no fault with the answer.




CHAPTER VII.--"TIME OFF."

Days passed swiftly enough at Valinstar, but for the most part they
were happy ones. The team made mistakes with indomitable good humour
and enjoyed their mishaps thoroughly. Nothing further was heard of the
stranger who had met his death in the hills, and they had almost put
the matter out of their minds when it was brought before them again
with surprising suddenness.

They had decided that they had earned some relaxation, and determined
to attend a dance that was being held in the local hall. Jim had
invited Valerie to go with him, and had been rather disconcerted by her
careless acquiescence.

"Yes, the others are coming, so you can come, too, if you want to."

He had laughed and accepted, having discovered that the team was rather
a hard combination to break into, and that he would do well to be
thankful for small favours, but he had not laughed when he found that
by the time Gerald and Allan had claimed their dances there were few
left for him.

"But I always dance with Gerald first," Valerie's wide-eyed innocence
suddenly changed into keen interest as she dismissed the subject as
beneath notice. "I've always heard that country dances were fun, but I
never guessed they were like this."

She drew back against the rough wooden wall and surveyed the scene with
sparkling eyes and parted lips. It had no novelty for him, so be looked
at the girl instead, a dainty picture in her soft green frock, the
lights glimmering in the red gold of her shining hair.

The hall was just a plain, unlined room, with rough benches on three
sides. At the end was a raised platform where a languid young man was
seated at a piano smoking a cigarette, apparently awaiting the signal
to commence operations. The room was brightly lit with kerosene lamps,
but it was the people who attracted most of Valerie's attention.

They were a motley band--not all of them young. Mothers were there,
who had put their babies to sleep in the room adjoining--rather
pathetic figures, the girl thought them, with tired faces and roughened
toil-worn hands. Obviously proud of their finery, girls passed her,
with loud laughter. It was all new and rather exciting, she thought,
but her eyes strayed appreciatively to Gerald and Allan, with a
satisfied feeling of possession. They were quite the best-looking
men in the room, and wore their quiet tweed suits with an air of
distinction.

"Well?" asked Jim interrogatively at this stage.

"It's a bit bewildering, isn't it?---but fun. Look, there's old Mr.
McIntyre, who buys milk from us. You don't mean to say he dances."

"Old Mac? I should say he did. He'd beat the boys to a standstill. You
wait till he asks you for a circular waltz."

"I hope he does. I'm a great pal of his. He's the only one I know, who
really appreciates Augustus. You see he hates cats. So does Augustus."

The old farmer came across to them. "Eh, but ye're real bonny this
nicht. Ye'll be turnin' all the laddies' heads, I'm afeared, and ye'll
no have a dance to spare for an auld man like meself."

Valerie beamed on him. "Only you'll have to teach me how; I don't know
these country dances yet."

"I'll teach ye. Y'r brother's here to-night, Jim?

"Who? Ken? You wouldn't get him here for a fortune. He regards us as
barbarians."

"Oh does he?" Valerie seemed about to say more but checked herself.

"Well, he's here the noo."

"By Jove, so he is. Wonders will never cease. No need to ask what the
attraction is either."

Kenneth Gardiner, quietly aloof as ever, had entered the hall, even
as they were speaking of him, and after a quick glance round him made
straight for the corner where Katherine was sitting.

Jim and Valerie stood for a moment in converse until Gerald sauntered
across.

"What a beastly crowd," he drawled. "But I'm the victim; always was.
Come on, Val."

"If you say any more----" she began, and laughed as he swung her into
the circle of dancers.

Jim disregarded the inviting eyes of several partnerless damsels,
as he watched Valerie and Gerald, and he learned for the first time
what dancing was. Gerald had discarded his pose of indolence, and
was enjoying it as keenly as the girl, who swayed as lightly as
thistle-down to the wind. But others were interested besides himself,
for he heard someone say behind him.

"That's one of them--the red-haired girl in green; and one of the boys
is dancing with her."

Jim turned quickly to get a view of the speaker, and met his brother's
eyes. Kenneth was in the act of lighting a cigarette, and nodded to Jim.

"Hullo," he drawled. "Why aren't you dancing?"

"For the same reason as you," retorted Jim. "The girl I wanted wouldn't
have me."

He chuckled amusedly, as Kenneth appeared offended, and turned on his
heel and walked away. Kenneth Gardiner was not used to being ranked
second by any girl.

The dance came to an end, and Jim joined the team.

"Jim," asked Katherine, "who is the dark man over in the corner? That's
the third time I've caught him staring at us."

"Where? Oh that chap. Haven't any idea--a commercial traveller, or
something, I expect. But, bless you Katherine, everyone is staring at
you to-night. You are the latest sensation, as well as being the most
beautiful."

"Hush!" She laughed her reproof.

"Well, all the boys are just longing to know you."

"I suppose you don't know any nice girls pining to be introduced to me,
do you?" grinned Gerald.

"I'm sure they all are, but they're much too shy to ask. Take you
choice, and I'll do my best."

Gerald looked about him critically, passing by many flaunting beauties,
before his eyes lighted on a slight little girl he had noticed sitting
out the last dance. She did not appear to be more than 16 or 17, and
was much too pale for the shabby black frock she wore. Her two long
braids of brown hair seemed too heavy for the frail little figure, with
its pinched white face and wistful eyes.

"That little girl looks as if she could dance," he said carelessly.

Jim stared. "Why that's only little Mollie Pattison, who works at the
store. Old Brown got her up from town to help them when his wife was
ill, and she stayed on."

"She'll do me," said Gerald stubbornly. "Are you going to introduce me,
or do I do it myself."

He had her on her feet before she had time to be self-conscious, and
after a few faltering steps she gained confidence from his easy flow of
chatter.

"Gerald has picked a winner, as usual!" Valerie remarked to Jim. "That
little kid can dance, also she was feeling out of things. Gerald's a
great scout."

"He is," agreed Jim, a little shamefacedly, as he looked at Mollie's
happy face. "I suppose we have left her out a bit. She's new, and very
quiet and reserved, and she didn't look as if she could dance."

After his dance Gerald introduced Mollie to Valerie, saying, "We've
just discovered we're twin souls. She doesn't like pigs, and has a
wholesome horror of cows. Also, she saw us arrive, and considers it an
epic occasion."

"It's the only thing that has happened since I've been here," she
turned eagerly to Valerie, "and that lovely dog!"

She had found her way to Valerie's heart. "Move up Ger, I'm going
to sit here," she said briskly. "And I'm going to call you Mollie.
Augustus is the pride of my heart. Why he----"

"She's off," Gerald groaned. "Jim, let's go and have a smoke. I'm sorry
for you, Miss Pattison, but you've brought it on yourself. The next
dance is mine, Val."

"And perhaps you'll take pity on me, Mollie." Jim was rewarded by a
flash of approval from Valerie's eloquent eyes, as she set to work
to dispel the other girl's shyness in her own inimitable way. She
succeeded so well that by the time the two boys returned she had
discovered that Mollie Pattison was an orphan, who had been thrown on
the world at the age of 16. Also Valerie had discovered that Mollie,
for all her shabbiness, had as gentle instincts as she herself, and had
promptly decided to adopt her.

The evening flew past, and the fun grew fast and furious. One
section became distinctly noisy, and several times Katherine looked
questioningly at Allan.

"The kids are enjoying themselves," he said easily. "And Valerie is
quite safe with Ger and Jim. Would you like to walk home? Its only
about a mile, and it's a fine night."

"I'd love it--anything to get out of here," she replied. "My head is
beginning to ache dreadfully. Are you sure you don't mind Allan?"

"You know my views on dances," he laughed. "Get your coat then, and
I'll tell Gerald."

He strolled across to where Gerald was standing with Mollie. "Kath's
fed up, so we're going to walk home," he said. "Tell Valerie, will you?
You know where she is, I suppose."

"No. I thought she was with you."

"She was dancing with old McIntyre when I saw her last. She'll be
safe enough with him." The music started again, and he laid a hand on
Mollie's arm. "We can't miss this," he said lightly. "Au'voir."

Allan found Katherine waiting for him, and they made their way quickly
through the crowd of men who were smoking at the doorway. Several
spoke good-naturedly enough, but it was evident that drink had been
circulating rather freely. At the gate Allan paused.

"I've half a mind to go back for Valerie and Ger," he said doubtfully.
"These things can get rather rough towards the end."

"Ye--es, perhaps we ought," Katherine hesitated. "But Gerald hates to
be treated like a child and it is early."

"Right'o." He drew her hand through his arm, and they stepped out on to
the rough road. It was a clear, cold night, and very dark, although the
stars were shining.

They had gone some fifty yards when they heard the sound of flying
feet in front of them, and to their amazement Valerie emerged from the
darkness and flung herself upon them, panting and trembling.

"Val, wherever have you been?" cried Katherine, reproachfully.

"For a walk." Valerie was swiftly regaining her breath. "It's all
right, Kath. I've only had a bit of a fright. Where's Ger?"

"He waited for you. Now we're going back to get the car, and you're
coming home," said Allan sternly.

"All right." Valerie's meekness was disarming. "But I was right about
things when I told you we hadn't heard the last of the man who died in
the mountains."

"What ever do you mean?"

"There's a sequel," she replied mysteriously. "And we haven't much
time. Let's get the car and go home at once. I'll explain as we go."




CHAPTER VIII.--"THE TEAM CONSPIRE."

Valerie's impatience appeared to communicate itself to the others,
for Allan firmly detached Gerald from Mollie, and brought him out in
record time, and very soon they were on then way back to Valinstar.
Then, and then only did she volunteer an explanation, bending forward
so that Allan and Katherine, who were in the front seat, could hear
her. Gerald, who was inclined to be sulky, leaned back with a bored
expression.

"After I'd danced with Mr. McIntyre," she began hurriedly, "I went into
the cloakroom to do my hair. He's an awfully strenuous dancer, and you
know there's another door, opening out into the yard. I was so hot I
thought I'd go for a walk."

"You must never do such a thing again," said Katherine, severely.

"All right, I won't, but do listen! And drive a little slower, Allan.
We don't want to get there too soon. Well, I was walking round the side
of the hall when I ran into several boys and I heard beer bottles, so
I sheered off and went across to the road. There was a car drawn up
not far down, and I was just thinking I'd go back when my shoe came
unbuttoned, and I heard another car coming. I darted to the side of
the road just behind the stationary car and stooped down to do it up.
I thought it was empty, but it wasn't. There were men in it, and one
of them said something like this: 'They're safe to be at the dance
for another two hours; you can have a good look round, but I doubt if
you'll find anything that way.' And the other said, 'No, but I'll swear
they know something. You see, they were with him when he died.' Then
they said something else about his giving the show away and someone
keeping something to themselves for what they could get out of it. Then
I heard one say, 'Look out for the dog, then.' And I realised he was
getting out, and I fled."

Allan brought the car to a standstill. Valinstar was just over the
hill. Gerald had forgotten his pique, and was almost as excited as
Valerie.

"We'll catch them red-handed," he cried.

"No," Allan paused. "We don't want any police proceedings, but we do
want to find out who it is and give him a wholesome scare."

"Let's set Augustus on to him," suggested Valerie.

"Kill him with kindness, eh? No, my proposition is that we rip up his
tyres and then drive up as if we suspect nothing, and give him about a
half-mile run."

"But supposing he's armed?" objected Katherine.

"I don't think they're out for blood yet. Anyway, you girls are to stay
in the car. No happy hunting for you, Valerie. Understand?"

"But it's my fault," wailed Valerie.

Allan ignored her, and the car crept quietly up the hill without lights.

"Red Indians on the warpath." Gerald took out his pocket knife. "Give
me three minutes' start, Allan, and then pick me up at the gate."

"We do have adventures, don't we?" chortled Valerie.

Allan waited the required time, and then switched on the headlights and
moved forward. There was another car drawn up beside the road. Gerald
leapt on the running board as they passed through the gate, which they
had recently opened by the process of removing it bodily from its
hinges. They came to a standstill in the front garden, and the boys
alighted. The house seemed dark and quiet enough, but somewhere in the
vicinity there lurked an intruder, who had come for no good purpose.
They hesitated. It was a disquieting thought, even for Valerie. Then
Allan raised his voice and spoke casually.

"Wonder who owns that car?" he said. "It appears that we have visitors."

Even as he spoke they heard they heard in the distance the sound of
another car approaching.

"Popular road to-night," murmured Gerald, as this, too, drew up beside
the fence and its occupants descended.

"Boys, I'm afraid," Katherine bent forward anxiously, drawing a breath
of relief when she saw that the newcomers were Kenneth Gardiner and his
brother Jim.

"We were afraid that someone was ill or something. You left in such a
hurry," explained the latter. "So Ken suggested that we pass this way
and see if everything was all right.

"Kath was tired. That was all," said Allan. "We were just wondering who
our visitors were." He indicated the other car.

"Why, that's Wilton's car," said Kenneth in surprise. "He left about
half an hour ago. I expect he had a puncture or engine trouble and has
gone off on foot."

"Puncture I should say," said Gerald gravely. "That back wheel's right
down."

At this moment a dark form appeared round the corner of the house and
approached them readily enough.

"Good evening," he said pleasantly. "I expect you've been wondering who
the burglar was, but I'm--oh, hullo, Mr. Gardiner! This is lucky! You
can give me a good character."

"Engine trouble as usual, I suppose, Wilton?" responded Gardiner. "Miss
Starr, this is Mr. Wilton, a mining engineer, who is sometimes found in
these parts. Miss Raymond and----"

By the time he had completed the introduction the team had identified
the newcomer as the dark man who had been so interested in them at the
dance.

"Had a bit of bad luck really," he was explaining. "Radiator leaks, and
it went dry. I went prospecting for some water and a bucket. That is
why I didn't show up when you arrived. I was hunting for a bucket."

The explanation sounded so plausible that three of the four looked at
each other guiltily, but Valerie smiled.

"How awfully queer," she purred. "That you should be so long, I mean.
There's always a bucket on the tank stand, just beside the door."

"It was confoundedly dark round there," he replied. "But if you'll lead
me to the tank-stand I'll give my lady a little drink and be moving."

"Come in and have some supper," said Gerald hospitably. "It's not much
after 12, and I'm as hungry as a hunter."

"Yes, do." Katherine descended from the car. "You can't refuse. As
Gerald says, it's not late. Besides we have a genius for meals at odd
hours."

"You have a genius for most things unusual and attractive," said Jim,
as he wrestled with Valerie's refractory shoe button, which was again
giving trouble. At this moment a long-dawn howl rent the stillness of
the night.

"Augustus is awake," explained Valerie unnecessarily, as the visitors
started and assumed pained expressions. "Poor darling, I must go and
untie him. No, you needn't come, Jim."

She sped away on her errand while the others repaired to the house,
but it was nearly five minutes later that she introduced an excited
Augustus "just to liven things up," as she explained afterwards. Jim
attempted to withstand the dog's boisterous onslaught and fell heavily
into a chair, to the detriment of the chair.

Allan expelled the animal and assisted Jim to rise. "Don't worry about
the chair," he said, "it's one of our pet abominations, as is also that
dog."

"He done a dreadful thing," Valerie looked worried. "I----I hardly like
telling you."

"What is it this time--another hen?"

"Valerie, you don't mean to say he's got the cat at last?"

"Do be quiet! No, it's Mr. Wilton's car."

"What on earth----"

"He hates being chained up so much that he loses his head when he is
let off, and he bolted right round the side and just threw himself into
Mr. Wilton's car. I expect he thought it was ours, because we usually
leave it there, and I couldn't stop him."

"Oh, well, that wouldn't do much damage," Wilton smiled reassuringly at
the small troubled face.

"But----" Valerie's eyes were tragic. "He found this on the seat." She
held up at tattered remnant of what had once been a leathern wallet and
some scraps of torn paper.

"Good heavens," Wilton started, and snatched it from her in obvious
perturbation.

"----I hope it wasn't awfully important," she faltered. "He--he just
chewed it up."

"That beast ought to be shot," said Allan forcibly. "I'm----"

"It's quite all right," Wilton was trying to smile. "There was nothing
very important, just a few notes and sketches; but I'd put a muzzle on
him if I were you."

"But I've never known----" Katherine was beginning, when Valerie
created a diversion by exclaiming that the coffee was boiling over.
Supper passed off amicably enough, though the team held their breath
whenever they thought of Wilton's back tyre. The man was pleasant
company. He had evidently travelled a good deal and told good stories.
The boys soon began to wonder if their suspicions had been entirely
unfounded. He had just finished telling them of an interesting
experience in the Andes when when Kenneth Gardiner looked at his watch.

"It's after 1," he exclaimed. "We must be moving, Miss Starr; you'll be
demoralising us with these late hours."

The team accompanied their guests to the waiting cars, Mr. Wilton
pausing to gather up the fragments of his wallet.

"I'm afraid half the scraps are all over the yard," murmured Valerie.
"I had such a time getting it away from him."

"Don't mention it." Wilton's good humour was apparently unruffled, and
he took his place at the wheel.

"Why, what about your radiator?" Valerie asked innocently. "You've
forgotten all about it."

"By Jove, yes. So I had," he started guiltily, and sprang out again.

"Your back tyre is down, too," observed Jim. "You better leave your
'bus and come home with us," said Kenneth easily. "I'm sure the ladies
are anxious to get to bed and you'll be a long time. You can come back
for the car in the morning. Come along, man. Where's Jim?"

Jim and Valerie had withdrawn to a little distance and were conversing
in low tones. Jim reproachful, she elusive, and at Gardiner's words she
turned eagerly.

"It's time for you to go now, and if you're going to be silly I'll----"

"You'll what?"

"Set Augustus on to you. Goodnight Mr. Wilton. I'm so glad to have met
you."

Back in the house the four faced each other, a trifle uneasily.

"There's something queer somewhere," Allan said. "I don't like that
chap."

"Nor I," said Katherine decidedly.

"But you were all over him?" Thus said Gerald, with brotherly frankness.

"I wasn't; only it seemed wise to see him again--without Kenneth
Gardiner."

"So you think he's mixed up in it?"

"I'm sure of it."

"Mightn't the whole thing be imagination? I mean," Allan had the
average man's distrust of the abnormal or unusual.

"It might be," Valerie spoke for the first time. "But in that case,
then, this is mere coincidence." She drew a folded paper from the bosom
of her frock.

"What is it?"

"Before Augustus so unfortunately got hold of Mr. Wilton's wallet I
managed to get this," she paused.

"Valerie!" Katherine was shocked, but the two boys applauded.

"C'est la guerre, Kath. You little imp! I wondered why Augustus had
broken out so badly at this particular moment. Show us it quickly."

She laid it on the table and watched them bend over it eagerly. They
looked up with with an exclamation of disgust.

"It's in the same language as the other."

"Yes," replied Valerie complacently; "and if I'm not mistaken you'll
find it's an identical copy of the same document. Doesn't that prove
what I've always said, that we've stumbled into something remarkably
interesting."

"Rather upsetting really," Allan paused. "I wish to goodness I'd handed
it over to the police. I've a good mind to do so now."

"You forget," said Valerie, "you gave it to me."

"Then I propose we carry on as we have done. Be as innocent as possible
and give Wilton and Gardiner all the rope they want. I suppose the
thing is safely hidden, Val?"

"I'll vouch for that," she smiled. "You wouldn't find it in a hundred
years."

"We've begun well by appearing entirely unsuspecting. Then let us
continue so--on the surface--and let things happen." He looked at Allan.

"Yes," he agreed. "There can't be any harm in that, as long as they
don't become too aggressive, but I'd like to have a clue to that
language."

"I know," Katherine leaned forward eagerly. "Couldn't we send a line or
two to Derry Stanfield? He's a student of modern languages, and he'd
know, if anyone would."

"That's a great idea," exclaimed Gerald; "and then get hold of a
grammar and a dictionary. We'd soon be able to make sense out of it."

"The ease with which the family takes to crime is rather terrifying."
Allan picked up the clock. "By the way I wonder if Jim's in this."

"I'm sure he's not," Valerie replied with such swift intensity that
the three stared. "There's nothing underhand about Jim," she continued
defiantly, and then, as they continued to stare, she seized her candle
and departed, banging the door after her.

"Oh dear!" Katherine and Allan glanced at Gerald, but he had lost
interest and was whistling softly as he prepared to follow Valerie's
example.

"Mollie Pattison is a nice kiddie, Kath," he said, a trifle too
casually. "She has had rather a rough time, too, I gather. We must have
her out here some time."

"Why, of course, old chap," Katherine replied with equal carelessness.
"Good night."

Then she turned to Allan with a gesture of despair. "Val and Gerald are
off again," she said.

"Cheer up, Kath! They're only children, and when you come to think
of it, it's rather a coincidence, isn't it, that they always do it
together?"

"Why, do you mean----?"

"We've done enough conspiring for one night, Kath. Don't worry your
beautiful head about them, that's all."

"Well, I won't." Her smile was very sweet. "But I don't know what we'd
do without you, Allan."

"Nonsense, be off with you." He laughed easily, and she bade him good
night, but he showed no inclination to follow her example, and sat for
some time by the fire thinking deeply, and in spite of the mysteries
which appeared to be shadowing them his thoughts were happy ones.




CHAPTER IX.--"SHADOWS ACROSS THE SUN."

The four rose late, in spite of the alarm, and felt a strange
disinclination to set about their daily tasks. They were tired, but
they were also unsettled. The atmosphere of mystery which surrounded
them made them feel that the everyday world was very flat and
commonplace, and the talk at the breakfast table centred on "it" with
purposeless intensity, until everyone's nerves were on edge, and
Valerie and Gerald began to quarrel.

Katherine took charge. "We're all talking nonsense and wasting time.
You know we agreed last night that we were just going to carry on as
though nothing had happened, and now we're behaving like a lot of silly
children."

"You're right, as usual, Kath," agreed Allan, "Come on kids, stop
fighting and get to work. There's a lot to be done."

"I'll write to Derry to-day," Katherine continued. "You can take it into
town yourselves, as there are several things I want."

"Good-o," Gerald agreed with suspicious eagerness. "Will you come, Val?"

"Rather," declared Valerie promptly; "I want to see Mollie again, and
Jim will be there, as it's market day. They're bringing in a crowd of
calves or something. He told me last night."

"Hurry up then, kid, or well be late."

"Kid yourself." Valerie seized a pail and started in the direction of
the poultry yard, whence she was heard a moment later calling upon
Gerald to assist her in detaching Augustus from a terrified rooster.

Katherine attacked the breakfast dishes, and Allan, shouldering a rake
and hoe, set out for the orchard.

For a while Katherine was busy, and the time passed swiftly enough.
When she had finished she sighed thankfully and took a book out to
the front verandah, where she subsided into a deck chair in the fresh
spring sunshine and began to read. She alone of the team had not fitted
well into her new environment.

She had told Allan often that her happiness lay with the Team, and she
fully believed it, but sometimes as she looked ahead to never-ending
days of uninteresting housework and drudgery, she wondered if she could
stand it.

Her book was interesting and she speedily became absorbed in it, so
that she did not notice a car draw up for a moment, and the mining
engineer open the gate and come towards her. He was quite close before
she raised her eyes with a start, and, having greeted her courteously,
he sat down on a step at her feet, showing no immediate disposition to
repair the damage to his car.

"This is a bit of luck--finding you alone, I mean," he said. "I've been
wanting to talk to you."

"Indeed?" she replied rather coldly, but he refused to be snubbed.

"I saw you last night at the dance," he continued.

"Yes. I noticed you--staring."

"Bad as that was it? I say, I'm sorry. I'm a rough sort of chap.
I've knocked round a lot, and I expect I've knocked the edges off my
manners, but, look here, can't we be friends?"

His directness startled her. "Friends? But how can we be? You're
leaving here to-day, aren't you?"

"Oh, I'm not going far. I've got a job in the hills, just across the
ranges."

"Really?"

"Yes, it's a wild spot, miles from everywhere, but some people I know
want a survey of it, and beggars can't be choosers."

"How interesting!" She had an idea that he was watching her keenly.

"Oh, not so very. There's one queer thing about it, though. One of the
men I had engaged for the chain gang was found dead."

Katherine started. "You mean the man we found?"

"Yes. I didn't know it until last night--your part of it, I mean. As
a matter of fact," he seemed to be weighing his words carefully, "the
whole thing seems rather mysterious, and has worried me quite a lot. He
had some plans I was using with him, and the loss of them has upset my
calculations."

"But wouldn't the police give them to you?" she asked, with apparent
indifference.

"They didn't have them. I wondered if perhaps your brothers----"

Katherine became a great lady. "I am sure that Mr. Linton would have no
reason to conceal anything from the police, or from you. You had better
speak to him yourself."

"I'm sorry. I seem----"

She rose to her feet. "If you will excuse me I have work to do, and you
came to repair your car. Good morning."

The engineer's expression, as he watched her retreating form, was not
exactly a pleasant one but he merely shrugged his shoulders and set
about changing his tyre. Some minutes later he rounded the house,
and almost ran into Valerie, who, in picturesque gardening attire,
including an old felt hat of Gerald's, was industriously weeding the
vegetable garden. He handed her a letter from Jim, and then departed
hurriedly.

Jim's letter was short and to the point.


"Dear Valerie,

There is something on hand just now that I do not understand, and I
think I had better have a talk to you about it. If I do not see you in
town to-day could you meet me to-night about 8 o'clock at the bridge? I
would rather you did not mention this to the others until after I have
seen you. Then you can use your discretion.

Yours, Jim."


At lunch Katherine repeated to the Team the substance of her
conversation with Wilton.

"Mining engineers don't go surveying," declared Allan. "Depend upon it,
the clue to the mystery is to be found in the hills."

"There are parts of them quite inaccessible and unexplored," said
Gerald. "I remember some of the chaps passing through them last spring
on a walking trip. They said it was very rough going."

"Buried treasure," announced Valerie suddenly.

"Rubbish!" Everyone laughed.

"You've laughed at me all along so far, but everything I've said has
been right," she replied indignantly. "And I can't help feeling that
the worst is yet to come."

"Nonsense, girl. You're letter your imagination run away with you,"
Gerald laughed. "I'll admit it is a little bit mysterious, but there's
probably a very simple explanation. Now are you ready to come to town?"

"I am. Shall we take Augustus?"

"Over my dead body. Good-bye, Kath. Sure you've remembered everything?"

As a rule the little township had few attractions for the Team. It was
the word in dullness. Even market days had ceased to be novelties, and
they knew by heart every shop window, and had a nodding acquaintance
with even the lugubrious hotel barman.

They first collected their mail. Then they went to the store, and
Mollie, with a pale face and tired eyes, flushed prettily as she saw
them.

As they waited until she was free, they were seized upon by a stout
lady, brilliantly arrayed, whom they recognised to be the wife of the
local doctor and an eminent social figure in the little community.

"You are Miss Raymond, aren't you, and this is your brother?" The Team
were used to the relationships being mixed, so Valerie smiled vaguely,
and did not trouble to contradict. "I am Mrs. McDonald. I have been
away, otherwise I would have been out to see you. We were wondering
if you would join our hospital committee, Miss Raymond. I have also
planned for your cousin to take an interest in our dramatic circle."

"That sounds more thrilling than the hospital committee," declared
Valerie with deplorable frankness. "And Kath will be a help, I'm sure.
She has done a good bit of that sort of thing, and so has Gerald."

"Ah!" She looked at him speculatively but disapprovingly. He had
wandered to the counter, and was exchanging pleasantries with Mollie
Pattison. Mrs. McDonald checked a remark that was quivering on her
lips, and smiled diplomatically. "Yes, I'm sure he could help," she
said. "We are having a meeting on Thursday night at my house. Now,
don't forget Thursday, will you? I'm depending on you." She swept out
importantly before Valerie had time to reply, and left her gasping for
breath.

"Gerald, your fate is sealed," she announced dramatically. "You are
billed to appear as Romeo to Mrs. McDonald's Juliet."

"What nonsense are you talking now?"

"The truth. We're to join the dramatic club presided over by the
respectable lady whom you wouldn't stay to be introduced to. And I'm
to be a hospital visitor, or something equally poisonous. Apparently I
don't reach the required standard for drama."

"Lord help the patients!" Gerald grinned and yawned. "I'm beginning to
realise I'm tired. Miss Pattison here looks as if dancing all night
agreed with her."

"I've never enjoyed a dance so much," she smiled at them tremulously.
"You made me feel at home somehow."

"I'm glad," replied Valerie with swift sympathy. "Won't you come and
see us some time, one Sunday? Gerald could come for you in the car, and
we could go picnicking somewhere in the hills."

"Please do," said Gerald eagerly. "We could ask Jim Gardiner, too,
Val, and with Kath and Allan have a nice little party. What about next
Sunday?"

"The day after tomorrow? Splendid! Of course I'd love to come."

They made their purchases and emerged into the main street with their
arms full of parcels, where they almost collided with old Mr. McIntyre,
who beamed at Valerie.

"It's gran' to see ye, lassie." He took some parcels from her and
helped in stowing them away in the car, chatting amiably on various
topics until they were ready to go. Then he paused and looked carefully
round.

"Ye'll be mindin' the man ye found on the road?"

"Yes." Valerie felt a queer touch of foreboding.

"I've been having dinner with my brother-in-law, who is in charge
at the police station, and he's been telling me there's going to be
trouble."

"Trouble?" queried Gerald.

"It's said by the authorities in Melbourne they are not too satisfied
as to how he died. They're sending someone up to investigate."

"Why? I--we----" Valerie looked at Gerald anxiously.

"It's nothing to fash your little head about," the old man reassured
her, "but it's a queer thing whatever." He hesitated. "Maybe I
shouldn't have said anything, and I'll be obliged if you'll not mention
it, as I wouldn't get Peter into trouble, but you'd be sure to know
soon."

"We won't tell a soul, except, of course Allan and Kath," replied
Valerie breathlessly. "But what do you think has happened?"

"Men don't die accidentally in such places," answered the old man
seriously. "I thought that at the time. It might a been murder."

"No! He said it was an accident," Gerald protested quickly. "I'm sorry
for the girls' sake this has to be raked up again, but we have nothing
to fear in the matter. Have you done all your shopping, Val? Then, if
you'll excuse us, sir? We can't give you a lift, I suppose?"

Gerald was silent for a moment. "Now what," he said, "exactly does that
mean?"

"I'm--I'm frightened, Ger.," Valerie said in a small voice. "It looks
queer, somehow. Do you suppose it was murder?"

"I'm afraid I've never thought about it much," he answered gravely,
"though I did think the police took a great deal for granted. Still a
man doesn't usually lie when he's dying."

"No," she agreed. Then----"Gerald, I wish we'd never come here.
Everything has gone wrong. Kath's unhappy. Yes, I know she is! I can
tell better than you, and though excitement is fun after a fashion----"

Gerald stopped the car suddenly to stare at her. "Val, are you
sickening for anything, measles or the croup? You're usually gamer than
Ned Kelly."

"Of course not, and I'm game now," she flashed back, "only I hate the
thought of this inquiry.

"Guilty conscience, I suppose," he laughed relievedly. "Val, I've been
wondering if you and Kath don't need a holiday in town. A few days
there would buck you both up."

"You don't get rid of us that way, Ger. Whatever happens I'm going
to be in it--well in," she added, with an emphatic turn of her head,
little guessing how true her prophecy was to be.

They did not speak for a moment, each troubled with a vague sense of
foreboding. Then Gerald said half to himself, "After all, we can always
give it up. We don't know the value of what we own and it doesn't
belong to us anyhow."

"And I'm equally sure it doesn't belong to Kenneth Gardiner and his
gang," retorted Valerie with all her old fire, "or he wouldn't send
persons like Wilton crawling round with tales that any ass could see
through."

"Poor little girl! Never mind, when the troubles blown over we'll have
a week in town, just you and I and do everything."

"Ye-es." There was a strange lack of enthusiasm in her voice that he
was quick to resent.

"Of course if you really want to," he added stiffly.

"If you do, of course," she answered.

"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't," he retorted, ill-pleased, and threw
in the clutch with a jerk. Arrived at the house, Valerie gathered up
her parcels and turned with a smile.

"Sorry Ger!" she said. "Don't be cross. We'll make it a fortnight."

"Right'o," he answered cheerily enough, but there was a cloud on his
good-looking face as he put the car in the garage. For the first time
during their association he was wondering if he fully understood
Valerie.

Valerie was very quiet during tea, so much so that the other three
commented on this quietness with much vigour. As a matter of fact she
was wondering how best she could elude the others and slip away to meet
Jim Gardiner. Such clandestine meetings were not to her taste, but she
liked Jim well enough to believe that he must have a very good reason
for suggesting it, and she had a queer feeling that it was to be an
important link in the chain of circumstances surrounding them. Her
confusion was heightened by Katherine suggesting bridge, and she looked
wildly round for escape.

"I'm sorry; I've got a headache," she stammered and saw or thought she
saw disbelief in Gerald's face.

"You with a headache!" Katherine's amazement was justified, for Valerie
was the healthiest of mortals.

"Not a very bad one, but bridge might make it worse. I think I'll go
outside for a walk."

"It will be too cold. You had better go straight to bed and have a
sleep."

"All right," replied Valerie with surprising docility, "but don't come
in for an hour or so will you? If I get an uninterrupted sleep for a
couple of hours I'll probably be all right."

"Oh we'll be quiet. Goodnight, dear. I hope you're not going to be ill."

"Of course not." It seemed to her that everyone must realise she was
lying and she almost blurted out the truth, retiring in disorder.
Once in her bedroom, however, she acted swiftly, donning a dark coat
and small felt hat. Then after a reasonable time had elapsed she
extinguished the light, and feeling more conspiratorial than ever, she
climbed through the open window and sped lightly along the load toward
the bridge which spanned the river not a hundred yards from Valinstar.

She was early and was glad to lean against the wooden rails and
regain her breath. It was very cold and though Valerie was by nature
courageous, she felt strangely lonely, and afraid, so that the noise
of a horse's hoofs approaching came as a welcome sound. Jim dismounted
before he reached the bridge, and came forward whistling softly.

"By Jove, it was ripping of you to come. It's beastly cold. Let's get
off the road a bit, shall we? We don't want to advertise the fact to
the neighbourhood. People will talk." He led the way down a steep,
stony path to the river bank, where he tethered his horse to a tree.
"Now," he said, "I'm going to get in first. I know you are cross with
me for wanting you to come, and that I've an awful cheek, but----" he
paused awkwardly.

"I certainly think you must have a very good reason, Jim," she answered
quietly. "At least--I hope you have."

"It's a conflict of loyalties," he told her. "There's Ken, but I don't
owe much to him. He's a born adventurer, and why he hangs round home at
all bothers me. Then there's you and the rest of the team----my friends."

She caught her breath. "I'm beginning to see. Jim, you know something?"

"Not much," he replied, "but I don't like what I know. Ken has got
mixed up with some queer people now and again. I don't like that chap
Wilton."

"Neither do I," admitted Valerie.

"It's Ken's half-foreign blood," went on Jim apologetically. "He
doesn't look it, I know, but it's there--a gipsy streak--Hungarian, I
think. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but last night I heard snatches of a
discussion I wasn't meant to hear. It concerned you all."

"Tell me," she demanded.

"There wasn't much. You've got something Ken wants. I know that, and he
and Wilton intend to get it."

"How?"

"I can't tell you that, but I know Ken. He'll stop at nothing. Even Dad
is afraid of him sometimes, and they mentioned Miss Starr--Katherine."

"Kath! They couldn't----"

"There's something they can do to her. Oh, I know it's beastly, but I
wanted to warn you and I want you to know that I'm on your side, not
Ken's, if anything happens."

"Why, what should happen?"

"You know best. I saw you were kidding Wilton along last night. I think
they suspected it."

"It's splendid of you to tell me, Jim." She placed a hand in his for
a moment. "I can't see that they can do anything to us, but---" She
paused, "Jim, do you know anything about the man who was killed--the
one we found? He comes into this too, and is part of the mystery."

"Then it's a mystery to you too?"

"Of course. We have got something--I'm trusting you, Jim---but it
sounds absurd to say we don't know its meaning or its value, but were
just determined not to give it up, from sheer obstinacy. If he had
asked for it nicely he might have had it, but now----"

Jim laughed softly. "I might have known it. I wish I belonged to the
team."

"You almost do. You've proved it to-night."

"Thanks. I'll help all I can. I can't spy on Ken--never could, but I'll
keep my eyes and ears open. Why, what is it?"

"I thought I saw someone moving among the trees."

Tense and silent they gazed into the dark shadows and listened, but
heard nothing but the rustle of the leaves in the wind and the rushing
of water. "Imagination, Val," said Jim sternly. "Now I'm going home.
You're shivering."

"I'm not cold," she protested. "But I think you'd better go. I feel
sure that someone has been here. Good night. No, you're not coming with
me. I'll be quite all right. Thanks awfully."

In the road outside the gate she ran into Gerald who seized her arm.

"Why, Val, wherever have you been? Kath's awfully worried."

"I decided I wanted a walk, and went out of the window to save time,"
she said defiantly.

"That's only half the truth. Be straight, Val, you went out to meet
someone."

"If I did it's no business of yours," she retorted.

"Perhaps not, but I don't think Kenneth Gardiner is a safe person to be
meeting after dark."

"Kenneth Gardiner?"

"Oh, don't pretend to be innocent, Val. Those airs don't go down with
me. He drove past a moment ago. I know you're fond of fun, but I'd draw
the line at that chap. Why what's the matter?"

Valerie clutched his arm. Her thoughts were racing swiftly. Had Kenneth
met Jim? Or--she drew a sharp breath--suppose Kenneth had followed Jim
to the clump of gum trees beside the river----. She forced herself to
laugh lightly. "Nothing, silly. I'm cold, that's all! Let's go in and
tell them that the wanderer has returned and don't say anything to
Kath. She'll only worry."

"I suppose not," he agreed grudgingly, but it seemed to-night that
Valerie was further away from him than ever.




CHAPTER X.--GOLD.

Valerie made a point of being extremely cheerful during the next few
days, for she resented the cloud that had arisen between her and
Gerald. He was a poor actor, and showed his suspicions too plainly.
Members of a team trusted one another, Valerie thought, and he was
not playing the game. Therefore, when Sunday came, clear, bright and
exhilarating, she appeared to be in the highest of spirits and declared
her eagerness to walk all the way, a suggestion promptly vetoed by the
others.

They were ready to start for their picnic soon after 9, but at the gate
the first hitch occurred, Valerie, as usual, being responsible, for she
insisted on bringing Augustus.

"He'll feel so lonely," she protested. "And Mollie and Jim both like
him."

"But you know he never sits still in the car for two minutes," pleaded
Allan. "He'll be all right at home."

"Of course the brute's not going." Gerald, who was driving, threw in
the clutch.

"Then I'm staying home." Valerie opened the door and to their surprise
they found she was serious.

"But why, girl?"

"I've told you. He can sit in the back at my feet, and I promise he'll
be good."

They submitted with an ill-grace, and Augustus, apparently acutely
sensitive to the atmosphere of disapproval, crept humbly into the car,
and did his best to efface himself.

Jim was waiting for them at the gate of Willaura and joined Allan and
Valerie in the back seat. Unfortunately he trod on Augustus's tail
in the process who with justifiable resentment give vent to a loud
howl and attacked the intruder. After two snaps and a growl he fell
backwards out of the car, and this fall had the effect of restoring
his equanimity, for he showed no signs of renewing the onslaught, and
wagged his tail apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Jim," said Valerie. "But his tail seems sort of sensitive."

"Valerie is developing a new art," said Gerald over his shoulder,
apologising for Augustus. "It acts better where males are concerned.
You note the method, of course--a pathetic smile, a droop of the
eyelids, and you begin to feel its your fault and not the hounds.
Then----"

"Be quiet! Oh, goodness, Augustus, come here."

Augustus, however, had discovered a mortal enemy. Mrs Gardiner's
Persian cat had incautiously appeared on the drive. There was a sharp
bark, a scurry of feet, a yelp, and the hunt was up.

"Stop him!" screamed Valerie, as she darted in pursuit, but neither
Augustus nor the cat showed any signs of slackening pace. She followed
them round the side of the house, the air resounding with frenzied
barks. From an adjoining doorway Kenneth Gardiner emerged hurriedly.

"What the----" he began impatiently, and paused when he saw Valerie.
"Oh, it's you."

"Yes," said Valerie defiantly. "At least, it's Augustus."

He paused easily, his self-possession quite restored. "I thought the
zoo had broken loose. Can I help you?"

"You can take the cat away."

"Not being an acrobat, I'd rather remove Augustus." He seized
Augustus's collar firmly.

"Oh--h--h----" Valerie's voice rose to a shriek. "Do be careful! He
might bite."

"Not he." Gardiner tugged harder, but Augustus simply sat back on his
haunches and refused to budge. Conscious of the grinning faces of two
of the farm hands, who had been attracted by the tumult, Gardiner lost
his head with fatal results. He gave a jerk to the collar, which would
have dislocated the neck of any other dog, but at the same moment it
parted suddenly, and he fell backwards.

There was another scream from Valerie, who sprang forward to help him,
but he pushed her on one side, eyes blazing, and made for the dog,
aiming a heavy kick at the animal, but Augustus had lived in the world
and knew mankind, so that by the time the others realised Gardiner's
intentions he was half-way down the drive. With a curse, Kenneth flung
the broken collar from him and went indoors. Silently Valerie retrieved
it, looking strangely white and shaken.

"I'm sorry," Jim was saying apologetically. "Ken's got the devil of a
temper."

"He tried to kick Augustus." She spoke without heat. "Jim, I think I
would be afraid of your brother." Which was, from Valerie, a startling
admission.

The three at the gate evidently guessed something had happened from
Valerie's unwonted quietness and Jim's worried look, but being tactful
souls they ignored it, and the party set out again, Augustus in a state
of grovelling penitence.

Mollie Pattison awaited them eagerly. She wore no hat, and her long
plaits sparkled in the sunshine, displaying unexpected golden lights
and shadows. Her shabby dark jumper and skirt were rather a contrast to
the smart sports suits the girls affected, but Mollie was the only one
who was conscious of it, and she glowed with excitement as they tucked
her in beside Gerald, quite unconscious that any shadow had fallen upon
the party.

Valerie was mending the dog's collar, firmly refusing assistance, so
that there was a hurt look in Jim's eyes, but when at last it was
replaced she became her old self again.

"What are we going to do?" she asked. "I want to walk miles and miles
and miles."

"What do you say, Jim?" said Allan. "You know this part better than we
do."

"Well, I suggest we follow this road up as far as we can, which isn't
much farther, for the old sawmill was burnt out a few years ago."

"Splendid! Does the road get much worse, though, because I don't know
if the springs will stand it."

"No. We're almost there. See, there's the clearing now."

Parking the car under a tree, they descended eagerly, and looked about
them with interested appreciation. They had been steadily climbing for
some time, and through the gap made by the road they caught a glimpse
of the valley, with the clustered roofs of the township and its orderly
array of orchards and paddocks.

The clearing, too, had its interest. A few blackened piles of rotting
timber lay scattered about, and a building was still standing, with a
rusted iron roof, surrounded by other heaps of old iron and rubbish. It
all wore an air of desolation and desertion.

"How queer that the fire should have left that shed," said Katherine.

"Oh, that was rebuilt about three years ago out of the debris," replied
Jim. "There was some talk of trying to reopen the mill, but it fell
through, and now hardly anyone ever comes here, certainly no local
people would think of it. There are other more beautiful places, but
you told me you wanted to explore, and I brought you here because if
you're game for the climb there's something well worth seeing at the
top."

"Why doesn't anyone ever come here, though?" asked Valerie.

Jim laughed awkwardly. "Well, as a matter of fact, the place has rather
a bad name."

"Why?"

"If you must know, a man was murdered up here several years ago. He was
found dead in that hut some months afterwards."

"How was he murdered?" asked Valerie with a shiver.

"Knife in his back," said Jim briefly. "So now the valley folk give the
place a wide berth--even in daylight."

"I'm sure I don't blame them," said Allan hastily, turning to the car.
"Let's unpack and get moving."

"Well, someone's been here lately, anyhow," said Gerald. "These
wheel-marks aren't very old."

"The road is overgrown enough to put anyone off," said Jim. "Some
curious persons like ourselves, I suppose. Now are we all ready? It's a
climb, but we can take it steadily. Quick march."

He lead the way to the old disused trolley track. The wooden rails
were in fairly good condition, but thick weeds sprouting from between
the sleepers impeded their progress. Trees and bushes walled them in
impenetrably, and almost shut out the sunlight, blackberry briars
clawed at their legs, intrusive wattles barred their way, but once the
clearing with its sinister associations had been left behind it was
strange and enjoyable.

In all directions were other mountains rising peak on peak till lost
to sight in the blue mist. The valley from which they had climbed was
out of sight, but there were other valleys, thickly wooded clefts in
the hills, and in open spaces on the slopes near by they could see
stretches of pink and white heath.

"I don't know about you others," said Gerald. "But I'm hungry enough to
eat Augustus."

In a remarkably short space of time they were gathered round their meal
with hearty appetites. Minor casualties were dismissed as trivial, and
even when Augustus, to whom this game was both new and attractive,
succeeded in eloping with a large sponge-cake in his mouth, they agreed
tolerantly that as the cake represented Valerie's latest cooking
experiment the dog would be sufficiently punished.

Even when everyone had eaten their fill they showed no inclination to
move, and were more than usually quiet. The presence of the mountains
so close in their serenity and eternal stillness is apt to engender
thoughts to those sensitive to beauty, and the Team, with all their
outward frivolity, all owned to moments of intense appreciation of the
beautiful.

"I think," said Valerie suddenly, "I could be always good if I lived up
here."

Allan looked at her in bewilderment. "Child, I never knew you had
thoughts like that."

"I don't usually. I think it's indigestion. I've had an awfully big
dinner. Augustus is longing for a scramble, Jim. I'll race you to that
big gum tree." She was half-way there before he had gathered his wits
together to set out in pursuit, and they vanished among the trees,
wrangling amiably while the others set to work packing up the remains
of their meal.

"I think Valerie's just wonderful," said Mollie shyly, as she and
Gerald washed cups in the turbulent little mountain stream.

"She's----" A cup fell from Gerald's hand and broke in fragments, but
he took no notice. "Just Valerie---quite inexplicable."

"I don't think so," she threw back a braid with a frown. "She just
hasn't found what she wants yet. We're all like that till we do. Now,
Miss Starr----"

"You think Kath has?"

"Why, you've only to look at her to know, and Mr. Linton, too."

"You don't mean----?" He looked at her with startled eyes.

"Nothing silly," she tossed her head in contempt, "but they're grown
up. They wouldn't be silly or moody or unhappy over trifles--for long
anyway."

"By Jove, you're right," he looked at her thoughtfully, "you're really
rather clever, you know."

"That's not clever, merely common sense. Are we going for a walk?"

"Yes, I suppose so." He answered abstractedly. "I wonder where Jim and
Val went."

"Down there, but they won't want us. I want some pink heath. Let's go
up that hill."

"Meet here at 4 o'clock," called Allan. "I hope Jim and Val will have
the sense to be back by then."




CHAPTER XI.--"DISCOVERY."

Katherine and Allan did not wander far. They were content to sit on
the rocks and look appreciatively at the long line of hills stretched
out before them, while they talked idly for a while, and then with
deepening seriousness as the mountains cast their spell upon them. They
spoke of the life they had left, and their present position, of new
friends and old, and then Allan hesitatingly touched on the future.

"Of course, we cannot expect to go on indefinitely, Kath. We plunged
into this rather rashly for Gerald's sake, and from that point of view
the experiment has more than justified itself. The boy is looking
better than I have ever seen him, and he did not turn a hair after that
climb. I was watching him."

She gave him a swift look. "That's very like you to be so thoughtful, I
mean. But surely you don't propose going back to the city again?"

"I don't, but for you, others---Valerie and Gerald would be happy
anywhere, but this is not your place, Katherine."

"Are you then so anxious to get rid of me?" she asked softly.

"You know that wherever you are the sun shines," he replied directly.

"And yet-----" She could not see his face. It was turned to the distant
hill, but there was something in the very pose of his head that made
her heart begin to race. "And yet, you would sent me away."

"You know I would never do that." His voice was very steady. "But--I'm
only human--and a man."

"What do you mean?" She knew. In her heart of hearts she realised that
she had known for years, but she had never had the courage to face the
issue. He had been just a brother, but infinitely more thoughtful and
unselfish.

"I think you know," he answered swiftly. "Many men have loved you. I
had never meant to tell you that I was just one more, but lately it has
taken all my manhood."

Still that resolute head was turned away. She tried to speak, but for a
moment found no words. Then----

"My dear! Oh, my dear!"

He turned swiftly at the sound of her voice, incredulous, wondering, as
he read his answer in her radiant face.

"Kath, you can't mean it? I've never even dreamt of being worthy of
you."

"Of me. You don't know the real me, Allan--vain and useless, and
selfish, too. There has never been anyone in my world quite like you.
I've flirted with other men, because you were there in the background,
strong and steady, and I have played with fire once too often, but the
flame is dead now."

"You are sure?"

She nodded. "I have learnt my lesson."

He took her slender white hands in his roughened ones. All the
housework in the world would never make her hands hard or unlovely.

"You know, Katherine, it will mean staying here. I could never go back
to the office routine now. My place is out of doors, making things
grow."

"Where you are I am content."

There was a long silence as they sat together, looking into the future.
Then Katherine spoke.

"You aren't in a hurry, Allan?"

"Now I know," he smiled. "I shall await your pleasure."

"I mean I'd rather not tell the others--yet."

"You mean----?"

"I think this might upset them. They might think we didn't want them,
and do something foolish. They're at rather a foolish age, you know."

He laughed reassuringly. "I'm not worrying. Valerie will find her
mountain gold, even in the shadows. Jim Gardiner's a good fellow, but
he couldn't give her what she wants, and she knows it."

"I don't think she knows what she wants," said Katherine doubtfully.
"She's such a child."

"She's growing up though. Haven't you noticed it lately? Hullo here
come Mollie and Gerald. You don't mean to say it's as late as that."

They smiled at each other with understanding, as flushed and breathless
the pair scrambled up to them. The girl's arms were filled with pink
and white mountain heath, which she laughingly laid in Katherine's arms.

"For you, of course. The Browns wouldn't thank me for cluttering up the
house. Why, you look quite bridal, doesn't she? Heath is lovelier than
orange blossom, I think."

"You're blushing?" Gerald laughed. "I thought you'd forgotten how. What
is it this time, Kath? Old Mr. McIntyre? I noticed you admiring his
pigs the other day, or is it the youth in the wide trousers who brings
the meat?"

"Don't be silly," his sister replied with magnificent scorn. "This
is lovely, Mollie. It was very sweet of you. My house will look like
fairyland tomorrow."

"And the day after you'll be cleaning up the mess," she smiled. "But
it's worth it for the day."

Allan looked at his watch. "Nearly half-past 4. It's time we started
back. It still gets dark fairly early. I wonder where those other two
are?"

"Val's got no time sense," said Gerald. "Let's coo-ee."

Their shouts rang through the hills without eliciting any response.

"Do you suppose they're lost?" asked Katherine anxiously.

"Not they. Jim's too good a bushman for that," replied Allan quickly.
"They'll turn up. I expect they've wandered too far. You know how
restless Val is."

"Inquisitive, you mean," Gerald frowned. "It's confoundedly
thoughtless."

"Don't worry old chap. Jim can look after her."

"Can he?" he scowled again, and mounting a boulder coo-eed loudly, and
listened vainly for a reply.

"You go on," he called. "I'll wait here. There's no sense in all doing
the trip in the dark."

"We'll stick together," said Katherine. "Call once again, Ger."

This time, to their profound relief, they heard a distant shout, but it
was nearly half an hour later that the truants reappeared, dirty and
dishevelled, much mud upon their persons, accompanied by Augustus, who,
if possible, looked even more dishevelled.

"So sorry," Valerie panted swift apologies. "But Augustus went down a
hole and didn't come up again."

"So we had to go," said Jim wearily. He had evidently found exploring
with Valerie somewhat wearing.

"It was fun! It went into cliff ever so far, and then came out again."

"An old mining shaft," explained Jim.

"And that was why Augustus hadn't come back, and even then we couldn't
find him. He disappeared. We searched the gully--a lovely ferny place."

"Knee deep in mud."

"And do you know what the darling had found? A cave all hidden by
creepers and things."

"We spent ages looking for the brute," said Jim gloomily. "The place
seemed walled in, and a creek, almost a young river, came out of the
cliff."

"How interesting! But it will be dark soon, and we've a nasty track
before us," said Allan.

"We can go down quicker than we came up," said Valerie,
philosophically. "I slid backward all the time. It should be easy to
keep on sliding."

"No experiments, please," Allan shouldered his bundle. "We don't want
any sprained ankles here, young lady."

"All right." She lingered a moment to say good-night to the mountains,
behind which the sun was swiftly setting, and already long blue and
grey shadows were appearing magically, and a cold chill heralded the
night. A swift step broke in upon her meditations. It was Gerald.

"Hurry, Val. The others have gone on."

"It's too beautiful," she said, breathlessly. "Ger, are you still angry
with me?"

He avoided her glance for a moment, and then said frankly, "Something
has been wrong somewhere. I hate you not to trust me, Val. It has
worried me, too, and----"

"Let's call it square," she smiled. "It's not worth while up here."

"Nor anywhere else between pals." He took her arm. "Be careful down
this slope, you silly."

"We needn't hurry." She sighed contentedly. "Ger, I've got something to
show you when we get home."

"What?"

"I'll keep it till then." There was a swift thrill of excitement in her
voice. "Don't say anything though; it's a Team discovery, and belongs
to no one else."

"Not even Jim?" he asked teasingly.

"Of course not, stupid. Ger, I've a queer feeling about that clearing
down there. I wonder who that prospector was who was murdered?"

"Why should he be anyone in particular? That's right. Step right into
the mud, don't go round."

"Diddums splash you?" she returned. "You look horribly clean, Ger."

"You little imp." Gerald sat heavily down in a pool of water, and those
in front heard heated shouts of mirth and sounds of tumult, for as
usual Augustus had not missed his opportunity.

Presently, two very bedraggled and wet figures joined the party.

"It was that brute's fault," said Gerald bitterly. "He knocked me
sideways, and Valerie did the rest."

"It was only a little push," declared Valerie. "And he dragged me in,
too."

"Served you right," retorted Gerald.

"You'll catch cold." Thus Katherine anxiously.

"We've coats in the car, and we're all right as long as we keep moving.
Race you down."

It was not an easy descent. At length, however, Gerald and Valerie, who
were leading, began to run, and emerged triumphantly into the clearing
some yards ahead of the others, giving vent to a joyous shout.

Valerie caught Gerald's arm. "There's a light in the shed," she said,
but even as she spoke it flickered and vanished.

"Nonsense," said Gerald. "You'll be seeing spooks next. Want to
investigate?"

"No," she replied. "I'd hate to, but I'm sure I saw it."

"You're always imagining things." He shivered, and his teeth shattered.
"I am cold. Let's get to the car and our coats. You must be frozen too."

They concluded the day in the kitchen at Valinstar, where Gerald and
Valerie rejoiced Katherine's heart by behaving in their most idiotic
vein, and made it abundantly evident that peace had been restored. They
elected to escort their visitors home, and quietly but firmly deposited
them together in the back seat, a proceeding which seemed quite to
Jim's liking as he had been rediscovering Mollie Pattison.

It was when they were alone in the car that Gerald became serious.

"We can't have this happening again, Val."

"Well, it was your fault."

"Was it? You never told me yet why you lied about that headache."

"You never asked me," she flashed, and then laughed. "Oh well, it was
horrid of me, but I'll tell you now." In a few short phrases she told
him. "And," she concluded, "I can quite understand Kenneth Gardiner
being just a beast. I saw that side of him to-day. He's bad right
through. Why, he tried to kick Augustus."

"That's the best thing I've heard about him yet," returned Gerald, with
feeling. "Anyhow, it will be useful to have a friend in the enemy's
camp."

They found Allan and Katherine seated side by side in front of the log
fire, but Valerie, ordinarily very observant, was too excited to notice
a certain hasty movement on the part of the pair as they entered.

"Now that we are alone," she exclaimed dramatically, "I have something
to show you."

"What on earth----?"

She vanished into the next room, and returned with something wrapped
up in a very dirty handkerchief. They watched her with interest as
she untied it, and held up for inspection two small stones, smoothly
rounded and polished, and a dull gold in colour.

"A nugget!" yelled Gerald, and sprang to his feet. "Where did you find
it?"

"Near the river that came out of the cliff in the hidden gully. Is it
really gold?"

"It looks remarkably like it." Allan examined it carefully. "Steady,
Val, no use getting excited. It may be just a kind of stone we've never
seen before."

"It's gold! We've made our fortunes. Hurrah!"

"Be quiet. Are you sure you'd know the place again?"

"Positive. You get through the hole. Do you realise who did it though?
Augustus! If he hadn't gone down the hole, I wouldn't have either."

"What puzzles me," said Gerald, "Is how you managed to keep it quiet.
You're worse than soda-water for fizzing."

"Jim was cross, and wouldn't speak," said Valerie candidly. "I did give
a yelp or two when I picked them up, and then I realised the terrific
importance of it, so I said nothing. There'll be heaps more, won't
there?"

"There may be," said Allan cautiously. "Secrets throng in upon us,
don't they. I'll send this to town to the Government geologist, and get
his verdict, and then----"

"And then we'll start a goldmine. It'll be far more paying than pigs.
They're so slow. We'll head the greatest gold rush ever know since----"

A firm hand and a cushion firmly applied stifled this extraordinary
outburst, but the boys could not conceal their excitement. Only
Katherine remained calm and not too enthusiastic.

"As if it mattered," she said scornfully.

Allan laughed. "As if it does."

"It's not the gold. It's the adventure." Gerald struck an attitude.

"Pioneers, oh, Pioneers!" squeaked Valerie, and the discussion of the
great discovery ended in a peal of hearty laughter.




CHAPTER XII.--"AUGUSTUS TAKES A BATH."

The team fought valiantly against this new and disturbing factor in
their existence. Since their coming to Rockwood circumstances seemed
to have combined to upset the even tenor of their way, and it would
have taken people of a far more sober and sedate turn of mind than
they to carry on methodically with the routine of farm life. And so it
happened the day after Valerie's great discovery. Katherine discovered
that her household stores were considerably depleted, and she promptly
commandeered Allan to take her on a shopping expedition, leaving
Valerie and Gerald in charge, a proceeding which Valerie announced she
intended to celebrate by bathing Augustus. This was rather a difficult
undertaking for such a small person.

Augustus had an unconquerable aversion from water at any time, and was
apt heartily to resent the cleansing process, so Valerie, wise from
experience, arrayed herself in the oldest of garments before she braced
herself for battle, and by dint of blandishments lured the unsuspecting
animal to the tank-stand, where she chained him. She produced a
large tub, and induced him to consent, with some meekness, to the
administration of a preliminary lather of soap. Unfortunately some of
it found its way to his eyes, and, becoming justly incensed, he made a
dash for freedom. The contents of the tub went in all directions, but a
large proportion found its way in Valerie's direction.

"Augustus, you're an ass!" she said with more force than correctness
from the seat on the ground she had taken unexpectedly. The dog
continued to display symptoms of insanity, and became quite
unmanageable. Then his collar snapped again, and with an excited yelp
he bolted round the tank-stand and collided with a young man in cycling
attire, who had just rounded the corner of the house. He had barely
time to express his justifiable annoyance and endeavour to remove a
little moisture from his person when a second shock, in the shaped of a
dripping girl with tousled red hair, once more unbalanced him.

"You idiot, why on earth didn't you stop him?" cried the apparition.
"He's making straight for the pigsty. He always does."

She fled in pursuit, and the stranger, after one stupefied moment,
followed with more deliberation, and soon discovered the girl leaning
over the rail of the sty, adjuring the dog in the most persuasive terms
to come out. Augustus, however, had not asked to be clean, and was
swiftly returning to a comfortable state of warm muddiness.

Valerie vented her wrath on the newcomer. "Now you see what you've
done," she said heatedly. "It'll take hours to get him clean now."

The young man was still looking at the wallowing Augustus with a
somewhat dazed expression. "It is a dog, isn't it?" he murmured. "I
mean, you don't cross them with calves or anything, do you?"

Valerie drew herself up to the full dignity of her four feet nine
inches. "Augustus is a very valuable dog," she said coldly. "He's--he's
unique. I mean there aren't many of him."

"I hope not," agreed the stranger fervently, and then realised that
somehow he had said the wrong thing, and that the atmosphere was
becoming, if anything, even colder.

"It's no good trying to do anything now," she said. "He won't come out
till he's ready. He's frightfully determined."

The stranger surveyed the stretch of black liquid mud that lined the
sty, and then looked doubtfully at his immaculate leather gaiters,
which were beautifully polished. "Say the word and I'll do my best," he
said cheerfully.

Valerie's wrath suddenly abated. He was young, and though his best
friend might not have called him handsome, he had a satisfyingly square
jaw, and blue eyes that betrayed their possessor by a mischievous
twinkle. Valerie's attendant imps, never far out of sight, leapt to
life in friendly response.

"Heavens, no!" she said frankly, "I'm sorry I was rude, but my temper
was made to match my hair, and though I wouldn't own it to the family,
Augustus can be exasperating sometimes."

"The occasion was justifiable," he told her gravely.

"Then let's start again from scratch. Good morning, sir, what can I do
for you?"

"Good morning, miss," he replied, with quick comprehension, "I
understand Mr. Linton lives here?"

"You mean my cousin? I'm sorry he's out. If you came from the township
you probably passed him on the way."

His face fell. "That's very bad luck. I particularly wanted to see him."

"He'll be back before lunch, if you care to wait."

"Thanks. I--perhaps you can help me. I'm making inquiries about a man
named Smith, and I believe your brother--er--cousin--was with him when
he died."

He saw her swiftly defensive expression and wondered. "My name's
Crandall," he added, "Bill Crandall. I've been specially detailed for
this job."

"Gerald was there, too. He's down in the orchard." She become suddenly
conscious of her dripping frock. "If you wait a moment till I change
I'll take you down."

A few minutes later a very dainty young lady joined the waiting
official, who stared at her with undisguised amazement and growing
approval, both of which sensations Valerie affected not to notice as
she led the way over the soft green grass towards the orchard, talking
amiably and casually on various topics, while only the bedraggled form
of Augustus, slinking wistfully in the background, formed material
evidence to convince Mr Crandall that his recent experience had not
been hallucination.

"Ger," she said clearly, "this is Mr. Crandall, who is making inquiries
about Mr. Smith's death. He came to see Allan."

"I understand you were--er---with this man when he died," he began
somewhat awkwardly. "I'm afraid the--at least I'm aware that the police
were satisfied that he died from the effects of an accident, but there
has been some question raised about it, and I want to get the facts, if
possible."

"He said it was an accident," replied Gerald cautiously. "They were
almost his last words. If a man's murdered, and I suppose that is what
you're driving at, he's usually only too keen to tell you, I should
think."

"That's true enough," Crandall answered quietly. "But have you ever
thought that the gun was not found?"

"I'm afraid we've never thought very much about it," said Gerald
apologetically. "You see the police took it over and seemed satisfied,
and by the time we had settled in here the affair was ancient history."

"Yes; it caused surprisingly little stir, and yet it's the second time
in the last five years a man has died suddenly and violently in these
hills."

"You mean--the prospector?" asked Valerie swiftly.

"You had heard of him?" he asked in surprise.

"We saw the place yesterday," said Gerald briefly. "You don't think the
two are connected, do you?"

"As the crow flies, it's barely five miles between the sawmill and the
place where you found Smith," replied Crandall. "I'm inclined to think
it is more than mere coincidence."

"But the motive?" Gerald ran a dirty hand through his long dark hair.

"I think I could find it. Somewhere in the mountains lies a fortune for
the lucky finder, but it's well hidden."

Valerie's start brought a shower of white petals upon her hair and
frock. "A fortune?" she said, her voice shaking slightly.

"Gold." He paused, and looked keenly from one to the other. "I'm being
very frank, because----" he paused; "I want your co-operation. What I'm
telling you is common knowledge. The hills have been combed without
result, but it's there. Of late however, it has proved a dangerous
hunting ground."

"You mean that Smith was after gold?"

"The prospector, also. And they came too near the finding."

There was a moment's silence in the sunlit orchard and then Valerie
shivered. "I feel as if someone were walking over my grave," she said.

"I'm sorry. It's not exactly a subject to discuss before you." He
looked apologetic.

"You'll wait and see Allan," said Gerald slowly. "I think he should
know what you've told us. It may make a difference."

"How can it?" asked Valerie sharply. "I must go and get lunch."

She fled in haste, for she had just remembered that they had left the
smaller of the two nuggets lying on the table, where they had only
that morning packed up the the larger of the two for despatch to the
Government geologist, and she wondered just how much the sharp-eyed
Crandall had seen.

He lingered there long after Katherine and Allan returned, and frankly
laid his cards on the table. The older members of the team seconded
Valerie's instinctive liking for him.

"You know something about mining?" queried Allan swiftly.

Crandall looked embarrassed. "I--yes--that is I've had a bit of
experience as a mining engineer."

"I see." Allan turned the conversation into other channels, but it is
possible that their visitor noted the change in the atmosphere for he
left soon afterwards, leaving the team disturbed and uneasy, and with
a hearty desire to be back in Melbourne again. Valerie and her find
became suddenly most unpopular.

"Don't you see that if we advertise this find they will say that we
stole the secret from Smith, or even the nuggets themselves!"

They digested this in silence. "I didn't post the nugget," he
continued. "Something warned me not to."

"But I'm afraid he's seen the little one," said Valerie tremulously.

Allan looked graver still. "Then we've got to watch our step," he said.

"And what hurts most," contributed Gerald, "is that we're innocent. Now
if we'd really done something----"

There was general laughter, and they all felt better.

"There's just another piece of information I've got for you, which
fits into the picture," said Katherine, after a moment. "I had a
letter from Derry Stanfield this morning, and he says--Where is it?
'About your question, the language is unquestionably some form of
Magyar dialect, and as your inquiry seemed rather confidential I did
not hand it on to the one or two men here who might have given a good
translation.'"

"Add to that fact that Kenneth Gardiner's mother came from Central
Europe, and Claude Delamere claims gipsy blood, and you have a very
complete chain of circumstances," said Allan quietly.

"I--I rather wish we were home," said Valerie with a catch in her
voice, and for once no one contradicted her.




CHAPTER XIII.--"CLAUDE DELAMERE."

There was no doubt about the awkwardness of their position, and the
more the team thought of it the less they liked it. By a fortuitous
combination of circumstances they had become far more deeply involved
in the mountain tragedy than they had believed possible. Allan bitterly
regretted that he had allowed himself to be influenced by Valerie's
childish love of romance, and had not handed over the papers entrusted
to his care by the dying man.

They argued about it for several days with little definite result. The
gold discovery was undoubtedly theirs, and premature revelation with
its attendant publicity would inevitably have the effect of opening the
field to Gardiner and his gang, who were obviously on the same trail.
Allan urged that they confide in Crandall, to whom he had taken an
immediate liking, and gained their reluctant consent.

Katherine and Gerald were due to attend a rehearsal of the play that
was being produced by the indefatigable Mrs. McDonald on the evening of
the day upon which they reached this decision. Valerie had been invited
to accompany them, and Allan, therefore, declared his intention of
looking up Crandall and revealing part at least of the evidence they
were suppressing. He left them at Mrs. McDonald's door and set out on
this quest.

The good lady welcomed the three effusively. They were introduced to
two daughters of the vicarage, extremely modern young women, with
Eton crops and the shortest of skirts, an anæmic young man, who was
the local press, an elderly spinster, with a disapproving expression,
which, as Valerie discovered later, concealed a truly charming nature,
a bank clerk, bored and superior, and one or two others, comprising in
all a very unpromising group of amateur actors.

They had been talking volubly enough, but ceased at the entrance of the
team, who for a moment felt slightly embarrassed. Deserting Katherine
shamelessly, Gerald piloted Valerie to a chair in the corner, where,
under the pretence of solicitously arranging her cushions, he managed
to whisper fiercely, "You little idiot, what on earth have you let me
in for?"

"Thank you, darling," Valerie's voice carried past the bank clerk to
the elderly spinster, who regarded her with utter disapproval, which
their subsequent behaviour did not tend to abate.

The discussion centred on the choice of a play. The acidulated spinster
favoured Shakespeare--"So respectable," she averred.

Mrs. McDonald cleared her throat. "I have selected the play, with the
assistance of Mr. Kenneth Gardiner and a friend of his. It is a comedy
by a young Australian author, and is called 'The Road to Romance.'"

Katherine and Valerie exchanged glances. Barely a year ago they had
both taken part in a play of that name, which had been written by a
young author of their acquaintance, and Katherine as the fascinating
heroine had shared the honours with the hero, who had been that
handsome mysterious young foreigner, Claude Delamere.

At that moment the front door bell was heard, and Mrs. McDonald bustled
importantly away, while an indignant murmur of conversation seemed to
indicate her choice was not likely to be popular.

Under pretext of adjusting Valerie's frock, Katherine crossed to them
quickly. "Whatever shall I do?" she queried.

"Don't be an ass," was Gerald's brotherly response.

"Go through with it," urged Valerie, rather wishing that such an
intriguing thing had happened to her, but there was no time for more
as Mrs. McDonald ushered in Kenneth Gardiner and close behind came
his brother with Claude Delamere, as obviously out of place in this
appalling room as an orchid in a vegetable garden. He was a picturesque
figure with his flowing black hair; but his manners were perfect as he
underwent the inevitable round of introductions, ending at the corner
where the three were seated.

"But these are old friends," he smiled eagerly; "I can't pretend to
be surprised, for of course Kenneth has told me, but it's tremendous
luck. Valerie, you've grown up since I last saw you and are twice as
beautiful. Gerald, my boy, you are looking splendidly fit. I heard you
had been ill."

"And what about Kath?" queried Valerie, ever mischievous.

"Katherine, as always--perfection." He let his eyes dwell on her face
for a moment almost hungrily, and then with a courteous excuse joined
his hostess, and at her request explained the play to them with such
charm and humour that even the spinster raised no objections.

"You shall be stage manager," declared Mrs. McDonald magnificently. "We
are in your hands."

"And hero too," broke in Gardiner. "I've seen him act the part of
Charles, and we couldn't improve on it."

"And I'm lucky to have found a ready-made heroine," said Delamere
gaily, as murmurs of approval greeted Gardiner's remark. "Miss Starr
created the part of Beatrice in town, and I'm sure won't turn us down."

"Oh, play up, Kath," whispered Valerie under her breath, but she need
not have feared, for Katherine's voice was perfectly steady as she
assented.

Delamere was absolutely at his best that night, without a trace of
affectation, or even of that aloofness, which always spoilt Kenneth
Gardiner's manner. He became one of them with extraordinary facility,
and only during supper did he corner Katherine for a moment.

"Confess. I'm not behaving badly, Katherine, am I?"

She smiled at his childish pride in himself, but she had also caught a
deeper meaning. "You are being very generous--if the situation is not
of your own making," she answered significantly.

"On my life, no! Kenneth lured me here with promises of mountain
scenery. Besides I had to see him on business. Only then I learnt what
was in store for me." He met her gaze frankly. "Am I forgiven?"

"I never could bear malice," she smiled her answer. "If you're going to
be sensible----"

"No 'if,' Katherine. A queen never temporises. I make no promises, but
I'll do my best. What are Gerald and young Valerie up it?"

"Aren't they absurd? They are both bored to tears, and are as a result
providing material for enough gossip to keep the countryside alive for
a week."

"And your cousin?"

"Allan will be along presently. He has business in the township. He's
loving the country."

"Is that so?" His gaze wandered idly over the company. "We'll have the
dogs of war on our tracks if I talk to you much longer, but its good to
know you've forgiven my foolish moments."

Kenneth Gardiner joined them before she could reply, and the
conversation became general. Soon afterwards, Allan called, and the
team took their departure.

Before they had gone very far Valerie had informed him of Delamere's
advent, and the cast of the play.

"But, of course, you're not going to," he said quietly.

Katherine looked at him in surprise. "Why of course," she replied, a
trifle indignantly. "You don't suppose I'd let him think I was afraid,
do you?"

"There's no question of that, but I hope you're going to change your
mind."

"There's no necessity. It's very harmless."

"After what you have told me, Kath." There was a touch of reproof in
his tone. "You can hardly blame me if I question the wisdom of your
doing such a thing."

"You mean you don't trust me?" she finished.

He kept his eyes steadily upon the patch of road illuminated by the
lamps. "There is no question of that," he answered, but his profile
looked very stern. "I am only thinking of you."

"I know, my dear," she laid a gentle hand upon his arm. "But under
the circumstances it would have looked so obvious if I had refused,
and--and he seemed quite different to-night."

From the back seat came Valerie's voice, "Allan, did you see Mr.
Crandall?"

"No," he answered, "he has left Rockwood."

"Already?" exclaimed Gerald in surprise.

"Yes. He pulled out this afternoon on his motor-bike. He will return, I
presume, with a warrant for our arrest."

"In the meantime," Katherine laughed light-heartedly, "let us go on
living, for it's a nice world."




CHAPTER XIV.--"GARDINER WINS A WAGER."

The days flew by, but nothing further was heard of the detective, and
his visit was almost forgotten.

Katherine and Gerald were much occupied with the play, and were carried
off on numerous occasions for rehearsals by Delamere. Katherine raised
no objections to the many excuses he found for interviews, and as the
days passed seemed to find both interest and enjoyment in his company.
And as this became more apparent Allan, quieter and more stern, spent
all his available time out of doors.

Gerald sang Delamere's praises consistently, and even modified his
suspicious attitude to the Gardiners, of whom they saw less now, as Jim
had discovered certain interests in common with Mollie Pattison.

Summer came early that year. Valinstar grew hot as an oven, and outside
under the gums, it was scarcely cooler. Even Augustus wilted during the
north-wind days, and Valerie grew strangely pale and listless. She felt
rather out of things since Gerald and Katherine had begun rehearsals,
and Allan refused to be lured from the orchard until he was too weary
to do anything but read and smoke in gloomy silence. Therefore one
evening when Kenneth Gardiner called, apparently by accident, with the
car and casually suggested a run toward the hills she accepted gladly.

He had just returned from one of his mysterious absences, and asked
idly how the play was progressing. "We never see anything of Claude
these days," he said idly, "and when he does come home he merely talks
wildly of footlights and grease-paint. He's stage-struck all right."

"So are Gerald and Kath," Valerie vented her grievance. "They're always
at the rehearsals. It comes off next week, and I'll be glad when it's
over."

"As soon as that?" he smiled. "You should have been in it."

"Who? Me? I'm no good at that sort of thing. Besides, there are enough
of us taking part as it is. Play-acting never appealed to me. I like
real things."

"Such as----?" He stopped suddenly, and moved a little closer to her.

She laughed contentedly. There was just a hint of danger in being out
with Kenneth Gardiner, and she felt happier than she had done for weeks.

"Such as---oh! lots of things! Speeding and boat-race days and things
that give you a thrill."

"So you're hunting thrills, too? There are a good many of us nowadays.
Do you know I think I could provide one if I tried."

"You have," said Valerie frankly. "The first time I met you."

He laughed. "By Jove, yes! What a forlorn, little lost mite you looked
with your hair. No! it's quite all right now. You needn't worry."

"We were talking of thrills." Valerie gently pushed aside an encircling
arm, and he submitted with a good grace.

"Yes, I'll give you a thrill--if you're game."

"Of course I'm game," she replied indignantly.

"How far are we from Valinstar? Any idea?"

"About twelve to fourteen miles."

"Fifteen to be exact. Now, I'll guarantee to get you home in ten
minutes."

"Don't be silly. It couldn't be done."

"It's quite possible. Care to make a bet of it?"

"That depends on the stakes," she replied, her eyes sparkling.

"Oh, I won't be too hard on you," he answered lightly. "Let me
see--let's say the pleasure of your company on another occasion like
this."

"I don't see what I stand to lose," Valerie laughed.

"No, I'll be the loser." He turned and faced her. "You're really rather
nice, you know."

Valerie felt her pulses quicken a little. She had played with boys this
fascinating game, and loved it as every truly feminine girl must, but
this was the first time a man had dared her to play it, and her eyes
dropped.

"I agree," she said softly. "But when?"

"I'll tell you that when I've won."

He started the engine running, and tested it carefully. "I'm not taking
any chances," he said with a smile.

"And if you lose?" she asked.

"I'm in your hands to do as you please."

"All right, I shall ask you one question, and you shall promise to
answer me truthfully."

"Only one? That seems quite fair. Have you the time?"

She advanced her tiny wristlet watch, and they consulted it soberly by
the light of Gardiner's torch. Her eyes were sparkling with enjoyment,
and she had flung caution to the winds. Motives rarely worried Valerie.
It was a great thing to have lured Gardiner into playing with her.

"One minute to go. We start on the stroke of ten. You shall be
starter." He relinquished the torch to her, and gripped the wheel.
Breathlessly she watched the tiny hand.

"Time!" It was little more than a whisper, but the car was in motion.

It did not occur to Valerie to be afraid. By her side the driver,
alert and confident, avoided the holes and ruts that seamed the road
by almost super-human skill. Once he looked at the girl, and met her
eyes with an answering smile, and she for the first time felt she
had pierced beneath the civilised veneer that hid the real Kenneth
Gardiner, the adventurer born.

Valerie watched the speedometer with interest.
Seventy--seventy-five--eighty. The needle rose steadily. They passed
another car going the same way as themselves, as if it had been
stationary. Eighty-one, eighty-five? Moths and other nocturnal insects
attracted by the glare of the lights fell back lifeless against the
wind-screen. Ninety. For one delirious moment the the world roared
about her ears. The river flashed into view, a momentary gleam of
moonlit water and vanished. The car slowed down and drew up at the gate
of Valinstar. Gardiner turned to her.

"Well?"

"It was perfectly heavenly," she said, as she sank back into her seat.
"Sixty has been my limit, and then on a dusty day. Now there isn't a
cobweb left on me anywhere."

"And the time?"

"Nine and a half minutes past. You've won all right, though I don't
know how you did it on such a terrible road."

"I had an incentive."

For the first time she had an uneasy feeling that she had behaved
rather foolishly. Always a creature of impulse, she often found the
cold light of common sense rather chilling.

"But you were only joking?"

"Not I. I really would like you to take another trip with me some
evening."

Valerie opened the door of the car. "I'm sorry Kath's not home or I'd
ask you in."

"I can't stop, thanks." He took her hand and held it a trifle longer
than he need have done. "I've enjoyed to-night," he said in a low voice,
"I hope you have."

"I have," she answered, "but I wish I had won, if it had only been by
half a minute. I suppose I'll never have the answer to my question."

"That's too bad," he laughed easily. "Perhaps----"

The sentence was never finished, for at that moment a car rounded the
bend where the trees clustered by the river, and Claude Delamere's
little grey car drew up, with Katherine seated beside the driver.

"Where's Gerald?" demanded Valerie, after the confusion of the
greetings had died down.

Katherine smiled vaguely. She had the air of one who had been walking
in cloud-land, and has come to earth too suddenly to be sure of being
really awake. "Oh, Ger? He's taking his latest lady home. He and the
Vicar's youngest daughter have discovered some sort of affinity."

"How is the play going?" asked Gardiner idly.

"Splendidly," affirmed Delamere enthusiastically. "Katherine is
wonderful. She carries us all. Rockwood is going to have a show that
will make it sit up and take notice."

"I think it's time you came home," said Gardiner quietly. "Good night,
Miss Starr, and you too, Valerie. I think I've earned the right to call
you that, haven't I?"

"Now what," said Katherine curiously, as the two cars moved off, "did
he mean by that?"

"That," Valerie smiled mysteriously, "is another story. Do you know,
I'm beginning to like Kenneth Gardiner?"

"Val!" There was protest in Katherine's voice.

"There's nothing like making friends with the enemy," replied Valerie.
"It's no good preaching wisdom, Kath, while you persist in being
foolish."

Katherine looked up defensively.

"I do not trust Delamere farther than the gatepost," answered Valerie
candidly. "I though you finished with him a year ago."

"I fail to see----" Katherine raised her head haughtily, and then
laughed. "You're a silly little goose, Val. I've an excellent
safeguard, and besides, I'm older."

This was a fatal argument to use with Valerie, whose small chin tilted
upwards at a dangerous angle, as she went indoors, leaving Katherine
to linger for a moment in the moonlight, hoping Allan would join her,
which he did not.




CHAPTER XV.--"VALERIE IS AFRAID."

Valerie soon forgot her promise to Kenneth Gardiner. She had a feeling
that she had been very unwise in her dealings with him, as doubts
and suspicions flooded back to her mind. At any other time she might
have confided in Gerald or Katherine, but Gerald was in the throes
of a temporary infatuation with the vicar's youngest daughter, who
played opposite him in the "Road to Romance," and Valerie felt frankly
out of it, not even having the consolation of being able to start a
counter-flirtation; while Katherine was too immersed in the details of
the play to invite confidences.

The hills were shrouded in smoke that told of distant fires, and the
evening of the play was still almost to oppressiveness. The team dined
early and hurried through the meal without relish. Outside the day
lingered, staining the western sky with cloudy, sullen crimson. A hot
north wind played in the branches fitfully, and evening had brought no
relief to the feeling of heavy inertia, from which they had suffered
throughout the day. It was an unlikely night for their entertainment,
and Gerald and Katherine were openly cross and disappointed.

"We'll have to leave in half an hour," Katherine looked at her watch.
"Allan, you're not even shaved yet."

"I'm not coming," he replied curtly.

"Not coming?" she raised her eyebrows. "But I took it for granted you
were."

"I'm too tired. Someone's got to work for a living while you children
play."

This speech was so unlike the cheerful Allan that Valerie and Gerald
exchanged glances of amazement.

"Children," said Katherine calmly, "go and get ready.'" There was
dismissal in her tone too obvious to be disobeyed, and they fled.

The arguments she used must have been potent ones for some
three-quarters of an hour later Allan, freshly shaved and strangely
joyous, was at the wheel, and Katherine seated beside him, wore an air
of quiet contentment.

The hall was crowded with perspiring humanity which chattered and
laughed and ate sticky sweets in gay defiance of the thermometer. The
Gardiners were there in full force and Allan joined them, but Valerie
whose services were required as lady's maid to Katherine, was condemned
to swelter in the overcrowded little skillion attachment that did duty
ordinarily as a kitchen.

"Allan was right," Katherine confided to Valerie as the girl knelt at
her feet to adjust the intricate flounces. "I should never have agreed
to do it, but it's too late now, and once it's over----"

"Mr. Delamere is asking for you, Miss Starr." The vicar's youngest
daughter, very pert and dainty in her milkmaid costume, broke in on
Katherine's confidences, and a moment later Delamere, in the garb of a
Georgian gentleman, was bowing over her hand. He looked no mean mate
for her beauty, his dark hair slightly touched with powder, his blue
and silver suit.

Watching from the wings is never very enjoyable and Valerie soon found
herself the servant of all--mending a tear in Gerald's stocking, doing
someone's hair, holding the book for the prompter, moving furniture and
making herself generally useful, so that at the close of the second
interval she was glad to slip outside for a breath of air. She shut the
door behind her to cover her escape, ere someone could call her back,
and in the darkness she almost collided with a man. Inside she heard
the two violins and piano which did duty as an orchestra execute a
preliminary wail.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said a trifle breathlessly for the impact
had been severe.

The man caught and steadied her. "What luck!" he laughed. "I was
looking for you." It was Kenneth Gardiner.

"I've escaped from the--the zoo for a moment," she explained. "I feel
wilted."

"You poor little girl, I'll be bound you do. I felt that way myself, so
I've come to claim your promise. We've both seen the play before, and
even with Claude and Miss Starr's best efforts it's rather a travesty."

"My promise?"

"My car is down the road, and the wings of the wind are waiting. They
can do without you for this act, and we'll be back before the climax."

"You're sure?"

"Certain. Besides, you promised----"

"I know. I wonder if I ought to tell them."

"Why worry?" he said easily. "We'll be back again before they know
you're gone." He led her quickly to the road. Inside the play was in
full swing, and roars of laughter greeted the comedian. By contrast,
the darkness seemed cool and satisfying, and Valerie sank back among
the cushions with a sigh of relief, as Gardiner threw in the clutch.

"Shut your eyes and rest," he commanded, "were not going to talk."

A queer smell of burning was in the air, and now and again a whiff of
acrid smoke came to her nostrils. "There are bush fires somewhere,
aren't there?" she asked lazily.

"Yes. They're coming over the mountains," he answered in a
matter-of-fact tone. "But I doubt if they will come through here. They
have done it only once, and that was some years ago."

"When the timber mill was burnt," she woke up suddenly. "Are we
anywhere near there?"

"Very near," he answered. "As a matter of fact, we'll be there in about
five minutes."

"Then we've come miles. Don't you think we'd better go back?"

"Soon," he replied evasively, and trod heavily on the accelerator, so
that the car rounded the next corner at full speed and came to a sudden
standstill not 20 yards from the door of the old hut in the deserted
clearing.

"There's someone there," she exclaimed.

"An old friend of yours." Gardiner alighted and opened the door of the
car.

"But we haven't time to stop, and I don't like the place."

"We're stopping a little while." There was a ring of steel in his quiet
voice that set her heart throbbing painfully.

"What do you mean by that?"

"What I say. Get out!"

A man strode swiftly across to them. "Need any help?" he asked.

"No," was the crisp reply. "Miss Raymond is going to be sensible."

Dark as it was, Valerie, with swift intuition, had recognised the voice
of Wilton, and her nerves calmed a little. After all, this was the
adventure she had always craved. She stepped out of the car, haughtily
disregarding Gardiner's proffered assistance, and walked between the
two men to the hut. On the threshold she faltered at the remembrance of
Jim's gruesome story, and then, because she would not seem afraid, she
stepped boldly in. The interior reassured her. There were no traces of
tragedy in the bare walls, rough table, and camp-bed. She turned and
faced the two men with gravity, but there was a sparkle in her eyes
that hinted at defiance.

"Well?" she queried impatiently.

"Won't you sit down?" Always the gentleman, Gardiner pulled a
packing-case forward as Wilton closed the door.

"No, thanks!" She was accustoming herself to the light of the hurricane
lamp, which cast dim shadows in the corners, rather frightening shadows
until she got used to them. She wondered if the old prospector had
thought so the night death came, and then she realised that Gardiner
was speaking again.

"I don't like doing this, Valerie, but there's no other way. I'll be
quite frank, because you're game enough to appreciate frankness, and
also there's no time to be lost. I want to tell you I know that your
cousin found something in Smith's clothes, after he died, something he
did not hand over to the police."

He paused, but Valerie made no comment.

"That something was hidden by you very carefully, and now I must have
it."

He waited again, but the girl looked at him with polite interest, and
no trace of fear. Her bearing drew a chuckle from Wilton.

"The kid's game all right."

"And I'm going to have it to-night, so you're going to tell me where it
is."

"Me?" She looked at him in apparent astonishment.

"Please don't try to appear innocent. I know you hid the thing, and are
the only one who knows its hiding place."

"Been spying?" she asked coolly.

He disregarded the thrust. "And you, if you're sensible, you'll yield
to 'la force majeure.' There's no dishonour in that."

She threw back her head and laughed. "I wouldn't do that in a hundred
years."

"Do you realise just where you are?"

"I do," she replied, with sudden seriousness. "I'm where an innocent
man was murdered, Mr. Gardiner. Perhaps he had some secret he wished to
hide."

"Perhaps he had," agreed Gardiner imperturbably. "Wilton, I wonder if
you mind waiting in the car? I've something to say to Miss Raymond."

"Sure." He moved towards the door. "The smoke is getting very thick.
That fire's close."

When he had gone Gardiner turned to Valerie, and his face was hard and
merciless. She met his eyes steadily.

"I don't know what you're going to do," she said quietly, "but I won't
tell you."

"I'm not going to do anything," he retorted. "I'm going to tell you a
story and at the end of the story you can make your own decision."

She sighed. "Why waste time? I shan't listen."

"If you're wise you will," he answered and looked at his watch.
"Otherwise it will soon be too late, and you will regret it all
your life." He lit a cigarette reflectively. "About two years ago a
young artist met a beautiful girl, and the obvious thing happened,
but she, after amusing herself for a while, threw him over. I don't
blame her," he added, as Valerie raised her head. "I'm giving you the
facts. Unfortunately, that young artist came of a gipsy stock that
never forgets nor forgives, and love that is all fire and passion
can speedily turn to hatred. He painted a picture of her, but the
evil twist in him brought to light the worst in her. I bought the
picture. It--it interested me. Unusual things do, and in the spirit of
experiment I brought the two together. To-night----." He paused. "I see
you are interested?"

"I'm beginning to understand," the girl said slowly. "You're even worse
than I thought you were. Go on."

"I thought the old grudge had died, for the man was a consummate actor,
but there's a streak of insanity in our blood that takes various forms."

"Our?"

"He's a kind of cousin of mine on my mother's side. My dad married when
he was about twenty, and was travelling abroad. They weren't happy."

"I'm not interested in you," she answered impatiently. "But Kath----?"

"I rather fancy Claude intends to bring it off to-night, unless I stop
him."

"Bring what off?"

"That I can't say. He's woven his old spell over her. He may take her
home to-night, and that's the last we will ever see of the pair--alive.
Oh, I'm only suggesting."

"I see." Valerie was very pale. "Did you bring me here to tell me this?
Let me go at once." She rushed to the door, but he forestalled her,
looking down at her quivering form.

"Be quiet. I've given you the alternative--the papers for----"

"You will take me back if I tell you."

"I can't do that. I want a clear field for an hour or two, but I give
you my word that I'll save your cousin if you tell me what I want to
know."

She looked into his cold eyes despairingly. "Can I trust you?"

"You haven't much choice in the matter, have you?" he replied brutally.
"But--I'm in the habit of keeping my word."

She looked at her watch. Five past ten! The hours were flying. Then she
drew a deep breath.

"You win," she said quietly, and there was no tremor in her voice. "But
God forgive you if you fail to do your part. The papers are hidden in
Augustus's collar."

He stared at her. "Great Scott! I had it in my hand one day."

She nodded. "Now, go---Quickly."

He became grim again. "I'm locking you in here until I see whether
you've fooled me. If you have----" He opened the door, and a hot wind
blew a puff of smoke into the room. He turned suddenly, "I hate to play
against a woman, but I'd like to think there's no ill-feeling, Valerie.
You----"

"Oh, go!" she interrupted with weary impatience, and he went, locking
the door behind him.

She heard the car start, and then the sound died away in the distance,
and she was left alone with the shadows. She sank down upon the foot of
the camp-stretcher, trembling and strangely weak and helpless. Then her
natural courage came to her aid. She must escape and go to Katherine's
assistance. Yet she had a queer feeling that she could trust Gardiner
now that she had done her part. She examined the door, but found no
chance of exit there. The timbers were thick and firm, and the lock,
evidently newly installed, showed no signs of yielding. The only window
was a square hole looking outward toward the mountains, and was not
more than 18in. across. She smashed the glass recklessly, when the
catch failed to operate, and felt better, but she quickly realised
that, slight as she was, she could not find egress there either.

A puff of wind blew smoke into her face as she stood looking out,
and she coughed and covered her eyes. The breath of the night was
hot upon her cheek, and she turned away despairingly. For the first
time in her life real fear had come. She sat down, and thought of
the crowded little hall, the bright lights, Allan bored a little and
tired, Katherine in all the pride of triumphant beauty, and Gerald. The
thought of their unconsciousness terrified her. Every racing moment
brought it nearer. If Gardiner's car should fail, if he were too
late--if, and this was the worst fear of all, if he had never meant to
kept his word, but was headed straight for "Valinstar"--white-faced,
and agonised, she sat in the semi-darkness, for the lantern was burning
low, and stared into space. In that hour Valerie grew up. Prayer seemed
inadequate and unreal, and yet she knew that Katherine's life could
only be saved by a higher power than her own.

"God, make him keep his word!" she pleaded over and over again.

Then suddenly she became aware of a light in the hut and looked up at
the lantern. It was flickering dully. The glare was coming in from
outside. She ran to the window and looked out. The clearing tucked away
in the valley between the hills had been out of sight of the fire but
now it was racing down the mountainside toward her, and the crackling
sound came to her ears as she watched the red of the flames against the
starlit sky. Then came realisation. She was trapped there, right in the
path of the fire which had swept the clearing before, and would do it
again before the night was over.




CHAPTER XVI.--"A PROMISE IS KEPT."

The play was almost over when Gardiner and his companion reached the
hall. There had been delays on the way, a puncture which had made him
curse furiously, while Wilton, ignorant of the need for haste, looked
at him and wondered at his impatience.

"What's the rush, if you've got what you wanted?"

Gardiner looked up with a set face. "That's only part of the contract,
and I'd give my life to undo what I've done. If the stakes had been
less--but you couldn't understand."

"I sure hate the thought of that little girl up there, but I don't
see----"

"You wouldn't," Gardiner shut him up abruptly. "I'll tell you this.
If this deal doesn't go through to-night I'm ruined. I've had losses
lately, big ones. That's the gambler in me, and I can't look to my
family to pay my debts. They couldn't, if they would."

The other man stared. "No wonder you're nervy, but the girl came across
all right?"

"Yes."

Wilton stared at his companion's profile curiously. "Those four
certainly did mess up the game from the start."

"Or you did."

"Well, it wasn't my fault Smith got away. I shot him all right, but
lost him in the scrub."

"We've been through that before," Gardiner reminded him. "Fortunately,
the stuff wasn't in English, or they'd have tumbled long ago."

"You certainly did good work in translating those directions into the
gipsy lingo, but we didn't bargain for your other copy being stolen by
that dog."

Gardiner laughed bitterly. "The stars in their courses have fought
against us, and now, if I can keep my promise, things will go smoothly."

"What on earth do you mean? Aren't we going straight for the goods?"

"No. I bought the information at a price. That price, like a quixotic
fool, I intend to pay."

The other shrugged his shoulders. "I never did pretend to understand
you, but you're boss. Carry on."

"If only I knew----" Gardiner knitted his brows as the car slid quietly
to a standstill.

"Hang about outside will you, and particularly keep an eye on
Delamere's car, that grey Lancia there. If he gets away, mark the
direction and come for me at once."

"But I thought he was in on this?"

"Don't think, do as you're told," was the crisp retort, and a moment
later Gardiner slipped quietly into the back of the hall in time to
witness the dramatic conclusion of the play.

Outwardly unperturbed, his brain worked swiftly as he tried to imagine
what would be Delamere's next move. There had been no mistaking the
triumphant significance of his outbreak the previous night, when for
a moment the mask had slipped aside, and his cousin had known what he
had some time suspected, that the hereditary taint of that Hungarian
family had not passed Claude by, and that his very genius was but a
form of abnormality bordering on madness. Gardiner had no illusions now
as to Delamere's sanity, even though he watched him, a superb figure
with Katherine by his side, receiving the enthusiastic applause of the
audience at the close of an impassioned love scene. Even as the play
ended and a babel of chatter broke loose he saw Allan Linton striding
past him, his face grey and set. Gardiner caught his arm, but was
shaken aside roughly as Allan disappeared into the night. For one brief
moment he meditated pursuit, and then with a shrug of his shoulders he
joined his family, who were making much of Claude and Katherine. Nearby
he saw Gerald's anxious face.

"I say, have you seen Val? I want her," he as asking. "And Allan.
They've both gone and bolted somewhere."

"Allan gone!" Katherine turned quickly.

"Yes. Left us both in the lurch, and I wanted to take Lucille home in
the car, and now----"

"But he promised," Delamere interposed swiftly. "You're coming with me
at once. You've been wonderful, but you've had enough. We can't wait to
collect your scattered family. Do come!"

"Yes, do, dear. Come home with us for supper," Mrs. Gardiner patted
her shoulder. "You're looking worn out. Kenneth, I want you to get my
shawl. I left it somewhere in the dressing-room."

"Can't Jim get it?" he asked.

"Oh, Jim's with Mollie," she replied vaguely. "Be a dear."

Against his will he turned back and retrieved the shawl, but it was a
difficult matter to get out again. When he succeeded his stepmother was
alone.

"What a time you've been. Dad's getting the car. Katherine decided to
leave her belongings here until morning, and Claude promised her to go
on with him."

"What?"

He flung the shawl across her arm, and people were startled at the
sight of the usually dignified Kenneth Gardiner racing madly across the
yard toward the road. He vaulted the fence almost in his stride, and
reached the grey car just as the engine began to purr. Wilton, who had
been leaning against a tree half asleep came to life suddenly.

Gardiner sprang on the footboard as the car started to move and jammed
on the brake. Delamere turned on him furiously.

"What the devil are you doing?" he said.

"Trying to save you from madness. Miss Starr, Katherine--please get
out. This man isn't responsible."

"It's you that are mad." Delamere essayed to start the car again, while
Katherine, white-faced and trembling, half rose. "Get off, you fool!"

"I won't. You can't go. I know what you're going to do."

Delamere turned to Katherine. "I must apologise," he said. "I don't
know what's the matter, but I'm afraid he's been drinking. Have I your
permission to go?"

"Of course," she answered in a low voice, for she hated scenes, and
although the altercation had been conducted in low tones, already
several people were casting curious glances in the direction of the car.

She looked anxiously round for Allan. If he had not deserted her this
would not have happened. But he was more than a mile away, striding
savagely through the hot, breathless night, facing the final ruin of
his dreams and his ideals. Only that night Katherine had promised him
everything, and then betrayed her promise in another man's arms, in
sight of all Rockwood. He strode on blindly, ignorant of his direction,
and little caring, heedless of the red glare of the forest fires,
creeping nearer and nearer to the little town.

Delamere looked at his cousin. "Now are you satisfied?" he said
silkily; "Miss Starr wishes to go."

"No!" Kenneth Gardiner did not relax his grip on the car, and Delamere
brought his fist savagely down on one of the clinging hands, but its
owner did not move.

Katherine caught sight of Gerald, and essayed to open the door. "I must
get out," she said; "I can't stay here."

"You can and will." Delamere's hand went to the flap in the side of the
car and drew out a tiny nickel-plated revolver.

"Now, will you go?"

"No!" said Gardiner again. "Katherine, I----"

Two shots rang out together. Gardiner dropped back on the roadway, and
Delamere's hand fell limply to his side. Wilton, a smoking revolver in
his hand, was bending over the fallen man. It happened so suddenly that
Katherine could not even scream, but sat there numbed, looking at the
staring, dreadful face of the man in the car beside her, from whose
forehead a slow trickle of blood was oozing.

"I'm sorry I was late," Wilton was saying brokenly, "I never supposed
he would really shoot."

"I did," Gardiner coughed. "He got me--through the lungs. I'm going."
The first arrivals were already approaching, but he had fallen in
the shadow of the trees, and so was partly hidden. "Give me the gun.
It was----an old quarrel. Get that. You--get back--to the hall. The
game's----played."

He lay back on Wilton's arm, one hand grasping the revolver, as
Katherine came to him, her long dark plaits framing her pale face,
her eyes horror-stricken. She knelt beside him in the dust as Wilton
pleaded with the onlookers to fetch a doctor.

"Why did you do it?" she asked softly.

He smiled at her, and its sudden beauty brought home for the first
time his resemblance to his artist cousin. "To save your--life. He
was--dangerous. Besides----" His voice grew weaker. "It was---the price
I----had to pay-----" Someone would have moved him, but he shook his
head. "I'm done. Keep the crowd away." He fumbled for her hand, and
she held his. Then suddenly his voice strengthened. "I'd have--done it
anyway," he said clearly, "for you, see---I loved you."

There was a sudden silence as his voice grew still, and Wilton motioned
to Katherine to move. "He's gone," he said quietly. "A minute sooner
and I'd have saved him, but I didn't know-----"

A kindly woman put her arm around the girl and led her away, while
others made way for his father, who had been hastily summoned, and who
now stood looking down at the still handsome face.

The police sergeant was interrogating Wilton, and the crowd was
beginning to melt, when a sudden stir went through them as a man on
horseback galloped up to them.

"The fire's over the ranges," he shouted. "It's coming down along the
old timber track. We're needing help up there."

"The timber track?" Wilton spun round. "But it can't be! Miss Raymond's
there."

"Where?"

Gerald, still in his actor's livery, caught his arm. "I've been looking
for Valerie everywhere."

"She's up there in the old hut. I can't explain now, but-----"

The boy's gaze tightened. "Then we're going there. You know the road?"

"Yes, but----"

"If she's harmed I swear I'll kill you." He half flung the older man in
the nearest car which happened to be Kenneth Gardiner's.

"It's too late, lad," someone cried; "the fire's right down."

The roar of the engine was the only answer as once again the little
grey car was headed for the hills.




CHAPTER XVII.--"GERALD TO THE RESCUE."

For a moment Valerie did not realise her danger, and then with
realisation came panic and terror. She screamed loudly once and
stopped, appalled by its futility. She clung to the open window, and
looked out, a new fear driving out the old.

Great trees were outline in flame against the starlight sky; an awful
radiance glowed through the clearing; and tiny rivers of fire crept
into the undergrowth, ever coming nearer. The dull roar of the flames
sounded in her ears, mingled with the crackling of the burning bushes
and the crash of a falling tree as one forest giant after another
succumbed to the flames. What wind there was wafted the smoke, with the
acrid scent of burning gumleaves right into her face, and she turned
away, hope stilled.

A rat in a burning trap, that was the part that hurt. If she could
have made an attempt to escape, however futile, it would have helped.
Valerie's spirit was one bred to action, that would meet death
fighting, but to sit there and wait while the rolling tide of fire
crept closer and closer was hard. Fascinated, yet appalled, she
returned to the window just in time to see the running figure of a man
pass her line of vision. Once again she screamed wildly, but it seemed
to her that her voice was being drowned by the noise of the fire. The
second time she saw him pause and look back. She pulled herself up to
the window and made a last effort. Then he vanished. She closed her
eyes. If he had gone, then hope had gone, too. The seconds seemed ages
long as she crouched there, listening. At last it came, the sound of
hurrying footsteps, and a man's voice.

"I say, is there anyone here?"

For a moment it seemed as if she were going to faint, and her voice
seemed to come from very far away.

"Yes--me."

"Good Lord! Can't you get out?"

"The door's locked and the window's too small."

He said something under his breath, and she heard him fumbling at the
lock.

"Yes, it's locked all right, I'll have to break it down."

His voice sounded rather familiar, and she vainly tried to place it in
her memory. Whoever he was, he was swift of action, for the next moment
she started, as a mighty blow fell upon the door. For five minutes he
wrestled with it, raining blow after blow, but it had been built to
last, and though the hinges creaked and groaned, the timbers showed no
signs of giving way, and the glare in the hut grew stronger.

At last he paused, and she heard him panting for breath as he leaned
against the door. "Please go," she pleaded; "the fire's awfully close,
and there's no sense in both of us perishing, is there?"

"I can't leave you here," he shouted back. "There must be some way. I'm
going to look at that window."

A moment later had had dragged an old box round the house and was
standing up looking in. His face, drawn and unshaven had a weird
effect, with the red glow of the fire for a background; but Valerie
recognised him.

"Why--Mr. Crandall!"

"Miss Raymond!" He did not ask questions, though his face expressed his
amazement. "We've got to get you out. I'm going to try to pull this
frame away. Then I think you could get through." At the third wrench,
it gave, so suddenly as to send him headlong to the ground; but he was
speedily on his feet, tearing at the boards with eager fingers. At last
he stepped back.

"Now," he said, "it's up to you. You're lucky you're not an outsize."

Even as it was there was not much room, and for a moment it seemed
as if she would stick half-way, but Crandall seized her shoulders
and dragged her through, apologising for his roughness as he saw her
scratched arms.

"Sorry, but there's no time to lose."

Placing a hand under her arm, he led her at a half-run across the
clearing. Behind them the mountainside was a wall of flame, and on one
side the fire seemed to be converging on the entrance of the valley.

"I've got a motor-bike here somewhere," panted her rescuer. "Hid it here
a couple of days ago. Hard to find in the dark."

"It's not very dark," Valerie answered. "Anyway, it's easier to die in
the open."

"We're not going to die yet, if I know anything about it," was the
determined reply. "Feel about under those wattles, will you? Hooray!
I've got it in one."

He dragged the machine out eagerly, and wheeled it to the edge of the
road. "There's no carrier," he said, "but you'll have to stick on
somehow. Hold on to me tight. It's the devil of a road, and you might
find yourself in the middle of it quite suddenly."

"Nothing would surprise me to-night," she murmured weakly.

The fire had reached the clearing on one side now, and was travelling
more quickly among the grass, parched with the suns of a month of
rainless days. It seemed an eternity before the engine began to cough
and splutter, and even then it died away again, leaving its owner
cursing softly under his breath.

"It's the exposure, I suppose."

A roar sounded, which drowned his explanation and they were off down
the rough, winding road.

Of all the wild moments of that eventful night Valerie found this
particularly indescribable. Anything like speed was impossible, and as
it was she never seemed to strike the bar on which she was sitting in
the same place twice. She clutched the rider grimly, and tried not to
look behind at the pursuing flames, which were now sweeping down the
narrow defile towards the cleft in the hills through which the road
made its exit into the wider valley of Rockwood.

Cranston was grimly silent, but he, too, had his eves on the racing
fire and on the glow to his right, which threatened to outflank them,
but as they turned the bend of the road he saw that they were too late.
The fire had just reached the track, though it was not burning with
the intensity of that they had just left, but rather seemed to be an
independent blaze coming from another direction.

"We'll have to go through it," he shouted over his shoulder, but
Valerie was too dazed and shaken to reply. Then the engine of the cycle
ceased running so suddenly that they were almost thrown off.

He turned to her despairingly. "Our luck's dead out," he said. "It's
petrol. I had a can with me at my camp up there, but I didn't stop to
collect it. I'm awfully sorry."

"You've done your best." Valerie leaned against his arm. She felt very
tired. Even death would not matter much, if only it came quickly.

"We're fairly caught before and behind." The man dismounted, and looked
into the smoky blaze in front, where young saplings were bending under
the flames. "We can't walk through that."

The road had hidden from them the other fire from which they had fled,
for which Valerie was thankful.

"How long?" she managed to murmur. Her throat felt parched and dry, and
speaking was an effort.

"Not long. Minutes now. You poor little kid!"

"It's you. If you hadn't stopped for me----"

"Don't worry now." He drew her closer. "I guess we're having our hell
now. There won't be much left for us hereafter."

"Listen!" She raised her head suddenly. "A car!"

"I can't hear anything. No one would drive a car into this."

"Gerald would. He's coming to me."

Why Gerald, Valerie hardly knew. Her tortured brain could picture but
one deliverer, but all the man heard was the crackle of the flames in
front and the distant crash of a falling tree.

"Buck up, little girl," he said steadily. "It will soon be over."

Then he heard it, through the smoke and fire in front--the steady
drone of a high powered car. Crandall caught his breath. Someone was
coming into the heart of the flames. Nearer and nearer! A flaming tree
wavered, seemed about to crash on the road, and then fell sideways. He
began to half drag, half-carry Valerie forward. It seemed incredible
that anyone should be so foolhardy as to run such a risk. At last
he saw it racing through the fire, its headlights burning as if in
mockery, and he flung out an arm and called.

There was a savage grinding of brakes, as it stopped with a suddenness
that almost overturned it, and Gerald, white-faced, with staring eyes,
leant forward. By his side sat Wilton, half dead with terror. He had
ridden with death that night, and the memory would never leave him. The
boy dashed a hand across his smoke-grimed face and bloodshot eyes.

"That you, Val?"

"Yes, Ger I knew you'd come."

"Get in. I'm going to turn."

There was no room for four in the little car, but they managed it
somehow and once again they faced the wall of flame, through which
the car had come. The air was full of smoke and burning leaves dashed
against the windscreen, or fell upon them and had to be beaten out. One
fell on Gerald's hand as it gripped the wheel and he never moved, as
Wilton clumsily extinguished it, his fingers shaking. Another caught
Valerie's uncovered hair, for one fleeting second ere Crandall flung
a handkerchief over it. A tree crashed behind them, missing them by
inches and sending a shower of flaming sparks into the hood of the car,
which began to blaze, and Gerald swerved right off the road to avoid a
similar obstacle on the track in front.

And then they were through, though for a moment their smoke-blinded
eyes could not realise it, and the car slowed down to a more normal
speed. It was burning in several places, but they dared not stop until
another five miles brought them to the bridge across the river near
Valinstar, and Gerald applied the brakes.

"I'm going to send her in," he said dully. "Only thing to do."

They watched in silence as the flaming wreck disappeared with a sullen
hiss into the black waters. The contrast between the glare of the fire
and the night's darkness was strange and the still peacefulness of the
quiet scene seemed miles removed from the blazing inferno through which
they had passed. In the eastward the red glow lingered even as the
first breath of a westerly wind stirred the leaves of the tall gums by
the river.

For a moment no one spoke. Crandall had flung himself down on the cool
grass relaxed and weary, too tired to think or speak. Wilton, similarly
inclined, leaned against the coping of the bridge still staring with
dazed eyes at the place where the car had sunk.

Then Gerald came to Valerie--a strange figure in his tattered
smoke-grimed finery, and put his arm about her.

"I say, Val, you're all right, aren't you?"

"Thanks to you." Her strength and voice were gone, but he sensed the
smile on the weary face upturned to his.

"If you hadn't been----" He did not finish the sentence, but bending,
kissed her almost savagely, and his grip tightened. Though the pain on
her scratched, burnt arms was intense, she felt strangely happy and
content.

There was a wild tumult of barking, and something in the nature of an
avalanche was upon them.

"Why," said Gerald weakly, "it's Augustus! Get down you brute."




CHAPTER XVIII.--"INTO SUNSHINE."

Next morning the Team, white-faced and weary, lingered over a meal
that promised to be something in the nature of a combined breakfast
and lunch. They were all showing evidences of the experiences of the
previous evening. There were dark shadows under Valerie's large eyes,
and Gerald's hands were bandaged. Crandall had spent the night with
them, and then after a long conference with Allan had left for the
township. Wilton had slipped away into the darkness, and they had not
wished to pursue. Katherine had been brought home by Jim Gardiner,
suffering from the shock and horror of the tragedy, to find Allan
and Gerald endeavouring to restore Valerie to consciousness, and had
forgotten her own troubles in her anxiety. At last they had all managed
to get to bed to sleep heavily until late in the morning.

They dragged themselves unwillingly to the necessary work that had to
be done, and when at last they gathered round the table they showed no
interest in their meal. Allan pushed away his plate in disgust.

"It's no good," he said, "we're all curious, and feeling rather guilty
about some aspects of the matter. I think a good straight talk would
clear the air."

"I agree with you." Katherine placed her elbows on the table, and with
her chin in her hands gazed out of the window, an expression of pain in
her dark eves. "We're all curious, Allan, and you're the oldest----"

"I've nothing to tell," he said shortly. "I left early and walked home,
that's all, and managed to be out of the way when I was most wanted."

"Not quite all," Katherine smiled. "I'm glad it's just we four here
now, because I've got to confess to awful foolishness. Allan, you've
such an annoying habit of being right that I wanted to prove myself
strong where Claude Delamere was concerned, so that you would know
that you need never doubt me again. I'll admit I failed, because his
will was stronger than mine, but nothing else. He caught me, somehow,
I think it was a kind of hypnotism, and all the time, I was leaning on
you, Allan, knowing you were there, and hoping you would understand and
rescue me in spite of myself."

Valerie and Gerald exchanged glances, as Allan bent forward. "I wish--I
wish I could believe you, Katherine."

"But you can," she smiled into his eyes. "I was just a little bored
with life when Claude came, and the play was an interest, but you
haven't heard the real end of the story."

Quietly she told them of Kenneth Gardiner's death in his attempt to
save her from some unknown evil. "I don't fully understand now," she
said, "but I'll never forget the horror of Claude's face, and he'd been
so wonderful that night." She spoke as if she had lived a lifetime
since the previous evening.

"I'm glad Kenneth kept his word," said Valerie softly. "It's something
I shall like to remember of him always."

They all looked at her with questioning eyes, as she told them her
story frankly and without excuse.

"I deserved all I got," she declared. "I know what Kenneth Gardiner
was, but like a little fool I too thought it was fun to play with fire,
and it very nearly burnt me. Oh, Katherine!"

"What happened then?" Allan asked, as Katherine gently smoothed
Valerie's tumbled hair.

"Why, Mr. Crandall let me out, and we were caught between the two
fires, and then Gerald came," she said simply.

There was a long silence as they looked at one another and reviewed the
story they had just heard.

Then Allan spoke. "I think we may as well tell the children, Kath."

"You mean you still want to?" she asked wonderingly.

"More than ever now," he laughed. "Gerald, Valerie, Katherine is going
to marry me."

Valerie drew a deep breath. "How perfectly ripping," she exclaimed.

"Quite suitable," said Gerald more calmly. "We'd better make it a
double event. I can't see any other way of stopping Valerie careering
round the country with undesirables than----"

"And so," sighed Valerie, "he proposed to me. Before breakfast too,
while I was feeding the pigs. So romantic!"

Gerald grinned. "You ought to be thankful to have a proposal at all.
Now if I were a cave man----"

"Anyhow," continued Valerie, ignoring him, "he's got to take Augustus,
too. I'm having a special clause inserted in the service, 'I take thee,
Valerie Margaret, and Augustus'."

"Are you serious?" Katherine looked down at the upturned face anxiously.

"Quite." Valerie gave a little wriggle. "I was never so happy in all my
life."

"Then let's get married at once and have a nice long honeymoon all
together," said Gerald, quite unconscious that he was proposing
anything unusual.

"But one doesn't," cried Valerie. "And they won't want us."

"We will," Katherine laughed. "We're right in harness again, and we'll
even share honeymoons. Let's go to Tasmania. I've always wanted to go
there."

"Right!" Allan smiled. "Jove, it's great to feel we've come through
safely. Nothing can ever go wrong again."

"We've found the gold in the shadows all right," Katherine smiled. "But
now the sun is shining."

"Talking of gold," Valerie raised an eager head. "There are still two
things, Augustus's collar and the two nuggets in our room.

"Yes, I'd forgotten to tell you," Allan frowned. "But here's Crandall
now."

They greeted him with enthusiasm, and then demanded his contribution to
what Valerie termed "the serial story."

"I guess I'll tell you the lot," he replied, with a disarming smile.
"I should have done so before. It starts about 30 years ago, when my
father saved Joe Blake's life when they were prospecting together in
the hills. Blake vowed he would some day reward him. Well, Dad married
and settled down, so they drifted apart. Blake was a gambler and a
rolling stone, but he would turn up at intervals, and we kids loved
him."

"Then Dad died, and we had to make our own way." He squared his
shoulders. "We managed, but he helped. He'd struck a lucky patch, and
insisted on helping me through my engineering course. Naturally it was
only a loan, and I was dead keen to repay him. I went abroad for a
while for experience, and while I was away he died. When I came back I
learned the details. He'd been found knifed in a cabin in the hills."

The hearers started.

"It appears that he always believed there was gold in these ranges,
and had come back to have a last look before he settled down. His bank
forwarded me his will, which left everything to me, and I determined
to get to the bottom of the cause of his death if I could. I worked in
with the police as far as possible, and also employed a private man
to go up and spy out the land. He quickly discovered a gang that was
operating, with the old timber mill as its base. The leading spirit was
an old chap called John Duncan, who used to live in this house. He was
some relation of the Gardiners. Duncan died, but evidently Kenneth was
in his confidence, for he carried on. By eavesdropping he discovered
that they were after Blake's gold, and that one of them had killed the
old chap in the hut, and stolen his notes and the rough sketch he had
made of his find. It appears that he had known old Duncan slightly, and
had come down to visit him one night, and after a few drinks became too
confidential.

"He sent the report on to me, and the next I heard was that he had been
found--shot. As soon as I could I came up here, and when I saw you I
gathered you knew more than you told me. I couldn't make up my mind to
trust you. I thought perhaps Gardiner had let this place to you for
a purpose; so I took to the hills and kept watch over the clearing.
Wilton made his headquarters there, and Gardiner and Delamere came
there several times, also old McIntyre, whom I think you know. Wilton
spent his time in the hills--searching. I heard them discussing the
loss of the directions one day, and heard that Smith, my man, had
stolen them. Then the fire came." He paused expectantly, and looked at
the attentive faces. "You know what you know," he said simply. "The end
rests with you."

Valerie went to the door and called Augustus, who bounded in eagerly.
Quietly she unfastened his collar, and, cutting the stitches, drew out
the folded paper therein.

"We're glad to get rid of it," she said truthfully. "Why weren't we to
give it to the police? Smith told us not to."

"Publicity," said Crandall shortly. "Once it got into the papers all
the country would know." He unfolded the paper with eager hands, but
his face fell, as he saw the contents. "Why, it's gibberish."

"Magyar--gipsy lingo," said Allan. "But I don't think you need worry
about having it translated. Valerie and Augustus can lead you right
there."

"Can you?" He turned to her. "I say, you're being awfully sporting."

She told of her find with admirable brevity. "As soon as the fire's
out I'll take you. It's just glorious to feel that we can shove the
responsibility on to someone else. You see, were all going to get
married, and we don't want to have to bother about unimportant details."

He laughed. "I need hardly say I congratulate you," he said. "And, of
course, you'll share. It means a lot to me, for I've a mother to care
for and two young brothers to educate, but we'll hope there's heaps
there for us all, and it really is your discovery."

"I suppose Gardiner or Delamere translated the original stolen
directions," said Katherine. "But I wondered they waited so long."

"I don't think they were very clear, probably old Joe was wiser than
they thought him, and they wouldn't want to direct attention to
themselves too soon. They thought they had plenty of time, as no one
knew of it but themselves."

"And Augustus chewed up the other copy," Valerie laughed gleefully.
"Now, everyone, you'll have to admit that we can't live without
Augustus. Who found the gold mine? Augustus! Who chewed up Wilton's
papers? Augustus! Who has kept a secret I could trust with no one else?
Augustus."

Excitement is contagious, and Augustus, thoroughly thrilled by the
sound of his own name, began to prance round, barking wildly, until he
encountered Valerie, and the pair joined in a kind of war dance, which
ended abruptly in disaster as they became entangled with the tablecloth.




CHAPTER XIX.--"AUGUSTUS SCORES AGAIN."

It was more than two months later that Valerie and Katherine were
watching the sunset over blue mountains as they walked along the
promenade on the cliffs of a little Tasmanian seaside resort. They
had been married just a week, and had resolutely put behind them the
tragedy that had made such forceful entry into their lives.

The last few weeks had been most unhappy ones. The inquest into the
deaths of Gardiner and Delamere had meant publicity of a most trying
kind, and when it was over they had wanted to get right out of the
world and hide their heads from those who had known them, where
they would not be pointed out to everyone as the central figures of
a notorious scandal. One thing had been kept secret, and the gold
discovery had not been proclaimed until Crandall's claim had been
fairly established.

They had left Rockwood for ever, for they would not go back to a
place haunted by regrets and horror. The place seemed to have had an
evil influence upon them, and they wished to forget. When Crandall's
goldmine was fairly launched they would find themselves in comfortable
circumstances, for it promised very well; and in the meantime there
was a little apple orchard not twenty miles away that was possibly for
sale. There was a little house, smothered with roses and honeysuckle,
and the Team had surrendered their hearts to it.

The boys were away interviewing agents, and as Valerie and Katherine
were speaking of it they joined them with an air of proud possession
they had given up trying to disguise.

"Well!" demanded Valerie breathlessly.

Allan shook his head. "They're not optimistic at the agents. It belongs
to an old lady, a Miss Brownlee, who is somewhat eccentric. It was her
family's home, and she refuses to sell until she finds a purchaser
whom she considers worthy of the house. The price is not her first
consideration."

"Then we're done," sighed Valerie.

"Well, I wouldn't say that. She has consented to interview us. So if we
send Katherine and keep Augustus chained up---, I bet no other husband
ever had to take an Augustus with him on his honeymoon." Gerald was off
on his old grievance. Travelling with Augustus was an expensive and
exciting luxury.

"Letters?" asked Katherine quickly, to avert discussion.

Gerald produced the mail and distributed it, and by common consent they
sought a seat.

"One from Jim Gardiner," said Valerie. "He's engaged to Mollie. Says
our example stimulated him. I'm glad."

"Crandall says they can't trace Wilton." Allan looked up from a
typewritten sheet. "The police want him, of course, for Smith's murder,
but he has vanished."

"I'm glad," said Katherine soberly. "Enough lives have been lost now,
and we carry our punishment with us always."

"He says," continued Allan, "that the first lot of ore will be taken
out of the Augustus mine next week, and that conditions are extremely
favourable. He prophesies riches untold, and ends up with a deliriously
incoherent blessing on both Valerie and Augustus."

"A mine with a name like that," said Valerie complacently, "must
certainly be lucky."

"By the way, where is the beast?" asked Gerald. "Hasn't drowned
himself, I suppose. No such luck! I'm off to get a paper. See you at
the hotel."

He strolled off just as Katherine located the missing dog. "There he
is," she said. "What on earth has he got in his mouth? Someone's fur?"

Augustus trotted proudly up, bearing in his mouth the limp body of
a large grey tomcat. The many scratches on his face proved that the
struggle had been an epic one. With and air of placid satisfaction he
laid his prey at Valerie's feet.

"Oh Augusts," she wailed, "you shouldn't. Take it away."

"The owner's coming," said Allan hastily. "Katherine, dear. I think
it's getting rather chilly."

Katherine cast a hasty look at the approaching figure, a large, angular
female with a war-like expression, and incontinently agreed with him.

Valerie gasped. "You mustn't go. Where's Gerald? He swore to protect
me."

She spoke to retreating backs and then, being no coward, she laid a
firm hand on August's collar and faced the enemy. Half an hour later
Valerie entered the hotel with a seraphic smile, with what Gerald was
wont to call her "cat has just eaten the canary" expression, while
Augustus stalked by her side, the picture of dignity and satisfaction.

"So, you're alive," said Allan. "Ger was getting worried."

"No thanks to you." She looked from one to the other with unusual
meekness. "The lady happened to be Miss Brownlee."

"Not the one who owns Greystones?"

Valerie nodded.

"And Augustus killed her cat. Now you have done it! We'll never
persuade her to sell, and I've never seen a place I liked as well."

"It is awful!" Katherine wailed. "I'd just set my heart on it."

"Let us all weep." Allan looked at the repentant culprit. "I'd like to
spank you."

"On the contrary," said Valerie softly, but very distinctly. "The cat
had just killed Miss Brownlee's parrot, and she came to congratulate
Augustus. We are lunching with her tomorrow, and I gather she'll give
us Greystones if we're tactful. She was rather fond of that parrot."

She walked to the door, and then turned to note the effect of her
words. "And I'm to be sure to bring Augustus," she added sweetly.



The End.


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia